Friday, December 18, 2015

The Christian Blind Spot


There's something about religion that renders its adherents utterly unable to see logical laws in matters that relate to their deeply held beliefs.  We're talking about people who may be, by all accounts, quite intelligent.  People who, when shown a logical argument that would support some other religion's God for example, will astutely tear that argument apart, attacking every flaw and weakness.  But when shown a similar argument for their own God, they can't see or won't accept those very same flaws and weaknesses.

Such is the case with a modern formulation of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.  In a recent discussion, I stated that the Ontological Argument employs circular reasoning, and I was challenged to show that, given this particular formulation:
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists
This is the form that has been defended by WL Craig.  It is a repackaged version of Plantinga's Ontological Argument using modal logic involving the necessity of God's existence, although this version doesn't explicitly assert the necessity of God, as Plantinga does.  Here is Plantinga's formulation:
1. A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
2. A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
3. It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)
4. Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
5. Therefore, (by axiom S5) it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
6. Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists
At first glance, these arguments don't appear to be the same, but Craig rolls up the first three statements from Plantinga's argument into the first statement of his own version.  We can be certain that Craig assumes the necessity of God, because that allows him to make his third statement.  Only something that is necessary exists in every possible world.

The other qualities associated with maximal greatness are not stated by Craig, but they are irrelevant to the argument.  Whatever those qualities are, the only thing that is essential to the argument is the quality of necessary existence.  This is made clear by Plantinga's formulation.  Those qualities of "maximal excellence" are identified as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence by Plantinga, but they could just as well be any other quality you choose without changing the logic of the argument.  To see this, let's assume that maximal excellence is defined as "pure redness".  Then, Plantinga's statement 2 would become "A being has maximal greatness if it has pure redness in every possible world."  And the rest of the argument proceed exactly as stated, up to the final statement, which would read "Therefore, a purely red being exists."

The point of this is that this argument is predicated on the quality of necessary existence, not on the other qualities that constitute maximal excellence.  And therefore, it is possible to prove the existence of anything at all, as long as you assert that it exists necessarily.  Maximal excellence could be defined as having all the qualities of a unicorn, and then a maximally great being would be defined as a unicorn that exists in every possible world.

This should be a red flag to any Christian that there is something wrong with this argument.  The fact is that assuming necessary existence in the definition of God simply begs the question.  Of course, something must exist if it exists necessarily.  The conclusion of the argument is contained right in the up-front assumption of necessary existence.  So this is a clear-cut case of circular reasoning.  Nevertheless, many Christians accept the validity of this argument, even though they would reject it if it applied to unicorns, or anything other than their own God.  This clearly reveals the Christian blind spot.

Craig attempts to hide the assumption of necessary existence by not stating it explicitly.  This is characteristic of many of his theistic arguments.  He has a tendency to gloss over points that may be seen as a weakness or a flaw in his logic.  However, it seems surprising that the great philosopher Alvin Plantinga would make such an obvious logical error.  Well, it turns out that Plantinga has acknowledged that this argument actually proves nothing.
Our verdict on these reformulated versions of St. Anselm's argument must be as follows. They cannot, perhaps, be said to prove or establish their conclusion. But since it is rational to accept their central premise, they do show that it is rational to accept that conclusion - Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (1974), pg 221
So at least Plantinga is honest about the logic of this argument.  But he still maintains that the conclusion is reasonable, based on the assumption that the "central premise" is "rational".  What Plantinga is saying is that Christians should just accept the bald assertion that God is maximally excellent and exists necessarily.  No logical argument in support of that assertion is needed for the Christian, because it is "rational".  And that just goes to show that even Plantinga has a huge blind spot when it comes to beliefs about his God.

The whole purpose of the argument is to assure believers that it is reasonable to believe that their God exists.  Without some kind of logical proof, the existence of God is nothing more than an assertion.  Christians have a choice here.  They can accept the assertion of God's existence, and remain blind to the fact that it has not been demonstrated.  They can accept the validity of the Ontological Argument, and remain blind to the fact that it is logically flawed.  They can reject this argument and trust that some other argument proves the existence of God, while remaining blind to the fact that there is no such argument.  Or they can open their eyes and realize that God exists only in the mind of the believer.

