Exploring Mormon Thought: Divine Belief

March 28, 2012 | 14 comments
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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?

14 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Divine Belief

  1. Rameumptom on March 28, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Joe, this is really excellent. It will help me rethink lots of things the next time I read Blake’s book.

    On an aside, I’m reading Salt Press’ book on Alma 32, and how you (I think it was your article) talking about the Trees of Knowledge and of Life, wherein the Zoramite poor thought of religion as pertaining to the tree of knowledge (how can I worship if I don’t have access to the church?), when Alma taught them regarding mercy given via faith on the Tree of Life.

    If we are to agree with Blake’s hypothesis of God being like man in belief, thought, etc., then how would the Trees of Knowledge and Life affect him as God? Would there ever be a point when the Tree of Life becomes the full tree (as Alma suggests it would), bearing its final fruit? Or would it be an ever-growing entity embedded in God’s heart?

    Thanks again for your musings. They really enlighten my mind, and give me many possibilities to think and ponder over.

  2. Adam Miller on March 28, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Joe asks:

    “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?”

    I think this is a really productive way to ask the question. I’m really interested to hear more about how Blake is thinking about this. Thanks, Joe.

  3. clark on March 28, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    I have to confess I don’t get this line of reasoning. Surely we can follow the Anselm approach and say all our words don’t apply to God. Is that something a Mormon can do though if God is a divine man? I think we can allow a certain level of error in the meaning of words. (Say “eternal punishment” but there has to be some connection to the words for them to be meaningful and comprehensible. So I always thought this largely a dodge by Anselm (done for a particular theological aim).

    Certainly there isn’t necessarily agreement over what it means to know. Thus the debates within epistemology typically appealing to various guises of concept analysis within the Analytic tradition. Yet even those disagreeing with each other see a resemblance between their claims. The differences are marginal at best.

    Now I think that it is valid to critique what it is for God to have knowledge – especially foreknowledge. However I think that’s precisely what Blake is doing. (Seeing power to bring about an end as a type of knowledge even though it isn’t a perceptual type of knowledge) So I think much of the point of Blake’s book is to answer the very question you raise.

  4. clark on March 28, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    Adam noted to me elsewhere I missed the point of Joe’s post. Mea culpa.

    That said I think that elsewhere Blake has a pretty good argument for the words in scripture meaning *roughly* what we mean by them. Of course it’s the potential difference that counts. After all I’m far from convinced that free will or responsibility ought be taken applying over the metaphysical realm of open alternatives the way he does.

  5. Blake on March 28, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    In this particular section, I am responding to Jonathan Kvanvig’s argument that the argument from foreknowledge won’t go through because saying that “God knows X at t1″ isn’t anything at all like saying that “God timelessly knows that X.” The reason is based on Aquinas’s doctrine of analogical predication. According to Aquinas, God doesn’t know that X based on inference or deductive reasoning or experience in the way that humans do because all things are caused to be what they are by God. God has knowledge only insofar as his causality extends because he bring about the esse (being from nothingness) of every person or event. Further, God doesn’t have discrete bits of knowledge or anything that has to be composed because God is purely simple. So one cannot make any inferences about what follows from God’s knowledge or beliefs (where belief is merely a component of knowledge).

    Aquinas’s view of God’s knowledge is very problematic — not the least because it doesn’t solve the problem and exacerbates it by assuming a type of omni-causal-determinism and creation of every event that occurs literally out of nothing directly by God or occasionalism. However, the response is generally that we cannot grasp what it could possibly mean to say that “God knows” on such a view.

    The problem with this mysterian response is that we cannot literally say anything about God. When we say that God is good, or creates, or knows or loves what we mean is so different from human instances of using words that all meaning collapses. What is being said is that “X somethings” where both terms are vacuous and have no meaning. However, that is why I give examples of Joseph Smith who notes the continuity between humans and God (insofar as created in God’s image) and also on the incarnation of Christ who is the revelation of God.

