Omnisicence and Omnipotence : Is God's Nature Contradictory?
Atheists think it is. I've seen many a knock down drag-out fight, multiple threads, lasing for days, accomplishing nothing. I wrote that dilemma off years ago before I was an internet apologist, so long ago I don't remember when. I wrote it off because at an early date I read Boethius who, in his great work The Consolation of Philosophy (circa 524), puts to rest the issue by proving that foreknowledge is not determinism. In this essay I will demonstrate not only that this is true but the atheist error about omniscience and omnipotence contradicting are actually hold overs from the pagan framework which Boethius disproved.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
Aurthor The Consolation
For years my debates on the matter were marked by silly repetition. I would constantly argue that just knowing that someone does something is not controlling it. But atheists were always cock sure that it was. I used the follow analogy: I know how the Alamo turned out. Travis and the men stepped over the line and chose to stay and die. I know they did that, does my knowledge of it mean that I made them do it? Of course the atheist say "O of course not, but you are not in the past, you are knowing this by a look back in history to see what they already did." Of course, but God doesn't know about events before they have happened in time, he knows about them because he's beyond time and he sees everything in time as a accomplished fact. From our perspective in time God's knowledge is "foreknowledge" becasue it is for us. But it's not foreknowledge for God, he doesn't know before it happens, he knows about events because form an eternal perspective its a done deal. Just as my knowing what the men at the Alamo already did does not give me control over their choices, so God's knowledge of facts we have already accomplish does not give God control over our choices.
Of course, predictably, the atheists dismiss this idea as "nonsense" and go right on asserting that to know of an action is to control, but they can't tell me why. They can tell me a theoretical reason but they can't tell me why if my knowing about the Alamo ex post facto does not control those actions why would God's knowledge of a past even already done control the past event? Why are these not analogous if God is outside time and sees all things in time as accomplished facts? They can't tell me but they are certain the idea is nonsense. The reason they give initially is this. Say that God knows today that I will go to the store tomorrow. That means that i can't tomorrow morning decide "I don't want to go tot he store, I hate the walk." I can't decide that and follow it because God already knows I went so I have to go. But the problem is they are not following a modern concept of God knowing becuase he's outside of time. They are still stuck in the pre Christian framework which has clung to modern Western Philosophy lo these many centuries. That frame work can be clearly seen in Boethius because that's what he was arguing against. The fame work is the Greek Gods were controlled by the fates, but they also had foreknowledge, so they were trumping the fates, to whom they were really subject. That creates an issue. Moreover, foreknowledge was about things that had not yet taken place, thus that is a contradiction; it hasn't taken place, how can it be known what one will do, to know it is to set in stone and thus not free will. But that only holds in the case of god in time not outside of time. It doesn't apply to the idea of God transcendent of time and thus that's why they can't answer me, but because they know the philosophers they read still assert the old Greek idea they must cling to it.
We can see the exact kind of thinking the atheists use in the Consolation and it is the framework against which Boethius toils. This quotation is form a summary in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The summary is by John Marenbon.
The first point which needs to be settled is what, precisely, is the problem which Boethius the character proposes? The reasoning behind (7) seems to be of the following form:
- God knows every event, including all future ones.
- When someone knows that an event will happen, then the event will happen.
- (10) is true as a matter of necessity, because it is impossible to know that which is not the case.
- If someone knows an event will happen, it will happen necessarily.(10, 11)
- Every event, including future ones, happens necessarily. (9, 12)
The pattern behind (8) will be similar, but in reverse: from a negation of (13), the negation of (9) will be seen to follow. But, as it is easy to observe, (9–13) is a fallacious argument: (10) and (11) imply, not (12), but
- Necessarily, if someone knows an event will happen, it will happen.
