Uncommon Objections to the Ontological Argument

Let’s face it, there are tons of bad objections to the ontological argument, both online and in print. It seems like the ontological argument (OA) elicits more bad objections than any other argument for the existence of God. From ridiculous parodies to rants about how philosophers continuously try to define or imagine things into existence, it’s a minefield of objections that are so bad that they border on downright offensive. In this post, I will explore some uncommon objections to the OA, and explain why I think they would be valuable debating tools; but first I need to lay out a typical, contemporary ontological argument:

P1. There is a possible world where a maximally great being exists.

So,

C. A maximally great being exists in the actual world.

This argument is valid, and you get from P1 to C by S5. One could conceivably challenge system 5, but that’s no fun. Let’s move on to the uncommon objections:

  1. Axiological anti-realism
  2. Axiological pluralism
  3. Axiological skepticism
  4. Robust modal realism
  5. Modal anti-realism

Axiological anti-realism is the thesis that evaluative properties either do not exist, or do not exist independently of a subject’s perspective. In the ontological argument being examined, God is called a maximally great being, which means that God has all great making properties to their respective maximal degrees. Great making properties are evaluative properties, properties that it is better to have than not. Even if “maximal greatness” is just considered a placeholder for the god of classical theism, the point still seems to stand. The classical theistic god is generally considered as all good, The Good, or the summum bonum. Regardless of how one cashes it out, the god of classical theism seems to require some sort of axiological realism insofar as this being possesses a mind-independent property called “goodness.” It seems strange to think that this aspect of God is contingent, which is what some forms of axiological anti-realism would entail.

The forms of axiological anti-realism that would even minimally preserve our discourse about God’s goodness would make that goodness a relational property that depends on the responses, desires, or judgments of either actual people or ideal spectators. If the response-dependence is on actual people, then it’s radically contingent, since actual people could have been quite different. Perhaps in a different possible world, those people wouldn’t see God as all good, so God just wouldn’t be all good in that world. While the ideal spectator option may prevent the contingency floodgates from opening, it still seems implausible as a means of cashing out what it is for God to be good. When classical theists discuss God’s goodness, they just aren’t saying that God’s character would be positively evaluated by an ideal spectator, or that the proposition “God is good” falls out of the ideal spectator’s set of beliefs in reflective equilibrium. At any rate, it may make most theists uncomfortable to consider God’s goodness essentially connected to the responses of an idealized person, which may not be an argument against the possibility of any conception of God that involves God’s goodness being cashed out in a subjectivist framework, but does cast doubt on its aptness. So, any argument against the existence of evaluative properties, or for their existence as irreducibly subjective properties, is an objection to the ontological argument [1].

Axiological pluralism holds that evaluative properties exist, but do not form a homogeneous set. This means that there is nothing that all evaluative properties have in common, such that they can all be predicated of the same being. If there is a heterogeneous plurality of great making properties, then there cannot be a being that has all of them at once. Any argument for some sort of moral relativism, or just against axiological monism will constitute an objection to the OA.

Axiological skepticism is the idea that we are in no position to know or be justified in our belief that evaluative properties exist. Traditional skeptical arguments can be run with even greater strength against the existence of evaluative properties than against physical or just non-mental properties. The possibility of the non-existence of evaluative properties seems more plausible than the possibility of the non-existence of  non-mental properties. So, the traditional skeptical arguments are of greater dialectical strength when used against evaluative properties. Any argument for axiological skepticism constitutes an objection to the OA, because the defender of the OA is asserting that there are great making properties. If one could shake the foundations underpinning his alleged epistemic entitlement to make those claims, then that constitutes an objection to the OA. Given axiological skepticism, we can’t know if great making properties exist, so we can’t make claims about their existence in the form of a being who exemplifies them to maximal degrees.

Robust modal realism is the thesis that possible worlds exist in the same way that the actual world does. So, “actuality” would be an indexical, like “now” would be if the B-theory of time was true. In this case, there would be a maximally great being inhabiting every “possible” world, which seems to be a form of polytheism. In a dialectical scenario with a monotheist philosopher or apologist, if one gave good arguments for robust modal realism, then they would put the monotheist on the defensive; either she has to defend a less robust theory of modality, or she has to explain how this wouldn’t constitute a “bad” form of polytheism.

Anti-realism about modality says that modal properties are either mind-dependent, or just don’t exist at all. This objection goes in the opposite direction of robust modal realism. In essence, if modal properties like necessity only exist in the mind, then they would not be properties that objects in the external world could exemplify. So, there just couldn’t be a necessary being, since necessity and contingency would be aspects of the way we think about things, and not properties of those things. If one could argue for modal anti-realism, then that would constitute a good objection to the OA.

That exhausts the list of objections. I feel that if somebody engaged in a formal or informal debate utilized these sorts of criticisms, then that would not only enrich the dialectic, but also create a more interesting and fruitful discussion between the debaters. This is why I find such value in exploring uncommon objections to theological arguments; doing so not only opens up new tactics for the debater, but it also sheds light on assumptions embedded within these arguments, and what sorts of reasons we have for holding onto them.

While there may be ontological arguments that avoid some of the commitments that these criticisms target, the OA I gave at the beginning seems to be one of the most typical kinds that you’ll find in the wild. In reality, though, there are tons of ontological arguments, ranging from ones based on concepts in mereology, to reductios like Anselm’s; and while my criticisms may damage some of those other kinds of OA, don’t assume that’s necessarily the case. Thanks for reading.

Endnotes:

[1]. At least if the ontological argument is intended to prove that the god of classical theism exists. Perhaps there are ontological arguments that can be run using anti-realist conceptions of God’s goodness.

  • And I defend a version of polytheism in my Religious Studies article “On the Plurality of Gods”. It’s on my website.