The Modal Ontological Argument? It Needs a Good Thrashing. (2 of 2)

The Modal Ontological Argument? It Needs a Good Thrashing. (2 of 2) January 23, 2019

We’re halfway through our analysis of the modal ontological argument, an apologetic argument that’s not accurate and useful so much as weighty. Those of us who are outsiders to philosophy have probably found it to be ponderous and counterintuitive. I certainly did.

In part 1, we saw that premise 1 seemed reasonable and premise 3 seemed crazy, and I promised to swap that critique and show that 3 was reasonable and 1 was crazy.

Here’s the argument again:

Premise 1. It is possible that an MGB exists.

Premise 2. If it is possible that an MGB exists, then an MGB exists in some possible world.

Premise 3. If an MGB exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.

Premise 4. If an MGB exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

Premise 5. If an MGB exists in the actual world, then an MGB exists.

Conclusion 1. Therefore, an MGB exists.

Conclusion 2. Therefore (since MGB is just another name for God), God exists.

Raising the stakes

Before we complete our attack on the argument, let me show the stakes we’re playing for. Douglas Groothuis in Christian Apologetics (2011) responded to Richard Dawkins’ rejection of the ontological argument in The God Delusion. Critiquing Dawkins, he said:

Without prior knowledge of the history of this fascinating specimen of reasoning, we could conclude from Dawkins’s treatment that the ontological argument was more of a joke than a serious work of philosophy. As a naive empiricist, he simply finds absurd the idea that an argument could prove God’s existence without appeal to empirical evidence. But Dawkins’s glib rejection never engages the richness or subtlety of the argument, a piece of reasoning that has intrigued some of the best minds in philosophy since the argument’s inception by Anselm in the eleventh century.

Richness and subtlety? That’s like complaining that we’re missing the richness and subtlety of the Emperor’s new clothes. Sorry, I’m still stuck on whether the argument is correct or not. Groothuis seems to be promising that it’s a powerful and compelling argument. Let’s see.

Equivocation on the definition of “possible”

In part 1, we saw that premise 3 works, and our problem remains: the conclusion “Therefore God exists” still looks like magic.

Our first challenge was correctly seeing the consequences of an MGB as a necessary being. Now, let’s focus on the word possible. Few people would begrudge premise 1, “It is possible that an MGB exists.” I’ve seen no good evidence, but, sure, maybe an MGB does exist.

But this is the colloquial meaning of possible. We’re saying, “I have no idea—maybe an MGB exists in one possible world or a thousand worlds or none.” This is usage 1: possible as a statement of ignorance. But there’s another usage.

(The modal ontological argument makes use of S5 modal logic, in which necessary and possibly are carefully defined, but there’s no need for our analysis to get bogged down with that. I bring this up only to note that Plantinga used a different definition openly. Unfortunately, it’s easy for other apologists to use these two meanings of possible to take advantage of the reader’s confusion.)

The other usage is possible as a declaration of existence, and we see that in premise 2: If it is possible that an MGB exists, then an MGB exists in some possible world. That is, an MGB exists in one or more possible worlds. Zero possible worlds is not an option.

Now we can see the deceptiveness of premise 1 (again, that deceptiveness wasn’t deliberate for Plantinga, but I doubt that’s true for some apologists). Premise 1 says, It is possible that an MGB exists. In other words (using the appropriate definition of possible), an MGB exists in one or more possible worlds. By accepting premise 1, you’re accepting that an MGB exists somewhere. Not really what you intended, was it?

Let’s rework those first three premises with this new knowledge.

Premise 1′. An MGB exists in one or more possible worlds.

Premise 2.

Premise 3′. Given that an MGB exists in some possible world (premise 1) and that an MGB either exists in all worlds or none (by definition), then an MGB must exist in all possible worlds.

When the implications are laid out, the assumptions become clear, the magic vanishes, and the argument says nothing of interest. When you assume an MGB in your first premise and define it to be either everywhere or nowhere (and nothing in between), it’s hardly surprising that you can conclude that one exists.

This is a circular argument. It logically fails.

Revisit the conclusion

Let’s take a closer look at the second half of the argument.

Premise 4. If an MGB exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

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

Conclusion 1. Therefore, an MGB exists.

Conclusion 2. Therefore (since MGB is just another name for God), God exists.

This works except for Conclusion 2. An MGB has a very simple definition, while God (that is, Yahweh) doesn’t. Christians can’t agree on all of God’s properties, and those properties evolved through the Old Testament. The first problem is God’s squishy and ambiguous definition not fitting the simple definition of an MGB.

Let’s focus on one aspect. If God is a Maximally Great Being, then he must be, among other things, wholly good. But read the Bible, and you’ll see that God isn’t wholly good. He supports slavery and demands human sacrifice and genocide. The easy comeback is “Sure, but God could have his reasons,” which simply presupposes God to defend his existence, which is another logical error.

There’s another part of the definition of a Maximally Great Being that doesn’t work, the clash between the conflicting requirements of an MGB’s omni properties. For example, the MGB is omniscient and so knows the future. But he’s also omnipotent, so he can change the future. Which one wins?

And since God has even more superpowers than an MGB, it becomes even weirder with him. Before God created the universe, reality was either perfect or not. It couldn’t have been imperfect, because God wouldn’t have tolerated that. But if it was already perfect, why create the universe? Or how can God be all-just (and give everyone what they deserve) while also being merciful (giving some of us less than we deserve)?

(More on omni conflicts here and a proof that God doesn’t exist because of the suffering in the world here.)

Turn the argument on itself

As with the regular ontological argument (my response to that here), the modal ontological argument can be turned on itself. The argument works because (1) its definition of possible existence is “exists in at least one possible world” and (2) an MGB is necessary, which makes its existence all or nothing—it’s everywhere or it’s nowhere. If you start with premise 1 being “It is possible that an MGB exists,” the wheels of the argument turn to move from an MGB in at least one possible world, to all possible worlds, to the actual world.

But change one cog in the machine, and you get a different prize when you turn the crank. Change every exists to doesn’t exist. It’s still valid, but its cleverness has been turned on itself. Now the conclusion becomes, “Therefore, God doesn’t exist.”

You want to go with this as your argument? Is that your final answer?

This is a caltrop argument, an argument that doesn’t make an offensive point. Its value instead is in slowing down a pursuer. It’s a puzzle. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists eight categories of ontological argument, so there are lots more if the retreating Christian apologist needs to throw out another tar baby.

What kind of god are you defending if you must go to this argument instead of pointing to convincing evidence? What kind of god are you defending if he can’t defend himself?

In fact, Plantinga agrees that the argument doesn’t do much:

Our verdict on these reformulated versions of St. Anselm’s argument must be as follows. They cannot, perhaps, be said to prove or establish their conclusion. But since it is rational to accept their central premise, they do show that it is rational to accept that conclusion.

I’m not sure what he’s saying in that last sentence. My guess is he’s saying that the modal ontological argument reached a conclusion through a flawed logical path, but that’s okay because he knows that conclusion is correct because of other reasoning.

