Responding to the Cosmic Skeptic on the Ontological Argument

Alex J. O’Connor, also known as the “Cosmic Skeptic”, is a popular atheist youtuber and blogger. His content primarily consists of videos which are usually quite engaging and high in quality. He’s an excellent speaker and presenter and often has interesting takes on various philosophical and scientific topics. A few days ago, he posted a video titled “I Think, Therefore God Exists: The Ontological Argument” which responds to that infamous argument for God’s existence

Although I am a committed theist, Mr. O’Connor should be happy to know that I happen to agree with him here: I do not think that ontological arguments are successful in establishing the existence of God. (I should also point out that there is no one ontological argument, rather there are a family of versions. O’Connor begins his video in reference to St. Anselm, whose ontological argument was the first historically, but the rest of his video doesn’t deal with St. Anselm’s argument at all; rather it focuses on William Lane Craig’s presentation of Alvin Plantinga’s much newer modal formulation of the argument). Despite the fact that I don’t think ontological arguments are successful, I’d like to respond to a few specific points within O’Connor’s video, mostly because they are relevant to theistic arguments in general other than just ontological ones.

For those unfamiliar, Craig’s version of the argument goes something like this:

  1. God is defined as a maximally great being
  2. Maximal greatness entails being all powerful, all knowing, and morally perfect
  3. It is possible that a maximally great being exists
  4. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then it exists in some possible world.
  5. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world (since a being which exists in every possible world would be more maximally great then a being which exists only in some possible world).
  6. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world
  7. Therefore, a maximally great being exists [1].

O’Connor begins his response right off the bat by claiming that the properties of a maximally great being (omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection) are “contradictory and paradoxical”. He contends that “nothing can truly be all-powerful” and in defense of this he brings up that infamous “can God create a rock so heavy even He cannot lift it” paradox. O’Connor then insists that the theist can only escape this problem by “lowering the standards”, as it were, of his idea of God, such that God is defined now as “maximally powerful” rather than all powerful. Then, for omniscience, O’Connor argues thus: “If God is omniscient, he can see the future, and knows everything that will ever happen; it follows that God cannot change his mind.” And, for moral perfection, O’Connor suggests that we could only say God is morally perfect if there were some preconceived standard of morality by which to judge so. So in conclusion, he says that “these factors are contradictory or wrong; there cannot exist a being that is fully omnipotent and fully omniscient”.

It is on this basis that O’Connor then argues against premise 3 of the above argument: it is not even possible that such a maximally great being exists, because the very concept thereof is “logically incoherent” along the lines of a “married bachelor”. So O’Connor’s point is that the ontological argument cannot even get off the ground, because a maximally great being is indeed impossible. I don’t think the argument works for separate reasons, but wanted to respond to these points due to the fact that if O’Connor is right here, classical theism itself, and the traditional arguments used to support it (such as Aquinas’s Five Ways, which I’ve defended often), suffers as well. In other words, O’Connor’s comments, if correct, are not just problematic for the ontological argument, but for the very idea of theism.

The first issue is that O’Connor seems to use terms such as “contradictory”, “paradoxical”, and “incoherent” interchangeably when they are different concepts with significant distinctions in meaning. Of course this might just be a matter of semantics, but it’s important insofar as we need to be precise in determining in what sense the existence of a maximally great being is “impossible”, since there are different kinds of possibility/impossibility.

O’Connor’s strongest claim is that two of the central properties of the maximally great being — omnipotence and omniscience — are logically contradictory. This means that the very definition of each must logically entail the denial or exclusion of the other. For instance, the concept of a “married bachelor” is logically contradictory because the definition of a bachelor is to be a non-married man, which includes the denial of the definition of the term “married”. It is a logical contradiction to say that something is both N and non-N. But it seems obvious that omnipotence and omniscience are not logically contradictory in this way. Nothing about the definition of omnipotence in itself entails the denial or exclusion of the definition of omniscience. So there is no logical incoherence here.

Still, that leaves open O’Connors other arguments which seem to be directed more at what we might call metaphysical impossibility, rather than logical impossibility. There are two facets of his argument here: first, he argues that omnipotence in itself is metaphysically impossible (“nothing can be truly all powerful” given the rock paradox); second, he argues that omnipotence and omniscience are metaphysically incompatible with each other (the knowledge of the future point). Both of these facets, however, display a lack of understanding concerning classical thought about God. For one thing, it doesn’t appear that O’Connor’s objections here are particularly damning to the overall success of the argument. As he himself admits, a defender of the ontological argument could simply make a more modest assertion: God is maximally powerful and maximally knowing, rather than all powerful and all knowing. To be maximally powerful/knowing could just mean something like “to be as powerful as it is conceivably possible for a being to be”. To make this more modest claim doesn’t seem to affect the other premises that the being would still exist in all possible worlds.

