In 1974, George H. Smith wrote a little book called Atheism: The Case Against God. In it, he made an ontological argument against God’s existence. I found it intriguing, since I’m currently studying the ontological argument for God’s existence. So let’s take a look at it in reverse.
To be is to be something as opposed to nothing, and to be something is to be something specific. If a god is to have any characteristics (which it must to exist), these characteristics must be specific – but to assign definite attributes, to say that a being is this as opposed to that, is to limit the capacities of that being and to subject it to the uniformity imposed by those capacities. A supernatural being, if it is to differ in kind from natural existence, must exist without a limited nature – which amounts to existing without any nature at all. (p. 41)
Let’s lay this out in argument form:
- To exist, something must have defining characteristics
- Characteristics limit the thing they describe
- Supernatural entities must exist without limits to distinguish them from natural entities
- Therefore, supernatural entities cannot have defining characteristics
- Therefore, supernatural entities do not exist
- God is a supernatural entity
- Therefore, God does not exist
I think the logic holds. To defeat this one, let’s see if the premises are valid.
I have no issue with (1). If something has no defining characteristics, it is nothing.
(2) isn’t a problem, either. If something is red, it cannot also be green or brown. If something is blind, it cannot also see. To have a specific characteristic excludes certain other characteristics.
(3) is where the first problem in the logic chain exists. When it comes to supernatural entities, we don’t know with certainty what exists, let alone how it may exist. Therefore, it’s a sweeping generalization to say that to be supernatural, something must exist without limits. Seems as though Smith threw that in just to meaningfully distinguish supernatural entities from natural entities; however, that seems a bit arbitrary.
But the problems don’t stop there. God does not exist without limits. The Bible has no problem drawing a metaphorical box around God, giving him not only defining characteristics but absolute limitations. God cannot lie (Ps 119:160; Prv 8:7; Titus 1:2). God cannot tolerate sin (Prov 8:13, 20:23; Hab 1:13).
Supernatural entities cannot be known in the sense that a material object can be known, but it doesn’t follow that they must exist without limits. All that follows is that we don’t know what they are like by normal observation and deduction. The only way we can know qualities of a supernatural entity is through special revelation; the entity must choose to make itself known.
Through the special revelation of the Bible, God has revealed his limitations. According to Popper’s principle of falsification, if we find one counterexample than we have falsified the premise. We find that God is a counterexample to the notion that supernatural entities exist without limitation. Therefore, we can only conclude that (3) isn’t a valid premise.
That means (4) isn’t a valid conclusion given (3). The rest of the argument becomes invalid.
The best reply I can think of to this line of reasoning is that I am assuming that God exists and that the Bible is the Word of God. Since an atheist grants neither premise, then my counterargument fails because I need to first prove that God exists.
Well, that’s false.
The argument itself presupposes that God might exist. In making the argument, Smith is trying to show God doesn’t exist, which would be silly if we can’t at least suppose that he does. So I have the same latitude in assuming that God exists when I make my counterargument.
However, using the Bible shouldn’t be fair because I simply presuppose it is the Word of God, right? Well, here I might agree. If we are trying to prove general theism, then resorting to the Bible without making some argument for it being the special revelation of God is putting the cart before the horse.
So this would be a stronger counterargument if I could take all of the Bible stuff out.
So let’s back up to where I think the logic chain breaks down. Point (3) says that supernatural entities must exist without limits in order to be distinguished from natural entities. I argued that we can’t know supernatural things apart from special revelation — if they don’t exist in our natural world, we can’t experience them with our senses unless they choose to reveal themselves.
Therefore, how does Smith know that supernatural entities must exist without limits? Did one reveal itself to him and explain that it exists without defining characteristics?
This creates an epistemological problem. If a supernatural entity revealed itself to Smith and explained that supernatural entities exist without limits, then we have proof that supernatural entities exist and cannot conclude they don’t. If Smith did not receive any such revelation, that leaves premise (3) as an ad hoc distinction and will therefore require some more unpacking.
Until then, there is no reason to accept (3), and since the rest of the chain depends on (3) the logic breaks down.
With or without the Bible, we can safely stick a fork in this argument because it is DONE.