Ontological Argument: Dialogue w Philosophy Grad Student

Patrick is a Catholic graduate student in philosophy. He wrote to me, asking if I would like to discuss the Ontological Argument, which is one of the classic theistic arguments (for God’s existence), first developed by St. Anselm. He was replying to my section of my paper (most of it was a compilation of philosophers’ writing): Ontological Argument for God’s Existence: A Survey: Including the “Armstrong Ontological Argument” (First Tentative Attempt) His words will be in blue. When portions of my earlier paper are cited, they will be indented.

Readers who want to understand and follow this discussion are strongly urged to read the original paper, or at least sections I and VII, which are Alvin Plantinga’s argument, and my own amateur version, which is largely an apologist’s additional commentary on, and “elaboration” (if I may call it that without presumption) of Plantinga’s far more nuanced and solid statement. I will read both those sections right now to refresh my memory. I can barely keep up with this highly abstract and philosophically technical discussion myself, and told Patrick in an e-mail that he would “kick my butt” if we were to discuss this. But I always love a challenge, and make no pretense to having philosophical training beyond what I actually have (some eight classes and much informal acquaintance with various types of philosophy). I am here to learn as much as teach, with this one. Thanks to Patrick for being willing to discuss this fascinating topic.

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A Reply to Armstrong on the Ontological Argument

I’m a regular reader of your excellent website; I find your writings on apologetics to be, as a rule, very well done. I have learned a lot from them myself, and I have recommended your work to many other people. 

Thanks very much for your kind words, and the plugs! I appreciate it.

For some reason, I hadn’t read your work in philosophical theology until recently, though, and when I read your discussion of the ontological argument (henceforth, “OA”), I discovered some weaknesses that I wanted to bring to your attention. 

Cool! I hope to learn a lot from you. This is the subject to do that, because it has traditionally not been one of my favorite theistic arguments. I’m very fond of the cosmological, teleological and moral arguments.

It seems to me that the most important oversight in your treatment of the OA is that you don’t take cognizance of the fact that arguments are powerful: they can teach you new things, but they can also make you stupider.

Interesting way to put it. I shall like to see how you “unpack” this.

It’s pretty obvious how an argument can teach you something. So leave that aside. Here’s how an argument can make you stupider. You look at the premises, and find that you believe them all to be true: indeed, you would (for the moment) claim that you know them to be true. You look at the argument’s structure, and find that it is deductively valid. But now you think really hard about the conclusion and find that you are unwilling to believe it. You reject the conclusion. But you’re not an illogical person: you recognize that the argument is valid, so you grant that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Since you grant that the argument is valid, but you deny that the conclusion is true, you must reject one of the premises, even though initially you believed them all. So you pick the one(s) to go, and you now believe less than you started out believing.

There are lots of unproven or inadequately established premises of arguments. I can readily see that. In fact, I would say that the self-evident nature of premises is perhaps the most difficult part of the process of logical argumentation.

Well, what if you’re wrong in your denial of the conclusion? What if the conclusion is true, and what if the premise you have now come to reject is also true? In that case, you started out the process knowing more than you ended up knowing. You started out with a piece of knowledge that you now have lost.

How to get to any knowledge in the first place is the fascinating thing. I love that intersection between logic and epistemology.

Now, let’s bring that point to bear on the OA. We will cover a lot of ground on this point, but remember that in the long run, we’re going to be coming back to whether the OA can make you stupider.

Before we get into that, I would say that the last thing I would ever say about OA is that it makes one “stupider.” One is enriched by even following the logical steps involved. It’s a real brain teaser. Even if it doesn’t totally succeed (and I agree with Alvin Plantinga that it ultimately doesn’t, in terms of proving God’s existence — I don’t think any one argument does that), it is good and fun to ponder he logic involved and the deeper implications of it. That’s what I got, anyway, out of studying it what little I did, in putting together my paper.

Take a nice simple version of the argument. The complicated one you discuss in your paper doesn’t actually say anything more than is said in the following:

1. God is possible.
2. Therefore, God exists.

I suppose so. But there are many logically sound steps in-between these which make OA a far more serious philosophical argument than this simplistic presentation would suggest at first glance (wouldn’t you agree?).

Let’s interpret the first premise carefully, since there’s a lot packed in there. Let’s start with the meaning of “possible.” There is some controversy about the best way to approach this issue. Putting it very roughly: some people think that an object is possible because it exists in at least one possible world. (I will usually refer to “possible worlds” as p-worlds, for short.) Others think that an object exists in at least one p-world because it is possible. I believe the latter—I am a non-reductivist about modality (as is Plantinga). 

