Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Rom 1 reply, 48: Of babies, bathwater, Plantinga and the (notorious?) ontological argument to God

Perhaps the most controversial of the major arguments pointing to God is the ontological argument. Many think it is little more than verbal trickery, and are highly dismissive. Others are fond of parodying and dismissing it. 

But, we need to pause and ask a little question.

Alvin Plantinga, for a generation, has been a leading and widely respected American philosopher: so let us ponder, 
Q: if the ontological argument family is so easily brushed aside, why is he -- obviously highly intelligent and informed -- a major champion of the argument in our day, specifically the modal form?

A: Maybe, then, there is more to this argument than meets the eye, and we should pause and consider whether one issue is that it is subtle and sophisticated, thus easily misunderstood and caricatured then thrown away with a forest of knocked over strawmen. Besides, the key modern concept, of a maximally great being -- one of maximal excellence across possible worlds -- helps us understand in a profound way several key ideas in the theistic concept of God. (That, BTW, is one of the benefits of such arguments, they enrich our understanding of theology.) Last, but not least, this argument not only sharpens up our logic skills, but it is a part of a cumulative case that sets up the question that to reject theism, what are you implicitly committing yourself to, and is that position, in aggregate, a reasonable view? [For instance, it turns out that as necessity of being is pivotal to the idea of being God and being eternal, one is looking at implying that God is impossible, a pretty stiff claim to defend.]
 Of course, a subtle, sophisticated and frankly quite technical argument is not an argument that is easy to grasp, and is not a part of a case made while standing on one foot, so to speak. Pull up an easy chair, and let us take a little while to contemplate. It may well be more than worth it.

Before I go on, I think we need a reminder that across the world and across town, hundreds, thousands and even millions have met God in life-transforming ways in the face of Christ through the power of the gospel and the Word of God. They (and I must include myself in that number), quite rightly, are as sure of the reality of God as of the reality of their loving Mothers. No wonder, we see the apostle Peter, facing martyrdom at the hands of the demonically mad Nero Caesar, c. 65 AD:
2 Peter 1:13 I think it right, as long as I am in this body,[h] to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

  17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son,[i] with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 

 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation.  

21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. [ESV]
There is abundant, good reason to believe in God (start here on), that is not at stake here. What is, is to help us understand God and evidence pointing to him more profoundly, in ways that enrich our experience and understanding of God.

There's little point in trying to discuss Anselm of Canterbury's medieval formulation, as this is generally conceded to be outdated. Instead, let us go straight to Plantinga, who speaks in terms of possible worlds, in effect coherent states of affairs that in principle could have been . . . or in at least one case (our world) are actual. First, at full strength as he writes to his fellow philosophers and/or the philosophically literate:
. . . (29) There is a possible world in which maximal greatness is instantiated. [--> Emphases added]
[52] And [we may] . . . spell out what is involved in maximal greatness:
(30) Necessarily, a being is maximally great only if it has maximal excellence in every world [--> perhaps, easier to see if we conceive of certain worlds Wi, Wj . . . Wn in which a being has maximal excellence, and then across worlds see the one which is maximally great as the greatest of these, noting that such a being will be necessary (and thus eternal), and so present in every possible world; we will spell that out below]
(31) Necessarily, a being has maximal excellence in every world only if it has omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection in every world. [--> and thus is also a necessary being]
[53] Notice that (30) and (31) do not imply that there are possible but nonexistent beings -- any more than does, for example,
(32) Necessarily, a thing is a unicorn only if it has one horn. [--> Since "worlds" are possible states of affairs, if something, B is generally possible, there exists a possible world Wq in which B exists, at least as a concept, one that is potentially realisable]
[54] But if (29) is true, then there is a possible world W such that if it had been actual, then there would have existed a being that was omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect; this being, furthermore, would have had these qualities in every possible world [--> it would be necessary, his peers would know that so he needs not explicitly state this]. So it follows that if W had been actual, it would have been impossible that there be no such being [--> as the being is necessary]. That is, if W had been actual,
(33) There is no omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect being
would have been an impossible proposition. But if a proposition is impossible in at least one possible world, then it is impossible in every possible world; what is impossible does not vary from world to world. Accordingly (33) is impossible in the actual world, i.e., impossible simpliciter. But
[CONCL A:] if it is impossible that there be no such being, then there actually exists a being that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect;
[CONCL B:] this being, furthermore, has these qualities essentially and exists in every possible world.
To understand this, it may be necessary to take it slowly, point by point, and we may want to read the wider context, here. And, a "simpler" and more commonly used formulation will follow. Where also, we can understand that we can speak of possible vs impossible beings:
POSSIBLE: A Unicorn (a horse with a horn, which could exist in a possible world . . . and since gene engineering now exists is quite likely to exist in our world within 100 years as people will pay good money to own or even see one)

