Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A defense of an ontological argument

Given an appropriate notion of maximal greatness, maximal greatness entails maximal greatness in all worlds. By the S5 axiom of modal logic, it follows that that if possibly there is a maximally great being, there is a maximally great being. Thus discussion of the modal ontological argument focuses on the possibility premise, the claim that possibly a maximally great being exists.

  1. If a belief that p is within the center of the motivational life of a person or community, and that life is generally flourishing, then, probably, p is possible. (Premise)
  2. There have been persons and communities that have led generally flourishing lives within the motivational center of which there was the belief that a maximally great being exists. (Premise)
  3. Possibly, a maximally great being exists. (By 1 and 2)
  4. A maximally great being exists. (By 3 and S5, as per opening remarks)

The idea behind (1) is that a life within whose motivational center there was an incoherent proposition would be unlikely to be flourishing. It would be a life that would, most likely, come apart. The flourishingness of a life is evidence of the coherence of the concepts by which that life is lived. And coherence is either identical with or evidence for possibility. In favor of (2), I cite such people as Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Calcutta, Jean Vanier or Thomas Aquinas, and perhaps such communities as the first generation Franciscans. And I even think the synchronic and diachronic Christian community over the ages, despite sins of many individuals, qualifies.

One might try to come up with parallel arguments for incompatible premises. For instance, deeply committed pantheists like Ghandhi appeared to live flourishing lives, and if pantheism is possibly true, it is true, a conclusion incompatible with (4). Two responses can be made. First, pantheists may well believe that a maximally great being exists, and think that the whole of existence is necessarily identical with it. So maybe what is at the motivational center of their lives is just the belief that a maximally great being exists, and the further claim that the whole of existence is necessarily identical with it is less central. This may not be very plausible, though. It seems that the divinity of everything is motivationally crucial to them.

A second response is to admit this. Yes, the existence of pantheists leading flourishing lives at whose motivational center pantheism was found give evidence for the truth of pantheism. So we have evidence for theism and evidence for pantheism. And maybe as far as this goes, the evidence is balanced. But, note that both the evidence for theism and the evidence for pantheism is evidence against atheism. We have evidence for theism and evidence for pantheism. Now we need to see what independent considerations we can bring against theism and against pantheism. (Note, for instance, that the problem of evil is more pressing given pantheism, if the world-deity is good.)

I doubt that there are people living flourishing lives at whose motivational center lies atheism. I do not here deny that atheists may lead flourishing lives, but I deny that if they do, their lives have atheism at their motivational center. For one (this suggestion is due to a grad student here), atheism is a negative doctrine, and lives centered on negative doctrines are unlikely to be flourishing. More likely, the motivational center is morality, love of fellow man, loyalty to friends, etc. In the committed theist or pantheist, these things are closely tied to the theism or pantheism. But in the atheist, these things are, I think, largely independent of the atheism, except maybe in the case of a kind of tragic loyalty in the face of the terrors of the unfeeling world, as in Russell, which I think is not going to lead a fully flourishing life, falling short in respect of the joyous aspects.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alex:

Needless to say that I do really enjoy reading your blog. I’ve not done any comments before but now I’ve a question or two on your defense of an ontological argument.

1)This argument is very interesting. I was wondering if you could say more about what would constitute life that is flourishing. If we do not have a somewhat “objective criteria or standard” by which to judge that “this is an instance of a flourishing life”, wouldn’t it be possible for some subjective/relative standard (to an individual or a community) to produce some conflicting account that can taken as an instance of life that is flourishing? An atheist seems to be entitled to call into question your examples of flourishing lives in virtue of some different accounts of what a flourishing life might amount to, absent some objective standard for a flourishing life.

2)That brings us to another question yet related to the previous worry: of course, given theism, one would be inclined to think that there is some objective way of living one’s life that can be judged to meet an objective understanding of life that should count as flourishing. What do you think would be such “objective standard” of life for one’s life to count as a life flourishing? Can we list some such standard or instances of living a flourishing life that an atheist cannot consistently claim to be hers for different reasons?

It’d be good to hear your thoughts on these questions.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Dear Tedla,

Well, I do think there is an objective standard of a flourishing life, something Aristotelian. I also think that the sensitive atheist will acknowledge that the life of people like Jean Vanier, Augustine, Albert Schweizer, Abraham Heschel or their hard working, devoted theistic neighbor across the street is basically flourishing.

