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From The Review of Metaphysics, 21:2, December 1967, 308-309.  The original title was, “Rejoinder to [R. L.] Purtill.”  The original first sentence, now omitted, was: “I deeply appreciate Mr. Purtill’s lucid discussion.”

Anthony Flood

July 29, 2009


The Ontological Argument: Superfluous If Sound?

Charles Hartshorne

Is the ontological proof “superfluous if sound”? Perhaps yes, in one sense. One premiss of the proof—a premiss challenged by positivists or “a priori atheists” (Charles-worth)—is the conceivability of divine exis-tence. Whether or not this can be proved, it can be argued for by challenging the opponent to exhibit inconsistency or failure of meaning in the definition of divinity. To this extent the proof may have force independently of other theistic proofs. However, I incline to agree with Purtill that any such proof which establishes the conceivability of God can as well or better be so formulated that it directly establishes his existence.  For instance, if an ordered world is at least conceivable, then so is a divine orderer of the world, since (it may be held) a world cannot order itself or be ordered by anything less than God. But one can as well argue: there must be cosmic order, since a mere chaos or vacuous world is a pseudoconcept, and only God could institute or maintain cosmic order, hence God’s existence is a necessity. There are other argu-ments which are probably no less than persuasive if addressed directly to God’s necessary existence as if used only to estab-lish his conceivability. In this sense the onto-logical proof might be termed superfluous.

On the other hand, as Kant rightly held, no argument for God can be valid if the onto-logical is, as he thought, a mere fallacy. If, for instance, one can infer divinity from necessary existence as the required correlate of contin-gent existence, it must also be possible to infer necessary existence from divinity. There can be but one divine being and one necessary being; so if either description entails the other, the reverse entailment must hold. And thus the invalidity of the ontological would mean that of the cosmological inference. And so I have thought that to rescue the cosmological argument from its discredit I had to deal with standard (non-positivistic) objections to the ontological argument.

Since the step from the conceivability of theism to its necessity shows that the theistic issue is a priori, I fail to see how some special set of circumstances could conflict with the divine existence unless every conceivable set would do so. From the unsurpassable power of God to adapt to circumstances I deduce that nothing could conflict with his existence. (A “completely evil” universe is a mere verbal formula, for me at least. Any universe is better than nothing and so is any experience. I reject the concept of a net minus value in an entity itself, apart from its positive or negative utility to other things. This is not an empirical point but a logical one, which I shall not further explain here. Schopenhauer’s pessimism is a conceptual, not an empirical error.)

From the unsurpassable power of God to produce effects I deduce that though nothing (except intrinsic absurdity) could show his nonexistence, anything could show his exis-tence. For effects reveal their causes, to those who know how to understand the effects. But how could observed facts reveal the nonbeing of something able to coexist with anything whatever? Power of coexistence is a positive capacity, of which ours is a limited and God’s the eminent or unsurpassable form.

The positivistic doubt can still be raised. It may be that the best way of dealing with it is via arguments which independently show that God must exist. To this extent the ontological argument may be superfluous. It need not be used, but its validity must be admitted by theists. What cannot, I think, be superfluous is for philosophers to realize that blanket empiricism begs the theistic question. This is Anselm’s great discovery.


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