Archive for November 2005
Due to its philosophical nature, the ontological argument may be considered by many to be the weakest argument for the existence of God. However, it nonetheless presents many intriguing facets to the debate. Put simply, the argument suggests that the existence of the very concept of God implies that God exists in reality. The key element of the argument is in how the concept of God is defined.The ontological argument was first proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th century monk, in his book, The Proslogion. In his argument, Anselm proposed that once a clear understanding of the concept of God is obtained, the necessary existence of God will follow. His definition for God took shape as ‘God is an entity which none greater can be conceived.’
An atheist, then, would have to counter-argue that the idea of a being of which none greater can be conceived exists only in the mind but not reality. It is here where Anselm considered the counter-argument to be compromised. If the atheist asserts that a being which none greater can be conceived exists only in their mind, then the nature of that being is limited to what the mortal mind can create, and thus is not the greatest conceivable entity, even in conceptual form. Furthermore, if the atheist asserts that a being which none greater can be conceived exists only in his mind, a greater being can be conceived as a being which none greater can be conceived in the mind and reality. Anselm’s argument can be communicated in an outline form:
- God is an entity which none greater can be conceived.
- It is possible for God to exist as an idea in the mind.
- If premise 1 is true, then the existence of God cannot be limited to an idea in the mind.
- God must exist in reality.
One of the initial objections to this proof came from the monk Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm. His objection was based in a theological concern that Anselm was defining God in order to prove his existence. He introduced a simple analogy to prove the point: If one defined a perfect island as one which none greater could be conceived, then by Anselm’s proof it too would exist. According to Gaunilo, proving the existence of an island in this manner is absurd, as would be proving the existence of God in the same manner.
Anselm’s response to the objection required a minor clarification of premise ‘1.’ He suggested that only a necessary or non-contingent being could be defined as that ‘which none greater can be conceived.’ For any given finite entity, there could be any number of conceivable greater versions. One would only have to observe the limits of the attributes of that entity in order to conceive of an expansion or improvement. In other words, an island could conceivably have more coastline, one more coconut tree, finer sand, etc. Anselm reminded Gaunilo that God is necessarily non-contingent, and thus the argument sustains.
Later in history, however, 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant introduced another objection to the ontological argument. Kant argued that Anselm’s proof was ultimately tautological as it appealed to the necessity of the existence of God in order to prove the existence of God. In other words, Kant suggested that existence was not an attributable property of something as are the properties of size, weight, shape or color. Thus conceiving of something which has any sort of properties does not make it so, simply on the basis of possibility. It must be empirically verifiable. However, neither the positive or negative side of the argument can satisfy such a requirement, as it is not discussing finite entities that can be examined. Nevertheless, after Kant’s criticism, the ontological argument was rarely invoked.
One flaw to Kant’s objection lay in his requirement of the proposition’s existence to be verifiable outside of the argument itself. There would be no purpose to even conceiving of such an argument were it not dealing with an entity that would exist! In other words, if an entity which none greater could be conceived would not implicity exist, then an argument seeking to prove the existence of that entity should neither exist. Contemporary philosopher Norman Malcom suggested the following adaptation to Anselm’s proof:
- God is an entity which none greater can exist.
- If the existence of God is possible, then God must exist.
- If the existence of God is impossible, then God must not exist.
- The existence of God is possible.
- God must exist.
This argument resolves the other issues and cannot be refuted without disputing the truth of premise ‘4.’ For anyone to reject the possibility of the existence of God, complete and objective knowledge of everything would be required.
Another form of the argument can be found in the work of philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga’s argument propels the challenge into the realm of possible worlds. He suggests that if the existence of an entity of which none greater can be conceived is possible in any world, then its existence would be necessarily possible in any possible world. If this is so, then it would be impossible for an entity of which none greater can exist to not exist! A proof of Plantinga’s argument can be outlined in the following way:
- A possible world in which exists an entity which none greater can be conceived exists.
- An entity which none greater can exist is so only if it exists in all possible worlds.
- An entity which none greater can exist is so only if it is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect.
- It is impossible for an entity which none greater can exist to not exist in any possible world.
- An entity which none greater can exist exists in all possible worlds.
