Sunday, May 16, 2004


On God's omniscience

Probably the most frequently raised objection to God's omniscience is, if God is omniscient, is the future determined and are human beings, therefore, not free? Another way to state this is, does an omniscient God cause our actions?

Aquinas maintains that God has knowledge, not because his effects suggest that their cause is intelligent; rather, because God is not material.

It is important here to distinguish between:
  • Knowledge in people; in people, mind has two powers:
    • intellectus agens
      The intellectus agens abstracts from sense experience of particular things to form universal ideas.
    • intellectus possibilis
      This is the storehouse of those ideas once formed.
    An obvious question is why there must be an intellectus agens. This is because the material world is, of itself, not intelligible, so we need an ability to grasp what the senses deliver. In other words, forms existing in matter are not thinkable without something (the intellectus agens) that abstracts ideas from their material conditions. Now, it is form which is the real object of human knowledge. The form of a dog exists individualized and materialized in a real dog; in this case, it has esse naturale. But it exists universal and immaterial in the mind; in this case, it has esse intentionale. This is where knowledge comes: when the form of a material thing comes to have esse intentionale as opposed to esse naturale.
  • Divine knowledge; it is clear then that knowing is existence unlimited by matter, because it involves the receiving of forms immaterialy. Therefore, God has infinite knowledge: being completed unrestricted materially, God will be completely unrestricted when it comes to knowledge.
Now, what is it that God knows?
  • God knows himself. God has no accidents and is identical with his nature; so all that is in God, is God. Now, knowledge is in God, as we have said. So this knowledge is God. Or, God and his knowledge are the same. In people, on the other hand, subject and object of knowledge are distinct (people can learn or become ignorant). Important: since God knows supremely, he does not proceed from ignorance to knowledge: God sees everything at once and not successively.
  • God knows creatures through his essence. If God has self-knowledge, he knows perfectly his powers. Now the power of a thing cannot be known perfectly unless the objects to which the power extends are known. Hence, since the divine being extends to other things by being the first cause which produces all beings, God must know things other than himself.
  • God knows individuals. God knows the differences between things in the world, because knowing generically and not specifically is to know imperfectly.
  • God knows future contingents. This is because he changelessly knows himself as the Maker and sustainer of his creatures. Now, how can we reconcile this with free will? The key of Aquinas' answer is that God must be wholly outside the order of time. God sees everything as it is in itself, not as if it were future relative to his view. For example: I know that you are talking to me now. It does not follow from the fact that I know this that your talking to me is necessitated. So God knows all events in a way similar to the knowledge (which is certain) of facts that happen before us in the present (although for us events succeed each other in time).
  • God's knowledge is the cause of creatures. This is clearly because there is no potentiality in God, so his knowledge cannot be dependent on creatures, and God is the first cause of things being changed.
Hughes argues though that this view of God's knowledge causes events in the universe, which leads to determinism. So he says that God's knowledge is not causal (it depends on what happens in the universe), which is against the thomistic definition of a perfect God. It seems to me that Aquinas tries to avoid exactly Hughes' argument. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that Hughes is using categories that apply to a time-bound entity (future knowledge), while Aquinas says (and this is the key to his argument) that God is timeless.

Pike, on the other hand, thinks of an everlasting (= in time) God. But in this case (not in Aquinas') an omniscient God is a threat to free will. If God is everlasting but does not know the future, this preserves human freedom but is a radical change from the traditional concept of God's omniscience.

Vardy, indeed, considers two possibilities for what regards freedom:
  • liberty of indifference, that is, genuine freedom: God cannot know our future choices, but he is omniscient in the sense that he knows everything which is logically possibile to know (Swinburne).
  • liberty of spontaneity, that is, we are free to do whatever we wish, but what we actually wish is determined by our nature, background and education. So God could know our future free actions as these would be determined by our nature.

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