The Argument From Possibility
I was recently watching another episode of the traveling atheist (‘Closer To Truth’ with Robert Lawrence Kuhn) and the episode focused solely on the ‘Ontological Argument for God,’ or in other words, the argument from existence. Meaning that some clearly obvious facts about existence are taken and used as the axioms in a logical proof that is intended to demonstrate that God’s existence is necessary.
Why everyone seems to zero in on Anselm of Canterbury’s “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” thought-experiment as the best representation of the Ontological Argument (or synonymous with it, even), is beyond me. At least one person in the episode (the series is presented through interviews with philosophers, scientists and theologians) made the statement that to take Anselm’s pondering on ‘the greatest conceivable being’ and to hold this up as a proof is to stretch it far beyond what it’s intended to do, even by Anselm himself—and he placed the blame on well-meaning but incorrect theologians in time past. What that interviewee said was that Anselm simply suggested that whatever you conceive of a thing, the actual thing itself is by definition going to be ‘greater’ than the conception of the thing. That seems benign enough, and it’s a satisfactory conclusion to me, who has wondered since first introduced why this is held up as the best that Christian philosophy can do.
The last interviewee of the episode, Alvin Plantinga, also made a similar remark about Anselm, that as stated, the argument doesn’t work. But he had apparently developed an improvement of the argument, which he called “The Argument from Possible Worlds,” or something similar. While I didn’t quite follow his construction of his proof, I immediately understood the summary: he said that as constructed, the proof leads someone to be totally committed to the reality of God’s existence as a necessary fact, provided that he begin with the acknowledgement that it is possible for God to exist. For anyone to believe that God does not exist, they would have to claim that it is impossible for God to exist.
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This immediately made sense to me, because I’d constructed a similar logical proof before. I don’t believe this is the same proof Plantinga’s developed, and I don’t seek to take credit for his idea, but the thought process is similar, and he did remind me of it. Without further ado, here’s the Argument from Possibility.
Like Plantinga’s Possible Worlds, the proof does not unilaterally demonstrate God’s existence. What it does instead is to show that one must choose between the belief that God’s existence is either a fact, or that it is impossible. To believe that it is possible and yet that it is not actual, is to commit a logical contradiction. It is not possible for God’s existence (1) to be possible, and (2) for God not to exist.
All things either exist or do not exist. And if it is possible for something to exist, then it must actually exist (1) at some point in time (2) in some location (3) given the right conditions for its existence (not defined here). Otherwise, given the whole scope of time and the whole scope of space, if the thing never exists anywhere at any time, it is meaningless to say that it is possible for it to exist. It is, rather, impossible, because its potentiality is never actualized. If a critic has trouble to agree with these premises, further suppose that in an infinite time and infinite space, the conditions for its existence must, as a matter of probability, be realized at least once. This necessitates my potentiality=actuality connection. I will return to this infinity concept in a little bit.
Possibility Leads to Qualified Necessity
So, we’ve established that a thing which exists possibly will exist actually at least sometime, somewhere in the universe, given that conditions for its existence are present. And if you deny that conditions for its existence are ever met, then you are by definition (ipso facto) asserting that it is impossible for it to exist, since it cannot exist, by definition, unless conditions required for its existence are present. So, perhaps redundantly, I’ve now shown that if something can exist because its existence is possible, then it MUST exist at least in some locale, for some duration.
Demonstrating Possibility Via Actuality
So, how would we test that? We could easily show that it is possible for a thing to exist by producing an example of the thing, in existence. We can know confidently that trees exist, and have no difficulty pointing at a tree as a matter of demonstration of that fact. Trees exist, therefore it is possible that trees exist. Simple enough. But what about things which are outside of our experience? What I’ve just given an example of is an object, or type of object, that intersects with our experience of (1) time and (2) space. But what about time extending before or after the observer? And what about space beyond where the observer can reach? A finite human observer cannot make any concrete conclusions about things which are never observed in his sphere of interaction, whether these are possible or impossible. He can conceive of something, but a conception is different than a thing itself. If something you can imagine exists never actually does, anywhere in the universe, then as I’ve already shown, it is not possible for it to exist. I should also point out that we can show that certain things are possible even if they’re temporarily in existence (such as circumstances, relationships of things to each other, or sequences of events). You can show that it’s possible for such-and-such a drug to increase heart-rate by showing that in at least one circumstance, in time, it actually did. Therefore we know that it is possible. This is the core of observational science. Showing what is possible, by causing it to actually happen in the presence of witnesses. The Empirical Scientific Method.
Possibility of Non-Observable Things
So we can know that certain things have the possibility to exist because we can either observe them currently in existence, or because we can have memory or record of them having been in existence under certain circumstances before. But what about the things we cannot see, and which we cannot produce under any scientific circumstance? Either because we can’t produce the conditions required for the things’ existence, or because we can’t travel in space or time to observe the things existing in places or at times when the conditions are met. Well, we can’t. But there’s the rub. Suppose we could see everywhere, at all times, extending back through the whole past and forward through the whole future? Then every occurrence of an actual thing would be observable to us, and nothing that we did not see would be a thing which could possibly exist.
Possibility Applied to God
Of course, we can’t be everywhere in time and space. But God can. And since He is, by definition, everywhere present at all times, we don’t have to be, in order to run the test. What I’ve been talking of so far is finite objects. But God is infinite, and so we don’t have to be infinite in order to “observe the thing in existence” in order to determine that it is possible for “it” to exist. We can determine this wherever we happen to be, at any time.
What I won’t tell you is how to do that. Actually, the idea that we humans have the prerogative to be the arbiters of whether God’s existence is possible is rather silly to me. But nevertheless, there are those who do walk around and say to themselves, and to others, “I think there’s a possibility that God exists, but I’m not sure.” This essay is for them. The point is that you cannot say something like that. Because God is not in the category of events that can be actualized at some times and not others, God either actually exists, right now, in this very moment and right where you are, or it is impossible for Him to exist at all. There is no middle ground.
If God has the possibility to exist, He must actually exist at some place and some time. And since the conditions for His existence to be possible (namely, the existence of space and time and all the creation within it—which by definition He created and sustains by His power/presence) are met in all locations and at all times within the universe, God must actually exist at all times and in all places within the universe (to ignore the question of ‘outside’).
Therefore, if it is possible for God to exist, then He exists. By necessity.
Therefore, if it is possible for God to exist, it is impossible for Him not to exist.
Therefore, if God does not exist, it is impossible for Him to exist.
The above are all reformulations of the same statement. Like how you derive different integral equations in Calculus.
The Argument From Possibility As A Predicate Logic Proof
Put another way, for a thing to have the possibility to exist, it must possess that quality of potentiality, but only things which actually exist can possess qualities; things which do not exist cannot possess qualities. So a thing which is possible to exist is a thing which has qualities and so it is a thing which must exist. A thing which does not possess the quality of existing is a thing which can possess no other qualities, and so it cannot possess the quality of having the possibility to exist, so therefore it is impossible for it to exist. In summary, it must be possible for the things that exist to exist, and it must be impossible for the things that do not exist to exist. It cannot be possible for things that do not exist to exist.
A friend brought up the idea that “a pink unicorn has the qualities of being pink and having one horn,” and the response to any similar rebuttal is that yes, the conception of it in your mind does. But unless you have actually seen one, you can’t say with personal assurance that it’s possible for actual pink unicorns to exist. Yes, you can give an imaginary object qualities, but that object does not possess those qualities—your conception of that object does. Take care not to confuse the two.
Does this mean that someone can say the same about God? Yes, indeed. You can say that ‘God’ is not a real thing, and that people have assigned qualities to something they call ‘God,’ but that thing is only a conception of the mind, and thus does not inherently carry the possibility of existence (nor either the impossibility of existence; it is irrelevant to those qualities, since the conception of a thing and the thing itself are not the same). This ensures the consistency of my proof, because if you rejected my above rebuttal to the unicorn, then you would have to say that because people can predicate qualities to their idea of God, therefore God must also be an actual thing which is possible to exist—and ipso facto exists. I think this is closer to what most people’s understanding of Anselm’s argument is, and of course I disagree with it wholeheartedly. I think my proof, which clearly separates the idea of a thing from the thing itself, makes sense of reality both from the perspective of the person who thinks God does not exist and the person who thinks God exists/it is possible that He exists. Without the distinction, you’d either have to say that you can’t imagine a thing and attribute qualities to it (clearly untrue), or you’d have to say that because you can attribute qualities to imaginary things, they must exist (clearly untrue). If you read through this logical proof essay without acknowledging the distinction, doing it again while having it in mind will probably help you understand what I am trying to prove—and what I am not—much better.
A final sub-rebuttal might take the form of “yes, you’ve demonstrated that God as an idea and as ‘the thing itself’ are distinct, but if He doesn’t exist, then you could only predicate possible existence to the concept of God in one’s mind, you wouldn’t actually predicate possible existence to God Himself, since, if He doesn’t exist, can’t have any qualities predicated of Him. So by predicating possible existence to Him, you’re assuming His existence, and that’s a circular argument.” And to this I would say, yes, that is exactly the point. Remember that the argument is not intended to prove God—it is intended to show that you must conclude that God exists IF you admit that it is possible that He exists. No more. If you do not allow for the possibility that God exists, then you can never be convinced of the fact of His existence.
And that really is the bottom line, after all, isn’t it?
~ Rak Chazak