A methodological remark on open theism
December 5, 2008 — 12:25

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Concept of God Open Theism  Comments: 15

Suppose I have a new account of, say, omnipotence. Presumably, I still want to still claim that the attribute that I have given an account of is sufficiently close to the traditional understanding of the attribute that we are talking about the same attribute, and I am not simply denying that God has omnipotence in the traditional understanding, but clarifying. This is going to be a vague matter to some degree. But I do want to propose one necessary condition: My understanding of the attribute should be compatible with what my religious tradition takes to be central, paradigm cases of the exercise of that attribute.
An account of divine justice on which rewarding the just simply was not an option would depart too far from the traditional understanding, since rewarding the just is a paradigm case of the exercise of divine justice according to the tradition. Likewise, creation and miracles are paradigm cases of the exercise of omnipotence. An account of omnipotence on which one of these two was impossible would not be an account of omnipotence. This is true even if the account accepted traditional verbage like: “God can do anything that’s logically possible”, but added that creation or miracles are logically impossible.
On the other hand, if one departs somewhat from traditional wording, but keeps the paradigm cases, one has more of a hope of maintaining that one is merely clarifying. Thus, even if one is not willing to say that God can do anything that’s logically possible, because one says that suicide is logically possible but God cannot do it, instead opting for some view like that God is the first cause in all possible worlds, or that God can do anything that it is logically possible that God can do, vel caetera, as long as one maintains the paradigm cases of omnipotence from the tradition, one might be just clarifying.
But the Christian tradition, I claim, sees two particularly impressive and noteworthy cases of omniscience–knowing what is in the depths of the human heart and knowing future contingents. It is impressive that God knows how many hairs I have. But that is something that creatures can figure out, too. It is impressive that God knows all mathematical theorems. But since a theorem is, by definition, provable, a creature could in principle know it. These kinds of knowledge, while impressive, are not very different from the knowledge that creatures we have. But the tradition, I think, takes knowledge of the contents of our mind, as well as knowledge of future contingents, to be the paradigm impressive examples of omniscience.
If one does not save paradigm cases like these, one has not clarified the traditional understanding of omniscience but one has rejected it. This is so even if one says: “God knows everything that is true”, but denies that there are true non-tautological propositions about the future. If one does that, then one is no more a believer in omniscience, than someone who thinks God can do everything logically possible but who denies that creation is possible is a believer in omnipotence.

  • Mike Almeida

    Suppose I have a new account of, say, omnipotence. Presumably, I still want to still claim that the attribute that I have given an account of is sufficiently close to the traditional understanding of the attribute that we are talking about the same attribute, and I am not simply denying that God has omnipotence in the traditional understanding, but clarifying.
    The problem you raise is, I think, extremely important. It assumes, as we certainly should, that a priori knowledge about the traditional attributes is not merely a linguistic or conceptual inquiry. We don’t learn merely what our concept of omnipotence is in such investigations–who exactly cares about that?–but what the metaphysics of omnipotence is. But since it is the metaphysics that matters here–I take it we agree–why would you assume a priori that the traditional has the right constraints on any proper view of the metaphysics of omnipotence (or any other attribute)? This seems to me like a radical epistemological claim. Why couldn’t I learn that the tradition has gone wrong or even badly wrong? I understand a pious or reverential attitude to tradition on such topics, but this is consistent with finding that a rather serious error found its way into this tradition.

    December 5, 2008 — 13:31
  • Luke Gelinas

    Hi Alex,
    I have the same reservation as Mike. But I’m also wondering just which concepts you want to say this about. You mention “omnipotence” and “omniscience” and “divine justice,” and these seem like good concepts (on your view) to place under the constraint.
    But what about the concept of, say, “gender equality,” or “slavery”, or “sexuality.” The bulk of the tradition has denied legitimacy to women elders or priests, and categorically prohibited same-sex sexual relations. Now I don’t really want to make any claims either way about these things. But do you think it’s not possible to wind up opposed to the tradition on these issues without losing the concept of “gender equality” or “sexuality”?

