Ontological Arguments

The ontological argument for the existence of God is often greeted with skepticism by atheists and theists alike. I don’t want to talk about particular versions of the argument, but about why people are suspicious of them. It seems to me that we are quite ready to accept ontological arguments in other areas.So, consider geometry. Why can’t there be any square circles? Because the very concept is contradictory. We infer from this that reality must be a certain way; it contains no square circles.  Isn’t the basic strategy behind the ontological argument for God the same? Why must there be a God? The concept of God’s non-existence is contradictory. Infer from that that reality must be a certain way. Now, I don’t mean to be saying that the ontological argument is a good argument or not. I only mean to point out that ontological arguments aren’t as strange as they seem.

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20 thoughts on “Ontological Arguments

  1. It only seems not strange to you because you’ve described the situation at such a high level of abstraction (conceptual analysis allows us to conclude stuff!) that you’ve obscured the strange-making differences.

    Look at it this way. Conceptual analysis reveals to us that nothing can instantiate the properties of both being a circle and being a square. That’s unsurprising. What can we conclude about the distribution of properties from the concept of God? Maybe this: nothing can instantiate both the properties of being God and being non-existent. That would be unsurprising. But to draw the stronger conclusion that there positively exists some particular thing with particular properties, is a wildly different sort of conclusion. Your discussion obscures this important difference.

  2. . . . nothing can instantiate both the properties of being God and being non-existent. That would be unsurprising. . .

    That would be unsurprising? If anything that instantiates the attributes of God would exist, then having God’s attributes is consistent with existing. Given that consistency, something instantiates these attributes and exists in some world. But those attributes include necessary existence. So God actually exists. I wouldn’t say that’s unsurprising.
    RB’s point is important, I think. It does point up that we find a priori reasoning much more reliable in geometry than we do in (lots of) metaphysics. You might have noted in addition that there’s a lot of metaphysics that is taken very seriously, but on no firmer ground than the ontological argument. Certainly the arguments for restricted/unrestricted composition, 3D/4D, etc. are pretty much in the same boat epistemically. So the point might be that we should be suspicious of all of this if we are suspicious of any of it.

  3. Mike, I assume that to instantiate a property is to exist. So it’s trivial that nothing can instantiate the property of being non-existent. So it’s equally trivial that nothing can instantiate both this property and some other.

  4. Of course, but I thought you were drawing a conclusion from the analysis of the concept of God, viz., that the properties are consistent, so possibly instantiated rather than actually so. But if your point is that we can existentially generalize on any instantiated property, then right, pretty trivial.

  5. No, I said that the conclusion we can draw from conceptual analysis is that “nothing can instantiate both the properties of being God and being non-existent.” My second comment was to point out, on independent grounds, what a trivial claim this is.

    (Note that the inconsistency of A and ~B does not entail the consistency of A and B, as your first comment seems to assume. A alone could be inconsistent, after all!)

  6. Hey Mike, thanks for the comment! I think that that is the first time I have been defended on this blog :)

    Richard, i think I agree with Mike here. You say that what we should conclude is that ‘nothing can instantiate the property og being God and not exist’, but then go on to say in response to Mike that you assume that to instantiate a property is to exist. So, it really isn’t from the concept of God that we should conclude what you say. rather we can derive that from the concept of being an object. The claim here is, as Mike says, that from the concept of God we get ‘possibly, He exists’ and from this we get ‘He actually exist’. This is the same as in the shapes case (bu in reverse). From our concepts of square and circle we get ‘not possibly square circles’ from which we can get ‘not actually square circles’. In each case we reason from a concept to an existential claim. In the one case we are quite happy to accept the existential conclusion but not in the other. But the inference in each is nearly identical.

    But don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing that the ontological argument for God’s existence should convince us that there is a God. All I am saying is that the argument is valid and has a form that is unremarkable in other contexts. In order to combat this argument we would need an ‘anti-ontological’ argument, or an argument from the nature of God to the conclusion that it is impossible that He exist. I think that you and I agree that this is what the logical argument from evil amounts to, but that is another story.

  7. Note that the inconsistency of A and ~B does not entail the consistency of A and B, as your first comment seems to assume. A alone could be inconsistent, after all!

