Doctrine of God (part 13)

May 16, 2010     Time: 00:33:26


I. C. 3. Intellectual Attributes: Omniscience a. Analysis (2) Systematic Summary (a) Omniscience Defined.

1. Attributes of God
Lecture 13

Systematic Summary

We are now going to turn to our lesson on divine omniscience. We are going to look at a systematic summary of the divine attribute of omniscience and the biblical material concerning divine omniscience.

Omniscience Defined

Omniscience is usually defined in terms of truth. For any true statement or any true proposition, God knows and believes that proposition and he does not believe any false proposition – that is the definition of omniscience. God’s being omniscient means that God believes and knows every true proposition and does not believe any false proposition or statement. Omniscience is defined in terms of God’s propositional knowledge: he knows only and all true propositions. That means he knows the past, he knows the present, and he knows the future because there are true propositions in the past tense, present tense, and future tense. God knows every truth. Even before the creation of the world, God knew every motion of every single electron that would ever occur in the universe. He knows your very thoughts before you even think them; he knows our free choices before we make them. God has all propositional knowledge.

But even omniscience doesn’t exhaust the scope and excellence of God’s knowledge. Philosophers have noted that in addition to propositional knowledge, there is also a kind of non-propositional knowledge, a knowledge that doesn’t involve knowledge of a true proposition. Let me give an illustration.

Suppose I am out hiking in the Canadian wilderness, and I am chased by a ferocious moose and have to scramble up a tree to escape. Suppose I yell to Joe, “Go tell Jan that I have been treed by a moose!” What will Joe do? Will he run up to Jan and say, “Help, I’ve been treed by a moose!”? No, that is what I told him to say, but that isn’t what he will report. He will run up and say, “Help, Bill has been treed by a moose!” In other words, Joe and I use different words to express the same proposition. When I say “Tell her I have been treed by a moose,” that is the same propositional content as the sentence Joe uses, which is, “Bill has been treed by a moose.” So we have different sentences and different words, but we have the same propositional knowledge. When I know I have been treed by a moose, I have the same propositional knowledge that Joe has when he knows Bill has been treed by a moose.

And yet, despite the fact that we have the same propositional knowledge, our knowledge isn’t identical. It is not entirely the same. How can we tell this? Because if I believe, “I have been treed by a moose,” how will I react to that knowledge? Well, I will react by hanging on for dear life! I know I have been treed by a moose, so I am going to hang on in desperation. But how does Joe react to that knowledge? He doesn’t hang on for dear life in response to the knowledge that Bill has been treed by a moose. In response to his knowledge of that proposition, he runs off to get help.1 So what that implies is that even though he and I have the same propositional knowledge – we both know the same true proposition – nevertheless we have a kind of non-propositional self-knowledge that is different. When I know the proposition Bill has been treed by a moose, I hang on for dear life. When Joe knows that proposition, he runs for help because we have a different self-knowledge in this case.

This sort of non-propositional self-knowledge is essential to action. For example, to give a different illustration, it is not enough for me to know the proposition Bill is hungry in order for me to be motivated to go get something to eat. For suppose that I am in the hospital suffering from an accident and I have amnesia and I have forgotten that I am Bill. And suppose somebody informs me, “Bill is hungry.” Well, that wouldn’t do anything to motivate me to eat because I do no know that I am Bill. Knowing that Bill is hungry wouldn’t do anything to cause me to ring for food. Thus, what I need in addition to the knowledge that Bill is hungry is this self-knowledge, “I am Bill.” It is only when I have that self-knowledge that my response to the propositional knowledge Bill is hungry will be that I will try to get something to eat.

This self-knowledge, this non-propositional knowledge of one’s self as one’s self, is essential to timely action. If there were something that had all propositional knowledge – imagine you had a supercomputer that you could program into it all true propositions – but suppose this computer lacked self-knowledge. It would be impossible for it to take any sort of timely action because it wouldn’t know itself as itself, even though it had all this propositional knowledge programmed into it. What that means is that God is more than omniscient. He not only has all propositional knowledge, but he also has appropriate self-knowledge as well. He knows not only that God is omnipotent, but he knows that “I am God” and therefore “I am omnipotent” expressed from his vantage point. So God’s cognitive excellence exceeds even omniscience. He has all propositional knowledge, has no false beliefs, and he also has appropriate self-knowledge.