This argument rests on the acceptability of the first premise, which is not obligatory for the atheist to accept. Though the argument itself is internally consistent and rational, its tenuous nature may not make it an effectively persuasive one. Bearing this in mind, Malcolm’s argument is more effective as it places the burden of proof upon one who would deny its fourth premise, ‘The existence of God is possible.’ The impossibility of affirming the opposite of this premise requires knowledge unavailable to any man.
From a philosophical perspective, the ontological argument can be seen as somewhat ‘in-house’ in nature, as it remains purely philosophical and cannot be empirically tested. However, it deals with the essential question of how God is defined, as well as the rational possibility of the existence of God.
I would like to begin my examination of this argument with the disclaimer: I am not quite sure if I can fully accept the view. It is typical that this argument is given within the context of a soley presuppositional approach to apologetics, excluding an evidential approach on the basis that understanding evidence is contingent upon the presupposed theistic worldview. My problem with this view is not that it is entirely incorrect, but it is typical that evidential apologetics is effective in repositioning the secular worldview once the validity of evidence is accepted. So, in order to restore the theistic worldview to a place of validity in the argument, the evidential approach is helpful. It should also be said that evidential apologetics tend to be more acceptable and understandable to the average person, whereas the transcendental approach can be a bit more philosophically complex.The transcendental argument derives its name from the meaning of transcendent, ‘of or relating to experience as determined by the mind's makeup,’ and suggests that such an argument is justified by the impossibility of the contrary. The means of this justification is based upon the following basic argument:
- A is the precondition of B
- B is true or exists
- A is true or exists
This proof suggests that any worldview must be reduced to a single set of presuppositions which support other beliefs. The transcendental argument serves to establish the validity of a logocentric presupposition to all means of understanding and discourse. This argument above can be applied simply by considering any belief one may have and reducing to a singular belief by means of provisional authority. In other words, the epistemological base of our variety of beliefs is the singular belief that allows for contingent beliefs to be held. This epistemological base could be visualized as the central point of a ‘web’ of beliefs, which provides the authority for peripheral beliefs that formulate our worldview. If we hold a simple belief, let’s call it ‘A,’ one could inquire “on what authority do you believe A?” We would reply, “I believe ‘A’ on the authority of ‘B,’” ‘B’ being a separate but provisional belief. Of course, one could also ask, ‘on what authority do you believe ‘B,’ to which we, in turn, would reply, “I believe ‘B’ on the basis of ‘C.’” It is clear that this process could continue much farther than our alphabet would allow! The point is that from a skeptical point of view, an infinite process of establishing epistemological authority could ensue. However, if we allow this, then no belief could be valid, no matter where in our ‘web’ of beliefs it may reside. However, implicit in an apologetic procedure, no matter which ‘side’ is being argues, is the notion of truth. (Even the orthodox relativist cannot escape this!)
What consequences would ensue if skepticism was employed? If the rule is ‘no one knows; no one can know,’ then there is no basis from which to assign authority to that rule. Without an authority, then ‘truth’ can go no further than the individual, nor can it withstand any form of external criticism, no matter how arbitrary. So what is the ultimate source of authority, and how is it to be verified? The presuppositional view argues that empirical data, observations, and/or evidences cannot be the authority simply because these are subject to interpretation based upon a worldview. So, if an ultimate authority is going to be reached, that authority must be self-attesting. But can a belief be self-authenticating? Is this not the circularity that every logician avoids like the plague? For example, in Matthew 7:28, the people were amazed at the authoritative teaching of Jesus, as apposed to the traditional teaching of the scribes, which had relied upon the authority of the elders. Yet, Jesus taught from His own authority. How could He do this? If Jesus is God, than to whom would he look to for verification of His authority? There is none greater! As Philosopher Cornelius Van Till was known to have said regarding this position, ‘the Sun does not look to the flashlight to verify itself!’ Thus, God’s Word is self-authenticating.
