Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Omni-Characteristics of God (Part 3: Omniscience)

This will be my third post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
  1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
  2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
  3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
  4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
  5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
For my third post in this series, I continue with God's omniscience. The word omniscience comes from the Latin words "omnis" (all) and "scientia" (knowledge). God's omniscience is His quality of being all-knowing, i.e., God knows everything in both space and time. For me, it is the most challenging characteristic of God to understand. Even worse, God's omniscience is perhaps His most controversial aspect, since it seems to be in conflict with the idea of human free-will. Despite these issues, I believe God's omniscience to be vital in His relationship to His creation.

The reason I consider God's omniscience so problematic to understand is because it is virtually impossible for a finite human to relate to such a characteristic. The other three characteristics in the this series (omnibenevolence, omnipresence, and omnipotence) are easier to comprehend, even if unattainable for humans. Omnibenevolence is just unconditional love extended to all people, and most humans experience unconditional love through the parent-child relationship. Omnipotence, while far beyond human capability, is easy to imagine, and frequently bestowed upon literary, television, or film characters. Omnipresence is formidable, but still within the limits of comprehension. Omniscience, though, is downright inconceivable.

When you genuinely begin to ponder omniscience, the shear size of the information in the universe is overwhelming. Everything truly means everything- the actions and thoughts of all living beings down to the nerve impulses in their brains, the changing positions of all the stars in the planets in all the galaxies, the location of every single proton and electron...the list is practically infinite. My comparably small mind cannot even begin to fathom the sheer amount of information an omniscient being would have to know, let alone how all this knowledge is comprehended.

However, it is not this perplexity which makes God's omniscience so fascinating. It is how God's omniscience appears to clash with the concept of free-will. Before I begin to discuss this, I will state that I plan to argue this from premise that free-will is factual, because I believe it to be. Sometime later, I will post on exactly why I accept free-will over determinism.

The argument that free-will conflicts with God's omniscience generally takes this form: If God is all-knowing, He knows all of your future actions before you are even born. Therefore, you cannot change those actions, because that would violate God's omniscience, which is impossible. Therefore, you do not have free-will.

To be honest, I do not have a quick answer for this paradox. Many of them have been proposed, some of them philosophically complex. Personally, I believe, there are two main options: God has what philosophers call "middle knowledge" or that God has the potential to be omniscient, but He deliberately limits His omniscience in order to give His creation free-will.

Middle-Knowledge: To say that God has "middle-knowledge" means that God knows how an individual will act beforehand because of His knowledge of the individual, but the choice behind the action still belongs to the individual. When you know a person intimately (their previous actions, thoughts, biases, dreams, fears, needs, desires, etc) you can accurately know what action they will take. Even humans can do this with our close family and friends: we know them well enough that we can know how they will act in specific situations, but that does not mean their action was predestined. Because God knows us perfectly (i.e., He possess all knowledge about us, even what we keep secret from everyone else), it is possible He knows how we will react in all situations without affecting our free-will.

Deliberate Limitation: To say that God deliberately limits His omniscience means that God could selectively stop Himself from gaining certain bits of knowledge, even if He has the ability to do so. While God might know some future happenings (like, the next time Mt. Vesuvius will have a major eruption or the next star in the Milky Way galaxy to go supernova) he would stop himself from knowing future human actions (like whether I will murder somebody in the future or whether an individual will ever choose to believe in Him). In this situation, God would know everything accept the things that, if he knew them, would threaten our free will.

These are by no means the only explanations, but I personally believe they are the most reasonable. Nevertheless, I do not claim to have a specific answer to this question. The only answer I can give is "I don't know". What I do know is that, regardless of how God's omniscience functions, I believe God knows us better than any other person on Earth, including ourselves. It is this knowledge which allows God to be so forgiving to each of us. God is compassionate when we make mistakes and sin because He knows why we make them. He understands our pain, fear, and anger and the reasons we lash out at others. This does not mean he approves our actions or that remorse for the pain we cause is unnecessary. What is does mean is that, no matter how badly we screw up, God is still there for us, God still forgives us, and God still loves us.

1 comment:

  1. I lean more towards the concept that God has knowledge of all possible/probable actions. Not only does this keep the omniscience of God intact without some sort of limitations it sounds as mind-blowing as the multiverse theory. Or maybe I've been watching too much Fringe.