An Experimental Ontological Argument

I thought up the greatest possible joke. Because it would be greater for it to exist in reality than for it to exist in my mind alone, it also exists in reality. You just read it.

Cameron Bertuzzi of Capturing Christianity recently posted an ‘experimental’ ontological argument for God’s existence, which runs like so:

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Note first that Cameron doesn’t claim to accept this argument, nor does he claim to find it successful or devoid of flaws. Oftentimes he shares arguments like this for experimental or testing purposes — and that’s beautiful! I want to emphasize, then, that his sharing an argument on social media doesn’t automatically imply that he accepts it or thinks it’s successful.

But let’s just focus on the argument itself and its proffered justifications. What to make of them?

For present purposes, I won’t challenge premise (1). This follows from the very notion of a necessary being (one that exists in all possible worlds if it exists in any). My focus, then, will be premise (2). What to make of the justifications proffered on its behalf?

First, it certainly will not be open to classical theists to employ Cameron’s first two defenses of premise (2). Classical theists decidedly reject that God merely has our powers and attributes to a greater degree, and they also decidedly reject Nagasawa’s ‘maximal God approach’ wherein God is defined as having a jointly compossible set of great-making attributes.

But suppose we aren’t classical theists. What, then, do we make of the justifications of premise (2) now?

The first one seems wrong-headed by my lights. It doesn’t follow from the facts that (i) x has attributes to a greater degree than us and (ii) that we are possible that x is thereby possible. This seems to be a straightforward non-sequitur. Indeed, there seem to be clear counter-examples to this kind of reasoning (e.g. a being that is both an infinite degree of selfishness and an infinite degree of selflessness only differs from us by degree, but such a being is nevertheless not possible).

To patch this up, Cameron might say: mere differences in degree (usually) don’t make a difference to modal status. For instance, if an apple with an 8 inch circumference is possible, then that gives us reason to think that an apple with an 8.1 inch (or 9 inch, or etc.) circumference is possible. So, the fact that we are possible beings and that God merely differs from us by degree gives us reason to think that God is possible too.

But this would do excessive damage. For if mere differences in degree (usually) don’t make a difference to modal status, then this likewise supports the reverse ontological argument. For we are also possibly non-existent, in which case (by the exact same reasoning as before) we would have reason to think that anything that differs from us merely by degree is likewise possibly non-existent (by modal uniformity). Hence, we have equal reason to think God is possibly non-existent, meaning God wouldn’t be necessary — and (per premise (1)) thereby impossible.

Another problem: it’s not at all clear that we should accept that God’s powers and attributes merely differ from ours by degree. There is a distinction between being infinite in degree and being unlimited. The former is a quantitative measure, whereas the latter is a qualitative or categorical measure.[1] A thoroughly unlimited being transcends the cardinal spectrum of value and instead occupies a unique and absolutely perfect position of supremacy. Surely this latter understanding is much more befitting of God.

[1] Josh Rasmussen likes to distinguish between these two senses of ‘supreme’ or ‘perfect’. Indeed, this is precisely why he speaks about God’s being unlimited rather than God’s being infinite in degree.

Nor does the second route Cameron offers in support of premise (2) help. For all the argument shows, the greatest compossible set of great-making properties may as well be rather unimpressive: perhaps something like a very intelligent, very developed biological organism. Indeed, there seems (to my mind at least) to be no non-question-begging way to show that the greatest compossible set of great-making properties would be anything like God. The naturalist, for instance, will say that the only beings that can exemplify the best great-making features are biological organisms (whether ones that could exist on earth or on some other planet). And these will almost certainly not be worthy of worship or be anything like ‘God’ as understood in theistic and Christian terms.

We need some demonstration that the greatest compossible set of great-making properties would be something akin to God. But then that argument would be the justification for premise (2) — meaning we’ve abandoned the approach Cameron originally proffered on its behalf.[2]

[2] Which, again, Cameron does not claim to be successful or demonstrative. We are explorers testing this argument together, on a mutual journey of love, dialogue, and truth-seeking. 🙂

And, finally, Cameron offers a third justification for premise (2) — that all arguments offered for its negation are seriously flawed. But this is also wrong-headed by my lights.

Note, first, that any argument against the existence of God — be it evidential, probabilistic, Bayesian, deductive, etc. — is ipso facto an argument for God’s impossibility. This is straightforwardly entailed by Cameron’s premise (1): if God doesn’t actually exist, then God is not necessary — in which case God is impossible. Hence, any support for God’s non-existence is ipso facto support for God’s impossibility. So, Cameron’s experimental justification amounts to the claim that all arguments against God’s existence are seriously flawed. This is a sweeping claim. And to my mind, it seems rather implausible. For more elaboration of why I find this implausible check out this and this.

Second, even granting this implausible claim, it doesn’t follow from the fact that all arguments for ‘not possibly P’ fail that ‘possibly, P’ is true or even probably true. This seems to be a non-sequitur. And, once again, there seem to be counter-examples. There aren’t any good mathematical demonstrations of the impossibility of Goldbach’s conjecture. But that doesn’t thereby establish the truth or probable truth of the possibility (and, by the S5 axiom, the actuality!) of Goldbach’s conjecture.

I conclude, then, that this argument for God’s existence does not succeed. But the investigation never ends, dear friends. 🙂

Author: Joe Schmid


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  1. Stardusty Psyche

    “For present purposes, I won’t challenge premise (1). This follows from the very notion of a necessary being (one that exists in all possible worlds if it exists in any).”
    There is only 1 actually possible world, the world that actually exists. The probability of a world actually existing other than the world that does actually exist is 0. The probability of the actually existing world actually existing is 1.

    Philosophers often confuse an imagined world with a possible world. The very notion of speculating about possible worlds is just an exercise in wishful thinking.

    Many actual possibilities are simply unknown. Imagining a possibility for which it is unknown if it is actually possible does not make that imagined possibility actually possible, only imagined.

    The ontological argument is just a long way of saying that wishing actually does make it so.

    • It’s very important to distinguish between conceivability/imaginability and possibility! This is also a very important insight when it comes to ontological arguments and other possibility-based arguments. <3

  2. robertleewhite

    Hey Joe,
    I just wanted to comment to say that I thought you did a really wonderful job debating Randal Rouser in the Devil Advocate’s debate. You are clearly a very thoughtful guy and I look forward to your output in the years to come.

    Also, I have an intense interest in epistemology, but I approach it from angles I don’t think are heard from as much, such as ideas for The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, focusing on heuristics, and ideas I’ve learned from being a software engineer. I don’t know if that’s your jam, but if so that’s what I cover on my blog/podcast.

    Keep up the great work!
    A Christian Epistemologist 🙂

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