Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Ontological Argument

The various arguments for the existence of God were not often employed by Christadelphians back when I was a member. I'm not sure if it's because they were not aware of them, or because the arguments were made by non-Christadelphians, or some other reason.

Nevertheless, the arguments do surface occasionally, and in this article I thought it would be interesting to look at the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.

The Ontological Argument

In its basic form, the Ontological Argument goes something like this:

  1. By definition, God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
  4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
  6. Therefore, God exists.
This seems to be compelling to many people, but I don't think it's valid to think you can reason something into existence. It seems rather more likely that this is just sophistry.

What about other beings?

The same argument could be used to support any notion of a being with some maximum objective quality. For example the argument works just as well for a maximally evil being.

But we can also come up with examples that should cast doubt on the argument itself, and I find that particularly helpful in reasoning about it.

Consider Pod, which I will define as a being of greatest mass.
  1. By definition, Pod is a being than which none more massive can be imagined (that is, the most massive being that can be imagined).
  2. Pod exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists in reality can be more massive than a being that exists in the mind.
  4. Thus, if Pod exists only in the mind, then we can imagine a being that is more massive than Pod (that is, a more massive being that does exist).
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is more massive than Pod (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being more massive than the most massive being that can be imagined).
  6. Therefore, Pod exists.

No, I am not arguing for the existence of Pod. Because if such a massive being actually existed, it would necessarily include all mass in the universe (and more), which is obviously not the case, so therefore there must be a flaw in the argument.

I suggest that any flaws in the latter argument are likely to also be present in the former, but the latter form may make them easier to spot.

One such flaw I can see is that imagined beings have no mass. Thus it is impossible to imagine a "more massive being". Likewise any "being we can imagine" still exists in the mind. That is, it does not exist in reality (I suggest it isn't even proper to speak of "imagined things" as "existing" but I won't pursue that line of reasoning here). Thus it is impossible to "imagine a being that exists in reality", and so it is impossible to imagine a greater being than one that only exists in the mind. You simply cannot imagine a being into existence, yet that is what this argument tries to do.

There are many other forms of Ontological Argument, some which talk about existing necessarily, and others which talk about positive properties, but in essence they are all trying to derive the existence of some maximally great being from mere reason.

I think this style of argument, or even the use of argument itself to prove the existence of something, is flawed. I will list some objections below. You may well find more (and better) objections if you search on the internet.

Why beings?

The Ontological Argument tends to only be used to argue for a particular being. But there's nothing intrinsic to the argument that requires it to be used for beings. It could also be used to argue for a maximally great pumpkin, or magic carpet. For some reason no one argues for the existence of those things. Magic carpet is surely greater than normal carpet, and greater still if it exists in reality.

Which god?

One issue with all arguments for the existence of god(s) is that even if true, they would only support deism. That is, the belief that some god or being exists, but we know nothing more about it. It doesn't support the Christian god any more than it supports Zeus.

It could be that this god really does exist, but has no interest in us, doesn't care what we believe, has no plan to save us, and/or differs from modern religions in any number of ways.

It leads to contradictions

The Ontological Argument can be used to argue for the existence of beings that are almost the complete opposite of one another, and there seems to be no limit to the attributes such a being could have. Perhaps it is also maximally tall, short, funny, miserable, beautiful, ugly, you name it.

As soon as you decide that some quality existing in reality meets some criteria more closely than a similar quality existing only in the mind, then the Ontological Argument suggests you have just discovered another being, or another attribute of an existing being. Yet apologists seem to mainly focus on existence and "greatness" (whatever that is). What about other attributes?

Existence outside reality?

Some versions of the argument, such as the one above, speak of existence in reality in contrast to some other form of existence (in this case, existence in the mind). It is not immediately clear to me that any such existence outside reality is possible, nor that it is proper to speak of something "existing in the mind". At the very least this would seem to me to conflate two different meanings of the word "exist", namely things that exist in fiction vs things that exist in reality. Note also that fictional existence (if that is how we are going to describe it) necessarily exists inside reality, which may complicate things a little. On the other hand, if existence in minds is distinct from existence in reality, then who is to say which existence is "greater"?

Is there any such thing as "outside reality". Is it possible for something to exist outside reality? I don't know the answer to this, and I'd like to see it demonstrated (though I don't know how) rather than blindly accept it. It's interesting to note that modern definitions of God place him/it outside space and time. Again, it's not immediately clear that it even makes sense to say that something "exists" outside space and time. Every kind of existence we are aware of is specifically within our universe, and causally connected to it. I'm very wary of those who insist that whatever applies inside the universe must also apply to the universe itself. Why must that be the case? and how do they know that?

