Rejecting the Ontological Argument

It’s a long weekend in Canada and I sat and watched this hour long presentation from Dr. Josh Rasmussen at Cameron Bertuzzi’s Capturing Christianity live conference. He’s discussing a possible update to the Ontological Argument for God’s existence. I must admit, it’s unsettling to see Cameron outside of his dark dramatically lit cave of a studio. Mauve is an interesting choice!

Having watched it, I really appreciate the honesty and the tone that went into it. He is very clearly sharing an idea still in development. If you listen carefully he’s not even convinced his own argument is persuasive. And he’s presenting it in front of (what I gather from the tone of questions) was an entirely friendly audience. so I won’t try too viciously to knock the argument down since even the speaker himself isn’t sure if it’s even standing upright yet.

He’s also undertaken an ambitious task. Ontological argument is generally regarded as the least persuasive of all them. To the philosophically uninitiated it just sounds like a pure word game. This presentation is full of things like this, “Do positive properties necessarily entail negative properties?” Yes? No? Absolutely maybe always? And it’s extremely difficult to go be persuasive when your reader is constantly wary that you’re just trying to pull a fast one on them.

A generous reading of ontological arguments is they show that a god’s possible existence is not inconsistent under modal logic, but that mere possibility (which most atheists would grant) doesn’t provide you with a path to argue for even likely existence, let alone necessary existence.) A cheeky reading is to claim they’re just a round about way of making the conditional claim, “IF we assume god exists necessarily, THEN it follows god exists actually. Checkmate atheists.”

It’s generally accepted that logical deductions of the form being used here can’t produce new facts about the real world. They just reorganize and shift the emphasis between things you already accept as true. Think of the classic:

  1. All men are mortal
  2. Socrates is a man
  3. Socrates is mortal

Socrates is mortal is not a new fact. It’s highlighting a particular instantiating of known things. There is a famous parody from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The most powerful super computer ever designed, Deep Thought, “

which was so amazingly intelligent that even before its data banks had been connected up it had started from I think therefore I am and got as far as deducing the existence of rice pudding and income tax before anyone managed to turn it off.

This is clearly absurd, but it demonstrates the point. And since God is an entity that may or may not exist, it’s existence cannot be inferred in this way. And from my lights this kind of argument is just a challenge to try to ferret out where they’ve buried the question begging.

Josh attempts to address this objection but doesn’t do a particularly convincing job. The best he manages is to claim you can’t prove that it’s impossible ever do deductions of the sort that would be required. But stops short of actually demonstrating it can be done.

The attempt offered is things like “the concept of a concept” or “the property of having properties.” Those aren’t particularly helpful. We’ve known since Bertrand Russell and Gödel that statements which are self referential (think of the proposition “This sentence is false” or strange examples about barbers who are oddly selective about who may shave whom) can be undecidable — it is impossible to assign them a truth value — and that all logical systems must contain statements of this type. So as a proof of concept this is not really persuasive. Frank Turkey and Norman Geisler call these Roadrunner Arguments, and they are more irritating than persuasive. Post Gödel, the principle of charity requires us to append statements like these with, “and obviously that sentence should be caveated appropriately so it doesn’t accidentally become self referential and confuse the barber.”

It’s also worth noting that under naturalism, concepts or concepts of properties aren’t required to be in your ontology. They’re just brain states used to spread up information processing. Making concepts is a process brains do, like burning is something a candle does. We don’t think of the burning as being preexisting within the candle.

As part of the step up into the mountain, he should have at least one example of a “thing” (rather than a concept, which not necessarily real on naturalism) whose existence can be demonstrated through this type of reasoning.

I don’t think it’s wise to jump straight from “You can’t prove it’s logically possible” to “I’m going to use it to persuade you the thing you don’t believe exists not only exists, but does so necessarily.”

One objection I’ll raise is that the argument as Josh phrased it, is subtly circular. A huge part of Rasmussen’s talk revolves around positive properties. how would you tell whether a property was positive or negative? We are constantly reminded through the moral argument that without god, it’s impossible to ever identify anything as good or bad. Without an objective standard, right and wrong, good and bad, all just come down to who is able to shout their opinion the loudest. So without knowing their is a god, positive property is not a coherent concept (or property… I get lost in the jargon too.) unless you presuppose god, then there’s nothing stopping the maximally great being from also being maximally evil. If you want to attribute positive properties in the ontological argument, you need a separate standard which means sacrificing the moral argument, which has the most emotional appeal even if though skeptics don’t find it convincing either.

Personally, I don’t even think modal logic is up to the task of addressing fundamental properties of reality. “possible worlds” is just not useful.

If we discover that it’s not possible to send information faster than light (which most every physicist accepts we have), how does that shape the landscape of possible worlds? Do I still consider gods with the ability to send information faster than light? It’s generally required that a possible world be coherent. So to claim that you could evaluate the internal consistency of universes with different laws of physics (or the absence of laws of physics that would characterize the nothing that existed “prior” to god’s creation of the universe) from an armchair cannot be taken seriously.

But if we are allowed to take any possible law of physics, or really any known fact about the world can be selectively disregarded, to allow for possible world consideration in the contemplation of possible worlds, god becomes a totally unfalsifiable hypothesis.

While he opened wanting to address objections, he seems unaware of the two most common objections. (Which just means he hasn’t field tested the argument with skeptics yet.) They are both to do with definitions.

