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What is AskPhilosophers? This site puts the talents and knowledge of philosophers at the service of the general public. Send in a question that you think might be related to philosophy and we will do our best to respond to it. To date, there have been 5026 questions posted and 6312 responses. [more]


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I believe that God is the greatest conceivable being, and I also came to believe again, having been a former agnostic, that He really exists. My question is regarding the responses of some atheists to some traditional arguments for God's existence, most especially to the design argument, that for these designs in nature, we should not remove the possibility of a finite god, an evil god, or many gods who designed our universe. I think all those opinions are false because being the greatest conceivable being God cannot be finite or evil and there cannot be two greatest conceivable beings. But I just wonder why should God be the greatest conceivable being. Is it not possible for there to be a God or gods who are finite and/or evil and leave it at that?

Response from Stephen Maitzen on October 2, 2014
It looks to me as if you may be conflating two different arguments (or types of argument) for the existence of God: (1) the Ontological Argument and (2) the Design Argument. As you say, one objection to the Design Argument is that the universe might -- for all the Design Argument shows -- be the creation of a finite, or evil, or incompetent god, or the product of a committee of such gods. You propose to answer that objection by insisting that God is the greatest conceivable being, and therefore God is neither finite, nor evil, nor incompetent, nor equalled by some other god.

But why should we grant that God is the greatest conceivable being? To establish that conclusion, you need something like St. Anselm's Ontological Argument, about which you'll find more in this SEP entry. If you reply that God is by definition the greatest conceivable being, then we need a reason to believe that this definition is in fact fulfilled, i.e., that something in fact answers to the definition. That's the function of the Ontological Argument, but again it's a different argument from the Design Argument, which is discussed in this SEP entry.

Finally, even if the Ontological Argument did establish the existence of the greatest conceivable being (in my opinion, it doesn't), it would remain possible that our universe fits one of the descriptions that David Hume gives here: "only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him" (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part V).
Response from Jonathan Westphal on October 2, 2014
Stephen is right. We should distinguish the Design Argument from the Ontological Argument. Your question concerns neither. Your question is about the Problem of Evil, so called. How can a being who is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing allow evil to exist? The simplest way to solve this problem is to deny one of these three propositions, and it is perfectly acceptable to deny the second: God's power is limited. This approach is taken by process theologians, who say that God is developing. For the typical process theologian, as for the Mormon, God cannot break the laws of nature, for example. The trouble with this solution is not that it does not work for the theist. The problem is that it does not work for the traditional Christian theist, and as far as I know also for the Jewish and Muslim theist. A god with limited powers is simply not recognizable as the Creator of the Universe, the Father Almighty, and so on. So the solution is logically acceptable, but theologically unacceptable.

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