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A Criticism of St. Anselm: on God's Attributes
Jan 1, 2001

The Scriptures and Divine Revelation tell believers that God is All-Hearing and All-Seeing, that He hears and answers all prayers, hears His creatures' wishes and requests, sees our deeds, and sees whatever is hidden or open. Since the only way to attain absolute truth about God and His Attributes is through His Words, we do not doubt these facts.

How Does God Hear and See?

This question raises certain difficulties. If treated improperly, it can lead to denying that God hears or sees, as in St. Anselm's meditations on God's Attributes.1 In his Proslogion, he introduces his famous ontological argument for God's existence and asks: If only corporeal things perceive, because the senses exist in a body and are directed towards bodies, then how can you perceive? For you are not a body but the highest spirit, which is better than any body.(2)

He replies: But if to perceive is just to know, or is aimed at knowledge”for whoever perceives knows according to the appropriate sense, as, for example, we know colors through sight and flavors through taste”then it is not inappropriate to say that whatever in some way knows also in some way perceives. Therefore, Lord, although you are not a body, you are indeed supremely percipient in the sense that you supremely know all things, not in the sense in which an animal knows things through its bodily senses.(3)

The crucial points here are that perceiving is possible through bodily senses and that for God to perceive means to know. He seems to explain how God perceives without bodily senses by claiming that the essential outcome of perceiving is knowing. Therefore, if something were known with all details of its properties and qualities, all consequences resulting from perceiving it already would be obtained. If this were true, St. Anselm's solution would make perfect sense. However, I argue that this is far from being true.

Perceiving and Knowing

To understand his flawed reasoning, recall the definitions of perceiving and knowing. Since we perceive only through our senses, and whatever we realize through our senses' operation is perception, we define perceiving as a sensory-based experience. Constructing a precise definition of knowing is somewhat harder, for the word is used for too many purposes and in too many contexts. However, as a working definition of knowing something, we can say that it is having a representation of the object of knowledge in our minds.

The difference between perceiving and knowing something, if we take their meanings in the most general sense, becomes clear if we consider these processes' temporal properties. We perceive something only when exposed to the sensory data caused by the perceived object. But if we know something, we can access this knowledge at will, provided that we do not forget it. In broad terms, perceiving is dynamic while knowing is static.

St. Anselm is right in the sense that we can know what we perceive, as expressed in: I know how banana tastes or in: I know how it feels But we can know these feelings only because we experienced them before. This is why we cannot explain color to a blind person or sound to a deaf person. Besides, knowing how it feels to see a red rose is not the same as seeing it. Let alone their dynamic versus static character, knowledge of an experience is a faint impression of the experience held in our memories.

Perceiving and Knowing in Relation to God

Our considerations about perceiving and knowing are based on circumstances relevant to human subjects. Due to the immense difference between the Supreme Being and us, we must remember that we can never know how our concepts apply to God. We only can assume that the essence of these concepts are shared by us”God knows and we know, but our knowing is a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of His knowing. So we can talk about God only through metaphors and analogies. Nevertheless, we can talk about God in a meaningful way, for we are taught about the Divine Attributes through Divine Revelation and are told that God created us in His image. Thus, being human lets us at least speculate about His nature.

In the light of the above, my main point concerning the relation between God's perceiving and God's knowing is that they are both existent and different Attributes, for the essence of perceiving differs from the essence of knowing. The former is a temporal experience; the latter is a nontemporal Attribute. Hence it follows that perceiving cannot be substituted for by knowing.

Realizing this, we see that St. Anselm's solution to how God perceives without bodily senses is fallacious. To say that God perceives since He knows everything confuses the meanings of perceiving and knowing, and thus is a veiled denial of God's seeing and hearing. Since St. Anselm's explanation for the existence of God's Attributes of All-Seeing and All-Hearing is invalid, or at least unsatisfactory, we must ask how God perceives without a body.

The Sense Organs

The above-mentioned question presupposes that perceiving is possible only through a body's sense organs. This seems natural, as it is verified by daily experience. We do not witness people seeing without eyes or hearing without ears. Even though it appears obvious, the connection between perception and the sense organs is tricky. While we can say that the sense organs are somehow necessary for perception, we cannot say that they are sufficient.

To clarify this subtle point: A knife is sufficient for cutting bread, and a calculator is sufficient for multiplying 174 by 303. In other words, apart from discussing the absolute necessity in causal relations and given our universe's physical laws, it is sufficient to have a knife or a calculator to perform those tasks. However, it is quite doubtful and even impossible for the sense organs to provide such a conscious experience as hearing a sound or seeing a color.

