Is God’s Omniscience Implausible, Impossible or Impassable?



The New York Times always seems poised to publish any opinion piece that discredits Christianity. One such article was published on March 25, 2019 entitled “The God Problem” by Peter Atterton, professor of philosophy and associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters at San Diego State University.

Dr. Attenton’s article seeks to make the belief in the existence of God irrational by claiming that both God’s omnipotence and His omniscience are incoherent. I want to focus on the charge of incoherence against God’s omniscience in this post. Dr. Attenton’s charge against omniscience begins:
Philosophically, this presents us with no less of a conundrum [than God’s omnipotence]. Leaving aside the highly implausible idea that God knows all the facts in the universe, no matter how trivial or useless (Saint Jerome thought it was beneath the dignity of God to concern Himself with such base questions as how many fleas are born or die every moment), if God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know. But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection. Why?
Looking first at what Dr. Attenton dismisses, i.e., “the highly implausible idea that God knows all facts in the universe, no matter how trivial or useless,” one needs to ask why this should be thought to be implausible. Other than noting that St. Jerome thought that God would not bother with certain trivial knowledge, Dr. Attenton provides no evidence or even argument for his dismissal.

To a certain extent, he probably didn’t believe it was necessary to present any evidence because he thought of “implausible” by the part of the definition for that word that reads, “failing to convince.” But if he was asserting through his dismissal that it doesn’t make sense to believe God could know all facts in the universe, then the problem isn’t with God, it’s with Dr. Attenton’s anemic concept of God – a flaw that is amplified in what follows.

He then continues that if God really knows all things, then he must know what we know. If he knows what we know, then he is not perfect. His syllogism goes something like this:
Premise 1: The Christian concept of God is that He is both all-knowing and without sin (i.e., perfect)
Premise 2: If God is all-knowing then He must know at least as much as humans know.
Premise 3: Humans know sin.
Premise 4: If humans know sin, then God must know sin.
Premise 5: If God knows sin, then He is not perfect.
Conclusion: God cannot be both all-knowing and perfect.
Once this argument is laid out in syllogistic form, it is easy to recongize that the problem here is one of equivocation. What exactly is meant by the word “know”? Dr. Attenton seems to believe that it is necessary to experience some things in order to know them. Dr. Attenton’s next paragraph makes this clear.
There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God. As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect. (Emphasis added.)
But is this necessarily true? Does God need to experience lust or experience envy to “know” lust or envy? Certainly, it seems as if it makes sense that lust is a feeling. Can one “know” a feeling without experiencing it?

To me, this makes only superficial sense, but explaining why it fails is more difficult. In fact, I see others responding to Dr. Attenton’s accusation with different answers about the nature of omniscience, and each takes a little different spin on the answer. Dr. William Lane Craig makes the point that one need not experience a sin to know a sin in his brief response to Dr. Attenton, and does so based on a distinction between propositional knowledge and non-propositional knowledge. Dr. Craig contends that God’s omniscience is related to propositional knowledge only.
Atterton has ignored the distinction between propositional knowledge and non-propositional knowledge. Omniscience is defined in terms of propositional knowledge: Any person S is omniscient if and only if for any proposition p, if p is true, then S knows that p and does not believe not-p. In other words, omniscience is knowledge of only and all truths. An omniscient being may or may not have certain non-propositional knowledge as well. God knows propositions like “Being human feels fallible,” “Being human feels sinful,” etc. Atterton gives no example of any truth such that we cannot truly say, “God knows that ___,” where the blank is filled by a true proposition.”
While I love and respect Dr. Craig, and while I think that his answer is partially correct, I don’t think that this is an adequate response. It is not that I disagree with his statement that God, being omniscient, has knowledge of only and all truths, but I think that omniscience spreads wider than that. Over at ApologeticsMadeSimple.com, Jason L. Peterson gives a fuller explanation of omniscience in writing his brief response to Dr. Attenton’s article.
Omniscience is the possession of all truths. God, being eternal, has always been omniscient. This means that God knows the state of affairs of his creation in total. Because he knew these things prior to their happening within the context of temporality, God’s knowledge is a priori (possessed prior to experience). Since God already knows all things, he does not learn anything new. If he does not learn anything new, it follows that none of God’s knowledge is a posteriori (that is, from experience). Since God does not know anything by experience, God’s knowledge of such things as lust are not derived from experience, and therefore, God does not have to engage in those sins to know about lust and other sin.
Peterson makes an excellent point: God does not need to experience something to “know” it because God’s knowledge is based on his having the knowledge both prior to and independent of experience. God knows what sin is better than we do, but not on the basis of having experienced it; His is a greater, more complete knowledge which does not require experiencing a thing to know it. Peterson continues:
Atteron’s objection assumes a condition of God’s knowledge that is simply not Biblical, and the notion that any knowledge can come from experience (in an empirical sense) has not been demonstrated even since the beginning of the history of philosophy (That is, starting with Thales). If Atterton wishes to claim that knowledge can be derived via sensory experience, he will have to demonstrate his claim. Ironically, given Atteron’s logic, the only way to know if an omnipotent being knows things by experience is to for him to be omnipotent himself, for Atterton claims that things must be known by experience.
Perhaps the best response to Dr. Attenton comes from another Ph.D. in philosophy, Dr. J. Brian Huffling, Director of the Ph.D. Program and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Southern Evangelical Seminary. In his article entitled "Responding to NY Times Article Saying the Concept of God is Incoherent", Dr. Huffling first notes that Dr. Attenton basically implies that God knows things the way we know them, i.e., passively through experience. But that is not the way Christians have historically reasoned that God knows the world.

