Part III: Omniscience and divine Learning

The Attributes of God
Part III: Omniscience and divine Learning

Related posts: Omniscience ; Immutable, Omnipresence ; Whence God? Talking about God ; Creation ex nihilo

Is the future open or closed? If the future is open to God then naturally God learns. Some might find it surprising but this belief was once common among Mormons. In 1857 Apostle Wilford Woodruff (who became 4th president of the church in 1889) said, “God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end” (JD 6:120). Brigham Young said, “The greatest intelligence in existence can continually ascend to greater heights of perfection” (JD 1:93).[1] George Q. Cannon (Apostle; d. 1901) said, “There is progress for our Father and for our Lord Jesus…It is endless progress, progressing from one degree of knowledge to another degree” (Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, p. 92). General Authority B.H. Roberts (Seventy; d. 1933) wrote, “God is [not] Omniscient up to the point that further progress in knowledge is impossible to him; but that all knowledge that is, all that exists, God knows” (Seventy’s Course in Theology, vol. 4, p. 70-71).

Because the Mormon conception of the universe denies its creation ex nihilo (see Creation Ex Nihilo) there is a sense of obligation to grapple with scientific explanations of physical phenomena. We believe there is an underlying consistency between the universe and God. For example, James E. Talmage wrote in Jesus the Christ,

Miracles cannot be in contravention of natural law, but are wrought through the operation of laws not universally or commonly recognized…The human sense of the miraculous wanes as comprehension of the operative process increases. (p. 139)

Though God’s knowledge is greater than ours, even he operates within the bounds of law—this is uncontroversial for most Mormons. Miracles might contradict known laws but ultimately they do not suspend the natural laws of the universe. But does God learn?

Can God’s knowledge change?
If God learns then what he knows is subject to change.

This brings me to an illustration of one way God might learn. Firstly, suppose truly random processes exist. Most scientists would concede this is predicted by quantum mechanics, but I will use the illustration of “random” dice. Consider the outcome of a role of a six-sided dice, and suppose I get six. If the dice is truly random I cannot say there was a reason I got six. It could easily have been one, two, three, four or five. The outcome is unrelated to all antecedent conditions. There was no cause. It is, after all, random. If true randomness exists in the larger universe it’s impossible for science to predict absolutely the future. If randomness is outside God’s foreknowledge then he can learn at such-and-such a time, at such-and-such a place, Troy rolled a six. Taking this idea further, what if I base some of my decisions on a random quantum device (RQD) — such a device could be designed utilizing electron spin. When I push a button my RQD randomly lights up a yellow or red light. So when I make the decision to either walk to school or to ride the bus I push the button. If I get yellow I take the bus; if I get red I walk. Because my choice is based on a random outcome it’s impossible to foreknow what it will be.[2] If this is impossible for God to foreknow then he would learn on that particular morning the RQD gave me a red light and that I shall walk to school.

There is another way God’s knowledge could change. If I am sitting, then surely at that moment God knows I am now sitting. God knows I am now sitting only while I am sitting, and not at any other time. God cannot know I am now sitting while I am standing, neither can he know I was sitting before I sit, neither can he know I will be sitting after I stand up. If God’s knowledge is subject to change then it is at least partially temporal.[3] But further, doesn’t God know that he knows what he knows?—I, for example, know that 1 + 0 = 1; I also know that I know 1 + 0 = 1. [4] If God’s knowledge has any temporality to it then what God knows about himself changes. God cannot know that he knows I am now sitting before I sit. If any of God’s knowledge is temporal then God also discovers himself.

But what if God sees all temporal events as an eternal “now”? At that “now,” then, I am both sitting and not sitting, which seems to be a denial of the law of non-contradiction—a proposition cannot be concurrently true and false.

