Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Plantinga and the Ontological Argument

I've finally finished a chapter on arguments for the existence of God that I started over a year ago. Ouch. I started to end the chapter by revisiting a version of the ontological argument by Alvin Plantinga. I remember hearing in seminary that it had made some atheists nervous... and I remembered having great difficulty wrapping my head around it.

When I first encountered Anselm's version of the argument, I remember thinking, "Man, I just don't understand it." But I've since concluded it doesn't make sense. Just because we believe in God doesn't mean that every argument for the existence of God makes sense. I used always to assume that I was stupid when I couldn't wrap my head around such things. That of course is still sometimes the case.

But I've also come to realize that sometimes the reason a philosopher or theologian or Bible scholar doesn't make sense to me is because, well, they just don't make sense :-) (P.S. Feel free to invoke this principle when reading my thoughts :-)

Just to remind you of Anselm's argument, it goes something like this:

1. I can conceive of the Greatest Possible Being--the Greatest Possible Being exists in my mind.
2. A Being that exists outside my mind would be greater than one that exists in my mind.
3. Therefore, the Greatest Possible Being must exist outside my mind as well as inside my mind.

This argument doesn't work on more than one level for me. The most significant reason it doesn't work is because it confuses ideas with things, like mixing apples and oranges. For this reason, premises 1 and 2 don't connect. They are like ships passing in the night.

I decided to leave Plantinga mostly out of the chapter because I think his argument is tautologous. His first premise is, in my opinion, exactly what we are trying to prove in the first place.

His argument goes as follows:[1]

1. There is a possible world in which maximal greatness is instantiated.

2. Necessarily, a being is maximally great only if it has maximal excellence in every world (and thus has omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection in every world).

3. If premise 1 is true, then it would be impossible for that being not to exist in that possible world.

4. But if it were impossible for that being not to exist in that possible world, it would be impossible for that being to exist in any world.

5. Therefore, that being must exist in all possible worlds.

I have several problems with this argument.

For one, I don't like thinking of God as the greatest possible being because the hidden premise is that we are talking about this universe, inevitably the argument limits God to the limits of to this universe, the greatest possible in this universe, since our conception here is unavoidably limited to our frame of reference. Such a scenario says nothing about the parameters outside this universe and the cosmological argument in any case places God outside of this universe. The entire line of thought is thus ill conceived as a premise for further argument.

It does seem true that if God exists, then God must exist in all possible worlds, understood from our point of reference. We cannot conceive or argue about possibilities beyond our point of reference. Arguments of possible worlds are thus only drawing pads for talking about our world and worlds that might be like ours. This immediately undermines the entire argument as well.

My hunch is that, if we pushed the ontological argument in the right direction, and maybe a nuclear physicist could help out here, we would find that the ontological argument and the argument from necessity turn out to be the same thing as the cosmological argument.

[1] God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1974). My apologies to Plantinga for leaving out some of the subtleties of his actual argument, but since I consider his argument tautologous, it doesn't really matter.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Why are you thinking it necessary to believe in God in the first place, if what is really important is what someone does in this life? It really doesn't matter if all that matters is the "common good". That is, unless, you want to "teah or train" someone Hebrews style, so God is necessary to get them 'on board" with the program of "social concern"...

I think the biggest argument for God is personhood, which is individuality, which is affirmed in difference...boundaries, self-responsibility, and the Bill of Rights...but if you believe in socialism and imposing it upon those who have different political opinions, because it "teaches, or trains" others in 'righteous living"...being responsible for others, then I think it fall short on appropriateness..as it disregards boundaries, and disrepects persons.

Humankind is not a personal term...Humans have personal names for a reason. And the biggest damage to an individual is to "steal" their individual choice(s)...I wrote about this on my blog site...before I read this entry...

Pizza Man said...

One shortcoming of Anselm's argument (as I understand it) is that it doesn't recognize that God reserves the right to limit Himself. Or put another way, it is possible for us to conceive of God's character traits in "greater" ways than He manifests them.

Aaron Perry said...

I am not sure that one need focus on the limitations we inherit from our universe because the object of our thought is God. It is not our universe but the very nature of a maximally great being that leaves our thought limited. It matters not what world you're in when considering maximal greatness because maximal greatness is, well, maximal.

Also, I find it strange to say this argument is tautalogous. These two statements are different: "I can imagine a world in which God exists" and "God exists in this world." The argument *hinges* on one's definition of God--the maximally great being. Hence, one could still accept the premise but not the conclusion. In other words, this argument is not tautologous, but it may leave you unconvinced.

Ken Schenck said...

Maybe tautologous is not the right world. What I meant is that I agree that the idea of maximal greatness in relation to the construct of possible worlds implies that such a being exist in this world by the very nature of what we are calling maximal greatness. So as Plantinga himself says, the real issue is the first, is maximal greatness instantiated in any possible world.

My pet peeve with regard to greatest possible Being is similar to the qualification Christian philosophers often put on omnipotence when they say that God can do anything logically possible. So God cannot make 1+1=3 when those terms are being used in their normal sense.

From my slightly unorthodox standpoint, I do not wish to speculate about what is or is not possible, indeed what is and is not beyond this universe. From what point of reference might I speak literally of such things. I thus only have some sense of what greatest might mean in relation to this universe. I have no sense of what it might mean beyond.