The relationship between “existence” and “possibility” in both these scenarios is unclear to me. In my philosophical naivete, and in layman’s terms, I would say that something is possible if it is rationally conceivable without an immediate contradiction or absurdity resulting (or not logically impossible). In other words, if it is intelligibly thinkable and not contrary to logic itself. Whether it in fact exists is (in my thinking) a separate question. I doubt that I used the right terms, but if you understand what I mean by this, is it a decent, defensible opinion to have?

This dispute between the non-reductivists and their foes, the (you guessed it) reductivists, is not relevant to our discussion here. I mention it only to note that the dispute exists. For our purposes, we need to take note of the following: whatever the order of explanation, if an object possibly exists, then it exists in at least one possible world. To say that “X is possible” is to say, then, that “X exists in at least one p-world.” 

Again, I am reluctant to link the word “exist” with “possible.” For me (again, in layman’s terms), existence is tied up with actuality, not mere possibility.

(As an aside—you wrote that Plantinga asked the atheist to grant only that God is possible in some p-world. That’s not right. To say that God is possible is to say that God exists in some p-world. But p-worlds are not actual; they’re just possible. That’s why they’re called p-worlds. So Plantinga is still not asking the atheist to grant that God actually exists anywhere.)

Yes, I understand that. I would prefer to say that “God possibly exists in actuality” rather than “God exists is p-world 473.” I always want to tie such speculation in with actuality.

Here we must make a vital distinction between metaphysical and epistemic possibility. I might ask you “is there life in outer space?” And you might answer, “I don’t know: it’s possible.” That answer is not about metaphysical possibility. You are not saying “there is some possible world where there is life in outer space.” What you are saying, rather, is “For all I know, there could (actually) be life out there.” You don’t know the actual answer—it’s an open question to you—but it seems like it could be so. This is epistemic possibility, and it has nothing to do with the ontological argument. 

Okay. It looks like I confused that. I was, then, discussing epistemic possibility.

Take another example: I ask, a day after the big game, “Did the Pistons win Game Five?” You say, “Well, I had to shut it off in the third quarter, so I don’t know. They were behind by five when I turned it off, but they were on a run—I’d say it’s quite possible that they won.” That’s epistemic possibility, again. You aren’t speculating about how things could possibly be. You’re speculating about how things really are, in a case where you don’t know. Take this kind of possibility and chuck it aside. It will only confuse us, and it’s not related at all to the OA. 

I’m not sure one can totally separate it at every level from OA. I like the way Charles Hartshorne described St. Anselm’s argument:

One way to put Anselm’s contention is this:

A. “Divinity exists” is, though not without difficulty, or without severe qualifications, conceivable by the human mind;

B. “Divinity does not exist” is strictly inconceivable (in a more than verbal sense) by any mind, being either self-contradictory or meaningless.

Thus the usual symmetry between the conceivability of existence and that of nonexistence is here upset in favor of existence. Taking this as the Anselmian position, refutation must consist in showing either that divine existence and divine nonexistence are alike conceivable, or that divine existence is inconceivable. These two ways of upsetting the asserted asymmetry, though obviously incompatible, are very commonly confused, and this is one of several defects which disfigure this prolonged controversy . . .

. . . His nonexistence must be unknowable absolutely. For, one who knows cannot know nonentity only, he must know something positive . . . divine nonexistence is unknowable absolutely, whether by divine or nondivine cognition. By contrast, divine existence is conceivably knowable, both by God Himself and also by any nondivine cognition able to connect effects with their universal Cause (not to mention able to understand the Ontological Proof). I conclude that the asymmetry to which Anselm points is quite real, and that on this main issue he is essentially correct, and his critics essentially mistaken. It is true, like it or not, that divinity, differing in this from all ordinary properties, cannot be conceived (relative to possible knowledge) unless as existent.

