Odious and Peculiar

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Monday, January 10, 2005
 
Alice wonders 1) if the existence of God is self-evident, and 2) why she gets carded. College has taught me the answer to both questions.

1) No.

St. Anselm thought so. He created the ontological argument for the existence of God, which became quite famous and is not as silly as one might think at first glance:
Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

We could pick this argument apart, and see how it fails and at what it succeeds, but why? Let's just cheat, and go to St. Thomas Aquinas for his take:
Perhaps not everyone who hears this word "God" understands it to signify something than which nothing greater can be thought, seeing that some have believed God to be a body. Yet, granted that everyone understands that by this word "God" is signified something than which nothing greater can be thought, nevertheless, it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally. Nor can it be argued that it actually exists, unless it be admitted that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought; and this precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist.
Quite. I assume, of course, that what she's thinking of examining is the philosophical argument. There are other takes on the self-evidence of God's existence. The most common nowadays is the faith which arises from long exposure to it. The common theistic arguments of the day (and the most common of them is the argument from design, and to those who chose to fight their on either side I say "a pox on both your houses"!) are recited unchallenged, and the believer presumes a belief that is untested and therefore unready for disputation. I am not here questioning its truth; I am merely making the obvious statement that if one is born and raised into a mind-set, that mind-set is often believed to be the default. Other beliefs are summarily dismissed because the person does not accept that someone could truly feel that way. This inability to understand another also emerges in political discussions. Once again, this does not mean that the view is wrong (a conclusion which might result from a strange application of the argument from authority), but simply that it is at best right opinion. That is, it resembles one of the statues of Daedalus.
If you have one of his works untethered, it is not worth much; it gives you the slip like a runaway slve. But a tethered specimen is very valuable, for they are magnificent creations. And that, I may say, has a bearing on the matter of true opinions. True opinions are a fine thing and do all sorts of good so long as they stay in their place, but they will not stay long. They run away from a man's mind; so they are not worth much until you tether them by working out the reason....Once they are tied down, they become knowledge, and are stable. That is why knowledge is more valuable than right opinion.
I recently attended a seminar in which the Meno was discussed, and if I were the sort of person who used scare quotes, well, discussed would have a dozen nesting pairs (properly alternated). The (ex--very, very ex-) tutor who led the discussion was the sort who asked questions to which he had an answer prepared, in the hopes of congratulating those who agreed with him and discouraging the dissenters. He also clearly viewed this meeting as an opportunity to flirt with such women as might be easily persuaded that his mental abilities made up for his other shortcomings. Accompanying him was a woman who was intent on telling us that she was a successful lawyer, and who clearly had not done the reading. I am not a stickler for the idea of avoiding outside sources, but one does not bring up the amygdala when discussing Plato. Anyway.

2) The bartender is flirting with her. Or has just been scared out of his wits by the Alcohol Server Class required by the state (which hideous bureaucracy is generally the idea of the hospitality industry itself, rather than imposed from without). He probably had just been told how many years in prison he could get if she turned out to be an undercover ATF agent, and what would happen to him in there. The word "shiv" may have been thrown around. So he plays it safe for the next month or so. The manager will probably back him up (I would have when I was a manager, and I wouldn't have been trying to be a jerk. Really. You've just got to cover your employees when they're trying to do the right thing, no matter how silly you think it is). So carry the passport, and ask him to remember you for next time. He should be able to do that (if he refuses, it's not for legal reasons but indolence. Then is he being a jerk).


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