God Has to Exist or He Isn’t God (or Uncle Buck’s Hat and the Ontological Argument for God)

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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:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. 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…”

  1. 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
  2. A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
  3. It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
  5. Therefore, (by axiom S5) it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
  6. 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.

23 thoughts on “God Has to Exist or He Isn’t God (or Uncle Buck’s Hat and the Ontological Argument for God)

  1. That was good.

    Now, did I say that because most of your posts are not good? Or did I say that because this was better than your normal “good”?

    What would Anselm say to that?

    • Anselm would say, “How should I know, we don’t read blogs in heaven.”

  2. Hi pastor! I dig the post. I’ve always wrestled with Anselm’s argument but admittedly only because I want to over-analyze it. Though I’m curious as to how you might deal with the gap problem to connect this argument specifically to the Judeo-Christian God. I would assume by contrasting the God of the Bible to other deities but I didn’t know if you took a different route.

    • I don’t see a gap. I think it is a mistake to believe an argument has to do everything at once. Moreover, relying on Romans 1-2, I believe most people already know that the one true God exists (and you can connect this universal concept to this). I view arguments for His existence as a way to bring this belief to the surface, deal with the intellectual-cultural barriers that we construct to justify our rebellion and then move on to Christianity as the most reasonable option (largely because it is falsifiable). In other words, one step at a time.

  3. What a lot of lay secularists don’t understand (especially those of the New Atheist variety, which is not surprising because they rely more on bombast than knowledge) is that most philosophers, theists or not, will concede the validity of the ontological argument. What atheist philosophers would reject is the premise that it is possible that a maximally great being (God) exists. If you get someone to concede that it is possible, than the conclusion follows.

    • Exactly! And Plantinga (and Swinburne) has shown that not only is it possible but it is reasonable! That’s why I love my neglected and slandered ontological argument!

  4. I was an atheist. Then I read this blog post. Now the Flying Spaghetti Monster is actually the real god in reality and my mind. He appeared even stronger than any previous notion or reality of god.

  5. 1. Santa Claus is the most generous being conceivable.
    2. A real Santa would obviously be more generous than an imaginary one.
    3. Therefore, Santa is real.

  6. I see the New Atheist fanboys have come out, complete with their inability to understand modal logic. Nice.

  7. If by that, you mean that my premise (point 1) is wrong, I would say the same for your starting point. What’s more, even Thomas Aquinas rejected this drivel by pointing out that it would only be valid if you could fully know the nature of God, which you obviously cannot.

    Also, you may not want to defend this too fervently unless you are prepared to recognize the validity of Epicurus’ logic in framing the “problem of evil” (Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then where does evil come from? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?) and the child’s question of “If god is omnipotent, can he make a boulder so big he can’t lift it?”

    If you really want to try to use logic to demonstrate God’s existence, you are going to lose big time.

    • Bryan, you raise a second subject without dealing with the first or, apparently, reading the link I provided. I would encourage you to do so and wrestle with the unique concept of God that is the greatest of all possible beings in any conceivable world, which obviously does not apply to any other being. I would encourage you to read Plantinga’s argument, which even most atheists recognize as valid even they don’t accept it as sound. I would also point out that without the concept of God there is no basis for logic at all.

      Just some things to think about and I certainly hope you will do so!

      All the best,

    • Bryan,

      Well, you can’t equate your first premise to the above argument in that you’re creating a definition whereas God is always defined as infinitely powerful, knowing, good, etc. We already know these traits through scripture and they’re all we need, so we don’t have to understand the full nature of God for the ontological argument to work.

      As well I wouldn’t hold to tightly to the nonsensical arguments you listed. “Can God make a square circle?” Of course not! Because that’s illogical dribble! As well, he can’t make a married bachelor…because they’re contradicting definitions. Just because he can’t make two logically contradictory things into one doesn’t make him any less powerful. It just makes him consistent.

      The problem of evil is pretty weak if you turn it on its head also. Atheist philosopher William Rowe points out that the argument against theism using the problem of evil hinges on the assumption that if God had a reason for allowing evil, we should expect to see and understand it. Which, if you’re going to defend the idea we couldn’t fully understand the nature of God as one should, is obviously untrue.

      I would think the atheist’s best bet in regards to the ontological argument, as I stated in a comment earlier, would be to note the gap problem. But, as Matt mentioned in his earlier response to my comment, it’s pretty easily connected to the Judeo-Christian God. Though I’ll admit, the argument sort of feels like a trick. So if you don’t dig it, you don’t dig it. God bless!