Possibility and necessity

Many versions of the argument hinge on the words "possible" and "necessary". That is, they assert that there is some "possible world" where God exists necessarily. Or they assert outright that it is "possible" for God to exist. But how were these conclusions reached? Generally they weren't. They are typically just assertions made with little or no justification. No one demonstrated that it was possible for a god to exist, because they can't. There is no way to do that. That's why they use argument instead. I think that is rather telling in itself.

I'm not a philosopher, so I don't intend to dive too deeply into the guts of each version of the argument. I suspect that many of these arguments hinge on linguistics and definitions, and it is often very difficult to spot cases where two distinct meanings of the same word have been conflated, or where the premises are based entirely on human intuitions that may not hold true in all of reality.

Why are such arguments necessary?

I think it's interesting to ask this question. Why do believers follow this road in the first place?

I suggest we can reason backwards to answer that question. Given a choice between clever arguments and actual, tangible evidence, it seems clear that evidence would be much preferred. Yet there is no evidence for the existence of any god(s), so believers resort to argumentation instead, since that is all they have. But if argumentation is all they have, why did anyone believe in such beings in the first place? People believed in god(s) long before these arguments were thought up, so why were the arguments necessary?

In any case, is such argumentation reliable? We have countless examples from science where the evidence from nature overturned many ancient Greek and Roman ideas about reality that were based merely on philosophical argument. This should at least instil some humility in us when we think we can sit in an armchair and use our intuitions and reasoning to determine how the world really is. There are some notable exceptions, for example Einstein's theory of relativity, but the vast majority of ideas people have put forward about the way the universe works have turned out to be false.

Further reading

I do want to stress the point that I'm not a philosopher, so I can only offer my opinion on this. I'd welcome comments about my opinions that I have stated here, but any defences of the argument itself, or variations of the argument that I have not mentioned here, are probably better referred to the relevant literature.

For what it's worth, very few philosophers are actually persuaded by ontological arguments, so that's something to bear in mind as well.

If you are interested in a more scholarly approach, start here or here.


  1. I suspect the Ontological Argument is not used by Christadelphians because it is not known.

    It does appear in Reasons (2011). In the chapter "Philosophical Arguments", Thomas Gaston covers the cosmological argument, ontological argument, and the teleological ones. He also states the some of the other standard philosophical arguments are covered in other chapters by other authors. And also claims there are more arguments for Christianity than for atheism.

    It is a very cautious use of ontological argument, though.
    Consider the following quotes:
    "Many people consider that this argument is just playing with words".
    "The readers will have to judge for themselves whether they feel that it is a convincing argument".
    "If we accept the ontological argument, we would conclude that there necessarily exists one Supreme Being that is not limited by space and time. This being corresponds with our concept of God".
    (though that last one sounds more like what is usually said about the cosmological argument...)

    And I was surprised to notice that it had recognised the difference between a deistic god and the Christian God, dividing the chapters into two sections: "Reasons for Seeking" (stops short at deistic god) and "Reasons for Believing" (the Christian God - looks like it is again standard stuff: authority of the Bible, prophecy, and the life of Jesus). Just re-reading the introduction it doesn't sound like there is anything particularly Christadelphian about the content of the book, just the contributing authors.

    1. //And also claims there are more arguments for Christianity than for atheism.//

      They may as well have printed "We don't understand what atheism is and never bothered to ask" in big letters across the front.

      The vast majority of atheists are actually agnostic, but we are just as agnostic about the existence of Yahweh as we are about the existence of Zeus and Ra. If someone today voiced their belief that Zeus probably doesn't exist, I doubt anyone would react strongly. Yet apparently saying the same about Yahweh, for whom there is exactly the same evidence, is somehow arrogant and unjustified.

      The majority form of atheism (a.k.a "weak atheism") is simply the null hypothesis. It's the default position. Theists don't seem to like that very much. They would prefer to believe that babies are born believing in their particular concept of God, and that theirs is somehow a neutral position. But if the Bible somehow became lost in history and our generation (and all before us) left no trace, it's absurd to think that a future generation would rediscover Christianity all over again. There might still be religion, and god-worship, but the details would be different. However, I think there would still be atheists, and science would still look pretty similar.

