News

Loading...

Friday, August 10, 2012

Is God Ever Surprised?

It might seem that the doctrine of divine omniscience means that God knows the future. Many have so interpreted it.

I think that is wrong. God can only know what can be known. But the future is just a name we use for what has not yet happened and it does not, in fact, exist. What does not exist cannot be known.

God is surprised every moment, just like we are.

67 comments:

  1. You're assuming God is a temporal being. Isaac Newton would agree; St. Augustine would not. I think the discovery of general relativity, with the implication that time (like space) has a "beginning," favors St. Augustine on this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, I am not. The fact that He is outside of time still does not allow him to know what has never existed.

      Delete
    2. General relativity doesn't any more say that time has a beginning than Euclidean geometry says that a sphere has a beginning.

      Also, when you say "the discovery of general relativity" there's also a danger of confusing the map with the territory. It's not like we've discovered that the universe is actually literally a four-dimensional Lorentzian manifold satisfying the Einstein equations (in fact, I don't think any modern physicists would claim that it is), just that it's often handy to think of it this way.

      Delete
    3. Shonk, I put the word "beginning" in quotation marks by design. A beginning is something that takes place in time, and so to speak of time itself beginning can be no more than a metaphor. The point is that the temporal dimension, like its spatial cousins, does not transcend the life of the universe, which in turn does not extend infinitely backwards. None of this precludes the possibility of a meta-time, but it begins to look philosophically clumsy to posit one.

      The realism debate is interesting, and I don't mean to be dogmatic on this point. (I only said, remember, that general relativity "favors" St. Augustine—not that it silences his every opponent.) The million-dollar question, I guess, is whether quantum mechanics allows us to take the space-time manifold of general relativity at face value.

      Delete
  2. That does give God a reason to create the universe ...

    ReplyDelete
  3. And the prophecies? e.g. Revelations and the two witnesses etc.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If God didn't know the future, then how could a prophet know that the two witnesses would be slain?

      Delete
    2. Have you actually read Revelations? Does it appear to you to be a factual report from some actual future?

      Delete
    3. In fact, I think I could point to Revelations as evidence for my hypothesis!

      Delete
    4. Drop the s, folks. It's Revelation.

      "Does it appear to you to be a factual report from some actual future?"

      The visions are obviously metaphorical from the Alpha to the Omega, but they're still supposed to pertain to "the things that must soon take place."

      Delete
    5. Ah, that's what I get for not using the term I'm most comfortable with: Apocalypse.

      Delete
  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGVBwTZ_ODQ

    ReplyDelete
  5. Gene, I think God would be surprised by this post. How could prophesies in general work, if God knows as much about the future as we do?

    What you are saying here is truly at odds with the entire Bible. That doesn't mean you're wrong, but from above I gather that you think your position should be non-controversial to Christians.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think God might be surprised by my post as well. But I certainly don't think my view should be non-controversial!

      However, I'm posting from a phone over a crap internet connection. More tomorrow.

      Delete
  6. Gene,

    Are you a presentist? I did not know that!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Presentist"? What dat be?

      Delete
    2. Presentism is the philosophical position that only the present exists. See here.

      Delete
    3. Presentism is the doctrine that only present events "exist" (the verb being interpreted in a tenseless sense). The future is unreal, and the past has ceased to be real.

      Delete
    4. Wow. I took that as so obviously true that I didn't even think it needed a name!

      Delete
    5. I think that presentism is a minority position in philosophy today, though it does have its defenders.

      Delete
  7. Btw, quite apart from presentism, I disagree that you can only have knowledge of something if it exists. This is particularly clear if you are a presentist: we know that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though it hasn't happened yet. More broadly, we have knowledge of counter-factuals. We know that if people were to set up a stateless society it would quickly devolve into a mafia dominated system (by "we" here I mean Gene and myself, obviously Rothbardians don't know this).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, yes, and this is exactly how I would explain prophecy: we humans, middling prognosticators, can often say how something will turn out, despite not "knowing" the future in the same sense that I know there is a tree in my garden. God, being omniscient about what does exist, would obviously be the greatest prognosticator of all!

