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.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

20 Responses to The Missing Ontological Argument in the Craig vs. Law Debate

  1. Pingback: Stephen Law Responds | ckammermann

  2. Pingback: Stephen Law Responds - Thinking Christian - Thinking Christian

  3. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 11/5/11 « J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

  4. Brian Colon says:

    Thanks for referring to my website! =o)

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  5. Dr. Geivett,

    I’m still very puzzled here, so bear with me. I understand the distinction between epistemic possibility and metaphysical possibility, and I understand that “possibly, God does not exist” (epistemic) is compatible with “possibly, God exists” (metaphysical). Here are two things that are plainly incompatible though: “possibly, God does not exist” (metaphysical) and “possibly, God exists” (metaphysical).

    Now, you seem to want to claim that the evidential argument from evil can only show that it’s epistemically possible that God does not exist. And since this possibility doesn’t undermine premise (2) of the ontological argument (because it’s consistent with that premise), there’s a problem with the attempt to defeat the ontological argument with the evidential argument from evil. Let me know if I’ve correctly interpreted you here.

    Now here’s what I want to say about this. It’s a mistake to think that the evidential argument from evil, if successful, only shows that God’s non-existence is epistemically possible. The argument, in fact, shows that God does not actually exist. If a successful formulation of the argument is adequately defended, we can conclude that God does not exist. That’s a metaphysical claim about the actual world. If that metaphysical claim about the world is true (as we should believe, if we’re presented with a convincing formulation and defense of the evidential argument from evil), then we can trivially conclude that it’s metaphysically possible that God does not exist. (If God actually doesn’t exist, then God possibly doesn’t exist.) But from this metaphysical possibility, we can conclude that God’s existence is impossible–since if God doesn’t exist in one world, he can’t exist in any other possible world either, something we know from the ontological argument.

    I took Law to be making basically that point: Initially we might have just thought that God doesn’t actually exist on the basis of the evidential argument from evil. But now that the modal ontological argument has been presented, we can see that a much stronger conclusion is justified–it’s not even possible for God to exist.

    You might think that a good defense of (2) from the ontological argument would actually undermine the evidential argument from evil. But then you’ve got to explain why we have better reasons for believing that premise than we do for believing the conclusion of the evidential argument from evil.

    Now, what am I missing? Why is it that you believe the evidential argument from evil is only talking about epistemic possibilities, and not instead talking about what’s actually the case (metaphysically)?

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  6. Doug Geivett says:

    Stephen,

    Your conduct in this series of comments, especially most recently, would normally result in my withholding approval of your submission. See my comments policy. However, since I challenged your brief on philosophical grounds—without ridiculing you or calling you names, by the way—I will, out of respect, approve your message of October 28.

    Your mention of the sun and fairies simply changes the subject. But I’ll let it stand as the last word in this exchange.

    With all good wishes,

    Doug

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  7. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Landon,

    The reason is simple. The statement that “possibly, God does not exist” is a matter of epistemic probability, not metaphysical possibility/necessity. Epistemically, “possibly, God does not exist” is compatible with “possibly, God does exist.”

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  8. stephen law says:

    Doug, you say: “If all you can establish is that “there’s a high epistemic probability that God is actually metaphysically impossible,” then, for all we know, God is, nevertheless, actually metaphysically necessary. ”

    This is hilarious. So for all we know the sun goes round the earth, and there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. Well done.

    This wouldn’t be so irritating if you weren’t so arrogant in you know-nothing dismissal of an argument you clearly didn’t even understand.

    Yours peevishly,

    Stephen Law

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  9. Dr. Geivett,

    I don’t understand your confusion on Law’s point. The modal ontological argument moves from the premise that God possibly exists to the conclusion that God exists in the actual world. If Craig would have used this argument, he would have had to offer good reasons for thinking that God possibly exists. Law’s point seemed to be that the evidential argument from evil can support an alternate premise: Possibly, God does not exist. If it’s possible that God does not exist, then God does not exist (following the same logic of the original argument). The evidential argument from evil provides a reason for thinking that “possibly, God does not exist” because it provides a reason for thinking that God does not exist in the actual world. And if that’s the case, then God doesn’t exist in any possible world (i.e. his existence is impossible).

