The Ontological Argument: “…the equivalent of trying to win a lawsuit on a technicality.”
There are many forms of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God. The following is Wikipedia’s optimal modern description.
1. God is that entity than which nothing can be greater.
2. The concept of God exists in human understanding.
3. God exists in one’s mind but not in reality.
4. The concept of God’s existence is understood in one’s mind.
5. If God existed in reality, it would be a greater thing than God’s existence in the mind.
6. The final step to God’s existence is that God in reality must exist.
The Ontological Argument strikes me as the equivalent of trying to win a lawsuit on a technicality. It’s a full-blown a priori attempted proof which assumes only that a perfect being is conceivable. I won’t argue this point, because although definitions may differ everyone gets some image in mind upon hearing the phrase “perfect being”.
The thrust of the argument is that it’s greater and more perfect to exist than not to exist. Since God in theory is the greatest and most perfect thing ever, He must exist.
The most obvious problem is that the argument is not the least bit specific about which God exists. Even if the argument were unassailable and the existence of a god were proven, we would still know absolutely nothing about the god’s identity or nature. Jumping immediately from the existence of a god to the existence of your god is an unsupported assertion.
If you really wanted to be annoying, you could argue that since the argument can be used to prove the existence of multiple mutually exclusive gods (say, the God of Abraham and Ahura Mazda of the Zoroastrian faith) it’s obviously a flawed argument. The theist reply is of course the above point that the argument makes no comment on the god’s identity and most religions just have the wrong guy, but it’s a good way to make people think.
The real problem is the premise that to exist in reality is greater and/or more perfect than to exist only in the mind. Something which doesn’t exist isn’t more perfect than something which does, but it isn’t less perfect either. It has no qualities by which this can be judged. An apple which doesn’t exist isn’t red, but neither is it purple. Therefore it can’t be redder or less red than a real red apple.
Existence isn’t a property as such either. Even if it were, it wouldn’t necessarily be a positive property, or something a perfect being must have. Something destructive like an earthquake might be better if it didn’t exist.
There are plenty of objections along these lines by a great many people, the most famous being Bertrand Russell and Immanuel Kant. As stated in the question, there are also a great many rephrasings of the argument which try to circumvent these objections.
The net result is that major apologetic organisations have advised that the Ontological Argument in its current forms does not stand up to scrutiny, and other arguments like the Transcendental and Cosmological Arguments (the favourites) should be used instead.
That doesn’t stop a lot of YouTubers from reciting obscure forms of the Ontological Argument and expecting them to be invincible. Look it up, and enjoy the logical knots both sides get themselves into when discussing it.
I always worry when someone uses this argument, because it may mean a few things. Maybe they don’t think people have the intelligence to fully comprehend such a complex-sounding argument and will accept it by default. Maybe they haven’t read the objections and don’t expect anyone to look them up. From a big-picture perspective, they’re using a less well known argument thinking it will take people by surprise, not considering that it’s less well known for a reason. It just plain doesn’t work.
The Transcendental Argument: “…the equivalent of winning at chess by knocking over all the pieces.”
I’m quoting an admittedly simplified version of this argument by the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM). Read the original here.
“Logical absolutes exist. Logical absolutes are conceptual by nature, are not dependent on the space, time, physical properties, or human nature. They are not the product of the physical universe (space, time, matter) because if the physical universe were to disappear, logical absolutes would still be true. Logical Absolutes are not the product of human minds because human minds are different, not absolute. But, since logical absolutes are always true everywhere and not dependent upon human minds, it must be an absolute transcendent mind is authoring them. This mind is called God.” Follow the link for CARM’s own list of possible objections and responses to each.
The Transcendental Argument for the existence of God (TAG for short) demands a certain sardonic respect due to its sheer ambition. In its full form, it claims that logic (and by extension rationality, sense, morality and any argumentation at all) can only exist if the Christian God does.
In simplified form it’s not Christian-specific, but it can be used at any point in an argument to override the whole thing and declare that the argument is only possible (or evidence is only understandable as a concept, or our senses are only reliable) if there’s a god, so one must exist.