The kind of possibility that we’re interested in has to do with how things could be, and how things have to be. For example, could 2+2=5? No—it’s impossible. Could Ringo Starr have been a guitarist instead of a drummer? Sure—that’s possible. (Not epistemically possible: we agree that in fact, Ringo is a drummer. ) Could Ringo have been a dung beetle? Umm—that’s a tougher question. I doubt it. I think any human being is essentially a human being. (Meaning that if Ringo—or any of us humans—exist at all, we must exist as humans.) But I admit to not being absolutely sure about this. Here, then, I don’t know the answer. But we’re still talking about metaphysical possibility: we agree that Ringo, in fact, is not a dung beetle, but, rather, a Beatle. What we wonder is whether he could have been a dung beetle. And we might ask that very same question this way: “is there a possible world where Ringo is a dung beetle?” We might not know the answer. Similarly, we could ask about the above mathematical example this way: “is there a possible world where 2+2=5?” Here, we do know the answer: no. 

One very helpful way to think about metaphysical possibility is to ask “could God bring it about that…?” So, is it metaphysically possible that 2+2=5? No—even God can’t make it the case that 2+2=5. But is it metaphysically possible that Ringo is a guitarist? Of course! God could easily have brought it about that Ringo became a guitarist instead of a drummer. Is it metaphysically possible that Ringo be a dung beetle? Here, again, I think not. God can obviously make dung beetles, but it’s not clear that he could have made a world where Ringo—that very person—was a dung beetle. (Kafkaesque imaginary scenarios don’t help here. What we imagine in the Metamorphosis is Gregor Samsa taking on the bodily appearance of a bug, not a p-world where he is just a regular old bug, born of bug parents, with a bug’s consciousness, and so forth). 

We must also avoid getting hung up on so-called “accidental necessity,” according to which things that have already happened are now necessary even though it used to be that they could have gone otherwise. One might think it is accidentally necessary that I am a father, since now even God cannot make it the case that I never had children. That’s all true, but it’s irrelevant to the kind of modality that we’re concerned with. Even though God cannot now make it the case that, in fact, I never had children, it is still metaphysically possible that I never had children. That is, there are p-worlds where I never had children. There have to be such p-worlds, for there are, presumably, lots of p-words where I don’t exist at all. God didn’t have to create me in the first place: nothing about me is metaphysically necessary. (Note that even if I am essentially a human being, as I said perhaps Ringo is, that doesn’t mean that it is metaphysically necessary that I am a human being. If it were metaphysically necessary that I am a human being, then it would be metaphysically necessary that I exist, for I cannot be a human being if I do not exist. However, if I am essentially a human being, then it is necessary only that if I exist, then I am a human being. And this is a very different thing.)

Alright. That makes sense. Of course, God’s unique properties, by definition, are the key and essence of OA and why it succeeds at all.

So I hope there’s some clarity now about the kind of metaphysical possibility we’re interested in. Now, we must next turn to the question of what’s a p-world? This, too, is a disputed question. David Lewis—a reductivist, for what it’s worth—believed that p-worlds are real, concrete universes like ours, only spatio-temporally isolated from ours. They’re not like the other worlds in the Narnia stories, which you can travel to by magic. They’re also not like the worlds in the alternate universe hypotheses in contemporary physics. They’re completely “apart” from ours. Lewis’s view is not widely accepted.

It doesn’t strike me as very plausible or likely.

Plantinga’s view is rather different. To Plantinga, a p-world is a maximal consistent proposition. It’s a complete way things could have been, described down to its smallest detail.

I like this much better because it resonates with the notion of Providence (and possible Plantinga borrowed from that notion a bit?). I know that is not strictly philosophical, but then I am not speaking strictly from a philosophical perspective, so I can say it! :-)

So there’s a p-world where I’m wearing a different color shirt than I am, in fact, wearing, but where everything else is exactly like it is in the actual world. However, that world isn’t really a world like ours, it is really just a complete, maximal description of a world—a world that does not actually exist (and never will). You might do well to think of p-worlds as thoughts in the mind of God: they are ways he could have created things, if he had chosen to. There is no p-world where 2+2=5, because even God could not make a world where that was true. But there are p-worlds where I do not exist, and where I am president of the US, and perhaps even where I am a gallant talking mouse. There is a p-world for every way things could possibly have gone.

Yes, I agree. This also is similar to the theological concept of God’s middle knowledge, or scientia media (I am a Molinist, and accept this, insofar as I understand it).

Since I exist only contingently, I exist only in some of these p-worlds. There are lots of ways things could have gone such that I never have come to exist. My grandfather could easily have been killed in WWII, for example. Or humans could have never been created. Or God could have chosen not to create anything at all. And so forth. If, however, something exists necessarily, then there is no possible way things could have gone such that it not exist. If God is a necessary being, then it is not possible for God not to exist. 

