A Case Against Omniscience: Fallibility

9. God's Knowledge Incomparable to Humans'

Book cover: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel

Objection 11: Your argument completely misses the mark because God's perfect knowledge is incomparable to our limited human knowledge.

Reply: This objection varies somewhat according to which aspect of 'knowing' the theist is claiming does not apply to God and that I have assumed applies in my argument. Whatever the particular claim, this genre of objection attempts to avoid consideration of the steps in my argument altogether. On this objection, God's knowledge is somehow special. The examples of this exceptionalism I will treat here are:

God is not a thinker when he knows.

God's knowledge does not consist of beliefs.

God's knowledge is not of propositions.

God's knowledge does not require justification.

God's knowledge does not require a good reason to believe.

Now, this claim is usually made in conjunction with some metaphysical claim about God that appears to ground the exception. Depending on the particular theist who is objecting, God is 'the ground of being', 'is being', 'is truth', 'is knowledge', 'is the ground of knowledge', 'is everything', 'is necessary', 'is maximally great', 'is eternal', 'is infinite', 'is immaterial' or 'is omnipotent'.

Now, my argument makes no statement about the truth or otherwise of any of these attributions of God. Theists disagree among themselves about which apply to God necessarily and about how each impacts logically on other claimed metaphysical attributes. Leaving that aside for the classical theists to dispute over, my argument focuses on one claim and one claim only: that God is omniscient. If it impossible for God to know all things, then all 'God' claims of the classical sort fail.

My response to the claim of exceptionalism about God's knowledge is that here classical theists are using the term 'knowledge' in a corrupted fashion, so divorced from accepted usage that it bears no resemblance to the meaning of 'knowledge'. One method we use to test the necessary aspects of the meaning of a word is by using counterposition. Imagine a person in a usual conversational setting saying any of the following:

'I know four is greater than two, but I don't think so.'

'I know I am taller than my sister, but I don't believe it.'

'I know that trees are plants, but I don't know that the proposition, "Trees are plants", is true.'

'I know that water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen, but I have no justification for saying that.'

'I know that Paris is the capital of France, but I have no good reason to believe it.'

Our first question to such a speaker is whether they are using the term 'think'/'believe'/'justification'/'proposition'/'good reason' in scare quotes; quoting someone else's use of that term (use–mention distinction). If they say 'no'; that they are using the term in its usual sense and that they are genuine in their assertion, then we are right to think that they misunderstand the meaning of the word and have not mastered its use in conversation. We are right to think that they are not a competent user as yet of that term. This demonstrates that for sentences such as, 'I know trees are plants', there is an inexorable semantic link between the term 'know' on the one hand and 'think', 'believe', 'proposition', 'justification' and 'good reason' on the other. To divorce these semantic connections is to misconstrue seriously the meaning of the word 'know'.

Book cover: Free Will by Sam Harris

Not only are these theists' use of the term 'know' when they apply it to God a corruption of ordinary usage, this mischaracterization is also not supported by the dominant theories of knowledge. I refer readers to Ichikawa and Steup's [2018] most up to date and authoritative review of the work in this field. Their review articulates how the most current theories in epistemology continue to maintain that to know that something is true is to, at the least, 'think' it true, to 'believe' it true, to be 'justified' or have a 'good reason' or a 'sufficient reason' to believe it true or to stand in the appropriate epistemic relation to what is known. Further, if a knower knows, for example, that Alyssa is a musician, then the knower's knowledge is of the truth of a 'proposition'. All of this is standard fare in the field of epistemology.

I also refer you to the definitions of 'know' given by the most authoritative dictionaries (e.g., Cambridge, Merriam-Webster, Collins). These define 'know' as a cognitive process in which a mind apprehends a fact or truth.

So, when the premises of my argument have the omniscient as a 'thinker' who knows a 'proposition' to be true on the basis of a 'justificatory reason for believing', then my use of the term 'know' faithfully represents the essential semantic aspects of the word. On the other hand, classical theists who reject one or more of these necessary aspects of 'knowing' are using the word in a way that is neither supported by common usage nor by expert analysis by professional epistemologists.

The classical theist may respond here that their usage is a defining characteristic of classical theism and that if I am to criticize classical theism, I need to do it on their terms. My response is that I and other critics are not obligated to go along with the classical theists 'bait and switch' here. My advice is that if classical theists wish to hang on to their claim that God is omniscient, that they use specially formulated terms specific to their purpose (e.g., use 'omnibient' in place of 'omniscient' and 'krow' in place of 'know'). In that way, the public, lay religious and other interested parties will not be misled into thinking that classical theists mean that God is really 'omniscient' and 'all-knowing'.

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