This may sound strange if we do not consider several stages and aspects of perception. Observations and experiments show that perception is a process initiated by the sense organs with incoming sensory data, such as a light pattern (an electromagnetic wave) or a human voice (a kind of pressure wave), and followed by evaluating such sensory data at the appropriate specialized areas in the brain. All stimuli arriving at the sense organs are transformed into nerve impulses”various patterns of electrical activity propagated through nerve cells (neurons).

Even though we do not know exactly how this sensory data is evaluated, all perceptions eventually are correlated with nothing but patterns of firing neurons in the brain. Thus, the brain represents and stores all data (e.g., color, shape, taste, softness), regardless of form, in terms of its neurons' positions and firing rates. This is verified by stimulating various regions of the brain appropriately and watching the subject experience the corresponding sensations or feelings.

Brains and Computers

Analogous to a brain, a computer can represent and store data on its chips in terms of various electrical potentials. For example, an image can be loaded and stored by transforming its pixels' brightness and color data into numbers so that a computer can distinguish colors and recognize patterns. Since different numbers represent different colors or color tones, a computer sees them as different objects and can discern them easily.

But unless a computer is programmed to signal when it sees green, it cannot perceive that green. It is not our recognizing, discriminating, representing, or responding to a color that makes us conscious percipients, but rather our experiencing a color. A brain or computer can have the necessary parts or circuits to represent, evaluate, and respond to a color or any other sensory stimulus. However, experiencing something, such as greenness, is a totally different and extraordinary phenomenon of perception.

Conscious Experience

How is it that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin, when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.(4)

To realize fully the essential unaccountability of conscious experience in terms of physio-chemical processes or the organization of brains and sensory organs, this kind of thought experiment might be very useful: Might your experience of red be the same as my experience of green? Sure, you might label grass as ˜green' and the tomatoes as ˜red', just as I do, but perhaps you actually see the grass as having the color that I would describe, if I were in your shoes, as red.(59

Considering such unique and intractable aspects of conscious experience, the most reasonable conclusion would be to treat the sentience and feelings in our perceptions as belonging to a distinct domain beyond the realm of this physical universe. Sense experience cannot be reduced to physical activities or replaced by each other. In this sense, they are simple and fundamental, such as the dimensions of space“time or the fundamental forces in physics. They are not produced, but just happen to be correlated with stimulating bodily senses and the nervous system's resulting activity. This is just as bizarre as correlating a supernova's explosion with my pushing the button of my pen. The only difference is that we have been accustomed to the former since we were children.

Given this, how can we explain why we have conscious experience? Science gives us no hint. One may deny sentient experience, as some philosophers of the mind do, but this is not satisfactory. The only clue comes from Divine Revelation, which teaches us of an Ultimate Creator Who is Compassionate and Merciful. Reminding us of his bounties, God says in the Qur'an: Say: He has created you and made for you faculties of hearing, seeing, feeling and understanding: little thanks it is ye give (67:23).

Once the true character of perception as a special gift of God is understood, our eyes and ears and other bodily organs cannot be considered the real sources of our bodily senses; rather, we will understand that they are just like windows of the human soul that God breathes into each person: (Remember) when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am creating a mortal out of potter's clay of black mud altered, so, when I have made him and have breathed into him of My Spirit, fall down and prostrate unto him (15:28-29).

Only in the light of this profound truth can we have an idea of why we have so many remarkable qualities and capabilities. Being human, we are like mirrors on which the manifestations of God's Attributes are focused. Of course, we have only the faintest copy of His Attributes, such as All-Seeing, All-Hearing, and All-Knowing. As all our knowledge is like a drop in the ocean with respect to His knowledge, our seeing and hearing are insignificant with respect to His seeing and hearing.

Since such elements of perception as seeing and hearing are not products of bodily senses but rather faculties of the human soul breathed into us by God from His Spirit, the perfect modes of seeing and hearing naturally belong to God as the Attributes of All-Seeing and All-Hearing.


As a final point, we stressed that seeing and hearing are temporal experiences. This raises the following question: How can an eternal God have temporal experiences? However, since investigating God's actions in relation to time is a huge issue, we will consider it as a possible subject of future research. Here, I remark that God's greatest Attribute is that of All-Living.


  1. St. Anselm (1033?-1109) was an Italian prelate, Archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor of the Church, and a founder of Christian scholasticism.
  2. St. Anselm, Monologion and Proslogion, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: 1996), 102.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Thomas Huxley, in Nicholas K. Humphrey, A History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
  5. Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: Norton, 1999), 146.