We remain, in chapter 9 of The Attributes of God, within Ostler’s larger assessment of the (in)compatibility between exhaustive divine foreknowledge and human free will. I want to do two things in this post. First, I want to focus briefly on Ostler’s claim, on page 280, that the point on which “the debate ultimately turns” is “whether God’s having a belief is relevantly similar to humans having beliefs.” Second, I want to move from an investigation into what Ostler is doing with that gesture to yet another reframing of the question concerning knowledge—a reframing akin in spirit to what I did a couple weeks ago with chapter 7 and what Adam did last week with chapter 8.
Divine Unicity I: What Says Joseph?
Ostler claims that the pivotal point for the philosophical analysis of divine foreknowledge is the question of whether God is “utterly unique” or “a member of a kind” (p. 280). With this gesture, Ostler comes back to a distinction or at least point of clarification he drew in his very first chapter, between (1) “God” as the rigid designator of a concrete particular absolved in some sense from every class and (2) “God” as shorthand for a function that selects out of discreet beings a determinate set that contains more than one element. I’ve asked myself at least a dozen times in the last two hundred and fifty pages why Ostler hasn’t been drawing on that distinction in his arguments—not necessarily because I think the distinction is a good one, but simply because it often seems relevant to the arguments he’s working on and because it doesn’t make sense for him to have offered it in the first place if it weren’t going to play some role in the book. Now, at last, it’s getting attention.
And yet even here, despite the fact that Ostler says that it’s pivotal to the argument, it isn’t yet playing an exactly central role. It’s introduced at the end of a section of text, almost as an afterthought or perhaps a postscripted clarification of Mormon commitments. But never mind that. I want to give to this brief mention closer attention, whatever role it ostensibly plays (or doesn’t play) in the argument being presented.
What’s this distinction worth, as Ostler employs it here in chapter 9? So far as I can tell, what Ostler needs at this point is for God to fall within a class that includes human beings; what he wants is a God who belongs to the class of beings who have beliefs the way that humans have beliefs. In order to secure this point, he quotes from one of the transcripts of Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse:
What kind of being is God? ask yourselves. . . . [I will show you] what kind of being was God in the beginning. . . . 1st God sits enthroned [and] is a man like one of yourselves. That is the great secret. If the veil were rent to day & the great God who holds this world in its sphere or its orbit—the planets—if you were to see him to day you would see him in all the person image, very form of man, For Man was created in the very fashion of God. (p. 280 yet again)
This is, of course, among the most theologically fraught of Joseph’s teachings—fraught enough to get Latter-day Saints, perhaps the most theologically uninclined of peoples, to do a good deal of lay theological reflection. I don’t pretend to understand it, though I’m happy to speculate on it. At any rate, my intention here is just to ask what Ostler’s doing with it. And what does he do with it? Again, so far as I can tell, what Ostler needs from this quotation is the idea of a set or class of beings who have beliefs in the way that human beings have beliefs, and the idea that both human beings and God belong to this set or class.
Does the quotation do that sort of work? Strictly speaking, I don’t think it does. The emphasis, particularly in the last lines of Joseph’s words, is on visible (corporeal?) “person,” “image,” “form,” “fashion” (note well: “if you were to see him . . . you would see him in . . .)—not on mental function, capacity, or activity. Is a Latter-day Saint bound to believe that God has beliefs in the sense that humans have beliefs? Better put, since “belief,” bound up with “faith” when considered in theological terms, can be a bit slippery, is a Latter-day Saint bound to believe that God has thoughts in propositional form, thoughts that can be translated, thanks to Fregean logic, into symbolizable sentences? I don’t see how anything in what Joseph says implies that, though neither does it contradict it.
But I wonder if this question can be reframed. It’s interesting to ask whether divine knowledge and human knowledge (or at least divine beliefs and human beliefs) are of a kind. But even if we grant that there are ways in which they can be classed together, there must be an obvious sense in which they’re can’t be. I suspect it would be helpful to nail that down—to identify the difference, or at least to provide a framework for sorting out that difference—if we hope to identify some sense in which God’s thoughts and our thoughts can be grouped together.
Divine Unicity II: What Does It Mean to Know?
What does it mean to say that one knows something? This was, of course, the question that drove all of philosophy from its modern beginnings with Descartes to its critical turn with Kant—and many continue to work on the problem, though it no longer serves as the unifying question that brings all philosophers onto common ground. Recent decades have seen the emergence of some sort of consensus on this question, at least in broad terms—a consensus, importantly, that problematizes the distinction between continental and analytic philosophy.
Two caveats, first. (1) It’s crucial to recognize that when I speak of knowledge here, I mean specifically every kind of knowledge that can stand the rigors or accommodates itself to the canons of modern science. I mean, in a word, scientific knowledge—though not necessarily knowledge of the kinds of things scientists are interested in. I don’t have reference to other sorts of knowledge—the knowledge of aesthetic truths, for instance, or the kind of knowing we mean when we talk about knowing a person. (2) I take for granted here that analytic philosophy is a robust philosophical proposal and not merely a kind of level-headed analysis of unquestionably determinate phenomena. This is important if one is to recognize that the analytic tradition is quite as aware of what I’ll be setting forth in the name of Kant as is the continental tradition. Even—perhaps especially—the so-called logical positivists (I’ve got Carnap in mind particularly here) were at work on the approach I’m about to lay out.
Kant helped us realize that every instance of knowledge depends on what are, at least from the standpoint of the epistemological situation, a priori conditions of possibility. Put another, less problematic way—dropping the language of the strictly a priori—Kant helped us realize that every instance of knowledge depends on a transcendental framework, on a mechanism of sorts that allows us to adjudicate what counts as knowledge (and so belongs, say, in the encyclopedia) and what doesn’t count as knowledge (and so doesn’t belong). The twentieth century in particular has seen the development of widespread skepticism toward Kant’s original conviction that that mechanism was set for all time (due to its being rooted in the unchanging structure of human reason, unmistakably as viewed through the lens of the Enlightenment), but there is little disagreement that knowledge remains a function of at least a culturally shared set of mechanisms that allow for the adjudication of claims to knowledge.
Given this basic post-critical insight, what would it mean to say that God has knowledge? Is it to say that whatever God knows is also structured or determined by a certain transcendental framework? If so, is that framework fixed or alterable? If the latter, is there any strong sense in which God can be said to know? If the former, how or why is the transcendental within which God’s knowledge unfolds fixed? Could it be fixed without God being outside of time or history in the strong sense? Or perhaps God’s knowledge is something else than human knowledge, either because it isn’t framed transcendentally, or because it is itself always and only at the transcendental level? In what sense is God’s knowledge (or beliefs or propositional claims) like our own?
Note that I haven’t put any of my own cards on the table. I mean only to reframe the problem in order just to suggest that much of the difficulty might be in the way we ask the question. I suspect that we’ll make real headway when we begin to think critically—in the specifically Kantian sense—about what it means to talk about knowledge at all. I haven’t any problems with God not knowing everything in advance, or even in retrospect—because it isn’t at all clear to me what the question even means.
In the meanwhile, I feel like my duty is to ponder the difference between the non-scriptural claim that “God knows everything” and the scriptural claim that “there isn’t anything but God knows it.” Are we barking up the wrong tree?