Thursday, January 17, 2008

"The Ontological Argument"


Chapter Three is the first of eight chapters critiquing the traditional arguments for the existence of God. Dr. Martin has begun this portion of his book by challenging the Ontological Argument for the existence of God. While there are many different forms of this argument, I will give Anselm's so that anyone not familiar with it can understand what we are talking about. The argument can be framed as follows:

P-1: That than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding.
P-2: But a greater conceived being would exist in reality as well.
Conclusion: Hence the greatest conceived being exists in reality.

The Ontological Argument is an argument based on the idea of a perfect being, and its originating point is said to be in the mind. Many famous scholars have supported Ontological Arguments including Anselm, Descartes, Hartshorne, and Plantinga. This Chapter is one of the shortest in the book, so this post will likewise be a bit short. I could have combined this chapter with the next, but I think that the Cosmological Argument deserves a week of its own.

*Note- I agree with Martin's conclusions in this chapter, yet I do have some disagreements regarding his arguments. I just wanted to make sure that anyone who decides not to read the rest of my post doesn't think I am going to defend this argument.

Summary of Martin's Claims

As I said a moment ago, this chapter was very short. In addition to its total brevity, it also contains many repetitions in its critiques. Therefore it will be easy to summarize. Dr. Martin has taken five different versions of the ontological argument in this chapter and critiqued them. He began with Anselm's argument listed above. He points out that this argument makes two major assumptions. The first is that "a being is greater if it exists in reality than it would be if it existed only in the understanding." He invokes Kant's criticism that questioned whether existence can be a property of an object. If it could not, then existence would not make a thing greater. Hence, if defenders of this argument want to support it, they would have to demonstrate that existence is a property. Anselm did not accomplish this. The second assumption is that "even if existence is a property, this argument assumes that existence adds greatness to a being." Martin postulates that existence could actually detract from a being's greatness. He also points out that the existence of a being may not have any relation to its ontological greatness but rather to its value to other beings. He then goes on to point out how the existence of a being such as this may actually be of negative value for individuals by bringing loss of freedom and guilt into the world. He then parodies this argument by replacing the idea of a perfect being with a perfect island and then with a most evil being.

Next, Martin critiques Norman Malcolm's Ontological Argument. Malcolm accepts the premise that existence does not add to the greatness of an entity. In short, Malcolm argues that God's existence is either impossible or necessary. Since it is not impossible, it is necessary. Martin asserts that this proves nothing since God's existence may actually be logically impossible. He follows his argument with another island parody and another evil being parody.

Martin then critiques Charles Hartshorne's Ontological Argument. Hartshorne's is similar to the one above but is represented in a very strict, though logically valid argument. Unfortunately, premises one and seven are at best unjustified and at worst false. Martin again parodies this argument with the perfect island and most evil being.

Then Martin critiques Carl Kordig's Ontological Argument. This argument is a two step argument that claims that since God's existence is possible then it actually is necessary. After critiquing this argument, Martin continues with his parodies.

Finally, Martin critiques Alvin Plantinga's version of the Ontological Argument. Plantinga's is based on possible world semantics and is admittedly not a proof for God but rather it is a proof for the logical possibility of God. Martin criticizes the use of possible world semantics and points out that it is possible that such an idea of a perfect being that exists may be illogical. He then gives examples of possible entities that could work against his argument such as unicorns and fairies. He finishes with the same parodies that he used on the others, though adapted to Plantinga's argument.

Agreements and What I Have Learned

For starters, I unequivocally agree with Martin's conclusion here. The Ontological arguments fail to demonstrate the existence of God. In fact, I am convinced that arguments for anything that begin in the mind rather than from empirical data usually end up begging the question. That's right, I am an empiricist (but so was Aristotle and Aquinas, so don't get too excited). Throughout his criticisms, I found many points of agreement with Dr. Martin. There was one reoccurring problem that I picked up on that I think is the heart of this issue. Though Martin did not clearly mention this problem, he made many allusions to it. This problem is the idea of attaching the property of necessity to an idea (*Note- I don't think that it is impossible for a thing to have necessary existence, however, I think it must be demonstrated, not simply asserted). Every time that one of these proponents did this they seemed to do so without justification. Then, when someone would parody their arguments with a "perfect and necessary island" they would get upset and assert that such a move was unjustified and absurd. I recognize that there are some weaknesses with the island parody, but I do think it helps to illuminate the fact that necessity is just being asserted in the arguments that rely on it, it is not being proven.


Finally, I would like to point out some areas of disagreement that I have with Dr. Martin's critique. First, regarding his invocation of Kant against the idea that a being is greater if it exists in reality than it would be if it existed only in the understanding, I want to point out that Kant's criticism is only valid if his system is valid. You see, it is obvious that Kant would reject the idea that existence can be predicated as a property of an entity because for Kant the entity is actually only a formulation of qualities filtered through the categories of one's mind. What we perceive is not what is. Hence it is not surprising that Kant would reject the existence of our idea in the real world. Since Kant's system is suspect this criticism is not necessarily strong. I imagine that Martin recognized this and guess that that is why he allowed for the assumption that existence could be a property.

Second, and still in his section on Anselm, Martin postulates that existence could detract from an entity's greatness. But what does this even mean? I think that this is a category mistake. When comparing an existing entity to "something" that doesn't exist you are really not comparing it to anything, and hence you lack a comparison.

Third, regarding Malcolm's argument, I think that there is something missing in the critique. Malcolm stated that "God's existence is either impossible or necessary. Since it is not impossible, it is necessary." I think that this is actually true but logically false. If God, who is said to be the cause of the world, does not now exist, then it would be impossible for Him to come into existence as God, the cause of the world, after the world has already been. However, if God does exist then He must exist necessarily (of course I do not mean that the idea of God must be necessary but that given the fact that all contingent things need a cause something must necessarily exist. This is a Cosmological proof and I am sure it will come up next week. Remember, there is a distinction to be made between necessity as it applies in Ontological Arguments and necessity as it applies in Cosmological Arguments). However, since Malcolm is trying to make an Ontological Argument, I agree with the conclusion offered by Martin.

Finally, I want to point out that Martin's evil being parody is a complete failure. In the theistic framework evil is not a thing but a privation in things. Hence an absolutely evil thing is a contradiction, since it would be an absolutely privated thing or, in other words, a nothing thing. Therefore, existence would not make a completely evil thing more evil.

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