Ontological arguments and parodies
February 15, 2011 — 8:21

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 30

Consider a valid (given S5) ontological argument, for instance the Plantinga one:
1. Possibly, there is a maximally great being (or: God).
2. Necessarily, if x is a maximally great being (or: God), then x is maximally excellent in all worlds.
3. Therefore, there actually is a being that is maximally excellent in all worlds.
A standard approach to arguing against ontological arguments is to come up with a parody like “necessarily existing chimera” or a “maximally great island”. However, I think that a lot of such parodies achieve little because the parodic concept they operate with (a) seems much less natural than that of a maximally great being (or a positive property, in the Goedelian arguments), and (b) is not in common use.
Both of these points are relevant. The more natural a concept seems, the more likely it is that the concept is of something possible. It is easy to stipulate unnatural impossible concepts. And the more a concept is in common use, the more revisionary it is to claim that the concept is of something impossible. So when it comes to a competition between the possibility of a necessarily existing devil and the possibility of a maximally great being, the latter wins out. I think this point is applicable to all three major forms of the ontological argument: Plantinga, Goedel and Anselm.
Specifically in regard to the Plantinga argument, it is sometimes forgotten that decent ontological arguments do not start with stipulative premises. The Plantinga argument does not stipulate a maximally great being as maximally excellent in all worlds. Rather, it starts with the intuitive, fairly natural and commonly used (e.g., in monotheistic devotion) concept of a maximally great being, and offers a substantive philosophical claim about that concept, namely that anything that falls under that concept has maximal excellence in all worlds. This substantive claim may be justified directly by intuition or by an argument, but it is not stipulative.
This point also shows why it is mistaken to say that the Plantinga argument begs the question in its possibility premise (1), as it is often alleged to. The possibility premise in the Plantinga argument does not by itself justify the conclusion. It justifies the conclusion in conjunction with the substantive philosophical analysis yielding (2). Granted, premise (2) is less controversial than (1), but it is a substantive premise as can be seen from the fact that even some theistic philosophers (e.g., Swinburne) deny it.
Anyway, all of this shows that a good parody of an ontological argument would start with a concept that is natural and in common use and that has the property that its instantiation is incompatible with the existence of God. The best version of a parody argument I know is the argument given of Gale and others that possibly there is a gratuitous evil, and hence there is no God, since if God exists, there is no gratuitous evil in any world. The concept of a gratuitous evil does have a certain naturalness to it. It is a substantive point that gratuitous evils are incompatible with the existence of God–van Inwagen, for instance, denies the point–and hence the argument involves substantive non-logical analysis. But I think this argument still loses out to the ontological argument because the concept of a gratuitous evil is to a lesser extent in common use than the concept of God or a maximally great being. Working theists as Gale notes sometimes do worry that a particular evil might be gratuitous, but I think the compound concept–a gratuitous evil–is not in as common use as the concept of God.

Comments:
  • Heath White

    The best “parody” premise, in my opinion, is just “Possibly, there is no maximally great being (or: God)” and then derive that there is actually no such being.
    I often worry that the plausibility of Plantinga’s “possibly…” premise trades on ambiguities between epistemic and metaphysical possibility.

    February 15, 2011 — 9:18
  • I guess my intuition is that an appearance of the possibility of existence is more reliable than an appearance of the possibility of non-existence, especially in the case of something like God. Why? Maybe because I don’t know what exactly depends on what. Suppose it turns out that mathematical truth is grounded in God’s mind?

    February 15, 2011 — 14:33
  • Dan Johnson

    Heath has certainly identified the most challenging parody argument. Notice that none of your points in your original post apply to this argument, because it uses exactly the same concepts as the ontological argument (plus a negation, which seems as natural as can be, Parmenides notwithstanding). So you need a different kind of reply to this parody argument than you do to the others. By the way, I think your attempt to establish the possibility of positive existential claims as priveleged over negative ones has been done in the late 80s/early 90s — I want to say that Dole and Tooley got into this, but I might be getting them mixed up with some others.
    At this point, we need to do some serious modal epistemology. How do we come to know claims of possibility?
    I think you’ve made some progress though: consider the modal disproof of God separate from other parody arguments!

