Synopsis on Davis’ ‘The Ontological Argument’

Here is a synopsis of Stephen Davis’ article ‘The Ontological Argument’ in this book. Davis’ thesis is that the ontological arguments as articulated by Anselm and Plantinga can be vindicated in the face of Michael Martin’s criticisms, because, as he sees it, Martin fails to understand what Anselm and Plantinga mean by “greatness.” With respect to Anselm, there is a sense in which “exists” adds to the greatness of the thing that has it, and the sense of greatness he has in mind is one that denotes power, ability, and freedom of action. If something has this sense of greatness, then to exist in reality is greater than to not exist in reality. If such a thing only exists in the mind, then it has less power, ability and freedom of action than it would have if it existed in reality. With respect to Plantinga, “unsurpassable greatness” (UG) means that for any being B that instantiates UG, B is such that if B exists in any possible world W, then it is necessary that B exists in W; and if W is accessible to the actual world, then B also exists in the actual world.

anselm

Both of these definitions avoid, among other things, the parody-style counterexamples offered by Gaunilo (against Anselm) and Martin (against Plantinga). Objects like the “greatest conceivable island” or a “special fairy” do not exemplify the necessary and sufficient conditions of unsurpassable greatness; no island can bring about any logically possible state of affairs and no tiny woodland creature with magical powers can exist without a material world (either it is essentially material itself or essentially connected to a material world).

With these concepts of greatness in mind, premise two of each of the parodied arguments below is false, and therefore, unsound.

Original Argument Parodied Argument
Davis on Anselm:

  1. Things can exist in only two ways: in the mind and in reality.
  2. The Greatest Conceivable Being (GCB) can possibly exist in reality, i.e. is not an impossible thing.
  3. The GCB exists in the mind.
  4. Whatever exists only in the mind and might possibly also exist in reality might have been greater than it is.
  5. The GCB only exists in the mind.
  6. The GCB might have been greater than it is.
  7. The GCB is a being than which a greater is conceivable.
  8. It is false that the GCB exists only in the mind.
  9. Therefore, the GCB exists both in the mind and in reality.
Gaunilo on Anselm:

  1. Things can exist in only two ways: in the mind and in reality.
  2. The Greatest Conceivable Island (GCI) can possibly exist in reality, i.e. is not an impossible thing.
  3. The GCI exists in the mind.
  4. Whatever exists only in the mind and might possibly also exist in reality might have been greater than it is.
  5. The GCI only exists in the mind.
  6. The GCI might have been greater than it is.
  7. The GCI is a being than which a greater is conceivable.
  8. It is false that the GCI exists only in the mind.
  9. Therefore, the GCI exists both in the mind and in reality.
Plantinga’s formulation:

  1. There is a possible world where maximal greatness is exemplified.
  2. There is some possible world in which there is a being that is maximally great.
  3. Necessarily, a being that is maximally great is maximally excellent in every possible world.
  4. Necessarily, a being that is maximally excellent in every possible world is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect in every possible world.
  5. Therefore, there is in our world and in every world a being that is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect.
Martin’s formulation: 

  1. There is a possible world where the property of being a special fairy is exemplified.
  2. There is some possible world in which there is a special fairy.
  3. Necessarily, a being that is a special fairy is a tiny woodland creature with magical powers in every possible world.
  4. Necessarily, a being that is a fairy in every possible world is a tiny woodland creature with magical powers in every possible world.
  5. Therefore, there is a tiny woodland creature with magical powers in our world and in every world.

Thus, both forms of the ontological argument emerge unscathed. What is needed to prove them false is an argument that shows premise 2 to be false, and such an argument has not been given. Tomorrow we will look at Peter van Inwagen’s challenge of premise 2.

Advertisements