IMPOSSIBLE: A Square Circle (as attributes of circularity and squarishness contradict so both cannot be simultaneously met in the same being in the same place under the same circumstances)

Likewise, we may discuss among possible beings the case of a flame:

This being is obviously possible, and depends on there being (i) fuel, (ii) oxidiser, (iii) heat and (iv) an un-interfered- with combustion chain reaction -- the fire tetrahedron which extends the fire triangle you may have met in a safety class. (The reason for that is that Halon extinguishers directly interfere with the chain reaction.) These are enabling on/off factors that are each needed and jointly sufficient for a fire to begin or exist:

Thus, a fire is a contingent being, which because of dependence on enabling factors which may or may not be absent, is possible but does not exist in all possible worlds; in particular -- as striking and extinguishing a match shows -- it may begin and end. 

But we may consider another case: if a candidate being instead is possible and does not depend on such factors, it is NECESSARY. Such a being would have no beginning or end, and must be in any possible world. For instance the truth asserted in the proposition 2 + 3 = 5 never began to be true, and will always hold.  Likewise, it can be shown that numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 . . . exist in all possible worlds. For, we can begin from the set that collects nothing, the famous empty set of mathematics, and abstractly construct the natural numbers, which entails the existence also of mathematical operations that combine them:
{  } --> 0
{0} --> 1
{0, 1} --> 2
{0, 1, 2} --> 3
. . .
In short, there is literally no shortage of actual necessary beings, though -- wisely, I think here of the debacle of the New Math educational experiment in the 1960's where teachers who often did not understand what they were handling themselves, were trying to teach students ideas they too often were not ready for -- we don't usually think in such terms. And, imagine, when we were in elementary school learning 1, 2, 3 and 2 + 3 = 5, we were sitting next door to some of the most profound mysteries that we can contemplate!

(And in case you are puzzled by there existing a literally infinite number of necessary abstract beings, the classical theistic understanding of such things is that these abstract entities are eternally contemplated by a maximally great Mind, aka God.)

The key point here, though, is that a serious candidate necessary being -- flying spaghetti monsters etc need not apply -- will be either impossible or actual.

Which, is where the existence of God, an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent,  omni-benevolent mind independent of other beings for existence and causally adequate to account for a credibly contingent observed cosmos that from core physics on up seems massively fine tuned for the existence of Carbon Chemistry, aqueous medium, cell based life comes in. (That is, the issue of a necessary being at the causal root of the observed cosmos is not merely arbitrarily pulled out of thin air and fevered imagination; we are trying to identify a best candidate to fill the bill, and a maximally great being with all great making properties to fullest aggregate extent and no lesser making properties is an obvious candidate to beat. Where also, as we saw, being eternal is directly connected to being necessary as a being.  Also, a truly necessary being -- a successful candidate -- will exist in all possible worlds. [To see why, try to imagine a coherent world in which 2 + 3 = 5 does not hold, or by contrast one in which square circles exist.])

That is, we see already why it is so that God will either be impossible, or actual.

Another -- simpler -- way of putting the modal ontological argument helps us see that from a fresh angle:
 P1: It is possible that a Maximally Great Being (MGB) exists [--> where such a being has greatmaking properties and no lesser making ones, to the maximal degree; and will be a successful serious candidate necessary being, NB]
P2: If it is possible that a MGB [--> inter alia a serious candidate NB] exists, then a MGB exists in some possible world
P3: If a MGB exists in some possible world, then a MGB exists in all possible worlds [--> As,
(P3.1) a serious NB candidate will be impossible or else will exist in any possible world, and
(P3.2) existence in one possible world directly indicates that the candidate being is possible, and where