Regardless, we’ve shown that, though the argument concludes, “Therefore, God exists,” that’s not a takeaway for any of us.

Let’s end by returning to Douglas Groothuis, whose challenge mocked us as we began our critique of the argument: “Dawkins’s glib rejection never engages the richness or subtlety of the [ontological] argument, a piece of reasoning that has intrigued some of the best minds in philosophy since the argument’s inception by Anselm in the eleventh century.”

A flawed argument deserves ridicule in proportional to the earnestness with which it is put forward as a serious, useful apologetic argument.

Acknowledgements. Several sources in particular helped me peek behind the curtain to see how the trick was done.

  • Plantinga’s Modal Ontological Argument, Part 1” is an excellent video by Roderic Taylor.
  • Richard Carrier’s articles are thorough and insightful but always accessible. He analyzes the ontological arguments here, as part of his series taking down Plantinga’s famous list of “Two dozen or so” arguments.
  • Frequent commenters Greg G. and JustAnotherAtheist2 provided useful insights. A particular h/t is due Grimlock, who prodded me to write this post.
You can make an argument so simple
that there are obviously no errors.
 Or you can make it so complicated
that there are no obvious errors.
Hoare’s dictum

.
Image from Žygimantas Dukauskas, CC license
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  • ThaneOfDrones

    Without prior knowledge of the history of this fascinating specimen of reasoning, we could conclude from Dawkins’s treatment that the ontological argument was more of a joke than a serious work of philosophy. As a naive empiricist, he simply finds absurd the idea that an argument could prove God’s existence without appeal to empirical evidence. But Dawkins’s glib rejection never engages the richness or subtlety of the argument, a piece of reasoning that has intrigued some of the best minds in philosophy since the argument’s inception by Anselm in the eleventh century.

    Anselm’s ontological argument was effectively refuted very quickly. Gaunilo’s Perfect Island

    It is true that most philosophers of religion since have attempted to tackle the argument. I think that says something about the paucity of more substantial arguments in the philosophy of religion game, but I would just like to point out: Lots and lots of philosophers have found an error in the argument. They are not all finding the same error. The ontological argument is a rich hunting ground for those seeking logic errors.

    • Raging Bee

      Any relation to Howl’s Moving Castle?

      • ThaneOfDrones

        Not as much plot development.

    • hrurahaalm

      One reason may be that the proper way to analyze counterfactuals is a somewhat open problem, though the modal argument doesn’t seem to illuminate anything.

    • al kimeea

      I once worked for a perfect asshole…

    • Taneli Huuskonen

      Right. Dawkins’ glib rejection never engages the richness or subtlety of the ontological argument as a hunting ground for logical errors.

      • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

        The proverbial ‘target-rich environment’…

        • Taneli Huuskonen

          An impressive herd of elephants in the room.

  • Len

    “Dawkins’s glib rejection never engages the richness or subtlety of the [ontological] argument, a piece of reasoning that has intrigued some of the best minds in philosophy since the argument’s inception by Anselm in the eleventh century.”

    Richness or subtlety? Did we read the same “argumemt”?

    • Raging Bee

      Hey, these are the same lot who can’t do anything other than praise the Bible as the Greatest Everything Ever Written, and then make up all manner of reasons why no criticism of it can ever be valid.

  • Polytropos

    Dawkins’s glib rejection never engages the richness or subtlety of the [ontological] argument…

    I think Groothuis misspelled “sophistry”. The ontological argument is not rich or subtle, it’s a deceptive, presuppositional argument which relies on unproven assumptions and hopes nobody will notice. And it says a lot that believers still consider various permutations of the ontological argument to be some of the best arguments for the existence of god, 900 years after Anselm first came up with it.

    At least Plantinga is honest about the nature of ontological arguments. When he says “since it is rational to accept their central premise, they do show that it is rational to accept that conclusion”, my interpretation is he means the ontological argument convinces people who are already emotionally invested in the MGB concept that it’s rational to accept the MGB’s existence. But I don’t agree that it’s rational to accept a premise with as many holes in it as this one has, or to accept a theoretical possibility as fact on the basis of a very flawed argument.

    • Raging Bee

      The ontological argument is not rich or subtle, it’s a deceptive, presuppositional argument which relies on unproven assumptions and hopes nobody will notice.

      And the only reason it’s lasted this long, is that for too many centuries no one could knock it down, or publicly admit it could be knocked down, without suffering serious socio-economic consequences, or worse.

      • Polytropos

        ^^^This. In an intellectually free environment, such an argument can’t survive.

      • Kevin K

        Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vt0Y39eMvpI

        • Raging Bee

          EVERYONE expected the Spanish Inquisition. That’s why they all kept silent when the Ontological Argument got trotted out.

      • Some philosophers back then also rejected it, with no consequences.

        • TheNuszAbides

          Exactly … It’s not like any individual’s faith (let alone any community’s cohesion, let alone a Maximally Vague Abstraction like “Christendom”!) has ever, in any way, *depended* on the quality of this “piece of reasoning”.

        • No. Even in those, the majority would never have heard of such arguments. They were the purview of a small intellectual class, to explore whether God’s existence was provable through reason (some of them said that couldn’t be, also without consequences).

        • TheNuszAbides

          The only sect I can think of for whom your last mention would be consequential were Muslims who explicitly gave reason the highest value [shoehorned into the overarching submission to Allah of course] and not-so-coincidentally went out of fashion along with what’s generally considered the intellectual golden age of Islam.

    • Otto

      It reminds me of a MLM website that sells some sort of nutritional shit my wife and I were looking at last weekend….”It feeds your body on a cellular level…” was one of the lines, and I thought WTF is that supposed to mean?

      Now I am asking myself how is this awful argument ‘rich’ or ‘subtle’? Just because he says certain words doesn’t make it true or accurate.

      • Polytropos

        With the MLM at least, it’s probably the same principle as Nigerian princes with bad spelling. It weeds out less credulous people like yourself. Maybe something similar is going on with the ontological argument somehow?

        • Wouldn’t it be nice if we uncovered some actual strategy behind their use of it?

        • Polytropos

          There must be a strategy of some sort. As you say, it’s a caltrop argument. Most atheists will accept the MGB is possible, in the sense of theoretically possible but wildly unlikely, and many apologists see this as a win, although it isn’t. My view is that the real purpose of ontological arguments is to sound impressive to the kind of people who buy apologetics materials – i.e. people who are already believers and want to be told their beliefs are justified.

        • Yes, I think that in general apologetics is simply to keep the flock docile and in the pen.

      • Reminds me of a back-of-the-comics ad from decades ago that said, “guaranteed placebo.”

    • I think Groothuis misspelled “sophistry”.

      😀

      At least Plantinga is honest about the nature of ontological arguments.

      The originator of the argument says, “This argument is broken,” and you’d think then that it’d be used only as an example and would never be used by fellow Christians as an apologetic. Insane.

