Tag 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.

The Power of Education

15585Hulk_school_poster_1_Continuing on with Chris Hallquist’s criticism of William Lane Craig, we get to a section on the increasingly well-known Ontological Argument. This is an argument which attempts to show that, once one understands the concept of God, one will see that God must necessarily exist.

I should say right away that I’ve never been persuaded by this argument. Still, I think that some of the objections to it simply miss the point. For instance, Hallquist claims that the argument could equally be used to argue for the existence of a perfect demon, something like God, but perfectly evil. But this is simply untrue.

What the Ontological Argument does show, in my view, is that God’s existence is either impossible or his non-existence is impossible. Hallquist points out that the key issue is that God is defined as necessary (his non-existence is impossible), and claims that all the other properties of God are irrelevant to the argument.

This is simply because he doesn’t seem to understand the argument. He complains that it contains “unnecessary jargon”, but those terms (such as “maximal greatness”) are precisely the key to understanding why goodness and necessity are linked. That is, they are the answer to his objection.

I’ve run across this situation many times in debate. There’s a particular type that likes to complain “I don’t want to understand all those long words, just give me a reason to think you’re right”. It never seems to occur to that person that “those long words” are the explanation.

But this is odd to hear out of Hallquist, because he goes on to show quite a bit of understanding, pointing out the differences between ontological and epistemic possibility, and discussing modal logic with clarity.

To put it simply, Hallquist agrees with the idea that, if God’s existence is possible, then God exists. He simply (and rightly) underlines that “possible” means absolute (ontological) possibility, and not a “for-all-we-know” (epistemological) possibility.

And, personally, I agree with him here. I think this is a good point that is often missed.

This is, incidentally, where those who dismiss philosophy would do well to learn something about it. Because Hallquist understands these terms, he can offer an intelligent response, rather than resorting to mockery and name-calling.

Still, he should study a bit further. He claims that God’s existence being conceivable doesn’t help to show it possible because “we can conceive of a world consisting of wholly physical objects”. Here, he’s clearly taking “conceive” to be synonymous with “imagine”. But this is not the way philosophers use the term.

To say that something is conceivable is to say that it is logically coherent. One cannot simply respond by saying that materialism is logically coherent, because the argument is, itself, an argument for the incoherence of materialism. One can’t simply assume that the argument fails to show this in order to “prove” that it fails.

As above, I’m not convinced of the Ontological Argument. I can see why people believe that the idea that God’s existence is possible is more likely true than not. But I think J. L. Mackie has raised some good challenges. In the end, I don’t claim to know whether it is sound.

What I can say with more certainty, however, is that Hallquist has not offered much in the way of good reason to reject the argument. And I doubt he would have used the objections he did had he properly understood the terms of the discussion.