Thursday, January 15, 2009

New edition of Church of England communion rite to read: "Christ has probably died! Christ is probably risen! Christ will probably come again!"


  1. "In memory of what we've been told was His command, Oh possibly Father, we think we're offering you these gifts."

    Too, too, easy.

  2. Donkey whipped! Donkey dead! Whip donkey some more, long after metaphor-mixing bus has left!

  3. Jesus - probably the best Saviour in the world ....

  4. Isn't that basically Descartes' Wager, and therefore a Very Serious Philosophical Position?


  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Sam

    Isn't that basically Descartes' Wager

    Probably Pascal's wager, I think (probably) ....

    Now then: how about a bus-company advertising campaign saying "This bus probably won't crash ... now stop worrying and enjoy the ride".

  7. Oops. Yes, Pascal of course. Much as I would like to pretend that I meant the less well-known Ontological Wager.

    It's also basically Lewis' "Trilemma", now I come to think of it.

    I assume everyone here is familiar with the Possibly Proper Death Litany?

  8. Come to think of it, shouldn't it be "lager" rather than "wager", since it's probably the best ...

    Think I'd better stop now ;-)

  9. Since Dawkins probably confused Descartes with Abselm, confusing Descartes with Pascal is probably forgivable.

  10. Since Dawkins probably confused Descartes with Abselm, confusing Descartes with Pascal is probably forgivable.

    So if Dawkins does it it's OK, then?

  11. Since Dawkins probably confused Descartes with Abselm, confusing Descartes with Pascal is probably forgivable.

    I assume we're talking here about the ontological argument, which was developed by Anselm. St. Thomas Aquinas's critique of the argument was so devastating that it died out for centuries until it was famously rescued and reformulated by Descartes. It then had another heyday until Kant's critique laid waste to it again.

    Dawkins was probably not confused on this particular issue.

  12. I seem to recall that Dawkins jumped between Descartes version of the proof (*) and Anselm's, giving me the impression that he probably didn't know that they were a bit different. If he had been making a serious philosophical argument, this would probably matter. But since he probably wasn't, it probably doesn't.

    (*) Anselm: "God is not only the most perfect thing which exists but the most perfect thing which could exist; but a thing which exists is more perfect than a thing which doesn't exist, so it's a contradiction in terms to say "The most perfect which could possibly exist doesn't exist" therefore God exists."

    Descartes: "I have a clear and distinct idea of a perfect, infinite thing. But I myself am clearly neither perfect nor infinite. I can't see how an imperfect, finite thing could come up with a clear and distinct idea of a perfect, infinite thing; so something perfect and infinite must have put in my mind."

    I assume that they are both "ontological" because they both say that the idea of God is all the evidence we need to establish the existence of God. Presumably it was the Cartesian version that Bertrand Russell got excited about?

  13. Actually, it was Hegel's version that caused Mr. Russell to lose his tobacco. (Russell described it as the event which turned him into a Hegelian, though he is, of course, much more famous as an anti-Hegelian since it was Russell and Moore who put the stake through the heart of idealism, at least in Anglo-American philosophy.) Hegel responded to Kant's critique by agreeing that we all know concept and being cannot be united in finite beings, but the ontological argument refers to an infinite being. So it's fine to deny existence as a predicate of finite beings, but not necessarily to infinite ones. If you understand what Hegel is driving at, you're a better man than I am. (Or perhaps not, since I tend to agree with Schopenhauer when it comes to Hegel.) In any event, Hegel didn't really try to show that existence could be a predicate for an infinite being, but merely reverted back to Anselm's argument. So it's probably something closer to Anselm which got Mr. Russell in such a tizzy.

    Descartes' proof is more interesting since he's basically reporting an intuition. If I shared that intuition (sadly, I definitely don't have a clear and distinct idea of a supremely perfect, infinite being), I might even agree with his argument.

  14. During my one term of philosophy, I claimed that Descartes proof amounted to an "argument from religious experience." I seem to recall the tutor saying that that wasn't the point.

  15. So I've been rereading some of Meditations to refresh my memory on Descartes' argument. I do agree with your tutor, in that Descartes certainly didn't mean his argument to only be accessible to people who have had specific experiences. He intended the argument to be accessible to anyone.

    I also think it's important to Descartes' argument that necessary existence is included in the idea of God and this is what makes his argument ontological. Descartes says, "When we attend to the immense power of this being, we shall be unable to think of its existence as possible without also recognizing that it can exist by its own power; and we shall infer from this that this being does really exist and has existed from eternity, since it is quite evident by the natural light that what can exist by its own power always exists. So we shall come to understand that necessary existence is contained in the idea of a supremely perfect being."

    Or "But if the mere fact that I can produce from my thought the idea of something entails that everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive to belong to that thing really does belong to it, is not this a possible basis for another argument to prove the existence of God? Certainly, the idea of God, or a supremely perfect being, is one that I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number. And my understanding that it belongs to his nature that he always exists is no less clear and distinct than is the case when I prove of any shape or number that some property belongs to its nature."

    I still think that he is essentially reporting an intuition or at least a demonstration on an intuitive idea. I.e. he is saying that contained in the idea of God is necessary existence just as (an analogy he uses) contained in the idea of a triangle is the fact that its angles add up to the sum of two right angles. So, he seems to be saying, once you have properly conceived of God, it is inconceivable that he doesn't exist.

    However, your description of his argument is also accurate. I'm pretty sure Descartes provided at least three separate proofs for the existence of God in his Meditations. Unfortunately, he is not as careful a philosopher as Aquinas or some of the other great systematizers, so it's easy to get them all tangled up.