The hypothetical ontological argument and sorts of possibility

After a lengthy and very fair account of the Ontological Argument and its criticisms, Brentano concludes that the argument is sound if put hypothetically: if God is a real possibility, then he exists. The claim is that God, by definition, cannot exist contingently, and so if there is no God then God is impossible, just as in mathematics if there is no greatest prime number, then such a thing is impossible. Modus tollens suffices to show that possibility would prove real existence. IOW, to be possible but not actual is peculiar to things that are generated from pre-existent matter, and neither God nor the mathematicals are such.

Objection: the argument confuses real possibility and logical possibility. Logical possibility is opposed to the impossible, real possibility is opposed to the necessary. If we deny logical possibility, all this amounts to is a report from our own consciousness that, at least as yet, we fail to see any logical contradiction in the idea “God”. This failure, for all we know, is the result of not having looked long or hard enough. So this leaves us trying to prove the point from real possibility – but this is exactly the sort of possibility that a necessary being cannot have. So establishing the possibility of God would either be impossible or would not establish anything about his real existence, making the argument unsound either way.

On approach to this is to see the claim “if God is possible, then he exists” as a counterfactual, like saying “if square circles exist, then logical contradictions exist”. On this account, we would at least be in a position to see that God either exists or is impossible. Repeated failures to prove God is impossible might count as evidence that he actually exists.

Again, if this argument works, agnosticism seems committed to saying that we can’t know whether God exists or is impossible. This is a more extreme claim just “he could be there or not”.

That said, I’m more tempted to throw out the opposition between the two possibilities than to throw out the argument. Mathematical existence is sufficiently clear on the link between the non-existence and impossibility to make Brentano’s argument work. The soundness of the Ontological Argument thus shows the incompleteness of the division of possibility into the real and the logical.


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