It is a given that we can conceive normal things like a regular hot dog or a space shuttle.

It is also a given that we can conceive perfection in things that are fully understood, like a perfect cube or circle.

But can we really conceive perfection in things that are not completely understood? How?

My actual problem is that I don't see as possible the fact of "conceiving the greatest being imaginable". I posit each person would have either a moot concept or a different concept about what would that be.

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    +1 good question, I like where you headed from the reasoning from the other post. Also, for future reference it may help people to understand where you're coming from if you refer to (link) the previous question you asked on the subject in questions like this which stem from previous questions. :)
    – stoicfury
    Sep 15, 2011 at 14:38
  • The actual problem is to understand how the ontological problem is "easy to see as wrong, but hard to pinpoint what the error is". This is a clear error in my opinion, because I would argue that no two people would equally conceive the most perfect being, even if they share a religious belief (short of saying it's God!).
    – Vinko Vrsalovic
    Sep 15, 2011 at 15:19

6 Answers 6


Congratulations, you've found one of the major problems with Anselm's Ontological argument.

We can easily say "Imagine a perfect circle", as we have a clear notion of what the essential properties of a circle are, and can recognize the actual circles we come across daily as approximations of some imputed ideal.

If, on the other hand, we say "Imagine a maximally powerful being", we run into trouble, as "power" is a diffuse concept, and our daily interactions with powerful beings tend to diverge, not converge towards some ideal. Thus the conundrum of whether an omnipotent being can create a rock so large he cannot lift it.

If we then extend this to "imagine a perfect being", we're lost. We can't even begin to list all of the perfections such a being would have, much less be able to coherently conceive of the interactions between them.

I don't know of anywhere this idea (of imagining a perfect being) comes up outside of Anselm's argument, and I don't know of anybody who takes Anselm's argument seriously.

  • Besides Anselm, presumably...
    – Joseph Weissman
    Sep 15, 2011 at 16:31
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    @Joseph Weissman: Touché! I was thinking along the lines of "anyone contemporary", but didn't say so... Sep 16, 2011 at 8:17
  • Spinoza takes these ideas very seriously, though "perfect being" means something entirely different for him than Anselm. Power isn't that diffuse of a concept. A statement like "that which exists has more power than the imagined" seems either correct or not. A statement like "the ability to not exist is a negation of power, while the ability to exist is a power" also seems clearly one way or the other. Spinoza's a posteriori argument for the existence of an absolutely infinite being rests on this basis, and from that the a priori arguments do seem to follow. Sep 16, 2011 at 15:49
  • @Spoonwood: I think similar things are mooted in Liebnizs Monadology, ie God is the neccessary simple substance (monad). Jun 25, 2012 at 21:10

Problem seems to be one of epistemology vs metaphysics.

Vinko looks like he's with Wittgenstein - "about that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent". There's a big problem with that though - as stoicfury indicates, we work with concepts that are not fully defined all the time, even in such a seemingly concrete field as physics (try getting a straight answer out of a theoretical physicist sometime about what a "particle" is). Politics is another biggie - see under "real Republican" or "real Democrat" or, worse, "not really American/White/Black..." ("No True Scotsman...").

So, we deal with poorly defined concepts all the time in our daily lives. Is it good? No. Is it bad? No. It just is.


Edit: this answer doesn't particularly address the OP's question as reformulated. I will edit it when I get some time, as opposed to deleting and reposting because the comments might be of value to some.

I don't particularly see this as much of a problem; at least, not one that is unique to the ontological argument. All concepts in our minds have indescribable essences which we never can fully conceive of, and yet we're fine with acknowledging that we can conceive of the concept. You can technically use even the simplest concepts: for example, can you conceive of the idea of 'freedom'? What about 'justice'? What about a daffodil? What about hamburgers? Please, list the defining qualities of a hamburger; it's essence. You'll find that no matter what you do, you'll be describing examples or characteristics of these things; you'll never be able to rest on a "base" definition because all the words you use and ideas you employ ("chewy meat", "white bun", "pickle") all have meanings in themselves which needs to be further defined to capture the true "essence" of burgerness.

This kind of understanding is easier to acquire with (but in practice no different from) slightly complicated concepts, which is why I offered the example of a space shuttle. Here's an even simpler (but sufficiently complex) example: Can you conceive of a 150-sided polygon? I very much doubt you have a perfectly accurate picture with 150 sides of this polygon in your mind right now. Would you say are unable to conceive of this polygon?

My point here is that in principle, with our limited intellects we may lack the ability to "fully conceive" of basically anything. In my studies, when most people in (Western) philosophy use the term conceive, they are using it in a somewhat liberal way: is there some idea/concept in your mind that resembles the (very complex) idea being discussed? That is all.