Yes, but the trick, of course, is convincing the atheist that:

1) There is such a thing that we know as “God.”


2) This “God” is a self-existent, necessarily-existing Being.

And if it’s not possible for God not to exist, then there is no possible world where he fails to exist. Things just couldn’t have gone that way. (Note, then, that thinking of p-worlds as “ways God could have made things go” is slightly misleading, since God doesn’t create Himself, yet he exists in all p-worlds. But God couldn’t have made things go such that he doesn’t exist: His own existence lies beyond his will, and is necessarily included in every possible way things go. This is just a minor complication which can, for the most part, be ignored. Incidentally, at this point, I am invoking God as a heuristic device: it doesn’t beg the question against the atheist to say “it’s helpful to think of p-worlds as ways God could have made things go.” The atheist can ponder that mental picture to learn something about the nature of possible worlds, even without for one moment pretending there’s anything to this whole “God” thing.)

Yes. Though in my experience (including dealing with more than one atheist philosopher or philosophy major / grad student) they are quite predisposed against doing even that. They are every bit as dogmatic (I think, irrationally so) as they claim theists are about our beliefs that God does exist, and what He is like.

OK, so remember, from a few pages back, that we’re trying to get straight on the first premise of the simple OA. That premise is “God is possible.” We should be OK now with “possible.” The premise, then, is claiming simply that there is a p-world where God exists: in at least one way things could possibly have gone, God is there. 

But what does it mean to say “God is possible”? God is that being than which greater cannot be conceived. Part of what it is to be God is to be a necessary being. Imagine a really great being, loving, powerful, knowledgeable—but a being that could be killed. That might be a really great being to have as a friend. But it’s not God. (Here, of course, complications having to do with the Incarnation are left aside.) This is a conceptual matter. By “God,” I just mean, in part, a necessary being. So to say that God is possible is, in part, to say that it is possible for a necessary being to exist. 

Okay, I follow you. That was what I had in mind in my argument.

Again, there’s nothing question-begging about this. I am not saying that God exists: I am simply clarifying my terms. The OA is an argument that purports to prove that something exists: namely, God. Well, what is this “God” the argument is trying to establish the existence of? Simply the greatest conceivable being. That’s what the OA seeks to prove the existence of. Perhaps there are other, competing notions of God out there. But that’s a sociological issue. Who cares if there are other notions of God out there? I’ve got a notion in hand here—greatest conceivable being—and I think it’s a pretty important notion. If such a thing could be shown to exist, that would be A Big Deal. So that’s the notion I’m using. I’m not saying such a thing exists, at this point. First, I simply say—here’s the notion I’m working with. Next, I simply say—that kind of thing is possible. Nothing dubious about any of this. (Of course, some might object that it is not possible, or that we couldn’t hope to know if it is possible: but those are not objections to the use of the notion. They’re objections to the soundness of the argument, or the knowability of its premise.)

I don’t think OA proves God’s existence, so I want to make it clear what I think it accomplishes. I agree with Plantinga that it shows that theism is equally as rational and plausible as atheism. I think that about several of the best theistic arguments, considered individually. It is the cumulative evidence and plausibility of all taken together which I feel makes theism practically compelling, if not logically so, in strict terms. This has been my opinion for many years now, and I haven’t changed much in that regard.

So what premise one tells us is that there is a possible world where a necessary being exists. What does that mean? What it is to be necessary is to exist in all possible worlds. So, in that possible world where God exists, it is the case that God exists in all possible worlds. In that world, God not only exists, but exists necessarily—in that world, it is not possible for God to fail to exist.

But what is possible does not vary from world to world. Things are either possible or not possible. Similarly, what is necessary does not vary from world to world. Things are either necessary or not necessary. This is a vital point, and you seem to waffle a little bit on it, apparently endorsing the notion that possible worlds are not “accessible” from one another. 

I think whatever confusion here arises from my use of the concept of epistemic possibility and the distinction between “contingently possible in actuality” and “logically possible in p-worlds,” etc. I know I am probably not using the terms with precision (I’m very conscious of that, especially in dealing with a trained philosophical mind such as yours), but hopefully you can follow what my reasoning is, whether I am expressing it poorly or not. I am very much the empiricist and always want to talk about actual realities, and this is why I never liked OA nearly as much as the more empirical arguments.

