Objections to the Ontological Argument

Objections to the Ontological Argument

Can the famous Ontological Argument be used against God?


Transcript Objections to the Ontological Argument

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig and I are in the studio and looking at some questions that we've received at Reasonable Faith. Dr. Craig, this writer says,

I have two questions about your cosmological argument and Plantinga's ontological argument. Number one: in regard to your cosmological argument, you have stated that the universe must have a transcendent cause – timeless, spaceless, personal, etc. – but I would inquire as to the necessity of this being's non-spatiotemporal state. Of course, as you have said, it seems necessary that this transcendent cause, God, be not spatiotemporal in the context of our time and space, existing as the cause of it all, but this does not seem to entail a non-spatiotemporal state so long as it is not our spatiotemporal state. Could it not also be that God exists as a person in another state of time and space, perhaps even a human who merely imagines our universe into existence within his own mind? My point question for this would be this: Why must God be eternal in the context of the cosmological argument and not merely a person in another spatiotemporal state who imagines us into existence?

Dr. Craig: Alright, so this questioner is asking: why should we think that the cause of the universe concluded to in the kalam cosmological argument transcends space and time? And I think that the question can be answered on two levels: a philosophical level and then a scientific level. Philosophically speaking, I'm assuming that the arguments against the possibility of an infinite temporal regress of events are sound arguments. You'll remember I offered two arguments as to why the universe had a beginning: the argument from the impossibility of the existence of an actually infinite number of things, and then the impossibility of forming an actual infinite by successive addition. If those philosophical arguments are correct then the cause of the temporal series of events which began to exist must be a changeless entity, and therefore cannot be spatiotemporal because anything that is in space – and is material, in particular – is constantly changing, at least on the molecular and atomic levels. Similarly, if something is changing it's also, then, in time. So if the philosophical arguments are correct (that you can't have an infinite regress of events) then you are led back to a changeless cause which must exist beyond space and time, and I would say is God.

Now on a purely scientific level scientists do consider models in which there exist realities, spatiotemporal realities, beyond our universe, and I'm thinking here of multiverse hypotheses. But in order to be a serious scientific alternative this can't be just a sort of conjecture, that there is some big human being in whose mind we exist as ideas. If we're talking science here you need to offer a serious scientific theory of the multiverse. And the most popular one today is the inflationary multiverse – that our universe is a bubble of true vacuum within a sea of false vacuum, and in this mother universe there are many bubbles of true vacuum that form and these are various universes. Now one might think in this case that the cause of our universe could be this wider spatiotemporal mother universe, this inflating false vacuum. Remarkably, however, Kevin, the theorem discovered in 2003 by Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin requires that any universe which is on average in a state of cosmic expansion throughout its history cannot be eternal in the past but must have a past spacetime boundary. That means that physical space and time would begin to exist. And, remarkably, their theorem applies not just to the bubbles in the wider universe, it applies to the multiverse itself. So even the multiverse cannot be extrapolated to past infinity but must have a past spacetime boundary.[1] So when one talks science, on a serious scientific level, again, one is led to a transcendent cause of the universe – or the multiverse, if you go that route – which must transcend space and time and bring space and time, matter and energy, into existence. Now if you resort to metaphysics and no longer do physics but resort to metaphysics to try to posit some reality that created the multiverse, then you're back to the philosophical arguments again which show that you can't have an infinite regress of temporal events, and therefore you have to get back to a changeless, non-spatiotemporal, transcendent cause of the universe.

Kevin Harris: Bill, just a side point on this: I know that this is nothing new – brain in the vat type arguments, and we are just the product of someone’s imagination and so on, and he even says here, it could be a human who's imagining us, and things like that – but the computer age and the world of gaming tend to lend its era on this in that I'm seeing dozens of questions come in that deal with this area: how do you know that we're not a virtual reality like in a game? Well that's . . . if you play enough games, if you're a gamer, boy, you can really get into that virtual world and that will lead to that kind of a speculation.

Dr. Craig: Yes, now that's a very different question than what this questioner is asking, but I think it's worth talking about, as well, since you bring it up.

Kevin Harris: How is it different, though, Bill, since . . .

Dr. Craig: Well, because his question is about why couldn't you have a spatiotemporal cause of the origin of our universe?

Kevin Harris: Got it; okay.

Dr. Craig: He's thinking there's some physical being beyond the universe which brought it into existence. And that is, when you talk science, that is the multiverse. If you're talking serious cosmogony, that's the multiverse hypothesis. But, as I say, if you're talking science even the multiverse cannot be eternal in the past, but had a beginning. It came into existence and so requires a transcendent cause. If you resort then to metaphysics to try to posit some sort of physical thing that brought the universe into existence then you've got to deal with the philosophical arguments against the infinitude of the past.

