Friday, January 27, 2012

The Modal Ontological Argument

What’s wrong with the ontological argument? That’s something I’ve been wondering. Now of course, as is the case with every theistic argument we give a generic name, the “ontological” argument is a type of theistic argument. I only intend to focus on Plantinga’s modal ontological argument (MOA). The MOA appears like this:

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 it exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

5. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

Many people dismiss this argument, thinking it’s some kind of parlor trick. However, it is an excellent example of modal reasoning. First, let us explain the argument and how the logic works.

A maximally great being is defined to be a being possessing maximal excellence, “where maximal excellence entails such excellent-making properties as omniscience, omnipotence and moral perfection.”[1] By (1), Plantinga means to say such an idea involves no incoherence, and is intuitively possible. That is, it really could be the case such a maximally great being exists. Most people would agree with this. The second premise just explicates the idea of possibility in a format called “possible worlds.” A possible world is a complete description of the way reality could be, down to the last detail, encompassing every proposition’s truth or falsehood in a consistent manner. Hence, if something truly is possible, then it exists in a possible world.

(3) is the premise that confuses the average layperson. Why should it be so that if a maximally great being exists in one possible world, he exists in all? Because such a being holds its greatness and excellence in a maximal way, it would do so in every possible world (else there would be a greater being displaying more excellence—namely, the one who existed in all possible worlds).

The fourth premise is just true analytically. The actual world belongs to the set of all possible worlds. This is because if the actual world were not possible, it would not be actual! But then (5) follows, and the maximally great being does in fact exist.

So it seems the crucial premise is the first one. Epistemically, one may say it is possible God does exist and possible he does not. However, we are interested in metaphysical possibility. It is on these grounds one must object. That objection can come in two forms: A. The concept of a maximally great being is incoherent,[2] or B. We do not (and/or cannot) know whether or not the concept of a maximally great being is metaphysically possible. With respect to (B), it’s not at all clear why we cannot justifiably intuit such a being is metaphysically possible (even if it’s not epistemologically compulsory that we do). With respect to (A), it seems the maximum values of what we would call “great-making” properties are coherent, and hence it follows they are metaphysically possible.[3]

John Feinberg, a Christian theologian, remarks on his interest in the ontological argument but seems to show agreement with its critics. He wrote, “what . . . [the ontological argument] proved is that a contingent being could not be God. Any being worthy of the title ‘God’ must be a necessary being.”[4] The philosophical rub Feinberg seemed not to catch, however, was this: in modal logic, a being or truth that is necessarily true means it is impossible not to exist. A necessary corollary or entailment of some being or truth being necessary is that if it does turn out to be false, it is necessarily so. So the MOA demonstrating the maximally great being’s necessary existence does more than give us a curious fact. Rather, it establishes that God’s existence is either necessary or impossible. Either the maximally great being is possible or impossible. This is why it is such a great argument!

                [1] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 496.

                [2] Here, incoherence means the maximally great being has two or more properties or attributes that conflict with one another so that they cannot both be actual in the same being.

                [3] Again, without being able to explicate every property, it is difficult to force someone to accept the metaphysical possibility of the maximally great being. However, that would not be grounds to deny it. Further, even if we could explicate every property, it is only the lack of incoherence of which we are aware that allows us to hold our intuition.

                [4] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 190. He was commenting on Anselm’s second formulation of the argument, but the MOA relies on the same conclusion on this point.
All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Scientism Revisited

Scientism is the view that says “empirical science is the only source of our knowledge of the world (strong scientism) or, more moderately, the best source of rational belief about the way things are (weak scientism).”[1] I am addressing, in this post, the more popular-level scientism that one encounters on the Internet. What spurred the post was an interesting interaction on another Christian’s blog wherein a new atheist claimed there could be logical contradictions. In response to the claim that one must rely on some kind of version of the law of noncontradiction for this, he claimed that logic is in the same boat, for it cannot be justified apart from circularity.

The two problems are not, in fact, symmetrical. The first problem, which I shall dub the “logic problem” (or LP), states that logic cannot justify itself, for it would have to presuppose the use of logical reasoning to find out if that same reasoning were justified. The second problem, which I shall dub the “illogic problem” (or IP), states that any attempt to justify why the law of noncontradiction fails will end up relying on some objective form of it.

LP has the luxury of being what Kant would famously call “transcendent.” That is, it cannot be thought of other than by presupposing its truth. Now while that is in fact circular, it nonetheless seems harmless, since any rational criticism given of it will by definition be employing the same rationality it wishes to criticize.[2]

IP has no such symmetrical luxury. In fact, it faces the opposite problem. It must purport that logic does not exist in an absolute or objective manner. IP must then either give an objective reason for such, in which case it is self-defeating, or must give no reason at all, in which case one does not need to believe it. There is a difference between circularity and self-defeat. In circularity, the idea or proposition relies on its own truth in its expression. In self-defeat, the idea or proposition relies on its own falsehood in its expression. And so it is with the idea that logic is faulty.