(I can understand not wanting to address this in a public talk since most of the arguments for god’s existence require taking every day words into circumstances where they weren’t intended to be used and hoping that our intuitions can continue to orient us. But everyone also knows that quibbling over semantics is annoying and/or boring for most listeners who would really just rather you get to the point.)

Greatness not well defined. If something can be more or less “great”, what does that mean. Is an ant colony greater than a portobello mushroom? Is a shrimp greater than a neutron star? Is a pdf of Hamlet greater than the Up-Quark field in the standard model? When you actually try to ask what “great” means, it shows itself to be an incoherent picture.

Assuming it can be quantified, Is it a number like your height, weight, GPA or Wordle score? If it is, then numbers just go on forever. For every integer, you can just have the next integer. So maximal greatness would be a contradiction in terms. This was presaged by the same supercomputer Deep Thought mentioned above, which realized that it’s main function would require it to design an even more powerful supercomputer “whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate.”

Of course it’s possible to be finite, and have a maximum. Many video games don’t allow the player to progress beyond level 99, or to have, say, more than 9999 hp. The speed of light is the fastest speed achievable in our universe. A black hole has the maximum possible entropy in a finite region of space time. Information processing is bounded by the laws of thermodynamics. So there is a finite Number of computations that can be carried out in a given region (so that, for example, given a computer the size and age of the observable universe, you could only ever work out a finite number of digits of pi.)

It could democratic, like a popularity context. So many very great beings could vie for greatness based on the number of conscious beings in worship them across the multiverse, and the title of maximally great could be stolen if Hades hacked the voting machines.

It could be bounded and cyclical, like how rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper and paper covers rock. So you could have an infinite set of distinct yet equal beings of finite greatness, all greater than all of the beings outside the set but not guaranteed to be greater than any from among their number. But of course if the maximally great being is not infinitely great, then you have no guarantee that this being is sufficiently great to create universes or sufficiently good to provide an objective foundation for morality.

You also run into a version of Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law; any sufficiently great being is indistinguishable from a maximally great being. So god may be the maximally great being, but that’s no guarantee that some lesser but sufficiently great being (maybe even Satan) still has universe creating abilities and is the one responsible for our present world.

Given that the god we are asked to accept has a number of properties which don’t appear “necessary” (for example, being triune, or not liking figs), in order for god to have all the properties we need to be consistent with observations without it being dumb luck (the fine tuning argument turned on it’s head), there would need to be a pantheon of maximally great beings of which the god of the Bible is just one.

“Maximally great” can’t support any weight in the argument.

Being isn’t doing much better. It’s a large leap to imply being a person automatically implies greatness. Do black holes and quantum fields have less greatness than a blue whale?

By using vague words you can put your thumb on the scales so in the face of any ambiguity, you can just shush the person and whisper, “Cut it out, you know we’re talking about the God of the Bible, don’t let the details bother you.”

The most obvious single problem is that it needs to be assumed that something that exists is “greater” than just the concept of the same thing. (This was first pointed out to me in a YouTube presentation by AC Grayling.) Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. Although it is somewhat contrary to Platonism which generally holds that the concepts for things (like numbers and geometric shapes) are perfect idealizations and any instantiation of them in reality is just an imperfect approximation. So one could be cheeky and argue that the non-existent maximally great god would be greater than any god that could actually exist, which would defeat the argument.

You can actually take it a step further and show that God, if he exists can’t be the maximally great being. One thing human minds are good at is conceiving of contradictory propositions. While a maximally great being that actually existed cannot have properties which are mutually inconsistent.

Therefore, you just conceive of a god which has the property of being able to possess contradictory properties. God can create a rock so heavy he can’t lift it, and then lift it. God can create a being more powerful than himself while still being that being. He can exist even if his existence is logically impossible. Checkmate atheists times infinity!

I think then you get a proper dilema. Either you allow having a being with contradictory properties, in which case the greatest possible being conceived of cannot exist in any possible worlds, it’s stuck as a concept. Or you admit that god necessarily has contradictory properties and therefore there’s no logical formulation that could validly conclude his existence.

This has all been in good fun. Ontological arguments have never really been taken seriously. Plantinga himself is even reported as saying he doesn’t believe his own formulation is persuasive. They’re an intellectual exercise like crossword puzzles or pencil sketches of strangers on the subway.

Truthfully, I think I’m on to something. For many people the source of god’s maximal greatness is his ability to embody contradictory properties. That’s how you can argue…

  1. That everything needs a cause, but god is uncaused.
  2. That you need to refer to an objective moral standard external to your own opinions, except god whose subjective opinions define morality.
  3. That you are omnipotent, yet petty and jealous and demanding of constant worship.
  4. That you can be pure love and still have good reasons for inflicting gratuitous suffering on your creations.
  5. That you are all powerful but needed to create humans through billions of years of evolution in a universe doomed to heat death.
  6. God can be timeless and unchanging yet can decide to create the universe and change his mind (even about moral facts like genocide and slavery.)
  7. he has a perfect plan, but his plans can be changed by prayer. He is outside of space and time and yet constantly meddling undetectably with what happens in space and time.
  8. He is unfathomable and yet we are all justified in having a properly basic belief about him.
  9. There is only one, and yet there are three separate parts that can have conversations with each other.
  10. The reason for suffering in this world is because god wanted us to have free will
  11. He is omnibenevolent yet requires blood sacrifices for forgiveness
  12. The evidence for his existence is all around him yet undetectable by any scientific apparatus.

(Let’s not even mention the presuppositionalists.)

God is just the logical rug under which we sweep all our most troubling contradictions.

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