Does God Know What It Is like to Be You?

God is traditionally defined as having at least some of the following attributes: omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (is present everywhere), and moral perfection (incapable of doing evil, possibly the ultimate source of morality). Here, I will specifically focus on omniscience, defined as the claim that God has complete knowledge of reality. This divine attribute is most prominently found in Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), but also in Sikhism. In Buddhism and Jainism, it is sometimes defined as a property that any individual can attain, so the title of this post, if applied to those religions, would be: Does an Omniscient Being Know What It Is like to Be You? In a broader sense, the same question can be asked for any being possessing the attribute of omniscience.

Minds are Private

There is a strong sense in which minds are private. Nobody can truly know what it is like to be me, only I have access to the contents of my own consciousness. In fact, it seems that conscious experience – by definition – is essentially a first-person perspective phenomenon, something that cannot be known objectively, from the outside. A neuroscientist might study my brain, even identify which brain states correspond to which conscious states. For example, they may conclude that when I feel pain, this particular area of my brain lights up. But that would not give them knowledge of what it is like for me to feel that token pain, at that particular moment in time, at that location. This qualitative aspect of conscious experience – what is called phenomenal consciousness – appears as an internal, private phenomenon. If that is the case, then even God cannot know what it is like to be me, as an external observer. That means that not all knowledge can be possessed by God, which in turn means that God is not omniscient! To restate, the argument goes as follows:

  1. God is omniscient, which means that God possesses complete knowledge of reality.
  2. Conscious experience is private in the sense that no subject but the one having the experience has access to it.
  3. If God is a subject, then God cannot possess knowledge of the conscious experiences of other subjects.
  4. God is a subject.
  5. God cannot possess knowledge of the conscious experiences of other subjects.
  6. If God cannot possess such knowledge, then God is not omniscient.

∴    God is not omniscient.

God is Unlike Us

Since God is traditionally defined as an all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect being, it is hard to see how God could know what it is like to be a finite, fallible being of limited power, like a human or an animal. Can God know what it is like to feel anger, wrath, regret, guilt, or just plain evil? Can God know what it is like to not know something? These questions might seem naïve at first, but there is a sense in which God is a fundamentally different type of being from us.

A Christian might answer that God incarnated as Jesus, which gave God knowledge of what it is like to be human, but certainly, that does not give him knowledge of the experiences of all humans and animals, which would be required for omniscience. If it is the case that God as Father and Jesus as Son are different minds, then divine incarnation probably does not provide an answer to this conundrum at all. There are likely similar stories in many religions, but I will not discuss this issue further and instead focus on the more formal argument above. Hopefully, the answers to that argument will shed some light on this problem as well.

Possible Solutions

Linda Zagzebski introduced the notion of perfect empathy: a relation that God could bear to conscious subjects that would allow God to gain perfect knowledge of their conscious experiences. While interesting, I do not think that this solution ultimately avoids the problem. Zagzebski’s relation is still a relation, involving two subjects: God and me. I am not sure how that would give God knowledge of what it is like to be me as me, from my own perspective. In fact, if God can gain knowledge of our conscious experiences in that manner, then perfect empathy seems to be a denial of the claim that minds are private. At least, it seems like making an exception for God, which is potentially warranted considering that God is also usually thought of as being omnipotent (all-powerful), so it is not a wild claim to suggest that perfect empathy is one of God’s many powers. However, even if that were the case, it does seem to suggest that God, by temporarily adopting my perspective, can know what it is like to be evil, angry, regretful, etc., which potentially comes into conflict with God’s other attributes, such as moral perfection.

Furthermore, to me, it just seems counterintuitive that a relation between two subjects gives one of them – God – knowledge of what it is like to be the other subject – me – without God actually becoming me. But if God were to become me, at least for a while, then God’s own subjectivity would cease to be for that period of time. If it does not cease, then God is really only having conscious experiences like mine through their own perspective, which is not the same type of knowledge as experiencing my experiences as me. If God can hold multiple perspectives – God’s and my own – then yet another relation comes into play: the one that obtains between them, which is, again, a relation and thus not the same as God having knowledge of my conscious experience as me.

