Category Archives: Ontological Argument

Missing the Point

Dart arrows missing targetAfter discussing Anslem’s ontological argument, Mackie moves to Alvin Plantinga’s version. Personally, I’ve always had a personal distrust of ontological arguments; proving notions based on abstract reasoning alone raises a red flag for me. Still, I’m having an increasingly hard time dismissing them as I read. In fact, one of the ironies of my current situation is that Mackie’s book has done more to persuade me of the truth of these arguments than to put me off them.

What I am convinced of, and I think this is undeniable, is that God’s existence is either logically necessary or impossible. It simply cannot be the case that God could have existed, but didn’t–or could not have existed, but did. I think this is clear that necessary existence is part of what it means to be God. But the implication, then, is this:

If God is either necessary or impossible, then either there is a logical contradiction in the idea of God, or there is an ontological argument that works.

Mackie argues that Plantinga’s version doesn’t work, but seems to rest his argument on a misunderstanding of the argument. He spends quite a bit of time arguing against the idea of “world-indexed properties”. But, by my reading, Plantinga’s argument doesn’t depend on such properties (this was, indeed, part of Plantinga’s own response to the book). As such, he’s simply given us a very long red herring argument.

Where Mackie has a point (even as I disagree) is in the idea that it is more parsimonious to claim that God does not exist than that he does. After all, this has always been the atheist’s best line of attack.

Still, there’s a very reasonable response.

It is only more parsimonious for the question of God in isolation. Given the number of brute facts, and downright self-contradictions, that seem to stem from modern “parsimony” about non-physical things, this attack isn’t nearly so strong as it seems at first blush.

In fact, I’d say that theism is much more parsimonious, at the end of the day, than any other view I know.

But Mackie has one other challenge: the suggestion that we remain undecided on this position.

But, whatever the logical merits of this approach, it is simply not livable. Each of us has to live either as if God exists, or as if he does not. One can be actively seeking, and open to change, but neutrality on fundamental questions isn’t an option to anyone who has to live and act in the real world.

This is why I find this wrong-headed from the start. Really, it relies on a slight of hand. Though I don’t doubt Mackie’s sincerity, the functional result is deceptive. A myth of neutrality often persuades people to live as functional atheists without actually establishing atheism as the most reasonable position.

That, and Mackie will need to have done more than remain neutral on this point for one of his other refutations to work, as we shall see next.

What is Greatness?

GreatnessAfter (basically) endorsing Hume’s argument against belief in miracles, J. L. Mackie turns to discussion of ontological arguments for God’s existence (arguments that try to argue for God’s existence based simply on reason and the idea of God).

He opens with a couple of arguments pressed by Descartes, and rejects them. And personally, I agree. Descartes claimed that God must exist because we could not have clearly perceived the idea of the infinitely powerful unless something infinitely powerful existed. I won’t get too far into this, because I’m in complete agreement with Mackie’s objection that we never really perceive something infinitely powerful. None of us can really imagine that, and this is, I think, devastating for Descartes’ argument.

As to Anselm’s much more famous ontological argument for God’s existence, things get much more interesting.

Most people (including myself, I must say) find the argument suspicious. To say that God is defined as the greatest possible being, then to say that existing would be greater than not (and, therefore, God exists) doesn’t sit well with me personally.

What is interesting is how we each go about rejecting the argument. Mackie denies that existing would make a thing greater than not existing, which is fine insofar as that goes, but he never gives a reason for this denial. He admits that it is a cogent thought that existence is what philosophers call a “great-making property”, but simply denies that this thought is true.

I’ve always felt that I have a good reason to question this premise. That is “greatness” assumes a standard of good and bad, against which we might measure the object in question. And, personally, I don’t see how we can have a standard by which we presume to measure God–much less worked it out well enough to know what it is–until we’ve already settled the question of God’s existence.

The trouble with this is that it leads us right into the moral argument for God’s existence. Anyone pressing this objection to Anselm has basically three options: 1) Defend nihilism, 2) Defend a secular case for objective values that can avoid this argument from greatness, or 3) Accept theism.

The third isn’t problem for me, of course, but those arguing against the conclusion of theism have two very difficult choices, and I worry that this is part of the reason why Mackie doesn’t offer his reason for rejecting the idea that existence is a great-making property.

To me (and even to Mackie), Anselm could retort that we can know that existence constitutes a great-making property even before understanding the ultimate source of greatness. That would be harder to refute, and I’m not concerned to do so here.

I do find this argument suspicious, but less so than Mackie’s dismissal without offering a standard by which he does so. If he can’t offer a clear alternative of what constitutes greatness (even if that is nihilism), then he can’t claim to have done away with theism.

And that is a major issue that continues to come up (and will continue to come up later in the book). It isn’t enough to simply cast doubt on a proof. One must offer a basis on which one believes the premises that support the counter argument (that is, an alternative view). But this is something that atheists, in my experience, notoriously avoid doing.

From here, Mackie turns to Plantinga’s ontological argument. We’ll discuss that next.