  • eric

    It’s all just word games. I can turn the argument on itself a different way by playing similar word games with ‘great’. Like so: I assert that maximal greatness requires non-existence. For if some being existed in this universe, I can conceive of a thing greater than it – i.e. a being which is too great to exist in this universe. So therefore to be maximally great, a being cannot exist in this universe or, using the same logic, any other.

    • Kevin K

      “Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
      The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,'” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
      “But,” says Man, “The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
      “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
      “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.”

      — Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers’ Guide To the Galaxy

    • Raging Bee

      In the beginning was the Word Game. And the Word Game was With God. And the Word Game was God.

      Wait, that’s not how it goes?

      • Otto

        Boggle?

        • piyaren

          It can certainly be argued that Boggle is the Maximally Great Word Game. 🙂

    • epeeist

      I assert that maximal greatness requires non-existence.

      This is essentially Douglas Gasking’s argument.

    • What’s greater–the being that created the universe or the being that created the universe without existing?

      Checkmate, Christians.

  • Derek Mathias

    A good way to nip this pointless argument in the bud is as soon as premise 1 is mentioned (“It is possible that an MGB exists”), AGREE that it is possible and then add “…just as it is possible that an MGB doesn’t exist.” By doing that, you take control of the meaning of “possible” in such a way that your opponent essentially has to agree. And from that point forward, the sophistry of the argument is laid bare.

    • Raging Bee

      Or “…just as it is possible that more than one MGB exists.”

      • Derek Mathias

        Oh, nice one! Multiple gods screws up their logic nicely.

        • Raging Bee

          Yeah, someone probably had to write twelve volumes of blithering to explain why that’s totally not possible.

      • Greg G.

        Maximally Great Beings that can co-exist with other Maximally Great Beings are greater than a Maximally Great Being that cannot co-exist with other Maximally Great Beings.

    • Castilliano

      Another way to agree w/ that premise and stifle the argument:
      “I agree that an MGB is possible. Now how do we demonstrate an MGB is possible?”
      -“But you’re agreeing with the premise?”
      “Yes, but our opinions don’t make the premise true.”
      (Sort of a cozy agnosticism there.)

      Note, given the evidence, I completely disagree an MGB is possible. At all. Unfortunately that’s usually a less persuasive tactic because it makes one look obstinate or defiant of god. It can be hard to convince them it’s a conclusion, not a presupposition.

      And sure, an apologist can twist wording and interpretation to make an MGB survive the Problem of Hiddenness, but that just reveals the subjectivity of what an MGB would be.
      And given “MG” is a completely subjective opinion (even if that opinion comes from the MGB itself) then it becomes meaningless.
      So that’d be another way to clip the argument from the root:
      “By what measure are we determining maximally great?”
      Sometimes by cementing the wiggly bits first, you can nix later dodging.

      Cheers.

      ETA: Off of what Raging Bee added,
      An MGB would have MG friends, right? So there must be a pantheon.
      Or it’s just an MG loner. Not very MG at all.

      • Derek Mathias

        “I agree that an MGB is possible. Now how do we demonstrate an MGB is possible?”

        That’s an option. And another option for more “cozy agnosticism” is to say, “Is an MGB possible? Who knows? There is no way to know if an MGB is possible at all.” That also negates their bait-and-switch definition of “possible.”

      • Herald Newman

        An MGB would have MG friends, right? So there must be a pantheon.

        Not necessarily. The MGB could be a mog, and be its own best friend (watch Spaceballs if this went over your head.)

    • Rudy R

      The same approach can be made for the first premise of the KCA. It is possible that Whatever begins to exist does not have a cause. And that stops the KLA dead in its tracks.

      • Grimlock

        Maybe?

        To play devil’s advocate (without a lawyer’s license!) I want to point out that the KCA can be phrased as an inductive argument. So merely pointing out that the first premise isn’t logically necessary hardly makes a dent in the argument. After all, it doesn’t by itself give us much cause to doubt the premise.

        Consider,
        1. [Probably] Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
        2. The universe began to exist.
        3. [Probably] The universe had a cause.

        (I’d say the argument must have this form anyways.)

        Does your objection make (1) implausible? Not really.

        • epeeist

          Consider,
          1. [Probably] Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
          2. [Probably] The universe began to exist.
          3. [Probably] The universe had a cause.

          We don’t know whether the universe began to exist or not.

          I am happy with your formulation with the extra word in 2. However what it does do is kill the KCA as a deductive and possibly sound argument.

        • Greg G.

          The KCA relies on the concept of cause and effect but I think the wheels fall off when it comes to a cause acting on nothing having an effect.

        • Say what you will, I’m just glad the theologians and philosophers are riding to the rescue to save the cosmologists’ bacon and answer these bothersome questions once and for all.

        • TheNuszAbides

          If it’s philosophical-nothing rather than actual-practical-nothing … then, okay!

        • Grimlock

          I agree that (2) is more accurate with the word probably in it than not. I was simply trying to argue that Rudy’s original objection fails. Not that the KCA is a great or sound argument.

          I agree with the second part of your comment as well.

        • What if the zero-energy universe hypothesis is correct? With our universe having a total net energy of zero, you might argue if it exists at all.

        • Phil Rimmer

          I feel a fool, but what does “begin to exist” mean?

        • I Came To Bring The Paine

          “begin to exist” means “have a cause [for its existence]”. You see, the first premise is a tautology. Everything that begins to exist has a cause [for its existence] and everything that has a cause [for its existence] began to exist. So, the KCA really goes like this:

          1.) Everything that began to exist began to exist.
          2.) The universe began to exist.
          3.) Therefore, the universe began to exist.
          And God did it. Checkmate, atheists!

          Or:

          1.) Everything that has a cause [for its existence] has a cause [for its existence].
          2.) The universe has a cause [for its existence].
          3.) Therefore, the universe has a cause [for its existence].
          And God did it. Checkmate, atheists!

        • Phil Rimmer

          Absolutely clear. Thank you.

          I just felt a fool never having seen anything begin to exist. The “before” and “after” just seemed a different semantic position to me. But the genius of that free floating definition is itself a miracle of actual creation…. Is WLC actually God?

        • There was no oak tree, but now there is. There was no dent in the fender, but now there is.

          Like that.

        • Carol Lynn

          Also, if it says, “Everything that exists has a cause” then that logically means that god also needed something to cause it to exist – and then it’s turtles all the way down. But if it is limited to ‘things that began to exist” that leaves room for an uncaused god kickstarting everything else.

        • I Came To Bring The Paine

          Then the KCA would be like this:

          1.) All that exists has a cause for its existence, except God.

          2.) The universe exists.
          Checkmate, atheists!

        • Yes, much more honest.

        • Grimlock

          It’s a very good question in this context.

          Counter Apologist quotes Craig ( http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/2013/01/countering-kalam-intro-and-definitions.html?m=1 ) as defining it as follows,

          “The kalam cosmological argument uses the phrase “begins to exist.” For those who wonder what that means I sometimes use the expression “comes into being” as a synonym. We can explicate this last notion as follows: for any entity e and time t,
          e comes into being at t if and only if (i) e exists at t, (ii) t is the first time at which e exists, (iii) there is no state of affairs in the actual world in which e exists timelessly, and (iv) e’s existing at t is a tensed fact.” [4]

        • Michael Murray

          But what does time mean when there is no space-time ?

        • Grimlock

          I’ll be damned if I know.

        • Phil Rimmer

          Exactly so. If spacetimes…space’n’unidirectional times are caused by the collision of branes in an existing time symmetric quantum reality that has no entropic clock, then the cause was not in any sense before. Maybe the branes are timelessly moaning about being made to bump into each other by some clumsy black hole of a collapsed universe?

          My brains hurt.

        • Phil Rimmer

          Witgenstein would trash this with a few word games, The definition of the entity is the first problem. When does the crystal begin to exist? When does the first world war begin to exist? These are semantic issues about e. Retrospectively deciding on what is entity e is problematic. e starts to exist only in the moment it is defined and achieves its identity.

          My chicken casserole ostensibly began to exist 13.75bn ya. Even while making it I wasn’t sure what it would actually become, (stir fry, breaded escalopes). Half a bottle of stale red wine, some still viable thyme… I had potatoes to add in, got distracted and did a cheddar and leak mash by mistake a little later. So it never really existed, but different things existed along the way variously caused by active additions and passive omissions.

        • Grimlock

          Well said!

        • Len

          So your chicken casserole existed before thyme.

        • TheNuszAbides

          Look at you, bringing sage insight.

        • MR

          We’re not going to get all caraway with the puns again, are we?

        • Greg G.

          They just pour in, as if through a fennel.

        • Jesus did much with a few cloves and fishes. He mint return and do it again.

        • Greg G.

          Don’t be in such a curry. Jesus is sore from keeping the devil at bay so he is cumin gingerly.

        • MR

          Oh, poppyseedcock. You’re just trying to curry favor with the bay leafers. It’ll be a chile day in hell before Jesus be cumin back.

        • Someone needs to stop snorting the spices.

          Just step away from the spice rack, that’s a good boy.

        • MR

          Horseradish! We’re just trying to spice things up around here. It brings out the zest in life. You should lighten up before you break out in chives.

        • Greg G.

          Dangit! You beat me to the “horseradish”.

        • Greg G.

          He’s full of horseradish manure.

        • TheNuszAbides

          Now rye would I want that to happen?

        • Greg G.

          Now you are Reuben him the wrong way.

        • It means “I’ve got to think of some way to differentiate God from everything else. I can’t just say ‘exists,’ because then God would have to have a beginning… What loophole can I fabricate so that God isn’t caught in the argument’s net as well?”

        • Phil Rimmer

          Yep. But I know of nothing that begins to exist that isn’t some post hoc observation of a transformation from something earlier. I have no knowledge of things beginning to exist ex nihilio. I can’t exclude a palpable God (e.g. made flesh) from transforming from something by that means. Folk may equivocate “nothing” to sell books…. but no-one actually excludes an ever existing principle.

          It would seemingly (!) be the class of unobservable things may have the potential to begin to exist without my knowing. I don’t mind them existing at all.

        • Lack of any precedent, ever? Faith can get you past that problem, brother.

        • WCB

          The difference for theists is, God is a supernatural entity while the Universe is material and not supernatural. The rules are different for supernatural and natural entities. And for many theologians, God is incomprehensible and inscrutable. Mere human reason cannot ever be adequate to understand God. William of Okham: God is incomprehensible and cannot be understood by human reason, all we can know about God comes from revelation.

          The burden of evidence is then shifted to atheists. “Prove there is not any supernatural realm where God exists”. Problems like free will vs omniscience or problem of evil are brushed aside by various stratagems. At bottom, if backed into a corner, “God is incomprehensible”. The all purpose dodge. The ultimate theological special pleading.

          Romans 11;33 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!

          Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

        • They say something similar when God’s actions are morally bad–his ways are not our ways.

        • TheNuszAbides

          The Romans verse is such obsequious nonsense. “Riches”? Assigning value to something absolutely inaccessible? Then again, it’s sort of the ultimate in artificial scarcity …

          “… and his ways past finding out!”
          Again, this is only a good thing from the standpoint of gratuitous authoritarian conformity. Never mind that no apologist or demagogue lets that stop them from inferring all sorts of “finding out” to calm the flock … or get them riled up.

        • Rudy R

          I object to adding “probably” because we don’t know the properties of matter and energy before the universe was created, so cannot be likely to be the case.

        • Grimlock

          Oh, I don’t think that we’re justified in believing (1), or (2) for that matter. But I don’t think that your original objection is sufficient to do much at all to halt the argument.

          Whereas something along the lines of what you propose works better. (I’d probably phrase it in terms of the insurability of metaphysical truths, such as (1), but it seems functionally equivalent. )

        • epeeist

          I object to adding “probably”

          It has always been my contention that the KCA should really be formulated modally, thus:

          P1: □ Everything that begins to exist has a cause
          P2: The universe began to exist.
          C: □ The universe had a cause.

          I have niggles about “probably” too, perhaps the syllogism ought to be written

          P1: ◊ Everything that begins to exist has a cause
          P2: ◊ The universe began to exist.
          C: ◊ The universe had a cause.

      • And since the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics makes that very argument, you’re on firm footing.

      • Derek Mathias

        Indeed! In fact, I made a video undercutting each step of the KCA: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ax27g5ZKa-w

  • The problem is still there: why that entity has to be the Christian God and no other totally unrelated. That is something apologists for very obvious reasons ignore.

    • Kevin K

      Christopher Hitchens was fond of the phrase “all your work is still ahead of you”.

      • Rudy R

        But theists are happy to stop working after claiming god magic created everything.

  • Kevin K

    I guess this kind of discussion always brings me back to the fundamental question … why do we need to argue the existence of a deity who (it is claimed) wishes to be acknowledged and worshiped as the creator of the universe? Why can’t it make itself known without the assistance of apologists, theologians, and preachers?

    If it were me as that particular type of deity, I’d make darn sure that everyone knew of existence in a clear, undeniable, and universally accepted way. That doesn’t interfere with “free will” in the least (the most-common theist objection), because we’re told in the stories that Lucifer was in heaven and yet still had the “free will” to rebel.

    • MR

      I guess this kind of discussion always brings me back to the fundamental question … why do we need to argue the existence of a deity who (it is claimed) wishes to be acknowledged and worshiped as the creator of the universe?

      I feel the same when apologists try to defend the dating of manuscripts or who authored what when. Why are we even speculating about something written 2,000 and more years ago if God is alive and well in the here and now and loves me and wants more than anything for me to know him? They treat it like some obscure, unprovable theory that they’ve become obsessed with knowing the correct answer to rather than there being a living, active agent that can just show us the truth. It’s just all so much mental masturbation. It undermines the credibility of an active, loving God if you’re reduced to defending the integrity a bunch of ancient, antiquated manuscripts.

