Monday, April 1, 2013

The Ontological Argument: Putting The Absurd Where It Belongs

Continuing with my refutations of the most popular arguments made for the existence of god, I thought I'd conclude with the ontological argument. The reason why I've never addressed it before is because I never even thought that the ontological argument was even really an argument. It’s really just an attempt at brain trickery through wordplay. What it surreptitiously tries to achieve is to trick the skeptic into agreeing that it’s possible that god may exist, and once having made this deal with you it moves on to try to “prove” god exists through the logical conclusion of its premises. Many agnostics and weak atheists who haven’t considered the paradoxical nature of god may actually fall for it, but when I first heard it, my bullshit alarm immediately went off. It is generally stated a bit more complex than many of the other arguments for god and there are many versions of it. The version here that I’m going to use is a derivation of philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s Modal Ontological Argument.

1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists (i.e. God).

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.

When I first heard another version of the ontological argument I thought to myself, “Wait a second! You can’t define god into existence!” But that’s exactly what theists were trying to do. Another objection I have is what is meant by “possible world”. From a theistic perspective, a “possible world” might mean any other world god chose to create besides this one which we live in. But that definition presupposes god’s existence in the first place. In logic, a possible world really means possible scenario in our world, but not the existence of another physical or dimensional world. For example, I could say, “There’s a possible world in which I’m rich.” It need not necessarily be another physical world where I’m living the good life, but instead could be an alternative history to this world. I personally like the idea of a possible world being an alternative universe, perhaps in a level 3 multiverse, but for the sake of argument, I will define a possible world as another possible scenario of this world, one in which a hypothetical situation or thought experiment can be conducted.

The Omnipotence Paradox

It is generally considered that arguments 2-5 flow logically if premise 1 is true so let me focus on premise 1 that “It is possible that a maximally great being exists.” When I argued earlier on my blog addressing the Kalam Cosmological Argument, I made numerous attempts to show how a maximally great being cannot exist. It is impossible to decide on what exact properties a maximally great being has, since no two religions and really no two theists can ever fully agree. Muslims believe their version of god is the supreme being, but many Christians would argue that the Islamic concept of the divine is inferior on the account that he hates all non-believers, and since the Christian version of god  loves everyone regardless of whether or not they believe, he is better. But this idea of god unconditionally loving everyone is contradicted by several biblical passages (Psalm 5:5; Lev. 20:23; Prov. 6:16-19; Hos. 9:15)[i]. So it is not clear whether the god of the bible doesn’t also hate certain kinds of people in certain circumstances. Personally, I’ve always felt that all religious accounts of god, especially Abrahamic ones, fall far short of portraying their deity on par with the concept of a “maximally great being”.

But the concept of such a being itself is at question here, not whether the god of any particular religion is maximally great. So if atemporality is a condition of a maximally great being, then it is impossible for an atemporal being to have a causal relationship with temporal events like creating a universe, or revealing his will to people in private. The theory proposed by William Lane Craig that god is atemporal prior to creation of the universe, and temporal afterwards doesn’t fare any better[ii]. First, it is not logically coherent for a being to exist in a state of timelessness who then chooses to create time. A timeless being must be static and frozen unto all possibilities by its very definition, otherwise any change in state, either physical or mental prerequisites time. A timeless being therefore could not have “created” time because time itself must necessarily prerequisite its own creation if there exist a being prior to it that creates it. Second, if god ceases to become timeless when he somehow wills time into existence, he ceases to be a maximally great being, and merely becomes a “great being” through the loss of the property of being timeless.

There are even more problems associated with god being defined as a maximally great being. “God” is often referred to as “the Creator” by many theists because they believe he created us and everything that we know of. The problem with being a creator is that one must create something in order to become a creator. So if god becomes “the Creator” once he creates something, such as our universe, then before he created the universe he was not yet a creator. We can say that god at this time prior to creating the universe is a potential creator in the same way a man can be a potential father. But if god acquires the characteristic and the adjective of being a creator once he creates, then he couldn’t have started out as a creator, and that means god has gained a new quality that he previously didn’t possess. But if god can acquire new adjectives over time in the same way I can acquire a doctorate degree at some point in my life and acquire the title of “Doctor”, it means god could not have started out as a maximally great being since a maximally great being cannot gain new properties. A maximally great being must be complete in all areas as part of its intrinsic nature; it cannot go onto gain something later on in its life. This also further shows that god cannot be a timeless entity because god undergoes a metamorphosis when he creates the universe and changes from a potential creator, to a creator. Such a being that can change from one state to another cannot transcend time and must be temporal since any change by definition requires a prior and later state of affairs, and that demands time.  

