What is the word ontology? Well… ask yourself: does McDonald’s actually exist?

You might say, “Of course it exists!”

But… how? Is it a building? An idea? What? 

Hold that thought.

Over the past few years, I’ve run across the words “ontological” or “ontology” quite a bit.  Ontology is a philosophical term that is used to describe how it can be said that something ‘exists.’  Dr. John Walton, in his book The Lost World of Genesis One (which I’m reading right now) offers this fantastic, simple definition:

The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist. (p. 22)

In other words, if asked “Does this desk exist?” I’d be asking you to describe the ontology of the desk in front of me.  You might say that it exists since it can be shown through the scientific method that it is indeed made up of atoms and takes up space in the real world, right here, holding up this computer and these books and has a coffee stain (ew… just saw that…).  This is an example of “material ontology.” In our Western culture, this is by far the most common conception of ontology and is very intuitive to us.

You could then say that the creation of a thing that exists would necessitate a discussion of how the materials were assembled.  Trees were cut down and the lumber was fashioned into boards; glue and nails were manufactured; the desk was assembled in a workshop.  Discussion of these processes describes the material ontology of this desk, or the manner of its existence.

However, there is another type of ontology called “functional ontology.”  This describes the positive existence of something that has no physical properties.  

Let’s return to our McDonald’s question.  Take this conversation, for instance:

  • Dude A – Does McDonald’s exist?
  • Dude B – Sure, it’s right over there!
  • A – Yeah, but that’s a building.
  • B – Oh, you mean, like, the multinational corporation…?
  • A – Yeah, does it exist?
  • B – I guess so… it’s a registered for-profit business in the US.
  • A – So if that entity files for chapter 7 bankruptcy, liquidates all its assets, closes its doors and doesn’t sell a single burger forever more, would that McDonald’s over there still exist?
  • B – I guess not…? It wouldn’t be a McDonald’s any more.
  • A – But that big M sign would still say it was a McDonald’s.  So wouldn’t it still be a McDonald’s?
  • B – *sigh* My head hurts. 
  • A – I’m hungry.
  • B – Me too.  McDonald’s?

This example illustrates the dissonance between the functional and material ontology of an entity.  Some entities that do actually exist can be non-material or abstractions. This may seem like a weird concept to us in our Western culture because materialism is so prevalent in our society.  If you insist that existence necessitates having physical properties, you end up having odd philosophical discussions like our hungry friends above.

Take this episode of Numberphile (really cool channel on Youtube, btw) concerning whether abstractions like numbers materially exist somewhere.  Numbers in particular provide an interesting case study for a discussion of functional ontology. Dr. Tallent discusses three camps of people when it comes to the existence of numbers:

  • Platonists – there is a concrete “7” and “2,445” out there, somewhere.
  • Nominalists – number abstractions and concepts exist as descriptions of things (functional ontology).
  • Fictionalists – numbers and equations, while extremely helpful, are just fictions in the human mind to describe our world.

If everything must fit into this box of material ontology, then you are forced to consider if numbers, ideas, companies, etc. materially exist somewhere out there.  However, if you realize there are more than one way to ‘exist,’ this becomes a non-issue.

There are also different properties of existence when discussing their ontology: ImpossibleContingent and Necessary.  Some entities that we can try to imagine cannot possibly exist, like a married bachelor (wait for it…) or a round square; these things are logically Impossible.  Contingent entities can possibly exist, but may not exist in some possible universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster could possibly exist, for instance, in some universe where the laws of physics allowed for such a thing).  Necessary entities are said to exist in all possible worlds, regardless of laws of physics, initial conditions, etc. Numbers and definitions are examples of Necessary propositions.

So What About the Ontology of God?

The Ontological Arguments for God are, in my opinion, some of the most difficult arguments to use effectively in Christian Apologetics, not because they lack merit, but because they are so easily misunderstood.  However, used in conjunction with other arguments, I find some of them extremely persuasive, so I think they’re worth sharing. (For you other apologist nerds out there, I’m not going to use Anselm’s famous version because I think it has some problems, as seen in this video.  Instead, I am using Alvin Plantinga’s version which is much more convincing to me.)

Before we start, what do we mean by “God”?  For these purposes, we will borrow Anselm’s (1033-1109) concept of the Maximally Great Being (found in his work Proslogion), or “a being that which nothing greater can be conceived.”  Basically Anselm asserted that if you conceived of a being, and then asked yourself, “Is it objectively greater to be x or y? Y or z? A or not-a?” an infinite number of times, you would eventually arrive at the Maximally Great Being.  It turns out that a Maximally Great Being would have, among other things, these properties:

  • Philosophical Necessity (must exist in all possible universes)
  • Omniscient (must know anything that is true)
  • Omnipotent (must be all powerful)
  • Perfectly Loving
  • Perfectly Just
  • No “bad” qualities (evil, slothfulness, imperfections, etc.)

To conceptualize a being greater than a Maximally Great Being would then make that being the Maximally Great Being.  These videos do a good job of describing the concept (Craig, Inspiring Philosophy).

Alvin Plantinga’s Ontological Argument can be stated as follows (Craig, Reasonable Faith, p. 184):

  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.

Because the definition of a “maximally great being” includes the ontological property of Necessity, this being then exists in all possible worlds, including the actual world!

Now, a lot of YouTubers and bloggers dismiss ontological arguments for God for many reasons.  One popular way is to insert something like “maximally great Island” or “unicorn” into the argument to demonstrate ad absurdum problems.  This doesn’t refute the argument, however, because the argument works by virtue of the definition of a maximally great being, which includes its philosophical Necessity.  For instance, unicorns aren’t “necessary” and inanimate objects don’t fit the bill for this argument because there’s nothing objectively “great” about them like there are for beings or persons.

Another problem some have with this type of argument is the apparent question-begging, since the argument relies so heavily on the “maximally great being” concept.  In other words, they say that this argument claims God exists because He exists! This is interesting to me because Plantinga’s argument itself is logically coherent; their problem with the argument, then, is the idea that a “maximally great being” could possibly exist (Premise 1).

Instead of arguing about the semantics of the definition of Maximally Great Being, I simply would point out that there are many other arguments for God’s existence that make it possible and even plausible that this maximally great being exists (I discuss one here).

But that’s the cool thing about Plantinga’s argument!

It shows that, if it’s even possible that a Maximally Great Being exists (and the Bible does claim that God is the Maximally Great Being in Colossians 1:16 and other places), then He does indeed exist in the real world by virtue of His nature.  This argument does not get you all the way to Christianity, but it certainly gets you to the Judeo-Christian concept of God!