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Philosophy of religion » ontological » Twentieth Century

Findlay's paradox

John Niemeyer Findlay's 1948 article "Can God's existence be disproved?" tightened the criticisms levelled by Kant and Russell and attempted to provide an ontological proof of God's impossibility. Findlay began by agreeing with Anselm's point in Proslogion 3, that only a necessary being would really be the greatest conceivable, really be God and thus really worthy of worship. He then claimed "it was indeed an ill day for Anselm when he hit upon his famous proof. For on that day he not only laid bare something that is of the essence of an adequate religious object, but also something that entails its necessary non-existence."

Simply, building on Kant's dismissal of "necessary existence" as a contradictory proposition, he developed what Hartshorne later called "Findlay's Paradox":

1. a contingent being would not deserve worship
2. a necessary being is a logical absurdity

This could be seen as an ontological proof of God's non-existence! However, Charles Hartshorne criticised Findlay on two counts: 1. If it makes sense to talk about God's necessary nonexistence then it makes just as much sense to talk about his necessary existence and 2. Findlay, like Kant and before him, Hume, assumes that all existential propositions are contingent. Hartshorne points out that this is not a universally accepted assumption.

Malcolm and 'language games'

Norman Malcolm agreed with Hartshorne on his second point. A pupil of Wittgenstein, he saw that meaningful propositions are not restricted to the analytic or synthetic, but that meaning is derived from the usage of language. Rather, he accepted Wittgenstein's "language games" theory - and once again shifted the truth/reality framework in which the argument is played out. Malcolm asserts that within a religious form of life the concept of necessary existence has real meaning, its effect can be seen in the lives of believers. Therefore Findlay's neat extension of Kant's critique should not be accepted lightly. "In those complex systems of thought, those ‘language games', God has the status of a necessary being. Who can doubt that?... I believe we may rightly take the existence of those religious systems of thought in which God features as a necessary being as disproof of the dogma, affirmed by Hume and others, that no existential proposition may be necessary."

Malcolm then returned to Anselm's argument from Proslogion 3 and developed it:

1. God, as the greatest conceivable being, cannot be a limited being.
2. Therefore, if God does not exist he cannot come into existence.
3. Similarly, if God does exist he cannot cease to exist.
4. If 2, then if God does not exist his existence is impossible, and if 3, then if God does exist his existence is necessary.
5. Either God does exist or he does not exist.
6. Therefore God's existence is either impossible or necessary.
7. God's existence is not impossible [see Leibniz - there is no contradiction within the concept of necessary existence - Kant did not contest this; he just asserted that the coherent concept could be altogether rejected.]
8. Therefore God necessarily exists.

Hick's critique of Malcolm

John Hick (b 1922) claimed that Malcolm confused two different concepts of necessary being - factually necessary being and logically necessary being. Factually necessary being equates to de re necessity, to aseity, to Anselm's notion of a being "which cannot be conceived not to exist" - logically necessary being equates to de dicto necessity, to analytic truth. Hick claims that Malcolm, like Anselm, Descartes and other proponents of the ontological argument, has fallen into the trap of moving from logical necessity to factual necessity. He noted that proposition 6, "God's existence is either impossible or necessary", is where Malcolm shifts from talking about God's de re, factual necessity, to talking about his logical, de dicto necessity. Like Kant, he observes that there is no contradiction in rejecting the whole concept of God as a factually, de re necessary being and argues that proposition 6 should read ‘God's existence is either impossible or eternal' - hence there is no need to accept necessity for fear of accepting a contradiction.

Hick, like Malcolm, is not trying to use the ontological argument in the same way that Anselm, Descartes and Leibniz were. Many twentieth-century writers have focused on the argument as a logical/meditative exercise rather than as a proof. Broadly speaking, Hick is broadly a reformed epistemologist - he is not interested in proving God's existence through argument - or in disproving it. He sees that his job as a philosopher of religion is to pre-empt criticisms which could be used as "defeaters" to undermine belief and show either that religious people don't accept the flawed arguments or that there are ways around them. However unsatisfactory the amended arguments may be as a basis for faith - at least they stand up as logical defences of faith that exists independently of them.

Alvin Plantinga: God's 'maximal greatness'

Alvin Plantinga is another reformed epistemologist whose more complex ontological argument is designed to evade the classic criticisms and show that belief can be defended through the argument - if not based on it: "what I claim for this argument therefore, is that it establishes not the truth of theism, but its rational acceptability." Plantinga dismissed Malcolm's version of the argument, noting that Malcolm has shown that it is possible that a logically necessary
being exists but not that it is necessary that God is a logically necessary being. He suggested a more complex argument instead:

1. The property "has maximal greatness" entails the property "has maximal excellence in every possible world"
2. Maximal excellence entails omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence.
3. Maximal greatness is possible as there is nothing contradictory in this claim, hence we can claim that there is a possible world in which it exists
4. There is a world W and an essence E
5. For any object X, if X has exemplified E then X exemplifies the property "has maximal excellence in every possible world"
6. E entails the property "has maximal excellence in every possible world"
7. If world W had been actual, it would be impossible that E fail to be exemplified
8. There exists a being that has maximal excellence in every possible world
9. So this being must exist in this world...

Plantinga, for all his complex logic, goes back to Leibniz and makes the old assumption that whatever is non-contradictory must be possible and that whatever is logically necessary must then be factually necessary; though you might be forgiven for missing the assumptions through being blinded with jargon!


Kurt Godel (1906-78), who has been called the most important logician of our times, put forward a version of the Ontological Argument in his private papers, which was formalised and published after his death. Like Plantinga's argument, Godel's relies on modal logic and is almost incomprehensible to the layman. The argument is very impressive; it apparently convinced Godel, who was no fool. Yet it may still be criticised for supposing that what is logically necessary is also factually necessary and exist, though of course it depends on the definition of existence that he was working with.