22 comments:

  1. Allow me to state first and up front: I am not a fan of the ontological argument, and would never use it myself.

    That said, there is a HUGE difference between the necessary existence of a creator God and your thought experiment of a necessarily existent unicorn. Namely, everything within the universe is a contingent being and therefore requires some other preexistent being in order to exist. And the universe as a whole is itself a contingent entity (it changes, one of the prime attributes of a contingent being). And since we define the universe as everything that materially exists, it also requires an antecedent non-material necessary being to account for its existence (which we call God).

    In contrast, nothing is dependent upon the existence of a unicorn. Take away unicorns, and all remains the same. Therefore, unicorns cannot be regarded as necessary beings. Your equivalence between unicorns and the creator is totally false. It's like saying, "Because I don't require a bicycle to account for my birth, I don't need parents."

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    1. I too am not a huge proponent of the ontological--I think that it's a decent argument, but that it is not the most persuasive of arguments.

      I totally agree with your assessment that there is no comparison between the necessarily existent unicorn and God. I would also add that, as a material object, a unicorn can't exist in all possible worlds. Unicorns can't exist in possible worlds without matter while God can. So, a unicorn can't be a necessary being.

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    2. Special pleading aside, the argument is still fallacious.

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    3. You accuse planks and I of special pleading, but explain to me how slapping the property of necessary existence to a material object like unicorns could make it possible for them to be instantiated in all possible worlds, including those with no matter?

      I don't agree with your assessment, skep. I don't think that the argument is circular as premise one is not implying that it is logically impossible for a maximally great being to not exist. However, the argument does hang on whether premise 1 is true. I think that the cosmological arguments can be brought in to provide some a posteriori support of premise 1. I also don't think that there's anything incoherent about the notion of a maximally great being.

      You're balking at the notion that a maximally great being has the property of necessary existence, but surely a being that doesn't actually exist is not a maximally great being. Also, a contingent object would not be a maximally great being.

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    4. Let's start with the circular reasoning.

      Craig's first premise states "It is possible that a maximally great being exists." But the definition of "maximally great" includes necessary existence. If something exists necessarily, then it exists - not just possibly, but necessarily. So the first statement of the argument asserts that God exists. But that is precisely what the argument concludes. This is circular reasoning. Craig might as well not bother with anything after the first statement, because he has already defined God as existing necessarily. The remainder of his argument is nothing more than fluff that accomplishes absolutely nothing. If you can't see that this is circular reasoning, that is just your Christian blind spot at work. The reality is that this argument defines God into existence, but it demonstrates no such thing.

      As for special pleading, I made the case that the same argument can be made about anything that exists necessarily. I used unicorn as an example, not meaning to imply that a unicorn could actually have necessary existence. This is a hypothetical situation. But I made it clear that the argument could apply to anything at all that is defined as existing necessarily. You are making the case that there is nothing that can exist necessarily except for God. That precisely fits the definition of special pleading. You have special rules that only apply to your God, by definition.

      So once again, you have defined the terms of the argument in such a way that God must exist, and that there is no other thing that can have the ontological status of necessary existence. Thus, theism is true by definition, but certainly not because you have provided any logical reason to believe it.

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    5. "Take away unicorns, and all remains the same." True statement.

      Take away every permutation and commutation of gods conjured by humanity since the dawn of time, and all remains the same." Another true statement.


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    6. im-skeptical wrote: "Craig's first premise states "It is possible that a maximally great being exists." But the definition of "maximally great" includes necessary existence. If something exists necessarily, then it exists - not just possibly, but necessarily. So the first statement of the argument asserts that God exists."

      No, you're misunderstanding premise 1. Premise 1 is saying that either a maximally great being's existence is necessary or impossible, so it must be shown that a necessary being is not impossible. The argument doesn't assume that maximally great beings can't fail to exist.