(P3.3) something like a flying spaghetti monster will be material, composed of arranged parts etc, and will thus not be necessary . . . this also tells us something about constraints on what a NB can be like -- a mind or abstract entities are serious candidates (and, immediately, we see that materialists or those deeply influenced by evolutionary materialism dressed up in a lab coat, will have endless conceptual difficulties with necessary beings; I suggest a glance here on in context to begin to see the inescapable incoherence and self-refutation of such evolutionary materialism. Never mind the lab coat and the boasts of being rational, evo mat for short is inescapably self refuting and irrational. This is already an important side benefit of reflecting on this topic.)]
P4: If a MGB exists in all possible worlds, then a MGB exists in the actual world [--> the one that we know to be instantiated, all around us]
P5: If a MGB exists in the actual world, then a MGB exists
C6: A MGB. . . which is in effect, God . . .  exists.
So where does this complex chain of reasoning stand?

It is valid [as can be shown technically using propositional calculus . . . but is also intuitively plain], and in fact given the logic of being, possibility and contingency vs necessity, premises 2 - 5 are not generally controversial. The key issue, then, is the truth or otherwise of P1: it is possible (not IMPOSSIBLE) that a MGB exists.

You can of course reject P1, but at a price: showing (not merely asserting or skeptically implying or playing at knocking over strawmanised parodies, etc.  . . . ) the impossibility of a MGB.

Tough row to hoe (especially after the same Plantinga sank the deductive problem of evil several decades ago . . . which used to be a favourite atheistical argument to claim that God as conceived by theists was impossible).

But also, we see that a being that is necessary is eternal, and one that has maximal excellence across possible worlds with no lesser making properties will be omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, eternal (which entails NECESSARY), etc.

All of which sound oh so familiar.

As in, Moshe at the Burning Bush, responding to the Divine Call (long, long before people thought through the above chain of argument):
 Exodus 3:13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

14 God said to Moses, I am who I am.[g] 

This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

15 God also said to Moses,
“Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [--> YHWH, often rendered YAHWEH or JEHOVAH],[h] the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
“This is my name forever,
    the name you shall call me
    from generation to generation.
 16 “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt . . .
Likewise, let us read one of the calls to penitence in the Bible:
Is 55:1  “Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
    my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
    a ruler and commander of the peoples.
Surely you will summon nations you know not,
    and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has endowed you with splendor.”
Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
    and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
12 You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
    and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
    for an everlasting sign,
    that will endure forever.”
[Both, current edn NIV]

The God of the Bible, from the beginning, revealed himself to be The Great I AM (i.e. Eternal Being Himself -- the root of being and Creator), and effectively all-benevolent, all-knowing, all-wise [Reason Himself], utterly Sovereign Lord, Dread Judge, all-powerful to achieve his ends through his Word. 

Which, we can now see, are utterly, deeply rich with philosophical implications well ahead of their time. Seen by revelation, not by abstract speculation, and which helped trigger the 800+ years of difficult but pivotal thought that we have so desperately compressed above.

Just as Is 55:8 - 11 promised . . .

Food for thought, more to come, DV. END

PS: For more extended and elaborate discussions, I suggest Wartick here and Pruss here.

PPS: I noticed a pickup here Oct 23, 15. A very interesting point is made there by WL, which I take liberty to excerpt:
I think CB is saying that he's having difficulty with premise 3: "If God (the MGB) exists in some possible worlds, then He exists in all possible worlds."
I think the best way to look at it is to recognize that these alternatives are exclusive of each other and exhaust all the possibilities:
  1. God exists in every possible world (i.e. God is necessary)
  2. God exists in no possible world (i.e. God is impossible)
  3. God exists in some possible worlds, but not every possible world (i.e. God is contingent)
These three alternatives, by the way, apply equally to anything. WL is either necessary, impossible, or contingent also. Take a moment to convince yourself that this is true.
Now, the key insight of the modal argument is realizing that the definition of "God" does not permit any contingent being to satisfy the definition. It can't 'turn out' that a contingent being is God.
That rules out alternative 3 and leaves us with these two alternatives:
  1. God exists in every possible world (i.e. God is necessary)
  2. God exists in no possible world (i.e. God is impossible)
If God exists in any possible world, then option 2 is ruled out, then we are left with option 1. That is to say that if God exists in any possible world then God exists in all possible worlds. To put it another way, if God is possible, then God is necessary.