    December 5, 2008 — 13:58
  • Well, there are two responses one can make. The more controversial is that on matters of faith and morals, the morally unanimous agreement Christian tradition is infallible. The less controversial is that I am making a conceptual point: If the paradigm cases don’t match up, I have a different concept from the one the folks in the tradition do, and so I am not giving an account of, say, omnipotence, but only of omnipotence*.
    Suppose after a lot of scientific work, I conclude that water is XYZ, and that what flows in our oceans and rivers and hydrates us is really not water, since it’s not XYZ but H2O. Surely that’s a silly conclusion. For if what I am analyzing is not the stuff that flows in our oceans and rivers and hydrates us, then it is not water, but water*, that I am analyzing.

    December 5, 2008 — 14:04
  • Mike Almeida

    The less controversial is that I am making a conceptual point: If the paradigm cases don’t match up, I have a different concept from the one the folks in the tradition do, and so I am not giving an account of, say, omnipotence, but only of omnipotence*.
    The conceptual point might be mistaken in two ways. (1) you might only think you know what the concept of omnipotence entails, but not really know much at all. Example: everyone thinks he knows what the concept of being a moon entails. But that’s only because they haven’t really tested what they know. Imagine that a moon of Jupiter–Io, say–itself acquires a moon. Is any moon of Io also a moon of Jupiter? Is ‘being a moon’ transitive? Cases like these show that even a simple concept like that of being a moon are not in general clearly understood. We can imagine cases in which we are at a total loss as to whether the concept applies. (2) the fact is that there is no single clear concept of omnipotence. There are competing concepts. Why are we a priori obliged to adhere to the concept as developed in the tradition? I see no reason at all for that. The traditional concept might well have the metaphysics badly wrong.

    December 5, 2008 — 14:26
  • Mike,
    But wouldn’t you be worried if the Moon didn’t turn out to count as a moon on the analysis?

    December 5, 2008 — 14:35
  • Jonathan Jacobs

    Does, say, the Catholic tradition really count God’s knowledge of future *contingents* as paradigm cases of omniscience? Certainly the tradition counts cases of God’s firm intentions regarding the future as cases of His knowledge of the future, but that is consistent with God’s lacking knowledge of future contingents.

    December 5, 2008 — 15:26
  • Luke:
    Let’s start with “gender equality” and “sexuality”. First of all, neither terms is, as far as I know, used by the tradition. So, the issue simply does not come up.
    Now, it is true that the tradition might talk about “equality” and something like “sexual desire” (I don’t know what term would be used, actually). For the analogy to work, there would have to be things that the tradition would take to be paradigm cases of “equality” and “sexual desire” but which the reformer did not take to be such. But I can’t think of such cases.
    While the tradition would say that it’s OK to restrict the priesthood to men, they would not say that the restriction of the priesthood to men is an example or instance or exercise of equality–much less a paradigm one. At the most, they would say that the restriction is compatible with equality, and that is a different claim.
    Similarly, anything that the tradition would count as an example or instance or exercise of sexual desire is also something that the reformer would. Now, if the reformer came to the conceptual conclusion that sexual desire can only exist between people of the same sex, then we would worry that the concept has been shifted from what the tradition was talking about.
    So these cases are not ones that affect anything I said.
    Maybe you could try to run the cases in reverse? Maybe you could say that a paradigm case for us of equality is not having sex-based restrictions for the priesthood. But I don’t think it’s a paradigm case. Paradigm cases are of basic civil rights and restrictions within professions. The priesthood is not a profession. Moreover, a strand of the tradition could agree that not having sex-based restrictions for the priesthood is a case of equality–but go on to say that so much the worse for equality (it’s pretty clear that Aquinas would say that).
    What about sexual desire? Are there things we’d count as paradigm cases of it, that the tradition wouldn’t count as a case of it at all? I doubt it. Maybe the modern-day reformer would count same-sex sexual desire as a paradigm case of sexual desire. The medieval wouldn’t count it as a paradigm case of sexual desire. But she’d still count it as a case of sexual desire, albeit a perverted case.
    Slavery is a better example because the term “slave” was in fact traditionally used. But I don’t think there is much disagreement about paradigm cases. We think Onesimus was a slave, and they thought Onesimus was a slave. We think the Romans practiced a paradigm case of slavery, and they thought so too. There may have been a difference in moral evaluation, but that is not a difference as to what falls under the concept, but as to how the things that fall under the concept are to be evaluated.

