Ontological buses

Julián Montaño. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

11 February 2009

The nihilist buses could be accused of literally sending out the wrong message, at least from the ontological point of view that defends the existence of God based on the mere fact that people think about it.

In acu tetigisti. Miguel Herrero really has touched a thorny subject, albeit a very interesting one. What the devil, or what on earth is an ontological statement doing on the back of a bus? Having said that I´m not too sure expressions involving the devil and earth are entirely appropriate when the subject matter is God.

"The fact is that there is no P, as in P = God exists", "There is an S, as in S is God and S does not exist". And you see this as you wait at some traffic lights because while driving your Peugeot 206 you ended up behind a bus that stopped you from changing into the left-hand lane.

This type of proclamation on an advert is always more welcome than "Light Poor Musical, the musical of the decade, now in Madrid!" (the most reliable piece of information being not so much about the content of the musical and its staging, but rather where it happens to be on) or something like " Sale now on at Fred’s emporium, up to 70% off!" (which informs us of the temporal and quantitative circumstances of a complex entity, a highly complicated department store whose claims are not easy to refute if you apply Popperian criteria: it is always right and the client never is). Now you can wait for the traffic light to change, without your foot on the clutch, in a far more pleasant and fruitful fashion, by meditating not on finite entities and their circumstances (how superficial is that?), but rather on the Ens entium, the Causa Primera, and the Ipsum Esse Subsistens.

I would take it a step further. I would stick up more varied metaphysical and ontological messages, and not just referring to natural theology or teodicea. Something like "Did you know that the substance of Spinoza has infinite attributes?" Imagine the impact of that blazoned across the window of male gyms. Or if you don´t like Spinoza, we can always turn to his contemporary counterpart Leibniz: "What we call ´coincidence´ is simply ignorance of physical causes", might go down well a street kiosk, or how about this one: "Why is there something rather than nothing?", which would look very good at the end of a bank statement, wouldn’t it just. Speaking of banks, can you imagine the marketing directors of a leading bank using "your essence necessarily implies your existence" as a slogan? What a tribute to Spinoza, who was more than knowledgeable about lifelong debts (his family had financial problems).

And so we move on to Spinoza, among others. People are speaking about God to say whether or not He exists and whether or not it should be put on a bus ("it takes all sorts", as Joselito El Gallo was quoted as saying when they explained to him that Ortega y Gasset was a professor of metaphysics). God is an idea, a concept. Well, there are those who say that precisely that very idea, that there is a concept of God, is what proves that God exists. According to these people, the nihilistic bus people would get on well with those who use bus adverts to defend the existence of God on the basis of His concept or His essence by upholding what is called the ontological argument of the existence of God.

People who have defended similar ideas include St Anselm of Canterbury, an Italian who was a genius of refined reasoning and who said that the content of the idea of God (aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit) can be used to deduce the existence of God. René Descartes, a finicky French soldier, together with a Dutch optician of Sephardic origin, the Spinoza I spoke of earlier, re-updated this type of argument, i.e. the proof of the existence of God, in the 17th century. Descartes did it on the basis of the fact that we have an idea of God and deduced the existence of the supreme Being from that. Spinoza was more refined and deduced the existence of God from the concept of essence and substance.Venerable philosophers such as Malebranche, Bradley, Hegel, Juan Duns Scoto and San Buenaventura have also upheld this argument one way or another.

The ontological argument has been systematically opposed by two of the most powerful philosophical minds: St Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant. It also managed to score more points in the 20th and 21st centuries: In one article, Prof G.E.M. Anscombe, a disciple of Wittgenstein, differentiated Anselm´s argument from all the rest and, to a certain extent, left the door open to it being acceptable. Alvin Plantinga and Kurt Gödel, two of the greatest logical minds you could hope to find in the 20th century have defended this type of argument. Plantinga uses tools from the brainy branch of logic called modal logic. Logicians of the stature of David K. Lewis, Hintikka and others have had great difficulty in bringing down this type of argument in favour of the existence of God.

Hence the nihilistic bus people will not get very far if they try to deny the existence of God by preaching the fact that the idea of God exists. And those who proclaim his existence might even do better if they went down the ontological bus route: "We know that God is bigger than anything we can think of. If God did not exist, we would be able to think of something bigger, in other words, we could think of God existing. This would be contradictory, ergo God exists. This particular back end of a bus is less contradictory than that of the number 25".

Post Scriptum: Oh, and whilst I’m quoting Miguel Herrero: ceterum censeo Kirk et Raven errant.

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