Are the classical arguments for the existence of God (e.g. Pascal’s Wager, Anselm’s Ontological Argument) still relevant in the light of secular philosophy and science?

Hello Sam. I would like to ask if the classical arguments for the existence of God (e.g. Pascal’s Wager, Anselm’s Ontological Argument) are still relevant in the light of secular philosophy and science. Thanks.

Hello Simon, Thanks for writing. Both the arguments you have mentioned are still relevant. Here is a quick overview of Anselm’s argument. There are some philosophers like Richard Swinburne who argue against the ontological argument, but there are others who take the argument very seriously.

Anselm’s Ontological Argument

  1. God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. In other words, God is a maximally great being with great making properties such as omnipotence, omniscience, morally perfect etc.

  2. A being that exists in the actual/real world is greater than a being that just exists in the mind.

  3. If God exists only in the mind and not in the actual world then a being greater than God can be conceived.

  4. We cannot conceive of a being greater than God - He is the greatest conceivable being

  5. God must not only exist in the mind but also in the real world.

  6. Therefore, God exists.

Many prominent philosophers such as Norman Malcolm, Charles Hartsthorne and Alvin Plantinga take this argument seriously and consider it to be sound. Here is Plantinga’s version of the Ontological argument as Dr. Craig presents it in Reasonable Faith pg. 184-185. God can be defined as a maximally great being and if it is logically possible that God exists then God necessarily exists.

  • P1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.

  • P2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

  • P3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world (In order to be maximally great then a maximally great being would have to be morally perfect, all powerful, all knowing and exist in all possible worlds)

  • P4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world

  • P5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists

  • C. Therefore, a maximally great being exists

Premises 2 to 6 are largely uncontroversial. But if the argument is sound then a whole host of other entities that are logically possible can be shown to exist. Couldn’t we parody this argument and make it work for anything? For eg, one could argue for the existence of an island than which none greater could be conceived. Now, the problem with this objection is that it is difficult to conceive of such an island.

“No matter how great an island is, no matter how many Nubian maidens and dancing girls adorn it, there could always be a greater-one with twice as many for example. The qualities that make for greatness in islands-number of palm trees, amount and quality of coconuts, for example-most of these qualities have no intrinsic maximum. That is, there is no degree of productivity or number of palm trees (or of dancing girls) such that it is impossible that an island display more of that quality. So the idea of the greatest possible island is an inconsistent or incoherent idea; it is not possible that there be such a thing.” – Alvin Plantinga

The idea of a maximally great island is not like the idea of a maximally great God. The idea of a maximally great being is an intrinsically coherent idea.

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s wager is not an argument for the existence of God rather it simply states that given the evidence for theism it is safer to bet on theism than on atheism. If there was no evidence for theism then this wager won’t work.

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Thanks for responding. I now understand the Pascal’s Wager. However, with regards to the Ontological argument, many people would respond by saying that if we apply the argument to prove a maximally evil God, then the argument would still make sense. What is a good response to that? Thank you :smiley:

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Thanks for your follow-up question. Here is my quick response to your question.

The ontological arguments seek to deduce the existence of God from the very concept of God. It is an a priori argument. In order to answer your question I think it would be helpful to categorize entities that exists as contingent and necessary entities. (There are only two sorts of existent entities namely contingent and necessary entities.)

There are three sorts of entities.

Impossible entities – Entities that exist in no possible world eg. A married bachelor

Contingent entities – Entities that exist in some possible world eg. Unicorns

Necessary entities – Entities that exist in all possible worlds eg. Abstract objects such as numbers and God

Plantinga’s version of the ontological Argument

Plantinga conceives of God as a being with maximal excellence in every possible world having excellent making properties such as omniscience, omnipotence, moral perfection etc. Such a being is a maximally great being. In other words, a being that has maximal excellence in every possible world is a maximally great being. If God is a contingent being then he would be less than maximally great for he would be less than great than if he existed in all possible worlds

It is important to keep in mind that just because it is possible for an entity to exist does not mean it exists in the actual world. For eg. It is possible for unicorns to exist (I can think of a possible world in which unicorns exists) but that doesn’t entail that unicorns exists in the real world.

A version of the Ontological argument

  1. God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived

  2. God exists either contingently or necessarily

  3. It is greater to exist necessarily than contingently

  4. Therefore, God exists necessarily.

Now to your question

Evil is not a great making property

The greatest conceivable being would have to be morally perfect because it is greater to be morally perfect than to be morally imperfect. Moral perfection would have to be one of the components of what it means to be a maximally great being. Thus, if God is the greatest conceivable being then He would have to be maximally excellent with excellent making properties such as omniscience, omnipotence, moral perfection etc. Therefore, the idea of an evil God is logically incoherent.

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