    • Jack the Sandwichmaker

      For some reason, in modern times, this God values belief without evidence, while in the Bible he was all too willing to show off evidence of his existence to his followers and seemed happy to have their fawning subservience in return.

    • I Came To Bring The Paine

      I can can conceive of a being no greater than a god who has made himself known unambiguously to every single human being on the planet without any scriptures or organize religions; and no human worships this god because this god doesn’t want or need any worship and he discourages any worship; there are no apologists, theologians, or preachers because everybody knows this god with absolute certainty – faith is non-existent.

      Since this god doesn’t exist, therefore, The Greatest Conceivable Being does not exist.

      Checkmate, theists!

      • And yet a Christian will look at this simple relationship and handwave that that’s ridiculous–if a god existed, he would want to be hidden, to have drowned everyone on earth, to handwave an imaginary but infinite grievance against everyone that only his own sacrifice could assuage, that his trinitarian structure is both mandatory and yet unimportant to summarize in his enormous, ambiguous book, and so on.

    • Rudy R

      And what is the difference between a deity that does not make itself known and nothing? Nothing.

  • Michael Murray

    Nicely explained. It seems to be that at some point in maybe the last 100 years theologians took a step back and stopped claiming that that they could prove God’s existence and just started defending belief in God as not irrational. Slowly we are winning !

    • Doubting Thomas

      We lower the bar and they still fail. Of course, we could set the bar on the ground, they’d trip over it, fall on their face, and then complain that the atheists are being mean again.

  • WCB

    Matthew 5:48
    48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

    Then we have the issue of Perfect Being Theology. Many Christians claim that such verses demonstrate god is perfect. Anslem tells us that there are some things that are good, some things better than good, and some thing must then be the most good of all. That is God. Aquinas later adopts that as one of his 5 proofs of the existence of God, so it is an important concept and claim. Perfect Being Theology.

    And now, what do theologians mean when they say Maximally Great Being? Perfect being or less than perfect being?
    Perfect being has some problems. The God of the bible is not perfectly morally good. Many theologians try to redefine good as some sort of divine command, no matter what God does is good because he is God. But the we have the problem of the sub-goodnesses of God. The Bible explicitly tells us God is compassionate, merciful, just and fair. But if God is not these, then God is not good. Goodness then is not some sort of inscrutable thing we mere mortals cannot understand when we speak of God’s goodness. Romans 11, God the great potter who makes some vessels of honor and others vessels of dishonor. God who decides some are elect and others not. that is not fair nor just. So the words just, fair, compassionate and merciful needs to be redefined.

    We achieve a sort of intellectual nihilism where words no long have any real meaning.

    So, when theists say maximally Great being, do they mean the Perfect Being Theology, or something lesser? Maximally Great Being is a slippery term. How does it relate to the failed Perfect Being Theology?

    • Jemolk

      The other major problem with something like Divine Command Theory defining good as “what God commands” is that we have a pretty clear idea of what we mean when we say a thing is good. An idea which definitively does not line up with what they’re trying to claim is good by defining good in those terms. Put slightly differently, Divine Command Theory relies on equivocation at best and outright lies and deception at worst in making its claim about the good, or at least when it’s being sold to people. J.S. Mill actually ripped it apart for precisely that reason. Not to mention that DCT makes the statement “God is good” reduce to “God approves of God.”

      • WCB

        Many theists will tell us that your feelings about such things do no matter. We are mere mortals and cannot hope to understand the inscrutable God. My sub-goodness of God argument is meant to attack that idea. If we find Bible verses, supposedly reliable revelations about God from God or inspired by God that explicitly claim God is merciful, compassionate fair and just, this cuts the legs out from the God is incomprehensible dodge. I developed that argument because over the years, theists have played the supposed mysteriousness of what we call “good”.

        I have been surprised as of late to read that a good number of theologians now argue that God does not owe us any moral obligations. William Craig Lane, Edward Feser for example,and googling for that shows it seem no to be a staple of many apologist websites.

        We have the odd argument that “good” is some sort of attribute of God’s that does not mean God necessarily has to act on his goodness, by direct action. God is not a moral agent, God owes us no moral obligation. But is perfectly good despite lack of action.

        In John Calvin’s Essay On The Secret Providence Of God, God is said to cause all that happens in the Universe. God’s sovereign providence. If a good Christian is robbed by robbers and savagely beaten and left for dead, God causes that to happen. But God remains completely blameless for the evil God directly causes! It is a startling little claim. Martin Luther in his “Bondage Of The Will” sets out to demonstrate that the Bible demonstrates free will is impossible. If so, doesn’t that mean then that all men who do evil do not do it of their own free will? Yes. Then doesn’t that mean God causes all moral evil? Luther whines he wishes he had no been born a man to face such a problem. He finally states that God is incomprehensible, inscrutable. Logic and rationality is abandoned.

        There is some weird crap going on in Christian theology us atheists for the most part don’t seem to know much about.

        • Ficino

          It’s been a long time since I read Luther or Calvin, but at least in the Thomistic tradition, “being”, “good”, “true,” “one” are all convertible. If something has existence, it has goodness, truth, and unity. So the Thomist can say pretty much that whatever you want to say is an evil is a good insofar as it has existence, to say nothing of God’s ability to bring “good” out of evil. And since they say that God’s essence is identical with His existence, all God’s properties are in reality only his existence. It’s only in our minds that they seem distinct as goodness, power and whatnot.

          Pretty much anything can be waved away by this metaphysics. And whatever God is and does is good by definition.

          The beginning of an answer to the above is, in my opinion, the realization that existence is not a perfection. Existence is not a predicate. To say that it is destroys predicate logic. But goodness is a predicate. So being/exists is not convertible with good.

        • Greg G.

          We have the odd argument that “good” is some sort of attribute of God’s that does not mean God necessarily has to act on his goodness, by direct action. God is not a moral agent, God owes us no moral obligation. But is perfectly good despite lack of action.

          It is like they have painted themselves into a corner with wanting to say God is good but doesn’t correspond to the human meaning of “good”. They want to say their god thingy is powerful enough to prevent all hunger yet chooses who starves and who doesn’t.

          Using a word with a contrary definition is shady. The word “veil” and its anagrams would work as well as any other word for a such a concept.

      • Greg G.

        DCT makes the statement “God is good” reduce to “God approves of God.”

        Excellent.

        • Grimlock

          At least God’s got great self-esteem.

      • Greg G.

        An idea which definitively does not line up with what they’re trying to claim is good by defining good in those terms.

        Think about what that does to the Objective Morality argument. It means that morality is subject to whatever God happens to command. When Xtians claim that morality must be grounded, it turns out to be grounded in weasel terms.

        • Jemolk

          Yup. Plenty of better entirely secular groundings, like empathy or just simple mutual benefit. Funny thing, by the way — with philosophical definitions, any morality created by a god would be subjective by definition, since by objective we mean independent of minds, and its creation by a mind — any mind — makes it dependent on that mind. “Objective morality created by God” is in fact a contradiction in terms.