The best I’ve heard a theist respond to this dilemma is to say that god is an ontologically independent being whose quiddity somehow enables him by “definition” to have all the characteristics of a creator even without having created. Logically, it’s the equivalent of me saying that by "definition" I’m a father, and yet I have no kids. It’s just logically absurd; you cannot by definition have an intrinsic property that is dependent on the existence of something else. From the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy we get an answer. “The only plausible sense in which a substance is an entity which does not depend ‘ontologically’ upon anything other than itself seems to be the sense in which it does not depend for its identity upon anything else.”[ii] This is problematic for the concept of a creator and a maximally great being because its identity does depend on it having a totality of completeness of all possible desirable traits as part of its fundamental nature. A maximally great being is like a maximally great number, or an infinitely great number; you cannot add to infinity since by definition it has insurmountable value. But the idea that a being such as god can create and gain the property of a creator, it means that maximal greatness as a property of a being it metaphysically impossible. Furthermore, since being the creator of one universe is greater than not having created anything, and having created two universes is greater than having had created only one universe, an infinite ascension of creation is required of maximal greatness and it leads to logical absurdities.

The Omnipotence Catch-22

Depending on your notion of god as the maximally great being, there appears to be a catch-22 dilemma with respect to the notion of god as a maximally great being and a creator for the theist. It goes like this. God cannot start out as the maximally great being because if and when he creates he becomes a creator and gains new properties. Gaining new properties is incompatible with maximal greatness (it’s like trying to add to infinity). But if you somehow believe god is maximally great without having created anything, then when he creates he loses the property of being timeless, since as I’ve explained earlier, a being that creates cannot logically also be timeless. If god loses a property upon creation then he cannot be maximally great, since losing a property is not compatible with maximal greatness. It also makes god’s quality of maximal greatness a contingent quality that is possible he can lose if and when he creates. So the theist here is in a bit of a catch-22: god either cannot start out as a maximally great being if he can gain new properties, or if god can lose properties after he creates, his maximal greatness is a contingent property and cannot be intrinsic since maximal greatness cannot allow the loss of anything. It would seem to me that the only way out of this paradox is to conclude that maximal greatness is not a logically and metaphysically possible property of a being. This is why the concept of a maximally great being to me is impossible to believe.

Omniscience Paradox

Then there’s the problem of omniscience. If god knows everything, he can’t have any free will unto himself. For if he knows what he will do, he could never deviate from his knowledge of what he’ll do. Some say god could never be indecisive, since indecisiveness is a property of imperfect beings. Fair enough, but it does mean that god must exist in such a state like a computer program whereby his decisions are all fixed and he executes them according to the script. He wouldn’t be able to “will” something without having had prior knowledge of exactly what he’d will and when he’d will it. Even the full effects of his will are known to him. But every religion ever told treats god as a temporal being when describing him who seems to react to events as they transpire and seems to not know the future (e.g. Noah's Flood). It could be that god is pretending and is feigning reaction to events on earth like the way an actor reacts in a scripted scene that they had prior knowledge of.  (Or it could be that the god(s) of all the world’s religions is simply a fictional character made up by people who never thought skeptics would one day be asking these questions.) Emotions require surprise. If god is pretending to react to events he has prior knowledge of, then he is deceiving. Deception is a form of lying, which a maximally great being couldn’t possess. It is hard to imagine the mind of a being that already knows everything, especially when that mind is supposedly timeless and eternal. So it seems that if god knows everything, he knows what he'll do and could never change. That means god has no free will. Wouldn't a god with free will be greater than one who is determined? The property of all-knowing just never seemed plausible to me.

