January 18, 2010

Necessary Existence and the Ontological Argument

Dr. Craig,

I very much have enjoyed your website in the short time I have perused it! I have a great interest in Christian philosophy and how it fits in with the Bible.

My question concerns the ontological argument. I have really favored this argument in its seven-step form (or the Plantinga form as well, which as far as I can tell is virtually the same). The problem for me arose in negating the first premise; ie It is possible that a maximally great Being does NOT exist. From this would flow the same premises, resulting in the opposite conclusion "therefore, God does not exist." I know this to be false, but I can't put my finger on the fallacy.

My question is, must we reject premise 1 of that "negation" argument? Is there a fallacy somewhere? Or can we combat this by using a strong cosmological argument first, demonstrating the need for a great Being in the first place. This last move would seem to render this negation argument useless, since saying God must exist while saying He must not exist is incoherent. I would appreciate another clear head in the matter!

Thanks for all you do for the Body!


Question 2:

Dr. Craig,

I'm a Christian, and I'm trying to hold together faith in God. He's all I've ever known to be so true. Anyhow, the question was,

Is it even possible for nothing to exist? Because if we got rid of this universe, wouldn't there just be some sort of void?

I read this following statement, and I could be just confused, but here it is.

We start, then, with nothing, pure zero. But this is not the nothing of negation. For not means other than, and other is merely a synonym of the ordinal numeral second. As such it implies a first; while the present pure zero is prior to every first. The nothing of negation is the nothing of death, which comes second to, or after, everything. But this pure zero is the nothing of not having been born. There is no individual thing, no compulsion, outward nor inward, no law. It is the germinal nothing, in which the whole universe is involved or foreshadowed. As such, it is absolutely undefined and unlimited possibility -- boundless possibility. There is no compulsion and no law. It is boundless freedom.

-Charles S. Peirce

It would be very greatly appreciated if you could help me out here. I plan on doing philosophy as I go to college in January, so I'm just trying to hold my faith together and to learn and grow in Christ.

Thank you so much


Both of your questions bear on the ontological argument. For the convenience of readers not familiar with the argument, here is the version due to Alvin Plantinga mentioned above:

1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.

2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.

4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

Now you're absolutely correct, Randy, in noting that if we alter the first premiss to read

1′. It is possible that a maximally great being does not exist,

then the conclusion follows that

6′. Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist.

There's no fallacy here. The whole question is, which do you think is more plausibly true: (1) or (1′)?

Perhaps you're tempted to say that both are true: it's possible that such a being exists and it's possible that He doesn't. But here it's crucial that we keep clear on the difference between metaphysical and merely epistemic possibility. The assertion "It's possible that God exists, and it's possible that He doesn't exist!" is true only in the sense of epistemic possibility: "for all we know," God may exist or He may not exist. On the other hand, if God is conceived as a maximally great being (that is, a being which is maximally excellent in every possible world), then His existence is either necessary or impossible, regardless of our epistemic uncertainty.

To illustrate: imagine seeing some extraordinarily difficult mathematical equation written on the blackboard. If it's beyond our ability to grasp, we may say that it's possible that the equation is true and it's possible that it is false. But we thereby merely confess our epistemic uncertainty concerning the equation's truth value. As a piece of mathematics, the equation itself is either necessarily true or necessarily false. We just don't know which. But if it is true, it's necessarily true, and therefore it's not possible for it to be false. And if it is false, then it's necessarily false, and therefore it's not possible for it to be true.

In the same way, the epistemic entertainability of (1) or (1′) doesn't imply that both are metaphysically possible. Only one of the two can be true, and it's up to us to decide which one we think it is. The atheist has to maintain that the concept of a maximally great being is incoherent, like the concept of a married bachelor. The concept of a married bachelor is not a strictly self-contradictory concept (as is the concept of a married unmarried man), and yet it's obvious, once one understands the meaning of the words "married" and "bachelor," that nothing corresponding to that concept can exist. By contrast, the concept of a maximally great being does not seem even remotely incoherent. On the contrary, the concept of a maximally great being seems to be intuitively a coherent notion and, hence, possibly instantiated.

I agree with you that we can reinforce the intuitive warrant for premiss (1) by appeal to other arguments like the cosmological argument. I see the arguments for God as mutually reinforcing like the links in a coat of chain mail, rather than like mere links in a chain. I discuss such warrant for the key premiss of the ontological argument at greater length in Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Crossway, 2008).

Now if the ontological argument is, as I think, sound, then it follows, Daniel, that it is not possible that nothing exists. There is no possible world in which nothing exists, for God exists in every possible world.

As for the statement you find confusing, welcome to the club! I find it hard to believe that an eminent philosopher like C. S. Peirce could have written such drivel. I'd encourage you to track down the original source in your university library to verify.

I interpret the statement as an attempt to draw a distinction between absolute nothingness and nothingness as the negation of something. (The ancient Greek philosophers made a similar distinction.) The author takes the number 0 as a symbol of absolute nothingness, the ordinal number 2 symbolizes the other or something else, and 1 symbolizes the negation of something else. The point, I guess, is that 1 ≠ 0. The nothingness of negation is compared to death, which presupposes a prior state of existence; but pure nothingness "precedes" all being, as birth precedes life. As such it has no properties or constraints, which the author takes to be utter freedom and boundless possibility. That seems quite wrong, however: absolute nothingness has no properties at all and therefore no potentialities. It is devoid of possibilities, as it is of everything else (which is why something can't come into being from nothing).

In any case, the author seems to take it for granted that such a state of absolute non-being is really possible, which, if the ontological argument is correct, is a mistaken assumption.