The Ontological Argument and Pascal's Argument

God's essence involves existence. Belief in God is a good bet.

D. The argument from reason and the pure conception of God. The ontological argument.

1. The conception of God alone is sufficient to prove His existence. Although the cosmological argument does not rely on any controversial experience of the world, it does rely on experience of something about the world. And that experience is what infects the argument. Sense data in any form cannot be the source of absolute certainty. We must construct an argument that does not rely on any kind of experience of the world at all. Only such an argument would not fall prey to the contingency of sense data. Further, the argument must be a deductive one. Why? Because with a deductive argument, if the premises are true and the argument valid, then the conclusion must be true. Remember the CD-ROM example. If we can find one true and absolutely certain idea(s), we may be able to deduce the truth about other things by running our DOS programs (logical reasoning). The problem with the Cogito (our true and certain idea of ourselves) was that it was about ourselves specifically; it could not tell us anything about the external world. When we ran the program, when we thought about ourselves, about all we could come up with was that we were thinking things which existed; or more correctly, you were a thinking thing that existed and was the only existent thing --the problem of solipsism. But, now, what if we can find an innate idea of an external object that is just as clear and distinct or certain as the Cogito? Can we find an external object whose being (ontos means being) is absolutely certain? That would be something. And Descartes does just that.

To get into Descartes argument, let me talk a little bit about a philosophical term, 'essence.' 'Essence' means "the what-it-is of a thing"--the defining characteristic that makes a thing exactly what it is. To give a description of the essence of anything is to give the necessary and sufficient conditions for that thing. That is to say, the factors necessary to making a thing what it is must all be given to render a clear and distinct conception of the thing. So, were I to describe a Euclidean square --give a description of its essence-- I would say that: 1, it is a plane figure; 2, it has four equal sides; and 3, the angles of those sides are all 90 degree angles. Combined, the three necessary conditions are sufficient to describe a square. A necessary condition is a condition or property which must belong to the thing in order for it to be what it is. Try it to see if I am right. Try leaving out one of the conditions of a square. Leave out number 3 and you may have a parallelogram. Leave out number 2 and you could get practically anything. Leave out number 1 and in spherical geometry, you could get a round-square (I'll let you figure out how that is done). When we know the essence of a thing, we really know what-it-is.

The conception of essence is useful. How so? Suppose I told you that there was a plane sided round-square under your chair and that you had better pick it up. Would you even look down? Nope. Why? Because you know that what a plane sided round-square is, is something that cannot exist; its essence involves a contradiction. Things whose essences involve a contradiction not only don't exist, they cannot even be thought, conceived. Try thinking or imaging a plane sided round-square. Impossible to do. A plane sided round-square cannot be conceived; and thus, it is a certainty that it does not exist. This is important. A plane sided round-square's essence guarantees that it does not exist, for that essence involves a contradiction. Again, things whose essences involve a contradiction cannot exist.

What about ordinary things, such as chairs tables, birds, dogs, cats and human beings; what kind of essences do they have? Obviously, there may be all kinds of necessary and sufficient conditions to describe the essences of these things. There is no question that, when it comes to giving a description of the conditions which describe human beings or persons, there is going to be a lot of trouble. For example, is a necessary condition to be a person that the thing have a soul, free-will or be genetically Homo sapiens? Maybe, there are no necessary conditions for personhood, only a set of sufficient conditions. We will have to deal with some of these problems later. But, for now, these are moot questions. Why? Because we know that there is nothing in the essences of any of these things which would necessitate their existence or prevent their existence. They are neither necessary beings nor are they impossible beings. I have some sort of essence --whatever it is-- but had my parents not met, I would not be. If the computer firm that makes my computer had not come into being, the computer I am using would not be. All of the things in our world seem to have similar essences; they are contingent things. They could be or they could not be; there is nothing in their essences to guarantee that they must be.

Is there an essence that describes an object that must be, that is a necessary being? Descartes says, "Yes, indeed." The following are some excerpts from the Meditations III and V. I am going to string them together to streamline his argument for the existence of God.

First of all, Descartes finds that he does have an idea of God, an idea which he clearly understands could not have been created by the powers of his mind. He examines all the ideas in his mind and finds one left over which is totally unlike all the others.

