Refuting Plantinga’s “Victorious” Ontological Argument

By R.N. Carmona

As sort of a reply to the article I posted earlier, I have decided to present Chapter 4 of my book Philosophical Atheism in full. Plantinga’s version of the Ontological Argument is seen as the most updated and formidable. It also makes use of the clause in Nagasawa’s article, namely that since it’s possible that god is necessary, it follows that he is necessary. In my book I explain why I’m extremely skeptical of that clause because I see the leap from logically conceivable to logically possible as flawed; moreover, I see the jump from logically possible to logically probable as flawed, and therefore, see the leap from logically probable to actual as flawed. Never mind that the necessity of such a being is without warrant. Despite the supposed strength of Plantinga’s argument, it is irreparably more flawed than its predecessors. Please read below to find out why.

In order to be charitable to theists, I will forgo discussing Anselm’s Ontological Argument altogether, especially since most of them consider it less preferable when compared to Plantinga’s version or the modal argument. Since Plantinga’s version fails for the same reasons, I will discuss the modal ontological argument. The modal version is as follows:

P1 If God exists then he has necessary existence.
P2 Either God has necessary existence, or he doesn’t.
P3 If God doesn‘t have necessary existence, then he necessarily doesn’t.
P4 Therefore: Either God has necessary existence, or he necessarily doesn’t.
P5 If God necessarily doesn’t have necessary existence, then God necessarily doesn’t exist.
P6 Therefore: Either God has necessary existence, or he necessarily doesn’t exist.
P7 It is not the case that God necessarily doesn’t exist.
P8 Therefore: God has necessary existence.
P9 If God has necessary existence, then God exists.
C Therefore: God exists.

The first bad assumption is found in the first premise. Before I demonstrate why, it is useful to define necessary existence. An entity that exists in all possible worlds necessarily exists, i.e., a being that cannot fail to exist. Leibniz coined the term when he put forth the idea that god created “the best of all possible worlds,” which is one of the earliest theodicies. Philosophers conclude that it is probable that god is a necessary being; however, that conclusion isn’t indicative of truth. Therefore, it is a bad assumption to begin an argument with such an obscure probability.

Philosophers do not state how probable the necessary existence of god is. It is probable that god does not necessarily exist. That allusion can be found in premise two. Also, one could just as easily argue that either there are seven perfect beings who necessarily exist or any other random number of gods so long as we are able to begin with the unwarranted assumption that there are necessary beings. Nothing but our intuition of simplicity is reason to choose one necessary being rather than seven or eight. The possibility of god not having necessary existence is entirely ignored in premise seven — the second bad assumption and the worst of the two. By what authority does one arrive at that premise? Therefore, it follows that what comes after premise seven isn’t true.

God is believed to have necessary existence for a number of reasons; the greatest of these reasons is the assumption that he is eternal, a belief stemming from Anselm. From there, believers posit that god’s existence doesn’t require an explanation. Richard Dawkins and other atheists ignore this assumption when asking, “where did god come from?” From a believer’s point of view, god isn’t a contingent being. Therefore, to them, the question is nonsensical. There is, however, a better option for atheists and it’s the option normally chosen perhaps without realizing: god is an impossible being. An impossible entity is an entity that doesn’t exist in any possible world, i.e., a being that fails to exist in all possible worlds, e.g., a seven sided octagon; a rectangular oval. With that said, I present the equally valid Modal Anti-Ontological Argument:

P1 If God doesn’t exist then he has impossible existence.
P2 Either God has impossible existence, or he doesn’t.
P3 If God doesn’t have impossible existence, then he necessarily doesn’t.
P4 Therefore: Either God has impossible existence, or he necessarily doesn’t.
P5 If God necessarily doesn’t have impossible existence, then God necessarily exists.
P6 Therefore: Either God has impossible existence, or he necessarily exists.
P7 It is not the case that God necessarily exists.
P8 Therefore: God has impossible existence.
P9 If God has impossible existence, then God doesn’t exist.
C Therefore: God doesn’t exist.

If apologists want to argue that their argument is valid, they must grant that the above argument is also. What’s left is to consider which of the two is sound. Unlike the probability apologists put forth, a probability that is bolstered by theological motivations, I can put forth a concrete probability: it is highly probable that the Judeo-Christian god — the god that the Ontological Argument was designed to defend — does not exist. Thus, the modal anti-ontological is sound. I am, of course, putting the cart before the horse as I have yet to argue for that conclusion. That will, in part, be the task of the second part of this work.

It is time now to turn to Plantinga’s version of the argument and to show why it falls into the same trap. I will also address one of the primary motivations driving believers to accept some version of the ontological argument. Plantinga’s version is considered “victorious” not because it is an ironclad, unassailable version of the argument, but rather, because it succeeds at showing that belief in god is rational. The jury is still out with regards to that, but one thing is for certain, Plantinga’s argument does not succeed where the other versions have failed. In fact, it falls victim to a similar contra-argument. Plantinga’s version can be formulated as follows:

P1 A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
P2 A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
P3 It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness.
P4 Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
C Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.