The summary of the problem he's working against indicates exactly the problem I frame it, that the atheist (following the Greeks) is not assuming transcendence of time but is working on the assumption that God's knowledge is prior to the completed nature of the action. This was the framework in which Boethius found the problem in his own contemporary scene which came from the pre-christian Hellenistic world. Even when the philosopher writing the article sums it up he still speaks form the same perspective:
The fallacy, therefore, concerns the scope of the necessity operator. Boethius has mistakenly inferred the (narrow-scope) necessity of the consequent (‘the event will happen’), when he is entitled only to infer the (wide-scope) necessity of the whole conditional (‘if someone knows an event will happen, it will happen’). Boethius the character is clearly taken in by this fallacious argument, and there is no good reason to think that Boethius the author ever became aware of the fallacy (despite a passage later on which some modern commentators have interpreted in this sense). None the less, the discussion which follows does not, as the danger seems to be, address itself to a non-problem. Intuitively, Boethius sees that the threat which divine prescience poses to the contingency of future events arises not just from the claim that God's beliefs about the future constitute knowledge, but also from the fact that they are beliefs about the future. There is a real problem here, because if God knows now what I shall do tomorrow, then it seems that either what I shall do is already determined, or else that I shall have the power tomorrow to convert God's knowledge today into a false belief. Although his logical formulation does not capture this problem, the solution Boethius gives to Philosophy is clearly designed to tackle it.
He's speaking form the perspective of future events which have not yet happened, being known before they happen. But that leaves out the assumption that's God's is not actuality foreknowledge so much as transcendent eternal knowledge that sees the events as an accomplished fact because it sees the the end result from a perspective after the event is accomplished. That's the wider perspective. Transcendent eternal knowledge is the knowledge of all time as the "eternal now" not "foreknowledge" in the sense of known only prior to the doing of the event. Then there is also an issue about the nature of the knower. This is a point Boethius may be making but it's hard to say. God knows form the standpoint of eternity but he speaks within times arrow to us so it appears to be foreknowledge, knowledge of that which has not yet transpired. Thus the illusion of determinism is created. But the fact of it is that knowledge comes from viewing all events as accomplished facts. It's in the perspective of timeless transcendence which only God can have.
This latter issue of the nature of the knowledge is marked by the summary and by the text itself as "modes of cognition." The Consolation of Philosophy is the old fashioned Philosophical dialogue which no one writes anymore, the kind Berkeley write (out of date in his day--early 1700's).
Erronious: "hi fallacious how's it going?"
Fallacious: "great, I'm now considering a new idea"
Erronious: "prey tell good sir what idea might that be?"
And they go on to discuss and provide endless house of fun writing Monty Python style paradiges of themselves. Then burst into a course of "Rene Descartes was a Druken fart, 'I drink therefore I am.'
But before they do that they discuss issues and the philosopher places his arguemnts in the mouth of the character. In the Consolation the Character Boethius is agonizing over philosophy when Philosophy personfied as a beautiful woman comes to him and gives him the answers. That's the context in which this reviewer states the following:
Her view, as she develops it (in V.5 and V.6), is based on what might be called the Principle of Modes of Cognition: the idea that knowledge is always relativized to different levels of knowers, who have different sorts of objects of knowledge. Although she initially develops this scheme in a complex way, in relation to the different levels of the soul (intelligence, reason, imagination and the senses) and their different objects (pure Form, abstract universals, images, particular bodily things), for most of her discussion Philosophy concentrates on a rather simpler aspect of it. God's way of being and knowing, she argues, is eternal, and divine eternity, she says, is not the same as just lacking a beginning and end, but it is rather (V.6) ‘the whole, simultaneous and perfect possession of unbounded life.’
Boethius did not have the knowledge of modern cosmology, the big bang, quantum theory or any of the other scientific data that we have so he did not possess the concepts of being outside of time. He did however have an understanding of eternity that came form his own spirituality, and it seems to coincide remarkably with the modern notion. What he's saying is that God]s is an eternal perspective. He can see the events of what to us are the future but to him is an eternal now. So he's not knowing something that hasn't happened yet, he knows something that to him has happened, but to us has not yet happened. Without the big bang Boeithius still has the concept of God being outside of time and he saw that as the basis of non-deterministic events in time which known to God as completed events due to God's unique perspective.
A being who is eternal in this way, Philosophy argues, knows all things—past, present and future—in the same way as we, who live in time and not eternity, know what is present. She then goes on to show why, so long as God knows future events by their being present to him, this knowledge is compatible with the events’ not being determined.
Through the mouth of philosophy Boethius speculates that there two kinds of necessity. The first is:
Simple necessities are what would now be called physical or nomic necessities: that the sun rises, or that a man will sometime die. By contrast, it is conditionally necessary that, for instance, I am walking, when I am walking (or when someone sees that I am walking); but from this conditional necessity it does not follow that it is simply necessary that I am walking.
Although some philosophers disagree, she is not noting the scope fallacy above but is actually using Aristotelian modality to argue about the eternal perspective. All things are known to God as though they were in the present. Future events for God are necessary in just the way that present events are necessary for us. What I'm doing now (this moment) I am necessarily doing because I'm really doing it. But because it's my choice to do it and I'm doing it now (as opposed something I already did five years ago) my will to do it is not negated. I can stop doing it and do something else. But I can't go back five seconds ago and stop doing it in the past. All moments are known to God from this perspective.
Now so far so good. But there are two problems:
(1) Most philosophers today do not accept this reading of the issues.
It is important to add, however, that most contemporary interpreters do not read the argument of V.3–6 in quite this way. They hold that Philosophy is arguing that God is a-temporal, so eliminating the problems about determinism, which arise when God's knowing future contingents is seen an event in the past, and therefore, fixed.
That's going to be a problem for me becasue it means that timeless state of "beyond time" would mean God is "frozen" unable to act and thus can only act in time and thus the temporal problem. Rather, God sees as past and while may not control past is also not free to act in the past becuase it is a done deal.
(2) Dame Philosophy seems to swing to a predestination view at the end.
She make God the determiner of events. There are also interpreters who see the Consolation as a satire that should be called "the insufficiency of philosophy." The only problem for me is that atheists will read this part of the article and say "O see Metacrock is stupid because he didn't read the whole article." Marenbon argues that Boethius' purpose is complex it can't be summarized as either "philosophy is insufficient" or "the whole issue is decided." what he's really saying is that philosophy is an ongoing concern. The true consolation of philosophy is not that such issue can be put to rest and summed up easily in nice little easy to understand phrases that only take a few syllables but we can have partial solutions and we can continue to work on problems and continue to seek answers and the act of so doing is a consolation even if we never find clear and easy answers. The interpretation of the Consolation is a literary problem, not a theological one. I will, therefore, bracket that until such as a time as I work on literary criticism.
The first problem is of much greater concern but I have an answer. I think I've analyzed Boethius' claims in the section where philosophy answers the issues of foreknowledge,I think I have that right and it works. It doesn't seem to work when we extract it form the framework of his day and place it in the world of modern cosmology, but it works again when we extract it from the framework of modern cosmology and place it in the framework of my theology (the Berkeley-Gaswami argument). My theological frame work differs from the modern cosmological in this way: I do not see God as a big man in the sky existing beyond the big bang which is a timeless void. I see God as the mind that thinks the universe, and the universe is therefore, analogous to a thought in a mind. I say "analogous" becuase it's a metaphor. If it was literal it might be more deterministic than any other view because it would mean that all events are thoughts in the mind of God in a literal sense. I do not think that. The Gaswami part comes in where I take a page form the book of physicist Amit Gaswami (a Hindu vedantist who teaches physics at University of Oregon. Like Gaswami I see mind as the fundamental stuff of the universe rather than energy or mater. I don't mean that in the sense of the universe being a mind, but that is related to mind in the way that a thought is related to a mind. I take that as a metaphor because like
Bishop George Berkeley I accept the premise "to be is to be perceived." God is the observer that collapses the wave function and causes the universe to be by beholding it. God is observing a thought that he has set up to run on its own. He's not making it happen or thinking every event at a microscopic level.
Two analogies that will clarify the difference. In the standard view God's relation to the world is like that of a man standing in a big room holding a world globe. The room is the timeless void beyond our space/time. The man is God, of course, and the globe is our space/time. That puts God as a thing in "creation" or at least a timeless void, it makes God subject to the laws of physics and the problem of time. It makes God out to be a big man in the sky, although really far up in the sky. My view: we have the room and the globe, no man. The room is the mind of God. the globe and the empty void of "timeless" are both thoughts in the mind of God. What this means is God is not subject to either time or the problem of non time. Both are pseudo problems for God because they are just ideas he thought up to create a framework for our world, which is a further thought of that preliminary thought in his mind. God is no more subject to the problems of time or even non time than we are to our day dreams and momentary fleeting fantasies that cross our minds.
This has many implications that have to be weighed. For one thing we just forget about the issues surrounding the "omnis,", let them go completely. Not that God is not all knowing or all powerful, but the concepts "all knowing" and "all powerful" are hazy shadowy concepts that do more to confuse us than to help us. These are Aristotelian ideas and the hold overs from Greek philosophy. These things enter Western philosophy from Greek thought and they preserved by the prejudices of Western European philosophers. Modern philosophers still think the Greeks were the summit of human civilization, even the Church adopted its language of Greek philosophy to discuss doctrine so we should look to the Greeks. The Hebrews were corn pones and the early Christians were Greeks themselves so Greek ideas hang on in philosophy. Thus the older meaning of "foreknowledge" and it's problems adhere to all modern discussions. The chruch began to use the language of Aristotle after the Apostolic age so we continue to speak of "omnipresent." "Omnipotent" even though the Bible doesn't so speak. We should scrap the language of "all knowing" " all powerful" because it communicates badly. Rather than these we should say, not that God is the "most powerful" that's a mistake too (from a Tillichian perspective) but that God can do whatever is logically doable. God knows whatever is logically knowable.
The problem is in speaking of God as "doing" and "knowing' we give the importation of God as a big man and God's knowledge as the kind of knowledge city zoning board use to plan things. All of this anthropomorphic language is bring God down to the level of a thing in creation. It's not preserving the transcendent nature of God's knowledge which so different form ours we can't even know what it's like. What we can be sure of is that God has left us free will and he's not violating it. God knows whatever is logically knowable. It may not be logically knowable for God to know how it feels to be not God. But at the same time, he does know empathy, he knows the heart he knows the mind, he can take a much better intuitive feel of what that might be like than even we can ourselves. He doesn't know first hand what it's like to be human.
God does not have to make rocks he can't lift. That is a childish trap set for eighth grade apologetic hobbyists in Sunday school classes. I know because I'm still smarting from falling for it in eighth grade.God can't smell next Tuesday because days don't have smells. The eager beaver atheist can say "there's something God can't do." I say "so?" God cannot do nonsense, ok so what? We need to redefine the omnis and come up with a new term ( I don't like "maximal greatness" too easy to confuse with "most power being"). The import this has for this issue is that there is no contradiction between omniscience and omnipotence because those are not helpful words and they don't really mean that much so they don't really describe God's attributes well. Since God is beyond the problems of either time or non-time he is not in the big room of timeless void so he's not frozen. Thus God's knowledge can come form all perspectives, from the eternal now and from time's arrow.
Might there actually be aspects of time God chooses not to see? The problem with that question is it assumes God is a rubber-necking tourist roving the expanse of all existing matter and observing it as one would observe the country side of France from a train window. Because God is not a big man in the sky, not anthropomorphic we can come up with other metaphors to compare God to, and that indicate that God's relationship to time is one we can't understand. Compare God to the strong force, to the unified field, to the laws of physics, the Hegelian dialectic. The Zeitgeist. I don't believe that God is impersonal but I do think it's a good exercise to think of him that way at times just to break the habit of thinking of God as a big man in the sky.
Such a God cannot waste his time worrying about conflicts between one badly worded phrase that doesn't really describe him and another badly worded phrase that doesn't describe him. Thus the problem is now reduced to a pseudo problem. It' an antiquated problem because it's rooted in the pre-Christian Greek understanding of God and time and the world, and it's also rooted in thinking of God as a big man in the sky rather than the transcendent and immanent ground of all being that God is.