Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kliban and the Ontological Proof

There's a cartoon by, I think, the sublime B. Kliban which shows an anguished man crouched in a cave. On the wall behind him is a sign which reads, 'Do not read this sign'. Of course, the fact that he's crouched and anguished means that he has read the sign and is awaiting the consequences and/or he is trying desperately not to read it again.
Now say, bear with me, the sign is God and the man is an atheist. Now his predicament is that he doesn't want to have anything to do with the sign, but, having read it, the contents are, so to speak, inside him. In his head he is constantly reading the sign or, in my version, thinking about God, which, for an atheist, must be damned irritating. But, of course, that's what atheists must do if they are to continue to be atheists - if they stop thinking about God, they stop being atheists.
I think there are elements of Anselm's Ontological Proof in this. Or, at least, there was something about this proof - discussed here by Nathan Schneider - that evoked the cartoon. What is most interesting about the Schneider piece (aside from the glorious fact that it is on a newspaper web site, long live the NYT) are some of the comments. I think that it is these that evoked Kliban's man in a cave. Typical is the one from Jack Walsh - 'Eeek. Will you all just stop it?? This is all just crazy talk about nothing. Nothing. Read your Wittgenstein!!! Aaaaaarrrrrgh. Otherwise sensible bright people wading through cant. Just stop it.'
I think Jack should reread Wittgenstein. But, anyway, these are clearly the howls of a man who has read the sign or possibly one with his fingers in his ears yelling, 'La-la-la, Can't hear you.' Schneider's piece is tinged with sentimentality, but it does make the point that, whatever you think of Anselm's proof (in fact, it wasn't just Anselm's), it is clear that it says a great deal about the way language and the human mind work. God as the greatest possible concept is a perfectly reasonable way of assessing our thoughts, intuitions and, most importantly, our art. Consider it as the square root of -1 in mathematics. You can stop thinking about it if you like, but then you won't understand maths or, in the case of God, people who, you see, have all read the sign.

42 comments:

  1. I don't understand this bit -

    "But, of course, that's what atheists must do if they are to continue to be atheists - if they stop thinking about God, they stop being atheists."

    so if you stop thinking about God, that means you believe in God? I don't get it

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  2. Worm, the point is that atheism is a negative belief, and therefore intimately dependent on the object it is seeking to negate. For a good atheist this requires a constant effort and the kind of constant contact with God that most authentic believers can only ever aspire to.

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  3. In his head he is constantly reading the sign or, in my version, thinking about God, which, for an atheist, must be damned irritating. But, of course, that's what atheists must do if they are to continue to be atheists - if they stop thinking about God, they stop being atheists.

    Sublime and that's why this blog is called Thought Experiments.

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  4. "Worm, the point is that atheism is a negative belief, and therefore intimately dependent on the object it is seeking to negate. "

    Don't. Be. Silly. 'Atheist' just describes those people who don't believe in god. Do 'theists' stop being theists when they are not thinking about god? Do people who don't believe in unicorns stop not believing in unicorns when they are not thinking about the subject.

    And Bryan is trypically confused on thios issue. His antipathy towards atheissm always makes him silly on this subject. Many atheists are very interested in the signs that theists construct, the frightening admonitions they place on their cave walls and are more than happy to consider them. They just don't need to cower and cringe, like the believer in the cartoon, because they are enlightened by reason. It is very strange that Bryan can't see that this cartoon is about the awful consequences oftheir absence. But to the man with a hammer ...

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  5. Ahem. The last line of my previous should be:

    "It is very strange that Bryan can't see that this cartoon is about the awful consequences of holding irrational beliefs (in this case in the mystical authority of the sign maker) rather than their absence. But to the man with a hammer ...

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  6. Maybe Jack is mixing up Wittgenstein with A J Ayer.

    The ontological proof is rubbish, but it's true that atheists think more about God than anyone else does.

    Atheists should just stop worrying about God and enjoy their lives.

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  7. They just don't need to cower and cringe, like the believer in the cartoon, because they are enlightened by reason.

    Lucky atheists. But, John, there is one thing we cowerers and cringers would like to know. Can anyone earn enlightenment through good intellectual works or is it reserved for an elect only reason chooses?

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  8. yes that is what I was getting to: I find Bryan's argument to be specious. You don't have to be an 'active' atheist at all. some of us just genuinely couldn't care less whether there is a god or not.