      Delete
    2. Gene,

      Assuming you aren't currently looking at it, your knowledge that there is a tree in your garden in exactly the same as your knowledge that there will be a tree there five minutes from now (e.g. you were out gardening half an hour ago and there was a tree there).

      Delete
    3. Right. But I was meant when I am currently looking at it, which I was at that moment.

      Delete
    4. Okay, but do you think you only know there is a tree in your garden when you are actually looking at it?

      Delete
    5. You can never have empirical knowledge of objects outside yourself in the present.

      Your knowledge is constrained to events that took place in the past, no sooner than t = distance / speed of light.

      In this way, you inferring that the tree you were looking at half an hour ago is still there, is the same inference as looking at the tree outside your window from a distance of 20 feet or whatever.

      You are still making a judgment that what occurred in the past is still occurring.

      Delete
    6. Vito:

      1) I understand why you say this. But I believe you are wrong: You have mistaken the world of physics for the real world, whereas it is merely an abstraction from the real world.

      2) Even if it were true, it hardly vitiates my point: The fact that light bounced off the tree a millionth of a second ago (or whatever) is hardly the same as having seen it 30 minutes ago! In 30 minutes, the wind could have toppled the tree, a forest fire could have burned it down, a lumberjack could have felled it, or plant thieves dug it up. None of these things could have happened in the miniscule fraction of a second since the light left it.

      And I could have been sitting on it.

      Delete
    7. Blackadder, of course not. But they are still different sorts of knowing. One is immediate, that other is the idea, "Yeah, it is probably still there." (But it might not be!)

      Delete
    8. 1) Physics IS an explanation of the real world! It is a real world fact that it takes time for light to travel from an object to your eye, and as such, it is a real world fact you are always looking at past events.

      2) The probability that a tree will cease being upright within the time frame of one millionth of a second is mind bogglingly lower than 30 minutes, but it's still positive, due to the real world fact of quantum fluctuations, whose theory matches empirical events to such accuracy, that it would be like measuring the width of North America to an accuracy of a single human hair. The fact that the probability is so much lower in the one millionth of a second scenario doesn't detract from my point that you are always observing past events, never current events as you incorrectly claimed.

      Delete
    9. 1) That physics describes an abstract world drained of everything but pure quantity, and not the real world, was pointed out, for instance, by Bertrand Russell.

      2) You are defining what is the present using the abstraction of physics. I define it per the real world of experience: the present is what I experience now.

      And in any case, my point here is that my *knowledge* of the tree being there is very different even if I were to accept your view of what the present is. The chance of it quantum fluctuating out of existence is so low that it has never happened. If I saw it "a millionth of a second ago" (as you contend) I can still count on it being there now. But over a period of 30 minutes, trees really do cease to exist, all the time.

      Delete
    10. And Vito, I thought I remembered this, but you are not even right per physics:

      "It follows from Albert Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity that there is no such thing as absolute simultaneity. When care is taken to operationalise "the present", it follows that the events that can be labeled as "simultaneous" with a given event, can not be in direct cause-effect relationship. Such collections of events are perceived differently by different observers. Instead, when focusing on "now" as the events perceived directly, not as a recollection or a speculation, for a given observer "now" takes the form of the observer's past light cone." -- Wikipedia

      Relativity defines "now" as my past light cone, so per relativity even, I certainly am looking at the tree in the present.

      Delete
    11. for a given observer "now" takes the form of the observer's past light cone

      To be fair, this only applies to those relying solely on intrinsic observations. An extrinsic observer/deity may well have a preferred choice of spacelike hypersurface containing your position which he considers to be "the present".

      Delete
    12. 'An extrinsic observer/deity may well have a preferred choice of spacelike hypersurface containing your position which he considers to be "the present".'

      Yes, what is the present is relative to the observer. And I think Vito wants to declare a non-relative present.