The contra-argument would begin with (1) and (2); it would, in other words, accept the definitions of a being with maximal excellence and a being with maximal greatness. It would diverge beginning at (3) and would therefore continue as follows:

(3) It is impossible that there is a being that has maximal greatness.
(4) Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being does not exist.
(5) Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being does not exist.

Like in the case of the modal version, if a believer claims that Plantinga’s version is valid, s/he must also admit that this version is also. We would again be obligated to consider which of the two is sound.

Curiously, the first premise has another glaring problem. It has, more specifically, an inescapable entailment. The first premise appears to imply that it is possible that there exists a being that has maximal excellence but doesn’t have maximal greatness. There is a being that is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in Y, but not in X. This possibility leaves the door wide open for polytheism and also implies that in some possible world(s) there exists beings who can rival god in the worlds in which they happen to exist. Certainly Plantinga doesn’t intend to allow for these implications, but the first premise obviously entails precisely that. Far from being “victorious,” the argument leads to issues that are simply not found in Anselm’s version.

It is useful to note that even if Plantinga or any Christian rejects the contra-argument, the first premise can be challenged. Rather than quibble with what is meant by maximal excellence, an atheist can accept the definition as it stands. The atheist can, however, question whether this is possible world W in where a being of maximal excellence exists and explore the consequences if it turns out that this isn’t that possible world. In other words, if this isn’t that specific possible world, then the argument is speaking of a possible world that is inaccessible to the believer and the believer is therefore in no better position to convince the non-believer. Put another way, if a being of maximal excellence doesn’t exist in this possible world, then it possibly exists in another world that cannot be accessed by any of the inhabitants in this world. There is therefore no utility or pragmatic value in belief. The argument would only speak of a logical possibility that is ontologically impossible in this world.

The atheist can take it a step further. What Christian theists purport to know about god stems from the Bible. The Bible, in other words, gives us information about god, his character, and his history as it relates to this world. Assuming this is possible world W, does he represent a being having maximal excellence? Is he, for instance, identical to a being who is wholly good? Any honest consideration of parts of the Bible would lead one to conclude that god is not identical to a being who is wholly good; god, in other words, isn’t wholly good. So obvious is his evil that Marcion of Sinope diverged from proto-Orthodox Christians in concluding that the Jewish God in the Old Testament is an evil deity and is in no way the father of Jesus. Yet if he’s evil, then he isn’t wholly good and if he isn’t wholly good, he fails to have maximal excellence. Moreover, and much more damning to Plantinga’s argument, is that a being of maximal greatness has maximal excellence in all worlds. Therefore, if this being does not have maximal excellence in one of those worlds or more specifically, in this world, then it does not possess maximal greatness. Far from victorious, Plantinga’s argument would taste irreparable defeat and this, in more ways than one.

It is time now to consider one motivation a believer may have for accepting a given version of the ontological argument, namely abstract objects. The prevalent school of thought among such believers is that all abstract objects depend on god for their existence. More specifically, abstract objects depend on god for their existence. When one considers that abstract objects need not depend on god for their existence, one should no longer have any motivation to accept the ontological argument as sound. Without entering the metaphysical waters of Lewis’ counterfactuals, one can consider specific abstract objects. One can consider the sort of moral truths discussed in the previous chapter and see that they have naturalistic origins.

One can also consider universals. When concerning universals, there are three views: Platonic, Aristotelian, and Nominalist. Given these three views, some have located a controversy. Yet one can dismiss one of the views on a number of grounds. Prior to dismissing one of the views, it is necessary to elaborate on them.

On the Platonic view, known as Platonic realism, universals exist in a supernatural realm, the realm of forms. These forms give meaning to the terms we use. These abstractions actually exist. So when we speak of all people having ‘humanity’, humanity exists in the realm of forms. That is to say that the form ‘humanity’ is an incorporeal form that corresponds to what all people have in common.

According to the Aristotelian view, Aristotelian realism, which was championed by Peter Abelard, universals are properties or relations held in common by given objects. Humanity therefore exists in the natural realm and not in a supernatural realm. It is a relation all people hold in common and the universal is a term that represents this relation. ‘Manhood’ or ‘blackness’ are instantiated in all men and all black things respectively. This leads to a glaring issue. Clearly, a black table, a black chair, and a black shirt are different objects and yet, they have in common the same property. These objects are thus qualitatively equal. The response to this is that though universals are natural, they do not act as natural objects.