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  9. "But, John, there is one thing we cowerers and cringers would like to know. Can anyone earn enlightenment through good intellectual works or is it reserved for an elect only reason chooses?"

    The light is just there, all you have to do is get off your knees and open the blinds.

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  10. John:

    'Atheist' just describes those people who don't believe in god.


    Maybe it used to, but in our Dawkinsian world, 'atheist' actually describes people who specifically disbelieve in a particular idea of God, usually based on a simplified, childish version of what they think Christians believe. This kind of atheism would be meaningless outside of the western Judeo/Christian tradition.

    That's why I personally don't like to call myself an 'atheist' these days, even though I don't have any belief in God.

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  11. You would have shown more reasonable control John if you would have overridden that urge to put 'g' instead of 'G' in front of 'od'.

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  12. "Maybe it used to, but in our Dawkinsian world, 'atheist' actually describes people who specifically disbelieve in a particular idea of God, usually based on a simplified, childish version of what they think Christians believe."

    No, atheists, even outspoken, articulate ones like Dawkins, are just peoploe who don't think that there is a god, any god, including the crude, punbitive one that many or most christians believe in (if you have fallen for the Armstrongian 'apophatic' manoeuvre, I invite you nto attend a Southern Baptist church service or two). This means that you are an atheist too. Like me, and Dawkins and Hitchens (I just wanted to see myself in that company).

    This kind of atheism is meaningful in any tradition. It would be a bit odd in one where there was no god or superbatural order postulated ("you have a word for not believing in that thing that we have neverheard of and which you say does not exist?"), but there aren't any of those, are there?

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  13. "You would have shown more reasonable control John if you would have overridden that urge to put 'g' instead of 'G' in front of 'od'"

    I am easy on the orthography, you shouldn't read anything into that.

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  14. What about the outspoken inarticulate ones, John?

    No, Dawkins disbelives in a particular kind of 'personal' God and this is what he means by 'atheism'.

    If you make your conception of 'god' vague/mystical/sophisticated enough (delete according to preference) then you can make anyone, including Dawkins, a theist.

    The Dawkinsian atheists are such crashing bores because they have a dunderheaded, anti-human conception of the relation between religion and belief, because they want to put everything in childish boxes (thus the dumbest Creationist redneck bible-thumper goes in the same box as Rowan Williams), and because they can never, ever comprehend why other 'bright', open-minded non-religious people won't join them in their anti-religious crusade. This last baffles and enrages them.

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  15. so, what should be the new word for a person who doesn't believe in god, but is so ambivalent about the whole thing that he also can't really be bothered to argue against the existence of a god?

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  16. The official term, Worm, is 'dunnoist'.

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  17. "No, Dawkins disbelives in a particular kind of 'personal' God and this is what he means by 'atheism'."

    No, Dawkins does not believe in any god, he is just most interested in the claims made by believers in personal gods. I don't see any point in claiming any different, Dawkins is very clear on this and he is the only one who can know.

    2If you make your conception of 'god' vague/mystical/sophisticated enough (delete according to preference) then you can make anyone, including Dawkins, a theist."

    No, you can't. I don't believe in a god even if you define her in the most mystical possible terms. The same goes for unicorns.

    "The Dawkinsian atheists are such crashing bores because they have a dunderheaded, anti-human conception of the relation between religion and belief,"

    We are likely to disagree about whether or not Dawkins is a bore but I wonder what you mean by 'anti-human conception of the realation between religion and belief'. I have a feeling it doesn't mean anything, but I am curious.

    "because they want to put everything in childish boxes (thus the dumbest Creationist redneck bible-thumper goes in the same box as Rowan Williams)"

    I am sure you have some evidence for this, but I can't find any. The various absudities of the bible thumpers and Rowan Williams are dealt with by Dawkins and others in appropriately different terms, as far as I can see.

    "and because they can never, ever comprehend why other 'bright', open-minded non-religious people won't join them in their anti-religious crusade. This last baffles and enrages them."

    I don't see any evidence of a 'crusade' (I know this blog is a little antipathetic to the idea of 'evidence'), but many bright, open-minded, non-religious people have 'joined' Dawkins in the sense that they have expressed support for his views, so your claim is false even in its own terms.

    I find it intriguing that an atheist such as yourself finds is so maddened by another atheist such as Dawkins explaining why he is an atheist. An example of Dennett's 'belief in belief'?

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  18. First, I'll define 'God' as the processes of evolution including natural selection, and the fact that the universe exists rather than doesn't. Now you and Dawkins are no longer atheists.

