The Ontological Argument’s Trojan Horse

The Ontological Argument for God has always been controversial. Some believers think it works. Other believers say it does not. I am in the latter group.

It’s good to explore when and if arguments for God are dysfunctional.

I am indeed asserting that the Ontological Argument does not work. It’s tricky, though, because OA’s power is in its incoherence, and incoherent things are like ghosts (through which swords of coherence impotently pass).

As the above linked article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy remarks, “This helps to explain why ontological arguments have fascinated philosophers for almost a thousand years.”

The following is a new rhetorical attempt at exposing why it’s bad.

Here’s something that looks sort of like the Ontological Argument. I’ll call it the “’Idea-About-an-Ontological-Thing’ Argument.”

  1. The idea of God is that of that which a greater thing cannot be conceived.
  2. Existent things are greater than nonexistent things.
  3. It follows from 1 and 2, therefore, that the idea of God is that of a being that exists (whether or not he really does; somebody can say that this idea corresponds to something that really does exist, and someone else can deny that).

The above is true, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what really exists (or not). Everything is properly “cloistered” in a discussion about ideas.

Now, here’s a trick of language.

Consider these two statements:

  • (A): The idea of God is that of that which a greater thing thing cannot be conceived.
  • (B): God is that of which a greater thing cannot be conceived.

Notice the difference? (A) says “The idea of” at the front. And yet, when paired, these statements basically mean the same thing to us.

They’re both “bluish.”

We drop “the idea of” in (B) for brevity, but we understand that it’s still just a hypothetical, especially in the context of (A) — that is, “Hey, we’re just talkin’ ideas here, definitions.”

Now consider these two statements:

  • (B): God is that of which a greater thing cannot be conceived.
  • (C): God is, in actuality, that of which a greater thing cannot be conceived.

When paired, these two statements also basically mean the same thing to us.

They’re both “olivish” — they’re ontologically affirmative.

Of course, the unbeliever would reject (C) because that’s the point in question.

So, how do you make subtly make an ontological affirmation while making it look like innocent, “Hey, we’re just talkin’ definitions?”

You use (B) as a Trojan Horse… a logical wildcard. It acts one way one moment, and another way another moment, because it is ambiguous.

If the OA’s first premise = (A), then you get “’Idea-About-an-Ontological-Thing’ Argument.” Inert and useless!

If the OA’s first premise = (C), then the unbeliever — very rightly — complains about a begged question. Fallacious!

By using (B), you get the innocence of (A) and the affirmative power of (C).

That is, since OA’s first premise = (B), it looks like a mere hypothetical that suddenly, somehow materializes.

That is exactly how OA feels, and this is why.

Conclusion

The Ontological Argument is not cogent, but its bugs are subtle.

Kant dealt with the problem elegantly when he said, “Existence is not a predicate,” but isolating the Trojan Horse may be more vivid for some folks.

There are other problems with OA, like “‘Greatness’ requires a referent,” but the above should do.

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About stanrock

Husband, father. Professional game developer, software engineer, & social product analyst. Armchair theology debugger. Fun theology exercises and games at http://StanRock.net

2 responses to “The Ontological Argument’s Trojan Horse”

  1. branthony says :

    Is a possible direction here is not to consider God as Absolute in the medieval sense, where God is that which no higher being can be conceived, but instead where God is both a being and the “ground of being”, a la Tillich? I’m sure this has its own problems, but seems more holistic.

    • stanrock says :

      I suspect an atheist can accept a ground of being. It’s the bridge between a ground of being and a being with some of the more particular characteristics that the atheist requests be built.

      The reason I say an atheist can accept a ground of being is that this can be purely metaphysical (vs. physical or supernatural or what have you). Tillich thought a lack of physically ultimate cause was troubling for the metaphysical naturalist when it isn’t, and so the metaphysical naturalist isn’t motivated to call the ground of being anything but metaphysical.

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