Now your question about “could we just be denizens of a virtual reality?” was brought home to me very forcefully by my preparation for my debate with Alex Rosenberg last February at Purdue. One of the things that Rosenberg maintains is that in a world of purely physical objects there would never be any thoughts about anything. That's because no physical object is about something else—a chair or a stone or a brain isn't about something else; it isn't of something else. That kind of property – which philosophers call intentionality (the object-directedness of our thoughts) – that is purely a property of mental states. I can have a thought about my wife or a thought about Rosenberg's naturalism. So in a world that is purely physical there wouldn't be any such intentional states of consciousness. This leads Rosenberg to the radical conclusion that I do not exist, that there is no first-person perspective “I,” there is no self, no person. This is all an illusion. And the problem with this is that it's self-referentially incoherent, that is, it's self-refuting. To have an illusion is to be in an intentional state because an illusion is an illusion of something; so it is itself an intentional state. So if you have an illusion of intentionality that implies intentionality so that you haven't eliminated intentionality after all. Similarly, who is having the illusion? An illusion is always the illusion that some subject has; someone is having an illusion. So that there is this sort of transcendental self that can never be escaped by saying, “well, it's just an illusion,” because there's always someone that has to be having that illusion.[2] And that's why, for example, Descartes held that his own existence is undeniable, because in order to doubt my existence there has to be someone who is entertaining those doubts. So I love the story of the philosophy student who burst into his professor's office early one morning, bleary-eyed, unshaven, he'd been up all night, he'd been reading Descartes, and he said to the professor, “You've got to tell me; do I exist!?” and the professor looked at him and said, “Who wants to know?”

Kevin Harris: [Laughter] Who's asking?

Dr. Craig: That underscores Descartes' point that even in doubting your own existence you affirm your existence. Now, to get to your question then: in a virtual reality, none of those virtual images have states of intentionality. They are not selves; they have no thoughts about something. They're just visual images, two-dimensional figures. So if you have intentional states – if you're thinking about something in particular, if you sense your own existence (“I exist”) – then you know that you are real; you are not a virtual reality. Even if everything around you is a virtual reality – if you're somehow in the Matrix and all these other things you see are just images that are not real – you at least know that you are real because you have these intentional states. Even if you have the illusion that there are other people, there's someone having that illusion. And therefore you can be confident, at least, that you exist.

Kevin Harris: What do we even mean by “virtual?” That we say, “it's virtually false,” or “virtually everyone,” “in a virtual world?”

Dr. Craig: Well, I take it that those are quite different meanings of the word “virtual.” When people say something that, say, “virtually everyone believes this” they mean almost everyone, nearly universal. But when they talk about a virtual reality I take it that they mean a simulated reality, something that isn't real, it's just simulated. So the guy who's in the Matrix in the movie, he's real, but the figures around him that are attacking him and trying to kill him and all of these other things, those aren't real persons, they're just images that have no inner-self, no states of intentionality, no selves. And the absurdity of Dr. Rosenberg's view is that I am, myself, one such thing, which is impossible because, as I say, in having the illusion of intentionality you affirm intentionality; in saying you have the illusion of being a self you affirm that you are a self. It's undeniable.

Kevin Harris: Here's the second question:

As presented in your book Reasonable Faith, the third edition, Plantinga's ontological argument seems to be sound to me, except for one possible objection that I have. Let us assume that a maximally great being exists. If this being exists then he exists necessarily, this is so that he exists necessarily as he is. But if he exists necessarily as he is then he could not be any other way or behave any other way. If this is so then he must create the external world necessarily as it is – this seems to defeat Leibniz's idea that the universe is contingent, but this is a side point – if the world is necessarily as it is then there can exist no other possible world, as this world is necessary. However, if this world is necessary might this conflict with premise two, that is, a maximally great being exists in some possible world?

Dr. Craig: Well, never mind that last question, Kevin, because even if this were the only possible world this would still be a world in which the maximally great being exists, so that's not the significant thing. The misstep in the argument is thinking that because God exists necessarily, he has all his properties necessarily. And that's simply not the case. Certainly God has essential properties – like being omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect – but Plantinga would say, and I agree with him, God has lots of contingent properties. For example, knowing what time it is, or knowing that Kevin Harris exists. These are properties that God doesn't have necessarily – he could have created a different world, or at some other time in the universe he will have different knowledge of what time it is, and that Kevin Harris, say, has not yet been born. So not all of God's properties are necessary to him simply because he is a necessary being; I think that's the misstep in the student's argument.[3]

Kevin Harris: Bill, in our talks about the ontological argument in many podcasts on it we've brought up the idea of Kant's objections and others that ask whether existence is a property, and I still want some clarification on that. Kant would say that it seems that if you have an apple and you say it's red, and it has shape, weight, and so forth, and it has existence, it would be the same as saying the apple has weight, shape, that you wouldn't have to say it has existence because you're already saying “the apple;” you're already acknowledging the existence. And so adding an additional property and calling it existence is unnecessary, and I just wondered if that's true? Is existence considered a property of something?

Dr. Craig: It could be considered a property but the ontological argument doesn't depend on its being a property; and in particular Plantinga's version of the argument doesn't depend on existence being a property. So that Kantian objection just falls away. At most Plantinga's argument presupposes that necessary existence is a property, and that certainly is a plausible view because some things have contingent being, other things have necessary being, and so they would seem to differ in their properties, and that wouldn't be problematic. So I don't think that old Kantian objection applies to these modern formulations of the ontological argument.

