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Religion: Classical Theism, Part 4 (God's Omniscience)

What does it mean to say God *knows* things? This video examines two answers to that question. Theistic personalists hold that God knows things in the same sense in which we know things: by observing them. Classical Theists deny this account and hold rather that God knows things by causing their existence.

Speaker: Dr. Elmar Kremer, Emeritus Professor, University of Toronto.

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Video transcript

Hello. My name is Elmar Kremer. I'm a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Toronto. This is part four in the series on classical theism. In the last talk, I explained how the difference between classical theism and theistic personalism leads to disagreement about God's omnipotence, his being all-powerful. Today I want to show how it also leads to disagreement about God's omniscience, his being all-knowing. Both classical theists and theistic personalists say that God is all-knowing. But they disagree about the meaning of such a statement. For theistic personalists, "God is all-knowing" means that if any proposition "P" is true, then God knows that P. This account gives rise to a number of tricky problems because some propositions can be known only by a being whose /knowing/ occurs in the same temporal way as the events the propositions describe. For example, you can know that I am /now/ sitting down, only if you're knowing occurs at the same time as my sitting down. But if God's knowledge of what is happening is like that, then it seems that he has a changing knowledge of a changing world. That sort of problem has led some theistic personalists to deny that God is immutable. Classical theists say that such an account is, at best, misleading. God's knowing, unlike human knowing, does not involve forming propositions, neither externally by combining words, nor internally by combining concepts. For God is simple, and therefore his knowing is simple as well. But propositional knowing involves the combination of parts, like subject and predicate, and also involves reasoning, the movement from premises to conclusions. None of that can be present in the knowledge of a God whose existence and knowledge are simple. Classical theists, therefore, prefer to stick to the formula that God is all-knowing because he knows everything there is to know about himself and all other things. Classical theists also point out that, since God is all-knowing, he knows himself and his self-knowledge is perfect and complete. Therefore, his knowledge of himself includes his knowledge of what he causes. In the words of Aquinas, "God necessarily knows things other than himself, for it is manifest that he understands himself perfectly." So God's knowledge of things other than himself is quite unlike a human-being's knowledge of other things: we know other things by being acted upon by them, basically, by observing them. But God knows everything other than himself by knowing his own creative action. In other words, we know other things when we are acted upon by them, whereas God knows other things by causing their existence. This conclusion fits nicely with the classical theist position that God is immutable, and therefore cannot be acted upon by created things. Theistic personalists object that, at least in the case of free actions of intelligent creatures, God knows what creatures do by receiving information from them. God's knowledge of such actions, they maintain, is like our observational knowledge which begins with our being acted upon by the things we observe. To this objection, classical theists respond that to describe God's knowledge as observational is to imply that he is just another being in the universe and not the sovereign creator of the entire universe. But God is not just another being in the universe. Rather, he creates and sustains the entire universe throughout its history by a single, simple causal act. Therefore, his causal knowledge of our actions, and those of other creatures, includes the knowledge of our existence and of our actions, both free and unfree.