      Delete
  8. Also, not to overwhelm you with objections, but if you are correct here then your recent argument about how humans will never have time machines is wrong. Obviously we can't expect time travelers to visit the past when they don't even exist yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, that strengthens my argument against time machines: obviously, people who do not exist cannot show up in the present!

      Delete
    2. obviously, people who do not exist cannot show up in the present!

      They don't exist yet. But in the year 2659 they will exist, and the fact they don't exist yet won't stop them from traveling into the past once they do exist.

      Delete
    3. "They don't exist yet."

      But if they "time traveled" here, they WOULD exist now. And we'd have a contradiction.

      And, in any case, the past is like Oakland: there is no "there" there to travel to.

      Delete
  9. I was also surprised by this post. If we are really free (ie, materialism is false, and God does not constrain our choices) and we are to understand how things are, something like this will have to be posited. (I doubt we can understand how things are.) But I'm not sure what you mean when you deny that you are confining God within time. I can sympathize with un-orthodox views on the nature of God, but when you say He can't know something that has never been, that's what you are doing. It's very convenient and helpful for a whole lot of philosophical problems, which may be why it has been rejected by so many philosophers: they'd be out of a job.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It does seem ideal for resolving the issue of free-will vs. predestination. I look forward to Gene's future [hyuk hyuk] post on the matter.

      Delete
    2. Eternity is *outside* of time. It is not in all times at once, or anything of that sort.

      Delete
    3. I didn't say anything of the sort. What does *outside* mean here? If you're *outside* something can you know what goes on *inside* it? I don't presume to know what being outside of time means, but I do think it means your knowledge isn't limited to the present. I don't find it hard to believe that you're smarter than me and you're certainly better read, so maybe you know something I don't about this, but you're not showing your work, and claiming that the perspective of eternity (outside of time) is still limited to the knowledge of the present sounds like nonsense to me.

      Delete
    4. Gabe, see "The Music of the Ainur" at the beginning of the Silmarillion by Tolkein. That's the best I can do to "show my work."

      Delete
    5. Good answer. I've been meaning to re-read that one for some time now. I will think of this again when I do.

      Delete
  10. Yes. It turns out there is a book call God of the Possible out there on this. It isn't as good as it could be, but I was surprised to find somebody out there thinking along these lines. I've believed this for quite a few years now, and I don't think it violates traditional views of God, but it turns out theologians seem quite attached to erroneous views of the future.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Wow. Gene, I am not trying to be a jerk. I think what you are doing here, is just as naive and held-up-by-a-thin-shred as when I was an out-and-out materialist. Your treatment of the present is exactly analogous to how a materialist treats "the physical world." The way you are dealing with Blackadder's multiple blow-ups of your system, is just like how a materialist deals with us asking him, "So does math exist?" etc.

    Yes, you think you are deflecting Blackadder's jabs with ease, just like the dedicated materialist doesn't realize how thoroughly you eviscerated him.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 'Your treatment of the present is exactly analogous to how a materialist treats "the physical world."'

      No, in fact, it is exactly the opposite. The materialist says that there is a "material world" apart from all experience. I ask him to show this "material world" to me. He cannot do so. So I say he is making it up.

      Here, you and Blackadder are like materialists: you tell me that the past and future actually exist, apart from traces the past left in the present and anticipations we have of the future (which is all I can detect). So, please show them to me.

      "Yes, you think you are deflecting Blackadder's jabs with ease..."

      Please show where I didn't.

      Delete
    2. By the way, I am *not* denying that the past *did* exist, or that the future *will* exist.

      They just don't exist *now*. What exists now is called the present.

      Delete
    3. Then that doesn't contradict time travel, because if the "time travelers' of the future exist now, then surely they *will* exist in the future.

      Delete
    4. "I ask him to show this "material world" to me. He cannot do so. So I say he is making it up."

      I did the same with a friend who tried to claim that there was "air". He kept pointing but I couldn't see anything, so I concluded he made it up.

      Delete
    5. Very silly, outside. True, I can't see air, but I certainly can feel it.

