Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Nagel Chapter 3 thoughts- Ontological Argument

        After reading through Chapter 3 of Nagel’s book, Knowledge, I wanted to dive a bit deeper into Decartes idea of the existence of God. Upon further research, I found a few readings on Anselm’s Ontological Argument, the theoretical deduction of proof that God exists. Something can exist in an understanding but not in reality. For example, a painter can understand his painting even though he has not painted it yet. It exists in his understanding even if he has not created it to exists in reality. So when we apply this understanding to the theory of God, we can see how God can exist in understanding but not in reality. In an article I found on princeton.edu, the following is presented,
“And assuredly, that than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot exist in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality, which is greater.
Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone, the very being than which nothing greater can be conceived is one than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible.
This is the heart of the argument. The trick is to show that God cannot possibly exist in the understanding alone. Anselm begins by contrasting existing in the understanding with existing in reality. This by itself is not problematic. Trolls exist in the understanding alone; Bill Clinton exists both in the understanding and in reality; and no doubt there are things that exist in reality that do not yet exist in the understanding because no human being has ever managed to frame a thought about them.”

I am extremely conflicted by Anselm’s notion that if something exists in the understanding alone, but can be conceived to exist in reality, then that thing can be conceived to be greater than it actually is. My issue is with the generalization that everyone views God the same. If we replace 'thing' with God in the above explanation, then does this not assume that everyone views God in the same way? And if that is the case, then that instantly exposes a flaw in Anselm’s argument, correct? Not everyone views God the same way. Also, does this not still keep the notion of God as one in understanding and not reality?


  1. Right - not everyone views "God" as a maximal being (and it's not clear that anyone knows what it would mean to be a maximal being). Most of the major faith traditions do invoke the concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection, thus generating the philosophical problem of evil. But some philosophers have suggested that a less-than-maximal God would be more conducive to eliciting greater human conduct. Such a God could then be seen as our collaborator in fighting the good fight for social justice and the expansion of human flourishing.

    Anselm's strategy was clever. Maybe too clever, and too confident in the power of ideas in the minds of finite and error-prone humans to do the really heavy conceptual lifting involved in proving the necessity of a perfect being.

    But it's still fun to think about.

    1. Sarah, have I missed earlier posts of yours? I've been traveling. If so, let me know.

    2. Yes, I posted summaries/ thoughts on chapters 1 and 2 last week :)

    3. I missed ch 2, while in Kansas. I've now posted a little comment.