Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The discussion of Plantinga's attitude to the way in which God knows what he knows led us to see here a little negative theology. In the December post we illustrate this tendency at work more widely in Christian theology, in the Chalecdonian statement on the Incarnation,  and at various other points. All these are junctures or intersections of the divine nature with human nature, or of divine action with humaan actions. The language of negativity is resorted to because these relations of the divine and the human are unparalleled in our experience. The finite cannot encompass the infinite.

Incidentally, those interested in matters Plantingian may like to take a look at his review of Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False in The New Republic, as well as Nagel's earlier review of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism in The New York Review of Books.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Plantinga's Point

 Alvin Plantinga 

In a little-discussed paper of Alvin Plantinga’s, ‘Divine Knowledge,’ (in Christian Perspectives on Religious Knowledge, edited by C. Stephen Evans and Merold Westphal (Eerdmans, 1993)), he discusses and defends the thesis that it is no objection to accepting the truth of God knows that p that We do not know how God knows that p. That we do not know how God knows some matter is a fragment of negative or apophatic theology. Accepting this fragment entails that when we refer to God’s knowledge this bears no  better than an analogical relation to our own knowledge: the two possess points in common, which make each a case of knowledge; and have points of difference, (the negative theological fragment), which together ensure that the knowledge in question is either a case of our knowledge, or of God’s.  

Such reserve with respect to God’s knowledge seems entirely biblical. Writing of the extent of God’s knowledge including his knowledge of his thoughts ‘from afar’ the Psalmist (Psalm 139) exclaims that ‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it’. (v.6)

I shall try to offer an abbreviated account of part of what Plantinga says here, but then suggest that this is not a very stable outlook; that is, if our knowledge of God's knowledge is only analogical, and our knowledge of the other aspects of the mind is likewise analogical, this  cannot be confined to the actual cases that Plantinga discusses.  Plantinga’s point cannot be restricted to ameliorating those claims about God’s knowledge that we happen to accept or approve of, but it applies equally well to those clams that we disapprove of. For what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It has implications all over the place; it is not stable.

Plantinga begins by discussing the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (as part of Molinism), and the frequently advanced objection to their existence  that it is impossible to say what grounds their truth. (49) The objection to such counterfactual statements, that they cannot answer the grounding objection, boils down to ‘We cannot see how God knows them, [the counterfactuals of freedom] so there cannot be any’. Plantinga’s point is that the fact that we are ignorant of how God can know such counterfactuals of creaturely freedom does not affect their truth. Indeed there are good reasons why we are ignorant. There are such counterfactuals, he claims, and we can assume, from his omniscience, that God knows them. End of story.

He goes on to discuss the view of Richard Swinburne (in his The Coherence of Theism) that God cannot allow himself to know future free actions, since such knowledge would impede or render impossible genuine freedom and so, Swinburne holds, God averts his gaze from such propositions in order to shield our freedom. (49) Thus God does not know future contingencies.

But, asks Plantinga, why can’t God know these propositions? Why do philosophers like Swinburne take a position that is not very attractive? (45)

The fundamental answer, [underlying Swinburne’s modification of the scope of divine omniscience} I think, is that we can’t see how they could be known. How could God know a thing like that, a thing about the future, or about some counterfactual situation that, as far as logic goes, could go either way?.....

I think we must agree that we don’t or can’t see how God could know a thing like that. He can’t know a future free choice by taking advantage of causal laws and causal regularities, for example, because the action in question would be by hypothesis free; therefore causal laws and antecedent conditions determine neither that the action would take place nor that it would fail to take place. So he couldn’t know that action will occur by knowing causal laws and present or hypothesized conditions and extrapolating either to the action‘s taking place or to its failing to take place. (45)

Plantinga proceeds, after briefly discussing and giving his reasons why an appeal to God’s simplicity won’t help things,  to offer a reason why God we cannot know how God knows.  It is because he is the Creator, our Creator, for we are made in accordance with his design plan for us, but no one and no thing has or could have designed the way in which God knows. His mind is uncreated. Or, to indulge in a little old-speak,  we must have in mind the difference is between God’s archetypal knowledge and our creaturely ectypal knowledge. Maybe our own cognitive states and activities provide us with analogies: maybe our intuitive beliefs, or the idea of non-propositional beliefs, approximate somewhat to how God knows, but these still fall far short of proving the materials for understanding how God knows. (Plantinga explores these analogies at length.)
It may be thought from this, and particularly from the range of examples that Plantinga uses, that appealing to our ignorance of God’s ways of knowing in some way helps ease the  lives of believers in libertarian freedom if they take certain instances of some types of propositions about future free actions to be true. It may be thought that if we believe that God’s knowledge includes knowledge of indeterministically free human actions and/or of counterfactuals of (indeterministic) freedom then the fact that we fail to know how God knows these don’t spoil the party. For all that we know is that God is omniscient, that  for any proposition p God believes p if and only if p is true. And since (presumably) we do not what it is like for God to believe a proposition, we haven't advanced things by very much.

Earlier we noticed that the Psalmist in Psalm 139 wonders at the extent of God’s knowledge. Later on in the Psalm he extends his wonder to the whole range of God’s activity; to God’s omnipresence, to his causal activity, his leading, his forming.

So take a different and conflicting hypothesis to the claim of the consistency of God’s knowledge and future human indeterministic choices, or of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. Consider, for example, the the anti-Molinism claim that ‘God’s ordaining of all that come to pass is consistent with him not being the author of sin’. ‘Will’ or ‘ordain’ are fraught with the same difficulties that  interested Plantinga in the case of ‘God knows’. How often has it been said that God cannot ordain or will the actions of human beings other than by being a programmer, or a hypnotist or a drug-pusher? But why? If humans ordain or will in accordance with their creator’s design plan for them, and if they would if they ordain what a fellow-creature will do, they might well in those circumstances have to be brainwashers or something similar. But why think that the Creator is himself hedged in by the limitations and constraints of that same design plan? Who designed the design plan of the Creator?

If so, then the defender of such a view, faced with the prima facie objection, how can God ordain creaturely actions, including evil actions, without himself being the author of sin, may appeal to our ignorance of the way in which God knows his own mind and gives effect to his purposes. Plantinga’s basic point, that God is our Creator and that we are designed and created in accordance with his design plan, applies every bit as much to his ordaining as to his knowledge. How God wills is also beyond our ken, presumably. If we cannot understand how God wills in such a way as to preserve his holiness and purity, this does not in any way infringe God’s ordaining of all events being consistent with his holiness and purity. To conclude this would require that we believe that it is impossible that God can have a holy and pure ordination of evil, and the prospect of showing such a thing seems remote.

The unanswerability of ‘How does God know?’ removes constraints that would otherwise lie on the Molinist. He can accept that God has middle knowledge, even though we do not know how God has such knowledge. But it has a parallel effect on the Augustinian of Calvinist: that we cannot see how God, while pure and holy, nevertheless ordains the impure and unholy actions of his creatures, ought not to surprise us, given that our ignorance stretches beyond how God know, to how God ordains.  Augustine called God’s willing permission of particular evil actions ‘unspeakably strange and wonderful’ (Enchiridion Ch. C)) This  ‘author of sin’ objection, which is routinely produced by opponents of God’s ordaining of all that comes to pass,  cannot count as a serious objection to Augustinianism, so long as Plantinga’s point holds. Indeed one might even prefer the Augustinian position to Molinism simply on the grounds of simplicity, if for no other reason, thus rendering the Molinist hypothesis otiose.