    December 5, 2008 — 15:36
  • Jonathan:
    That knowledge of future contingents is an exercise of omniscience is clearly a part of the Catholic tradition. That it is a paradigm exercise of it takes a bit more work. One set of sources here is the Catholic apologetic tradition. This tradition distinguishes a category we might call miracles sensu stricto. These are things that only God can do. For instance, an angel or demon who can manipulate matter effectively enough could make someone walk on water (just increase the surface tension enough) and maybe even change water to wine (just move the elementary particles about). But only God can create ex nihilo, only God can raise people from the dead, etc. This is a useful category for apologetic purposes–if we can show that a miracle sensu stricto occurred, we can immediately dismiss the possibility of a naturalistic or demonic explanation. Anyway, among cases of things God can do and only God can do, there are two that are exercises of omniscience: knowledge of the secret thoughts of people and knowledge of future contingents.
    But I am now worried. What I said about these being paradigm cases–which was essential to my argument–was based on an impressionistic view of the Fathers and the later tradition, rather than on particular texts I had in mind.
    I don’t have the time to do it thoroughly right now, but one way to test my hypothesis is to search for “God knows” in the Church Fathers, and see how often knowledge of the future is affirmed in the near vicinity of that. A google search for site:newadvent.org/fathers “god knows” will do the job.

    December 5, 2008 — 15:52
  • Luke Gelinas

    Thanks, this helps. I guess I’d need to hear more about what it means to be a paradigm case of the exercise of an attribute.
    But I think, yes, I would want to run it in reverse. It does seem possible for someone nowadays to think that certain practices condoned by the tradition amount to paradigm instances of (for instance) inequality. If someone did think this, then on your view he’d no longer be talking about the same “inequality” as the tradition, and the question is who’s got it right.
    Still, I’m not sure that in this situation the reformer wouldn’t be talking about the same thing as the tradition, since when this does happen–when the reformer disagrees with the tradition over the paradigm instances of inequality (say, in the case of women church leaders, or same-sex relations)–there are usually resources from somewhere within the tradition that allow the reformer to see how women elders (for example), or same-sex relations, can be accommodated within the tradition. I.e., it seems to depend largely on what we include in “the tradition,” and what we exclude, that determines what the paradigm instances of “the tradition” turn out to be.

    December 5, 2008 — 20:02
  • Jonathan Jacobs

    Right, it’s is the paradigmatic nature I’m wondering about. If the Church has indeed thought of God’s knowledge of future contingents as paradigmatic of His omniscience, then that would be a significant strike against, say, a presentist who doesn’t accept Molinism but who accepts the authority of the Church. Would you agree?

    December 5, 2008 — 22:17
  • Tom

    Alexander: The less controversial is that I am making a conceptual point: If the paradigm cases don’t match up, I have a different concept from the one the folks in the tradition do, and so I am not giving an account of, say, omnipotence, but only of omnipotence*.
    Just thinking out loud here.
    I agree this is an important issue, and I wouldn’t claim to know what the right methodology is. But I wonder whether, given the methodology you suggest Alexander, it becomes needlessly difficult to make corrections along the way within a tradition. With each significant correction we have to find a new word because we don’t allow ourselves the freedom to correct even fundamental misconceptions we have while keeping the traditional terms. ‘Omniscient’ is a handy, useful word and I can hardly think of a better word to describe a being who knows all truths and believes no falsehoods (especially in the context of a bivalent semantic!). Are we really to call such a being less than ‘omniscient’ because the set of all truths known by God are not of the traditional sort? The ‘contents’ of that set have changed, so to speak, but ‘omniscient’ can’t be used to describe a being who nevertheless knows all the contents?
    If someone discovered that the liquid we drink and call “water” isn’t really composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom but rather of some other combination of atoms (a pretty fundamental correction I should think), would we really stop calling the liquid we drink “water”? I doubt it. We’re far more likely to keep employing the term “water” and adjust our understanding of what we refer to by the term. Even if there were serious disagreement over water’s chemical composition, would the traditionalists argue the new guys on the block find a word other than “water” to describe the liquid under consideration? Wouldn’t they just accept that they’re disagreeing over the chemical make-up of that liquid they both call “water”?
    Similar examples can be found with religious terminology as well, including the Greek word (and understanding of) “theos” and its Hellenistic origins. The word remained. The meaning invested in the word changed. I’m an Arabic translator for example, and the issue of whether Arabic speaking Christians ought to use the word ‘Allah’ for God (the same word employed by Muslims for God) comes up from time to time (always brought up by Western Christians, not Arabs themselves). Yet here are two fundamentalliy different understandings of God which each employ the same word for God. Neither side seems to mind. They manage the conversation quite well.
    I’m wondering if a roughly similar example might be the debate over “pistis” (faith) between, say, Word of Faith Charistmatics (on the one hand) and other Christian believers who reject the fundamental way Word of Faith folk understand “faith” (what it is, what’s it’s for, how it works, etc.). I guess those who have been around longer and who disagree with the Word of Faith school of thought can argue that the latter find themselves a word other than “faith” to express themselves. But is that really reasonable?

