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On the Value of Ontological Arguments

An ontological argument is one that uses reason and intuition alone to come to a conclusion, most often the conclusion that God exists. It seems to me that any attempt to produce reliable knowledge solely by arranging English words is illegitimate. Of course, the same applies to any language—even the language of mathematics. Physicists recognize that even the most elegant of theories expressed in mathematical form must ultimately be tested and validated by empirical observations. They construct, at enormous expense, experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider in order to discover the secrets of the universe. Theologians, however, seem to be under no such constraints; they simply string together English words to accomplish the same end. Can this be a valid approach?

I argue that every attempt to generate knowledge must be grounded in empirical observations. The ontological arguments implicitly assume that words, together with grammar and syntax (i.e., language) can be used to accurately discover knowledge about reality without the inconvenience of examining the real world. But, where did language come from? It evolved over many thousands of years, and reflects the thoughts and experiences of all humans who have used it. Admittedly, language does reflect reality to some extent. The English word “aardvark” is reflected by an extant African insectivore, and the word “zebra” is reflected by an extant African herbivore. But there are some English words that do not reflect reality; “unicorn” and “hobbit” come to mind. More seriously, modern physics has shown that words such as “time,” “particle,” and “cause,” to name just a few, are problematic. The common meanings of these words are at odds with the reality that underlies our universe. Physics reveals that there is every reason to believe that language distorts our perception of reality.

Consider what the defenders of ontological arguments expect. Using only language, and without reference to a single empirical observation, they expect to derive an understanding of the very deepest levels of reality. How can the manipulation of typographic symbols, unaided by a single observation, be thought to produce knowledge? Yet this is what William Lane Craig[1] would have us believe. This is the ontological argument as formulated by Alvin Plantinga and defended by Craig:

Now in his version of the argument, Plantinga conceives of God as a being that is “maximally excellent” in every possible world. Plantinga takes maximal excellence to include such properties as omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. A being that has maximal excellence in every possible world would have what Plantinga calls “maximal greatness.” Now Plantinga argues,

1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.

2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.

4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

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

6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

It is not my purpose to show the logical fallacy in this argument. Rather, my purpose is to argue that merely because the English words “maximally great being” can be uttered, and merely because our brains are trained to construct some meaning for this phrase, it does not follow that we can derive knowledge regarding external reality by manipulating these words. These are simply words, with no more claim to representing reality than “unicorn” or “hobbit.” The word “zebra” is known to represent a real animal because we have seen it, photographed it, dissected it, and so forth. But “maximally great being” was conjured by Plantinga’s imagination, just as “hobbit” was conjured by Tolkien’s imagination. Plantinga’s three words can reveal nothing about the nature of reality, because they were not derived from any observation of reality.

Let’s look at the other four of Craig’s arguments, from the same article on his website. The Cosmological Argument from Contingency suffers from the same defect as the above:

The cosmological argument comes in a variety of forms. Here’s a simple version of the famous version from contingency:

1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.

2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.

3. The universe exists.

4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1, 3).

5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God (from 2, 4).

Again, not a single observation of reality—merely words. In particular, “the necessity of its own nature” seems to say something, but what? How have human beings ever observed such a phenomenon? How would we apply such a phrase to an entity that we know is real? What, for example, is the necessity of the nature of an aardvark, or of the universe for that matter? If we cannot define and explain this phrase with respect to an actual animal, how can we hope to define it with respect to some hypothetical and never observed entity?

We can dismiss this argument for exactly the same reasons as the ontological argument above. Here is another of Craig’s favorites:

[H]ere’s a simple moral argument for God’s existence:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

Again, only words. Craig offers no justification for the first two premises other than “… people generally believe both premises.” Well, people once generally believed the world to be flat.

Let’s look at the Kalam Argument:

Here’s a different version of the cosmological argument, which I have called the kalam cosmological argument in honor of its medieval Muslim proponents (kalam is the Arabic word for theology):

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Once we reach the conclusion that the universe has a cause, we can then analyze what properties such a cause must have and assess its theological significance.

And again, nothing beyond words. The first step is at odds with current Quantum Mechanical theory; there is no reason to think it is true, and much reason to doubt it. But it sounds plausible when expressed in English. As it happens, “plausible” is a term that Craig favors highly. In fact, he uses that term to justify each of his five arguments.

Craig offers a fifth argument for the existence of God that seems, at least on the surface, to have considerable substance:

Here, then, is a simple formulation of a teleological argument based on fine-tuning:

1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.

2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.

3. Therefore, it is due to design.

Craig has a discussion of the basis for this argument that is too long to reproduce here. Rather than critique that discussion, I suggest you visit Craig’s website and read it for yourself. Instead, let us focus on the possibility of physical necessity. If a coherent and empirically verifiable Theory Of Everything (TOE) is ever formulated, it would destroy this argument. Craig argues correctly that science has not done that (at least not yet), and he therefore argues, incorrectly, that the fine-tuning argument must therefore be convincing:

Premise 2 of the argument addresses that question. Consider the three alternatives. The first alternative, physical necessity, is extraordinarily implausible because, as we’ve seen, the constants and quantities are independent of the laws of nature. So, for example, the most promising candidate for a TOE to date, super-string theory or M-Theory, fails to predict uniquely our universe.

The problem for Craig is that the history of science doesn’t support this argument. The cycles and epicycles of pre-Copernican astronomy were inexplicable to the best minds of the time; it was widely agreed that a supernatural explanation was the best available. But when Copernicus and Newton came along, the need for divine intervention melted away. The complexity of biology, and the balance of nature seemed at one time to support a supernatural explanation, but Darwin changed all that, at least for those who understand science. Magnetism and electricity were once the province of magic and theology, but then Faraday, Maxwell and many others discovered the laws that governed these phenomena. Why should we now believe that reality can only be explained by the supernatural? Have we learned nothing from the history of science?

To sum up, I argue that we need more than plausible arrangements of words to determine the ultimate nature of reality. Specifically, we need observations and measurements. This is the difference between theology and science—the difference between superstition and genuine knowledge.


[1] See reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8088 (Note: Registration and login required prior to using this link.)