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
July 29, 2009
The Ontological Argument: Superfluous If Sound?
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.
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
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
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.
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