What does this have to do with scientism and new atheism? In my particular example, the new atheist was not disputing whether or not philosophy suggested there was a God. Rather, he simply concluded philosophy has little or no place because science was all we needed. In defense of science not being able to justify itself nor saying philosophy does not apply, he merely employed a tu quoque response. Science’s not being able to justify itself is not a symmetrical problem either, since the idea of empiricism cannot exist apart from philosophy.[3] Scientism, at least on the popular level, cannot be successfully defended.

                [1] James E. Taylor, “The New Atheists,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. < >, accessed January 27, 2012.

                [2] Note I am not necessarily defending particular rules of logic as much as logic itself, regardless of the particular formal rules.

                [3] This is just to say that empiricism is not transcendent; it can be thought of apart from presupposing its truth. Thus, the problems of science/IP and LP are not symmetrical in any meaningful sense.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Theologians and Philosophical Thought

I have read previously of Christian theologians who are fairly ignorant of Christian and theistic philosophy and its impact upon doctrine and teaching on God. I had heard these theologians did not understand philosophical argumentation and frequently committed logical errors. I considered this to be a mild exaggeration. While I had read some minor theologians who did not, the majority of the ones I read seemed quite capable of rational philosophical discourse. However, I finally read a theologian who discussed the classic arguments for God’s existence in a bizarre fashion.

Gerald Bray discussed the ontological, cosmological, moral, and teleological arguments in his book. In each section he thoroughly misunderstood large portions of the arguments and/or what constitutes good objections to them. I believe this is largely due to a lack of philosophical familiarity and training.

First, he discussed the ontological argument by defining God as the “greatest conceivable being” (GCB). Bray rightly asks the question of what is meant by “greatest?” Apparently for him, this “greatest” property can be applied to just anything and in any respect. So it is because of this he asks, “What about forms of greatness which are conceived along lines which are incompatible with the being of God?”[1] For this he has in mind being the greatest conceivable thief, or something of that nature. I’m sure Anselm’s response would be that it is greater not to be a thief than to be a thief, precisely because it is greater to be morally good than not (and we agree thievery is morally bad). Hence, it’s just an error of conflation to think the GCB entails being the greatest of every conceivable property.

A worse error crops up when he says about the difficulty of conceiving the greatest of something, “it will always be possible to conceive of something greater than the maximum.”[2] This is simply not so, for if one thinks of something greater than the maximum of which he previously thought, then what he previously thought was not the maximum. Further, Bray seems to be thinking in terms of pure quantitative greatness, not metaphysical greatness. For a clear counterexample, think of the being who is morally perfect and could not sin. By definition this is the maximum. What does Bray think exceeds this?

Next, he discussed the cosmological argument. He examines Aquinas’ form of it (and labels it something else as well). He assumes the old line of “who created God?” is a good objection.[3] The whole point of the argument is an explanatory stopping point that did not come into being; asking how it came into being uncaused simply presupposes that definition (and one of the argument’s premises) to be false!

Third, he discussed the teleological argument. With this argument, he decided it may have a flaw in that some proponents may be inclined to deny miracles. This is because the argument appeals to the natural order of things and design.[4] The problem is it is just logically fallacious to infer that if some undesired consequence takes place, the argument is unsound. It is not the case that if some proponents of the teleological argument hold an irrelevant but false belief then that argument should be discarded, or even considered to have a flaw.

Finally, he takes aim at the moral argument. He lists several “problems,” including: the fact that people disagree on what constitutes good moral behavior, Christian theism contains apparently contradictory moral commands, moral obligations constitute a form of legalism, objective morality is a pagan concept, and that God chooses what is moral.[5] The first two objections are actually epistemological, not ontological. They seek to explore knowing moral obligations and values, not the foundation on which those values exist. Hence, it is a category error. How we come to know moral values or what obligations we believe we have are irrelevant to whether or not we have them at all.

As for moral obligations constituting a form of legalism opposed to Christianity, this also seems based on confusion. Biblically, legalism was the idea that one would be closer to God salvifically (or be more sanctified) by adhering to a specific code. Moral obligations are not necessarily purported to be any such thing. They merely constitute something we owe to God, something Bray interestingly affirms later on.[6]

The objections concerning morality being a pagan concept and God’s choosing of what is moral seem equally confused. The first objection seems to argue implicitly for antinomianism—the view that there is no moral law whatsoever. While Bray does not call himself an antinomian, his view of objective morality is clear: there is no such thing, it is a pagan invention. Couple this claim with the immediately prior objection of legalism, and we see antinomianism in everything but name. However, he tips his hand toward theological voluntarism by suggesting what is moral is whatever God commands. But this statement coupled with a lack of an objective standard of morality just makes “good” and “bad” void of any real meaning.

Why then ought we to obey God? It’s not because we are comporting with goodness. It rather is a “might-makes-right” mentality that states we obey God because it’s good, and it’s good because he says it’s good, and he can say it’s good because no one can stop him. Holiness, goodness, righteousness, all lose objective value—not because they are found in God, but because they are rather subject to his whim, as opposed to his nature.

Theologians ought to study basic reasoning and philosophy, if only so that they may be made aware of the benefits of natural theology. Aside from not being able to interact effectively with the arguments, he thinks that natural theology’s efforts are “perhaps best described as pathetic.”[7] Such ignorance ought not to be among Christian theologians.

                [1] Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 68.

                [2] Ibid.

                [3] Ibid., 70. Interestingly, he later contends God is uncaused and nothing accounts for his being (p. 82), so that this objection disappears, again by definition.

                [4] Ibid., 71.

                [5] Ibid., 72-74.

                [6] Ibid., 74.

                [7] Ibid., 109.
All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Friday, January 20, 2012

PSR Revisited

I have returned from a brief hiatus from blogging. Work, school, the holidays, and life in general have been calling. I am glad to be back!
The other day at work a colleague expressed some frustration with an issue she had been dealing with. She received an e-mail asking her if there was a “particular reason” she had done something. Exasperated, she said something like “Of course there is. I mean, there’s a particular reason for everything.” I found this extremely interesting because she is a self-described atheist. Not only that, she has a very strong educational background in philosophy.
This got me thinking that it sounded awfully like the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). Interestingly, in everyday conversations in which we do not know there to be theistic implications we tend to grant, almost as a prima facie truth, the PSR. This is what has led Alex Pruss to label the PSR as “self-evident” to anyone who understands it.[1] Further, he contends a major reason for denying it is in the case of “fear that acceptance of the PSR will force one to accept various theological conclusions.”[2] Surely, one must have a better reason to reject the PSR than his or her desire to avoid God.
This also allowed me to consider the question: “what is the reason that everything has a reason?” In her statement, my co-worker intended something like “for every state of affairs X there exists some reason or state of affairs explaining X.” She thought it to be plainly false that there are events or things that are simply inexplicable. So what could be the reason or state of affairs which explains the state of affairs of everything having a state of affairs which explains it?
It seems to me that one cannot always simply appeal to some other, further, explanation—at least not without being willing to accept an infinite regress. But since we know an infinite regress does not—indeed, cannot—explain the entire state of affairs such as we wish to do, it cannot be acceptable. Nor can the series of explanations run in a circle, with each part explaining some other part so that the whole state of affairs is explained. The reason is twofold.
First, suppose we wanted to know why a series of dominoes had fallen. It wouldn’t do any good to explain each domino’s falling in terms of some other domino’s striking it, for it simply doesn’t apply in the case of the initial domino. Suppose we could get simultaneous motion on the dominoes, however. We still do not understand why the entire state of affairs exists at all. That is just to say we do not have an explanation in the relevant sense. Second, the reason or state of affairs which explains the state of affairs of everything having a state of affairs which explains it is just not this type of thing that can be explained by its individual parts. It seems to be a self-evident truth of metaphysics, not a happenstance principle forced onto the universe by perception.
It seems to me the most plausible solution to the PSR’s truth is ultimately God. Why? Because the truth of the PSR is most plausibly an expression of logic and truth. Logic and truth are a part of reality. So we can use an argument to our advantage suggesting God is the sufficient reason for just anything and everything that does exist, or comports with reality/truth, including the PSR and its truth.
1.      The PSR is true.
2.      If the PSR is true and reality exists, then reality has its explanation either in its own necessity or another cause.
3.      There is nothing real external to reality.
4.      Reality exists.
5.      Therefore, reality has its explanation in its own necessity.
6.      At least some part of what is real could have failed to exist.
7.      If some part of what is real could have failed to exist, that part is contingent.
8.      Reality would be different were any parts of it different (explanation of possible worlds).
9.      There could have been different realities (or possible worlds [analytically true]).
10.  Therefore, the reality which now exists is not necessary (analytically true).
11.  Therefore, reality does not find its explanation in its own necessity.
But now consider:
12.  If God is a necessary being, then he is part of reality.
13.  God is a necessary being.
14.  Therefore, God is part of reality.
15.  Therefore, reality finds its PSR in God (analytically true).
(2) is definitional, (3-4) are demanded of any serious thinker, and (5) is a conclusion. (7-8) are also definitional, and (9) is true if (6) is true, and the same goes with (10) as a consequence of (9). (11) results from (3) and (10), which of course makes (5) and (11) contradictory. (6) may be opposed by a “hardliner” who just wants to claim a modal collapse and that everything is necessary, but this is not a road well-travelled. (12-13) are definitional as a hypothesis, and (14) is the result if we grant these. But those engender (15), if the other foundational premises are true.
Therein lies the rub. The atheist/objector may cite (2) and insist, via modus tollens, that the PSR (1) is false. However, any attempt at reasoning that the PSR is false will rely on premises that are less obviously true than the PSR. Additionally, we have seen that even an atheist, when they are left with their intuitions and experiences, will believe strongly that the PSR is true. But if the PSR is true, the major explanation of the universe and reality is likely to be God.

[1] Alexander R Pruss, The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment. (New York: Cambridge University, 2010), 14.

[2] Ibid.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.