Even so, the excellence of God’s knowledge is still not yet fully exhausted! What is important here is also the way in which one acquires one’s knowledge. Suppose we imagine that there are two beings, and each one of them had all propositional knowledge, and suppose that each one of them had appropriate self-knowledge. Nevertheless, suppose that one of them acquired his knowledge only because the other one had taught it to him. The other one told him everything that he knew, and that’s why the second being has all the propositional knowledge that he does, only because the first one told him. Clearly, the second being would not be as cognitively excellent as the first being, who didn’t have to be taught. The one who only learned, or acquired, the knowledge by being taught would be less excellent cognitively then the first being which was untaught. The first being doesn’t learn anything from anyone – he has his knowledge innately. Similarly, God simply knows all truths innately. He is maximally excellent intellectually. He has all propositional knowledge, holds no false beliefs, has appropriate self-knowledge, and he does so innately without learning it or acquiring it from anyone. This is a quite startling conclusion when you think about it – that God’s cognitive excellence exceeds even omniscience!2


Question: On the example of Bill has been treed by a moose, why don’t you and Joe both have the same knowledge that Bill has been treed by the moose? You grasping the tree and him running off – isn’t that just a new proposition, that being what you need to do about it?

Answer: I don’t think it is a new proposition. Certainly there is a difference between the proposition Bill has been treed by a moose and the proposition Bill should hang on and the proposition Joe should go for help. Those are different propositions that an omniscient being would need to know. But knowing that Bill should hang on won’t prompt me to hang on for dear life unless I know, “I am Bill.” So there has to be this self-knowledge that supplements whatever propositional knowledge you have in order for you to act in an appropriate way.

Question: It seems what you are getting at is that there are different perspectives on the same propositional knowledge.

Answer: That would be one way to think about it. In other words, one’s self represents a different sort of perspective on the propositional knowledge. Sometimes philosophers will say that I grasp this propositional knowledge in a first-person way and somebody else grasps that knowledge in a third-person way, so that the way we differ is how we grasp it. I think that is right, and what that yields is this kind of non-propositional knowledge.

Followup: Can you go from there and say God not only knows these propositions from his perspective but he also knows them from others’ perspectives?

Answer: Certainly God would know how it would look from somebody else’s perspective. Indeed, I think we know that in the example I described. But God doesn’t have the self-knowledge that, say, Napoleon does, in that God doesn’t believe that he is Napoleon. God doesn’t believe that he is Ronald Reagan. God knows that he is God. That is why I said that what God possesses is appropriate self-knowledge. To have all self-knowledge would be a cognitive dysfunction, not an excellence. God would be literally schizophrenic and would hold false beliefs if God thought that he were Ronald Reagan or Napoleon.3

Question: The impact to you versus Joe in the moose analogy is different.

Answer: That is one way of expressing it. They have a different impact, so this differing impact cannot come from the propositional content of what is known because that content is the same. So where does this different impact arise from? There must be a component of knowledge which is non-propositional, which is the argument I am trying to make.

Question: It sounded like you were defining omniscience and then beyond omniscience God has additional knowledge. I find that a little confusing because I have been trained to think of the prefix “omni” as “all.” So, why couldn’t we just include that in his omniscience?

Answer: When omniscience is traditionally defined, it is defined in terms of all propositional knowledge. God has all of it. So there aren’t any more propositions that could be known than God already knows. In that sense, it is truly omni. It is not that self-knowledge gives you additional propositional knowledge. This is a different kind of knowledge. Defining omniscience is usually done in terms of truth – that God knows only and all truths. But there are also other kinds of knowing than just knowing truths. That is the point.4

Question: You hit on the idea of a problem presented by atheists that say omniscience includes first-person knowledge so therefore that makes him have first-person experiential knowledge of torturing someone (i.e. the knowledge of a person who is a torturer). This introduces immorality in God. Can you comment on this further?

Answer: What this question does is introduce some technical vocabulary in the discussion. There are certain types of words in English that are called indexical words – they are expressive of different perspectives. One type of indexicals would be personal indexicals, which are indexed to the person. Those would be words like “I,” “you,” “he,” and so forth. That is what we’ve been talking about with respect to God’s self-knowledge. There are also what are called temporal indexicals. These would be words that are indexed to, or from the perspective of, the present time. These are such words as “now,” “today,” “tomorrow,” “yesterday,” “in three years time,” “four years ago.” All of those are indexed to the present. Then there are words that are spatial indexicals. Those would be words that express perspectives like “here” and “there,” “three miles north of here.” Those would be indexed to spatial locations.

The question that arises is the kind of knowledge that one has by virtue of having these sorts of indexical beliefs like, “I have been treed by a moose.” What I am suggesting is that, at least with respect to these personal indexicals, these do not belong to the propositional content of a sentence. Otherwise, it would be impossible for Joe to ever go tell Jan that I have been treed by a moose. He could not convey that information to her because if he runs up to her and says “I have been treed by a moose!” she would look at him and say, “No, you’re not! You’re standing right here!” But if he said, “Bill has been treed by a moose!” then the personal indexical (“I”) is gone. So that information would be literally incommunicable if these personal indexical terms were part of the propositional content of the sentence. I think that what we want to say is what I have said, that the propositional content is neutral with respect to these indexicals and, therefore, communicable. But in additional to the propositional knowledge, there is something more of a non-propositional knowledge that I know when I know what I would express using one of these indexical terms. The case for spatial and temporal indexicals may be somewhat different, but I don’t think we need to get into that right now. But this is a very interesting feature of language that does come to bear in discussion of divine omniscience and what God knows.

Question: I don’t get indexicals. What exactly are they? What do they do?

Answer: They are words. They express a truth from a particular perspective. That is the idea. They are indexed to perspectives, or they are tied to perspectives. So when the proposition Bill Craig has been treed by a moose is expressed from my perspective, it is expressed linguistically as, “I have been treed by a moose.” But if Joe is looking at me up there, he might express that same proposition with different words, such as, “You have been treed by a moose!” It would be the same propositional content, that is to say, the same information content, but the linguistic expression of that content is different. We use different words because these words express different perspectives.5

Question: Is it correct that only God is omniscient?

Answer: Yes. It is right to say that God is the only omniscient being.

Followup: What is the point of adding to the definition of “omniscient,” if those things are not already included?

Answer: If God is already omniscient, then why add more? I would say that (1) from a Christian point of view, it magnifies the greatness of God. When I first saw this, my breath was taken away! Because I thought, God is more than omniscient? This is when philosophy expresses itself in worship and awe of God. My worship of God is deeper because of my philosophical studies, not in spite of them. When you see insights into Christian doctrine like this, it elicits praise to God for his greatness. (2) A second reason is that some atheists have offered misconceived arguments against divine omniscience by saying things like, “God can’t know that ‘I am Napoleon’,” or “God can’t know that ‘I hurt my back lifting weights’.” He can know Bill hurt his back, but God can’t know, “I hurt my back.” So they have said, “Aha! God can’t be omniscient!” and you see sophomoric arguments to try to defeat God’s being omniscient. The answer is that omniscience means all propositional knowledge, and God does have that. But it would be a cognitive imperfection for God to know, “I hurt my back lifting weights” because he didn’t. He knows Bill hurt his back lifting weights. So for both theology as well as apologetics, I think there is great value in analyzing these attributes carefully and seeing what is really implied in them.

Question: Earlier you mentioned how God doesn’t have everybody’s self-knowledge, just his own. But does he have a sort of higher self-knowledge? For example, he doesn’t know, “I am Napoleon,” but he knows what Napoleon is thinking when Napoleon thinks, “I am Napoleon.”

Answer: I would prefer to just call it self-knowledge and say that God has appropriate self-knowledge. But I would try to capture what you are rightly expressing, and that is that God is perfectly empathetic. He empathizes with how we feel and knows how we feel. He does know that, for example, being a sinner feels guilty and lousy and miserable. But he himself doesn’t feel guilty and lousy and miserable because he is not a sinner. But he does know how sinners feel. I want to agree with you that God certainly has perfect empathy with us, but I would want to stick with what I have said about the distinctions in saying that he doesn’t have the knowledge, “I am Napoleon.”

Followup: Do you think that having that capacity for empathy would in any way influence his actions from a self-knowledge perspective? For example, if he knows that my falling down the stairs is going to make me feel bad, and he knows how that is going to feel, would he at any point intervene to stop me from falling down the stairs, so he would not have to feel that pain himself?

Answer: Biblically speaking, (except for the last part) that seems to be perfectly correct. God, over and over again in the Scriptures, says, “I am compassionate,” and compassion means literally “suffer along with.” I would think that being a compassionate God, he would act in appropriate ways to not allow needless pain and suffering in the lives of his creatures (though not in order to avoid feeling pain himself). God will providentially order the world in such a way that his ultimate goals will be achieved through the pain and the suffering that we experience.6

Question: With respect to Hezekiah and how Isaiah says God told him Hezekiah was going to die, but later says God gave him a reprieve and let him live another 15 years. Why did God tell Hezekiah he was going to die, if he knew he was going to change his mind?

