This is the the thirty-fourth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I started a series within the series on philosophical theology, beginning with omnipotence and possibility. Now we turn to the first of two posts related to omniscience.
We might define omniscience in a similar way to how we initially defined omnipotence. We could say that it means knowing everything. That will not do, because omniscience cannot mean knowing things that are false. Omniscient beings could only know what is true. But maybe omniscience means knowing every truth. Some will want to retain that definition, while others will modify it further. One issue that will affect this is as follows.
Does God know what time it is? If God is in time, then hardly anyone thinks there will be a problem with thinking God knows what time it is. But some people think of God as outside time. In the next post on omniscience and freedom I'll look at one reason some people are attracted to that ideal (some think it solves problems about how God knows what's future to us). Another reason reason is that some simply view temporality as a limitation that a perfect being would not have. A third reason sometimes comes up in relation the cosmological argument, although it wasn't important to the version of that argument that I discussed earlier in this series of posts. Some people think there could not have been an infinite past, because an actual infinite is impossible. We could never have reached the present, because that would have involved having counted to infinity, which is impossible. Not everyone agrees with this line of argument, but those who do had better not think of God as experiencing time the way we do. If they did, then God would have had to have existed for an actual infinite length of time. Whatever reasons some might have, it is by far the dominant view within theism historically speaking, even if most contemporary theistic philosophers have abandoned it.
So can an atemporal God know what time it is? If not, is that a problem for omniscience?
That depends on the nature of time itself. Philosophers divide theories of time into what have not very informatively been called the A-theory and the B-theory. On an A-theory of time, we could list all the facts about what takes place across history. Once we've done that there would still be at least one fact that we haven't specified yet. That would be the fact about which of the moments in time throughout that timeline is the current one. In other words, could we know all those facts without knowing which of those times is the present one? If so, then this special now is a further fact beyond the facts about what events take place when.
On a B-theory of time, time is enough like space that there is no such further fact about which time is now. If we listed all the facts about the history of the world, including all the facts about the future, we would then know exactly when each event takes place. Is there a further fact about what time it is now? Most philosophers say no. They think we've got all the facts about time once we know when each event takes place. Whichever time we call now is just the one we're at, just as whichever place we call here is the one we're at.
Let's think a little further about the comparison between time and space. Could know where everything is and yet not know where they are in the grand scheme of things? Someone could know which places everything takes place at without placing themselves in any of those places and then calling it “here”. (Technically speaking, if you knew enough about yourself you could figure out where you are just from the description of each thing and what you know about yourself, but I'm ignoring that complication here. There are ways to get around this, but it gets technically messy, and I'd rather keep it simple for the sake of greater clarity.)
What both the A-view of time and the B-view of time agree on is that there is no special place called here. Here is wherever you are, but there is no special here independent of the person speaking or thinking of something as here. It does not have a special mode of existence, as if only here is real and other places are not. Where here is is relative to the individual. Wherever someone is, they will call that place “here”. It does not say something special about the place itself to call it “here”.
Now consider a similar view about time. If time is like space in this way, then there is nothing special about calling a time “now”. All it means is that it is the time you are currently at. At another time, you would call a different time “now”. It does not mean this time has a special feature that other times do not have, as if only this one is real in some sense. A-views of time do take there to be some special fact about its being now in a way not analogous to the spatial case of its being here. B-views treat time and space as similar in this respect such that there is nothing special about now any more than there is with here.
So the B-view, in short, says that knowing all the facts about which things take place when is all you need to know which time is now for each being in time. There is no separate fact about when now is absolutely. Now is just when each being exists, in the same way here is where each being is without there being an absolute here.
According to this view, God can know all those facts about when things take place. God would know that my writing of these notes takes place now in the sense that God knows what time I am writing the notes. God would not know some special additional fact about which time is now, as if that means there is an absolute time that is now. God knows which things come before or after others, and those facts are the only facts to know about time. If you say, “Yes, but does God know what time it is now?” you are not asking anything further. There is no further fact about what time it is now for God to know. Therefore, God can know all the true things about time without knowing what time it is now in any further sense, and God’s omniscience is retained.
So a traditional view of omniscience can be retained if God is in time or if time is sufficiently like space, as the B-view of time has it. There is one further view of defending omniscience against this objection, even if God is atemporal. But it involves a slight revision of what you might have thought omniscience involves. This third view, unwilling to give up an A-view of time or God's atemporality, simply says that God doesn't know what time it is. So how is that a way to retain omniscience?
Recall from the last post how omnipotence has traditionally been defended from objections like the rock problem. Omnipotence is not the ability to do anything but rather the ability to do anything possible. Similarly, perhaps omniscience is not knowing all truths but simply knowing all truths that are possible to be known. This revised definition of omniscience plays a role in one response to the foreknowledge and freedom issue that my next post will deal with, but some philosophers have held that it helps here too. If God is atemporal, and it is impossible for an atemporal being to know what time it is, then God might still know everything that it's possible for God to know. So this isn't a limitation of God's knowledge beyond simply being a logical limitation, and logical limitations aren't real limitations, as the argument in the last post shows.
On this view, an atemporal God would not know what time it is, and thus God would not know something that is nonetheless true. People who hold this view do ultimately accept that there are true things that God does not know. But they do not consider this to be a problem for omniscience. Some things are not knowable by an atemporal being, and what time it is would be an example of those. It is not a problem for omniscience, on this view, if God does not know which time is now. God knows all the important facts, such as which things occur when. That God does not know the additional fact of when it is now is just a result of atemporality. It is no problem that a perfectly good being cannot do wrong. It is similarly no problem that an atemporal being does not know what time is now.
One difficulty with this view is that it doesn't seem exactly analogous to the omnipotence issue. It's one thing for an omnipotent being to be unable to cause contradictions to be true. It's not as if contradictions are possible to begin with. But it's quite another for a divine being not to know something that is not just in principle knowable but is in fact known by lots of people all the time. That does strike me as a real limitation. If atemporality has that result, then atemporality seems to be a limitation in addition to being a perfection. Accepting this way out of the difficulty does seem to be more problematic than doing the similar thing with omnipotence.
So there are three views available to respond to this problem while accepting omniscience. Each has to deny something that you might initially have thought true.
1. You could deny God’s atemporality. This has several potential disadvantages, depending on how strong or relevant the considerations often given for God's atemporality really are. It means denying the traditional theistic picture of God’s relation to time. Some think it limits God in a way that a perfect being wouldn't be limited. It means sacrificing whatever atemporality will help with the foreknowledge problem of the next post. Finally, it means either admitting that God came into existence or thinking of God as having existed for an infinite time in the past, which in turn requires accepting an actual infinite, which many think is impossible.
2. You could retain atemporality and the A-view of time, but it means revising the original notion that omniscience means knowing every truth. It has to accept that there are some true things that God does not know, and these aren't just things that are impossible to know in principle. They're just things that are impossible for God to know, which strikes many as admitting to a real limitation.
3. You could instead deny that time is different from space by accepting the B-view of time. The A-view is the commonsense view, since time does not seem like space, so this sacrifices a view that seems true to many people. I do think it's worth keeping in mind that the B-view is very much the consensus view among philosophers who work in this area of metaphysics. Even though most philosophers take this option, most theistic philosophers do not like this idea as much as philosophers in general do. I'm not sure why that is so, however.
Any view on this subject seems to have to deny either an omniscient God or one of those things that a theist might originally have thought to be true of God. Different theists have taken different options in the list, but as far as I know no one has come up with a solution besides the ones I've listed.
As I've already mentioned several times, the next post will look at the implications of omniscience for the problem of God's foreknowledge and human freedom.