    Yes, I think I conceded this. I mistakenly assumed you were asserting something more than this. That’s my fault. I think we both agree, now, that you were asserting something that is pretty obviously true.

  8. Richard, to repeat, the difference you’re neglecting is that in the usual case we reason from concepts to a purely negative existential claim (viz., certain properties cannot be co-instantiated), whereas the ontological argument attempts to conclude that some thing positively exists. This is a very significant difference.

    So, it really isn’t from the concept of God that we should conclude what you say. rather we can derive that from the concept of being an object.

    As I said in response to Mike, those are two independent routes to the same conclusion. Anyway, the important point is as follows. The ordinary method of conceptual analysis (if I’ve diagnosed it correctly), on the model of the square circles example, applied to the concept of God merely yield the trivial conclusion: “nothing can instantiate both the properties of being God and being non-existent.” Any stronger claims, such as the Ontological Argument tries to make, requires going beyond this, to a completely different (and wildly suspicious) form of argument.

  9. Any stronger claims, such as the Ontological Argument tries to make, requires going beyond this, to a completely different (and wildly suspicious) form of argument.

    Richard, this depends entirely on one’s views in modal epistemology. I’m not sure how much can be known a priori, or how much what is known a priori requires fairly tight proofs. Supposing that knowning that God exists is something like knowning that Goldbach’s Conjecture is true, they would both be a priori and, still, they would both require some pretty tight proof procedures.

  10. Richard, to repeat, the difference you’re neglecting is that in the usual case we reason from concepts to a purely negative existential claim (viz., certain properties cannot be co-instantiated), whereas the ontological argument attempts to conclude that some thing positively exists. This is a very significant difference.

    Well, I guess I don’t see why the difference is supposed to be so significant. As I have said, in both cases we reason from what is possible to what exists. The connection between the two, that I think you are neglecting, is that both arguments rely on contradiction as an indication of what can exist and what cannot.

    So, consider the argument for the Cogito that Descartes gives. Given your analasis we can sum it up as follows. From the concept of thinking we conclude that nothing can instatntiate both the property of thinking and non-existence (I think it is strange that you think non-existence is a property, but let’s let that slide). So given that that I am thinking I can conclude that I exist.

    The ontological argument is similar. From the concept of God we see that it is not possible for something to be God and yet fail to exist. So, given that this concept is not contradictory it is possible that God exists, and from that it follows that He actually exists (i.e. if ◊ []Ex God(x) then []E(x) God(x), and so E(x) God(x)). That seems ‘wildly suspicious’ to you?

  11. An omni-complex found in theontological argument

    When we anthropomorphize God with independent zenith-tic attributes, were

    ironically left with an interesting imperative. Before we begin anything, we need to

    define what each of these omni driven attributes mean. There in lies the context needed

    in order to understand the contradiction we create, when we simultaneously apply these

    omni attributes to a single being of highest perfection. Let us start by defining 2 particular

    omni attributes attached to God. Individually defining these attributes is a first, in many

    steps to help us understand how there co-existence (when placed in an eternal infinite

    value) create contradiction with each other.

    What do we mean when we state that God is omniscient? When we place this

    attribute to God in perfect value, we have in fact stated this being to be “having infinite

    awareness, understanding, and insight possessed of universal or complete knowledge.”

    As we have come to know from reading ST. Anselm ontological argument, to completely

    deny the possibility of Gods existence is to contradict ourselves. However when another

    adjective is added to S.T. Anselm’s interpretation, a contradiction submerges.

    When we go on to state that God is also omni-benevolent, a conflict of perfection

    occurs. This occurs because justifying pain and suffering clashes with the though of

    perfect goodwill. Being omni-benevolent implies to be marked as having the highest

    most perfect ability of doing good or having perfect goodwill. If we apply both attributes

    simultaneously to a perfect being with nothing less than perfect potential, contradiction

    occurs.

    We live in a world infected with sadness and suffering. A simple question that

    mainly everyone when they were children would ask to his/her parent when

    told God is all knowing and sees everything is, then why did he make us like this if he

    knew this would happen? (Sorry for the masculine personification of God. This is to

    indicate that it comes from a more patriarchal dominated Judeo-Christian culture. I hold

    no belief, in thinking a higher life force as male or female like. Although if I were to pick,

    I would probably give God a feminine persona simply because women give birth.)

