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Marcus Arvan

Hi Elisa: So nice to see a new post by you! I'm a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I'd never given much thought to the notion of omniscience--and it never really occurred to me that there might be such substantially different ways to understand it! So thanks so much for sharing this - it really gave me a lot to think about.

I guess I'll start with one question on a topic you discuss in this case that I'm more familiar with: free will. You write:

"They explain that Īśvara `Lord' needs to be omniscient in order to deploy His functions, which include the re-arrangement of the world after each periodic destruction and the re-assignment of their karman to each living being. Accordingly, God's omniscience needs to be understood in a robust sense as the knowledge of all present, past and future states of affairs and as completely actualised (against some Buddhist conceptions discussed above). This, however, entails some problem, insofar as the Lord's knowledge needs to be at any time complete and is in this sense atemporal. But this seems to mean that (a) there is no space for human free will and (b) the Lord knows the world outside of time."

I guess I'm curious why, in this tradition, the Lord needs to know all states of affairs--past, present, and future--to properly express His functions. Why not think that the Lord in some sense sees that it is good to leave the future *open* to creatures with free will, such that the future is not decided in advance (and such that full omniscience would be limited to the past and present, as well as the parts of the future not affected by free will)? Is the problem supposed to be the that, in that case, God would not be able to predict how free choice would be used--and so God could not have grounds for deciding that free will would be *good* on balance (viz. God's omnibenevolent nature)?

Elisa Freschi

Thanks for engaging, Marcus. (By the way, it is all but normal that you did not think a lot about omniscience if you never worked on philosophy of religion, given that in European and Angloamerican philosophy this is usually the only field in which it plays a role).

As for your question, it has to do with one's conception of God (about which you might want to check this post: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2016/11/analytical-philosophy-of-religion-with-indian-categories.html). Basically, if you think of God as a perfect being, then you are very much likely to add that He is unchanging over time (because how could He have been perfect at time t1 and at time t2 if at time t1 He lacked something, namely the characteristic He acquired at time t2?). But if He is unchanging over time, He cannot acquire new knowledge, He must be omniscient ab initio, which means that He must have known forever all possible states of affairs, which should therefore be all simultaneously present in His mind. This, in turn, leads to problems relative to knowledge and temporality.

Hope this is clear enough!

Marcus Arvan

Interesting. I sort of see why one might think a perfect God must be unchanging--but I'm not quite convinced.

For let's suppose that a perfect God (qua omnibenevolence) has sufficient reason to give human beings free will. Then let's suppose that genuine free will requires an "open future", such that it is literally indeterminate what choice I will make before I make it. This seems to me fully compatible with God's other supposed perfections (omnipotence, omniscience, etc.), since in that case there would be nothing for God to *know* about my future choices until they have been made. In which case, if God's perfection is defined in terms of the 3 O's (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence), it would seem to be coherent to suppose that a perfect God is changing (having complete knowledge of every fact there is to know--facts which are constantly changing/coming into existence).

I've also always been a bit puzzled by the idea of an "unchanging" God for other reasons (principally, my concern being that it seems to me to cohere poorly with the notion--embedded in many traditions--of God as a kind of living agent, one who judges human beings, commands them, etc.).

However, I'm not particularly well-versed in philosophy of religion, so I'm sure there's a lot I'm missing!

Elisa Freschi

Thanks, Marcus. The problem is that you are operating with two distinct notions of God, one of a God as person (who can choose a suboptimal state of affairs, like not being completely omniscient) in order to benefit people He loves (let us call this the Hebrew option) and the other of God as perfect being (like in Aristotle, let us call this the Greek one). The latter is the consistent output of ontological and metaphysical arguments (like Aristotle's ones, but think also of Spinoza or Leibniz), but cannot choose to be different than what He is.
Many comparable debates took case in Islamic philosophy between the God of philosophers and the God of Islam.

I see from your note about a ''God as a kind of living agent, one who judges human beings, commands them, etc.'' that you (in this comment, I am not arguing about your overall beliefs!) might be inclined to privilege the ''Hebrew'' over the ''Greek'' God, but this leaves you with the very difficult problem of how to justify His existence, for metaphysical claims only lead to some sort of ''Greek'' God. Nor could it be otherwise, since the only thing you can prove inferentially (e.g., by inferring a cause out of its effect) is a rational and not-varying cause, not a whimsical one who might have done x or y.

Last, let me add that the conflation of the two notions of God is widely found in many Christian thinkers, who indeed needed to find place for two different traditions (the ''Hebrew" and the "Greek" one).

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