Monday, 1 October 2012

The ontological argument - on BBC radio!

As a listener to the BBC’s Radio 4 in the UK I recently heard a broadcast of In Our Time, an excellent series hosted by Melvyn Bragg, which examined the ontological argument for the existence of God. This argument was coined by St Anselm in the 11th century. It is a clever way of proving by logic that if one admits to the possibility of a maximally great god then that god must actually exist. This argument has stood the test of time, being supported and refined by Descartes, for instance, and in today’s world by the acclaimed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga.


The media often seem to portray those with faith in God as people driven by wishful thinking, while atheists are heroes of reason and independently minded.  This belies the essential rationality of belief in a creator of reality to which one relates through faith, as opposed to one who denies the creation of reality and lives in a fog of illusion. We all need support to live fully, whether it is food or drink or air or God. Food, drink and air exist, so does God. A society that denies the reality of God ultimately destroys itself.


So to me, as one who believes that, ultimately, peace on earth cannot be realised without the peace of God, it is refreshing to find such a programme being broadcast on a mainstream channel.


There are other classic proofs of the existence of God, referred to as the cosmological, teleological and moral arguments (there are additional proofs but these are enough for me!). I find these easier to understand and more difficult to attack than the ontological argument, which seems to stand or fall on whether a maximally great god is a coherent and rational concept. Few would deny this. Even Dawkins seems to think that there is a small possibility of God existing. This means he cannot be an atheist, but is by definition an agnostic.


The ontological argument took me a long time ‘to get my head around’ but here it is in case you want to follow it:


/1/ A maximally great being, God, could, in principle, exist – one that is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient.

/2/ A maximally great being is able to exist in all possible worlds or realities, otherwise it would not be maximally great. Note that all possible worlds would not include ones in which there were square circles or parents younger than their children. They all have to be feasible worlds.

/3/ The world we live in is one of those possible realities, therefore God exists.


The philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) accepted the soundness of the onotological argument. His agnosticism was driven by emotion arising from the problem of apparently unjustified or unnecessary suffering. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) , the French philosopher, developed the argument in relation to the Christian concept of God.

 In their desperation to disprove its conclusion some have claimed that the argument could be applied to a maximally great unicorn. One would be proving that a unicorn existed in this reality, which is absurd. There must be something wrong with the argument.

However, this criticism is invalid. A maximally great unicorn is not an equivalent concept to a maximally great God. It lacks coherence. For example, a unicorn could not be omnipresent, otherwise it would not be a unicorn. By definition a unicorn would have to have finite dimensions and a shape. It could not exist simultaneously everywhere even in one world and still be a unicorn. Only parts of it would exist in any one place.


In future posts I will give the cosmological, teleological and moral arguments. They can all be found on the web or in books but should you wish to learn or revisit these arguments you may find it  convenient to have them gathered on this blog in concise form. And as one who has no training in, or even special aptitude for, philosophy, I would welcome the challenge of explaining them.


See also
The doctrine of chance

For an academic exposition on the existence of God by W.L.Craig (a brillliant Christian philosopher who is also an expert on cosmology, quantum mechanics and elementary particle physics) listen to the podcasts on this website. The students ask searching questions, ones which you may ask yourself, and he attempts to deal with them.
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