A Case Against Omniscience: Fallibility

7. Objection: Performative Omniscience

Book cover: Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford

Objection 9: Human beings are infallible in the limited domain of believing that there are beliefs. There is no possible world in which beings believing in beliefs both exist and are wrong. This belief that there are beliefs is made true simply in virtue of performing the act of believing. Thus, this belief is infallible. In like fashion, it may be the case that an omniscient thinker's act of willing brings about certain truths that are immediately transparent to their knowledge in the very act of willing. This 'performative omniscient' thinker would be immune from error simply in virtue of its performative act of willing states of affairs into existence.

Reply: As illustrative as this analogy is with our inerrancy in believing that there are beliefs, I think this objection fails to put a dent in my argument against omniscience. I think this failure is for four reasons.

Firstly, the argument that a thinker's belief that it has a belief is infallible is persuasive in virtue of the recursive nature of the belief. That is, it's persuasive precisely because, in this case, there is a belief that there is a belief (which is itself). The truths emanating from the 'performative omniscient' thinker's will, on the other hand, lacks this feature of recursivity. This lack results from our ability to pull apart the notions of performance creating reality and epistemic justification.

Let me illustrate what I mean. We have many instances in our own lives of the former notion of performativity. For example:

Saying 'I promise to marry you' creates a moral and legal obligation.

Saying 'I declare this building opened' creates a newly commissioned building.

But note that in these cases, the belief that what was created was really created is always open to doubt, even by the agent doing the performance. The person making the promise, for example, can later doubt whether they ever made that promise and can even contest it in a court of law. The person commissioning the new building may later wonder whether they were dreaming. The key point here is that even in those cases in which a performance does create the reality, propositions describing the new reality are never immune from doubt, even by the agent.

Now, it may be thought that such a 'performative omniscient' thinker could never be in such position of doubt; that its performative act of willing guarantees the truth of the object of their will. This brings me to my second reason for rejecting the analogy with our inerrant beliefs about belief. Consider the possibility that this 'performative omniscient' thinker willingly created an epistemic prison for itself in its performative act. Perhaps it willingly made itself susceptible to deception by Descartes' demon or from psychotic delusions. How would it now know infallibly that it was not now in that self-imprisoned state?

We see examples of this performative limitation of an agent's own capacity in our own experience. For example, a judge saying, 'I recuse myself from judging this case', limits their capacity in virtue of this performative utterance. Another example is an employee saying, 'I resign, effective immediately'. With this utterance, this person willingly loses all of the rights and authorities vested in their previous position. If a mere human being can limit their own capacity via a performative act, then there seems no impediment to a more powerful and knowledgeable 'performative omniscient' thinker doing the same. And if that is the case, then such a powerful and knowledgeable thinker could be trapped in their own epistemic prison without ever knowing they put themself in that prison—all the while remaining steadfast in their (untrue) conviction that they are omniscient. So, it seems clear that even a 'performative omniscient' thinker cannot escape skeptical scenarios that rationally cast doubt on their supposed omniscience.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

My third response to this objection is to question the inerrancy assumption another way. The objector seeks to guarantee inerrancy of belief for the 'performative omniscient' thinker by pointing out that this thinker simply believes things into existence. The objector is asking us to take an external perspective, suggesting we imagine for a moment that such a thinker exists. Then, in that possible world (which may be actual), that thinker can't be in error. So, it's possible, the objector concludes, that such a thinker exists.

However, there is also an internal perspective that the objector ignores; the perspective of the believing thinker. Here, I invite you to look internally into that thinker's reasoning process. It thinks that it is a 'performative omniscient' thinker. However, being the cognitively competent thinker that it is, it recognizes that if its belief that it is such a thinker is to count as 'knowledge' and not simply as mere belief, then it needs a water-tight reason for believing that it is such a thinker. Otherwise, if it believes regardless, it is in a state of epistemic arrogance.

Cognitive competence comes with a price tag. Part of that price to be paid is the humility in recognizing that one's claim to 'knowledge' requires the elimination of reasonable doubt. And that includes the discounting of the possibility that one is a brain in a vat or is being deluded by Descartes' demon or is suffering psychotic delusions of grandeur or being influenced by some other such epistemic distortion. As with any cognitively competent thinker, the 'performative omniscient' thinker likewise recognizes that it is possible for its beliefs to be distorted in any number of ways. It recognizes that not being able to stand outside its own cognitive structures to look into itself, it cannot be certain infallibly that it is not in such a compromised situation.

Looking at humans on earth, such a 'performative omniscient' thinker gets a vivid reminder of how other cognitively competent thinkers are prone to error in virtue of their inability to step outside their own inner belief systems. It sees many examples of humans on earth convincing themselves that they are God. So, even if such a thinker were performatively omniscient, given their cognitive competence, we must conclude that even it must necessarily admit that it does not know whether it is truly omniscient.

Given the above, it seems that even a 'performative omniscient' thinker cannot know infallibly the truth value of a proposition ascribing performative omniscience to itself. If it cannot know infallibly the truth value of such a proposition, then, ipso facto, it cannot be omniscient.

My fourth and final response to this objection is that the idea of the possibility of there being a 'performative omniscient' thinker suffers from incoherence. Being omniscient, this thinker knows the truth of the following two facts:

(1) I [a 'performative omniscient' thinker] exist.

(2) A 'performative omniscient' thinker exists.

The problem is this. If belief in facts known by the 'performative omniscient' thinker are guaranteed inerrancy by those facts being willed into existence, then the same must apply to the above two facts if they are to be believed infallibly. In that case, then, we must infer that the 'performative omniscient' thinker brought about its own existence by willing itself into existence. However, this is contrary to the classical theist's conception of God. Such self-creation also makes no sense for the same reason that classical theists object to naturalism: that something cannot bring itself into being as that entails that the thing existed prior to being brought into existence.

Copyright © 2022

You will be interested in
Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini
Book cover: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
Book cover: Philosophy of Mind by Jaegwon Kim
Book cover: A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz
Book cover: Evil and the God of Love by John Hick
Book cover: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume

Share This

  • twitter
  • facebook
  • linkedin
  • googleplus
  • gmail
  • delicious
  • reddit
  • digg
  • newsvine
  • posterous
  • friendfeed
  • googlebookmarks
  • yahoobookmarks
  • yahoobuzz
  • orkut
  • stumbleupon
  • diigo
  • mixx
  • technorati
  • netvibes
  • myspace
  • slashdot
  • blogger
  • tumblr
  • email
Short URL: