In this second in my series countering counter-apologetics, I will examine arguments that are supposed to counter the Ontological Argument, which I personally believe is both logically valid and unavoidably true.
There are two main sources I will use to show the anti-theistic counter. Iron Chariots and Richard Dawkins. It is telling that I personally believe that Iron Chariots, a Wikipedia-offshoot site for counter-apologetics manages to make a better case than Richard Dawkins.
The Ontological Argument comes in a very wide range of forms. There is no way I could discuss all of them individually in a limited space, so I won’t. What I will do is simply lay out a very basic template that underlies most ontological arguments, show the counter-arguments and counter those.
The Ontological Argument is basically as follows:
1. It is possible there is a being that is the greatest conceivable being.
2. That which exists in reality is greater than that which exists in the understanding.
3. Therefore, the greatest possible being must exist in reality by definition.
This is by far the most basic possible way I could strip the argument down. I’d like to put a mini disclaimer here and say I am no professional philosopher, so I may have taken too many of the finer points out of the Ontological Argument, but I think this is the best summing up.
There are a few ways that anti-theists attempt to counter this argument, by making a parody of it, by challenging the first premise, or by judging it as unintelligible.
I will deal with the latter argument first. The challenge is made that the Ontological Argument is unintelligible. This is, I believe, the general point Richard Dawkins is trying to make in his amateurish attack on theistic arguments in The God Delusion. He points to a few things in order to try to get around it. The first is reducing the argument to the “language of the playground (104).” I might point out that I would gladly put his entire book in such language, because I wholly agree with him when he states that “I am a scientist rather than a philosopher (107).” Poking fun at an argument is an interesting tactic, but wholly ineffective. I honestly have nothing more to say about this first apparent attack, because all it shows is Dawkins’ own ineffectual method of argumentation: discarding the rules of philosophy in favor of elitest bickering.
His second attack is stating that, “The very idea that grand conclusions could follow from such logomachist trickery offends me aesthetically, so I must take care to refrain from brandying words like ‘fool (105).'” Dawkins breaks his own rule several times, not using the word fool, but berating the religious in general throughout his book. Further, the fact that logic offends him aesthetically speaks volumes for the amount of mastery he has over philosophy. His claim that an argument such as the ontological one is “trickery” really does nothing to the argument, because once again it’s not actually an attack on any of the premises, but rather simply being offended by a logically sound argument.
In his third approach, Dawkisn simply tries to point to the argument as unintelligible by quoting a story of a debate between Euler and Diderot, in which Euler was said to have stated “Monsieur [sic], (a+b^n)/n=x therefore God exists!” I’m not entirely sure I’m drawing the correct conclusion from Dawkins random placement of this quote in his supposed dismantling of various theistic arguments, but it seems he’s comparing the Ontological Argument to just pulling random things out of a hat. Unfortunately, that is not the case, because the Ontological Argument is logically valid, and the only way to get around it is to challenge a premise, which Dawkins either can’t, due to his ineptness with philosophy, or won’t, due to his general misrepresentation of theism in general, do.
Further, how exactly is it that the ontological argument is unintelligible? It states simply that it is possible to think of a being that is the greatest of all. That’s not so hard to comprehend. The argument doesn’t depend on us being able to conceive of this being in its entirety, just to have a concept of possibility. This idea that God is possible is intelligible to even those children who would use the “playground language” dawkins attempts to reduce the Ontological Argument to. The other points of the Ontological Argument follow, so the argument itself is intelligible.
Iron Chariots takes a different route, presenting some of the more interesting challenges to the Ontological Argument (in fairness to Dawkins, he did show a parody of the argument, but I don’t think it’s any better or worse than those presented at Iron Chariots).
The Ontological Argument is generally thought to be most susceptible to parodies. This is essentially taking an argument and constructing a new argument with the same logical structure to come to an absurd conclusion.
Iron Chariots presents three parodies. They are all almost identical, so I shall show the two classic versions:
- Let us define a unicorn as a magical equine being that has one horn, and that exists.
- By the above definition, such a being must necessarily exist.
- Therefore unicorns exist.
- Shangri-La is the greatest place on earth.
- A place that exists is greater than one that doesn’t.
- Therefore, Shangri-La exists. (Iron Chariots) “
The problem with these parodies is that they seem to miss the entire point of the Ontological Argument, which is that it is discussing a necessary being. Unicorns, by definition, are contingent beings. That is, their existence is not necessary, they are not necessary in our universe for our universe to be as it is. The same goes for locations such as Shangri-La. The theistic God, however, has tied into the concept necessity. According to theism, God is not a contingent being, but a necessary one. Therefore, these parodies don’t actually do anything to the Ontological Argument because they missed one of the core premises. Now I will concede my mini-Ontological Arugment doesn’t explicitly state necessity, but other versions do. It can also be shown through logical analysis that these kind of paraodies are invalid.
The final attempt at invalidating the Ontological Argument is another parody, known as “Gasking’s Proof”:
- The creation of the universe is the greatest achievement imaginable.
- The merit of an achievement consists of its intrinsic greatness and the ability of its creator.
- The greater the handicap to the creator, the greater the achievement (would you be more impressed by Turner painting a beautiful landscape or a blind one-armed dwarf?)
- The biggest handicap to a creator would be non-existence
- Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the creation of an existing creator, we can conceive a greater being — namely, one who created everything while not existing.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
There are many problems with this attempt to parody the Ontological Argument and prove God doesn’t exist. These are all problems with the premises. Premise 1 states that the creation of the universe is the greatest achievement imaginable. How so? Are there not achievements that could be greater? Could not the greatest achievement be creating infinite universes? For the sake of argument, however, I’ll concede step 1. Premises 3 and 4, I believe, has the greatest problems. Premise 3 assumes that doing things with a handicap makes something logically greater. I’d love to see a proof of this. The premise makes an appeal to common sense, but that is invalid in logic. I’m not at all convinced that having a handicap and doing something makes that achievement itself greater. This is made more problematic by the fact that premise 1 points to the universe as being the greatest achievement. This would seem to mean that an achievement is a finished product, not the steps leading up to the product.
For example, the Cubs winning the World Series after over a century without doing so may seem a greater achievement than the Yankees doing so, but it would be hard to show that logically, for both have the World Series as the finished product. I’m willing to grant premise 3, however, just for the sake of argument.
Premise 4 is where the argument really breaks apart. How is it that non-existence is a handicap? Handicaps can only be applied to things that do exist. To imply that something has a handicap assumes implicitly that it exists. Thus, premise 4 essentially says that a being both exists and does not exist, which is logically impossible. I assume that this premise was in order to counter the idea that existing-in-reality is greater than existing-in-understanding, but note that both of these are existing. In other words, the choice in the Ontological Argument is not saying that something that doesn’t exist exists, just that something that exists-in-the-understanding rather exists-in-reality. Premise 4 is therefore completely invalid both logically and in relation to the Ontological Argument.
I may talk further about Ontological Arguments, but that’s what I have for now. As William Lane Craig states, the Ontological argument leaves anti-theists with no way out. If the concept of the theistic God is even possible, than God exists, necessarily.