Answer: There is no way to actually answer that question because there is no way to read God’s mind! But it is conceivable that this was a test of Hezekiah’s faith. Think of Jonah. Jonah was sent to Nineveh to say, “In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed!” When the people repented, God said, “All right, I won’t destroy you.” Sometimes what we have in the Scriptures is not really foreknowledge of the future; they are forewarnings of what will happen unless something else happens. One analogy I like is in the story A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge is confronted with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who shows him horrible scenes of Tiny Tim’s death and Scrooge’s own death and lonely demise. Scrooge says to the spirit, “Are these shadows of things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be only?” And the spirit doesn’t answer him! Why? Why doesn’t the spirit answer him? If he had said that these aren’t really going to happen in the future (because the spirit knows Scrooge is going to repent), then Scrooge might not have repented. On the other hand, if the spirit said that these are only things that might happen, then Scrooge might say, “Well, anything might happen! That’s no big deal. I might sell my business and become a flower marketer; that might happen! But why worry about it?” So the spirit doesn’t say anything to Scrooge because he knows that by giving him this forewarning, Scrooge is going to repent and change. So in dealing with human beings, like the people of Nineveh or maybe Hezekiah, God could say things to them by way of forewarning to test or motivate a certain reaction in them. That is within his sovereign discretion to do that.

Question: In 1 Samuel 15:29, Samuel says to Saul that God doesn’t change his mind.

Answer: That is the difficulty. In Samuel it says, in one translation, that God does not repent or change his mind. But then there are other Scriptures where it explicitly says, “It repented God that he had made man.” So there is at least a face value contradiction that one needs to explain. And I would explain it in the way I just attempted to do.

Followup: (inaudible)

Answer: Fair enough – I think you are quite right; that word can often mean, “It grieved God,” and that he experienced grief that, for example, he had made man. But it doesn’t mean he wanted to change his mind. That is a fair point, too.

Question: Is that an example of middle knowledge? Knowing that how a person will react when you put them in that situation?

Answer: That is exactly right! In both the Nineveh case and in the example of Scrooge, what God is telling these people is that this is what would happen if they were not to repent. Sometimes that is made explicit in Scripture. There is a prophecy to Zephaniah, I think, or maybe from Zechariah – one of those Z-guys – where he says, “If you do this, then this is what is going to happen; and if you do that, then this is what is going to happen.” It is clearly a kind of conditional prophesy of that sort, where God has middle knowledge of what would happen under different circumstances.7 The Open Theist interprets this to show that God doesn’t know the future and therefore can change his mind. But the problem is that that butts up against so many other passages in Scripture that indicate that God does know the future, does know what is going to happen, that I think that alternative just doesn’t make sense ultimately of all the data.

Question: Last week we talked about how God can’t learn anything, but can you comment on that in relation to how God is in time from creation, thus “now” changes and there is a definitive “now” on the A-Theory of time?

Answer: On a dynamic theory of time, where temporal becoming is real – things come into being and go out of being – if God is, as I argued, in time, then he does experience this temporal becoming of events. So when I said that God doesn’t learn anything, I was referring to God’s propositional knowledge’s not changing. His propositional knowledge is not changing, but certainly he can experience things in a way that would require different linguistic expressions of that proposition he knows. For example, he knows, “Christopher Columbus will discover American in 1492.” He knew that in, say, 1200. In 1492, he knows, “Christopher Columbus is discovering America.” Later on he knows, “Christopher Columbus did discover America in 1492.” My point is that he hasn’t acquired new propositional knowledge in having that transition take place. These are just different linguistic expressions of these indexical beliefs, so that God doesn’t really learn anything new. But certainly his experience is fresh and changing as he experiences temporal becoming.

Followup: How is that compatible with Molinism, where you have God knowing how you are going to freely react to everything?

Answer: This does segue into the next section. I am going to talk about two problems. The first of which is divine foreknowledge and human freedom. If God really does know everything in advance – he knows what you are going to think before you think it and he knows your free decisions before you make them – , then since God cannot be wrong, how can you really be free to do anything differently than what he foreknows you are going to do? That is the discussion we will take up next.8


1 5:01

2 9:41

3 12:44

4 14:51

5 20:05

6 25:05

7 30:05

8 Total Running Time: 33:25