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:
- God is omniscient, which means that God possesses complete knowledge of reality.
- Conscious experience is private in the sense that no subject but the one having the experience has access to it.
- If God is a subject, then God cannot possess knowledge of the conscious experiences of other subjects.
- God is a subject.
- God cannot possess knowledge of the conscious experiences of other subjects.
- 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.
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.
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?