Sunday, March 1, 2009

Dawkins' Critique of the Ontological Argument


Richard Dawkins, in his book "The God Delusion," references Douglas Gasking's 'Proof' that God does not exist. It goes like this:

  1. The creation of the world is the most marvelous achievement imaginable.
  2. The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.
  3. The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.
  4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.
  5. Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being namely, one who created everything while not existing.
  6. An existing God therefore would not be a being greater than which a greater cannot be conceived because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.
  7. Therefore, God does not exist.

How would you respond, Dr. Craig?

Dr. William Lane Craig responds:

I have to confess that I had never come across this argument until I read it in The God Delusion. The reason for its obscurity isn't hard to divine: it's so wrong-headed that even detractors of the ontological argument who understand that argument would agree that this objection is no good. To see why, let's review the ontological argument.

The version below comes from Alvin Plantinga, one of America's premier philosophers. It's formulated in terms of possible worlds semantics. For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology of possible worlds, let me explain that by "a possible world" one doesn't mean a planet or even a universe, but rather a complete description of reality, or a way reality might be. To say that God exists in some possible world is just to say that there is a possible description of reality which includes the statement "God exists" as part of that description.

Now in his version of the argument, Plantinga conceives of God as a being which is "maximally excellent" in every possible world. Plantinga takes maximal excellence to include such properties as omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. A being which has maximal excellence in every possible world would have what Plantinga calls "maximal greatness." So Plantinga argues:

  1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
  2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
  3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
  4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
  5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
  6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

Premises (2)-(5) of this argument are relatively uncontroversial. Most philosophers would agree that if God's existence is even possible, then He must exist. The principal issue to be settled with respect to Plantinga's ontological argument is what warrant exists for thinking the key premiss "It's possible that a maximally great being exists" to be true.

The idea of a maximally great being is intuitively a coherent idea, and so it seems plausible that such a being could exist. In order for the ontological argument to fail, the concept of a maximally great being must be incoherent, like the concept of a married bachelor. But the concept of a maximally great being doesn't seem even remotely incoherent. This provides some prima facie warrant for thinking that it is possible that a maximally great being exists.

In his book Dawkins devotes six full pages, brimming with ridicule and invective, to the ontological argument, without raising any serious objection to this argument. (He notes in passing Immanuel Kant's objection that existence is not a perfection; but since Plantinga's argument doesn't presuppose that it is, we can leave that irrelevance aside.) He then cites the parody of the argument you mention above, which is designed to show that God does not exist because a God "who created everything while not existing" is greater than one who exists and created everything.

Ironically, this parody, far from undermining the ontological argument, actually reinforces it! For a being who creates everything while not existing is a logical incoherence and is therefore impossible: there is no possible world which includes a non-existent being which creates the world. If the atheist is to maintain—as he must—that God's existence is impossible, the concept of God would have to be similarly incoherent. But to all appearances it's not. That supports the plausibility of premiss (1) of Plantinga's argument.

I think you can see that Dawkins doesn't even understand the logic of the ontological argument, which moves from the logical possibility of God's existence to its actuality. A parody of the argument that moves from a logical impossibility to actuality is not parallel to the argument.

Dawkins chortles, "I've forgotten the details, but I once piqued a gathering of theologians and philosophers by adapting the ontological argument to prove that pigs can fly. They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic to prove that I was wrong" (God Delusion, p. 84). This is just embarrassing. The ontological argument is an exercise in modal logic—the logic of the possible and the necessary. I can just imagine Dawkins making a nuisance of himself at this professional conference with his spurious parody, just as he similarly embarrassed himself at the Templeton Foundation conference in Cambridge where he describes his confronting sophisticated philosophers and theologians with his flyweight objection to the teleological argument!

If you're interested in further responses to Dawkins' critique of theistic arguments, have a look at Chad Meister and my new book God Is Great, God Is Good, forthcoming this year with Inter-Varsity Press.


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