      Delete
  12. Let me ask you this Gene: It's not just "the present," but "my immediate vicinity," that is the only thing that exists, right? I mean, after you leave Africa, in what sense can YOU possibly say it exists?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bob, why in the world would my position imply that? I can call someone in Africa, and they can tell me, "Yup, still here?" I could turn around and go back to Africa, and there it would be.

      Did you ever try calling someone in the past or future? Did you ever try traveling back to the past? (Oh, wait, I forgot: ancaps want to re-create ancient Iceland. So scratch that one.)

      Delete
    2. (And let's not get into Vito's nonsense quibbles about the speed of light.)

      Delete
    3. No need to do that (ignore Vito). Your position is that the only thing that exists is the present, and the only thing you perceive is just a little bit older. So the things you perceive no longer exist when you perceive them, but that's no big deal in this crazy scheme of things.

      Delete
    4. "Your position is that the only thing that exists is the present, and the only thing you perceive is just a little bit older."

      No, that is not my position. That is Vito's position.

      I say "esse est percipi."

      Delete
  13. Gene,

    One can believe, with Berkeley, that "esse est percipi" and still be a four-dimentionalist. The issue is not whether you or I can see the past or the future but whether God can.

    On the other hand, it's hard to see how you can square presentism with relativity. Is your view that relativity isn't true, or do you not think there is a contradiction?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Presentism is inconsistent with special relativity, but it is consistent with neo-Lorentzian alternatives that are experimentally equivalent. (Interestingly, though, I think Callahan rejects absolute space and time, so I'm not sure how he'd react to this solution.)

      Delete
  14. It sounds like you're asserting what is called (and has been extensively written about) "open theism". Clark Pinnock, a theologian at McMaster University, was one of the leading lights of the position. Interestingly, he came out of a conservative evangelical background.

    An interview: http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/interviews/Pinnock.asp

    His obit: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/augustweb-only/43-22.0.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the heads up, Donald. I mentioned somewhere that Collingwood and Tolkein have had similar thoughts.

      Delete
    2. Is there a correspondence between open theism and process theology?

      Open theism seems to me to want to hold onto the form of Christianity while updating ideas that are confusing, while process theology has no special attachment to Christianity.

      Delete
  15. Gene, you are saying something only exists if you can personally sense it. You don't see how that's very similar to a materialist, who says something only exists if in principle he can measure it with scientific equipment?

    Then you retreat to, "I'm just saying the present exists now." Well sure, no one is going to deny that, just like bachelors are the only unmarried males who exist.

    In the same way, when you say to a materialist, "But c'mon, Sherlock Holmes exists--I can tell you all kinds of things about him. And surely geometry exists," then the materialist says, "Right, but the material world is the only thing that materially exists. That's my position."

    I stand by my claim, that you are retreating into tautology the way a materialist does, and yet you manage to produce a whopping mistake from your views: Namely, you somehow conclude that God is surprised by the future.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I most certainly am NOT saying something only exists if I can perceive it. Nor is saying it doesn't exist now any sort of "retreat."

      The past did exist, the present does exist, the future will exist.

      Delete
  16. Anyway, even taking your views at face value about existence, if God is hovering above the timeline, and can directly observe everything, then how is He surprised? I don't see why you keep privileging your individual perception, as if that's supposed to pin God down. Why are you assuming God is traveling through time with you right now, and not with people who will be alive in 2200?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not to speak for Gene, but I'd be willing to bet that he doesn't think the "timeline" exists.

      Delete
    2. "Why are you assuming God is traveling through time with you right now, and not with people who will be alive in 2200?"

      Because they don't exist yet?

      Delete
    3. "I don't see why you keep privileging your individual perception..."

      Again, this is silly. In the year 1250, do you think I was "privileging" Aquinas's viewpoint? In the year 2500, I will be "privileging" some as yet unborn person's viewpoint.

      I just happen to be here now, but there were many, many nows when I wasn't, and I assume there will be many more when I won't be.

      Delete