Modern Versions of the Ontological Argument

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Modern Versions of the Ontological Argument
Norman Malcolm
One influential attempt to ground the ontological argument in the notion of God as an unlimited being. As Malcolm describes this idea: “God is usually conceived of as an unlimited being. He is conceived of as a being who could not be limited, that is, as an absolutely unlimited being.… If God is conceived to be an absolutely unlimited being He must be conceived to be unlimited in regard to His existence as well as His operation. In this conception it will not make sense to say that He depends on anything for coming into or continuing in existence. Nor, as Spinoza observed, will it make sense to say that something could prevent Him from existing. Lack of moisture can prevent trees from existing in a certain region of the earth. But it would be contrary to the concept of God as an unlimited being to suppose that anything … could prevent Him from existing.” The unlimited character of God, then, entails that his existence is different from ours in this respect: while our existence depends causally on the existence of other beings (e.g., our parents), God’s existence does not depend causally on the existence of any other being. Further, on Malcolm’s view, the existence of an unlimited being is either logically necessary or logically impossible. Here is his argument for this important claim. Either an unlimited being exists at world W or it doesn’t exist at world W; there are no other possibilities. If an unlimited being does not exist in W, then its nonexistence cannot be explained by reference to any causally contingent feature of W; accordingly, there is no contingent feature of W that explains why that being doesn’t exist. Now suppose, per reductio, an unlimited being exists in some other world W’. If so, then it must be some contingent feature f of W’ that explains why that being exists in that world. But this entails that the nonexistence of an unlimited being in W can be explained by the absence of f in W; and this contradicts the claim that its nonexistence in W can’t be explained by reference to any causally contingent feature. Thus, if God doesn’t exist at W, then God doesn’t exist in any logically possible world. A very similar argument can be given for the claim that an unlimited being exists in every logically possible world if it exists in some possible world W; the details are left for the interested reader. Since there are only two possibilities with respect to W and one entails the impossibility of an unlimited being and the other entails the necessity of an unlimited being, it follows that the existence of an unlimited being is either logically necessary or logically impossible. All that is left, then, to complete Malcolm’s elegant version of the proof is the premise that the existence of an unlimited being is not logically impossible – and this seems plausible enough. The existence of an unlimited being is logically impossible only if the concept of an unlimited being is self-contradictory. Since we have no reason, on Malcolm’s view to think the existence of an unlimited being is self-contradictory, it follows that an unlimited being, i.e., God, exists. Here’s the argument reduced to its basic elements: 1. God is, as a conceptual matter (that is, as a matter of definition) an unlimited being. 2. The existence of an unlimited being is either logically necessary or logically impossible. 3. The existence of an unlimited being is not logically impossible. 4. Therefore, the existence of God is logically necessary. Notice that Malcolm’s version of the argument does not turn on the claim that necessary existence is a great-making property. Rather, as we saw above, Malcolm attempts to argue that there are only two possibilities with respect to the existence of an unlimited being: either it is necessary or it is impossible. And notice that his argument does not turn in any way on characterizing the property necessary existence as making something...
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