But if you deny accessibility, then the OA simply fails. Fortunately, there is no good reason to deny accessibility, and every reason to believe in it. It just seems obvious that if X is possible, then it really is possible no matter what. One way to conceptualize metaphysical possibility, as I said above, is by asking, “could God bring it about that…” But obviously, God’s power does not change from world to world. Even if he hadn’t created angels—even in a p-world where angels do not exist at all—angels are still possible. God could have created them. (As an interesting aside: when great scholastics like Suarez talk about possibility and necessity, they don’t talk about p-worlds. Rather, they talk about what God could do by the “absolute power.” I tend to think they were getting at just this point.) Possibility and necessity are invariable across worlds. 

If you are talking about logical possibility, yes. I agree.

So, premise one tells us that in one possible world, God exists—and exists necessarily. But if he exists necessarily in that world, that means he exists in all possible worlds. But guess what—the actual world is one of the possible worlds. And that means God exists in the actual world. (The “actual world” is, just like any other p-world, a maximal consistent proposition: it happens to correctly describe every single detail in the universe. So the actual world is not the universe—it’s a complete and true description of it. But part of the description is “God exists,” and the description is true. So from knowing that God exists in the actual world, we can infer that God exists.)

But how do we absolutely know that He exists, using only philosophy and not revelation? :-) I don’t think it is possible — not by philosophy alone. I do think, however, that we can achieve practical certainty by virtue of other kinds of knowledge, including supernatural.

So if premise one is true, it is not possible that God not exist. That means the argument is valid. Is premise one true? Yes, I think so.


But now we come back to the point with which I opened this section: my criticism of your account of the OA. If someone is deeply committed to atheism, he might simply say that because he knows that God does not in fact exist, he can learn from the OA that God is not possible.

And I would immediately ask him (being the Socratic in method that I am), “how do you knowthat God does not in fact exist?” And in trying to prove that “knowledge” he would run into all kinds of absurdities and inadequate claims that make it very difficult for him to be dogmatic about his atheism, and to claim that it is more rational and plausible than theism.

Look, that’s a very simple argument to make. The OA proves that if God is possible, then he exists. But if one denies the conclusion: if one claims that God does not exist, then one has to conclude that God is not possible.

But they have to show us why they reject the conclusion in the first place, and how the logic of OA fails. They need to show us, particularly, why the premise is false. Methinks that would be quite difficult to do.

That might be what you “learn” from the OA, for you might approach it this way: “of course God is possible: who could hope to prove he’s impossible? I’m not saying anything about what could possibly be the case: I’m just saying that in fact God does not exist. In the actual world, there’s no such thing as God.” If that’s your approach, then your first encounter with the OA will force you to either (1) change your mind about God’s actual existence, or (2) change your mind about God’s existence being possible. If you pick (1), that’s great. You’ve learned something—something vitally important. If, however, you pick (2), them you’ve just given up a piece of knowledge. You’ve become dumber.

Yes, but not (i.e., #2) because of OA; because of illogical and non-coherent atheist reasoning.

But, to be fair, many people find the argument from evil pretty impressive. They might think that the argument from evil shows that God does not exist.

I think it is the strongest argument against Christianity, and have believed this for a long time also.

The argument from evil, incidentally, doesn’t show that God is impossible, for it relies on the premise that evil exists. But it is a merely contingent truth that evil exists: in a world without evil, you could not run the argument from evil. So a person in this position might endorse exactly the line of thought I mentioned last paragraph—and it wouldn’t exactly be unreasonable dogmatism. It would just reflect on the force of the argument from evil. At any rate, all of this is to say that there are indeed grounds available to the atheist to deny the sheer possibility of God’s existence.

Yes; I think they fail, but I agree that there are halfway-reasonable grounds, at least prima facie. I don’t think all atheists think the way they do because they are terrible people, utterly illogical, or because they are consciously rebelling against God. I do think sin affects reasoning in profound ways, however, as a general rule of thumb.

This leads me to a brief discussion of another area where I think you make a mistake. You appear to conflate conceivability, imaginability and possibility, and I think this conflation leads you to some trouble.

Yes, because I was not being technically precise in my use of those terms. I trusted that my meaning would be more clear in context, but that doesn’t cut it for trained minds, because they will always note the imprecision of terminology.

You write, for example, that theists should be willing to grant that a world without God is possible. But to grant this is to fall into disaster. If there is a p-world without God, then God is impossible: this is simply the reverse of the OA. Theists absolutely cannot grant that there are any p-worlds without God. 