"Hence there remains only the idea of God, concerning which we must consider whether it is something which cannot have proceeded from me myself. By the name God I understand a substance that is infinite (eternal, immutable), independent, all-knowing, all-powerful, and by which I myself and everything else, if anything else does exist, have been created. Now all these characteristics are such that the more diligently I attend to them, the less do they appear capable of proceeding from me alone; hence, from what has been already said, we must conclude that God necessarily exists." (from Meditation III) (Rene Descartes, Meditations on the First Philosophy, from Descartes, The philosophical Works of Descartes, translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross (Cambridge University Press, 1911--reprinted with corrections 1931), Volume I)

There is more to Descartes' argument than I have given. And we will get to that. What is important for the moment is his definition of God. God is infinite substance. That means that God is perfect in every possible way we could conceive of Him. For example, He is omnipotent; He is all-powerful; He is all-good and so on. There is nothing in the realm of logical possibility that He could not do; He is all-powerful. He is omniscient; there is nothing in the realm of logically possible knowledge that He does not know. He is all-good. Descartes does not mention this attribute in his definition, but he brings it to prominence later in the Meditations. God is morally perfect or absolutely good. In a nutshell, God's essence, what-God-is, is perfection in every possible attribute.

O.K. We have the idea of God. God is that essence which involves perfection in every possible attribute. Now what can we do with our idea of the essence of God to demonstrate that God necessarily exists? We can put on our "thinking caps," Descartes says, and let reason discover or reveal to us that God exists. We will not prove that God exists, but discover through a logical demonstration that He exists and that it is impossible for Him not to exist. In other words, God will not come into existence through our proof of His existence; we will discover that He exists, has always existed and is the source of the idea innate in our minds by which, with the use of reason, we can discover these truths.

Let me tell you what Descartes is going to do to help us discover the existence of God. He is going to present to us a pure deductive argument based entirely on the conception of God and some truths of reason. No data about the world will be used; hence, the argument will not have the slightest taint of empirical probability that hampered all of the other arguments. His strategy will be to use "reverse psychology," so to speak to reach his conclusion. The method is called reductio ad absurdum. An hypothesis, the opposite of what is desired, is assumed to be true and then shown to be false. The modus operandi is that if an hypothesis is assumed to be true, it will never generate a contradiction when analyzed or added to other truths. If it does generate a contradiction, the hypothesis must be false. What then is our hypothesis? We will assume to be true that "God is not perfect because He does not exist" (and then show that such an hypothesis is false given the definition of God.)

Let us proceed.

We know that round-squares do not exist because the essence of a round-square involves a contradiction. Contingent things may or may not exist; there is nothing special about their essences. But, God's essence is different. It is the opposite of a round-square in that not only is there no contradiction involved in the essence of God, what is involved is perfection in every way. Part of being perfect is to be. Even if we were to try to separate existence from the essence of God, we would fail. Why? Descartes tell us why. "But, nevertheless, when I think of it with more attention, I clearly see that existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than can its having its three angles equal to two right angles be separated from the essence of a (rectilinear) triangle, or the idea of a mountain from the idea of a valley; and so there is not any less repugnance to our conceiving a God (that is, a Being supremely perfect) to whom existence is lacking (that is to say, to whom a certain perfection is lacking), than to conceive of a mountain which has no valley)." (Meditation V) In other words, if you have in your mind the idea of a perfect essence, God, then you must understand that He exists, otherwise you wouldn't have the idea of God in the first place. To conceive of God as not existing is similar to conceiving a mountain without a valley. You can't do it. So, with a round-square, our understanding of its essence guarantees to us that it cannot be. On the other side of the coin, our understanding of God's essence necessitates that we can only conceive Him as existing.

A little visual aid for help, here. Note the diagram A below. It is a perfect circle with perfect segments (it will represent our conception of God's essence). Each segment is an attribute: omniscience; all-goodness; omnipotence and so on. The circle in its completeness is WHAT-GOD-IS; He is perfection in all possible ways. One of those segments is existence. Now picture the circle without this segment. What are you left with? An imperfect circle; there is a wedge missing from its continuity. Something is clearly lacking from God's essence when we extract the existence part. To be a perfect circle, the circle could not have this missing segment. So, God must exist to be what-He-is, for what-He-is necessarily involves existence. A necessary part of God's essence (what-He-is) is existence (that-He-is). To try to even think of Him as not existing is impossible; like trying to imagine mountains which did not have valleys. The concept of a mountain necessarily involves the concept of a valley. The concept of God necessarily involves existence. Again, WHAT-GOD-IS (God's essence) necessarily involves THAT-HE-IS (His existence). God exists with the logical certainty by which we know that round-squares cannot exist. Round-squares cannot even be thought, but God, once thought, cannot be thought to not exist.