    The easy way around the problem is to address Christ’s knowledge — who definitely does have continuity with humans both as a person and as a resurrected being. Jesus knew in a way that is univocal with human knowledge because he is the same kind that we are. However, the tradition then adopts a two nature theory where the divine Son literally has no continuity with humans but Jesus does, and somehow they are the same personal identity. In my view it reduces to nonsense – and that is why I ended the book discussion with a discussion of christology.

    David Hume addressed the issue well by pointing out that if there is no continuity between God and humans, then we lose all ability to speak about God at all and our professions of faith in a God that loves, is good and knows and cares about us is vacuous of meaning. It is worse than contradictory, it is meaningless — rather like expressing one’s faith by saying “ugh”.

  6. clark on March 28, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Hume was just noting what negative theologians like Anselm had said before (or not said). I think what’s left is more than saying “ugh.” Meister Eckhart whether you like him or not had some beautiful expressions of faith. But I agree that it’s ultimately a problematic approach to take. I think doubly so for Mormons who seemed to be issuing a revolution of making God rather comprehensible.

  7. Joe Spencer on March 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Rameumptom #1 – I like your questions here, though I haven’t any good answers to them immediately (and though it was not my article you were thinking of specifically, I don’t think :) ).

    clark #4 – I should be clear: I actually agree with Blake, in the end, that God and humans think in the same way. The questions I’m raising constitute an attempt to cut to the quick of that issue. I want to get right to what it really means to talk that way, and to do so in the full light of critical thought.

    Blake #5 – These are helpful clarifications. Thanks. And I hope it’s clear, as I noted above to clark, that my aim here is to raise these same kind of questions in a somewhat broader framework. Since you bring up meaningfulness, what I’m saying in this post might be framed as follows: Whence the meaningfulness of divine beliefs? The twentieth century has prepared us to provide two broad answers to that question, both of which seem very strange but through which, it seems, we’ll have to pass: (1) The meaningfulness of divine beliefs (as of all beliefs) is a function of the systemic total structure of the language in which those beliefs are set forth (this is the larger Fregean project: “analytic philosophy”). (2) The meaningfulness of divine beliefs (as of all beliefs) is grounded on the disclosedness of a prelinguistic but meaningful world or network of relations (this is the larger Heideggerian project: “continental philosophy”). The former seems troubling because it means that language is in some sense prior to God; the latter seems troubling because it means that the world is in some sense prior to God. “Seems”: Mormon theology can be thought, at least in part, as an insistence on either or both of these troubling claims.

  8. Blake on March 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Joe: With respect to the analytic/continental divide, I am fairly Kantian so it is a both/and. However, “function of total systemic structure of language” and the “ground for meaning” are two different concepts or movements of human grasping of significance — though they are not incommensurable. The medium of language cannot transcend the way that language functions — in this respect I agree with Wittgenstein. However, I disagree with him that all meaning reduces merely to a form of life — as if anthropology were the ultimate arbiter of meaning. The problem is like someone who points at an object and then we sit and stare at the end of the finger to get what s/he means. Language transcends itself by reference just as the object pointed to transcends the end of the finger.

    In the case of God, I think that we have to admit that there are very important discontinuities between the ways we can be said to know and the way that God knows. I take it that God knows because God interpenetrates and is interpenetrated by all reality — he circumscribes reality within the scope of his experience. I take this from D&C 88 that seems to me to tie God’s knowledge to the light that is in and through all things — they in Him and He in them. However, that is very different from the way humans know.

    Nevertheless, I take it that the proposition “God knows that X” straightforwardly asserts that X is the case and God grasps everything about X. He includes X within the scope of his very being as a part of what he embodies (using embodiment not in the sense of corporeality but of circumscribing within the scope of his being as a society of experiencing realities). In addition, there is a certain “pro attitude” in God’s relation to X that is included in his knowledge that makes the knowledge relevant for purposes of creating its meaning in the very interaction.

    Humans don’t know anything in the sense that God does except perhaps our own immediate conscious experience of what we are experiencing at this moment. While I experience the experience of my body’s cells, I don’t know about my cells’ experiences in creating my phenomenal consciousness. God does I take it. I think that humans rarely, if ever, really know in the sense that God knows.