I disagree, because, again, I am almost always concentrating on actual worlds. There is a possible actual world, such that God (the necessary being) does not exist. That is conceivable by a theist without for a moment being accepted as true. One can argue this for the sake of argument, without adopting it, just like any other proposition. I don’t think this is a disaster at all; it is simply how reasoning works.

If we disallow all contrary propositions as even possible or conceivable under all conceivable circumstances, it seems to me that we make it very difficult to engage in the reasoning process. And we in fact do the same thing we often accuse the atheists of: we conclude that a state of affairs is absolutely impossible. We can’t blame them for concluding this about God and then turn around and refuse to allow any conceivable possibility of an atheist universe. So yes, a theist and a Christian, by definition, and in one obvious sense, cannot deny that God exists, but they can step out of their own views for a second and conceive of an atheist world. If not, then we cannot (it seems to me) fully conceive of an atheist’s argument, and we should not expect them to conceive of ours. We would and should, then, simply stop talking with them, as it would be literally meaningless and incomprehensible.

But that doesn’t mean that we have to say that when atheists talk about a world without God, they are just making meaningless noises.

That’s right. But that is a far lesser “methodological concession” than the above.

Let me reproduce a bit of your paper here, so that I can reply in a little detail:

(anti-A2) No such thing as God exists, and no such thing can possibly exist in any possible, imaginable, conceivable universe.

Now, if that is true, then why is the topic of God and theism so prominent in philosophy? If indeed theism were as silly and foolish as belief in fairy tales, leprechauns, unicorns, mermaids, centaurs, or other fanciful, absurd mythologies, why does the question continue to occupy great minds (both in favor of theism, and opposed to it?). One doesn’t devote any time to sheer nonsense: Alice-in-Wonderland worlds or linguistic gibberish, such as:

$#%&^%&^%foolishness#$#@#&^&()*&_(^GH%^<><>FD786IVbunkUVR(&VB^$E)+=??”FT _-_-_-_-V*TOUV&^RCV%&)*—hooey—-}}{}|||||||(&^$%#@!)(@j@u@n@k@+-+-!:-)x:;\

No one (with three brain cells) seriously considers as any possibility that the earth is flat, or that the moon is made of green cheese. If the notion of God is in that kind of immediately dismissible category, then it is quite strange that rational, thoughtful, intelligent people devote so much time and energy to it. Therefore, the rational person must (given all these considerations) grant the bare possibility of God in another possible world, and this is all that premise A of the argument requires.

But your concerns here do not follow from (anti-A2). The atheist can easily grant that there are imaginable universes that include God: that we can talk meaningfully about things divine. (Not every atheist is a positivist!) But imaginability does not entail possibility. We can tell ourselves all kinds of stories without thinking them possibly true. I could write a science fiction story in which the cosmology is that the universe sprang into existence all by itself. That’s not just nonsense on the order of the string of letters and symbols in the quotation from your paper. But it is, nevertheless, impossible. Indeed, anyone who wishes to endorse a cosmological argument in any form must claim that it is impossible. If it’s possible that the universe simply have sprung into existence out of nothing, or that it be self-caused, then the cosmological argument simply cannot be successful.

I was (I think it is clear in context) putting the stress on “conceivable” and “imaginable” and, as you noted earlier, confusing those notions with “possibility.” I was dealing mainly with the sort of atheist I have often dealt with, who think of God and Christianity in just these terms: as the intellectual equivalents of Santa Claus or the moon made of green cheese. Granted, that is not dealing strictly with OA, but it is dealing with certain widespread predispositions and prejudices.

Here’s another example where impossibility doesn’t equal nonsense. “Goldbach’s Conjecture” (going by memory here—I might have this wrong) is that every even number is the sum of two primes. Now, this conjecture, if true, is necessarily true. And, if it is false, it is necessarily false. At present, the Conjecture remains a conjecture—it has neither been proved nor disproved. But mathematicians are, I believe, working on it. Let us pretend that the Conjecture is, in fact, false. So the claim that “every even number is the sum of two primes” is necessarily false. But it is not nonsense. It makes perfect sense. It’s just not true. Indeed, genuine nonsense, of the kind in your random string of letters and symbols above, does not even bear a truth value: it makes no claim at all, and can be neither true nor false. The very fact that an atheist will assign a truth value—“necessarily false”—to the claim that “God exists,” shows that the atheist denies that claim is sheer nonsense.