      I will believe in whatever I think the evidence points to. And if the evidence is inconclusive, such as in the case of what caused the big bang, I will withhold belief and openly accept that it's all speculative, and we don't really know. That's good enough for me. I feel that it's dishonest to go further, and honesty is one of my core values.

      In contrast, I find the theistic idea that one can use human reason alone to work out what might exist beyond the universe, arrogant in the highest degree. Humanity's best ideas about the universe have been proven wrong by experiment and evidence so many times that it just seems absurd to keep thinking that faith might be a reliable way to arrive at the truth. In fact the evidence shows time and time again that faith often yields disastrous results. It can justify murder, prevent people from seeking proper medical help, prevent people from accepting scientific facts, prevent governments from offering medical help to people, and prevent the development of new vaccines etc. It is, in my view, the enemy of reason, and a thorn in the side of humanity.

    2. Oh, I agree with you in every detail. Particularly with the danger of trying to work out what's outside the universe based on what we observe inside the universe.

      With the original quote, technically they may be correct, though it really depends on what you call an argument.
      Here are the three arguments they list (or "main types of argument"):
      1. Argument from insufficient evidence.

      2. Argument from incoherence (e.g. the whole concept of God is incoherent).

      3. Argument from evil.

      Of those, I would say (1) is the one I hold strongest. But whether it's a single argument or multiple arguments doesn't matter - surely it bears more weight than any two or three questionable theistic arguments. And if I wanted to make it multiple arguments, I'm sure I could formulate my objections to the God of Mormons, of Christians, of Muslims, and of Jews differently. That doesn't completely drive out the concept of a "god", but it's still pretty important. Why would I care if someone produces evidence for a God that has very little to do with us and we don't have a good way to interact with them?

      I think it shows I've read too many non-Christadelphian apologetics books when I can read a Christadelphian book and say "This argument sounds like it came from X" or "That one uses exactly the same odd wording as Y does". Some of the chapter definitely feels WLC style slippery.

      Oh, BTW, the final argument in the book is to look at believers and see that they have been changed by God / have a personal relationship with God. Personally, I'm happy to accept that people are changed by the concept of a god - but that doesn't make that god real. Reminds me of this video I saw recently:

    3. I think your arguments are valid, but most atheists (including myself) wouldn't try to argue too strongly that no gods exist. I could argue that some specific gods most likely do not exist (based on a lack of expected evidence) or that some (if not all) god concepts are incoherent.

      But in general, to claim that no gods exist would require more knowledge than we currently have access to, and perhaps more than we could ever have access to. Some (many? all?) versions of God are not even falsifiable, so it doesn't even make sense to talk about their existence or non-existence.

      That might explain the lack of arguments for "atheism". We just don't know enough to say anything of value on the subject. Call it a kind of reasoned humility if you like.

      The number of arguments for theism would seem to me to indicate that most of them are not compelling, hence why people feel the need to keep coming up with new ones.

      There are very good reasons to remain agnostic, and reasons to doubt most (if not all) god hypotheses, which is where I think the arguments you listed come in.

  2. It is very difficult to bring to the imagination what God (the God Christians worship)could be like. No doubt each person has a slightly different idea of what "their" God is like.
    If being able to imagine what God is like, albeit there will be lots of different "imaginations", is it possible to say, therefore, that there could be lots of different Gods in reality?

    1. No, they would descend into arguments over whose conception of God was "greater".

      Did I say arguments? I meant war and bloodshed. The greater god is the one the surviving team believes in. See how that works?

      That's why Christians don't worship Baal.

    2. ^ In case the above comment was not clear, I was not implying that Christians killed the Canaanites (who worshipped Baal), but rather that the reason people worship the particular gods they do today has a lot to do with which nations happened to survive in history.

      There also appear to be many people who believe that the survival of a specific nation is actually a sign that the god that nation believed in must be the "one true god". Of course if we applied the same logic consistently we would conclude that there were multiple gods, which contradicts several of the world's religions, especially the most popular ones.

      Moreover, if history had played out differently, we might have ended up talking about Zeus or Baal, instead of Yahweh.

      There would be other differences too. It's pretty weird when you consider that the most iconic Christian symbol is that of a Roman invention for publicly torturing criminals. You simply cannot separate the religion from the culture it arose in.

      If you try to squeeze an actual god into the picture you end up having to concede that this god was happy to weave this torture apparatus into its theological and historical narrative, which is pretty messed up in my opinion.


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