Rethinking the Ontological Argument: a Neoclassical Theistic Response. By Daniel A. Dombrowski


Pp. vii, 172 , Cambridge University Press , 2006 , $35.00 .

This book offers a response to six thinkers on the ontological argument – three who reject the argument (Richard Rorty, Mark Taylor and Graham Oppy), and three who defend it (Thomas Morris, Katherin Rogers and Alvin Plantinga). Against those like Oppy who conclude that ‘ontological arguments are completely worthless’ (Ontological Arguments and Belief in God (Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 199, quoted in Dombrowski, p. 5), Dombrowski claims that ‘the alleged death of the ontological argument (like that of Mark Twain while he was still quite alive) is grossly exaggerated’ (p. 25). But, against those like Morris, Rogers and Plantinga who defend a classical view of God, Dombrowski, for whom the work of Charles Hartshorne has been a significant influence, claims that the argument is rather more effective if one accepts a neoclassical or process interpretation of the divine.

Dombrowski's own version of the ontological argument, developed most notably in chapters 4–5 in response to Oppy's objections, follows the tradition of modal forms of the argument which, although not dominant until Hartshorne in the twentieth century, began, he suggests, with Descartes' later versions of the argument, especially in his Replies to Objections II. Dombrowski argues that, if we can formulate a coherent concept of a perfect being, we can know that this being exists necessarily (p. 87). Although the ontological argument does not offer an unqualified proof of God's existence, it does show us that, of three possible existential modalities – necessity, contingency, and impossibility – one, contingency, is incompatible with the concept of a perfect being. Thus, God's existence is either necessary or impossible. Since other arguments for God's existence, especially the argument from religious experience, show that God's existence is not impossible, God's existence is necessary (pp. 96–97). Dombrowski claims that the argument is not, as Oppy thinks, that God's existence is necessary if God exists (p. 126). The necessity referred to is unconditional de re necessity – i.e., once we have a coherent concept of God, the nature of that concept indicates to us that it must be instantiated in any logically possible world; ‘there is no future or once future state of affairs which excludes (or could exclude) the divine existence. Deity … exists on any conditions whatsoever’ (George Goodwin ‘De Re Modality and the Ontological Argument’ in George Shields, ed. Process and Analysis (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), p. 189, quoted in Dombrowski, p. 99).

In response to Oppy, Dombrowski suggests that, at least in its neoclassical version, the ontological argument moves not from an abstract concept to a concrete reality, but from an abstract concept to the abstract conclusion that God exists necessarily in some concrete state (p. 86). The nature of that concrete state – God's actuality – changes from moment to moment, and can be described only in analogical or symbolic language (p. 150). We can know that God exists, and can speak of this in literal, or almost literal, terms, but we do not know exactly how God exists.

Dombrowski argues that the two most influential objections to the ontological argument – Gaunilo's perfect island and Kant's claim that existence is not a predicate – are related, and that both arise from modal indifference or confusion (p. 122). Conceiving of God is not the same as conceiving of a perfect island, since the concept of an island implies contingency and the concept of divine perfection is unique – God is not the perfect one of a kind; to be an island is a limitation, and to be metaphysically perfect is to be an exceptional case (p. 112–113). Similarly, it may be only contingent existence of the kind applicable to dollars which functions as a predicate in no more than a limited, grammatical sense in sentences which have a subject-predicate form; by contrast, ‘to say that something exists necessarily …is to predicate something significant about the subject matter in question’ (p. 121). Thus, the defect of contingency affects both islands and dollars, but a perfect being cannot have either this defect or the defect of impossibility; since we can only think of God as existing, God must exist in some actual state.

As we have seen, for Dombrowski the argument works only if we can formulate a coherent concept of a perfect being. In his final chapter, he claims that versions of the argument put forward by Morris, Rogers and Plantinga fail because they begin with a classical concept of God which is not coherent. Dombrowski argues that the religious tradition has privileged one list of divine attributes without good reason; for example, an immutable God who cannot change in any sense cannot love his creatures in any meaningful way, and a God for whom omniscience requires detailed knowledge of the future and for whom omnipotence entails that creatures have no power is difficult to reconcile with human freedom. Conversely, the neoclassical view portrays a God whose divine actuality ‘creatively advances and responds to the creative advances of others’ (p. 135); there is no conflict between divine and human knowledge and power since the divine and human can work together. On this view, ‘God is seen as possessing maximal power that is compatible with the other divine attributes, especially omnibenevolence, but not as possessing omnipotence if this means that other existents ultimately have no power of their own’ (p. 141).

Since the ontological argument begins with the concept of a perfect being, if Dombrowski is right to conclude that the classical concept of God is incoherent and therefore imperfect – and many scholars would disagree – then he may be right to say that versions of the argument which assume the classical concept of God do not work. It is, however, questionable whether his own concept of God more closely approximates to the concept of a perfect being. While it may address some of the difficulties with the classical concept which Dombrowski – and many others, across many centuries – have identified, he does not explore the difficulties associated with the concept of a changing God who is not omnipotent. But if, contra Aquinas (Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 2, Article 1), the argument can succeed despite our inability to understand God's essence – and Dombrowski thinks that it can – one may also question whether the neoclassical view has anything distinctive to contribute to the debate; either or both views of the divine may be mistaken, but, by his own lights, the argument does not depend upon our ability to offer even a tentative description of divine perfection.

A second objection to Dombrowski's position is that, even if the neoclassical view does offer a coherent and relevant concept of a perfect being, he has not escaped from the perennial problem which afflicts nearly all versions of the ontological argument – i.e. the difficulty of ascertaining that a coherent concept corresponds with an objectively-existing reality. He argues that the concept of a perfect being entails only its necessary existence in some actual state; it is because this actual state is not specified that he thinks he has avoided the problem. But as soon as he begins to describe his neoclassical interpretation of the nature of divine actuality, even if he does so in a tentative manner, the problem resurfaces. On several occasions, Dombrowski appeals to religious experience in an attempt to bridge the concept-concrete gap, but it is not clear how this is achieved. At one point he suggests that ‘an idea is an experience of a certain kind, with the idea of perfection being a very particular sort of experience that has to be taken seriously’ (p. 127). But this seems to imply that there is nothing beyond the experience of the concept with which the concept corresponds, an implication which, elsewhere (e.g. p. 56), he clearly rejects. Towards the end of the book he suggests that religious experiences show us that the concept of God is coherent and that, if the object of these experiences can be identified with the God of the ontological argument, the experiences and the argument together show us that God must exist (pp. 148–149). But, as Dombrowski himself seems to acknowledge, we cannot simply assume that the God whose existence is allegedly experienced is the same as the concept found in the ontological argument. More work is required to justify this link.