        • Jack the Sandwichmaker

          And it makes this Objective Morality useless. Good is whatever God wants to happen at the time. While there are some (somewhat contradictory) examples of what is good and bad in the Bible, they’re not comprehensive. So most of the time we have to make judgement calls on what is right and wrong, and if Good is just whatever God want without any consistency we cannot extrapolate from those examples of “Objective Morality”

      • JustAnotherAtheist2

        The other major problem with something like Divine Command Theory defining good as “what God commands” is that we have a pretty clear idea of what we mean when we say a thing is good….

        “God is good” reduce to “God approves of God.”

        Equally problematic is that this effectively voids the purpose of theistic objective morality. The whole reason to hypothesize an external basis for morality is so that it is more than mere opinion.

        Unfortunately for theists, their solution suffers from the same problem. Even if morality is grounded elsewhere (however that might work), we are still incapable of knowing if something is really good or not. All we can say is whether something aligns with the source, but that will generate a positive result whether our morality is grounded in a perfect god or in the most cliche version of Satan…. with no way to tell which one we happen to mirror.

        That’s apologetic hypotheses for you. Untestable, unfalsifiable and completely useless even if true.

        • WCB

          There is another aspect to this. Consequentialism. Our actions have consequences, often moral consequences. If I do X, people will suffer needlessly. If I do not do X, people will suffer needlessly. Making people suffer needlessly is not good. Do not do X. The Euthyphro problem ignores consequentialism. If God is good, then it would seem he would pay attentions to the way he creates this world and runs it. God would for example, would make sure Hitler did not go into politics. So again, God is not logical or wise, or does not care about us, or is not merciful, just, compassionate and fair as the Bible claims. Again, many theists dodge the Problem of Evil by claiming God owes us no moral obligations, which amounts to admitting God is not a consequentialist, which needs explaining.

          Or on a grander scale, God would create us all with a good moral nature, as God enjoys, and free will to freely do only moral good,as theologians claim does. So the question is, why is God not a consequentialist? Why does his failure to act in the world count to God’s being good and wise?

        • JustAnotherAtheist2

          There is another aspect to this. Consequentialism

          The reason this gets overlooked is because consequentialism is inherently subjective. Yes, consequences themselves are objective, but whether the consequences themselves are good or bad is not.

        • WCB

          For those theologians that take the Bible as authoritative revelation, inspired by God himself, we have some explicit claims. God is merciful, just, compassionate and merciful. If God’s acts or omission of acts results in consequences that are none of these, it cannot be brushed off as subjective from mere mortals’ viewpoints. This supposed revelation sets limits if God is to be, as a proposition, self consistent, coherent, or true as a proposition.

          I call this the sub-goodnesses of God argument. The Bible is indeed explicit that God has these attributes. I developed this after debating Christians who dodged the issues of God’s bad behavior by trying to redefine the term good to mean anything other than good, making that term a vague, vapor of a term to avoid admitting the theology of Paul, a God that arbitrarily elects some and nt others, hardens hearts, makes some men vessels of honor, others vessels of dishonor etc, as good.

          If theologians want to play this redefinition game, they have to also redefine fair, just, merciful, compassionate and other sub-goodnesses to mean some other than what they mean. The Bible also gives examples of these sub-goodnesses making it hard to whiffle away their meaning with Christian sophistry.

          This sub-goodness argument then puts and end to that argument by redefinition game. The words fair, just, merciful, compassionate, would have to be accepted as having an objective meaning, or the redefinition game would have to continue until Christianity achieves near total intellectual nihilism, where no word means anything any more for Christian theologians trying to save appearances.

          Every sura of the Quran starts with “Allah, the compassionate and merciful” so this works with Islam and the Quran also.

        • JustAnotherAtheist2

          If God’s acts or omission of acts results in consequences that are none of these, it cannot be brushed off as subjective from mere mortals’ viewpoints.

          Sure it can. “God has sufficient reasons for blah blah blah”.

          The problem with this isn’t that it’s inconsistent with our definitions of “goodness” or “benevolence”. The problem is that, if god is so inscrutable that apparently harmful consequences aren’t evidence of harmful intent then god is also too inscrutable to infer good intent from positive results.

          In other words, your issue can be resolved, but only by ditching goodness along with it.

    • Jack the Sandwichmaker

      At best, that verse demonstrates that Jesus claimed God is perfect.

    • I Came To Bring The Paine

      MGB is an ever moving target. A MGB only makes sense as a theoretical/hypothetical concept and not an actual being that exists. The moment a theist says that the MGB is the Abrahamic god is the moment the Abrahamic god ceases being the MGB because there is always somebody who will conceive a being greater than the Abrahamic god.

    • eric

      MGB means a vague uncharacterized being on Friday, when arguing with atheists, but means Jesus on Sunday morning.

  • JustAnotherAtheist2

    Premise 1′. An MGB exists in one or more possible worlds.

    Premise 2.

    Premise 3′. Given that an MGB exists in some possible world (premise 1) and that an MGB either exists in all worlds or none (by definition), then an MGB must exist in all possible worlds.

    This is an excellent summation, Bob. I may have to “borrow” it some time.

    • Greg G.

      Aw, shucks, Bob S, thanks for the hat tip. High fives to JustAnotherAtheist2 and Grimlock.

      • Grimlock

        Whoop!

      • JustAnotherAtheist2

        Here, here! Or is it, “hear, hear”? 🙂

        • Taneli Huuskonen

          “Hear, hear!”

        • JustAnotherAtheist2

          Are you answering or just playing along?

        • Taneli Huuskonen

          Answering, but on second thoughts, why not both?

        • JustAnotherAtheist2

          Hear, hear.

  • Grimlock

    Thanks for the hat tip, and thanks for writing this! Very thorough and accessible.

  • Grimlock

    But change one cog in the machine, and you get a different prize when you turn the crank. Change every exists to doesn’t exist. It’s still valid, but its cleverness has been turned on itself. Now the conclusion becomes, “Therefore, God doesn’t exist.”

    Basically, we got two rival initial premises:
    1. There is a possible world in which God exists.
    1*. There is a possible world in which God does not exist.

    When a proponent of the modal ontological argument is confronted with this, one response that I’ve seen a couple of times is to claim that (1) is supported by the other theistic arguments. Thus making (1) preferred to (1*).

    Suffice to say that I don’t find this compelling. At all. But I was wondering if anyone else had any particular objections to it?

    • Amtep

      My objection is that it just means we can stop talking about this argument and should be looking at those other arguments. If this one derives its truth from the others, it adds nothing.

      • Grimlock

        Agreed.

        I’d also ask which arguments holds as a conclusion a necessary being. Arguments such as Kalam, EAAN, teleological arguments, and so on, typically don’t do that. The closest would be the argument from contingency or some such.