This approach does not convince many atheists as far as we know. It seems like the equivalent of winning at chess by knocking over all the pieces. Nevertheless it’s difficult to find a clear hole in it which Christians in particular haven’t already closed with an addendum (see how much longer CARM’s list of defenses is than the argument itself).
One good way to make it a lot less convincing, strangely, is to temporarily presuppose the existence of God. If God exists, He still isn’t guaranteed to be the source of logic, because how could we check? We couldn’t go to a universe without God to see whether logic fails there, either because we’re stuck in this universe or because God’s omnipresence extends beyond it. In other words, if God’s there we can’t remove Him to see whether logic is independent of Him.
Therefore even if God existed and we all knew it, that logic is dependent on Him could only ever be an assertion and the Transcendental Argument is still not self-evident. If He doesn’t exist, of course, then the TAG is not only moot but flat out false.
I have two other major objections which CARM’s pre-emptive defenses don’t fully cover. Firstly, logical absolutes, rather than being conventions, eternal or anything else CARM mentions, may not really exist at all but instead may only be apparent.
Secondly, if logical absolutes do exist, saying that they must be the product of an absolute transcendent mind is an argument from ignorance. (Likewise is the assertion that if the physical universe were to disappear they would still be true. Again, how would you check?) Even if they’re not the product of the physical universe or human minds, there may be any number of unknown alternatives besides a transcendent mind, or any mind at all.
I realise that most objections to the TAG are simply alternative hypotheses and doubts as to its basic assertions, but that’s really all you need. If there is any possible alternative, an argument presented as the only possible state of affairs cannot be a proof until it clearly dismisses all competition. Once the possibility of an a priori proof is gone, the TAG loses its power and becomes just another thing theists say.
Question : For most of my life I’ve hidden that I’m atheist from my family and friends. The thing is: I feel embarrassed to be atheist. Is that normal?
Answer : Yes it is normal. When you live in an area thats heavily populated by theists, it’s understandable that one would feel some social and psychological pressures from that community. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, isolation, and even embarrassment when one is feeling judged or ridiculed.
Which is exactly how they want you to feel.
You see, one of the things about theism is that it creates an attitude of fear and mistrust. It teaches you that those that don’t believe the way you do should be shunned or proselytized . The embarrassment you are feeling is probably due to worrying about how others will perceive you, and consequently, whether or not they will accept you. Religion uses this to their advantage as a way of discouraging people from leaving the flock. It’s a method of control.
To combat this, find ways to build up your self esteem about your atheism. Try finding atheist meeting in your area. Join atheist chat rooms or message boards. A great atheist message board is The Atheist Network Find others who have gone through what you have, and gain comfort from shared experiences. As much as you may feel like it right now, you are not alone. This will help to build up your confidence and allow you to feel less embarrassed about your lack of belief.
Once you’ve built up your confidence, this will allow you to deal with your family and friends in a healthy manner. Try to be kind and understanding towards them and when they aren’t towards you, question them as to why. Show them that you being an atheist doesn’t make you less of a person. Show them that you can be more moral, more honest, and more understanding then they can towards you. Make them aware of your feelings and ask them to be understanding even if they can’t relate to your disbelief. They will find it much harder to judge you when they think that you hold yourself to a higher standard then they do themselves.
Remember, you have nothing to be embarrassed about. If you are a good person, then you are a good person no matter what your beliefs, or lack of beliefs are. Help them to focus on that aspect of yourself and do the same for them.
I hope that helps.
asktheatheist.com is dead, long live asktheatheist.com!
Welcome to the new site. The old Drupal-based site ground to a halt (like many such sites, apparently) so we’ve gone to WordPress.
Jake’s posted his old videos and I’ll be reposting my Great Big Arguments series (edit: it’s all up now), but the majority of the questions, answers and discussions went down with the old ship and we’re very sorry about that. You’re welcome to restate any of the old questions for us to answer anew. (This is of course your chance to rework or rephrase those questions, if for example you think we got you on a technicality last time.)
We look forward to receiving some questions by voice thanks to Google, and may answer in kind.
Have fun. I know I will.