OHPT: Thoughts on Omniscience (Chapter 6)

Ooooo this chapter is bringing me BACK. My first real undergraduate philosophy class was on the Problem of Evil, and I wrote my paper on theories of God’s omniscience. At the time I found my conclusion frustratingly trite and non-philosophical (“there is no good explanation for how we can retain freedom and God’s omnibenevolence and omniscience and omnipotence so we just need to take it on faith that she has those qualities”), but now I realize that it wasn’t so much that my conclusion was non-philosophical but that it acknowledged the problems that arise when examining divine omniscience under a philosophical microscope. Aka, I was onto something, even if it felt at the time like I was just giving up and failing to ferret out something true. I truly believe I had ferreted out what was true.

With that, let me actually introduce the chapter. Chapter 6 is titled “Omniscience” by Dr. Edward Wierenga, Professor Emeritus of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester. His research has been focused on the divine attributes of God, such as omniscience, omnipresence, divine timelessness, and omnipotence. Based on his publications, I think it’s safe to say that he is a good authority for this subject.

I wonder if even omniscience is enough to understand Hegel…

Unlike Brower, Wierenga uses this chapter more as an overview for the scholarship and arguments for omniscience, rather than to argue for one argument in particular. He offers up a couple definitions and it made me laugh, because they are mostly all interchangeable, but since phrasing is so dang important in philosophy they are different enough to be distinct and more or less useful in different contexts. Anyway, the common definitions:

  • (D1) S is omniscient = for every proposition p, if p is true, then S know p. (general)
  • (D2) S is omniscient = for every proposition p, if p is true then S knows p and if p is false then S does not believe p. (“implicitly accepted” by Alvin Plantinga and Stephen Davis)
  • (D3) S is omniscient = for every proposition p, either S knows that p is true or S knows that p is false. (Linda Zagzebski)
  • (D4) S is omniscient = for every proposition p, S either believes p or the denial of p and it is metaphysically impossible that there is a proposition q such that S believes q and q is false. (Peter van Inwagen)

Totally different and useful in their own ways, yes?! #philosophyisphun

With most qualities attributed to or predicated of God (and however you want them all to “hang together”), the coherency comes from defining the concept as a human phenomenon (in this case, knowledge) and then trying to push its boundaries to explain it on a “perfect” or “boundless” framework. In order to stretch the concept of knowledge to the perfect/boundlessness of the divine, Wierenga discusses some of the “attributes of the attribute” of omniscience that have been argued and debated. Infallibility. Essence. Occurrent (God is always aware of all knowledge she has) vs. dispositional (God has knowledge but is not always aware of certain propositions). (Most philosophers/theologians apparently consider God to have occurrent knowledge, so that’s something.)

Wierenga provides a big discussion about de re knowledge vs. de dicto, but I’m not totally sure I get all that’s going on there, so no comment. Here is a brief overview of the difference between the two, for those interested.

The most interesting and new aspect of omniscience that Wierenga contributes as “his” to this chapter regards the question about whether or not God has the first-person knowledge of all beings. The statement “I am typing on my laptop” has a truth value, but that truth value depends on who is saying it. It is true if I say it right now; it is not true if my husband says it now, or if I say it at 11pm tonight (I’ll 100% be sleeping). Since the proposition “I am typing on my laptop” is both true and not true, and since God is not every “I” (I hear Spinoza yelling from the grave), what does this mean for how God relates to these propositions?

Wierenga provides an attempted defense for God holding these propositions as part of her perfect body of knowledge. He says that “sentences containing the first-person personal pronoun typically express a proposition involving the haecceity or individual essence of the person using the sentence” (136). Whenever we claim something first-person, we are aware (on some level) of all the propositions that go into what constitutes the “I”. While we don’t know those for others, Wierenga says there’s nothing that means God could not know those about everyone.

I’m still thinking through this, but it seems to me that there is something about subjective experience and the truths we learn from it that is not transferrable, even to God. Someone, human or God, could know that when I take my first sips of wine, I get a happy, warm, fuzzy feeling in my tum. I can say “I get a happy, warm, fuzzy feeling in my tum when I take my first sip of wine” and people can understand what that means, or understand what it means for me to experience it. But I struggle to see how anyone could know, in the subjective personal sense, my experience with the first sips of red wine. That qualia is unique to me, as any experience is unique to the individual. It seems as if all the things about me that gives rise to that red wine qualia would be part of my haecceity, my individual essence, which could be involved in my first-person statements, but would make the felt truth of those statements (a large part of its truth) inaccessible to anyone other than me. Others, including God, can know that I have that experience, but they can never share perfectly in my experience and thus know the full truth of my experience.

Unless, of course, one wants to accept Spinoza’s claim that there is only one substance in the universe, that that substance is God, and we are all “in” God. That the universe is One and that One is God. If we accept that argument, then God could know my subjective experiences because they would, ultimately, also be hers.

However, if we (they?) want to keep God’s distinctness and uniqueness, as most Western theologians have wanted (Spinoza was excommunicated), then I don’t see how one can both claim God is separate and yet shares our subjective experience such that she knows my subjective experiences, and the first-person propositions describing them. There are truths unavailable to God.

But if Wierenga means something different from what I am packing into the idea of haecceity, then this could be off base! Wheeeeee.

The biggest, most complex portion of the article is devoted to the argument of omniscience and free will; specifically, at attempt to try to reconcile God’s foreknowledge (part of her omniscience) with freedom of individuals to act on their own will. It’s a good overview, but not something I can summarize well here. Suffice to say, God’s simplicity and aseity seem very relevant here. The statement “God only knows Smith mows his lawn Tuesday if Smith mows his lawn Tuesday” means part of God’s knowledge is dependent on her creatures. Not many want to accept this. But as Brower so honestly admitted, we often have to pay a price for our preferred beliefs, and this is one.

I think what Wierenga (and Brower) demonstrated is that there is no philosophically-satisfying account of God’s omniscience that accounts for all the other things we/Christians want to preserve: free will, an account of evil that doesn’t have God as the agent (passive or active), and God’s omnipotence.

I am still thinking about this, about Brower’s acknowledgement that we have to be aware of the “cost” of our theological commitments. For Brower, that means acknowledging that to believe in God’s simplicity commits one to accepting compatibalism (that free will and determinism both describe reality and are thus compatible). For God’s omniscience, the costs and commitments are even more pronounced and we need to be ready to acknowledge and accept that reality, that logical reality. Committing to doing good philosophy means that we cannot pick and choose all the claims we want to be true. Some claims will lead to other claims; some claims will preclude the accepting of other claims. We have to look at how our beliefs “hang together” and not just evaluate the validity of all the claims which conflict, but to make decisions and be humble and honest enough to say “This is what I believe, and this is the logical cost at which it comes.”

What this is all suggesting to me is that while there may be good arguments for individual qualities of God, putting them altogether in a coherence framework is impossible. It doesn’t seem like it can or does all “hang” together. Reality and reason are clashing with our desires concerning and beliefs in the Ideal Other-Worldly Being. I supposed I should wait until I finish the whole section on divine attributes, though. If there is no perfect belief system that describes or accords with a Perfect God, what does that mean for God’s existence or for the nature of God? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll know by Chapter 26…

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