Christian Doctrines, Dualism, Omniscience, philosophy, Religious Language

Omniscience, Substance Dualism, and Private Access

I recently attended a seminar on God and Time with William Lane Craig (view my post on it here). One topic (among many) that caught my interest was Craig’s denial of one of the arguments for substance dualism, namely, the “private access” of some truths.

J.P. Moreland argues for private access in his work The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism. He argues that mental states have an “ofness or aboutness–directed towards an object” which is “inner, private, and immediate to the subject having them” (20, emphasis his). Basically, the claim is that even were someone else to know everything about J.W. Wartick, they could not say that they know what it is to say “I am J.W. Wartick”, because they are not J.W. Wartick. Certain truths and facts are such that only the knower can know them. I cannot say I am Abraham Lincoln, because I am not him. Nor could I say that I was Abe Lincoln even were I to comprehensively know everything about Abe Lincoln from the events that occurred in his life to the exact synapses in his brain. There is something about a phrase like “I am Abe Lincoln” which only Abe Lincoln can know.

Interestingly, Craig denied that there was such a thing as “private access.” He argued that, were this the case, it would mean God is not omniscient.

Why should it follow that God is not omniscient? Well, Craig defines omniscience as “Knowledge of any and all true statements” (definition from my lecture notes). Due to the fact that God would not know true facts which have private access, argued Craig, there is no such thing as private access. This seemed like an odd way to go about denying private access in regards to substance dualism. The argument seemed to be:

1) Omniscience =def.: God knows any and all true statements.

2) God is omniscient.

3) Truths available only through private access would entail truths God does not know

4) Either God is not omniscient or there are not truths available only through private access (1, 2, 3)

5) God is omniscient (2)

6) Therefore, there are no truths available only through private access (4, 5)

The argument would work, if one agrees with the definition of omniscience in (1). But I find it more likely that omniscience is analogous to omnipotence, which is defined as God’s ability to do anything logically possible. Why should it not be the case that God can only know things which are logically possible to know? On such a view, then, private access would not challenge omniscience whatsoever, because it would be logically impossible for God to know truths only knowable to their subjects.

I brought this up to Craig, and he responded by saying that my definition of omniscience made it into a modal property, and omniscience is not a modal property. I don’t see why omniscience could not be a modal property. In fact, it seems to me as though it is necessarily modal. Omniscience entails that any being which is omniscient would have to know all possible truths about all possible worlds (for any being who did not know truths for all possible worlds could be outdone by a being which knew about more possible worlds), which is clearly a modal claim. So it seems to me omniscience is clearly a modal property, and there is no problem revising Craig’s definition to:

(7) Omniscience=def.: A being is omniscient if it knows everything it is logically possible to know.

Further, a denial of (7) would seem obviously contradictory because one who denies (7) would have to assert:

(7`): Omniscience=def.: A being is omniscient if it knows everything, including things it is logically impossible to know.

And this would lead to contradictions about omniscience. So I don’t see any reason not to revise Craig’s definition of omniscience to note that God can only know that which it is logically possible to know (for a denial of this would imply God’s knowledge could be contradictory). But then private access provides no challenge to omniscience, and Craig’s denial falls apart.

Finally, “private access” seems like an intuitively obvious feature of knowledge. How could one deny that there are truths such as “I am J.W. Wartick”? It seems clear that only I can experience what it is to be J.W. Wartick. So I think it is necessary to modify Craig’s definition and simply deny his argument, both because God cannot know or do the logically impossible, and because “private access” is such a well-established phenomenon.

Edit: See the interesting discussion in the comments below. I am forced to modify the definition I presented in this post in the comments below due to an insightful comment by Midas. Those interested can read below or just read my modification here: “A being is omniscient iff it knows all truths which are not delineated by private access [of others] or experiential knowledge [of others].”

SDG.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “Omniscience, Substance Dualism, and Private Access

  1. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” My response to Prof. Craig would have been something Paulian along the lines of ‘I live in Him and He in me’. That is to say, God, unlike mere creatures, DOES have direct access to our inner lives. Of course, God is not the thinker of my thoughts; I am their subject. Yet, He is acquainted (in the Russellian sense) with me as a subject, whereas my fellow creatures are not: as Tom Petty once sang, they don’t know what it’s like to be me. (St. Augustine references this fact throughout the Confessions.) Having said that, I don’t disagree with your response. If you could convince me that God doesn’t know what it’s like to be me, I would adopt it rather than abandon Moreland’s PAA.

