Omniscient of Nescience?
Awhile back I concocted a philosophical conundrum. I consulted Dana Leslie, a friend and a philosopher; he in turn recommended that I contact Robert West. He did not disappoint; for Robert West resolved the paradox in not just one, but two ways, and those ways in subtle but severe contradiction! As a paralogician, I enjoy this.
I first stated the paradox like this:
“Can an omnipotent being truly understand what it is like to lack power?”
I rephrased this colloquially as, “Can God grok wimphood?” By ‘grok’, I mean intuitive understanding; a point I’ll revert to shortly.
Robert West noted that this is really about omniscience, not omnipotence; so I reformulated it to:
“Does an omnipotent being possess the power to understand powerlessness?”
But perhaps “the power to understand” is a quibble. So better yet:
“Can omniscience know nescience?”
“Can the all-knowing know what it’s like not to know?”
Ah, but what kind of knowing? Analyzing or grokking? Presumably a transcendent being, knowing the position and momentum of every particle in the universe (despite quantum mechanics) and all the forces and laws governing them could, like Laplace’s Demon, calculate all our thoughts and actions (despite free will) and in that sense ‘know’ our ignorance; but for that very reason couldn’t possibly ‘grok’ it. It would manifestly lack our point of view; it would know from ‘above’ but not ‘within’.
No doubt this comes under the heading of transcendent vs. immanent.
Robert West gave two replies:
“There is a canned sermon the burden of which is that it was Judgement Day. All the people of the world were waiting to be judged, when someone shouted that God had no right to judge, for he had not suffered, so did not know temptation, need or despair. So the multitude murmured, and agreed. Finally, it was decided that God should learn: he should be born to an oppressed race, in an occupied homeland. His family should have to flee even that home, and he should know poverty and privation. He should have lies told about him, be tempted by the prospect of wealth and power, and, if He rejected those, he should be betrayed by one close to him, the rest should forsake Him, and he should die a horrible death. Then, the Judge appears, and it is Jesus.”
“If God is a fit judge, then God must fully understand us. Therefore it is an article of faith that God’s omniscience includes a knowledge of what we go through.”
The first says that God understands our suffering because God suffered too. The second says that God understands our suffering, by definition. Please note that these discuss suffering, not ignorance! But that quibble aside...
I admit that though I am a skeptical non-Christian, I find explanation #1 (God suffered too) highly appealing on an emotional level. It is vivid, moving and poetic. But though vividness is a virtue for poetry, it is a vice for theology; for it opens up critique, or even refutation. Is a God who knows ignorance and powerlessness from within - i.e., is personally ignorant and powerless - truly a God?
Conversely, explanation #2 (God understands by definition) is as water-tight as it is airless. It possesses the qualities of logic, irrefutability and obscurity; these are virtues for theology, but vices for poetry. It also sets off my alarm bells; for by my understanding of justice and of definition, anyone “just by definition” is certainly mistaken in that self-assessment. I could, if you wish, support this claim by citing Goedel’s 2nd Incompleteness Theorem; any arithmetical deductive system that proves its own consistency is in fact not consistent.
I regard explanation #1 as a ringing endorsement of the circulation of aristocracies. It posits a god of the People, who rose from the ranks and has been through what we’ve been through. This is very democratic and revolutionary; but revolutions tend to go in a circle, and what goes up might come down.
Explanation #2 is monarchic. The King on high sees all. I doubt that only because I don’t know. But that’s my point; I, with Socrates, know that I don’t know. How could a panoptic King know that?
Robert West’s two resolutions of the paradox refute each other; as befits a paradox!