Dr. Huffling continues:
Historically, classical theism (that teaches that God is all-knowing, powerful, etc.) has taught that God is impassible and yet all-knowing, infinite, and perfect. This means that God is not affected in any way, does not learn, for an infinite amount of knowledge cannot be added to, and he cannot gain in perfection.

It also means that God is not passive in his knowledge. As Aquinas teaches in Summa Theologiae part 1 question 14, God’s knowledge is not like ours. And why should it be, he’s not a limited, passible, changeable, material, temporal, finite, contingent human. Rather, he is the unlimited, impassible, unchangeable, immaterial, eternal, infinite, necessary Creator. How this detail escapes Atterton and others who over anthropomorphize God is nothing short of perplexing.

Rather than God’s knowledge being reactive and passive like ours, it is active and causative. We know imperfectly and through the effects of nature. God knows perfectly; not through effects, but through the cause of those effects. Such is surely a more perfect and complete knowledge. God does not have to “look at” something to know it as if the thing exists apart from God’s knowledge or sustaining power. God actively causes all things to exist and sustains those things for as long as they exist. So, contrary to Atterton and Saint Jerome, God not only has knowledge of seemingly trivial things like fleas, God upholds those fleas in existence as their cause of being. They as contingent being cannot account even for their own present existence without an efficient cause. God thus knows all of the universe simply by knowing himself as their cause.
Our old friends at CARM.org, note more about the type of knowledge described by Dr. Huffling in an article entitled, “Peter Atterton, the New York Times, and the coherence of God” by Luke Wayne, as follows:
But let's say there is some kind of actual knowledge about my own thoughts and feelings that I do gain when I commit sins of the heart. So what? God is not sinful, but He knows our sin better than we do. He knows what is within a man, (John 2:25). He looks at the heart, (1 Samuel 16:7). Our desires are not hidden from Him. (Psalm 38:9). He discloses our motives, (1 Corinthians 4:5). All our thoughts and feelings are known to God before we think or feel them, and none of our intentions escape His notice. Indeed, God knows my heart even as I cannot know it myself! (Jeremiah 17:9-10). God is not a mere man who must learn by experience. He does not need to sin to know sin, for He knows my sin. Whatever I may think or feel when I sin that constitutes any sort of personal "knowledge," God knows it. He sees clearly into the depths of my soul. Do I really "know" what it is like for me to lust? Fine, then God knows what it is like for me to lust too! Do I know what it would be like for God to lust? No, not only because I do not know the mind of God, but even more because the very idea is nonsense! So God need not "know" what it is like for God to lust either! God doesn't lack such knowledge. There is no such knowledge because it is contrary to the very nature of God to lust. So there is no possible knowledge that God does not possess.
Dr. Huffling’s explanation of God’s omniscience is a beautiful, complete and absolute rebuke of Dr. Attenton’s alleged incoherence. God does not need to experience something the way we do to know something more fully and completely than we do through our experiences. Ultimately, Dr. Attenton’s god is too small for the God of the Bible who “is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:7)

Comments

im-skeptical said…
All our thoughts and feelings are known to God before we think or feel them, and none of our intentions escape His notice.

- A blind person may know all about the sensation of redness, but without having actually experienced the sensation of redness, that person doesn't know what it's like to have that experience. This would apply to God, as well, since God has no physical body (or eyes) and can't actually experience the same physical sensations that humans do. Therefore, God can't possibly know all the things that we know. As for sinfulness, God certainly doesn't know what it's like to be sinful. You can't just assert that God knows all our feelings, and then claim you've answered the argument in a coherent way. Your argument fails miserably.

Which brings up another issue: You castigate Attenton for not providing evidence, when what he did was to make a logical argument. But you seem to have no problem asserting that God knows all our feelings, despite the logical incoherence of such an assertion. So where's your evidence for that assertion?
Skepie you are banned, don't bother answering it will be zapped,I a going to answer this argument,don't bother responding. God experienced being human. Moreover, God can know or feelings and through that understand our feelings. Jesus was a man so God knows what being human is liken

God doesn't know what it's like to sin but he doesn't have to. Knowing what it's like to be tempted is the point.
He knows what it's like to pay the penalty for sin.

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