But this is in fact irrelevant, because O’Connor’s critique of the traditional theistic epithets just misunderstands them. O’Connor is taking “omnipotence” to mean something like “having the ability to do literally everything imaginable, including logically impossible actions”. On this definition of omnipotence, omnipotence would entail the ability to make square circles and married bachelors. And so if this is indeed what omnipotence means, then O’Connor is correct to say that “nothing can be truly all powerful”. The problem is that this definition is just not what any of the classical defenders of theism have meant by “omnipotence”, and so O’Connor’s objection is a blatant straw-man. He might reply “but that’s what the word means!”, but in the context of a debate over theism, what is relevant is not modern semantics but what the actual originators and defenders of the concept have in mind in their own use. And the overwhelmingly vast majority of classical and medieval philosophers and theologians did not understand omnipotence to entail the ability to do literally everything imaginable, including logically impossible actions. In fact, I can think of only one medieval Christian who contended that God’s omnipotence entails power over logic itself: St. Peter Damian (and scholars are still debating whether or not this is the correct interpretation of his thought. Damian argues for instance that “God is able to act so that Rome, which was founded in antiquity, was not founded”, but it’s not entirely clear whether he meant this as God having the ability to make logically inconsistent facts true or not” [2]). So if, as O’Connor suggests, omnipotence entails the ability to to commit logically impossible acts, then an omnipotent being is indeed impossible. But omnipotence does not entail such. As Aquinas put it, “It is better to say that such things [actions that imply logical contradictions] cannot be done, rather than that God cannot do them” [3]. Omnipotence entails that “God can do all things that are possible” [4] to do, but actions that imply logical contradiction are intrinsically impossible.

So the first facet of O’Connor’s argument for metaphysical possibility — that omnipotence is incoherent in itself — is mistaken. What about the second facet, that omnipotence and omniscience are incompatible? This is dependent upon his earlier comment about God’s omniscience entailing knowledge of all future events, such that God cannot change His mind. Presumably O’Connor’s point is that if it is indeed impossible for God to change His mind, then God cannot be omnipotent. But the classical theists would actually go further. Not only can God not change His mind, they would insist, He can also not change whatsoever at all, period. This is the traditional doctrine of divine immutability, which holds that there is absolutely no motion or change in God. And far from seeing this as a problem for divine omnipotence, the classical theists would actually argue that omnipotence requires immutability. To be mutable, they would say, to be able to change, is to have less power, not more. Something that is mutable is limited, restricted, passive; it has the ability to be acted upon. Aquinas distinguishes between active and passive power: active power is the ability to do, to act; passive power is the potential to be acted upon. The former is in God supremely and infinitely; the latter is not in God at all. God’s omnipotence entails no passive power whatsoever, and to be changeable is a passive power. O’Connor’s own comments actually support this. O’Connor states that if God were to change His mind, there would have to be some new factors that are presented to God which He previously was unaware of and which cause Him to change His mind. Changing His mind would then be not a power but a weakness, an inability. (And this doesn’t even get into the more complicated problems with the argument dealing with God’s timelessness).

In short, there’s nothing about the classical understanding of divine omnipotence that makes it intrinsically incoherent nor extrinsically inconsistent with divine omniscience. And if this is the case, then O’Connor is incorrect that the very concept of God is incoherent or contradictory.

The rest of O’Connor’s video goes on to discuss various other objections to the premises, but I won’t get into that here (as I said, I agree with him that the argument doesn’t work, even if I don’t agree with him on every point as to why it doesn’t work). He concludes, interestingly enough, by pointing out that Thomas Aquinas (whom he refers to as “one of the greatest religious thinkers in history”) rejected St. Anselm’s argument, which is correct. But then he states that “You don’t need to be an atheist to realize that this specific argument isn’t even worth the time that it would take to discuss in a formal debate”, which I strongly take exception with. Though I don’t think the argument works, the very fact that it has been discussed and debated by some of the most brilliant thinkers for literally a thousand years, up until today, should suffice to show its worth.

All in all, however, O’Connor makes some excellent quality and highly interesting videos which I very much recommend checking out.

 

Notes

[1]. See Craig’s short video on the argument here: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBmAKCvWl74>.

[2]. Damian, St. Peter. Letter on Divine Omnipotence. Section XVII. Quoted in Schoedinger, Andrew B. Readings in Medieval Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print, 301.

[3]. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. I, Q. 25, Art. 3.

[4]. Ibid.

 

 

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One thought on “Responding to the Cosmic Skeptic on the Ontological Argument

  1. I’ve only seen two videos by the CosmicSkeptic and they have been complete and total dross!
    At least he admits there is no Objective morals without a god although he seems to think you can build a might-as-well-be-objective-since-it’s-extremely-agreed-upon subjective morals.

    Liked by 1 person

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