Click here for the diagram. (May take a few minutes to load. Skip if you do not want to wait.)

Here's the ontological argument in its reductio form in outline.

1. We know that either God exists or He doesn't exist. (God is at least possible.)

2. We conceive of God as that essence which involves perfection in every possible attribute. (Not only is God possible, but we can have a clear and distinct idea of His essence, what-He-is. And that essence is absoluute perfection in every possible way.)

3. Let us suppose, by hypothesis to be proven false in the long run, that it is true that God does not exist.

4. Then there is an essence which is said to be perfect, but it does not exist. We are said to conceive of God as perfect, but as not existing. If God does not exist, then we can conceive of an essence more perfect than God's, for that essence contains existence. This new god has more in his essence, namely existence. This new god is more perfect than God.

5. But, to be absolutely perfect in every possible way, an essence must involve existence. A perfect essence cannot be conceived save as involving existence. There can be no essence more perfect than God's.

6. The statements in 4 and 5 contradict each other indicating that the hypothesis (God does not exist) which was supposed to be true is, in fact, false. Therefore the hypothesis is false and its opposite true. God exists.

Descartes' argument is a bell-ringer. Just by having the idea of God in our minds, an idea which does not come through sense data but is innate in the mind and is discovered by reason, we can acknowledge that there is one other being besides ourselves in the world. It is an idea of something external to our minds that must exist. God necessarily exists. We discover the idea of the essence of God. We think about that idea. We find that that idea must be one of something that necessarily exists apart from our minds. We are not alone. Moreover, because God is perfect in every attribute, especially in His goodness, He would not deceive us about the nature of things as represented by our sense data. We may trust that God lets our sense data represent the external world as best the senses can do. And, in order to have sense data, we must have senses, which involve a body. We get our bodies back, for God certainly would not deceive us about our extended natures. Further, if we sense the bodies of other persons, we can be sure that there are other persons in the world and that we are not solitary minds. Looks like we are in "fat city:" We have solved the problem of solipsism (we live in a world which has things and other people in it); we can trust our sense to give us the best they can in terms of representations of that external world; we have our bodies back; and we know that the world was created by an all-powerful, all-knowing and good God. What more could you ask for?

There is a minor problem to be mentioned. Descartes will be the first to admit that if you don't have the idea or conception of God in the first place, the argument will not work. For, the argument is not an argument; it is a means by which minds can review an idea that lies innate in them. If we cannot discover that idea with clearness and distinctness, then, well, that's just a case of "too bad." The proof or discovery will not work anymore than a review of a slide through a microscope would work with the slide missing. If you can't come up with the clear and distinct idea of God, then Descartes is going to say, "Sorry, close, but no cigar. No idea of God, then you are stuck in solipsism. Too bad."

2. Problems. The ontological argument works, but it only proves that God is the universe; the ontological argument shows that it is true that something exists. Descartes' argument works. But, there is one qualification that I would like to note. If God is perfect in every attribute, then He is perfect in the attribute of extension. And, that is to say that He encompasses or constitutes all that is material. If He is perfect in the attribute of thought, then He encompasses or constitutes all that is thinking, all minds. But, if our universe is made up of minds and bodies, and if God contains all minds and bodies, then God is the universe or world. Put briefly, Descartes proves that God exists, but that God is also the world. Another philosopher, Benedict Spinoza, brought this conclusion to the fore with amazing clarity. So, to wrap up the ontological argument, it works, but it shows that the world necessarily exists, for the world and God are the same thing. Well, that's better than solipsism, but it certainly isn't where Descartes wants to end up.

Another problem with the ontological argument is that existence is not a predicate. (See Immanuel Kant's criticism of the argument). Here's the objection. If an essence is so perfect that it must involve existence, then what about a perfect island? If the island is so perfect that no other island could be more perfect, and if perfection involves existence, then the perfect island exists. The same can be found for any object, tomatoes, cars, games and so on. Which is absurd. The ontological argument does too much. It proves that any perfect thing must exist. Ouch.

E. The argument from practicality. Pascal's argument that it is a good bet to believe that God exists.

Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher and mathematician (much like Descartes) approached the matter concerning the existence of God from a different direction. His argument is very persuasive. Consider the following rendition of his ideas.