    February 15, 2011 — 14:39
  • Dan and Heath:
    Consider this defeasible principle:
    (*) If C is a natural concept in common use, possibly something falls under C.
    You can use this to defend 1 (see also this post for developments). And I don’t see a good parallel in the case of parodies.

    February 15, 2011 — 15:11
  • Andrew Griffiths

    “start with a concept that is natural and in common use and that has the property that its instantiation is incompatible with the existence of God.”
    ‘The most beautiful goddess’

    February 15, 2011 — 21:16
  • Why is the existence of the most beautiful goddess incompatible with the existence of God?

    February 15, 2011 — 21:28
  • Andrew Griffiths

    Well …
    http://www.bible.ca/trinity/trinity-oneness-unity-one-god.htm
    Also, would we really have not just a universal, but a multiversal consensus on a standard of female beauty?
    From that: is there a multiversal standard for ‘greatness’? Given that ideas of what makes people ‘great’ varies so much within our own culture, given all the various conceptions of gods even in the modern world. Even the idea of a god creating the universe is not seen as ‘great’ in every religion – the ancient Greeks thought the creation of the universe was something of a botched job that had to be tidied up by more competent gods.

    February 15, 2011 — 21:55
  • The parody Heath mentions is probably the most popular, but I don’t think it’s the best.
    It seems to me that in the same way that to perceive that p prima facie justifies belief that p is actual, to conceive of p prima facie justifies belief that p is possible. In other words, if it (perceptually or modally) appears to S that p, then S is prima facie justified in believing (actually or possibly) p.
    But credulity holds only for beliefs formed on the basis of positive seemings or appearances, not negative ones. Whereas “it does not appear to me that p” is no appears claim at all, “it appears to me that ~p” is not prima facie justified and needs additional warrant. Apply:
    (1) God exists (p)
    (1′) God does not exist (~p)
    To conceive of (1) prima facie justifies belief that (1) is possible, whereas to conceive of (1′) needs additional warrant.

    February 16, 2011 — 0:19
  • There is only one God. But could there also be a god, with a lowercase g, in addition to God? That depends on how one defines the term. If a “god” is simply a very powerful supernatural being, then Judaism and Christianity says that there are such beings–namely, angels.
    Sure, there is no agreement in every case as to what in fact is greater than what. But how does the non-existence of agreement support a claim that there is no objective fact about what is greater than what? There is no agreement on all sorts of things about which there is obviously an objective fact.