  • Jack the Sandwichmaker

    And I think it’s essential to them, that once they get you to agree that the MGB is possible, that they feel you’re not allowed to retract that once you realize the implications of the “necessary” quality they snuck in.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      Not only don’t they understand ‘informed consent’, they don’t understand that consent is an ongoing process.

  • Ficino

    Only tangential to the OP, but I didn’t know where else to put this:

    Aquinas in De Potentia 3.17 co says that when we ask why the world came to be when it did, or why it is of its size or location, the answer is not in necessity or in some “best possible world” but simply in God’s will and wisdom. How is this answer functionally different from saying “God did it,” or even, from invoking brute fact? It’s an admission that our understanding of the world reaches a point beyond which lies inscrutability, since God’s will is not known to us. It has long seemed to me that despite Christians’ touting the PSR as the bulwark against a fundamentally absurd world view, their own position and the skeptics’ end up at the same place – standing before a mystery. But the boundary of the mystery seems more for scientists to push back than for theologians or metaphysicians.

    I get it that Christians say that to invoke God’s will is not to invoke brute fact because God is by definition His own explanation, while brute fact offers no explanation. But since we don’t have access to God’s will, nor to His wisdom about the age, size, location etc. of the universe, it seems the Christian scientist is no farther ahead than the skeptical scientist after all. “For God so willed it” is not an ampliative explanation. The Christian just has a different name to put on the mysterious, and the advantage of thousands of years of tradition and cultural weight and institutions attached to the name.

    • Kevin K

      I have often observed that those theists (mainly Christians) who declare that the gods are inscrutable are the same theists who are the loudest in telling us exactly how those gods want us to behave; especially in regard to taking of sexual pleasure.

      • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

        taking and giving of sexual pleasure.

        (my two cents…)

      • Ficino

        “The most important thing we can know about the first cause is that it surpasses all our knowledge and power of expression. For that one knows God most perfectly who holds that whatever one can think or say about Him is less than what God is. And because of this, Dionysius says in the first chapter of his Mystical Theology that man is united in the better part of his knowledge to God as to [one] completely unknown, because he knows nothing about Him, knowing that He is beyond all mind… however a cause exceeding its effect cannot be sufficiently known through its effect. In this way therefore it is clear that the first cause is above telling, because neither through its cause, nor through itself, nor through its effect can it be sufficiently known or spoken of.” ~ Aquinas, On the Book of Causes lecture 6

        • Kevin K

          …”But we know for sure it hates the icky gays.”

      • eric

        As the man said, “CHRISTIAN, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.”

      • It’s also interesting that God’s rules don’t inconvenience them too much. Gays must be celibate, for example. It sucks to be them, but it doesn’t trouble our straight, homophobic Christian.

      • Ficino

        The Catholic traditionalists get to the same condemnations as do the fundies, but their strategy is trickier because they claim to derive their precepts from “natural law,” which, they say, anyone through right reasoning can arrive at. E.g. reasoning about nature tells us that it is wrong for a married couple to use artificial birth control but OK for the couple to calculate when during the month they can have sex w/ less chance of pregnancy.

        • Kevin K

          You just gave me a flashback to the “counseling” session I had with my then-fiance in a Catholic church basement 40-odd years ago.

  • Otto

    This argument reminds me of what it was like to take shrooms in college.

    Whoa…it is possible God exists, and God is the greatest thing possible, and God couldn’t be great if he didn’t exist, so therefore God has to exist. OMG I just proved God!

    • Michael Neville

      No, that should be: “OMG I just proved…hey man, have you ever looked at your hand?”

  • Damian Byrne

    For those interested, I took part in a formal head-to-head debate on the MOA here
    https://debatingchristianity.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=32046
    It didn’t last very long. What people from here might find hilarious is that right after forfeiting against me, my opponent then took up a second head to head debate on the exact same topic and gave the EXACT SAME OPENING ARGUMENT as the one he gave me

    https://debatingchristianity.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=32131
    He forfeited that one too.

    • Damian Byrne

      “What kind of god are you defending if you must go to this argument instead of pointing to convincing evidence? What kind of god are you defending if he can’t defend himself?”
      This is a good line from the post, because it brings to mind my opponent I talked about up above. He several times said on the forum I frequent that he considers logical arguments like Kalam and the MOA to be evidence for his God. I tried correcting him over and over that philosophical logical arguments can NEVER act as evidence (data from the real world), but never got through to him.

      • Jemolk

        It’s true that philosophy generally builds off evidence and directs its critiques more at the analysis of that evidence, but “never” is an incredibly, inordinately strong claim. Of course, if you define “evidence” as “data from the world,” as you did there, then certainly, but you’ve built that into a definition that I’m quite sure most people do not share. You could, of course, claim that as the scientific definition, but science is not the only area in which evidence is used or needed, and not all evidence need rise to the level of rigor of scientific evidence to be worthwhile to consider. Logical proofs, I think, should count as evidence, as should strong inductive arguments. Not that any apologetics rise to the level of either of those things, of course, but that wasn’t quite the claim made there.

        • Damian Byrne

          How can logical proofs be considered evidence? Consider the following argument

          1) all men are immortal
          2) Damian Byrne is a man
          Conclusion: Damian Byrne is immortal

          So I must be immortal, right?

        • Greg G.

          We are all immortal for a limited time.

        • Jack the Sandwichmaker

          We are young, wandering the face of the Earth.

        • Jemolk

          We’d need to be dealing with sound arguments, not just valid ones. That’s a valid argument, which is to say that the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. It’s not sound, though. Sound arguments are valid arguments with true premises. And before you or someone else points this out, yes, that would essentially mean a chain of evidence where the argument is evidence that previously collected evidence applies to something possibly non-obvious — or possibly common sense but unproven prior. For an example of the latter, see Descartes’ cogito. Very few full-on deductive arguments work and fail to reduce to induction, but that one does. (Of course, Descartes then proceeds to go completely off the rails with his follow-ups, but that’s another story.)

        • Greg G.

          Here is one of the quotes RichardSRussell posted a few hours ago at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2019/01/the-modal-ontological-argument-it-needs-a-good-thrashing-2-of-2/#comment-4306836659 :

          “No Discourse whatsoever can End in absolute Knowledge of Fact.” —Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), English philosopher, mathematician, and linguist, Leviathan (1651)

      • Maybe it wasn’t the logical vs. evidence-based distinction but rather “evidence-based arguments are the ones you need to argue for God” that he refused to get.

    • A Christian forfeited? That’s surprisingly honest. But then they lose any goodwill by repeating the same argument that they’ve been shown is flawed.

      Whatever it takes to win souls for the Kingdom, I suppose.

      • Damian Byrne

        “Whatever it takes to win souls for the Kingdom, I suppose.”
        Just out of sheer curiosity, Bob, did you look at my opponent’s user-name BEFORE writing that line?

        • No. What did I miss?

        • Damian Byrne

          His user-name is For_The_Kingdom.

  • Blacksheep

    Too much of philosophy is word games. As you rightly pointed out, “possible” is a loaded word and can be used to “prove” the existence of almost anything. I’m a Christian but I’m not pretending that the existence of God can be proven – especially with word games.

