Many atheists seem to hate all metaphysics; perhaps the hatred is motivated by the notion that all metaphysics eventually leads to God. Of course, that is entirely false – there is a long tradition of purely atheistic metaphysics, which is as deep and abstract as theistic metaphysics. Any atheism that embraces rigorous metaphysical thinking is far more powerful than an atheism that rejects metaphysics.
Consider the classical arguments for the existence of God. Far too many atheists actually agree with the theists that they are arguments that go to God. Thus the theists say that they are good arguments while the atheists say that they are bad arguments. And that’s deeply unfortunate. A metaphysically trained atheist can look at the classical arguments in an entirely novel way – they aren’t arguments to God at all. This way of looking at them offers atheists a powerful new strategy for dealing with theists. Rather than engage in the tired back-and-forth about whether the arguments are good or not, atheists can just agree that the arguments prove the existence of something that is not God. That’s a much, much harder strategy for theists to defeat. Let’s look at the Ontological Argument this way.
The Ontological Argument has its roots in Stoic theology – some precursors to it appear in the second book of Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. Anselm presents one of the most famous versions of the argument in The Proslogion (Chapter 2). More modern versions have been developed by Malcolm (1960) and Plantinga (1974).
All versions of the Ontological Argument go something like this: (1) The property of being maximally perfect does not entail any contradiction. It is therefore consistent. But consistency is possible existence. So it is possible that there exists some x such that x is maximally perfect. Let us refer to this x as the Maximally Perfect Being (MPB). The MPB is a possible object. It possibly exists. (2) For any possible objects x and y, if x is actual and y is merely possible, then x is more perfect than y. (3) There are some actual objects. (4) So, if the MPB is merely possible, then there are some things that are more perfect than it. (5) Hence it is not maximally perfect. (6) But that is a contradiction. (7) Consequently, the MPB is also an actual object. The MPB actually exists. (8) The MPB is God. Hence God is not merely possible – God actually exists.
Assume that the Ontological Argument is sound through step (7): the MPB actually exists. Now focus the attack on step (8): The MPB is God. Of course, if “God” is merely being offered as another name for the MPB, there’s little reason to object. But that’s never the intention. For those who make the Ontological Argument are almost always Christians, and their intention is to say that the MPB is the theistic deity, the Christian God, and ultimately the God of Abraham (as defined by the Bible). Focus the attack on step (8) by considering the alternatives to identifying the MPB with God.
Since the Stoics were the first to use the concept of maximal perfection, it is reasonable to start with them. According to Cicero (in Book 2 of De Natura Deorum), the Stoics declared that the universe is the MPB. And, consistently, they used the term “God” to refer to the universe. So the Ontological Argument merely motivates a kind of pantheistic view of the universe – the universe is sacred or divine.
Johnston (2009: 11) writes that “It is conceivable that mathematical reality taken as a whole is the Most Perfect Being, because it is utterly complete, beautiful, self-contained, and inherently intelligible, in a way that cannot be approximated by anything in the spatio-temporal realm.” On this hypothesis, step (8) should end with God. Perhaps the MPB is the maximally wide and high iterative hierarchy of pure sets.
Or maybe the MPB is the best of all possible worlds, not in the Leibnizian sense, but in the more recent sense in which the best world contains all universes needed to realize all the positive potentials of all possible things. The best world is a multiverse in which every proposition that ought to be true is true at some universe in that multiverse. It thus serves as a model for some structures in deontic logic. This is a grander sort of pantheism, but there is no personal God of any kind; the best world is utterly godless.
Another hypothesis is that the MPB is the theistic deity – it is God. However, the definition of the theistic deity is fraught with logical conflicts (Martin & Monnier, 2003). And since the MPB cannot be internally inconsistent, the MPB cannot possibly be God.
So here’s the strategy: First, agree with the theist that the Ontological Argument is a sound argument for the existence of the MPB. Second, show that the MPB cannot possibly be the theistic deity. Hence the Ontological Argument becomes an anti-theistic argument: it is a wonderful argument for showing that God does not exist. But by all means, use the Ontological Argument to justify the existence of the universe, or mathematical reality taken as a whole, or the best of all possible worlds, or some other godless reality.
The same strategy can be applied to the classical cosmological arguments and the universe-level design arguments. For instance, the same strategy can be applied to the so-called fine-tuning argument, to show that any apparent fine-tuning of our universe for life (or, if you prefer, the anthropic coincidences) is an argument against the existence of God.
Johnston, M. (2009) Saving God: Religion after Idolatry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Malcolm, N. (1960) Anselm’s ontological arguments. The Philosophical Review 69 (1), 41-62.
Martin, M. & Monnier, R. (Eds.) (2003) The Impossibility of God. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Plantinga, A. (1974) The Nature of Necessity. New York: Oxford University Press.