  8. So your first premise is valid because it is based on your scriptural definition and mine is invalid because it is not? If your “proof of God” only works when you already accept scripture, it is no proof at all. And yes, I agree that the nonsensical arguments are illogical dribble, I’m just saying they are no more so than your ontological argument.
    Your defense against the problem of evil is merely a “mysterious ways” cop-out. If God existed and were all-good and all-powerful, he would be perfectly capable of creating a world without evil. It’s not as if he has to respond to some external requirements which justify evil and suffering.

    • Bryan, again, you obviously failed to read the material I provided, which answers your question re: the ontological argument and then some. If you are unwilling to seriously engage in conversation, I must ask you to take your attention elsewhere.

      Here is a link to an answer to the false dichotomy you propose re: God’s existence and evil: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-problem-of-evil

      As a former atheist, I hope and pray you read it and reflect on it. If once again, you are unwilling, I propose you refrain from commenting or I will have to ban you from the site. Al the best,

    • Bryan,

      The first premise to the above argument works because we’re talking about a being which is greatest in every regard, not just one, as your argument uses. As well, yours doesn’t work because it’s not a universally agreed definition (Santa isn’t by definition the most generous being). And don’t call it my argument! Anselm might sue! Again, I’m not a huge fan of this argument, I just agree that it logically checks out.

      So how is mystery a cop-out? We’re talking about the possibility of a being infinitely more complex than we are…mystery is unavoidable. As well, I agree, God could (and did initially) create a world without evil, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a reason (or reasons) for allowing it. And as well, Aquinas would then also be copping out? (From your comment earlier: “What’s more, even Thomas Aquinas rejected this drivel by pointing out that it would only be valid if you could fully know the nature of God, which you obviously cannot.”) I hate to sound like a jerk, but you’re definitely showing some inconsistencies in your train of thought.

  9. Matt, I did read the material you provided, and of course I am willing to engage in conversation, but to me that explanation seems to boil down to this: If we find it plausible for a “maximally excellent being” to exist, then a maximally excellent being must exist. As explained in that article, the premise that it is possible for God to exist must be accepted as “coherent” for the rest of the argument to work. This appears to introduce a measure of subjectivity into the equation which I believe undermines its logic. We might very well find it to be an incoherent proposition that there could be a flawless and boundless perfect “being” without beginning and without end, especially given what we know about the universe in the modern age. Maybe you didn’t like the Santa Claus example, but I think there are other variables that could be plugged in which would “work” the same way as this god argument. The other basic problem I see here is that the argument makes a comparison with the human imagination in order to draw a conclusion about the real world, and I cannot see any basis for believing that to be a valid assumption.

    And Caleb, I don’t believe I am being inconsistent at all. Thomas Aquinas was pointing out that this argument is not consistent with Christians’ own doctrine that God is not fully comprehensible. If I don’t believe God exists in the first place, that doesn’t really affect me, obviously. On the other hand, I think the inconsistency lies here between these two things:
    * God is maximally benevolent and omnipotent
    * God allows a 7-year-old to get raped in an Indian train station
    You can say that God has his reasons or his mysterious ways, but the fact remains that a God who allows that to happen could never be considered as “benevolent” as one who didn’t. How does one overcome the cognitive dissonance and continue believing those two things at the same time? Don’t get me wrong, the universe is wonderfully mysterious, but the fact that such horrors happen is pretty strong evidence that God, if he exists, is either not 100% benevolent, or not 100% in charge.

    And please don’t talk of banning me. I didn’t come here to be rude or make fun. I’m not a troll or a vociferous new atheist or anything. I’m just a normal guy, a former Christian, who happened on this site and who had never seen this ontological argument before.

    • Bryan, when you dismiss someone else’s statement as “drivel”, that’s not appropriate and it will not be tolerated of anyone, Christian or not. Also, if you read it then you know that God is unique in the sense that He is the greatest conceivable being in any possible world–no other such conception works that way. As for appeals to authority, Aquinas was mistaken about a lot of things but most contemporary scholars accept the argument as valid even if they don’t ultimately accept it, which is why it is championed by Alvin Plantinga, Paul Oppenheimer, Edward Zalta, etc. But Aquinas’ argument fails for several reasons that Plantinga points out in his book on the subject. It would be well worth your time. Also, be sure to distinguish between the idea of the greatest conceivable being and the full comprehensibility of such a being–those are distinct concepts.

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