Monday, May 01, 2006

On the Possibility of an Omniscient Being

Is it possible for there to be an omniscient being? Patrick Grim doesn't think so. Before looking at his arguments directly (which I'll save for a later post), I think it would be helpful to take a step back and reflect a bit on what omniscience could be.

First, omniscience is supposed to be a kind of upper limit case of knowledge and understanding. The implication is that knowledge is something that can come in varying degrees. Off the top of my head, there seem to be at least five dimensions along which knowledge can vary:
  1. Breadth: One can know more or less. When we learn, our knowledge grows in extent. When we forget, our knowledge lessens in extent.
  2. Depth: We can understand something more or less well. In a glance, a chessmaster understands more about the position on the chess board than a novice grasps after studying the position minutely for half an hour. A measure of depth is the ability to appreciate the logical consequences of what one knows. One who is adept at math sees the implications of theorem; one who is just beginning doesn't.
  3. Security: We can be more or less justified in our knowledge. Some knowledge is very secure (e.g., 2+2=4), and some is much more tenuous (e.g., string theory is correct).
  4. Transparency: Sometimes we not only know, but we know that we know. Fido, on the other hand, may know where the bone is buried, but he doesn't know that he knows. We can sometimes attain a higher-order perspective on our knowledge. Animals can't.
  5. Fragility: We can lose knowledge, either through failure of memory, trauma (amnesia), disease (Alzheimer's), and so forth. Some people are better at retention than others.
This is not necessarily an exhaustive list, but it should be enough to help us understand omniscience by contrast. To a first approximation, therefore, I want to suggest that we think about omniscience as a state of knowledge that is absolutely maximal in breadth, in depth, in security, in transparency, and in lack of fragility. An omniscient being knows all there is to know about all there is and knows it without any shade of doubt or distortion.

Second, human knowledge and understanding reaches transparency (we become conscious of it) only by becoming abstract. That is to say, we can focus attention on a particular proposition only by regarding it against a tacit, unarticulated background. For example, it is in relation to an empirical background that I can pick out a particular object, say, one of my cats. If there were no discernable distinction between the cat and everything else, I'd never notice it. This gives rise to a distinction between knowledge by acquaintance, the inarticulate familiarity we have with persons, places, and things, and knowledge by description, the articulate but abstract formulations of propositions about persons, places, and things.

But for an omniscient being this would presumably not be the case. Such a being has knowledge that is perfect in breadth, depth, transparency, etc. So it cannot be abstract. Abstractions always leave something out. What this means is that such a being doesn't know how many hairs are on my cat Tiffany by knowing a proposition like Tiffany has exactly 546,234 hairs. Rather, that being knows how many hairs are on my cat by knowing the hairs on the cat. In other words, the knowledge by description / knowledge by acquaintance distinction breaks down for an omniscient being. Such a being doesn't know by means of abstract propositions about reality. Rather, such a being knows reality, directly.

If this is right, then it's inaccurate to describe omniscience as knowledge of all and only true propositions, since such knowledge is not mediated by abstractions as it is for us. Rather, we should say that an omniscient being knows the truthmakers of all true propositions.

Incidentally, this fits the theistic picture of God and creation perfectly. God knows all (real) possibilities through his immediate and thorough acquaintance with his own power and nature. He knows all actualities through his immediate and thorough acquaintance with himself and with his own activity of creating and sustaining.

The remaining question, now, is whether this conception of omniscience can meet the kinds of objections posed by Patrick Grim. Stay tuned.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home