For The Sake of Argument

RLST 25, 14 October 2001, Vered Arnon

 Alvin Plantinga, in “A Modal Version of the Ontological Argument”, discuses the ontological argument first formulated by Anselm of Canterbury. He restates Anselm’s argument as follows:

1. There is a possible world in which maximal greatness is instantiated.
2. Necessarily, a being is maximally great only if it has maximal excellence in every world.
3. ecessarily, a being has maximal excellence in every world only if it has omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection in every world. 
 
–> 4. Therefore, it is impossible that there is no omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect being.

This proof doesn’t actually prove that God exists, but it does show that the theistic argument is logically valid (R&W, p125). Those who already believe in God can use this argument to justify and defend their belief against those who claim that theism has no rational basis.

But this argument is entirely inconclusive, since the proof can be flipped around to make the exact same “triumphant” claim for the theists.

1. There is a possible world in which maximal greatness is NOT instantiated.
2. Necessarily, a being is maximally great only if it has maximal excellence in every world.
3. Necessarily, a being has maximal excellence in every world only if it has omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection in every world. 
 
–> 4. Therefore, it is POSSIBLE that there is no omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect being.

The ease at which the proof can be switched around raises questions about the rationality of accepting the first premise. Plantinga is surely aware of the ease at which the proof can be used by either a theist or an atheist to support whatever side of the argument they are predisposed towards. Plantinga’s intent is to establish that theism is rational. But his argument really doesn’t show anything. He doesn’t show why it’s rational to be a theist as opposed to an atheist, whereas this is the most significant part of the question. His argument doesn’t give people what they’re looking for. Atheists supposedly already know that theists have reasons for accepting the belief in God. Theists who are secure and dedicated in their belief don’t really need a formal logical proof to justify themselves. At the most, Plantinga’s argument shows that agnosticism is rational, since neither side of the argument (according to his proof) is more logical than the other.

The problematic part of Plantinga’s argument lies with the first premise. He doesn’t give any argument for why one should accept it. This is what I mean when he doesn’t explain why, in the context of atheism being proven logical as well by this proof, it’s still rational to believe in the existence of God. His proof makes the two positions completely arbitrary. He never justifies why one should accept the possibility of a possible world in which maximal greatness is instantiated. If it’s possible for there to be a possible world in which it is instantiated, then it’s at least as logical to assume that there might be no possible world in which maximal greatness is instantiated. He doesn’t provide any justification or explanation for why one should be inclined to believe that maximal greatness is indeed instantiated in any possible world. It is easy to imagine that there are no possible worlds in which maximal greatness is instantiated. There are many properties which we have labels for in the English language, but these properties lack instantiation.

Plantinga would argue in his defense that it doesn’t matter if his proof can be used to equally justify atheism, since two conflicting claims may both be reasonable, even if only one of them is true. He writes, “What I claim for this argument, therefore, is that it establishes, not the truth of theism, but its rational acceptability” (R&W, p125). So long as he’s justified it and shown that it’s rationally acceptable, he’s accomplished what he set out to do.

But what Plantinga set out to do is absolutely trivial. While he can explain how theists rationally believe in the existence of God, his argument doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s valid, but it’s not sound. He doesn’t really have a “proof”. He describes maximal greatness and maximal excellence, creating a description rather than adding any new insight to the question. Either athiests won’t accept his definitions, or they’ll reject his first premise (which in turn justifies the rationality of their belief that God doesn’t exist.) His argument doesn’t help anyone to decide anything one way or the other. Merely offering rational descriptions and definitions instead of addressing the actual issue is pointless. No matter how much he tries to defend himself by arguing that he wasn’t trying to establish that one side of the argument is superior to the other, he accomplishes nothing in this field unless he answers questions that other people will find pertinent. He presents his conclusions as if they’re far more substantial than they really are.

Works Cited

Plantinga, Alvin, “A Modal Version of the Ontological Argument”. Rowe and Wainwright, eds. Philosophy of Religion.

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