    It’s not at all clear why you think that Craig would have benefited from utilizing the ontological argument against a more-than-competent philosopher like Law.

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  10. Doug Geivett says:

    Not so, Stephen. These aren’t muddled in my comment. Epistemic and metaphysical possibility are indeed different. I was speaking of the epistemic status of premise 2, not the ontological status of God’s existence indicated in premise 2. This should be clear to you from my comment. And you’ve here added something that wasn’t in your published brief: that your rebuttal of the ontological argument delivers “the conclusion that there’s a high epistemic probability that God is actually metaphysically impossible.” That makes explicit how you planned to fill in your rebuttal. But it doesn’t change anything.

    You want to argue that because evil makes it highly unlikely that God exists in the actual world, then God’s existence cannot be metaphysically necessary. For if it was metaphysically necessary, God would exist in every possible world. Now you have this view that evil is sufficiently horrendous to make it so unlikely that God exists that one’s intuition that the existence of God is logically possible is overturned. By this means you hope to invert the ontological argument. One man’s modus tollens is another’s modus ponens. But if your argument from evil shows only that it is highly unlikley that God exists relative to the actual world, then does it not, by extension, show only that it is highly unlikely that God is a metaphysically necessary being, and thus that it is highly unlikely that God exists in any possible world? In your direct comment to me at this post, you grant that that is the nature of your conclusion: “there’s a high epistemic probability that God is actually metaphysically impossible.” But this differs from what you purport, in your published brief, to establish: “that it’s not even possible that God exists.” So how do you now propose to get from “there’s a high epistemic probability that God is actually metaphysically impossible” to “it’s not even possible that God exists”?

    If all you can establish is that “there’s a high epistemic probability that God is actually metaphysically impossible,” then, for all we know, God is, nevertheless, actually metaphysically necessary. Notice that I have specified the latter possibility in epistemic terms.

    It should be noted that we are simply seeking to get clear about the logic of your argument. (The force of your argument is another matter.) Someone might suspect that you have muddled metaphysical and epistemic possibility.

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  11. Doug Geivett says:

    Thank you, Brian. Will you be in Fairbanks?

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  12. Very excited that you will be coming to my hometown, Fairbanks, AK. to speak.

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  13. Pingback: William Lane Craig vs. Stephen Law- Thoughts and Links « J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

  14. J.W. Wartick says:

    Great post, Doug! I really wish Craig had used the ontological argument because it would also expose Law’s confusion about theism. His concept of ‘god’ was incoherent, as far as I can tell, because on classical theism, God is the greatest possible being. In order for the ‘evil god’ to be a true parody of God, Law would have to establish evil as a great-making property (or indeed a property at all).

    Anyway, great, great post. Thanks!

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  15. Pingback: Geivett on The Ontological Argument | if and only if…

  16. Anonymous says:

    Doug,
    WLC presents Alvin Plantiga’s version of OA in his debate with Stenger. Stenger in response comes with “Maximally Great Pizza.” Haha.
    WLC then says, “One can eat your Maximally Great Pizza, therefore it ceases to exist and so it isn’t maximally great.”

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  17. Matko Gjurašin says:

    Law must be badly knowledgable about the evidential argument from evil – and logic. A valid and sound deductive argument anulls the inductive argument that argues for the opposite conclusion of the one in the deductive argument. And Rowe said that a sound ontological argument refutes the evidential argument from evil completely.

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  18. stephen law says:

    Hi Doug

    I’m afraid you’ve muddled up epistemic and metaphysical possibility – which is a bit disappointing if you are a PhD in philosophy, to be honest. The evidential problem of evil aims to establish the epistemic improbability of God. Suppose it succeeds. It can then be combined with a valid Plantingian ontological argument to deliver the conclusion that there’s a high epistemic probability that God is actually metaphysically impossible (exists in no possible world).

    There are papers written on this stuff (e.g. Wes Morriston). You should read them!

    Stephen Law

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  19. Doug Geivett says:

    Thank you, Spencer. I haven’t seen or heard William Lane Craig’s debate with Victor Stenger. Do you know how Craig formulates the ontological argument in that debate?

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  20. Spencer says:

    One correction (which doesn’t in any way detract from your main point): WLC *has* used the ontological argument in a debate, namely, in his debate against Victor Stenger.

    http://knowitstrue.com/?p=838

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