Kevin Harris: Here's another question on the ontological argument, and it's stated like this:

One, if a maximally great being is not necessary in a possible world, a maximally great being is not necessary in any possible world; number two, if a maximally great being is not necessary in any possible world, a maximally great being is not necessary in the actual world. Therefore, a maximally great being is not necessary. Therefore, God does not exist. Note that the difference in these two arguments hinge on the words possible and unnecessary; to be or not to be, just as Shakespeare mused, is that not the question? Does God exist or not exist? Dr. Craig argues that if it's even possible the atheist is burdened with showing why it is impossible that God exists. Well, in the same sense, does not Dr. Craig now have the burden of showing why atheism is impossible in every possible world? After all they, the atheists, clearly picture a world wherein God is unnecessary and atheism is true. But does that perception or imagination have any effect upon what is or is not actually possible in the only world we know that exists? As apostle Paul would say, God forbid. The first premise I doubt that Dr. Craig would argue against, after all I'm applying the same rules as his argument's first premise, except now the argument concludes that if even possible, conceptually or otherwise, that atheism is true in a possible world it would be true in all possible worlds, thus true in the actual world, therefore God does not exist. What about premise two? Well I doubt that Dr. Craig would argue against premise two, either. As stated above it would follow logically that if it were even possible that there is a world wherein such a being is not necessary that God would not exist in any possible world, including the actual world. Now keep in mind this is using Craig's own formula.

Alright, let's parse it out.

Dr. Craig: Alright, what this student is basically seeing is that the ontological argument depends crucially upon the first premise, that it is possible that a maximally great being exists. And certainty you can run a reverse ontological argument to disprove God by saying that, possibly a maximally great being does not exist. He misstates the argument in his premises. What he should say is that if a maximally great being doesn't exist in some possible world then it doesn't exist in any possible world, because a maximally great being if it exists in one world will exist in all of them. So if there's any world where he doesn't exist it follows that he doesn't exist in any of them, and if he doesn't exist in any then he doesn't exist in the actual world. So that's entirely correct but it doesn't follow from that, Kevin, that therefore God does not exist. In order to get that conclusion the atheist would have to show that it is impossible that a maximally great being exists, that there is a possible world in which there is no maximally great being. So that that non-conditional premise would need to be shown by the atheist. Now in the argument that I present, the ontological argument, I do not claim that the atheist is burdened with showing why it is impossible that God exists.[4] That would be only if the atheist were running an ontological disproof. If the atheist is trying to run an ontological disproof then yes, he would have the burden of proof of showing that there is a possible world in which there is no maximally great being. But for the ontological argument to work the burden of proof rests on the theist. The theist asserts the first premise: possibly, a maximally great being exists; and I and Plantinga give reasons for thinking that that first premise is true. Based upon the intuitive coherence of the notion of a maximally great being, the atheist would have to think – not show, but he would have to think – that the concept of a maximally great being is logically incoherent in order for it not to be possible. It would have to be like a married bachelor or a squared triangle. But I agree with Plantinga that the concept of a being which is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect in every possible world is a perfectly coherent concept and therefore it a possible concept, it's possibly instantiated. And then I also give a posteriori reasons for thinking that a maximally great being is possible, and here I appeal to the other theistic arguments that also issue in the existence of a metaphysically necessary ground of being for all of contingent reality, a metaphysically necessary being that grounds objective moral values and duties, or a metaphysically necessary being that would ground truths of logic and mathematics. And it's simpler to think that these metaphysically necessary beings are all the same being; that this is the being appealed to in the ontological argument as being possible. So when we look at that first premise and we ask ourselves, “Is it possible that a maximally great being exists, or is it impossible that a maximally great being exists?” it's got to be one or the other: either a maximally great being is necessary or it's impossible, but it can't be merely contingent. And so it seems to me that, given the arguments that I've offered, that first premise is more plausibly true than false, it's possible that there be such a being.

Kevin Harris: Bill, you often refer to greatest being theology. Is that considered just a tool? It answers so many questions and objections and so forth about God as being incoherent, and then you appeal to it. Expound on that a little bit.

Dr. Craig: St. Anselm's insight into the concept of God is that God is the greatest conceivable being; that is to say he's a maximally great being, or perfect being. And so perfect being theology serves as one of the guides for doing Christian systematic theology. The other guide would be Scripture: you look at what the Bible has to say about God. But the biblical data are often under-determinative because the Bible is not a philosophy book or a theology book; it's principally a book of stories about God. So what perfect being theology says is that when the Bible says that God is all-mighty, for example, this is to be construed in the greatest way possible, that he would have maximal power. Or when it says that God knows everything, we should construe this in the maximal sense possible, and this will serve to, then, guide our theology in formulating our concept of God.

Kevin Harris: And you call it perfect being theology; is that what Anselm called it?

Dr. Craig: I don't think that was Anselm's word but that's what it's called among contemporary philosophers of religion. Anselmian theology or philosophy of religion is referred to as perfect being theology because he thought of God has the perfect being, the greatest conceivable being.[5]



[1] 5:02

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:09

[5] Total Running Time: 24:44 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)