    December 6, 2008 — 9:36
  • Tom:
    These are good points. But I think that there is more here than just choosing a good word. We’re not merely philosophizing when we are talking about omniscience. This is a matter of faith–let’s suppose Christian faith for definiteness. Using the word suggests a basic agreement with the faith of one’s Christian predecessors, and that agreement tends to be important to the Christian open theist.
    After all, consider the following sociological fact. While opponents of open theism are apt to say that the open theist denies omniscience, a defender of open theism is significantly less likely to say that, no?

    December 6, 2008 — 14:15
  • Gordon Knight

    Hello Alexander:
    The question you raise seems to be: If I am an open theist, should I deny that God is really omnicient? Or can I just wiggle the concept about, and say, well on my understanding of omniscience, yes, but on yours (traditional theism), no.
    Here is an analogy: I think that in order to be responsible, a person has to have free will understood in a libertarian sense. Compatibilists disagree. Both the libertarian and the compatiblist want to say there are some cases in which a person acts freely, and others in which the person does not. But they disagree radically on what “free will” means. As a libertarian, I am obviously partisan. But there is nothing wrong in principle with the possibility that I am just wrong, that I am working with the wrong conception of freedom, tht this concept leads in fact to all sorts of absurdities and is really useless in evaluating praise and blame.
    I think the OT critique of the tradition is (ironically perhaps) analogous to the compatibilist: yes there is this old idea of omniscience, but it leads to philosophical and theological absurdities/difficulties–whereas this new understanding is actually more equipt to do justice to ordinary religious experience and a philosophically defensible concept of deity.
    Or maybe I would ask you: if, hypothetically, you were persuaded tht that divine foreknowledge was really incompatible with libertarian free will, would you (1) be more sympathetic to an openist understanding of omniscience or (2) decide now that God really is not omniscient or (3) deny libertarian free will.
    The real issue is what are the fruits of these different understandings of omniscience.

    December 8, 2008 — 0:29
  • Gordon:
    If I were convinced that libertarian free will were incompatible with foreknowledge, I would opt for Thomistic theological compatibilism–the view that freedom is compatible determination by the Primary Cause–since that would be the only remaining view compatible with the Catholic faith.

    December 8, 2008 — 7:22
  • Enigman

    Alexander, as I’m an Open theist and an Anselmian theist, so far as I can tell (terms of this art do have a habit of changing their meanings), so I’d like to defend the claim that God is omnipotent. To begin with, it seems possible that demons could read people’s minds. It also seems conceivable that an AI could create a deterministic virtual world, within which it would know all future contingents.
    But crucially, it seems that an Open-theistic God could, if he wanted to, determine the future and so know all that would happen, and could read all his creatures’ minds. He would only have to have created, or choose now to sustain, such a limited world. Note that insofar as the creator of this world might not be Open-theistic, so such a choice is available to the Open-theistic God.
    Moreoever, the Open-theistic God could also create beings that were less limited, were made more in his own image. And that a timeless God could not do. So only the Open-theistic God is in himself omnipotent. The contrary idea springs, it seems to me, from a fallacy, of confusing epistemic and metaphysical modalities. When we fix the world (as we think we know it) and consider various concepts of God, that is epistemic possibility. When we fix God as a necessary being and consider what he might create, that is metaphysical possibility. God is omnipotent in the latter sense.

    December 30, 2008 — 4:33