The Problem of Evil

Then there’s the problem of evil being compatible with a maximally great being. This is one of the strongest emotional arguments against god, but my take on it is slightly different. I don’t have so much a problem with the idea of human free will allowing human beings to harm one another. Although there are aspects of this idea that disturb me if a creator is assumed, the problem of evil I am most concerned with is actually what I see as god’s evil in the form of natural terrors that harm not just human beings but animals too. For example, think of a genetic disorder like cystic fibrosis which is a painful and debilitating disease whereby the body cannot transport chloride and sodium leading to cystic scarring of the pancreas. We have discovered that cystic fibrosis is due to a single gene mutation. Under a theistic worldview, I wonder what kind of maximally great being would design such a thing. If such a disease and others like it are the product of natural errors in the genome, there’s no one to point the finger at and hence no evil. But in a world designed by a maximally great being, you’d have to believe that god specifically designs every disease and disorder and the pain and suffering they would cause and arbitrarily chooses what people and babies would get afflicted by them and what people and babies would not. Furthermore, I’m told by some Christian theists that this is all because the sins of Adam and Eve. But since many theists don’t believe in a literal Genesis account, and those are the kind of theists I have in mind for this post, then where did the need for such unnecessary suffering come from that plagues not only humans but animals alike?

Now since the doctrine of original sin is not affirmed by all Christians, especially those who accept evolution, and it is not affirmed by Jews or Muslims, the answer to why there exists natural harm under a theistic worldview that accepts evolution would seem to be best explained that god first waited until humans evolved enough to develop a conscience to have moral responsibility and then chose to reveal himself. The person or persons god then chose to reveal himself to were given a challenge similar to the one Adam and Eve were given in Genesis, and they too failed to pass it. These two people, although not the actual fathers and mothers of all humankind, were representatives of the entire human race from that point on and so all of humankind afterward bares some collective responsibility for their failure. To rectify this apparent gross miscarriage of justice, some theists will believe that the challenge god gave these people was such that any one of us would've failed if we were in the place of those two people, and so there would be no point complaining over our group punishment: we'd all fail. However, there are other interpretations Christians have on how we got original sin or whether we have it at all that I don’t have room here to elaborate on. Bottom line with Christians is that they essentially believe we’re all sinners from birth or at least from an age of understanding. And this sin somehow permits a fallen world with earthquakes, hurricanes and diseases.

