Evidence for the Existence of God – The Ontological Argument

29 05 2009

This week I am going to help you to do a little brain exercising. The ontological argument has been an argument that has intrigued me from the first time I heard it 20 years ago as a Moody Bible Institute student. Now, some of you are going to think I am weird for making that statement and others will probably do so after familiarizing yourself with the argument. I also know that many in the New Atheist camp like Richard Dawkins give it short shrift in their books, but there are a lot of bright young philosophers who are building on the work of people like Alvin Plantinga and the argument has gained new attention.

I just finished a class in Philosophy of Religion during which I re-read Alvin Plantinga’s treatment of the ontological argument. Now, if you are ever having a problem with pride because you think you are really smart, I would suggest that you read an article from Plantinga, I am sure that it will plant your feet back on Terra firma. I did a brief synopsis of Plantiga’s treatment of the ontological argument and will review it below:

Overview of the argument

1. There is a world W in which there exists a being with maximal greatness.

2. A being has maximal greatness in a world only if it exists in every possible world.

3. The property has maximal greatness entails the property has maximal excellence in every possible world.

4. Maximal excellence entails omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection.

5. Maximal greatness is possibly exemplified.

6. There is a world W* and an essence E* such that E* is exemplified in W* and E* entails has maximal greatness in W*

7. For any object x, if x exemplifies E*, then x exemplifies the property has maximal excellence in every possible world.

8. If W* had been actual, it would have been impossible that E* fail to be exemplified.

9. There exists a being that has maximal excellence in every world.

Argument explained

I think that it is helpful to look at his premises (numbered) and conclusions on their own without the related commentary. I find that the key to Plantinga’s argument is that he states it somewhat differently from what I have heard before in that his initial statement is:

1. There is a world W in which there exists a being with maximal greatness.

This statement, I believe puts the skeptic in the defensive position of trying to prove that this world could not exist. Plantinga goes on:

2. A being has maximal greatness in a world only if it exists in every possible world.

A fancy way of saying that if this being exists, this being would have to exist where ever existence could happen. This would be true since a being that existed in every possible world would certainly be greater than a being that only existed in a limited number of possible worlds.

3. The property has maximal greatness entails (results in) the property has maximal excellence in every possible world.

Simply stated, if the being is maximally great, it has the property of maximal greatness in every possible existence.

4. Maximal excellence entails omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection.

Omniscience (maximal knowledge or seeing), omnipotence (maximal power), moral perfection (self-explanatory) are qualities we would expect from a maximally great being.

5. Maximal greatness is possibly exemplified.

The first of these statements seem fairly straightforward and non-controversial. The second is definitional as to what is entailed in maximal greatness and, although it is not a comprehensive definition, it also seems not to be controversial. The third statement is the one that a skeptic may push back on. However, they are still in the defensive position showing why this could not possibly be the case.

6. There is a world W* and an essence E* such that E* is exemplified in W* and E* entails has maximal greatness in W*

So, what he is saying is that there is a possible world in which an essence, has maximal greatness entails or would be exhibited. This is a follow on to the prior statement and just showing that a possible world could exist where this essence would entail. The skeptic is still on the defensive to prove otherwise.

7. For any object x, if x exemplifies E*, then x exemplifies the property has maximal excellence in every possible world.

So, if an object exemplified the essence that was described in the previous step, it would follow that that object would exemplify maximal excellence in every possible world. In other words, going back to his previous description that maximal greatness would be exhibited in every possible world (for otherwise it would be limited and not maximal), and maximal greatness exhibits maximal excellence, therefore maximal excellence would be exhibited in every possible world.