If God knows me absolutely then I am a mechanism. If I am a mechanism then free will is an illusion. If free will is completely knowable it too is mechanistic. But if I am not a mechanism it follows that God cannot know me absolutely. If I adopt this belief I should also reject infallible foreknowledge because it seems inconsistent to believe God knows all my future actions and yet does not know me completely. If God can’t know me completely then obviously I don’t know myself completely—true. But can God know himself completely? Is God a mechanism? Should we worship a mechanism? It seems if any being is to be non-mechanistic then total and comprehensive knowledge of it must be impossible, both to itself and to others. This requires rejecting traditional omniscience and embracing the belief that God learns. It also means there is no positive description of free will—random “choices” are also un-foreknowable. So it provides merely grounds for believing free will exists.

But could there be any way for God to know exactly what I will do even if my intentions are hidden? Consider this example. Every morning I choose either to walk to school or to ride the bus. And on one particular morning the bus breaks down several blocks from my house, but I had already chosen to walk to school without knowing this. God knew the bus would break down—He is, after all, an ace mechanic. So he knew with certainty I would walk to school, and I freely chose to walk to school, and participated in bringing that about. Though only one choice was available, Fate didn’t find me. I encountered it. Also, my choice need not be mechanistic—it could have been based on the outcome of my RQD; the issue of mechanization needn’t arise. All God needs to know is that I intend to go to school (one way or another) and that nothing shall prevent me from going to school, and that the bus will break down. Simply put, God can foreknow I walk to school and I can choose freely to walk to school. But instead of basing my choice on the outcome of my RQD, it could be based on my un-foreknowable free will.

But what if I had waited for the bus? Eventually I would have been forced to walk to school. So this illustrates only that some choices can be made freely and also be compatible with foreknowledge.

Having said that, I find it hard to believe something like the above example applies to all my free choices. What if there are two pieces of a cake to choose from, and my choice is based on the outcome of my RQD? or my unknowable will? That choice would be truly un-foreknowable.

Why reject omniscience?
Are there more solid grounds for rejecting traditional omniscience? Patrick Grim has come up with an intriguing argument against omniscience. If omniscience is knowledge that constitutes the set of all truths then there can be no omniscient being. I will simplify his arguments. Suppose there exist only three truths in the universe and they constitute the set S = {T1, T2, T3}. One could argue an omniscient being will know all truths in the universe, all truths contained in S—S, after all, is the set of all truths. However, a power set can be formed from these truths. The power set of S consists of every possible combination of the three truths of S: {}, {T1}, {T2}, {T3}, {T1, T2}, {T1, T3}, {T2, T3}, {T1, T2, T3}. I can then ask, “Is T1 in the first element? No. Is T1 in the second element? Yes. Is T1 in the third? No,” etc. What I end up with is more truths than those contained in the so-named set of all truths. (This is an application of the diagonal argument.) Because there is no set of all truths there can be no omniscient being. If an omniscient being did know all truths, it is always possible to generate more truths from the power set; the power set is always larger than the original set. Moreover, the argument works equally well with an infinite set of truths and analogues to this argument can be made for other ways of explicating omniscience. Because there can be no set of all truths, there can be no omniscient being.

Maybe that is true. At the very least it proves there is no cogent description of omniscience. But does this necessitate abandoning the very idea of omniscience? Perhaps not. In an exchange with Patrick Grim, Alvin Plantinga responded:

Suppose you are right: what we have, then, is a difficulty, not for omniscience as such, but for one way of explicating omniscience…A person who agrees with you will then be obliged to explain this maximal perfection in some other way; but she won't be obliged, at any rate just by these considerations, to give up the notion of omniscience itself. (“Truth, Omniscience, and Cantorian Arguments: An Exchange,” Philosophical Studies, vol. 71, 1993)