    February 16, 2011 — 0:21
  • Andrew Griffiths

    “There is only one God. But could there also be a god, with a lowercase g, in addition to God? That depends on how one defines the term. If a “god” is simply a very powerful supernatural being, then Judaism and Christianity says that there are such beings–namely, angels.”
    That directly defies two thousand years of Christian tradition, which has gone out of its way to say the Devil, angels, Mary and the saints are most certainly not any form of god.
    But it’s easy enough to get around: I define my being as a Goddess, not one of the lower orders of supernatural beings.
    “Sure, there is no agreement in every case as to what in fact is greater than what. But how does the non-existence of agreement support a claim that there is no objective fact about what is greater than what?”
    Because you’re arguing that there is an objective standard of female beauty, applicable to every being across the multiverse.
    This is evidently false. We can see this is false by sitting any two human beings down and seeing if we can get them to agree on a standard of female beauty – two men of the same age who grew up in the same town would argue, let alone bringing in a woman, a person of a different country/race/age. A cursory look at art shows that different human cultures have valued completely opposite aspects of female beauty.
    … but the standard demanded is multiversal. So the blind and the mad would agree. All the baboons, mice, cats, dogs, horses and elephants would also have to agree that this goddess was perfectly beautiful. Not only that, they would necessarily have to do so. There would be no room for disagreement. Every being, male, female, hermaphrodite, asexual and so on in all possible worlds would agree.
    This seems to qualify as a concept that’s readily graspable, yet demands a being that it would be ludicrous to think existed.
    “There is no agreement on all sorts of things about which there is obviously an objective fact.”
    OK, let’s grant what I think is a ludicrous idea: that there’s an ‘objective standard of female beauty’, and say that the reason some men like tall women and other men like shorter women is that the men who like tall women are simply mistaken about the fundamental nature of the universe. That it is a universal fact of nature that all women above or below a set height are, in fact, ugly and that our problem is simply that don’t understand that.
    Let’s also take it as given that there’s a God who has knowledge of the objective standard of female beauty. He knows what the set height is.
    That would mean that God could state, with certainty, that the perfect example of female beauty has to be – say – five-six, with 48G breasts, pale Caucasian skin, long brunette hair and small feet.
    And that anyone who didn’t find that woman to be the most beautiful possible woman would be wrong. God would be ruling that, say, white skin is more beautiful than black skin; enormous breasts are better than smaller ones; he would commit the Goddess to an existence where she couldn’t restyle her hair.
    But it gets even more ludicrous: equally, if God knew that the objective standard is that the most beautiful possible woman looks like Hitler, complete with moustache, but crosseyed and flatulent … if I was to suggest that, say, I think Angelina Jolie better exemplifies female beauty, I’d be objectively wrong.
    And the ontological argument is that that being *has* to exist.
    Is that not a sufficiently ludicrous, self-evidently insulting and foolish idea?
    You wanted:
    “a concept that is natural and in common use and that has the property that its instantiation is incompatible with the existence of God”
    ‘The most beautiful Goddess’.
    Easy to conceptualize, impossible to actualize.
    The ontological argument is that it’s necessary that it is actualized. If it was possible to actualize, monotheism would be false, so the God we’re talking about would necessarily not exist.
    If the was some loophole that made it possible to actualize without rendering monotheism/God false, it would grant God a ‘parody’ ability – the power (indeed compulsion) to make a binding, objective judgment on, say, what constitutes ‘the perfect nipples’.
    And, finally, even granted that, it would give the Goddess an attribute that surpasses that of God – she would necessarily be a better example of female beauty than God possibly could be.

    February 16, 2011 — 7:46
  • John

    What is vanInwagen’s parody?
    “Know No” is someone who knows no necessary beings exist.
    Possibly, Know No exists.

    February 16, 2011 — 8:09
  • The question whether it is compatible with the existence of God that there be gods is going to depend on one’s analysis of the concept of “god”. One of the Psalms calls high-placed human authorities “gods”.
    Let’s try some accounts:
    1. A god is a great supernatural being that is concerned in human affairs.
    2. A god is a great uncaused supernatural being that is concerned in human affairs.
    3. A god is a great supernatural being worthy of respect that is concerned in human affairs.
    4. A god is a great supernatural being worthy of the sort of worship that only God is worthy of that is concerned in human affairs.
    5. A god is a great supernatural being that has had a hand in the creation of the human race.
    6. A god is a great supernatural being to whom sacrifices ought to be made.
    I say:
    A. The existence of a god in senses 1, 3, 5 and 6 is compatible with theism.
    B. The existence of a god in senses 2 and 4, distinct from God, is incompatible with theism–but the Greek gods don’t satisfy conditions 2 and 4.
    Argument for A: Angels satisfy 1 and 3. Augustine, without in any way impugning monotheism, has speculated that there was an angel that satisfied 5. Judaism and Christianity are committed to the claim that there in fact are no gods in sense 6. However, I do not think they are committed to the claim that there can be no great supernatural beings to whom we ought to make sacrifices. God could create some great supernatural being who gets energy from the blood of goats poured out on the ground, and who has done very good things for the human race. In gratitude for services rendered, we might well be obliged to pour the blood of goats on the ground.
    Argument for B: The existence of an uncaused being, or of a being worthy of the sort of worship that God is worthy of, is incompatible with theism. But the Greek gods were neither worthy of the sort of worship that God is worthy of nor uncaused.
    As for beauty, to have a “most beautiful goddess” all we need is a world with exactly one goddess. Since she’s the only one, she’s automatically the “most beautiful goddess”. Or if you prefer, take a world with two goddesses, one of whom is clearly and uncontroversially less pretty. Then one of them is the most beautiful goddess and the other is the ugliest goddess.
    That there is an objective fact about what is more beautiful than what does not entail that for any pair of objects A and B, either A is objectively more beautiful than B or B is objectively more beautiful than A. It could be that they are objectively equally beautiful or objectively incommensurably beautiful. In particular, there is no need to conclude that there is a unique prescription for a maximally beautiful female. Nor does the ontological argument imply that there has to be such a being.

