Does God Know Everything? - Peter van Inwagen

Peter van Inwagen - Philosophy

Peter van Inwagen

Peter van Inwagen is an American analytic philosopher and the John Cardinal O'Hara Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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Peter
van Inwagen

Philosopher, Notre Dame

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Peter, those who would have a classical belief in theism, so-called perfect being theology, would point to omniscience, God knowing everything, as one of the core attributes that God must have in order to be God that there be nothing greater than such a being. To you, what does it mean for God to be omniscient?

Peter van Inwagen:

I think it's fairly easy to say what omniscience means, which is not to say that there aren't philosophical problems about whether God has the attribute of omniscience. Omniscience is simply the, these, this, that for every truth, God knows that truth. Of course, neither God, nor anybody else, can know something that's false. Knowledge implies truth. But most of us, for most of us, there are true things we don't know. But not for God. He just, if it's true, he knows it. That's om, omniscience. Of course, there remain, there remains room for disagreement about what the class of truths is.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Is there a difference between God knowing infinite numbers of things and God knowing everything? It would seem there's a huge difference.

Peter van Inwagen:

Oh well, of course. I mean, uh, you could perhaps imagine an infinitely long line of rocks and some being might know what each rock weighed, but not know anything else. That would be knowing an infinite number of things, but not knowing everything.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

One of the areas that philosophers have come up with to, to solve a thorny problem of how God could know the future, and at the same time, allowed real human freedom to exist as a so-called middle knowledge, called Molinism, based on Molina who came up with this idea, and that is that God can, can know before the creation what every free creature would do, freely, fully freely, in any circumstance. And therefore, God in the creative act, would pick just that world that God wanted, but that every creature is freely acting, but God, from before creation, knows exactly what's going to happen.

Peter van Inwagen:

Yes. And of course, this is exactly the knowledge that an omniscient being would have if there are such truths. Let's, but let's look at it at a smaller scale. I mean let's just consider say, God and Eve. Suppose that God wanted Eve freely to eat the apple, to put this whole story into motion, as it were. But he didn't want to cause her to eat the apple. Thomas Aquinas said God freely caused Eve freely to eat the apple. Molina would have said was self-contradictory, it must have done some other way. So, but God looks at Eve and the apple, and he sees that there are these true counterfactual conditionals about what she would freely do in certain circumstances. One of them perhaps is if she's exactly at this position, angle from the tree and the clouds look that way, and so there will be some conditions under which she will freely choose to eat the apple. So, he simply ensures that she's in those conditions, and then she freely eats the apple. He didn't force her to. She did it freely. I mean, he did, he did take some things out of her choice. He did cause her to be in that, in those circumstances, but he did not cause her or make her to eat the apple. Well of course, if that story is true, then God can providentially govern the free actions of creatures, which is a nice feature for a theology to have, according to most theologians. But of course, it does depend on God having this kind of knowledge. I won't go into why it's called middle knowledge, but it is, what middle knowledge is, is knowledge of counterfactual conditionals about the free actions of creatures. That is, knowing what this creature would do freely in those circumstances, if the creature were in those circumstances. And of course, if God is omniscient, and there are such truths, then of course God, that omniscient god will know such truths.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And therefore, God could utilize that to create a world precisely, exactly 100% sure of what God wants.

Peter van Inwagen:

Exactly. Without interfering with free will.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right.

Peter van Inwagen:

Now both Aquinas and Molina believed that there were true counterfactuals about what, if for any circumstance, what a creature with free will would do if faced with a certain choice in that particular circumstance. It's just that Aquinas thought God decreed the truth of these counterfactuals. He said, let it be the case that if a creature were in this circumstance, that creature would freely do so and so. And Molina thought no, it's not possible to decree those. Because then you could decree that both the counterfactuals, decree that the creature was in those circumstances, and thus decree what the creature would freely do, which is contradictory. And Aquinas, well, having lived many years before, he couldn't reply, but he would have replied not so; God can freely decree. That's just, he freely, he decrees everything, including what creatures freely do. Molina said that's impossible. Many years later, the Jesuits and the Dominicans got in a terrible fight. The pope had to, ordered them to stop accusing each other of heresy on this matter. But they agreed that there were these true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, and of course God, being omniscient, knew them. Then if Molina just said well, God just finds himself with these. You know, that in each possible world, there are different ones because they're contingent propositions. God, but of course being omniscient, he knows which ones in the actual world are true. Another possibility, of course, and it's certainly the one I favor, is that an omniscient being doesn't know these truths because there are no such truths to be known. There are no truths about what a free being would do if offered a free choice between two alternatives in circumstances that are never going to arise.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And why is there not a truth of, now, of that matter?

Peter van Inwagen:

Well, I mean suppose that I am put, consider a situation that I'm not going to be in, in which a student, say, offers me one million dollars to raise her grade from a B to an A in my course, and under circumstances where I, rightly or wrongly, am convinced there's absolutely no chance of this coming out; suppose that in that circumstance I would have a free choice, that is, and free will is incompatible with both, everybody here is assuming that free will is incompatible with causal determinism. So, it must be an undetermined choice. What would I do in those circumstances, if it was a free choice? Why does there have to be any truth about what I would do? If, if it's true that what I would do is freely accept the bribe, then it must be that somehow the circumstance in which I'm offered the bribe and accept it is, in some way, closer to reality than one in which I'm offered the bribe and don't accept it, at least that's how I'd understand counterfactual conditionals. But if it's just undetermined; if the antecedent, if my being in those circumstances and the offer, those are the same, and then there's simply an indeterministic fork in the world, how can one fork be closer to reality than the other fork? There doesn't, sometimes people call this the grounding problem in this area, or at least this is my own statement of what people call the grounding problem, is there's just no basis in reality for the truth of one of those counterfactual conditionals.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And therefore, it doesn't impinge on God's omniscience not to know that these so-called counterfactuals of freedom of middle knowledge.

Peter van Inwagen:

Yes. Right, because according to the standard logic of counterfactuals that we have from David Lewis, the counterfactual, if I were freely offered the bribe, I would take it. If, or if I were offered the bribe, I would freely take it, and if I were offered the bribe, I would freely reject it, are both false. They can both be false. God, being omniscient, knows that. He knows that each one of them is false. He knows that also, that one of them would be true, if the antecedent were true, if those circumstances actually arose, but neither of them has the property being the one that would be true. He knows that. He knows everything there is to know in this circumstance. So, this is perhaps unlike what some people, including myself, would say about God in the future, where there is something to know and God can't know it. This is a much more comfortable situation for me, and that's God's omniscience is not threatened simply because there's no such thing for him to know.