The Ontological argument, an argument that gets much laughter and ridicule and accusations of “deducing God from God” or “Circular Reasoning” are often thrown at the argument. It was an argument I found myself embarrassed for those apologists I had much respect for, like William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. Why did these intelligent thinkers compromise their position and respect for such a silly argument? If someone told me I would have been writing this blog post a year ago, I probably would have laughed. Isn’t it, after all, silly, to deduce the existence of a Maximally Great Being from the existence of lesser beings? Then it hit me, I had been using this argument, in a less obvious way, in other lines of reasoning. After all, when I defend the notion of an old creation (13.5 +/- billion years old) based on the necessary nature of a God who cannot lie, appealing to the uniformity of nature, or when I criticize the god of Islam based on it failing to fit the minimal criteria of what a god must be in order to be a god, I was presupposing this argument to be true without even putting much thought into it. There I had it, I had joined the ranks of those who ally themselves with intellectual sloths, such at St Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, William Lane Craig, and Alvin Plantinga. Of course I do not consider any of these men to be intellectual inferiors, but I felt, as many do, that they were unintentionally putting a weak link in their armour by espousing this silly argument and did not need to do so when they had artillery at their disposal, such as the Cosmological Arguments, the Moral Argument, and the Arguments from design.
Simply put, to use Plantinga’s form of this argument, the argument takes the following form,
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists. (By this he means what we have described as a Perfect Being, or greatest conceivable being.)
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world. That is, God’s existence is not impossible (logically contradictory), so we can conceive of a world in which God does exist.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world. (Otherwise it would not be maximally great.)
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
There are two key words at use here, which must be noted, “Possible” and “Actual” and a third if “Possible” implies “Necessary”. These are words one will find when studying modal logic. Modal logic is the study of possible world semantics, which is not really to be confused with the multiverse ideas tossed around in physics. The modal logician, which I am not, surveys the realm of possible worlds and speculates what could have been if a certain state of affairs had been the case. We see this type of thinking in several movies which speculate about what it might have been if one were to go back in time and kill Adolph Hitler, and we also use this kind of counterfactual reasoning when we use “If…only”, type reasoning in our discussion. “If only I had thought of that, then I wouldn’t be in this mess right now…” and so on.
One may consider this the next time they strap themselves into a roller coaster, because according to modal logic, there is nothing illogical about every part on the roller coaster breaking down at once, although it is unlikely. Another area this type of reasoning is often seen is in mitigation scenarios in court. The defence may consider the defendants background and bad upbringing and bring these to light when the judge, or jury, is considering the death penalty for their client, because if circumstances had been different, perhaps, their client would not have found themselves in such an unfortunate predicament.
Getting back to the argument, the nature of this argument is actually sound, and this is not what critics of it take exception with. It is, in its form, a deductive argument, which means if the premises are true that the conclusion is inescapable. There are other forms of this argument which could be considered, but for sake of brevity only this one will be considered.
The charge brought against it is that one could start postulating about maximally great pizzas and unicorns, and so forth, and I hope I am not attacking an empty castle when I proffer these objections, but the problem with these objections is that the argument is not saying that if it can be imagined it must exist. This would be absurd, no form of the argument applies to a maximally great pizza which can be conceived in a mind and must necessarily exist because of this. The argument applies to being, not substance. This argument cannot apply to maximally great pizzas, because one could always imagine a greater and greater pizza, with more and more anchovies, or pineapples and so on, or one could imagine a world in which no pizzas exist at all, making pizzas contingent and not necessary. The argument does not deal with with contingency, but with necessity. Now let us discuss unicorns. We see, exemplified in this actual world, a total lack of unicorns. They have no existence in anything but our minds, based on certain concepts, such as a horse and a narwal, but nothing beyond that, but what we also see is that we can imagine that a unicorn could exist as much as it could not exist. There is nothing contradictory about a unicorn existing, or not existing. The only thing contradictory would be to affirm and deny, simultaneously, the existence of unicorns. Consider other contradictories one could imagine, or rather could not imagine. Can we conceive of a married bachelor, or a squared circle? No, but why? Because if we are to look at the terms and meanings of what it is to be married, and a bachelor, we can see these are two mutually exclusive terms, and for squared circles, one need only appeal to geometry to know it is impossible for a structure to have the properties of both a square and a circle at the same time.
Here we can pause and reflect on the discussion. From what has been said, thus far, it is safe to say there is nothing contradictory or logically incoherent about saying “God exists!”
For awhile, this is all I really considered the argument good for in discussion with atheists. Saying that God exists is not the same thing as saying there are squared circles or married bachelors, and I suppose this is what could be called a “weak use” of the argument.
