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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Michael's take on Podcast 1 (Actually first posted on the 5th)

I thought I'd start a blog for the discussion and clarification of the issues raised in our podcast. Since we have next to no audience at this point, I'm not going to have too much to say just yet. I would like to make a few self-critical comments though:

1) It really wasn't sensible for me to say that Plantinga is the most well respected Christian philosopher. It might be fair to say that he is one the most well respected vocally Christian non-Catholic Philosophers. I forgot about Michael Dummett and Alisdair MacInyre, who are both vocal Catholics and, it seems to me, are in a different league than Plantinga. I imagine there are other renowned living philosophers who are Christians as well. I'm just not aware of their Christianity.

Oh well, I'll be more careful when voicing my personal, subjective impressions of professional rank in the future.

2) Really sorry about all of my stammering. I won't allow that to happen in the future.

3) I regret having said that it wasn't helpful to speculate about motivations, only to immediately speculate about Plantinga's motivations. I don't want our podcast to take that tone.

That said, I'm struggling to balance the need to be civil and to not dehumanize those with whom I disagree, on the one hand, and to speak to the moral depravity and dishonesty which which I strongly believe is endemic to orthodox Christianity on the other. I know that many Christians are good people in most respects, but the unwillingness of so many to critically examine their beliefs is to their moral discredit. Even more to their discredit is their willingness to call a being who would torture other beings forever 'good'. There will be more on this in our next two podcasts.

Thanks for listening and reading!

Michael Long



    The main objection to the argument that they (and I use "they" loosely, for it was actually Micheal's objection--Ben, in an epiphany, came to agree with it halfway into the show) presented is that the argument is open to parodies such as this:

    (1) A being is maximally excellent m in some possible world W' just in case this being has the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and the desire for human beings to exercise.

    (2) A being is maximally great m' just in case it is m' in every possible world W.

    (3) There is a possible world where maximal greatness m' is exemplified.

    (4) If there is one possible world where m' is exemplified, then m' is exemplified in every possible world.

    (5) Therefore, maximal greatness m' is exemplified in the actual world.

    Accordingly, if Plantinga's argument is sound, then this argument is sound as well (in which case you would either grant the existence of at least two Gods with distinct attributes, or you would have to make a case for why God is p instead of m'). But this argument is not sound; therefore, Plantinga's argument cannot be sound.

    The answer to this argument, as with any other such parody, is that the argument fails to show any wrongdoing on the part of that which it parodies. While this is not an explicit disagreement over its synonymity with Plantinga's argument (and to be clear, it is not synonymous), the point stands that parodies--this one included--fail to make a case for the opposing side and merely serve to stir one's intuitions. The question is the same each time: Where does my argument go wrong?

    Nevertheless, the parody is worth addressing; after all, the reason ontological argument parodies have stood the test of time is precisely that they tend to be persuasive--their beneath-the-surface vacuity notwithstanding. At the heart of the parody is the objection that the Anselmian idea of greatness--this is the notion of "greatness" that Plantinga attempts to reflect in his argument--is a nebulous and arbitrary notion, defined only according to one's personal whims. But is there any real reason to believe that this is the case? If not, why is the desire for exercise not included in the notion?

    God's existence entails the instantiation of great-making attributes to their respective maximal degrees. In what sense is an attribute great-making? We could say that an attribute is great-making just in case it is intrisically good. Intelligence, potency, and moral prudence, for instance, are all intrinsically good, for they are ends unto themselves. Yet, this does not seem to apply to the desire for exercise, because exercise is a merely a means to some other end; thus, it can only be as good as the end for which it is done, which in this case may be for the enhancement of one's potency. Disagreements aside, it's easy to see the qualitative differences between those attributes entailed by Plantinga's maximal greatness and those by maximal greatness m', in which case one can see that Anselmian greatness is not so arbitrary after all. So long as "great-making" is an exhaustive term dealing strictly with such attributes, there is no force to the objection as it was presented in the podcast.