The best I’ve heard most theists say is that god somehow has morally sufficient reasons to allow such natural evil and suffering. But the problem here with this argument is that the suffering isn’t something natural that is “allowed” or “permitted” by god; god actually designs suffering and intentionally unleashes it onto the world. Suffering is engineered by god at the genetic level and at the subatomic level. Why should an unborn fetus be given a horrible disease which will cause it to suffer its entire life after it’s born and die shortly thereafter? Problems like this no doubt provoke strong emotional reactions and I generally hear two responses from theists to reconcile such suffering in a theistic world. (1) Disease and suffering brings people together and motivates others to help, treat and cure the diseases and stop the suffering which are all acts of kindness and this is supposed to glorify god; and (2) god is not morally obligated to make anyone’s life pleasurable or long, he can harm or kill anyone he wants whenever he wants. Now let’s take a look at these two justifications.
  1. The first attempt to rationalize natural evils and disease ignores the fact that people can also be motivated to help one another when people harm one another, such as during wars and conflicts, or "regular" evils. It also points to a very bizarre and capricious god who would purposely make certain children sick and suffer just so that their families and community would gather around and be motivated to help. There’s no doubt that praiseworthy acts of courage and kindness can be made in the face of natural tragedies, but what kind of maximally great being designs viruses and natural catastrophes whereby he chooses who gets sacrificed through no fault of their own? Finally, this also totally ignores why animals suffer from the same diseases and natural disasters. They surely will not benefit morally since they have no souls and are not morally accountable for anything under the theistic worldview. This also would mean that during our evolutionary past while human beings were gradually evolving from other primates and had a rudimentary moral sense that was not quite as a modern human’s but was certainly greater than a chimpanzee or a gorilla’s, we also had a consciousness that had enabled us to be self aware of our suffering. Under the theistic evolutionary worldview, there must have been a time before the soul came into being when our human and prehuman ancestors were able to suffer as much as we do and be aware of it, while they also weren’t held to any ultimate moral accountability and had nothing to gain from their suffering. If our suffering exists because god wants us to be motivated to acts of good and acts of worship, it fails to explain why animals suffer and why our prehuman ancestors suffered as well.
  2. The notion that suffering exists because god chose to create it and will it onto us because he can do whatever he wants, makes us all little more than god’s playthings whom he can destroy at will. If god can harm and kill anyone he wants and is not held to any moral accountability, it sounds to me that living under such a god would be indistinguishable from living in an eternal North Korea, where the dictator can do as he pleases and all his subjects must endure. I would further argue that this idea of god, held by some Calvinists and Muslims is incompatible with the concept of moral perfection and therefore such a being could not be considered a maximally great being. Consider this, if god is a maximally great being, and is intrinsically morally perfect, and if his commandments reflect his perfect nature, then wouldn’t violating his own rules nullify his moral perfection? Since we hold people in power to the same level of responsibility as common folk, wouldn’t god’s moral perfection entail that he conform to his own supposedly perfect moral commandments? If the answer is no, if the answer is that god can break his own rules whenever he wants, it paints an image of god like a corrupt lawmaker who enforces laws but then breaks them whenever he wants because he feels he has the power to. All systems of corruption involve a belief that some of us are “above the law”, and theism seems to reinforce this notion, sometimes with harmful results. Finally, this idea of god the dictator also fails to give a sufficient explanation of suffering by concluding that the reason why suffering exists is “because God wills it”. If that answer were applied to every question we asked, we’d have no knowledge and scientific understanding of anything today.

The omnipotence and omniscience paradoxes and the existence of natural evils and suffering towards beings that have no way of gaining anything in the afterlife convince me that a maximally great being isn’t possible. Natural “evils” are much better explained under the naturalistic worldview. They aren’t “evils” at all because nature itself is not conscious; it has no intentionality with what it does. For example, if a rock rolls off a hill and smashes someone in the head and kills them, it’s a horrible tragedy, but it isn’t evil. But if someone threw the rock off the hill at the person, then we can say it’s evil because there is intention. The fact that a mind was behind the act that wanted the person to suffer and die adds a morally culpable aspect to the situation. So if diseases and natural disasters are natural, they’re not evil, but if they’re designed by a god with the intent to cause their victims to suffer and die for whatever greater moral purpose, it’s unnecessary evil. Morally speaking, this worldview would simply just make god a utilitarian who believes the people and animals he causes to suffer and die are merely a sacrificial means to some unknowable end he has in store for all of us.

Under the naturalistic worldview pain and suffering have logical explanations. Pain is a way for animals to become aware of their environments and it alerts them to danger. For example, we all know what it’s like to touch something very hot. The pain we felt let us know that it was not going to be pleasant if we touched that object again. Pain therefore lets us know to be more careful next time. If it weren’t for pain and the awareness of it, an organism would never learn from its experiences and it would make the same mistakes over and over again, and overtime this would allow it to harm its body making its survival less likely. Pain and suffering have survival benefits, and the evolutionary process favored those organisms that could use their sense of pain to learn from their behavior.

This means that during the evolutionary process, you would expect to see organisms acquiring the ability to react to their environments in simple ways, and then over evolutionary time this simple reaction would evolve to become more and more sensitive, eventually evolving into the consciousness that humans and mammals have today. Suffering therefore predated the evolution of human beings by hundreds of millions of years. Micro-organisms are simply just other forms of life who have evolved to find a way to thrive on the detriment of other living beings, not that different from how we thrive by killing and eating billions of animals every year. Earthquakes, floods and other natural phenomenon are simply products of a volatile natural world where change is constant.

Now to me the answer to why suffering and pain exists is much more plausible under the naturalistic worldview than under the theistic worldview. It is only under the idea of a creator that it even becomes a problem at all needing explanation. And so far the best theists can do, is to say that suffering exists because god has sufficient reasons for doing so. But as I’ve explained, this opens up more problems than answers and ultimately fails to solve those problems and the problem of suffering in general.