    February 16, 2011 — 9:15
  • John:
    That’s a neat case, because the concept of a “Know No” is in fact in common use–there are plenty of people who (mistakenly) believe that they are Know Nos. It is not, however, in as common use as the concept of God, and it is probably a less natural concept than that of a maximally great being–and certainly a less natural concept than that of a necessary being.

    February 16, 2011 — 9:17
  • Chad:
    From time to time, I think to myself that the analytic penchant for analyzing mental attitudes as propositional rather than objectual is mistaken. There seems to be such a thing as conceiving of an object, and it does not reduce to entertaining the proposition that the object exists. When I imagine unicorns (imagining is a particular way of conceiving), it phenomenologically does not seem that I entertain the proposition that they exist.
    Anyway, I had this kind of objectual conceiving in mind when I wrote my post. This kind of objectual conceiving is employed in the case of the maximally great being, but is not employed in the case of entertaining the proposition that such a being does not exist.

    February 16, 2011 — 9:22
  • John

    Alex,
    A maximally great being is more common for Westerners, but Know No is more common for, say, predominantly Buddhist cultures (a maximally great being is not part of common use at all). Is it an accident of history that a maximally great being is more common as a whole (i.e. there happen to be more people for whom a maximally great being is common, but this could have been otherwise)?
    Imagine that I have grown up in Thailand or Cambodia. For me, Know No is far more common and far more natural. Now, imagine that the world contains far more Buddhists than theists. A maximally great being would not be more natural nor more common.
    Does the argument work only given the accident of history that makes a maximally great being more natural or common in this world?

    February 16, 2011 — 9:51
  • For any concept C, the concepts of
    1. someone who knows there is something falling under C
    and
    2. someone who knows there is nothing falling under C
    are less natural than C.
    For instance, the concept of someone who knows that there is no phlogiston is less natural than the concept of phlogiston.
    I am thinking here of naturalness in the David Lewis sense, and I take it to be roughly inversely related to complexity of expression in an appropriate language.

    February 16, 2011 — 9:59
  • Andrew Griffiths

    “As for beauty, to have a “most beautiful goddess” all we need is a world with exactly one goddess.”
    Paraphrase that logic to the question we’re really trying to answer, ‘is there a God?’, though, and we get: ‘All we need to have a God that exists is a world with a God’. It’s precisely the circular logic that the parodies are trying to expose.
    And what you’ve come up with is another parody position – in the original movie of Casino Royale, Woody Allen plays a villain who has developed a gas that will make him the most attractive man in the world to women … by killing all the other men.
    “Or if you prefer, take a world with two goddesses, one of whom is clearly and uncontroversially less pretty.”
    And my point is that the controversy will always exist. If one goddess looks like Uma Thurman and the other looks like a sheep, then the sheep, at least, will go ‘you’re right, no controversy at all’, but they won’t vote the same way I would. I daresay, on a planet with seven billion people on it, more than one human would vote for the sheep, too.
    Which is beside the point, ‘objective’ does not mean a consensus of all the subjective judgments. There was complete consensus that the Sun went round the Earth, it didn’t mean it did. Cats have the consensus that catfood smells delicious, I beg to differ.
    Where I would paraphrase this is ‘greatness’. Some people might say that a God who was a mighty warrior who raged and killed all his enemies was ‘great’. Another that this simply made him a tyrant. The classical gods had the ability to dupe women into having sex with them, and this was seen as a sign of their great power then, but just makes them look like a gang of rapists now.

    February 16, 2011 — 10:09
  • Dr. Pruss,
    Thanks for the note–I think the solution I laid out is consistent with your worry the mental attitudes might be objectual rather than objectual. Simply understand p as that which propositionally represents the objectual appearance, or p to be the object itself. Expressing the matter in terms of propositions is only meant to be a useful way to capture the idea where a possible world is a set of propositions with particular truth values. But we could instead easily think of possible worlds in terms of certain configurations of objects and properties, and the argumentative strategy I suggest still goes through.

