Saturday, August 13, 2011

My take on "On the Value of Ontological Arguments"

The Secular Web has a clear and uncomplicated essay "On the Value of Ontological Arguments" by Tim Delaney ... (there are more articles on Arguments for the Existence of a God at the same site). The Delaney essay is less than 1500 words long, so I recommend reading it - it should only take 20 or 30 minutes.

Tim does a nice job of taking down the most commonly used forms of the Ontological Argument for God. First, remember that
An ontological argument is one that uses reason and intuition alone to come to a conclusion
In the next sentence he starts the takedown:
It seems to me that any attempt to produce reliable knowledge solely by arranging English words is illegitimate
From there, he lays out his empiricist viewpoint - with which I agree - that hypotheses need to be tested and verified in order to be considered worthy of acceptance by the wider (scientific) community.

Citing a formulation of the ontological argument given by Alvin Plantinga and used by William Lane Craig, Delaney politely skips over the logical fallacies inherent in the argument, in favor of attacking the failure to present evidence as a warrant. Because I think that examining the logical structure of an argument is equally fun, I offer the following.

First, restating Craig's use of Alvin Plantinga's "maximally excellent being":
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.
Before we even start breaking this down, let's notice that nowhere is the word "God" mentioned. Additionally, my reaction to the argument ends up being amplified by the fact that William Lane Craig himself, a polished and effective apologist, is the guy using this argument. I wonder if you'll share my amazement.

I'll refer to each of these points as Arguments, just to keep them kinda straight. In Argument 1, Craig/Plantinga assert that it is possible for a maximally great being to exist. This is a bare assertion, for which no evidence was provided. Delaney makes this general case. We'll call this "Proposition A"

Argument 2 is a howler. It uses Proposition A from Argument 1 to conclude that because we can conceive of it, it exists in some possible world. This is where I jump in. Proposition A ("maximally great being") is unwarranted, as Delaney points out. Regardless, it is subsequently used to reach the next conclusion - which we'll call "Proposition B". Simplifying - If (unwarranted assertion), then it has to exist. Here's what I see missing:
  • Proposition A is undefined and hypothetical
  • Argument 2 is conditional and unwarranted. Craig/Plantinga implicitly introduce probability here, so it's fair to ask what the probability is that this conditional value ("a maximally great being exists") is true. Wouldn't you instinctively say, absent a hint of how it might be true, that the probability is "near zero"? I would. We are exactly nowhere.
  • third, why does the idea that if something could exist, it follows that it has to exist. Possibility doesn't equal necessity. You've heard of Maxwell's Demon. It is possible for all molecules in a box to spontaneously segregate into a hot side and a cold side, but the odds are astronomical. From a practical viewpoint, it will not happen. A "maximally great being" is even more unlikely, given its greater complexity.
Argument 3 says that if this hypothetical Proposition A can exist in one hypothetical world, then it must exist in every possible world. Why? This makes less sense than the prior argument. If the universe repeats endlessly, the thought that it might occur once in all eternity does not mean that it will always occur.

My sober, scholarly, reasoned analysis is "WHAT THE FUCK???"

Let's take a break for a second ... five deep breaths ... count to ten ... maybe some Sun Salutations or Jelly Shots. Shake it out. Something.

Feel better?

Okay - Argument 4 is more of the same ... if our wholly-hypothetical-maximally-great-being can exist, it exists in all possible worlds, therefore it exists here. This is becoming a convoluted metaphysical circle jerk! The only thing Argument 4 has going for it is, taken in isolation, it is logical. If something has to exist everywhere, then the set "all possible worlds" includes this world. The only problem is that the chain of arguments was broken at Arguments 1, 2 & 3. Why should we even bother with Argument 4?

Argument 5 is ... oh, jebus cripes, that's like saying "if twinkies actually exist, then they exist".

Argument 6 repeats the mistake seen in Argument 5 ... "a maximally great being exists, therefore a maximally great being exists"

Great Dog Almighty - this was worse than I imagined. I'm somewhat embarrassed by my histrionics here, but I had no idea how weird, illogical and blatantly unsupported this argument is. The Ontological Argument has been shown to fail many times, but it just seemed more subtle than this arrangement of words being thrown out by Dr. Craig.

Let's go back to my note that "nowhere in the Craig/Plantinga argument is the proposition "God" mentioned". This "maximally great being" might be The Blob for all we know. There is no stipulation that "maximally great" entails omnipotence, omniscience, creation of the universe, creation of humanity, intervention in the daily lives of billions of people, ultimate judge and jailer for tens of billions of souls for all eternity ... something usually recognized as God. All that verbal manipulation is for something less than God ... well, that's just maximally great!

I've seen William Lane Craig in debate (on YouTube), and I've heard him use the ontological argument, but I never tried evaluating this point-by-point. What strikes me most is how decoupled the first proposition "a maximally great being" is from any proof that God exists.

I'm not ridiculing Dr. Craig - as I said, he's polished, well-prepared, effective. I will point out, however, that this is what he's good at - stringing together words that sound like they mean something.

In this case, they don't.

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