The Missing Ontological Argument in the Craig vs. Law Debate

By Douglas Geivett– Professor of Philosophy in the Talbot Department of Philosophy at Biola University (La Mirada, CA). He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in the areas of epistemology and the philosophy of religion. In addition, he has taught courses on the new atheism, and on film and philosophy.

On October 17, 2011, William Lane Craig and Stephen Law met in London to debate the topic “Does God Exist?” Subsequent to the debate, Law has posted briefs that he prepared for arguments and objections that Craig might state during the debate. I’m not sure why—since I haven’t known Craig to include an ontological argument in his arsenal of theistic arguments during a debate—but Stephen Law had prepared notes in case the ontological argument did get presented. He has posted these at his website.

Here is what Law writes, in order to meet the ontological argument in case it is presented:

4. ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT

It’s possible a maximally great being exists.

…Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

This argument has no force at all against the evidential problem of evil. In fact, ironically, it actually serves to reinforce my conclusion. For if I can use the evidential problem of evil to show there’s actually no god – that the conclusion of Craig’s ontological argument is false – then the validity of the argument entitles me to draw the further conclusion that’s it’s not even possible that god exists!

So my thanks to Professor Craig for furnishing me with an argument that serves actually to amplify my conclusion – allowing me to move from: there’s no god to: necessarily, there’s no god.

Stephen Law here anticipates a modal version of the ontological argument, which might be sketched as follows:

1. If God (a maximally great being) exists, then God exists necessarily.
2. It is logically possible that God exists.
3. If it is logically possible that God exists, then there is a possible world in which God exists.
4. In any possible world in which God exists, God exists necessarily.
5. To exist necessarily “in” any possible world is to exist necessarily.
6. To exist necessarily is to exist in all logically possible worlds.
7. Therefore, God exists.

A premise like (2) is characteristic of modal versions of the ontological argument.

Now Law seems to think he can defeat this argument with an evidential argument from evil. His confusion on this point is breath-taking. His evidential argument from evil, at its very best, shows, at most, that it is probable that God does not exist. The probability is less than 1. To defeat the ontological argument with an argument from evil, his argument would have to entail that God does not exist. The probability that God does not exist would have to be 1. It would have to prove, as he says, that the conclusion of Craig’s argument is false. But Law’s own argument, as a matter of logic alone, cannot achieve this goal. It is a probabilistic argument. As such, it leaves open the possibility that God exists, even if the probability is quite low.

Law might embellish his rebuttal by suggesting that premise 2 of the ontological argument (as stated above) is not necessarily true. There may only be some degree of probability, less than 1, that premise 2 is true. But because the argument is not formulated in this way, Law would bear the burden of showing that premise 2 has a probability of less than 1. He would actually have to do more than that. He would need to show that premise 2 is improbable. His evidential argument against the existence of God is of no use to him for that purpose. For that matter, I have no idea how he, or anyone else, could show that premise 2 is improbable.

Or Law might seek to rescue his defeater by claiming that God cannot be maximally great if there is enough evidence from evil to make it likely that God does not exist. But this wouldn’t work, either. For his evidential argument cannot prove that a maximally great being does not exist. It can, at best, show that it is unlikely that such a being exists.

Notice that, in his post-debate recapitulation of his argument during the debate, Law’s basic aim was to show that belief in Craig’s good God is not sufficiently more reasonable than absurd belief in an evil god. He cast his argument in terms of probabilities.
Here’s the main point: an evidential argument from evil leaves open the possibility that God exists. Clearly, Law believes his evidential argument makes the probability of God’s existence extremely low. But it cannot, as a matter of logic, reduce the probability of God’s existence to zero.

So the ontological argument, whatever its merits or demerits, remains unscathed by Stephen Law’s “ready-in-the-wings” counter-argument.

I’m afraid this means that he understands neither the ontological argument, nor his own evidential argument from evil. So William Craig might as well have presented the ontological argument. This would have presented him with a golden opportunity to expose this confusion.

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2 thoughts on “The Missing Ontological Argument in the Craig vs. Law Debate

  1. Stephen Law October 25, 2011 / 10:09 pm

    “His confusion on this point is breath-taking.”

    The irony. You’ve muddled up epistemic possibility with metaphysical possibility. Look it up.

  2. summatheoblogica October 26, 2011 / 10:25 pm

    Eric,

    The probability that possibly there is an x such that x is maximally great would have to be .5 when taken by itself. The claim is fundamentally a necessity claim disguised as a claim about mere possibility. Without any justification for the truth of the claim that necessarily P it seems that necessarily not P should be taken to be just as plausible.

    In it’s simplest form the ontological argument can be understood as such:

    (1) If it is possible that a maximally great being exist, then it is necessary that a maximally great being exist.
    (2) It is possible that a maximally great being exist.
    (3) Therefore it is necessary that a maximally great being exist.

    Law wants to do the inverse move:

    (1) If it is possible that a maximally great being exist, then it is necessary that a maximally great being exist.
    (2) It is not necessary that a maximally great being exist.
    (3) Therefore it is not possible that a maximally great being exist.

    The crux of both arguments is going to be the second premise. Law gives a way to establish his second premise: the evidential argument from evil.

    The argument goes as such: since (I will substitute maximally great being for God here just to allow the post to be an easier read) there are great evils in the world where explanations cannot be offered for them a maximally great being probably does not exist. Then from there the inference is made that that since it is improbable that a maximally great being exist, a maximally great being does not exist.

    The last inference is not a deductive maneuver but inductive. The claim is that the improbability of a maximally great being existing is so high that one would not only be justified in believing that a maximally great being does not exist but one could not be justified in believing that the maximally excellent being DOES exist.

    There is still one more move that Law needs to make. It is an axiom in modal logic that if P then possibly P. So since a maximally great being doesn’t exist then it is possible that a maximally great being exist. Since it is possible that a maximally great being doesn’t exist is it not necessary. Premise (2) has been established.

    It’s a pretty good move. The thing is that the theist doesn’t seem to have as good of a motivation for supporting the second premise in the positive form of the argument.

    I think the best move for a theist to make is to just reject the ontological argument as a good theistic argument.

    Stephen Law,

    “The irony. You’ve muddled up epistemic possibility with metaphysical possibility. Look it up.”

    Did you mean muddled epistemic probability with metaphysical possibility?

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