    February 16, 2011 — 10:14
  • Andrew (if I may):
    There will always be some differences of opinion about greatness and beauty. The same is true of mathematics, science, history and theology. But you haven’t given a good argument that there isn’t an objective answer in the cases of the differences of opinion about greatness and beauty. Your initial argument was based on the idea that it is absurd to think that there is a unique ideally beautiful female. But even if that is absurd, the absurdity of that only challenges the claim that the relation of being a more beautiful female than is a total ordering, a claim I did not make.
    Those who think rape makes one great are simply wrong, just as those who think that the Holocaust never happened are simply wrong.
    When there was total consensus that the sun goes around the earth, it wasn’t true, but it was a reasonable thing to think.

    February 16, 2011 — 10:56
  • The existence of objective comparisons does not automatically entail either the existence of a maximal case (there are objective comparisons between integers, but not greatest integer) nor the existence of a total ordering since there can be incommensurable and equal cases. It is, for instance, possible that, objectively, the most beautiful man objectively is neither more nor less beautiful than the most beautiful woman (and hence either they are objectively equally beautiful or they are objectively incommensurable). Thus the non-existence of a maximal case of beauty does not challenge the claim that there are objective comparisons of beauty. For instance, objective deformations, such as the crushing of feet, are not beautiful, and cultures that see them as beautiful are simply wrong about that.
    This does show that absent further argument, we have no a priori guarantee of a maximal case of greatness. (But the point also does not show that there is no maximal case of greatness.) But I did offer further argument: concepts that are both natural and commonly used are likely to be of something possible. You then offered as a counterexample the concept of a most beautiful goddess. And then I say:
    1. Either we are talking of the most beautiful possible goddess, or the most beautiful goddess that in fact exists.
    2. If we are talking of the most beautiful goddess that in fact exists, then of course there can be such a thing–any world where there is only one goddess contains a goddess that is in fact the most beautiful one.
    3. If we are talking of the most beautiful goddess possible, then I deny that the concept is in common use.

    February 17, 2011 — 8:34
  • Andrew Griffiths

    “This does show that absent further argument, we have no a priori guarantee of a maximal case of greatness.”
    Then, from your original post, (1) is false, so (2) doesn’t follow, so (3) is false.
    The issue in hand isn’t ‘does God exist?’, it’s ‘does the ontological proof hold?’, The ontological proof depends on the maximally being as being *necessary*, the parodic positions don’t seek to prove that God is *impossible*, but do prove it’s not necessary.
    As I’ve said, I think there’s a real clash between subjectivity and omniscience. Can God hold a subjective opinion without his opinion instantly becoming writ? I don’t see how. If God says that Ishtar is the most beautiful Goddess, who has the authority to argue? Wouldn’t we, like the Chinese you dismiss for binding the feet of their women, simply be ‘wrong’?
    This, for me, is an argument against omniscient beings, not against subjectivity.
    For your last three points:
    1. No, we’re seeking to see *if* that goddess *must* exist.
    2. So … God isn’t simply ‘the greatest thing that happens to exist’
    3. The concept of beautiful Goddesses is, I’d suggest, in more common use than the concept of ‘an ontologically necessary being of maximal greatness’.
    I’m not sure what I can do now other than restate arguments from further up the thread, so thank you for the discussion.

    February 17, 2011 — 11:12
  • hiero5ant

    “There will always be some differences of opinion about greatness and beauty. The same is true of mathematics, science, history and theology. But you haven’t given a good argument that there isn’t an objective answer in the cases of the differences of opinion about greatness and beauty.”
    Here is a good argument: all prescriptive normative claims, from grammar and spelling to table etiquette to aesthetic sensibility to morality, are noncognitive, therefore even situations of global intersubjective agreement fail to non-contingently fix their descriptive content. Saying “Yeah! God! All right! Awesome!” only yields information about the world when combined with information about the historical accidents which gave rise to the particular kind of creature making the non-cognitive evaluation.
    The use of the phrase “objective deformations” gives a good target, as it is either a contradiction in terms or an illustration of historical contingency. The function of the terrestrial tetrapod forelimb is for walking — but how useful is it to say that your hands are “objectively deformed feet”?
    Rather, there were certain causal pressures at one point in time, and different ones at others. There is no such thing as “best” or “greatest” sub specie aeternitatis. Such evaluations are necessarily dependent on the subjective interests of contingent evaluators.
    So even granting arguendo this weird, new epistemic principle that “if it feels natural it’s probably possible”, there are still concerns like John’s empirical worries above that the concept is simply not as widespread as you might think (I’d be inclined to push the point even farther than he did; I doubt that even intraculturally “maximally great gods” has much currency outside philosophy departments, just as most PoR is a red herring with respect to what most pew potatoes actually believe), as well as the concern that noncognitive claims are in themselves only partially interpretable.