There are also numerous parody arguments made to show how almost any logically coherent statement can be used to "prove" existence or non existence of something from its mere possibility or impossibility. Some of them are ridiculous and some of them are just satires that aren't meant to be taken seriously. Virtually any version of the ontological argument can be modified to make it “disprove” that a maximally great being exists. For example consider the following:

1. It is not possible that a maximally great being exists (i.e. God).

2. If it is not possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being cannot exist in some possible world.

3. If a maximally great being cannot exist in some possible world, then it cannot exist in every possible world.

4. If a maximally great being cannot exist in every possible world, then it cannot exist in the actual world.

5. If a maximally great being cannot exist in the actual world, then a maximally great being doesn't exist.

6. Therefore, a maximally great being doesn't exist.

Premise one is logically incoherent, and so if true, premises 2 through 6 logically follow to disprove the existence of a maximally great being. But what this does is that it shows you that the ontological argument is question begging: the conclusion is embedded within its first premise. The argument on its own also essentially demonstrates nothing, other than that someone who can make it might understand modal logic. The first premise must be rationally demonstrated because it assumes too much. Now to be fair the ontological argument is never really supposed to be used as a standalone argument for the existence of god, it’s really supposed to be part of a cumulative effort of arguments to build off of the foundations of the cosmological arguments. That’s why on its own it fails to make a seriously convincing argument.

Another extremely simple and effective ontological argument I found on SkepticInk can be used to easily refute any one particular god and is great at disproving Christian, Jewish or Islamic gods using the same basic deductive logic:

  1. God is the greatest conceivable being.
  2. I can conceive of a greater being than Yahweh.
  3. Therefore, Yahweh is not God.

The arguments I've given demonstrate that a maximally great being is impossible. Now one might say that omnipotence simply just means having the ability to do everything logically possible, and that it doesn't mean that such a being must have already done everything logically possible. But I ask, “Could an omnipotent being have contingent properties?” Contingent properties are ontologically dependent properties. It would seem to me that an omnipotent being should not be able to gain and lose contingent properties that ontologically depend on the existence of other things. The most common way out of accepting this is the old “God is timeless” adage, and his essence is eternal and complete. This is not being consistent with logic, however, and remains the facile route for anyone not wishing to engage in the more difficult complexities of defining ontological independence.  

In Conclusion

My official position is that a maximally great being is logically and metaphysically impossible, but I cannot disprove the existence of such a being. The idea of the “greatest conceivable being” to me is like trying to imagine the greatest conceivable number - it’s just impossible; it’s just a concept in our heads and has no basis in reality. The very fact that no one can pinpoint this being’s exact qualities is further testament that this being lies merely in the imagination of the believer. God's general qualities  of more or less being timeless, spaceless, morally perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, infinitely loving, kind and compassionate, are wonderful ideas produced by human minds, but as I’ve argued, they all get you into logical conundrums when applied.   


[i] Psalm 5:5, "The boastful shall not stand before Thine eyes; Thou dost hate all who do iniquity,"
Psalm 11:5, "The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates."
Lev. 20:23, "Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them."
Prov. 6:16-19, "There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: 17 Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 A heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil,19 A false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers."
Hosea 9:15, "All their evil is at Gilgal; indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of My house! I will love them no more; All their princes are rebels."

Further reading on arguments against god:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument
The Fine Tuning Argument
Objective Morality Without God
Refuting William Lane Craig: "Is Good from God?" A Debate Review
Refuting William Lane Craig: The Moral Argument
The Logically Implausible God
The Logically Implausible God Part 2
God, Time & Creation: More Problems For William Lane Craig


  1. I primarily want to just acknowledge your last several posts. Significant efforts.

    I have a gut problem with the 'problem of evil' as it is generally treated (a) in the case of an existent active supernatural being and (b) in the alternative case of an orderly non-contradictory laws of physics only universe (where both situations are postulated to have the same matter-energy 'starting' content). We hold suffering against the hypothetical God while we effectively give a moral pass to the physics only world, obviously on the anthropomorphic argument that an active God "ought" to arrange things without the very same suffering that exists in the physics only world. The moral theory behind this does not, imo, compute. The problem, it seems to me, must lie either in the conception of this hypothetical God or in the conception of the human condition under the two scenarios. Can't be solved in the ComBox (if at all), but thanks for letting me think out loud.

