Introduction to Knowledge, Mind, & Existence — Midterm


Explain Vasiliou’s (author of “Reality, What Matters, and The Matrix”) views about whether physical constitution makes a difference to value.


Vasiliou’s position is plain: physical existence does not impact value. That belief is more subtle than it first appears, but that is his belief. He justifies this by distinguishing between an object’s “reality” and its “constitution” and arguing that the reality is what imparts value to us as human beings. The argument has flaws, but they are flaws of polish rather than structure; over all it is a good position, correct in many ways; it is important for illuminating what we really care about.

The difference between an object’s reality and its constitution is the core of Vasiliou’s position, and he argues that reality creates value but constitution does not. Water matters to us because it satisfies our thirst and without it we die; that is its reality. The fact that water is constituted of two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom matters not at all, and if we were in a Matrix (benevolent or hostile), if there was a substance called water that satisfied a need like thirst then we would continue to value that water, even if it was not constituted of two hydrogens and an oxygen atom.

This distinction is intuitively familiar to us under a great many circumstances. When I talk to my girlfriend over the phone, the reality is that I speak to her even though that conversation is constituted of me speaking and listening to a device converting sound waves in the air into electric currents. Similarly, even though when I was young my phone was constituted of a device that plugged into a wire that ran to a switching center where it was electronically connected to other wires when I wanted to speak to somebody; and my phone is now constituted of an electronic device which converts sound waves into microwaves which are received by a tower, routed to another tower over the internet, and broadcast by that tower to my girlfriend’s phone; the reality of my speaking on the phone is the same now as it was then.

Now, there are flaws in Vasiliou’s argument. He claims, for instance, that if we could get all our nutrition from a pill and then pretend to eat perfect food by entering a computer matrix temporarily, people would prefer that experience to genuinely eating a steak — because after all, the reality of the steak to us is that it is “juicy and delicious.” Here, Vasiliou is wrong — for most people, the reality of a steak is that it is juicy and delicious. But its reality is also that people far away expended a lot of effort to provide the ingredients for your steak, and that a chef very close by (perhaps yourself) then worked hard to cook that steak to perfection and season it properly; in other words, how something came to be is part of its reality. A Matrix steak would be just as good as the real thing (assuming you do not leave the Matrix), but a “food machine” would not.

This argument has some important extensions. First, as implied in the rest of Vasiliou’s piece, anything that is a product of and for the mind (literature, philosophy, and human emotion) is as fully real in the Matrix as outside of it. But something whose application is partly physical is less real, because in a computer-driven Matrix it is not unique; it can be replicated freely by the software and its constitution does not exist everywhere its creator exists. A great painting in the Matrix could be admired for its aesthetic value and the time the artist spent creating it, but it would have less value than a painting from outside the Matrix because the in-Matrix painting, not having a constitution outside the Matrix, could not be hung in a real-world building. Vasiliou misses this subtlety and the paper is weaker for it, but the argument still stands strong.


We read Anselm’s response to Gaunilo’s “Isle of the Blest” argument in defense of the Fool. In essence, Anselm believes he has demonstrated that the concept of God is different enough from the concept of a blessed island, and so his argument doesn’t run afoul of Gaunilo’s reductio ad absurdum objection. Haight & Haight also offer a kind of reductio of Anselm’s argument. Explain Anselm’s response to Gaunilo. Does Anselm’s response also work as a defense against Haight & Haight? If so, how would such a defense work? (That is, spell out what Anselm would say in response to Haight & Haight.) If not, why not? (How is the Devil different from the Blessed Isle? Why does the reductio fail in the case of the blessed isle but succeed in the case of the Devil?)  Alternatively, you can defend one of the other logical possibilities here, e.g, argue that Gaunilo’s argument works, but Haight and Haight’s doesn’t; etc.


Anselm’s response to Gaunilo is quite simple but incredibly dense. It argues that existence is a necessary property of God — and since it is impossible to conceive of the non-existence of something for which existence is a property, God cannot be conceived to not exist! If the Fool says to himself “God does not exist” the fool cannot be thinking of God. Gaunilo’s fault is that existence is not a necessary property of an Isle of the Blest.

While this distinction might seem arbitrary (why is existence a property of God but not of the Isle?), most of Anselm ‘s elucidation of the ontological argument is devoted to proving existence as a property of God. The argument can be broken up into 4 steps:

  1. Even the Fool believes “in understanding” that there is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and so this being exists in understanding.
  2. That than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot exist in understanding alone, for otherwise a greater being can be conceived — that which actually exists.
  3. In a parallel fashion, it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived to not exist, and that being is greater than the being in (2), so the greatest being is necessarily so great that it cannot be conceived to not exist.
  4. This being is God, and anybody with understanding of God cannot conceive God to not exist, because the mere conception disproves their having conceived of God.

Existence is thus a property of God, but Anselm clearly believes the same argument cannot be applied to an island — indeed, he finds it so obvious that he does not explicitly argue the point.

The difference is first noticed in their descriptions: Anselm speaks of the “greatest” being, which is generally taken to mean “most perfect” in the Greek tradition; Gaunilo speaks of the “most excellent” island. And while it is logical to believe in a perfect being (by Anselm’s proof above), an island, no matter how excellent, is inherently imperfect — it cannot perform rational thought or do a host of other things that bring a being closer to perfection. Because existence makes a being more perfect (and so is part of perfection), it is meaningful to argue that a perfection which does not exist is less perfect than one which exists (so obviously the first object is not really a perfection) and so the most perfect must exist; but when speaking of anything which is not perfect such an argument is absurd because existence is not a necessary property of anything except perfection.

This same line of reasoning is applicable to Haight & Haight’s reductio argument about the Devil — not being a perfection (with the requisite existence), he cannot be logically shown to exist from principles. But a far simpler argument is their reliance on “the worst possible” being. By Anselm’s logic, because existence is a form of perfection, and the worst possible being would be completely imperfect, the worst possible being would necessarily not exist! (Indeed, we could not conceive of the worst possible being, since it is better to exist in understanding than to not exist at all!)

Of course, Anselm’s argument is not correct just because Gaunilo and Haight & Haight’s arguments are not convincing disproofs. Kant has a devastating critique of it which I will not discuss here, yet even if  you accept Anselm’s assignment of existence to perfection, you cannot accept his conclusions. For Anselm rests his argument on the claim that “even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” But this is not a safe assumption! For the Fool to understand what the most perfect being is, he must be able to identify the being, not just name it as “that which nothing better can be conceived.” Perhaps he does not need to be able to enumerate its qualities, but given the choice between a more perfect being and a less perfect one he must be able to identify the greater perfection. Humans, being as imperfect as they are, cannot reliably identify this perfection.

To illustrate, let us consider: who was the more perfect, Martin Luther King Jr or Mohandas Gandhi? Clearly this is a futile task, one which we can debate but which we cannot resolve. Now, if we cannot even identify the more perfect among two humans, who are so near to ourselves on the scale of perfection, how could we distinguish between God and a very near-perfect alien being? It would be completely beyond our capabilities. Indeed, if we encountered the alien first we might misidentify him as God, and then be in a state of complete bewilderment or denial when God actually showed up.

For this reason I do not accept Anselm’s ontological argument, but arguments reductio ad absurdum are doomed to failure against the ontological argument because the argument for necessary existence only applies to perfection itself — Anselm’s God.