Personally, I have no strong objections to omniscience or to soft fatalism; nor do I have any special attachment to them. Scripture can support either view.[5] A typical argument for traditional omniscience is, “Without the knowledge of all things, God would not be able to save any portion of his creatures” (Lectures on Faith, 4:11). But I don’t see how that holds up. Suppose God knows everything except, say, how many dust particles existed in some uninhabitable, unobservable part of the universe six billion years ago? Would it matter to my salvation? I can’t see how. It’s always possible to come up with some factoid that doesn’t matter. Though traditional omniscience is very important to the God of the philosophers—If you want to say God is a being “than which nothing greater can be imagined” you must have omniscience—I don’t like the theological baggage that comes with it: pessimism, the fated future, that being known completely means I am a mechanism. Moreover, I don’t believe omniscience has any serious soteriology. If omniscience were essential to salvation then every fact, no matter how seemingly trivial, has salvific value or is necessary to another fact that has salvific value. And I can’t see how that’s true. Though omniscience has tremendous comfort value it seems unnecessary to religion.

End Notes_____________________________
[1] The Apostle Orson Pratt taught that God could not progress in knowledge. This was denounced by Brigham Young who said on 13 January, 1867, “Some men seem as if they could learn so much and no more. They appear to be bounded in their capacity for acquiring knowledge, as Brother Orson Pratt, has in theory, bounded the capacity of God. According to his theory, God can progress no further in knowledge and power; but the God that I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children: they will increase to all eternity, if they are faithful” (JD 11:286). Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal, “Prest Yound said I corrected O. Pratt to day I did not way that God knows all things comprehends all things had has a fullness of all that He will ever obtain that moment eternity seases you put bound to Eternity & space & matter and you make an end and stopping ploease to it.” (4 March, 1860; qtd. in “The Mormon Concept of God” by Blake Ostler. See footnote 38 on page 77).

[2] LDS scientist Henry Eyring made a similar observation:

More recently, we have been obliged to give up the old determinism of classical mechanics as well as the idea of indestructibility of matter. Mechanical determinism meant that if one were given the state of the universe at any instant of time, a sufficiently expert mathematician could calculate the state of things at all times to come. This left no place for the great religious principle of free will. Then quantum mechanics brought with it the uncertainty principle. This principle eliminates the possibility of predicting the future exactly and tends to confirm that fundamental Christian tenet that man enjoys free agency as a divine gift. (Improvement Era, vol. 51, no. 2, February 1948)

[3] See Wolterstorff, Nicholas, 1975, ‘God Everlasting’ in God and the Good: Essays in Honor of Henry Stob.'

[4] “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3).

[5] One from the Book of Mormon reads, “But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words” (1 Nephi 9:6). Preparations imply acting in time, and possibly accounting for contingences. Knowing all things “from the beginning” doesn’t necessarily imply knowing all things to their end. And Nephi didn’t say God has infinite power, but power to bring about his will. Also, “the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes” (Alma 37:7). And when the scriptures say “the Lord knoweth all things” (1 Nephi 9:6) and “the Lord knoweth all things which are to come” (WoM 1:7) it means that God knows the past, present, and all possible futures. Also, when God says, “my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil” (D&C 10:43; 3 Nephi 21:10), it sounds like God outsmarts the devil, which could imply temporality to God.

Scriptures supporting the traditional view of omniscience are: “all things are present with me, for I know them all” (Moses 1:6); “[I am Alpha and Omega,] The same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes” (D&C 38:2); “But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning” (1 Nephi 9:6; I quoted this one in the above paragraph).

1 comment:

  1. See "Levinas and Two Ways of Approaching the World" by Jeffrey Thayne at

    "Human beings are inescapably an Infinity, not a totality. We see this in the way we approach others. Even when we are in a position to treat another person as an object, we inevitably acknowledge their humanity. For example, if a scientist wants to see what is inside a fruit, he simply slices it open and looks inside. However, few people would simply slice a living human being merely to satisfy a scientific curiosity. Even when we mistreat another person and treat them as objects, we acknowledge their humanity. We may laugh maliciously when we mischievously trip our friend, but no one laughs when a chair falls.