One of my favorite bad movies is the 1980’s John Hughes flick Uncle Buck. The main character is played by the late, great John Candy. Buck never steps outside without a hat even though, as he puts it, “a lot of people hate this hat. It angers people.” I feel the same way about the ontological argument for God. It angers people. Heck, just the words “ontological argument” just caused dozens of people to click off this post in disgust!
For those still reading, what is the ontological argument for the existence of God?
Benedictine monk Anselm (1033-1109) constructed it as follows:
- Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
- The idea of God exists in the mind.
- A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
- If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
- We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
- Therefore, God exists.
Make sense? Here is a simplified version of it by Norm Geisler:
(1) By definition God is the greatest conceivable being.
(2) If He only existed in mind that wouldn’t be.
(3) So God must exist in reality.
(When Skeptics Ask (rev. ed. Baker 2013)
It sounds like a trick doesn’t it? But some of the greatest philosophers in the world believe it is THE strongest argument for the existence of God.
Indeed, Alvin Plantinga, arguably the finest living Christian philosopher loves the argument and has constructed a form of it himself. To quote Tone Loc, “it goes something like this…”
- 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
- A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
- It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)
- Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
- Therefore, (by axiom S5) it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
- Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
(see The Ontological Argument: From Anselm to Contemporary Philosophers (Doubleday 1965).
So, you say, “philosophers love it, so what! I mean how many times have you thrown a party and gone out of your way to invite a philosopher! As the old grad school joke goes, if you cross a philosopher with the Godfather you get an offer you can’t understand.”
Moreover, many criticize the ontological argument as (1) difficult to grasp (it is but only because most people try to “over think it.”) (2) smacking of a rhetorical trick and (3) historically unhelpful as it has NOT helped convert anyone.
I generally agree with all of these criticisms but I still love the ontological argument. Why?
(1) It may not have a long track record of converting others but it has bought theism a lot of credibility within philosophical circles. Heck, even arch atheist Bertrand Russell struggled with it.
(2) I actually have been regularly meeting with a retired philosophy professor for lunch and this argument is what helped him embrace theism. He’s a fuzzy pluralist right now but I’m working on him! (prayers appreciated).
So, I love the ontological argument. I know it is the Uncle Buck fedora of Christian philosophy in that it just seems to anger people but, for what it has accomplished, I am grateful. In the new heavens and new earth, I will gladly raise a glass to my dear brother Anselm.