The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Ontological Argument

Got a request today the reply to which readers might find interesting and helpful since the argument in question does tend to receive ratther abstruse presentation.

Hello! I've read Laurence Bonjour's In Defense of Pure Reason and I began to rethink my rejection of the Ontological Argument. I came across your paper on the Internet (A Defense of the Ontological Argument) and found it a little hard to follow. I'm just not able to follow all those letters and symbols. Can you please point me to something akin to The Ontological Argument for Dummies or something in plain old country boy English? I think I understand the argument, but I'm having a hard time with its defense. Thanks much, in advance!

Dear, XXXX, I’m glad to do what I can to help. Unfortunately, the onto arg is one which really lends itself to technical exposition (which is one reason why philosophers love it!). You might look at Alvin Plantinga’s little volume _The Ontological Argument” for some historical perspective and various traditional formulations. And actually, his presentation of the argument in his books _God, Freedom, and Evil_ and the longer version in _The Nature of Necessity_ is in fairly plain English. He’s a talented writer and so you might be surprised.

I think, though, that I can boil the state of the art down fairly simply.According to the standard form of modal logic—the logic of necessity and possibility—if a thing is such that if it exists it must necessarily exist, then if it doesn’t exist, it’s only because its impossible.A decent analogy can be had in mathematical truths. They have the property of being such that IF they are true THEN they are necessarily true. There are no contingently true mathematical truths, truths that would have been different if the world had gone differently (unlike, say, empirical facts about evolution). So if some mathematical statement is false, then it is *impossible*. There’s no way things could have gone that would have resulted in 2 + 2 = 5 (holding the definitions fixed, of course). Obviously a necessary being exists necessarily if at all, so if it doesn’t exist it’s impossible for it to do so. But it sure doesn’t look impossible, there’s no manifest contradiction in it.

The problem is that that also seems true for the following entity: a world in which there’s no necessary being. That doesn’t have any manifest contradiction in it either. But one or the other must be impossible, so we are left to decide which one we think has the best chance of truly being possible. I argue that the idea of a world with no necessary being is a world without a ground of being and I’m less confident that that is possible than that a necessary being is possible, so to that extent the onto arg adds some credence to theism for me. Of course academic philosophers want to find some general principle from which we can DEDUCE that one is possible and the other not and that is quite difficult (though I’d say of little importance). So we will each have to consult our intuitions about possibility and continue to reflect, but I think I’ve accurately presented the logic of the situation and my own attitude toward it.




At Monday, April 09, 2007 6:38:00 AM, Blogger B. D. Mooneyham said...

Hi Trent. In an email earlier this year, you may remember, I asked you how it is that we get around "that old Kantian saw that 'existence is not a predicate.'" If I understood you correctly, you said that Kant simply has no foundation for this claim, that existence can be treated like a characteristic or, in this case, a kind of perfection; or, if one quibbles over "existence" per se, one could use "exemplification."

Have I understood you correctly? In other words, the argument has moved past this objection? Additionally, do you think the argument must be formulated in its current modal form in order to stand firm, or could you still defend the type of ontological argument that, say, Descartes makes (since we read him in my modern philosophy class this semester)?

At Monday, April 09, 2007 12:44:00 PM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

Right, I don't think much of anyone takes that objection seriously anymore. Since Quine most analytic philosophers have believed Quine's Dictum: "To be is to be the value of a bound variable." It would take a bit to explain that--and you'd need to know the model theory behind predicate logic--but you can make a property out of it (even without lambda extraction). [Note in case Saikat reads this: I'm not necessarily even endorsing Quine's Dictum, only pointing out that there are technical ways of making existence a predicate.]

You can also just use an isomorphic property like Plantinga's exemplification.

And I think there are several clearly-valid ontological arguments with reasonable premises.

If you're interested in the arg then you ought to check out Plantinga's presentation either in _God, Freedom, and Evil_ or _The Nature of Necessitiy_. (or, of course, my paper:

At Tuesday, April 10, 2007 7:45:00 AM, Blogger B. D. Mooneyham said...

What about Kant's later critique that all our assertions-as-fact about God are "dogmatic" or "fanatical," i.e. that our cognition of something like God is necessarily incomplete because we cannot combine "sensible intuition" with our thought?

At Tuesday, April 10, 2007 8:54:00 AM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

In short, I find them dogmatic and fanatical!

Seriously, he just doesn't defend these claims with anything like cogency. They tend to depend on accepting his epistemology which is obscure and not adequately defended.


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