    Posted by Robert Allen | April 4, 2011, 2:06 PM
    • Robert,

      Thanks for your comment and insight. I love when people come along to comment on my philosophy of religion posts (my greatest pleasure).

      I think that the most convincing reason for me to think I may “know” something God doesn’t is the exact distinction you made: “God is not the thinker of my thoughts; I am their subject.” From this it follows that God doesn’t know what it is to actually be the thinker of my thoughts. He can only know that analogously. I may be mistaken here, but it seems intuitively certain to me that the distinction is important and that it is a real distinction between one type of knowing and another.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 4, 2011, 2:11 PM
  2. To sustain Moreland’s distinction all we need is the notion of privacy- what it’s like to be inside a particular mind. Being in my mind, God thinks (of) me thinking my thoughts, without thinking those thoughts Himself. He thus knows what it’s like to be me without being me; knows me as I know myself. That is to say, God, unlike all other beings, could assume my perspective on reality. (Think of me standing over you as you watch television. In watching what you are doing I am seeing what’s on television without watching it myself, though I could become engrossed in the show and, thus, share your experience.) It seems, then, that omniscience as defined by Craig is consistent with the distinction Moreland draws.

    Posted by Robert Allen | April 4, 2011, 9:36 PM
    • Robert,

      Thanks for returning to clarify your point.

      It seems to me as though in your analogies, there is still a real distinction between the experience of God and myself. For on your argument as I see it:
      For any x and y, if x can think of y can think of y’s thinking y’s thoughts, then x knows y as y knows y-self.

      But I don’t see how this follows, because x still is not actually thinking y’s thoughts, x is merely knowing what it is like to think y’s thoughts.

      Now you did make a very important point when you said that “God… could assume my perspective on reality.” I would like some clarification here. Are you saying God could become me?

      Thanks again for taking the time to respond!

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 4, 2011, 11:41 PM
    • I wanted to come back and respond once more because I was rereading the post and it struck me that it seems you have indeed saved private access even on Craig’s definition of omniscience, because you would just have to show that God could know the true statement “I am J.W. Wartick.” If I’m reading you correctly, it seems you’re arguing that it would not follow from God’s knowledge of this statement that God would have to be me in order to know the statement is true.

      In other words, God would not have to be the speaker of the statement “I am J.W. Wartick” in order to know it’s true. It’s a distinction between propositional and experiential knowledge.

      Am I taking your meaning correctly? If so, I think you’re quite right in that private access does not need to be seen as undermined by even Craig’s definition of omniscience. Though I still maintain that if the argument is pressed that it is, then there is no difficulty with amending omniscience to say that it simply means all possible knowledge.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 5, 2011, 12:09 AM
  3. J.W.,

    I take it that to successfully rebut Craig (whose work I very much admire) we need only show that God is not at the same epistemic disadvantage as His creatures when it comes to understanding other minds. Now granted, in my analogy, I am not seeing what’s on the TV screen with your eyes; I am having a different visual experience. I am not seeing the screen, but you seeing the screen. But I could focus on the screen; that is I could see what you are seeing and only what you are seeing. What’s more, in seeing you see the screen I do see what you are seeing; though, again, that sight is only part of what I see, unlike you who are focused on the screen. What, then, do I fail to know about your visual experience? How that sight appears to YOU? Yes precisely, for I am not in your mind. Here’s is where my analogy breaks down. But suppose a conscious being were in your mind. There the appearance/reality distinction breaks down: it’s all appearances, all the time. Thus, what he would be conscious of- know- is how things appear to you, which is exactly what other creatures can’t see. To use Descartes’ phrase, such a being would know the “contents of your mind” as well as you do. God, I take it, is that being. While not thinking my thoughts, in the sense of taking them as His own, He is conscious of them, an awareness other creatures lack.

    Keep pressing me, though. When we’ve exhausted the topic when can send the results to Dr. Craig himself.

    Posted by Robert Allen | April 5, 2011, 12:41 PM
    • Robert,

      Thanks again for clarifying your position. I’m not sure if you’ve browsed around my site at all, but you’d find that I also admire Craig’s work so much. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether I’d still be a Christian if I hadn’t discovered Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith and through that discovered apologetics.