Okay, but many seem to almost approach that negative view.

Now, as I alluded to just above, there are positivists (or, at least, there were positivists) who would claim that “God exists” is sheer nonsense.

Well, then those are the types I have too often run across.

And they would be disgusted at the proliferation of internet discussion groups about God, since all such talk is entirely meaningless.

The ones I have met often say that and then proceed to talk about it: an irony I have always richly appreciated. :-)

But that positivist position is wildly implausible. (Not to mention self-defeating: the “verifiability criterion of meaning,” according to which sentences are meaningful only if they can be empirically verified, is not itself empirically verifiable, and, thus either false or nonsensical. But leave that aside.)

I totally agree.

But most contemporary atheists have, I think, moved past the phase of trying to say that God-talk is all just nonsense, and have come to the phase where they think it is just all false.

That’s an improvement. A good sign!

But once you arrive at a point where the claim is simply that theism is necessarily false, then the philosophical discussion of theism begins to make sense. There are theists out there who contend, with astounding rigor of argumentation, that their position is indeed philosophically defensible. The cosmological and ontological arguments (among others) have been with us for a long time. In addition to this, more recent work in religious epistemology has gone far towards undermining the claim of atheists to have the “default” position, or the atheist contention that belief in God is simply unjustifiable by means other than argument, or what have you.

That’s the truly exciting stuff. Some of what I have read of Alston is along those lines (I met him briefly, once).

So there is a longstanding tradition of careful theistic argumentation which atheists, when they bother to try to defend their position, have to take into account: they can see that theism is not in the same “immediately dismissible” category as the claim that the moon is made of green cheese, or that the earth is flat.

Good for them.

Further, though, people do take some pains to convince certain people that the earth is round: they take pains to teach children this fact. Children, of course, would make the obvious assumption that the earth is flat, if the question were put to them. They have to be taught to ignore the way things appear, and think instead of a much bigger picture. Similarly, we might take pains to instruct people in a remote tribe who assume themselves to be living on a flat surface. These folks, by accident of birth, have never been instructed in the truth about the earth’s shape, and we might see fit to try to teach them. The kind of people we wouldn’t try to teach would be educated Americans who know all the evidence, but construct bizarre conspiracy theories to try to explain that evidence away. However, atheists might see certain educated Americans who were raised in the backwards tribes of the Bible belt as just in need of instruction about the non-existence of God as they would see the folks raised in remote tribes are in need of instruction about the roundness of the earth. That is, they might pity their theistic upbringing, and try to bring some light to the benighted.


So even if the atheist thinks that belief in God is epistemically on par with belief in leprechauns, he might take some pains to help some poor idiot see that God does not exist—especially since believers in God, unlike believers in leprechauns—actually still exert considerable (and pernicious, from the perspective of many atheists) political pull in our culture.

Some few lower themselves to such a pitiable state in order to enlighten us “dark ages” types.

So in saying that God’s existence is impossible, the atheist does not commit himself to saying that the claim “God exists” is nonsense; nor does he commit himself to saying that believers in God are not to be bothered with at all. He might grant that believers have interesting (though, ultimately, not compelling) philosophical support for their view. Or, he might deny that, but nevertheless want to try to convince theists of the error of their ways either out of pity, or out of something like a politicized desire to keep down the number of theists.

I think this is good to understand. Thanks.

I think that having said what I’ve now said, I’ve come to the end of my comments on your discussion of the ontological argument. Initially, this paper was about twice as long, because it began with a long discussion about what counts as a “proof.” You seemed to agree with Plantinga’s view—I think that view is false. Perhaps at some point I will send along that bit, if you’re interested, and we can chat about it. 

I hope we will continue this on the blog. One round is certainly not enough for such a rich, challenging subject. Plantinga contended only that OA makes theism as rational as atheism; he did not claim that it proved God’s existence. This is very much my own position. If you are of the opinion that Plantinga thinks OA proved God’s existence, to my knowledge that is not his claim. But chances are you know more about it than I do.

Thanks for the opportunity to write, and my best wishes for the success of your ministry.

Thank you! It was my great pleasure, indeed, to interact with you. I hope we continue, and best wishes for your philosophical studies. I am excited to see any solid Christian enter the philosophical field. The more the merrier . . .


(originally 6-25-04)

Photo credit: Astronomer Copernicus, conversation with God (1872), by Jan Matejko (1838-1893) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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