  2. I thought about it over night:

    Either morality (in detail) is objectivity or we don't have the correct conception of 'God'.

    Morality (in detail) is not objective.

    Therefore, we don't have the correct conception of 'God'.

  3. The problem of evil surely is a complex one, and one fraught with tremendous emotional baggage. A lot of atheists parody the idea of an evil god who can inflict harm, suffering and death whenever he wants (which actually wouldn't be that different the god of the bible) as an example that any concept of god can be "proven" with the ontological argument. The problem is of course, theists will say that god must be "wholly good" in every possible world in order to be god. So they want god defined on their terms.

    The problem is how do you objectively define what is "wholly good" in every possible world, and every possible situation? Are we human beings even up to that task? We know what's good for human well being, for the most part, and it surely isn't what's commanded in the bible or koran. So the concept of god is riding on our ability to define wholly goodness objectively.

    What most theists simply do, is they say whatever god does is by definition perfect and good, even if it deliberately harms people and animals. Well that's not a logical argument as you can see, and is merely tautological. I think the problem of evil is best addressed skeptically by the problem of animal suffering, since they have nothing to gain and are essentially innocent to moral accountability. On that, god's "wholly goodness" fails.

  4. Good reply. Ty.
    > The problem is of course, theists will say that god must be "wholly good" in every possible world in order to be god. So they want god defined on their terms.

    Ironically I was just reading Plato's Euthyphro
    [ ]
    from a theist blog I am enjoying reading. Plato is making the argument that the holy (generally considered now to include or to analogously include the Good) is an objective reality - and not something subjectively derived from the gods. That would solve the conception of God problem I described above (by essentially eliminating the gods from the equation - or by treating the gods as merely a variable name for majority rule) ... which raises a different question: do you have a philosophic position on the objectivity or subjectivity of 'the good'? Or perhaps a previous post you might direct me to? Your reference to the "problem of animal suffering" suggests a position that animal suffering is objectively wrong, else it would not stand against "god's 'wholly goodness' ".

    My own opinion is that 'good' within the natural world is generally - if not exclusively - a referent and not a thing in itself. I make an exception for Life Itself, but even that I treat as a hypothetical imperative or as an axiomatic starting point for a derived morality. If I accept the existence of God, then I maintain the same basic analysis except that I can probably replace Life Itself with the Universe Itself (all possible worlds). I do not accept the standard understanding of God as Wholly Good under any case. That actually is too big a concept for a ComBox, but if such a God were axiomatically defined as Wholly Good, then we would necessarily have to change our understanding, imo, of how that would manifest itself - if at all - in the physical world. That was part of my point in my previous comment. The 'standard' theistic understanding seems to insist an applying an anthropocentric morality onto such a God. I don't see how that can work (without all the contortions we routinely observe to square 'god' with Time and human norms of behavior), as you pointed out in a previous post.

    1. I agree that we project an anthropocentric morality onto god. I also take to the "Good" being grounded in nature itself and not subjective to anyone's opinion, even god's. It's funny, that divine command theory is classified under subjectivism in the ethical theory classifications.

      I lay out my ethical views on objective vs. subjective morality in my post "A Case For Secular Morality" Link here:

      It's a heavy read but I'm sure you'll find it interesting. I wrote it to address the constant accusations that not believing in god forces you into total moral relativism and nihilism, which I think is fallacious.

      As such, a universal goodness that is not relevant to one particular species is very hard to pinpoint, which is why god's "wholly goodness" seems so humanly contrived.

  5. Thanks, I should have found that link, but I'm still reading some of your older posts. I hope you don't mind but I've added you to my blog roll page. Great job with your blog.

    1. Thanks a lot, I hope you enjoy. Never stop thinking.



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