      Craig likes to give the illustration of an insanely difficult math equation that hasn't been solved. We can say that the equation is possibly true or false, but the fact remains that it is necessarily or necessarily false.

      im-skeptical wrote: "As for special pleading, I made the case that the same argument can be made about anything that exists necessarily. I used unicorn as an example, not meaning to imply that a unicorn could actually have necessary existence..."

      I didn't object to your hypothetical argument to be difficult or because I'm desperate to disprove that necessarily existent unicorns don't exist. I objected because I honestly think that it is obvious that your hypothetical argument will fail, as any material object will get hung up on premise 3 of the argument. There is no way that a material object can exist in all logically possible worlds.

      im-skeptical wrote: "You are making the case that there is nothing that can exist necessarily except for God. That precisely fits the definition of special pleading. You have special rules that only apply to your God, by definition."

      I never said that nothing other than God can have the property of necessary existence. I said that material objects like unicorns can't. Abstract objects like the number two and premises can possibly exist in all possible worlds. Notice though, that cosmological arguments can't be brought in to defend the existence of said objects, as abstract objects have no causal power and so can't cause the universe to exist.

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    7. Pape wrote: "Take away every permutation and commutation of gods conjured by humanity since the dawn of time, and all remains the same." Another true statement."

      Assuming that naturalism is true.

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    8. Premise 1 is saying that either a maximally great being's existence is necessary or impossible.
      Read it again. It says that it is possible that a necessary being exists. Craig then goes on to assume that it does exist, and on the basis of that assumption, he assumes that it must exist in all possible worlds, including the actual world that we live in. Nowhere in his argument does he test or attempt to disprove the alternative case that this being does not exist. He simply assumes that it does exist. So, based on the assumption that it exists, the conclusion is that it exists.

      I didn't object to your hypothetical argument to be difficult or because I'm desperate to disprove that necessarily existent unicorns don't exist. I objected because I honestly think that it is obvious that your hypothetical argument will fail, as any material object will get hung up on premise 3 of the argument. There is no way that a material object can exist in all logically possible worlds.
      Did I say it must me a material thing? No, I made the point that it can be anything at all, as long as the definition includes necessary existence. So if you are hung up on your supposed material aspect of this thing, I don't care. Let's just call it a hypothetical, immaterial, necessarily existing unicorn.

      I never said that nothing other than God can have the property of necessary existence. I said that material objects like unicorns can't. Abstract objects like the number two and premises can possibly exist in all possible worlds. Notice though, that cosmological arguments can't be brought in to defend the existence of said objects, as abstract objects have no causal power and so can't cause the universe to exist.
      And the causal power of the unicorn has no bearing on this argument. You said yourself that necessary existence is not dependent in any material things. That's fine. But please recognize that without material things, the arguments of Aquinas have no substance.

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    9. im-skeptical wrote: "Read it again. It says that it is possible that a necessary being exists. Craig then goes on to assume that it does exist..."

      The argument says that it is possible that a maximally great being exists, and not necessarily a maximally great being exists therefore a maximally great being exists. Craig doesn't assume that a maximally great exists necessarily, he argues that there are good reasons to think that a maximally great being can exist.

      im-skeptical wrote: "Let's just call it a hypothetical, immaterial, necessarily existing unicorn."

      OK, but now your definition of unicorn seems ad hoc. How can a creature resembling a horse, with a single horn in the center of its forehead be immaterial? At this point you're talking about something other than a unicorn.

      Also, if the unicorn is not a maximally great being, then why do you say that it's a necessary being? A being that doesn't exist is not a maximally great being, as an actually existing being is greater. On the other hand, a non-maximally great being like a unicorn could exist or fail to exist, as there is nothing in the concept of a unicorn to suggest that it must exist.

      If you say the unicorn is an immaterial, necessarily existing and maximally great being then your're not describing a unicorn, you're describing God.

      im-skeptical wrote: "And the causal power of the unicorn has no bearing on this argument. You said yourself that necessary existence is not dependent in any material things. That's fine. But please recognize that without material things, the arguments of Aquinas have no substance."

      Yes and no. The existence of material things has no bearing on the premises them-self, but cosmological arguments can be used to support the truth of premise 1 of the argument dealing with a maximally great being.