    February 17, 2011 — 15:38
  • “all prescriptive normative claims, from
    grammar and spelling to table etiquette to aesthetic sensibility to
    morality, are noncognitive”
    I see no reason to accept this. And I think that if it were true, I would have no reason to accept anything, and in particular no reason to accept this.

    February 17, 2011 — 17:15
  • Why should I believe “if something is possibly necessary, it is necessary”?

    February 18, 2011 — 8:12
  • Joshua:
    As to S5, Plantinga gives some considerations in his ontological argument paper. Basically, the idea is that the metaphysical necessity of p is a kind of generalization of the idea that it would be contradictory to suppose not-p, and what is and is not a contradiction doesn’t differ between worlds. I also offer arguments for S4 and Brouwer, and hence S5, in my forthcoming modality book

    February 18, 2011 — 8:32
  • Dustin Crummett

    “This does show that absent further argument, we have no a priori guarantee of a maximal case of greatness.”
    Then, from your original post, (1) is false, so (2) doesn’t follow, so (3) is false.
    How is that supposed to follow, even if Alex’s arguments fail? There are a posteriori necessary truths–not knowing a priori that something existed necessarily wouldn’t show it didn’t, only that we didn’t know it did a priori.

    February 18, 2011 — 13:51
  • Each of the following claims is importantly different:
    a. There is no a priori guarantee of (1).
    b. There is no a priori evidence for (1).
    c. There is no evidence for (1).
    d. (1) is false.
    I affirmed something that committed me to (a). I deny each of (b)-(d).

    February 18, 2011 — 14:17
  • Re: Joshua,”Why should I believe ‘if something is possibly necessary, it is necessary’?”
    This inference follows straightforwardly from the characteristic formula “B” in S5 in several ways. A short proof is as follows:
    (1) ◊P → □◊P………B, S5
    (2) ~□◊P → ~◊P….1, Trans
    (3) ◊~◊P → ~◊P….2, ME
    (4) ◊□~P → ~◊P….3, ME
    (5) ◊□~P → □~P….4, ME
    (6) ◊□P → □P………5, DN
    So, as Dr. Pruss pointed out above, the question is why should one believe S5.

    February 18, 2011 — 14:59
  • It is an empirical issue to what extent the notion “maximally great being” is commonly used. Here’s one bit of relevant evidence. Google offers up 312,000 hits for “perfect being”. It gives us 123,000 hits for “perfect island”. We might take this to show that the concept of a perfect being is significantly more common than the concept fop a perfect island. And we might take that in turn to show that the perfect island parody does not refute the ontological argument.
    But I think it would be a mistake to do that. For as it happens, google gives us 657,000 hits for “perfect murder” – many more hits than we get for “perfect being”. But then, if we use the google standard of usage, we will end up thinking that the “perfect murder” concept is more common than the “perfect being” concept. And so, even if we reject the perfect-island parody argument, we still have a perfect-murder parody: there could be a perfect murder; if there could be a perfect murder there must be a perfect murder; hence there actually is a perfect murder.
    Of course, we could reject the google standard for what counts as common usage. But in that case we should replace it with some other empirical standard. My suspicion is that any reasonable standard will tell us that “perfect murder” is at least as commonly used as “perfect being”.

    February 23, 2011 — 14:18
  • I think one can make a strong argument that necessarily any being that is God is a maximally great being. And, so, if God possibly exists, a maximally great being possibly exists.

    February 23, 2011 — 20:51