  2. Additionally, the question remains why maximal greatness m' is not instantiated in every possible world--that is, is it logically possible? Since great-making is an exhaustive term including only intrinsically good attributes, and since the desire for exercise is not such an attribute, there is no analytic trail from maximal greatness to the desire for exercise. One might be able to conceive of a possible world where such a being desires our health--indeed, we live in such a world--but in terms of "maximal greatness" it's irrelevant.

    Should the argument proceed with a notion such as maximal fitness, defined as applying to he who's concerned about health in every possible world, such a notion is logically incoherent; for it is not even logically necessary that physical fitness is instantiated, let alone maximal fitness.

    At the end of the day, this is just a more intricate version of Gaunilo's Island, propounded as a defeater to a more intricate version of Anselm's argument. The problem is, Gaunilo couldn't defeat Anselm, and these guys cannot defeat Plantinga.

  3. Chuck,

    Thanks for the feedback! It's been a while since this podcast, but if I recall correctly the analogous argument isn't meant to serve as an objection by itself, but rather aims to illustrate the deeper problem of Plantinga's reliance on intuition. It is this latter point which is the main objection.

    Recall that Plantinga's argument proceeds thusly (quoted directly):

    (34) The property has maximal greatness entails the property has maximal excellence in every possible world.

    (35) Maximal excellence entails omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection.

    (36) Maximal greatness is possibly exemplified.

    By the rules of Plantinga's underlying modal logic and the definitions of his terms, it deductively follows that

    (41) There exists a being that has maximal excellence in every possible world (and "this being is God").

    (cf. A. Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, pp213-21.)

    Since (34) and (35) behave like definitions, the only question here is whether or not we should accept premise (36). Plantinga argues that if we reflect on it and find it plausible or compelling, then provided we have no outstanding reason to reject it, we may rationally accept it. Now, personally I find that extremely unsatisfying. If I discover that I have nothing beyond my intuition to support some belief, and no good reason to trust intuition in that particular case, then I tend to doubt that belief to the point of giving it up.

    Can we, then, escape this problem by finding an alternative defense for (36)? Your own suggestion is to associate maximal greatness with intrinsic goodness---by which you apparently mean properties we seek as "ends unto themselves." But this seems to me to be just another way to bundle properties according to our subjective point of view---in this case whatever we happen to non-instrumentally value. You may find it intuitively satisfying to talk about non-instrumentally valued properties as a group, but what is special about them that we should suppose they belong to a single entity somewhere?

    By illustrating the various ways in which we can bundle up properties, Michael's approach reminds us of the difficulties of finding some reason to prefer one bundle over another which does not rely on intuition. Indeed, Plantinga seems to have it right on this point, that we apparently have nothing but intuition to guide our decision on whether to accept or refrain from accepting (36).

    So you're quite right to point out that an analogous argument isn't going to prove anything by itself. But hopefully it can be instructive in showing the reliance of the argument on our intuition. And to the extent that we don't want to rely on intuition, the argument won't succeed. You're also correct to say that we haven't defeated the argument. It may well be sound. But the problem is, we have no reason to suppose that it's sound! It may just as easily be unsound---we just don't know---and in this sense, again, the argument is unhelpful.

    So I hope that clarifies my position. Thanks again for the feedback, and I hope you enjoyed the podcast!


  4. Thanks for your thoughts Chuck, and great response Ben! I substantially agree with Ben's analysis, but let me add that for the God I postulated, jumping jacks are an end in themselves, they are not good because they are exercise and so a means to a healthy body etc.; the God in question loves them for their own sake. (Though as Ben pointed out, that construal of the goals of the jupming-jack God doesn't hurt my argument in any case.)

    Also, the God in question isn't just a 'parody'; if the argument for it or a number of other Gods is as strong as the argument that Plantinga presents for HIS God, than we will end up with a contradiction (assuming that the best world for generating jumping jacks isn't also the best world for realizing the goals of a 'morally perfect' being). The question is, why suppose that the jumping-jack God isn't possible whereas more conventional Gods are?

    Thanks for your interest!