  • And my point is that conceivability, to be useful, has to be shared. As long as you can give a reasonable recipe for a hamburger or the characteristics of a 150-sided polygon, or a description about the space shuttle that most people will agree with, then you have usefully conceived each of those things. Note that I'm not talking about strict or rigurous definitions, only reasonable descriptions, shared. But, as soon as reasonable disagreement on fundamental aspects appears, conceivability ceases to be useful because it stops being a shared notion and thus we can't talk about the concept.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic
    Sep 15, 2011 at 14:54
  • So you're telling me the 6 billion religious people on this planet have no idea what each other is talking about when they use the word "God"? The concept of "God" exists; it is used and has been used since before the dawn of civilization. Are you denying that we have a concept of God that we share? Sure, no one can fully define it 100%, but we have the concept we can all talk about, no?
    – stoicfury
    Sep 15, 2011 at 16:14
  • To put it most simply, this thing we are talking about, "the most perfect being", "God", whatever, that is something. It is in your mind in some form at this very moment. This is what I'm referring to as a concept. You might not really have any clue what such a concept consists of, but it is a concept nonetheless.
    – stoicfury
    Sep 15, 2011 at 16:27
  • I accept that vague concepts exist, but I'm having trouble accepting that you can operate on those concepts meaningfully (like, now add existence to the being.) Unless you are saying that these concepts or essences are shared and that my vague concept of God is equal or similar enough to yours and everyone else's.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic
    Sep 15, 2011 at 17:15
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    Thinking about it, you are right. I have troubles with the idea of conceiving perfection and assuming people will conceive it similarly enough.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic
    Sep 16, 2011 at 4:55

Is what conceivable? If I take the positivist method, if "perfection" is not conceivable, then it is a meaningless cipher. This approach also makes the link that conceivable and meaningful are the same things. This has to be wrong or otherwise we cannot ask the question.

When you say "perfect square", what's it "perfect" for? It is perfect for nothing, but perfect as a square. In other words it's perfect for being just what it is. In this sense, everything we encounter is "perfect" as what it is. The reason we do not find it perfect is that we have another idea in mind, as a fulfillment of concept or model we have. Since the model of the square and the perfect square are the same entity, they match exactly.

On the other hand, I think outside of the examination of exact simple forms that we have much knowledge of what "perfection" that may exist. I think there is a conception problem in both deciding what an item that is perfectly itself, is, or what are the details of a more perfect simplification of that thing would be.

Thus both are inconceivable to a degree.


The question can be dissected in two ways.

  • Is perfection achievable?
  • Can we imagine a perfection?

To some extent I will say the answer to second question is Yes, we can imagine. But my answer to first question will be no. Before talking about why perfection is imaginable I will like to discuss why it is not achievable.

I feel, in this world to be perfect, means to be comparative. Can you be a perfect swimmer? So that means you must beat world no1 or to break some time limit. Right. Can anyone guess any other notion to clarify being perfect swimmer? (like, swimming all the oceans in a 1000th part of a second :)- but if any energy can do this then it is surely more perfect than us, or just the perfect, since the word 'more' itself contradicts the notion of perfectness, it brings the sense of duo in, while in my consideration being perfect is being supreme without any duo)

So I think I am clear to be perfect in this world is being comparable and to decide upon - 'perfect in what'. But again, 'perfect in something' itself dectates that you are not perfect in other things. Thats why I feel the answer to first question is no.

And I feel I already answered the second question in bold face. Just think every other stuff you have ever faced in your life. It will not be much difficult to think what could be the extreme in those qualities, skills, characteristics, power, energy, experiences. Yes but that has some pre-requisite. You should be able to gather out all those things that you faced in your life or yeah, that ever exist. Now given that it is very impossible to think of all possible qualities, characteristics, powers it looks like quite impossible (more especially because of our limited knowledge about the world, energy and its manifestation in the world)

But well I feel we surely experience some lively energy all time. And yes we can be quite abstract while thinking about all energies, so that it can make it easy to think of extreme of all of them and conceive it as a perfect. So this will help us "identify the perfect", "but again not to fully realize the perfect", but I feel "identifying the perfect is almost done, may be that perfect itself help us to realize it fully!!!"


Perfection is actualization at the full extent gradually. Perfection is not specifically focus on just one of possibilities. But perfection implements all possibilities gradually with no one left behind.

Relatively, when someone has ability to use for both of eyes, in this case, someone is perfect in using eyes, because the two eyes can be activated to see images, but if we ask for how good for both of our eyes capturing images? The answer may lead to the fact that our eyes may not full functional as it should be compared to others.

To make a better understanding that most of people misunderstood, about God is perfect. Perfect God means, God should be able to implement God's possibilities as realities, (whether we consider it as good or bad, but since those are part of God's abilities, it should be realized, because God is perfect).

Perfect is not related to specific ability of all possibilities that could be realized, but precisely asserts that all possibilities that could be realized, must be able to be realized.

Perfection is conceivable gradually within all available functions (with no one left behind) of something.

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