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    10. The argument says that it is possible that a maximally great being exists, and not necessarily a maximally great being exists therefore a maximally great being exists. Craig doesn't assume that a maximally great exists necessarily, he argues that there are good reasons to think that a maximally great being can exist.
      He says it's possible that such a being exists. Now we agree on that. But and then he assumes it's true. Look at statement 3. It wouldn't exist in every possible world unless you assume that it exists in reality. He is actually conflating the necessary truth of propositions in modal logic with the proposition of the necessary existence of God. That's a slick trick, worthy of Craig's reputation. It's not a valid argument. Bottom line: you have to slip in the assumption of the actual existence of a necessary being to conclude that that being exists in all possible worlds.

      OK, but now your definition of unicorn seems ad hoc. How can a creature resembling a horse, with a single horn in the center of its forehead be immaterial? At this point you're talking about something other than a unicorn.
      I can define it any way I like, for the sake of argument. That's exactly what theists have done with God.

      Also, if the unicorn is not a maximally great being, then why do you say that it's a necessary being?
      I define it as a necessary being, precisely because that is required for it to be a maximally great being. Please try to follow my argument.

      If you say the unicorn is an immaterial, necessarily existing and maximally great being then your're not describing a unicorn, you're describing God
      No. I'm describing something other than God. Recall that I said it need not have any causal effect on the physical world.

      The existence of material things has no bearing on the premises them-self, but cosmological arguments can be used to support the truth of premise 1 of the argument dealing with a maximally great being.
      You said that the existence of contingent things has no bearing on the existence of necessary things. I said that arguments like the cosmological argument has no substance in the absence of material things. However, we assume that something must be the ultimate cause of material things. The cosmological argument makes the assumption that the only possible cause is God. It rejects other possibilities out of hand. In fact, there is not sufficient justification for failing to allow alternative possible causes for contingent things. It's all based on the presumption of theism. And as much as you keep railing against the idea of a "brute fact", I continue to note that you have not eliminated it as a logical possibility.

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    11. im-skeptical wrote: "He says it's possible that such a being exists. Now we agree on that. But and then he assumes it's true. Look at statement 3. It wouldn't exist in every possible world unless you assume that it exists in reality."

      When it comes to a maximally being there are two possibilities: 1) It can't possibly exist or 2) It necessarily exists. Premise 1 affirms that it is not impossible for a maximally great being to exist, and so a maximally great being is a metaphysically necessary being. Notice that the property of necessary existence is entailed by the concept of a maximally great being as a maximally great being that actually exists is greater than a maximally great being that doesn't exist i.e. a thing that doesn't actually exist is not a maximally great being.

      In between premises 1 and 2, Craig argues that the concept of a maximally great being is plausible. If premise 1 is true then the rest of argument is pretty uncontroversial.

      To help us better understand, I'll contrast this argument with one that is obviously false. Replace being with married bachelor. Premise 1 is clearly false because the concept of a married bachelor is incoherent, and so it is impossible that a married bachelor exists; even a maximally great one.

      im-skeptical wrote: "I can define it any way I like, for the sake of argument. That's exactly what theists have done with God... No. I'm describing something other than God."

      You're so obsessed with your conviction that theists are cheating and that they are giving God arbitrary properties that you've lost sight of how absurd your comparison between God and the unicorn is. This is not just an apples to oranges comparison, it's an apples to sun or aircraft carrier comparison, and that doesn't even capture how disparate these two things really are. A unicorn is a horse like creature with a horn on its head which implies that it's a material object. Also, there is nothing in the concept of a unicorn that would lead anyone to think that it's a maximally great being.

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    12. im-skeptical wrote: "You said that the existence of contingent things has no bearing on the existence of necessary things. I said that arguments like the cosmological argument has no substance in the absence of material things. However, we assume that something must be the ultimate cause of material things. The cosmological argument makes the assumption that the only possible cause is God. It rejects other possibilities out of hand. In fact, there is not sufficient justification for failing to allow alternative possible causes for contingent things. It's all based on the presumption of theism. And as much as you keep railing against the idea of a "brute fact", I continue to note that you have not eliminated it as a logical possibility."