Following a similar line of thought, William Mander argued that God can know what it is like to be me only if my experience is part of God’s broader experience. In other words, only one true consciousness exists – God’s consciousness – and my consciousness is merely a part of it. Does this imply a form of pantheism, the view that God is the universe or that God permeates the universe? Perhaps, but in this case, this is implied only for the realm of consciousness. While this view may raise serious concerns about identity and free will, I think nevertheless that it is quite promising. Instead of denying that God is omniscient, that God is a subject, that minds are private, or just accepting atheism, we can integrate God into the world – or at least the world of consciousness – and solve the problem in that way. That is the approach that I prefer: redefining our conception of God in order to open our mind up to alternative and non-standard definitions of the divine.

 

Sources

Linda Zagzebski – Omnisubjectivity.

Patrick Grim – Against Omniscience: The Case from Essential Indexicals.

Stephan Torre – De Se Knowledge and the Possibility of an Omniscient Being.

Thomas Nagel – What It Is Like to Be a Bat?

William Mander – Does God Know What It Is Like to be Me?

5 thoughts on “Does God Know What It Is like to Be You?

  1. I believe in God from the view of a pantheist. I think the Supreme Being is ultimately objective, not just subjective. In pantheism: all is the divine, so the way I understand it is that God (taken as the whole of everything) is full of subjects, but it is also one with each subject despite the objectivity. God is the container as well as the contents of its own existence, that is perfect omnipresence. Space-time can be perceived locally as limited by units of the universe, but in full view of the 4th-dimensional outlook, which perceives space and time universally, that is what draws the distinction between the eye and the all-seeing eye. The eyes of persons are subject to partial perspectives, but the eye of the all is impartial to all perspectives by means of it being all-in-one. This version of God is therefore impersonal without the one-sided personal view it has in and of itself through us. Think of unity and diversity: Whereas diversity is of distinction, unity is of combination. God is impartial and present everywhere in everything and everyone at everytime. The Supreme Being is unity in diversity, and this is separate from separation itself. It is impersonal precisely because of this being a collective of all sorts of stuff. By definition of pantheism, divinity is ALL, not SOME or NONE. And every something and someone is part of everything and everyone that is the godly all. The presence of God is transcended by a full participation, not transcended by any separation.

    1. Hey Stephen, thanks for your comment! Are you suggesting that God is a sort of essence for everything that exists? If God subsumes all objective and subjective facts about reality, would you say that God is a synthesis of the two, transcending each but encompassing both? The thing is, if God is impersonal, then the problem from my post doesn’t arise, unless the impersonal pantheistic God is also omniscient.

  2. Yes, that is what I mean Nino. God is both the essence as well as the existence of all that is, or could potentially be. In essence God/the universe is abstract, and existence it is concrete. Ergo the universe is both abstract and concrete, it contains persons, but is itself made impersonal because of being the fused collective of all personalities.

  3. Hi Nino!

    Great post, thought-provoking and bold.

    I find it hard to see how my consciousness could be ‘part’ of a further consciousness, namely, God’s. This of course is an instance of the wider ‘combination problem’, i.e. the apparent lack of explanation as to how a plurality of conscious selves can combine to constitute a distinct conscious self. This is good news if you’ve already solved that problem in defending panpsychism 😉

    On a different note, what do you make of Dennett’s ‘Brainstorm machine’ thought experiment?

    “Suppose, in intuition pump #4: the Brainstorm machine, there were some neuroscientific apparatus that fits on your head and feeds your visual experience into my brain (…) With eyes closed I accurately report everything you are looking at, except that I marvel at how the sky is yellow, the grass red, and so forth.” (‘Quining Qualia’)

    If a machine of this sort is metaphysically possible, couldn’t an omnipotent God know our qualia?

    1. Hey Chris, thank you for your comment, I appreciate it! I think that Mander’s claim leads to there just being one (God’s) consciousness, so the combination problem is avoided. Admittedly, it’s a really odd idea, that we are just modes of God’s consciousness. I think that such a machine is possible, but one could argue: even if that were true, God is such a radically different being from us, so can God truly know what it’s like to be us? You said it yourself: I report what you are seeing, but it is *me* who is marvelling. Does that mean that God would just see our phenomenal content from their own perspective?

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