Clearly, the next issue is going to be the verification that the Word of God is accessible to us. Someone might propose that an opinion poll might shed some light on authorizing the Bible. However, what would the terms of this poll be? Outside of a worldwide unanimous ruling, why would we accept a poll as valid in the context of this kind of question? Let’s assume, then, that everyone in the world except one man affirms that the Bible is the word of God. When asked about his dissension, that man is likely to say, “Where does God say that everybody’s opinion matter (and he would be philosophically in the right)?” If the word of God is what it is, it should not require any man’s authority to verify itself- only God can authorize the validity of His Word, and He does it through His Word! If someone cannot accept a self-authorizing authority, then there is no authority, not even on an individual level. Those that argue for the authority of human reason do so on the basis of human reason- another self-attesting philosophy.
Everyone must have a self-authorizing epistemological base. If this worldview is denied, then with it is denied rationality and reason. This is an indirect proof, because a direct proof would require an outside element to verify it. “A reasonable basis for doubt is inconceivable with respect to God’s revelation, because apart from His revelation, the preconditions of rationality, science, human dignity and ethics are all destroyed (Greg Bahnsen, Challenges to Unbelief).”
In previous articles, I have referred to a relatively standard (at least in this setting) logical proof regarding the creation of the universe. The cosmological argument is:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause.
The reason this proof is useful is that it logically shows the necessity of cause for our existence. However, this is where things get more difficult for the argument, and dry for the reader. Please bear with me, as a brief discussion of infinity is necessary before I examine one of the typical objections to this proof (Webster, incidentally, defines infinite as ‘extending indefinitely; immeasurably or inconceivably great or extensive,’ and infinity as ‘unlimited extent of time, space, or quantity’). An infinite regress of causes cannot be possible in this scenario, as we are in effort to explain the cause of space, matter, and time, all of which, from our vantage point of reality, are finite. Therefore the cause of such must transcend time by being eternal, space and matter by being immaterial. When the concept of infinity enters the discussion, we must differentiate between the quality and the quantity. The quality of infinity relates to the potential of infinity, or in a numeric sense, the potential of beginning at 0 and counting incrementally, never reaching a limit. Thus infinity is not a value, per se, but a means of describing a quality. The quantity of infinity is, therefore, an impossibility, as to be able to identify (or count) it would assume a closed set, which is contradictory to the concept itself.
Now, to apply this concept to our observational understanding of the universe is simple. The reason our universe must be finite in its origin, rather than ‘infinite’ in the scenarios of expanding and contracting universes or universes which give ‘birth’ or cause other universe, is because even these alternatives presuppose a catalyst. While they imply a potential infinite in the incremental sense (like beginning at 0 and counting upwards), they cannot account for the origin of the process- they are still mired in cause and effect. Infinite in a regressive and progressive sense would render the concept of cause and effect meaningless. Atheist Kai Neilson sums this up nicely: “Suppose you suddenly hear a loud bang…and you ask me, ‘What made that bang?’ and I reply, ‘Nothing, it just happened.’ You would not accept that. In fact, you would find my reply quite unintelligible (Kai Neilson, Reason and Practice).”
As I mentioned at the start, I would like to address one objection to the proof which I encounter most frequently. This is often stated, ‘Well, if the universe requires a cause, then what was the cause of God?’ The question itself misunderstands the first premise of the proof, which is ‘Whatever begins to exist must have a cause.’ As inferred by the necessary qualities of the cause, God did not begin to exist. Before objectors raise another concern, this is not a conveniently introduced ‘loophole’ for God. The claim that God is eternal and uncaused is no less valid than the same claim on behalf of the universe, yet this is not the only means of proving validity. The cause of time, space, and matter must transcend its creation, and must be personal. Otherwise, for the cause to be non-personal would require a prompt of some sort to which the effect responds. An illustration of a personal cause would be a scenario in which we answer our door after it has been knocked. The person who knocks freely chooses to do so. Both cause and effect cannot be eternally existent, otherwise the door would be infinitely knocked on at the same time as eternally being answered. The contradiction is clear. An impersonal cause of the universe would require a property of the as of yet uncreated universe to precede its existence, to which it would respond in its coming into existence. Thus, the cause of our universe must be personal and uncaused, otherwise, the willing of creation could not occur.
Reading C.S. Lewis tends to put things in perspective for me, as his wit not only aids him in explaining complex ideas, but also points out the extent to which we thinkers can overcomplicate things for the sake of our own debate. His take on this argument does just that as he writes, ‘An egg which came from no bird is no more natural than a bird which had existed from all eternity (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock).’