    Children naturally have a sincerely innocent curiosity. Asking questions such as why if

    God knows everything before it happens make us, knowing we would fail? If he/she was

    in a Christian religion like I was, would probably have been told the popular story of

    Adam and Eve to explain why things are so bad.

    He/she would hear that at first God made everything good, that it was perfect. God

    was so loving that he gave us freewill, so that we may have a choice to do either good or

    bad. They would tell their children that Adam and Eve were created perfect in the image

    of God. That they were commanded by God not to eat from the tree of knowledge of

    good and evil, if they would take fruit from this tree they would surely die. Later on,

    we learn that Adam and Eve disobeyed God because of an angel turned evil named

    Satan. This evil angle tricked the woman Eve to disobey God, and eat from the tree of

    knowledge of good and evil. That is how we lost everything because Adam and Eve

    disobeyed God, and that is why things are so bad now and days. Notice misogynistic

    values so early on given to children.

    Why give us freewill if your infinite awareness knows before hand, what outcomes

    precede it. Another important question would be, what exactly is freewill and what

    exactly is choice by that matter? Is it the freedom to doom our selves? What exactly is

    freewill, if not your choice to destroy yourself. According to many books in the bible but

    particularly in Genesis, we find many cases illustrating freewill outcomes. It is quite

    simple, obey God and do what you are told to do. Those that choose to disobey God

    could have life and death consequences awaiting them. A classic example is found in the

    Adam and Eve story. This is usually how Christian parents answer their child’s questions

    about why things are so spoiled here on Earth.

    Again, I look for the benevolent choice in this scenario. I view this choice as, choose

    my rules or choose death. If God as always had foreknowledge of the outcome of Eden,

    and a rebellious angel we would come to know as Satan. Then why bother with giving us

    freewill? To me this is just a pretext to justify human condition. When we think about

    terms like salvation comes from God. It could also be said that by obeying Gods rules

    salvation comes. But, not obeying Gods rules means that we could end up experiencing

    pain possibly even meeting death. Then it is possible to note that God saves us from

    himself. Where is omni-benevolence found in that exchange?

    Omniscient and Omnipotent is an attribute that to me doesn’t contradict an eternal

    force. However, Omni-benevolent does contradict this balance of God. This void found

    in Gods anthropomorphized perfect being leaves us to ask nicely of one of these

    adjectives to leave peacefully, in order to keep perfection logical.

  12. The apparent Omniscient/Omni-benevolent contradiction can be explained away by the idea that “God has a plan, though we may not be privy to its intricacies.” All the evil in the world may indeed be part of some elaborate scheme, which does not make sense until you look at it all together, much like a piece of a puzzle in relation to the entire completed puzzle.

    Though “God” may allow evil to occur, it can be argued that this is in some way for the ultimate benefit of everyone. Somehow.

    I’m not saying it’s a particularly good way of countering, simply that it might be A way.

  13. HI Juan, Thanks for the comment!

    I think you are on the right track here. The problem of evil is a powerful argument against the existence of God. It tries to show, not just that God doesn’t exist, but that it is impossible that He exists. This would nicely block the ontological argument. I agree with you that the theist doesn’t have a good answer to this problem. Especially not the free will one!

    Hi Gianni, thanks for the comment!

    I don’t think that your proposed strategy works. The question is not whether or not God has some purpose in allowing evil. The question is whether or not He could have produced the same purpose in a world without evil. If He couldn’t then He is not all-powerful, if He could but chose not to He is not all-loving.

  14. That’s true, I suppose I didn’t realize just how broad of a concept”all-loving” truly is. But taking that into consideration, isn’t “all-loving” a bit contradictory in and of itself?

    If you’re omnibenevolent, I’m guessing that means you’re “perfectly good.” But isn’t “good” an incredibly broad concept as well? Good to what end?

    I realize these broad strokes have sent me careening off-topic, but I guess everything’s relative when God’s involved.

  15. Boo, This thing is AWSOME!! So cool. Thanks for the link, I have never seen it before…I found the entire thing and now I want to watch it (when I have time)…though I find Satan’s argument unconvincing (“I can do no wrong because I do not know what it is” If he doesn’t know what wrong is, how does he know he can’t do it? He also clearly warns the children to ‘avoid danger’ so he knows that his actions are causing harm)

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