Skip to content


November 30, 2010

There are a number of ways to think about divine omniscience. If God is in time, and/or we are happy to accept human determinism, there aren’t even that many problems. However, Catholic theology a la Aquinas wants to hold that God is outside time, is omniscient and that humans have free will. This raises a number of questions (these and the quotes that follow are from The Nature of God by Hughes).

  1. Does God know propositions in anything other than a metaphorical sense, or does God primarily know actual and possible things?
  2. Is God’s eternity, and hence God’s knowledge, to be everlasting or timeless?
  3. Can we solve the difficulties of God’s knowledge of contingent things by allowing that God’s knowledge is itself contingent? Or does the doctrine of simplicity require that God’s knowledge is itself somehow necessary?

Hughes, like Aquinas and Molina, wants to hold on to the position that God is simple and timeless rather than everlasting. He will therefore talk about <knowing> rather than knowing.

How are we to think of <knowing>? This is used as a tenseless form of the verb, taking place in the ‘eternal present’, where ‘present’ is to be understood as that which is ‘immediately accessible to God’s knowledge and causal activity’.

What does God know?

God cannot now be said to <know> any propositions that make a truth dependant on time:

  • God does not <know> the proposition “I am writing now” – this would be to place God in time along with the act of my writing.
  • God does <know> the proposition “The phrase “I am writing now” would be true if said by Christian at 12:03pm”.

Hughes concludes that, rather than follow Aquinas in saying that God <knows> all true propositions, we should say that ‘God <know> all true statements which God could make’. Further, we need to remember that God <knows> about things, rather than about statements about things.  ‘Gods knowledge is non-propositional, though we need to talk about it in propositional terms’.

Does this detract from our image of God?

P103: It is surely all but meaningless to make a comparison between an essentially time-bound form of experience and an eternal total awareness of reality, with a view to asking which is better, or as a prelude to suggesting that it a sad deficiency that God cannot share in what we might find exciting.

Is God’s knowledge necessary? Is it uncaused?

The past is fixed and nothing, including God, can change it. The truth of a statement such as “I have had a cup of coffee today” is therefore accidentally necessary; it once could have been false, but now has to be true. Hughes wants to argue that God’s knowledge of the ‘entire history of the cosmos’ is, in a sense, accidentally necessary.

P104: ‘”Being true” is not an intrinsic property of a contingent statement… [In] bringing about some future state of affairs, we can bring it about that a statement previously made was true; and we can make it false that someone knew all along that we would not do so.’

As an analogy, think of a football match in which one team goes 1-0 up. Then in the last second of the game the goalkeeper from the winning team makes a save. The action of the goalkeeper gives truth to the statement that the earlier goal was the winning goal. We haven’t influenced the action of the goal itself, merely the truth of a statement.

Hughes concludes from this that there is no causal relationship between what comes to be actual and the necessary content of God’s “state of mind”. The fact that the future is inaccessible to us is not a problem God has. The problem becomes one of contingency; if the actual future is contingent, how does God <know> it?

P105: ‘The parallel in God to my lack of causal access to the past is God’s lack of causal access to more than one actual history of a time-bound cosmos. From God’s point if views, then, it <be> not accidentally possible that there should be another actual history of this cosmos… In a slightly extended use of the term, the entire history of the cosmos is, from God’s point of view, accidentally necessary.’

Hughes says that ‘it is not in our power to bring it about that the actual history of the cosmos is other than it <be>, though it is in our power to determine what that actual history <be>’. This is because ‘there is no contradiction in saying that some temporal event E is both eternally necessary, and as yet accidentally contingent where the ‘as yet’ is a temporal expression’.

Problem: Does this mean that our actions cause God’s knowledge?

P107: ‘…while it is true that the ultimate source of God’s knowledge is God’s awareness of his own nature and of his created activity, his knowledge of contingent events within creation must derive from the occurrence of those events themselves. It will follow that God to that extent must be regarded as being acted upon by creation, even though he himself is the ultimate source of the creation with which he interacts.’

Hughes holds that there must be a causal interaction between creation and creator.

Aquinas believed that God knows future events because he is the cause of these events. Hughes dismisses this idea as unsupportable (which it is). Therefore

P108: ‘The aim is to find some characterisation of God’s transcendent causality which is both causally efficacious and yet does not wholly determine its effect, and which could in part be an overall explanation of how it is that God knows the complete effect.’

Consider some undetermined event E taking place at time t (e.g. radioactive decay). Hughes says that ‘created causal agents interact in virtue of the natures they have’. In the case of radioactive decay this means that God can only <know> that a certain proportion of a radioactive material will decay in a given time. If this is true then it is false to say that God’s <knowledge> of the decay of a particle at a particular time is explained by his causing the decay at that time. This doesn’t leave Hughes with many options other than to conclude as he does; ‘God’s knowledge seems to depend on created events.’

P110: The following statements are all true according to Hughes:

  1. If it is true that event E occurred at time t, then it <be> true that E <occur> at time t.
  2. It is always true to say that E would occur at t; and the grounds for the truth of that statement is the event which took place at t.
  3. There is no causal explanation of E taking place at t.
  4. There were, prior to t, no grounds for believing that E either would, or would not, take place at t.
  5. At all times subsequent to t, and eternally, the ground for believing that E took place at t simply is the occurrence of E itself.

While we as free agents can determine which possible future becomes actual, God, being eternal, has immutable knowledge of what this actual future will <be>. Statement 5 above says that this eternal <knowing> is grounded in the occurrence of contingent events.


Hughes acknowledges that there are potential problems with this answer. It ‘weakens the sense in which God’s knowledge can be said to be identical with God’s existence.’ However he goes further: ‘…it is in any case not clear what might be meant by stating that God’s knowledge and God’s existence are identical, and hence unclear whether the necessity of God’s existence automatically transfers to God’s knowledge. I think the conclusion must be that it does not.’

Even though Hughes has argued that God’s knowledge is immutable, it is unclear how this is consistent with a simple God given the above statement. If there is no transfer of necessity from existence to knowledge, how can we talk of a simple God, for whom by definition existence and knowledge are one?

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: