Divine certainty

Usually I don’t have a huge interest in philosophical wrangling over divine attributes. It’s easy to find all kinds of paradoxes concerning omni-whatsit attributes of God, but then again, I figure a determined philosopher can always fix these by restricting the omni-whatsitness of God in appropriate ways.

For example, omniscience is a hard idea to make sense of. There is no such thing as a set of all truths, so “knowing absolutely everything” has to be understood differently. And by the time we ask questions like whether God can know by acquaintance what it is to be guilty of a crime, the whole idea of omniscience turns into a massive headache. Still, it might just about make sense to talk of someone knowing all possible facts about the universe, say.

Even so, omniscience is puzzling. Presumably divine knowledge is 100% certain knowledge, not subject to error. But how could God be certain about his own infallibility? I imagine an answer might be that God knows directly, in an unmediated fashion, without having to reason or perceive. He has instant and total awareness of all facts about the universe—facts that are, after all, facts only because God has willed them to be so.

But that doesn’t quite solve the problem of divine certainty, even if we accept this very odd form of knowledge. After all, how does God know that this direct, unmediated knowledge is in fact infallible? We start talking about divine self-knowledge, introduce some nasty self-referential paradoxes, and thereby depart from the restricted sense of knowing everything that might avoid problems with the intelligibility of omniscience. Perhaps it is somehow impossible—logically impossible—for God to be mistaken about facts. I can’t see how this could be so. That argument is asking for at least the same sort of trouble that sinks ontological arguments, and maybe even more.

None of this would mean a restricted-omniscient God is impossible. You could, I guess, have an entity who was, as a matter of fact, infallibly correct about all facts, and hence, as a matter of fact, correct in its self-assessment of certainty. But that would still be a strangely unwarranted form of certainty.

All right, now I do have a headache. I’m not even sure why anyone should care about all this.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11815695119406091177 Interested

    Care…I’m not sure that I do but I have enjoyed reading your post. But now I have a headache:)..

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01967809861892681780 BK

    how does God know that this direct, unmediated knowledge is in fact infallible?

    It would seem to me that omniscience means knowing everything that can be known. It does not necessarily mean first-hand experiential knowledge, but it means knowledge of all facts, feelings and probabilities. If a god knows all of that, then I expect there would be no reason to think he would not be infallible and he certainly wouldn’t have reason to believe himself infallible.

    I mean, how do you know you are not a butterfly dreaming that you are a man? You don’t because you do not have immediate access to everything. God wouldn’t have that limitation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    “”It’s easy to find all kinds of paradoxes concerning omni-whatsit attributes of God, but then again, I figure a determined philosopher can always fix these by restricting the omni-whatsitness of God in appropriate ways….”

    Asking religious philosophers or theologians to confirm one of their “God is Omni-” chestnuts often produces unexpected results, from theo-jargon-spewing, to them denying empirical knowledge altogether. Then, granting even “God exists” implies anything goes, or nearly; Billy Sunday has no need to worry about Justice (social, economic, or otherwise), since he believes everyone’s accounted for in either Heaven or Hell.

    Urban religious people may be a bit more sophisticated than that, but “let Gott sort it out” fairly typical view in the Heartland.

    See Victor Reppert’s site for examples

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Thinking about God can certainly be confusing, but I dare say not more than thinking about some naturalistic hypothesis about cosmogony. What I think one can safely assume is that it makes little sense to think about any God concept which is lesser than any one one can conceive. Which nicely brings one to St Anselm’s definition, namely that God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. A slightly improved version would be: That than which nothing greater can be conceived by some particular mind is the closest this mind can come to understand what God is on an intellectual level.

    About the much discussed omniscience and omnipotence attributes of God the best my mind can do is this: The greatest person would be one who can and does know all S/He wants to know, and one who can and does do all S/He wants to do. In particular I reject the notion that God knows all true propositions, for various reasons: First the vast majority of true propositions are mindbogglingly boring and useless; I don’t see why anybody would want to know all that stuff. Secondly because I think that God would sometimes want to forget something. For example I find that the most beautiful form of forgiveness is where one forgets the transgression. Or, to put it differently, evil can only be utterly defeated when it is utterly forgotten, for unless evil is forgotten it exists.

    Taner Edis finds some problems with the idea of divine certainty. He asks: How can God know that His/Her knowledge is certain? But in personal experience (and one should never forget that God is not less than a person) certainty needs no justification. We ourselves are certain of a particular class of knowledge, namely direct experience. For example right now I am certain that I am experiencing seeing the monitor of my laptop – and to ask how I know this is infallible (or incorrigible) knowledge is just a meaningless question. As for God I would suggest that all knowledge is like direct experience is for us. So if God would want to know what the centillionth digit in the decimal expansion of pi is, God would just look.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00204741537672155468 Kambo

    Taner, I can’t help but notice that you didn’t actually address some of the paradoxes to which you referred. For example, could omnipotent God do something that, by his own omniscience, he previously predicted he would not do? If there is a God, there would have to be an answer to this question. Thus, God would have to be either more omnipotent or omniscient than the other, but this rather defeats the point of omnipotence and omniscience.

    You said that we must instead think of these two terms differently, but to me this simply seems to be dodging the problem instead of addressing it.

    In any case, the whole question is rediculus. We might as well be discussing the anatomy of a unicorn.


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