    I wouldn’t expect a Thomist to adopt this view of God’s knowledge. Frankly, I believe that Aquinas’s view of God’s knowledge is unintelligible — and to the extent that God does know something about the world it runs into contradictions every time he starts speaking of God’s (merely external) relation to the world.

  9. Bradley on March 29, 2012 at 1:05 am

    If I choose not to do something, does that mean it didn’t happen? To God, it did. He sees all possibilities. Ostler tries to map our reality onto God’s, and it works quite less well than a dust mite crawling on my skin mapping its reality onto mine.

  10. Alison Moore Smith on March 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    joe, I have to tell you that every time I see the thumbnail of that image, I think it’s a snail!

  11. Adam Miller on March 29, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    So, Blake, coming back to Joe’s original question, do you think that God’s knowledge is structured in relation to a transcendental framework?

  12. Blake on March 29, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    Adam: I hate to show my ignorance, but I have no idea what “structured according to a transcendental framework” means. If you mean “transcendental” in the Kantian sense that God experiences only phenomena and never noumena or things in themselves (das ding an sich) then I disagree. It isn’t as if God experiences through categories of thought unless you mean in the sense that Kant intended (but failed to achieve in my view) of the logically necessary conditions of knowing anything through experience. If that is the question, then because it is logically necessary, yes, I believe that even God is bound by the laws of logic.

    In my view, God’s experience is complete and immediate. If you don’t mean it in the Kantian sense, then I’m not sure what you are asking.

  13. clark on April 1, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    Blake when you say God’s experience is complete and immediate I’m curious as to how time plays into it for you. As I recall from our previous discussions you don’t take time shifts within relativity as real but think there’s basically a preferred time frame that applies to the universe as a whole and that communication can be instantaneous. Is that right? (i.e. relativity is just an appearance due to the way we make measurements but more an illusion) Do you think God has immediate perception of all of reality at a given time slice? Also (once again distant memory of past discussions) do you see this perception as mediated the way all our perceptions are or a kind of direct intuitive knowledge of all facts in an unmediated way?

    I ask because it seems the question of transcendence is very much caught up in that question of time. (I don’t think Adam intends it in a Kantian sense but more of a Heideggarian sense where it is wrapped up in the question of time)

  14. joespencer on April 4, 2012 at 8:20 am

    Sorry I’m just getting back to this. I’ve been beyond busy this past week, and will be for another week. (No promises that I’ll get my next post, a week from today, up on time!)

    Blake #8 – Thanks, this is helpful. I’m struggling to make philosophical sense of a number of points here, but I won’t raise those issues here, since they’ll come up as we work further through your book—also since I really need to read Whitehead to get a sense for what you mean. The strength of your position is that it has a way of making D&C 88 intelligible; the weakness is that that intelligibility remains, for the moment, unintelligible to me. :)

    Adam #11 – Thanks for posing this question again, because it’s really the crux of why I have a hard time making sense of what Blake is saying. I don’t know in what sense we can say that God knows if we’re talking about immediate knowledge, nor do I have any idea how we can say that humans and God are of a class if God has immediate knowledge.

    Blake #12 – I take it Adam, like me, means this not only in the Kantian sense, but in the sense employed by Kant’s most faithful heirs—Foucault, for example, in the continental tradition, and Kuhn, for example, in the analytic tradition. After Kant, it’s difficult (impossible?) to talk about knowledge independent of a transcendental framework, whether that framework is understood to be the timeless, universal structure of reason—Kant’s problematic account—or whether that framework is understood to be a temporally shifting transcendental framework of “movable categories.” I suspect, without knowing very well, that the process approach bypasses the Kantian critique in a kind of return to Leibniz, but that’s what I’m struggling to understand.

    clark #13 – Time, yes, but I think Heidegger complicates the picture too much for present purposes, no? This is why I point to Foucault and Kuhn. It seems to me that they demonstrate the importance of time here without introducing a host of other questions.