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!

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