I don’t see how the argument even begins

I’ve read an advance copy of Reasonable Atheism by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. It’s a good book. I have some disagreements though, and some things I don’t understand, or suspect I don’t understand, or both; I’ve been waiting to post about them, until closer to the pub date, but now that they’re posting about it, I figure it’s close enough.

One (highly reasonable) point they make is that atheists should argue well instead of badly. One example of arguing well, they say, is taking the Ontological Argument seriously.

We take the Ontological Argument as the litmus test for intellectual seriousness, both for atheists and religious believers alike. Anyone who takes the question of God’s existence seriously must grapple with this fascinating argument. Those who simply cast it aside, or wield it indiscriminately, prove themselves intellectually careless. [p 81 – but this is uncorrected proof]

This is one of the places where I suspect I don’t understand. I don’t get the need to grapple with the ont. arg., because it has no purchase on me to begin with. It starts with premises that I see no reason to start with. I “simply cast it aside.” I don’t see how saying “but a perfect being that didn’t exist would be imperfect and we can conceive of a perfect being therefore that being exists” causes anything to happen. I know I’ve garbled the argument, but this is where the suspected not understanding comes in. I seem not to understand how the argument is anything more reasonable than that. I seem not to understand why anybody has ever thought that an ability to imagine something plus logic can cause the something to exist.

On the next page they say how Hitchens garbles the argument, then give the right version.

[T]he argument derives God’s existence from something we know about God, whether we think he exists or not, namely, that He is perfect.

That’s accurate, by the way; it’s he first, and then He. The “he” must be a mistake; they use capital H throughout the book, which I think is odd for atheists. I don’t think we’re required to be reverent. But never mind that – just explain that sentence to me, because I don’t get it. I don’t know that about “God.” I know that some people who do think “God” exists also think that “God” is “perfect” – but I don’t take that to mean that I “know” “God” “is” “perfect.” I don’t know a single one of those four words, much less all four of them in combination.

Therefore I don’t see how the argument even begins. I see how it begins for people who do think they know all four of those things, but I don’t see how it begins for people who don’t. Do you?

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