    • Grimlock

      I realize that you’re probably not here to answer all our questions. But what you write make me a bit curious.

      Do you think that God’s existence can be made plausible by arguments/evidence/observations of the world?

    • Good to hear. Do you make intellectual arguments to convince others that Christianity’s supernatural claims are correct?

  • RichardSRussell

    “No Discourse whatsoever can End in absolute Knowledge of Fact.” —Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), English philosopher, mathematician, and linguist, Leviathan (1651)

    “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” —W. K. Clifford (1845–1879), “The Ethics of Belief” (1879)

    “Acceptance without proof is the fundamental characteristic of Western religion; rejection without proof is the fundamental characteristic of Western science.” —Gary Zukav

    “A deepity is a proposition that seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed. It has (at least) two readings and balances precariously between them. On one reading it is true but trivial. And on another reading it is false but would be earth-shattering if true.” —Daniel C. Dennett, American philosopher

    “We cannot know that Santa definitely doesn’t exist. This is technically true. But what’s your best guess? Go on. Be bold.” —Ricky Gervais, British comedian

  • Even many renowned Christian philosophers have rejected this argument. Yet others keep on advocating it nonetheless.

    I think you are right though-God is impossible given the incompatible properties he has been ascribed. Because of that I’ve now come to embrace positive atheism.

    • I Came To Bring The Paine

      Because of that I’ve now come to embrace positive atheism (the view God
      does not exist, rather than simply lacking belief in him).

      That’s my position as well. That gods do not exist. Yet people have argued with me.

      Me: Gods are fictional.

      Arguer: Oh yeah? How do you know gods are fictional?

      Me: Because they are man-made.

      Arguer: Hah! That’s a circular reason, and that’s invalid!

      Me: Are the X-Men fictional?

      Arguer: Of course they are!

      Me: How do you know they’re fictional?

      Arguer: Because they are… Oh…

      • Well it’s not circular if we show they were man-made however. People seem to have a double standard on this however. They demand we prove gods don’t exist, which isn’t often asked of skeptics toward other things. In any case it’s shifting the burden of proof, a logical fallacy. If there’s not even evidence for some entity, we are justified in disbelieving that it does exist until some is presented. As for God, that isn’t even coherent, particularly the triune version.

      • Amtep

        You can’t rule out, though, that the X-Men do exist, and the existence of man-made documents purporting to describe them is mere coincidence.

  • igor

    wrt MGB:

    1. If it is greater existence to exist in all Possible Worlds than to exist in one PW, then it is even greater existence to exist also in all Impossible Worlds.

    2. If it is greater existence to exist in all Worlds, then to exist in all contexts, (rather than just the supernaturalist context,) is surely greater.

    So the greatest Being exists in all Worlds (Possible and Impossible) as well as in all contexts – thus the Being is Pantheistic/Panentheistic (depending upon the definition) – God is everything.

  • WCB

    Possibilism is rhetorical dodge. “It is possible that fairies exist. Can you prove they don’t?”. It is a dodge that shifts the burden of evidence to those who deny the possibility of something that in fact, obviously does not exist. An infinite number of gods, fairies, God, The Flying Spaghetti Monster. The only way to handle this as an atheist is to firmly refuse to play this game. And to state firmly why we don’t play the possible game. Burden of proof is still on the claimnant. But then the atheist can demonstrate the incoherency and self contradictions of the God hypothesis.

    • igor

      Possibilism in the context of Possible Worlds leads us nowhere useful. We can imagine some Possible Worlds in which fairies exist, but all of these worlds are imagined. For each ever claimed god, we can imagine some Possible Worlds in which each of these gods exist, and again, each of these worlds is imagined.

      It is only when the tricks of definition (my god exists in all Possible Worlds) and Modal Logic (axiom S5), plus the mis-application of the Possible Worlds construct (the Actual World is a Possible World) are used that seemingly valid, but actually invalid, arguments/conclusions ensue.

      One way out of this is to use the tricks against the apologists. Try this – when the apologist asserts that God possibly exists, firstly allow the apologist to select any Imagined Possible World. The argument seems to work for the apologist. Then do it a second time in which you select the Actual World as the selected Possible World. If the Actual World is a Possible World, the apologist cannot complain about your choice. Then ask the apologist how the existence of God in the Actual World has been demonstrated. game over.

  • Derek Mathias

    Nicely done. In my own experience dealing with theists who use this argument, I just stop them after premise 1 and say, “Possible? How can anyone know if an MGB is even possible?” They typically don’t know where to go from there. It’s an easy way to immediately correct the definition of possible in a way they generally understand. If they need more, one can say, “Is interdimensional travel possible? We don’t know if it’s possible because we don’t know the limits of technology. Is an MGB possible? We don’t know because we don’t know the limitations of great beings.”

    • I can imagine them saying that “possible” and the “Maximally” in MGB are connected. A maximally great being is simply as great as it is possible to be and no greater.

  • Brian Shanahan

    There’s a much more basic problem with the ontological argument: Define a “Maximally Great Being”. The christians who push the argument don’t even bother defining what they claim exists.

  • abb3w

    There’s another weakness to this “ontological” class of argument that seems more significant, at “Maximally Excellent”. The basis for ordering is not specified, the specification is not necessarily unique, and the ordering that results may be partial or inconsistent.

    This gives rise to further problems, such as the entity being ambigiously, nonexistent, or even self-contradictory.

    (To be fair, the Godel version seems to avoid these, but allows the entity to be trivial — that is, “nothing”.)

  • Steven

    1. Wouldn’t God be a MGB? A MGB is a being that has every great making property to its max. How else would you define God?
    2. Does the argument beg the question? I don’t think it does. Why? The first premise can be argued for and accepted without assuming the conclusion. For example, you can believe the first premise is true because a MGB is a logically coherent concept. So, its existence is logical possible. Nowhere in there did I assume the conclusion to come to that belief.
    3. A MGB is a coherent concept. I know a lot has been written on this. So, I recommend a few books. https://www.amazon.com/Coherence-Theism-Clarendon-Library-Philosophy/dp/0198779704/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_t_0?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=9RYBGRH5E3X7M3J6N88C and Chapters 27 and 28 in https://www.amazon.com/Philosophical-Foundations-Christian-Worldview-Moreland/dp/0830851879/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?crid=2QXAAZFJHDCUB&keywords=philosophical+foundations+for+a+christian+worldview&qid=1564679975&s=books&sprefix=philosophical+foundation%2Cstripbooks%2C198&sr=1-1-spons&psc=1
    4. You can run the argument and replace MGB with a MGB does not exist. However, all this shows is that either one or the other is true. So, you are right back where you started. Namely, is it metaphically possible for a MGB to exist or not?
    5. In regards to the moral objection, a MGB might not be the Christian God. The argument does not depend on whether it is or is not though. So, if the first premise is true then with the use of modal logic you have to accept the conclusion. A MGB (God) exist.