Sunday, October 28, 2007

What's so great about Dinesh D'Souza? Part I

I started reading Dinesh D'Souza's recently published book "What's So Great About Christianity?" the other day. So far, I am quite far from being impressed.

The book comes with a certain amount of history. In recent months, a number of big name authors have published books promoting atheism and denigrating Christianity. This has sparked a mini-boom of popular interest in (or, at the very least, popular advertising about) atheism. Not to be outdone by this new atheist offensive towards the mass book-reading audience, a number of Christian authors have published rebuttles and works extolling Christianity and critiquing atheism. "What's So Great About Christianity?" is one of these new pro-Christian publications.

We're not exactly talking philosophy even on the level of the weekend philosopher here on both sides of the argument here, so I don't have high expectations of technical precision. On the other hand, one would hope that our pro-Christian authors would take more than a slapdash approach to answering these new criticisms from the atheists. After reading a couple of chapters in "What's So Great About Christianity?", I haven't seen much evidence of that.

For example, in D'Souza's chapter eight he considers two famous arguments for the existence of God. He summarizes the first, attributed to Aquinas, as follows (pp. 85-86):
Aquinas argues that ever effect requires a cause, and that nothing in the world is the cause of its own existence. Whenever you encounter A, it has to be caused by some other B. But then B has to be accounted for, so let us say it is caused by C. This tracing of causes, Aquinas says, cannot continue indefinately, because if it did, then nothing would have come into existence. Therefore there must be an original cause responsible for the chain of causation in the first place. To this first cause we give the name God.
It's an interesting philosophical argument, provided that we ignore the fact that one of the premises have been explicitly disproved by science. As we know from quantum mechanics, there are events that have no cause; the quantum mechanical two-slit experiment is a classic example. The other example that D'Souza gives in chapter 8 is attributed to Anselm, and D'Souza formulates it as follows (pp. 87):
Anselm defines God as "that than which no greater can be thought." Presumably, this is a reasonable and widely accepted definition. Even an atheist should have no problem with it. We all understand the idea of God to correspond to a supreme being that stretches -- even transcends -- the limits of our imagination. Anselm proceeds to say that as we acknowledge and understand the definition, we must have some idea of God in our mind. He doesn't mean a pictorial representation. He simply means that our minds comprehend as a logical possibility the idea of God as "that than which no greater can be thought."

But if this is true, Anselm says, then God exists. We have proved God's existence. Why? Because if "that than which no greater can be thought" exists in the mind, then it must also exist in reality. The reason is that to exist in reality is, according to Anselm, "greater" than to exist merely in the mind. What is possible and actual is obviously greater than what is merely possible.
Maybe I'm missing out on some subtle point, but to me, this argument seems to rely upon "begging the question" about the existence of God. The problem is that identifying God as the being "than which no greater can be thought" is not a definition but a proposition

Suppose, for example, that God does not exist, but accept that we can think of a God that exists as being greater than such beings that do, in fact, exist. The proposition of the existence of "that than which no greater can be thought" would therefore be false. I don't see any reason why I must accept this proposition as true. Embaressingly for D'Souza, according to wikipedia, Aquinas himself rejected this argument by Anselm.


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