      A necessary object exists necessarily regardless of whatever else exists. Now if you want to create a posteriori arguments to to prove the existence of necessary objects then you'll argue that the necessary object caused the contingent material objects that we see.

      The cosmological arguments argue that God most likely caused the universe to exist. The Leibnizian cosmological argument makes use of the Principle of Sufficient Reason to eliminate brute facts and so shows that God is the explanation for the universe. The Kalam cosmological argument takes science's findings that time, space, matter and the observable universe began to exist 13.8 billion years ago, and reasons that a transcendent God is the cause of the universe. Do these arguments prove with absolute certainty that God is the cause of the universe? No, because we don't have enough information about the world to say with certainty that there is no eternal physical brute fact beyond the observable universe--in other words the brute fact remains a logical possibility. It's also logically possible that I might be trampled to death today by a pink elephant that pops into existence, un-caused, in my living room, but what reason do I have to fear this fate?

      You claim to believe only that which is empirically proven and yet when I press you for reasons why you eliminate God as an explanation for the universe and so believe that a physical brute fact caused it, even though all the evidence that we have says that physical things are finite and have explanations for their existence, you insist that it's a logical possibly which is not an argument or evidence. Despite having no arguments or evidence for the brute fact, you somehow are so confident that God doesn't exist that you say, "There's practically zero chance of [theism being true]." To be 99.8% certain that God is not the cause of the universe, the brute fact has to be more than a logical possibility.

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    13. If premise 1 is true then the rest of argument is pretty uncontroversial.
      Craig states in statement 1 that it's possible, not that it's actually true. Statement 2 follows from modal logic. Something that is possible exists in some possible world. This is still not an assertion that it exists in any actual world. However, in statement 3, he transitions to stating that it exists in all possible worlds, which requires the assumption that the necessary being actually exists. This is not a consequence necessary truth in modal logic. It is a consequence of necessary existence. To see how Craig has conflated two different kinds of necessity, let M be the proposition "a maximally great being exists", and replace the words in his argument.
      1. It is possible that M.
      2. If it is possible that M, then M is true in some possible world.
      3. If M is true in some possible world, then M is true in every possible world. WRONG!!!
      Craig is pulling a fast one. The fact is that it is impossible to prove the existence of anything with an a priori argument.

      You're so obsessed with your conviction that theists are cheating and that they are giving God arbitrary properties that you've lost sight of how absurd your comparison between God and the unicorn is.
      Craig IS cheating, and I just demonstrated it. If you disagree, that is because of your blind spot, not mine.

      A unicorn is a horse like creature with a horn on its head which implies that it's a material object. Also, there is nothing in the concept of a unicorn that would lead anyone to think that it's a maximally great being.
      You are hung up on the differences of my analogy, when you should be paying attention to the essential aspect (necessary existence) that is the same. That's what the argument is predicated upon. The parts that you are so concerned about are IRRELEVANT to the argument. I have said this repeatedly. Why don't you listen?

      Now if you want to create a posteriori arguments to to prove the existence of necessary objects then you'll argue that the necessary object caused the contingent material objects that we see.
      Disagree. I only need to argue that something created the contingent object. It doesn't have to be necessary.

      in other words the brute fact remains a logical possibility. It's also logically possible that I might be trampled to death today by a pink elephant that pops into existence, un-caused, in my living room, but what reason do I have to fear this fate?
      The pink elephant is not very likely. God is not very likely either, as there is not one shred of objective evidence to support it. Incidentally, There is nothing scientific about Kalam. Craig's defense of it is predicated on his ignorance of trans-finite math.

      Despite having no arguments or evidence for the brute fact, you somehow are so confident that God doesn't exist that you say, "There's practically zero chance of [theism being true]." To be 99.8% certain that God is not the cause of the universe, the brute fact has to be more than a logical possibility.
      Evidence is not on YOUR side, my friend. Every single thing we observe is a natural physical thing, which is caused be a natural physical thing. THAT's evidence. We don't see gods or immaterial beings. There's no evidence for any of that stuff, and absolutely no reason to suppose that it's true. All those theistic arguments are flawed. Most make assumptions that are not justified.

