Sunday, October 21, 2007

your Sunday God question

"Can one be omniscient and not omnipotent?"

I saw the question while visiting Keith Burgess-Jackson's philo blog, AnalPhilosopher. The question was posed by a commenter responding to this post.

Foreknowledge is traditionally considered an integral part of divine omniscience. Readers of my blog already know I find it obvious that foreknowledge, construed in the traditional sense, precludes freedom-- not because the foreknowledge causes the lack of freedom, but because the foreknowledge implies the absence of freedom. If you know Something is going to come to pass, this can only be because that Something is inevitable.


"I know for an absolute certainty that my son, who loves cookies, will eat the cookie I place on the table." This knowledge is possible only because the son follows his compulsion with absolute consistency. If the son's consistency were not absolute, then you wouldn't be able to claim to know that the cookie will be eaten. There would always be some chance, however slim, that this time-- this time-- the boy might forgo the cookie. Claiming to know what your son will do while also claiming that he might do otherwise is tantamount to lying.

"I know that the Olympic diver who just jumped off the platform is going to be wet within five seconds." Here, too, freedom doesn't enter into the picture: the diver's trajectory simply follows the laws of physics.

"I know a gigantic asteroid will slam into the earth on December 14, 2029." This is really no different from the previous diver illustration: physics again.

Knowing is not guessing. Strictly speaking, knowing implies perfect knowledge. Anything less simply doesn't pass muster, philosophically speaking. We are not here talking about people who shout "I knew it! I knew it all along!" after a certain event comes to pass or a certain behavior is revealed. No: the shouter is simply crowing about having guessed well. This is not knowledge.

Let's talk about self-knowledge now. If I know my own future, then strictly speaking, I will have no choice but to follow the path I know. If, for example, I know that I will select a Quarter Pounder instead of a Big Mac today, then I cannot change that fact. If I could change that fact, then it would be wrong to say that I know I'll order the Quarter Pounder: I merely thought I knew.

If I know I will be hit by a car at 5PM today, then guess what? I'm going to be hit by a car at 5PM. Choice never enters the picture, as much as we'd like to wish it so. Middle knowledge is no help in this, either, as it deals only with conditionals and counterfactuals-- the "ifs" and "mights" and "would haves" of life-- none of which can exist if we literally know the future.

So if I know my own future, I am not free. The same then goes for God: if God has perfect knowledge of his own future, then God isn't free, either: he is the prisoner of his own omniscience. Omniscience precludes omnipotence.

As always, I think the only way out for the theist is to resort to the "paradox" defense-- something along the lines of, "God can violate logic, so he can both know the future and grant humans and himself free will." When thoughtfully done, this defense (or something like it) can be respectable.* Otherwise, the theist who follows the Scholastic way of thinking is committed to the notion that not even God can violate logic, which is claimed to be an inherent part of God's nature. If God cannot perform contradictions, then logically speaking, God is indeed a prisoner of his own omniscience, for omniscience and freedom cannot logically go together.

So to the commenter's question, "Can one be omniscient and not omnipotent?", the answer is: How could it be otherwise?

*To be honest, I've never understood why any theist would want his or her deity to be chained to the wheel of logical consistency. How else are miracles possible if not through the paradoxical violation of physical laws, which are themselves logically consistent?



Anonymous said...

Yew rhote, "Can one be omniscient and not impotent?"


Anonymous said...

Since there's only One who is either--and He is both--your question is moot... ;-)

I assume you'll bring up the existence of evil around this point; but that is well covered in Romans and 2nd Peter (q.v.), so I'd just refer you to your studies again...

Inaction, or postponed action, should not be confused with inability. He that has an ear, etc...

Kevin Kim said...

Anonymous (said Kevin after a delay of several years),

It's clear you're not taking the logic seriously.