      I think the distinction is one between experiential knowledge and propositional knowledge. On the analogy you’re using God is not experiencing my thoughts as mine, but he can have complete propositional knowledge of my thoughts. I do strongly believe that there is no way God could have experiential knowledge of my thoughts–to do so would be to think my thoughts for me. Consider sin. Suppose I were thinking something sinful–would it be the case that God is then “sinning”? I think not, because God only has propositional knowledge of my thoughts–He is not me, so He is not experiencing my thoughts or thinking them Himself. He merely knows them.

      I wanted to comment on what you said here:
      “But suppose a conscious being were in your mind. There the appearance/reality distinction breaks down: it’s all appearances, all the time. Thus, what he would be conscious of- know- is how things appear to you, which is exactly what other creatures can’t see.”

      I don’t think this quite captures the essence of private access. The idea is that there is something distinct about having my thoughts as my own which can’t be known unless someone is literally identical to me. I experientially know my thoughts while God only propostionally knows them. God can even know the contents of my mind, but His mind is not my mind.

      But I do still think your previous point did solve the problem for Craig. I don’t know if you listen to podcasts, but Craig’s “Reasonable Faith” podcast recently featured the discussion entitled “Can God learn anything” (or something very similar)–interestingly, something very close to this very idea came up. Craig again said that omniscience is not a modal property and so the definition of omniscience I suggest (a being is omniscient if and only if that being knows all which it is logically possible to know) is, on his view, wrong. But I fail to see how he could deny my definition of omniscience, because to deny it would be to affirm its opposite and therefore hold that God could know that which it is logically impossible to know–something which is obviously contradictory.

      So I think that if your argument works, you’ve solved the problem and therefore allowed for private access within Craig’s definition of omniscience. But even if it doesn’t, I think my definition of omniscience accurately catches the meaning of the term.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 5, 2011, 3:13 PM
  4. Hello,

    Just discovered your blog. I like what I see so far. I am also an admirer of Craig. I have never heard him address this, but assuming your assessment is accurate, I, too, disagree with him on this point.

    I should begin by saying, however, that I think you are conflating two concepts into one. Private access means I alone know and have direct access to my thoughts (obviously God does too, so I am speaking from a creaturely perspective). Qualia, however, describes “what it is like to X.” We have private access to the qualia of our mind, but the two are distinct.

    I would consider God’s knowledge of other persons’ qualia to be in the realm of experiential knowledge, and thus not part of God’s omniscience. God can know the proposition, “Jason knows what it is like to be Jason,” and He can even know the propositional content of what I am experiencing at any given time (“Jason is typing”), but God will never know what it is like to be me or to do what I do. While God can always observe what I am observing, He does not experience what I am experiencing. He does not know the qualia involved in riding a roller coaster, even though He has perfect propositional knowledge of all the truths involved in such an experience. He can know “Jason is riding a roller coaster and feeling the sensation of exhilaration,” but He does not have the experience itself.

    I would argue that if omniscience included experiential knowledge, then God could never create other persons. What makes a person an individual person is their unique consciousness. If God had the experience of being the persons He created, then their consciousness would be God’s consciousness. If their consciousness is indistinguishable from God’s consciousness, then there is in fact only one consciousness. And if there is only one consciousness, then in reality there is only one person, not many. Since two persons cannot have the experience of being a single person, God could not create other persons! This is absurd, and thus I think it follows that experiential knowledge cannot be part of God’s omniscience.

    Posted by jasondulle | April 14, 2011, 3:57 AM
    • Jason,

      Thanks for stopping by and dropping a comment.

      I appreciate the clarification about qualia. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything specifically focused upon philosophy of mind and I obviously need a refresher course. But I think you captured my objection perfectly.

      Do you think that experiential knowledge cannot be part of omniscience because it would be logically impossible for it to be, or for some other reason? What do you think of my suggestion to redefine omniscience?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 14, 2011, 9:29 AM
  5. J.W.,

    I am hesitant to say “experiential knowledge cannot be part of omniscience because it would be logically contradictory” since the logical contradiction is not inherent to the property of omniscience per se, but only in relation to contingent beings. In other words, I don’t see why there would be anything logically contradictory about God having all experiential knowledge when He existed alone, but a logical contradiction does arise when He creates contingent beings. If God’s omniscience could entail experiential knowledge when He existed without creation, then I don’t think we could say it is logically contradictory for God qua God to possess such knowledge.