    Second, by "other" bright, nonreligious etc" I meant "all other" rather than "any other."

    Third, no evidence of a crusade? Did you miss the agnostic bus then?

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  19. My name's Worm, and I'm a Dunnoist.

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  20. oooh - talk about topical - an excellent piece on this very debate in this week's New York Times - this is definately worth a read:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/opinion/23wright.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

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  21. "First, I'll define 'God' as the processes of evolution including natural selection, and the fact that the universe exists rather than doesn't. Now you and Dawkins are no longer atheists."

    Yes we are. Language doesn't work that way, you don't get to say what words mean.

    "Second, by "other" bright, nonreligious etc" I meant "all other" rather than "any other.""

    Again, if you think that Dawkins is 'enraged' because 'all' non-believers are not of his way of thinking, I think you need some evidence to back that peeculiar assertion up.

    "Third, no evidence of a crusade? Did you miss the agnostic bus then?"

    We obviously understand 'crusade' rather differently. You haven't made up a new definition for that as well have you? Why don't you read Wittgenstein on private language?

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  22. Ah, another Wittgenstein expert. He is the sexiest philosopher, isn't he?

    John, if you left a longer gap between reading and commenting, in which to think, your comments would probably be somewhat different.

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  23. Heathens 11 - Christians 11

    Replay to be held on neutral ground - September 20th. Competitors are asked to kindly not step on fragile non beliefs, members of the clergy and Swedes will be refused admittance.

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  24. Ahhh, but who put the sign up?

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  25. "John, if you left a longer gap between reading and commenting, in which to think, your comments would probably be somewhat different."

    I am afraid that that is something we just can't ever know. Assuming you don't have a private meaning for 'probably', 'be', 'somewhat' and 'different', of course.

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  26. I am afraid that that is something we just can't ever know

    True, but I'm an optimist. There's always hope...

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  27. "Ahhh, but who put the sign up?"

    somebody Polish, probably

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  28. Maybe the Polish sign-erector wrote his sign in Polish. What then? Then it's just squiggles on a wall and isn't "read". It's just looked at. And maybe there's a Polish dictionary on a little peg. Or maybe there's a Polish-speaking interpreter - a redneck creationist or a kindly, Welsh druid. "What this sign means is this...".

    Once you have words, you have meanings. Meanings need reason and gods don't do reason, do they?

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  29. i don't generally get involved in theological disputes - it seems akin to arguing about erotic preferences - like when someone angrily commented on an erotic pic i posted on my blog, that the girl was ugly. The girl existed, we all agreed there was such a thing as beauty (and so, ugliness) - but there was no further negotiation, could be none - we saw this particular girl too differently. Also, i'm a crude thinker at best, a bear of very small brain. But my very rudimentary sense of things:

    God is not an object within the world. God cannot be sensibly argued about, as if he were, say, a lamp post or a coin or a tree. God is rather a word for our sense of how the world is, in its entirety; for that which we picture as standing outside the world, that which determines the world.

    God is not a bearded old man on a mountain, but rather that which determines the world - God is how the world is - then one's response must be as subtle & capacious as possible - denying nothing of experience, nothing of the world. But there are no footprints within the world - we will not find God in a white robe sitting on Mount Olympus, scowling at us.

    God is how the world is. How the world is - this can only be experienced. Experience is not empirical.

    Our experience of the world, our most capacious & subtle sense of how the world is - that is the human imagination. It is not subject to tests, analysis. It is not an object.

    The human imagination occurs within the world but is not itself an object - only its works (e.g. a poem, a blog post, a cantata) become discernible. In other words Brit and John Meredith cannot telepathically merge and contemplate each other's sense of the world - they have to use words (or fists) - experience always remains private. It is, in this sense, not part of the world although it occurs within the world.

    Seek God within the human imagination; that is, within each man's sense of how the world is. There are no proofs for God.

    There is no conclusion.

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  30. A rebuttal to the ontological argument for God

    http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2009/08/ontological-argument-for-god-rebuttal.html

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  31. thinking about God is sensible. how else can you know? likewise, reading signs is sensible even when you don't agree with the message - I mean, how would you know? I don't see a problem with this.

    however, reading a sign that isn't there sounds daft.

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  32. ''...the interesting question is whether God exists; no, what mattered for Anselm was how we think about God and about one another.''

    amen.

    what is fascinating for me is the continuing reinvention of God. But assuming it's the greatest concept imaginable is not on. where's the fairness in that?

    a true atheist is one who doesn't know he is one. after this we can only be true agnostics.