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    14. Every single thing we observe is a natural physical thing, which is caused b[y] a natural physical thing. THAT's evidence. We don't see gods or immaterial beings.

      True, true, and true. Also, this has been pointed out to you countless times already. You keep repeating it like you think you're making some sort of point. But all you are doing is expressing your violent agreement with your Christian friends here.

      Because whatever can be "seen" (observed) will by necessity be part of the created universe. Our senses and our instruments are limited to things within its boundaries. The supernatural realm is not some subset of the physical universe, but is rather the superior realm which is responsible for the universe's existence. So yes, every educated Christian would agree with all of your statements which I have cited above.

      An admittedly poor analogy would be a painting inside an Artist's studio. From within the painting, there is no capability of seeing the studio - only things within the painting itself. But the Artist, from His external vantage point, can behold the entire painting, as well as everything outside of it. The only way a person within the painting could ever hope to "see" the Painter is if He painted Himself within the painting (a.k.a., Revelation, and the Incarnation).

      So your objection to there being no empirical evidence of the supernatural is irrelevant and indicative of your complete and total misunderstanding of the terms being discussed.

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    15. The reason I keep saying that is that I have been repeatedly accused of believing in a natural world without any evidence. I keep trying to make the point that (1) there is no evidence for any supernatural world, and so no reason for me to believe it, but (2) ALL the evidence we have is for a natural world, so why shouldn't I believe it?

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    16. These ontological arguments toss around terms like "great" and "perfect" as if they were adjectives describing some property of the subject. But "greatness" and "perfection" are not properties of the subject, they are assessments we humans confer onto the subject. At best the words can only describe the interaction between humans and the subject. There is no property of "greatness" or "perfection" in the objective world.

      Back in 1966, John L Pollock wrote an article in Enquiry magazine titled "Proving the non-existence of God". (I read a reprint of it in the book 'The impossibility of God' by Martin and Monnier.) In the article Pollock converts the Ontological argument into symbolic logic which clearly shows the fallacy in the argument. He then shows that a corrected argument leads to the conclusion that the concept of God that if He exists, then he must exist necessarily entails that that God is a Logical Impossibility.

      This argument does not address the existence of a diety that is not defined as a logical necessity.

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    17. I agree. Attributes such as greatness or perfection are expressed with respect to or in comparison to something else. Greatness, aside from being vague, is comparative. Perfection is simply a superlative kind of greatness, but it is always with respect to a particular attribute, such as 'roundness'. Furthermore, in this context, greatness includes existence, which is not a property at all. Something must exist before it has any properties.

      The statement "God, if He exists, then he must exist necessarily" seems self refuting to me. If there is any question as to whether God exists (and there certainly is), then God's existence is a possibility, not a necessity. There is no contradiction or incoherency in asserting that God doesn't exist necessarily. All you have to do is accept the idea that whatever created the universe could be something other than God.

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  2. Well, from over here it appears that the failure to distinguish between necessary and contingent being is one giant atheist blind spot. In fact, it is clear from your "hypothetical" that you do not even understand the meaning of the terms.

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    1. Oh, I understand all right. You define God into existence, giving him a special set of rules for existence that applies to nothing else by virtue of that specially-crafted definition. I say "well I could define some other thing in that same manner", and you tell me that it's not valid to do that. Of course it's not valid to do that. It's absurd. That's the whole point. And that's what you can't or won't see.

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  3. Plank: I need a quarter inch wrench to loosen this nut.

    Skep: Here's a half inch wrench. That ought to serve just as well.

    Plank: But the nut requires a quarter inch wrench. A half inch wrench is no good at all.

    Skep: Well, if you're simply going to define your need as being a quarter inch wrench, then that just demonstrates your blind spot when it comes to wrenches.

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    1. What I have done in this argument is to define something that is just the same as your quarter-inch wrench. The problem you have with it is that it's not YOUR quarter-inch wrench.

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