1. Having a belief in God is a good bet. Suppose that we come to the realization that there is no way to prove that God exists; any argument brought forth will be shot down by critical analysis. On the other hand, it is true that no argument can prove with equal certainty that God does not exist. It is an open question with respect to the existence of God. We know with certainty (for, it is a logical truth) that, "Either God exists or He does not exist." But, there is no way to find out which alternative is true; there are no good enough reasons to support one side of the disjunction over the other. But, we shouldn't give up, says Pascal. Why?

For one, a belief or disbelief in God is not trivial. A belief in unicorns is one thing. A belief in God is a whole different matter. That we believe or disbelieve in God will make a difference to our lives, for the belief requires behavior compatible with it. A belief in unicorns will not amount to much at all. The choice cannot be one of agnosticism (leave the matter unsettled), for too many decisions reside on believing one way or the other. The choice, thus, is important and is a forced choice; it will make a difference to our lives and we have to choose. We must choose either theism or atheism.

Should we choose by flipping a coin, seeing that the probability is 50/50? No, says Pascal. The reason why that method of choice is incorrect can be gained by looking at the behavior of smart gamblers. Smart gamblers make bets that tend to maximize their wins while minimizing their losses. A belief in God should use the same principle.

Let's look at the options.

Click here for the table. May take a minute to load. Skip if you do not want to wait.

Given that there is a good chance (50%) that God exists, a smart gambler would take the bet of believing in God. He would do so because the joys of Heaven are such great rewards that just having the chance at them is worth the bet. Ask yourself, would you prefer to risk two dollars to be in a lottery the Jackpot of which was 10 billion dollars or would you rather spend the money on a burger and fries. My money would go to the lottery ticket. The burger and fries are not worth missing the chance on such a Jackpot. Now, consider Heaven. Ten billion dollars is peanuts compared to an eternity of bliss. No gambler in his right mind would take the small change and run.

Besides, take another look at the table above. What are the actions that we would have to give up were we to have a belief in God? Well, we would have to give up doing bad actions. Let's seriously look at that consequence. Is it so undesirable? In fact, is it undesirable at all? Bad actions harm persons. Were we asked to give up bad actions, a logical response would be, "Of course, I'll give up bad actions, for they produce harm. Were everyone to give up bad actions, the world would be so much the better." It is a fact that some persons gain pleasure through doing wrong actions. But, that makes those persons all the more reprehensible; they are certainly not persons to be emulated. Giving up doing wrong actions will require us to do right actions, but there is nothing undesirable about that from the point of view of moral persons. So, having a belief in God will require us to not do wrong actions, but the overall consequence of that abstinence looks to be the creation of a better world to live in --and that is certainly a good goal.

Pascal's point is worth considering. He says to try it and you'll like it. If one works at being a believer and doing the right actions, then sooner or later, not only will his life get better, but he will become a believer. Just doing the right actions will make the world and ourselves better. Why not add the belief in a loving God to go along with the good life; what could be wrong with being the recipient of unconditional love? Need anything more be said?

Remember that Pascal is not giving reasons to prove that God exists. He is giving us reasons to have a belief in God. Our lives and the world will be better if we have the belief and act on the belief that God exists. And, as an added bonus, if it turns out that God exists, then so much the better for the believers. They will enjoy the benefits of Heaven while the others will not. The benefits of Heaven are so great as to be hardly comprehensible, but let us look at it this way. Compared to any type of wonderful life we may have on this earth, that life is but a speck of sand compared to the great beach of Heaven (which would be bigger than all of Florida, the Bahamas, Hawaii and the rest put together). Who would take a tiny piece of grit when the whole beach is available? Only a fool would not take on the belief in God. Can you imagine how you would feel if you were one of the ones who were left out of Heaven simply because you would not believe?

2. Problems. Is a belief in God the best bet? Pascal's argument may be convincing if it were only the case that the options were limited to God exists or He doesn't exist. But, there could be countless other gods who may offer the same rewards and even let us have them in spite of doing the wrong actions. Pascal fudges when he limits the options to God or not God. There are countless other possibilities. Unfortunately for his argument, he stacks the deck of options so that his argument is persuasive. When we consider all the options (all the countless other gods or causes), the argument loses its strength. Secondly, there is the problem of who deserves Heaven. Christianity has the nagging problem of trying to figure out what Grace is. Could, for example, Hitler gain the rewards of Heaven simply by declaring on his deathbed that he was a believer? Some religions say that Grace would encompass such a situation. But, such a claim seems to violate Kant's notion about final justice coming to those who deserve it. The problem is a critical one.

At any rate, Pascal's argument at best gives us only reasons for having a belief that God exists. The existence of God is still left up in the air.

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