8. If W* had been actual, it would have been impossible that E* fail to be exemplified.

This just means that if possible world W* actually existed, then E* (maximal greatness) would have to be exemplified in that world. This relates back to #6. So, since there is a possible world in which E* is exemplified and, therefore, by definition established in the argument, E* entails maximal greatness and maximal greatness would be exhibited in every possible world, then,

9. There exists a being that has maximal excellence in every world.

Here is where brains can melt down and people throw up their hands, scratch their heads and say “huh?” But keep reading until it sinks in and you will almost visibly see the light bulb go on and should say aloud, “Aha!”. The conclusion is that if that possible world exists where the maximally great being exists and, by definition that being would exist in all possible worlds since that follows from maximal greatness. Since it is impossible for E* (maximal greatness) not to be exemplified in W* (a possible world), then if follows that it is impossible for E* to be exemplified in every possible world, therefore, that being exists and that being is God.

Again, it is worth pondering this argument until it makes sense to you. If you still find yourself scratching your head and in utter confusion, feel free to drop me an email and I will try to clarify it further. Now that you have had your minds exercised,go take a cool down lap outside in the fresh air!





Wall-E and Me

13 05 2009

This week the discussion in our Interfaith group centered on the idea of the mind and whether someone like the cute little robots in Wall-E could ever experience true love or whether Data from Star Trek TNG would ever become human, even if they put in that emotion chip. What separates man from machine? Could my computer ever develop a free will with the right programing and hardware? I hope not, I have enough trouble with it as it is!

This is a key question in the whole debate over naturalistic evolution, what is the mind and how does it work? Some of the key figures in the debate from an evolutionary perspective are Daniel Dennett from Tufts and John Searle from U.C. Berkeley. Dennett and Searle are naturalists/physicalists, in other words, they believe that the totality of existence is contained within the physical universe. Now, they each have different approaches to attempt to explain mind; however, in each case mind is ultimately an emanation from the brain and not an entity unto itself. This position, however, leads to many difficulties that neither has successfully overcome. I won’t be able to go through all of the problems, nor would you patiently read through the whole post if I did, but here are a few.

First, there is the problem of how to understand mental states in the first place. Some in this camp would reduce mental states down to the physical. In other words, the mind is just a emanation or extension of the brain. This runs into all kinds of difficulties as far as how to understand identity, intentionality, and ultimately, morality. For, if a persons actions are merely determined by their biology, then no one can ultimately be held accountable for his or her actions. Yet, we see more and more of this playing out in our society today.

Second, I mentioned intentionality in the previous point; however, it is a problem of its own. When my brain tells me to lift my thumb or type on my computer, we aren’t really challenged by that thought. However, when you begin to add steps and branches and sub steps to arrive at an intended destination, this is where it runs into problems. For example, if my intention was to go to work so that I could complete a proposal, I would have to get up, get ready for work, drive my car through a series of streets, roads and highways to get to work, go into my office, turn on my computer, log in, start my word processing program, find the file, and search for the place where I left off. This series of steps does not seem unusual to us, yet this poses massive problems for a physicalist since it involves so many sub intentions to arrive at the goal of writing my proposal. There is a real challenge trying to figure out how a person can have intentions that are far removed from immediate actions, something that we just take for granted.

Third, concepts like truth are ultimately meaningless if all we are can be reduced down to physical properties. There is no reason that we could be confident that we know truth if we are simply acting according to causal events directed by our biology. Why would we be confident that our biology led us to truth rather than just to that which will allow us to survive another few minutes? If we are finite creature stuck within a finite existence, then we should have no confidence at all in this regard.

These issues are overcome in a theistic worldview as mind is separate but related to the physical body. God is the eternal mind who has created us in his image (Imago Dei) and given us characteristics that allow us to be in relationship with him. He has instilled us with personality, will and characteristics related to these. This is why when I tell my wife or my kids that I love them it cannot be reduced down to some physical properties of my brain or body, but is something real and meaningful that I am expressing. When I choose to do something right or wrong, I am making a real choice with real consequences. Also, we serve a God who came to live among us by taking on human flesh. Jesus told Pilate, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Jesus understood that truth could be known. He also demonstrated that we are more than more than just physical bodies by rising from the dead. However, even intuitively, we understand that we are more than just physical beings. Our love is real love. Our emotions are real emotions. Our thoughts cannot be reduced to physical mere physical properties. We are more than just the sum of our parts.

Psalm 139

O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.