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  33. '...In his head he is constantly reading the sign or, in my version, thinking about atheists, which, for Bryan Appleyard, must be damned irritating. But, of course, that's what Bryan Appleyard must do if he is to continue being Bryan Appleyard - if he should stop thinking about atheists, he might just get back to blogging about something interesting.

    Beautifully written post. But this need to link all art to god/religion, well, were I an artist I might find that offensive. Or perhaps just conclude that someone was trying - trying very hard - to force their beliefs on me. And in doing so had claimed knowledge far beyond that of any one soul.

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  34. Oh well, I guess I disagree with all of you. Bryan's post struck me as being largely about what it is to be Jewish. That may not be what he intended - I don't know what he intended - but that is how I read it. No one does doubt and the anguish of doubt like Jewish culture does doubt. They have raised it to an art form. If you believe, believe. If you don't believe, don't believe. But if you can manage neither ... uh oh, time perhaps to seek solace in Wisden (England) or the Talmud (not England). I don't see where Professor Doberman and his gay blades fit into this at all. They are blessed - or cursed - with certainty.

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  35. OK, both sides have wheeled out their own observations, depending which side of the DMZ they live on, and bearing in mind that faith is a secret capital sum in one's own home just as there are public savings and trust banks where individuals are supplied in days of need; here the creditor himself takes the interest (Goethe, in one of his mans best friend is a dog moods..Maxims and Reflections)

    Sooo, if there is no state higher than man that gives meaning to millions of lost souls then what exactly, in purely scientific terms is it? go spend £9.98, select the Benedictus, sit back and listen to Bonney's voice soaring above Von Otter's, ask why, what?
    What gave Mozart the nuts and bolts to sit down, terminally ill, and picture in his mind this music.

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  36. Seems pretty pathetic when people stoop to arguing the semantics of everything. You say this, I dispute the meaning of this. As if it will solve everything. Well I think you're all irredeemable idiots. So argue yourselves silly over that and have a good life.

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  37. One problem with having read the sign, is that the idea of God exists permanently in memory for retrieval and use, and will be used even in cases of parapraxes. Once the possibility sets in the mind, then as a person selects reasoned explanations from the many possibilities for anything at all, only the agnostic would not be "tortured", the atheist and believer always doing the sorting even if ignor-ing.

    For a general example, once we have the idea that there is a God or gods at least interceding in affairs, the possibility that there is no god interceding comes to mind as well. So events for an atheist cannot be answers to prayers because even in the case of praying atheists, they would select the idea that nothing could comes of it. But for believers, prayers can be answered.

    This begs the question and creates the tangent: how could such an intercession take place. Easy, and no need to interrupt any natural orders for miracles all the time. The explanation would go like so: there are mechanisms in place to allow for the answer to prayers--which is why scientific inquiry so often finds mundane explanations for events in question.

    On the other hand, atheists will accept only the mundane explanations. This is a choice, because nothing can be proven either way.

    To show this, and play along, what if it was well known that new species "poofed in". And tonight on TV, the world witnessed the poofing in of the meow-dog caught on camera.

    Poofing in does not prove God exists. The mundane explanation that could come about could have to do with a quantum event of evolution. Similarly, if a face of God frequently appeared in the sky, this would not prove God's existence any more than the Old Man in the Mountain of New Hampshire ever proved there was an old man, or any more than the Mount of the Holy Cross needs to be considered a sign that Christianity needs to be followed.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  38. Seems pretty pathetic when people stoop to arguing the semantics of everything. Well I think you're all irredeemable idiots.

    Hmm... what exactly do you mean by 'irredeemable', Anonymous?

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  39. Just a note. FYI. Dawkins has an article in the WSJ. His is the second one, the first refers to him:

    Man vs God

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  41. Atheism is not the denial of the existence of God, but of all gods, however constructed, construed, and by whatever culture.

    Gods have been established to explain the inexplicable, to provide puny humans with a convenient "out," so as to circumvent the need to think about the cosmic questions. "Why are we here?" "Where are we?" "Where does the universe begin, end?" "What is our place within it?"

    Any god will do, frankly. In not accepting the "god" concept, we must struggle with so many uncomfortable thoughts, theories, concepts, and know that none of them will ever bear any fruit. If the idea of a "god" works for any one of us, then let it be so. The alternatives are thought, and ultimately madness.

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