The Missing Ontological Argument in the Craig vs. Law Debate


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.

Archbishop Worries That Atheism is “Cool,” and This Makes Atheists Happy


Recent statements by Britain’s Archbishop, Rowan Williams, have provoked some interesting discussion. Williams has said, “Atheism is cool, so books about atheism are cool.” He’s thinking of books like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

For news coverage, see the article by Jonathan Wynne-Jones, published in The Telegraph September 19, 2011.

Today I read a post about the Archbishop’s statement at an atheist blog hosted by Martin Pribble

Dr Rowan Williams PC, DPhil, DD, FBA the 104th...

Image via Wikipedia

. I then left a comment in the comments stream, which otherwise appears to be uniformly atheistic in orientation.

Here’s my comment:

Hasty generalization is a blight on much thinking on all sides of most issues. (I hope that statement isn’t an example of hasty generalization!)

In this case, the good Archbishop surely over-generalizes if he claims that a recent bump in the popularity of atheism is due to its “cool” factor. The explanation is far more complex than that, and the weighing of evidence for and against the existence of God is surely a factor for many people.

On the other hand, I think that Martin is a bit hasty in his generalization about theistic responses to current atheism advocacy. To be sure, there are books that pass over evidence and argument in breezy fashion and simply attack the messenger. But Martin implies that this is true of all published responses to Dawkins. He can’t be serious. One might, as he suggests, do a simple Google search to turn up more sophisticated treatments, of Dawkins’ work, yes, but also of the atheistic or naturalistic position more generally. Some are published by prestigious presses that are careful to publish only the best serious and academic work on such topics: Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge, for example.

Also, I notice that ad hominem rhetoric is tossed about on both sides of this issue. In the comment stream for this post, for example, Rowan Williams is chided in uncharitable terms and William Lane Craig is said to be stupid.

I’m new to this website, so I don’t know about its general tenor or the tone of regular commentators. But if the byline is “Attempting to make sense,” then I urge Martin to admonish his readers to take greater care to marshal evidence in support of their claims rather than to make safe and provocative assertions and tender emotional arguments.

If this site seeks to engage readers in meaningful dialogue, I suspect it will attract more thoughtful responses, from a spectrum of positions, if it monitors the discussion and facilitates reasoned debate. A wise proverb says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly.” In other words, if sophistry prevails, find someone else to talk to.

Last I checked, my comment was “awaiting moderation.”

Update: My comment at Martin Pibble’s site has been approved, so it now appears there, as well. I should note that here at my own site comments “await moderation” until “approved.” I believe a process of screening to be good practice.

Doug to Speak in Fairbanks, Alaska October 2011


Doug will be speaking in Fairbanks, AK. Here is the schedule for his presentations:

Thursday, October 27/1:00-3:00 p.m.
“Does God Exist?” a debate with Ed Wilner, Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Alaska
Location: University of Alaska

Thursday, October 27/7:00-8:30 p.m.
“Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus”
Location: Bethel Church

Saturday, October 29/7:00-8:30 p.m.
“Answering the Atheist”
Location: West Valley High School Auditorium

For further details, consult Doug’s Speaking Calendar.

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