The nominalist view denies that universals exist. There are two ways to go about that. The one denies that universals exist altogether whilst the other accepts commonalities like ‘humanity’, ‘manhood’, and ‘blackness’, but denies that they can be aptly called universals. To apply these approaches, one need only offer a paraphrase of sentences that are true and entail universals. Thus, for a sentence like “all men are mortal,” the nominalist need only offer a paraphrase that denies the universal ‘mortality’ or denies that it can aptly be referred to as a universal. There are several ways to confront this.

A nominalist can take the predicate, concept, mereological, class, modal, or resemblance routes. Both the predicate and concept routes accept commonalities, but deny that they can dubbed universals. On the predicate view, the predicate “mortal” applies to men because they’re mortal and this entails the universal “mortal.” On the concept view men fall under the concept “mortal,” but there’s no such thing as “mortality.” The mereological view says that a man is mortal because he is a part of the whole of things that are mortal. Unfortunately, the mereological view cannot be used when speaking of mass or shape, for instance, since the mass or shape of the parts do not equal the sum of the mass or shape wholes. That is to say that the sum of the sides of all equilateral triangles do not themselves equal an equilateral triangle.

Class nominalism avoids these pitfalls by offering that man is mortal by virtue of belonging to the class of all mortal things. This view also runs into issues. So does David Lewis’ Modal Realism, which posits possible worlds on the basis of counterfactuals. There’s also resemblance nominalism, which offers that mortal beings don’t resemble each other because they’re mortal, but rather, they’re mortal because they resemble each other. In the case of sentient beings, resemblance nominalism seems to do well.

There are other versions of nominalism that can be discussed, e.g., causal nominalism, but much of the so-called controversy can do with some butchering. One should therefore employ Ockham’s Razor to cut off some fat. For one, Platonic Realism is simply unnecessary. If one is to offer only necessary postulates, then a realm of forms in where universals exist is unnecessary. Them who have looked instead to the way in which we employ language have the right idea. Either Aristotle’s view is correct or one of the nominalist views is correct.

On the nominalist view, there’s more fat that can be cut off. Color, for instance, is experienced in a particular way by human beings. Some animals don’t see the colors we see; others see no color; others can see in infrared; still others, one can imagine, may see in ultraviolet; we can also imagine a creature that can see the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Color, in any case, is reducible to light and need not be a property, particular or universal, of any object. On the basis of abstraction, in the same way we imagine a similarity in all black things, we can imagine these objects without ‘blackness.’ Put another way, the black sofa, the black table, and the black chairs can be as they are with no color to be found. The color need not be a part of them.

What we’re left with then is shape, mass, and other extensional properties, and also the space these objects appear to occupy. With color out of the way and with Platonic realism disqualified, we can make progress in solving the problem of universals. Obviously the answer isn’t obvious, since it’s still widely discussed. But for creatures lacking the capacity of a language formed by subjects and predicates, particulars and universals may not occur to them. It is likelier that human language leads to problems such as these and the related one-many problem. The controversy is then lifted by paying more attention to how language creates more problems than it solves.

Given the nominalist views surveyed above, it is clear that universals do not depend on god for their existence. In fact, universals may not have existence proper. In other words, if they don’t exist in a Platonic realm or within the divine thoughts of god, then they do not have a property of existence. One will find that other abstract objects can be explained in similar fashion.

Numbers, for instance, need not be Platonic in any sense. The number 4 or the a priori truth of some equation need not depend on god for their existence. Such a tangent isn’t necessary given that I discuss nominalism as it relates to numbers in chapter eleven, but at every turn when confronted with a so-called abstract object, the atheist can offer the following questions: does this abstract object have the property of existence? What is meant by existence in this case? Certainly abstract objects do not exist in the same way a person or an animal exists. The use of the word existence in this case warrants caution and skepticism. In any case, when thinking of examples of abstract objects, it is clear that all abstract objects can be explained in one or more of the following ways: (a) nominalism (b) reductionism, e.g., colors are reducible to an astrophysical phenomenon, namely light (c) the Lockean thesis, i.e., an abstract object can’t be abstracted in isolation from its physical counterpart or the object on which it acts upon. A bit of elaboration is in order.

According to the Lockean thesis, one cannot think of motion abstractly without also thinking of an object in motion. The same applies to abstract objects. One cannot think of a moral truth, e.g. murder is wrong, without thinking of or imagining a murder. One can’t think of the number 4 without reference to the number as it appears in a book, a sheet of paper, or a chalkboard. Even if one imagines a blue number 4 within one’s mind, one is still representing in one’s mind the number as s/he has seen it before. The numbers and their sequence aren’t innate; we all learned of their value and their appearance at some point in childhood and there’s no way to think of them as abstract in the absence of some physical counterpart. Much more can be said about abstract objects and numbers specifically, but it should be clear now that the purported relation between god and abstract objects is a dubious motivation for accepting the ontological argument. Despite this, there’s a specific abstraction that warrants much attention and it is for this reason, I’ve devoted the entire next chapter to it.

All citations can be found in my book Philosophical Atheism.

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