If a serious theistic argument was ever more ridiculed (and misunderstood) than all the others, it would probably be the ontological argument for God’s existence. Other classical arguments for God’s existence like cosmological and moral arguments deal in the experiential realm. Cosmological arguments appeal to the cosmos. Moral arguments appeal to our daily experience of knowing some things to be good and others evil. Arguments like these are fairly straightforward and can be visualized with general ease. The ontological argument, however, is neither straightforward nor easily visualized, at least not at first. There is no concrete element to the argument--no empirical element. Because of the argument’s nature and claim, many are predisposed to reject it without seriously considering its merit.
However, if an argument ever had the potential to be more powerful than any other, it might also be the ontological argument. Imagine an argument which could take someone’s belief in the mere possibility of God’s existence and, by clarification of that belief alone, commit that person to believing in the actuality of God’s existence. That is the argument’s claim. Since the time of its inception in the 11th Century, it has been critiqued, revised, and defended by various thinkers over the years. The specific version that will be presented here is the modal ontological argument developed and defended most famously by Alvin Plantinga.
What Do You Mean By God?
Before presenting the argument, it is important to understand what is meant by “God” in this context. Because of the limitations of natural theology, “God” does not refer to any particular deity in any religion. Rather, for simplicity’s sake, “God” refers to a maximally great being. This maximally great being is one who possesses all great-making properties to the highest degree in every possible world (this definition will be explored later in greater detail).
Consider, what does it mean for something to be possible or impossible? What does “necessary” even mean? For this, modal logic uses the terminology of “possible worlds.” Don’t confuse possible worlds with some strange alternate dimension or some kind of parallel universe. They are nothing like that. Rather, a possible world is simply a description of a way the world could have been. It is a philosophical tool that aids in thinking about possibility. Since the world could have been very different in any number of ways, there are any number of different possible worlds.
Possible and Impossible?
For instance, the clothes you are wearing could have been different colors. You might have been born in a different country, or in a different period of time, or not at all. This article you are reading could have never been written. These are all possible worlds, or ways the world could have been. Remember, though, that these are not actual, extant worlds that someone could theoretically visit and interact with. These are only possible worlds; these are descriptions of ways the world could have been. Consider a more drastic change. It is possible that the Milky Way galaxy could have been the only galaxy that exists. It is also possible for the entire creation to have never existed. Christians do not believe that God was under any compulsion to create anything, and so, in some possible world, the creation does not exist.
One more point of terminology. To say that something is possible, using the language of possible worlds, is to say that those conditions are true in some possible world. If we say that, “in some possible world, only the Milky Way galaxy exists,” what we are actually saying is that, “the statement, ‘only the Milky Way galaxy exists’ is true in a particular description of the way reality could have been.” As you can see, the first description uses a lot of short-hand to make it less cumbersome. Nevertheless, when we start throwing together words like “possible world” and “exists”, it can become confusing. Just remember that “exists” is always short-hand for, “statement ‘X’ is true in a particular description of how reality could have been.” No alternate dimensions here.
These first few posts will all be preamble to the actual argument, so you’ll have to hang in there until it gets to the good part. In the meantime, we will keep laying the necessary groundwork to fully appreciate both the validity and force of the argument.