I am not denying that atheists lead basically flourishing lives. What I am denying, however, is that those atheists to whose motivational structural atheism is essential lead basically flourishing lives. There is something crabbed about a life based on something negative, even when the denial is correct. A life motivationally centered on arguing against Mormonism would likewise be wanting, even though I do think arguing against Mormonism is a valuable enterprise for a Christian.

And I do not even think that what I say here ought to be that controversial among atheists. If theism is true, then life should be organized around God. But if atheism is true, then it does not follow that life should be centered around the non-existence of God. Rather, the atheist's flourishing life should, I think, be centered on the pursuit of the true, the good and the beautiful in the world around us.

Here is a piece of evidence that atheists aren't going to disagree with me. A large proportion of American theistic philosophers devote a significant amount of their philosophical research to philosophy of religion. But while there probably are more atheistic than theistic philosophers in the U.S., only a small proportion of these devotes much of their philosophical energy to examining the metaphysics and epistemology of the non-existence of God, indeed such a small proportion, that among philosophers of religion, theists significantly outnumber atheists. This is because the atheistic philosopher just does not see the rational defense of atheism as being as important as the theist sees the rational defense of theism.

Tedla said...

Thanks a lot Alex, for addressing my questions. Yes, I agree with much of what you've said but then I've one question again based on ideas in your last paragraph.

Yes, it's not hard to establish the fact that lately work in philosophy of religion has been pretty much dominated by theistic philosophers though theistic philosophers do not probably outnumber atheistic philosophers among professional philosophers in the US. For example, once Quentin Smith has said the following to show a rise in productivity of the philosophy of religion literature, “But in philosophy, it became, almost overnight, “academically respectable” to argue for theism, making philosophy a favored field of entry for the most intelligent and talented theists entering academia today. A count would show that in Oxford University Press’ 2000–2001 catalogue, there are 96 recently published books on the philosophy of religion (94 advancing theism and 2 presenting “both sides”). By contrast, there are 28 books in this catalogue on the philosophy of language, 23 on epistemology (including religious epistemology, such as Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief), 14 on metaphysics, 61 books on the philosophy of mind, and 51 books on the philosophy of science.” [From The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism, Philo, 2001]

If what Quentin says is correct, as it seems it could well be, it confirms what you suggested in your comment on my question. But I’m wondering if one of the reasons atheists, perhaps the majority of them, do not spend much of their time seeking a rational defense for atheism is because they take atheism as just (obviously for them) rational and hence does not need as much defense for its rationality as much as their theistic colleagues think of their theism. If we can base our judgments mostly on published works of many atheists (in metaphysics and epistemology), I think, it seems to be reasonable to say that many atheists do not seem to believe/think that theism can even be a live option for any serious intellectual pursuit. Such atheist philosophers just show that by simply dismissing theism if it even gets a mention in the entire gamut of their writings.
I wonder if this would also be another explanation for the least (or, no) concern that many atheists show when it comes to defending rationality of atheism which they would say that it does not need any defense at all.

Quentin Smith thinks that such an attitude by atheist is not defensible at any rate. I quote him: “If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.” [The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism]

Thanks again for your thoughts.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


This seems good. I shall ponder.

Take a look at Bill Vallicella's fresh post on the same topic (his blog Maverick Philosopher).

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


Speaking about Q. Smith and the claim that atheism is a negative doctrine, cf.:

"The question [of whether] God exists may sound as if the atheist knows that she does not exist, which is no positive theory about what does exist. You know, this has been true of traditional atheism. Well, I believe here that there should be a new form of atheism, one that presents a positive theory of what exists and that this positive theory has a logical consequence that God does not exist."

Q. Smith - W. L. Craig Debate, 2003, available at

Anonymous said...

Couldn't we also just appeal to the idea that conceivability is evidence of possibility here?

If it is conceivable that there is a maximally perfect being, then this gives us prima facie (though defeasible) grounds to suppose that it is possible that there be a maximally perfect being. And then the ontological argument can get off the ground.

There could also be a cumulative case argument to defend the possibility premise of an ontological argument, which includes the conceivability consideration, the motivation consideration, and perhaps other considerations as well.