However, I think, this argument has much more power than I once gave it credit for. Let us consider other classical arguments for the existence of God, the moral and the cosmological arguments.
THE MORAL ARGUMENT
1. Objective morals and duties imply the existence of a moral lawgiver.
2. Moral duties are objective.
3. Therefore, an objective moral lawgiver exists.
Without defending this argument, as I would simply like to presuppose the reader is familiar with its use and application, one is presupposing that there exists a moral lawgiver whose nature fits the definition of a morally perfect being, in which no imperfection exists. After all, the apologist using this argument is usually responding to objections regarding the existence of evil in the world with a response that one is presupposing there is an ultimate good which is missing in the universe. The apologist can reason that if we were to eliminate all evil, save paper cuts, that the atheist making this claim would still be presupposing a missing good in the universe, because there are still paper cuts. This good is found only in the nature of God, who is necessary and cannot cease to be Himself for an instant. After all, if God is uncreated and necessary, how could He lack any good thing in His nature, even for an instant, and not cease to be God, thereby making God contingent and not necessary?
THE COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
1. Everything that has a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe has a beginning.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Once again, this is not intended to be about defending the arguments, secondary to the Ontological Argument, but is seeking to demonstrate how these arguments presuppose its truth. There are various cosmological arguments, all of which seek to demonstrate the contingency of the universe and explain its existence in terms of a necessary cause/agent, cutting the infinite regress cord of causation. So, the universe has a cause, and whatever the nature of this cause is, it is distinct from the universe in that it is not contingent, but is necessary.
The apologist seeking to deny this argument, but who wishes to use other classical arguments for the existence of God, needs to explain why the Ontological Argument seems to be ubiquitous in these other arguments. If it carries any weight, it seems better to understand than to deny and to relinquish its apologetic value.
Let us now revisit the Ontological Argument and examine it premise by premise.
P1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
The very possibility is not logically incoherent and this premise is reminiscent of Pascal’s Wager, which states that the very possibility of Christian Theism being true warrants further examination of its claims, given the consequences and what is at stake. The very notion this is possible gives one warrant to move on to further premises.
P2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world. That is, God’s existence is not impossible (logically contradictory), so we can conceive of a world in which God does exist.
The very possibility of a maximally great being existing in some possible world, even one like ours, but with one less/more mosquito, means–by the very virtue of it being maximally great–that it must not be limited to one possible world, but its existence must be distributed to all other possible worlds, including this one, the actual world.
P3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world. (Otherwise it would not be maximally great.)
As stated in P2, by virtue of this being a maximally great being, thereby necessary, it must exist in other possible worlds. Many philosophers consider the laws of logic and arithmetic to be necessary truths, and while these truths lack corporeality, they are true in all possible universes and by virtue of being maximally true in some possible world, they are true in every possible world. The same can be said for the existence of some maximally great being.
C. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
By virtue, once again, of it being both maximally great, the existence which is independent of the universe must not be limited to some possible world, but to all possible worlds, including the actual one.
One objection which is popular, against this argument, as mentioned before, is that it deduces God from God, and therefore commits the fallacy of circular reasoning. In response to this objection, one is not deducing the subject term of God from the subject term of God, but is reasoning from the properties of God, or the predicate term to the subject of term. One could object to this response by saying that we can deduce unicorns from the predicates of unicorns and they could be equally actual on this basis, but unicorns are not claimed to be metaphysically necessary beings, which ground the existence of other beings.
There is great apologetic value in this argument, beyond what was already stated. This argument gives us a conceptual analysis of what we must look for in seeking truth in a theistic worldview. Quite easily, this argument rules out arbitrary and capricious god’s, like the god of Islam, which does not give moral commands consistent with a maximally great being. This argument rules out polytheistic systems found in Hinduism, and Mormonism, which teach there are a plurality of god’s. How can a being be maximally great if it can be compared to other beings which are also maximally great? Two infinites cannot exist, because they can be compared at some point. Furthermore, this argument is useful in responding to multiverse objections for the existence of God, because positing another possible world as an actual world does not escape the metaphysical necessity of a maximally great being.
I consider this argument worth looking at again, for apologists who doubt its usefulness. As demonstrated, it at least has some apologetic value in determining the existence of a god is not illogical, but has tremendous apologetic value in eliminating, quickly, false notions of God and examining other truth claims in light of what is minimally true.
Suggested further reading:
Christian Apologetics – Groothuis, Douglas.
The Nature of Necessity – Plantinga, Alvin
Modal Logic as Metaphysics – Williamson, Timothy.
On Guard/Reasonable Faith – Craig, William Lane.