Omniscience

|
We like to put ourselves in strange predicaments. For instance, orthodox doctrine insists that God is omniscient, but that He also allows for free agents (us). I used to stay up at night wondering how to resolve this paradox. My best stab at it was the idea that God sees all possible threads in the weaving of reality, but doesn't (or refuses to) know which thread we will actually choose. Though I haven't read it myself, I think this is the premise of the book God of the Possible.

After attempting to describe this idea to my friend Aaron Milstead, he asked me how this is any different than holding a die and not casting it. You know how many sides there are on the die, but you're not sure which side is going to be facing up in the end. For some reason, that deflated the emotional appeal of the "every thread in a carpet" analogy. How is knowing that there are six sides on a die omniscience?

Here is where I'd like to make a distinction in terms. I think knowing all sides of a die is omniscience. Knowing which side will land facing up every time, however, would be more like omniprescience, or foreknowledge of all things.

To limit omniscience even further, as Kevin West suggested today, perhaps God only knows all that is possible to know. It is impossible, for instance, to have foreknowledge of the actions of a being with free agency.

If God is the universe, as I'm inclined to believe given my monist tendencies, and the universe is indeterminate on the the most fundamental level (see last post), then perhaps the universe does have free will. Perhaps the universe, as a system that encompasses all things, has consciousness.

Leaves in the wind
It would be like the wind blowing through the leaves of a thousand trees: each leaf adds its own whisper to the collective sigh, and the sigh itself means something.

12 comments:

Chrissy said...

Yes, the carpet analogy is a bit more poetic. But as far as the dice goes, 6 possibilities isn't a lot. You know you're not going to land on a twenty-seven, and being able to rule out every possibility outside of six is still pretty powerful.

A friend and I used to have a conversation about a universal consciousness. We were about 17 at the time and cliche as hell, but something he said has always stuck with me. I referred to a tree as having an unconscious energy, and he said that trees weren't unconscious - they just had a different kind of consciousness. Okay, so it sounded a lot more profound at 17, but still - I like it, even after all these years.

Bryan Tarpley said...

yes, i think you're right about all life having a consciousness. i think consciousness at some low level helps account for things like "the missing link" in evolutionary theory. i think life, on some level, chooses to evolve in a way that is much more elegant and fast than random mutation and natural selection allow for.

Becky said...

How do we know that God doesn't have "omniprescience"? Could not God perhaps know all even if he chooses not to exercise control over all?

I also wonder about time...and wonder if everything hasn't already happened or is even happening at the same time. Still, I like the idea of us being able to surprise God like he is always surprising us.

Bryan Tarpley said...

the idea that God knows all has ramifications that tend to lead toward calvinism. it de-emphasizes man's responsibility for the outcome of our world. it makes our highest priority the glorification of God rather than desperately trying to make the planet a better place. plus, as westerners, we prefer to think we are in control of our individual destinies.

i think omniscience is a political/doctrinal pivot point. there's no way to know whether God knows. the argument is about us more than it's about God.

Nick said...

How would God's *refusal* of foreknowledge solve the problem of free will? Wouldn't that simply mean that fate exists but is extrinsic to God's will?

P.S. Bryan you really really really ought to read the Philip Dick books I lent you if you care about these questions.

Bryan Tarpley said...

Nick,

Thanks for weighing in. And yes, I need to read Dick.

I don't know of any major world religions in which there are things extrinsic to God. In fact, I think that is precisely the distinction between God and god.

By insisting that the universe is fundamentally indeterminate, it releases everything from the causal bounds of fate. That isn't to say that there's no such thing as causality. It's just that causality is a little more indirect; instead of action->reaction, it's action->probability->reaction. We can affect the probability that a certain effect will occur, but we cannot ever guarantee it.

The effect of this kind of indeterminacy and limited omniscience is that it makes the stakes much higher for us; it makes social action much more urgent. To a large extent, we're steering our own boat, this wasn't some grand chaos theory experiment with predictable results.

Plus, limited omniscience also lets God off the hook for some nasty things, and also explains why (if you believe, on some level, in the Bible) God gets so angry when we start ruining relationships with each other.

Nick said...

Zurvanism, perhaps?
I'm not sure that it's possible for humans to discuss "knowledge" in a non-anthropocentric manner. Same goes for benevolence and power, come to think of it.

Greg McKinzie said...

What does it mean to say that God is the universe?

Nick said...

I have to say I find ideas from "Open Theism" like the "The God of the Possible" a bit problematic. When we try to reconcile God with systems that are coherent within a finite universe, we reduce Him, in a sense, to a "God of Gaps."

Bryan Tarpley said...

arrg. i'd really like to jump in here but i've got to pack--eralda and i are heading to tempe, az tomorrow for a conference we're presenting at. hold all these thoughts/questions--i'll try to engage more on monday.

Bryan Tarpley said...

@nick re: zurvanism: nope. as far as i can tell, zurvanism implies one transcendent "father" who gives birth to twins, one which represents beneficence, the other malevolence. what i'm playing with more closely resembles (but differs significantly) theosophy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theosophy):

"everything, living or not, is put together from basic building blocks evolving towards consciousness."

and yes, i remember our 4:00AM debate about the nature of the universe, and how this kind of thinking doesn't sit well with your stomach ;)

Bryan Tarpley said...

@greg and others: i've tried to elaborate on "god is the unverse" here: http://thehopefulmidwife.blogspot.com/2009/03/what-am-i.html