    In addition to the problem of creating conscious beings I raised already, I think the problem extends to non-conscious beings as well. If God created an atom, wouldn’t He have to know what it is like to be an atom? Essential to the “experience” of being an atom is the lack of any conscious experience, however. God, as a conscious being, cannot experience the lack of conscious experience (it’s a logical and metaphysical contradiction), and thus could not have the experience of being an atom, and thus God could not create an atom (contra His omnipotence). So if omniscience requires experiential knowledge, it would subsequently limit God’s power to create contingent beings.

    As for your definition of omniscience (“a being is omniscient if it knows everything it is logically possible to know”), I don’t have a problem with it per se, but I don’t see how it is an improvement over the traditional “God knows and believes all and only true propositions” unless one assumes from the start that God’s knowledge must go beyond the propositional kind.

    Posted by jasondulle | April 15, 2011, 3:32 AM
    • Again, thanks for your comment! I have greatly enjoyed the discussions on this post.

      You wrote, “I don’t see why there would be anything logically contradictory about God having all experiential knowledge when He existed alone, but a logical contradiction does arise when He creates contingent beings.”

      Thanks again for the clarification. The account could easily encompass this by saying “experiential knowledge of things other God cannot be part of omniscience because it would be logically contradictory (God is not me, therefore God cannot be me).”

      I think that the definition of omniscience I proposed might be necessary moving on (in my opinion) because of objections like Craig’s. I was honestly shocked when he chose to forego one of the good arguments for substance dualism simply to preserve his preferred definition of omniscience. Again, he simply dismissed the modified definition by saying omniscience is not a modal property.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 15, 2011, 9:50 AM
  6. The reason Craig dismissed the notion of omniscience as a modal property is that it can lead to new problems similar to these. I think he discusses one such one in a recent podcast on whether God can learn anything (at least, I think it’s that one). Here’s a prima facie problem with your proffered replacement definition (“A being is omniscient if it knows everything it is logically possible to know.”):

    First of all, the way you’ve defined omniscience here does not actually solve the problem. For instance, it is logically possible to know the proposition “I am Midas” (after all, I know it). What you probably mean is this:

    “A being is omniscient if it knows everything it is logically possible for that being to know.”

    This would indeed avoid the problem posed by personal access without denying that it exists. However, it would now lead to a new problem. Suppose we have a mentally challenged man who knows everything it is logically possible for him to know (this man need not exist in the actual world; existence in just one possible world would be sufficient for this argument). By the revised definition of omniscience, this man would count as omniscient. If you’re not satisfied with using a man as the example, then you can change it into whatever you like. But I think that this helps illustrate why Craig sticks to the standard definition.

    In any case, this is a great blog. God bless!

    Posted by Midas Vuik | May 19, 2011, 6:13 PM
    • Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful post. I see your point about the definition of omniscience, but I think the realm of possibility must have some role in the definition of omnipotence, because I think it is clear that there are things like private access or experiential knowledge which God could not know/experience. I think your critique is devastating to the definition as I presented it. You could have simply said that an ant is omniscient because it knows everything it is possible for it to know (which is nothing–unless you want to argue ants have beliefs).

      Therefore, it seems I’m left wondering what an adequate definition of omniscience could be. Craig defines it as knowledge of all truths simpliciter, yet it seems to me that it is true that “I am J.W.” This truth is one that God cannot know, at least in the same way that I know it, because God is not me. So there must be, in my opinion, some modification of the definition such that it accounts for truths which are experiential or privately accessible. Perhaps it could be:

      “A being is omniscient iff it knows all truths which are not delineated by private access [of others] or experiential knowledge [of others].”

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 19, 2011, 10:08 PM
  7. I think Craig has already deal with this “private access” of some truths in the video “Is God all Knowing? with Robert Kuhn”. It seems that Craig use the word “non-propositional knowledge” instead of “private access truths” (Are they the same?). If private access truths is synonym with non-propositional truths, then it is an imperfection for God to have all non-propositional knowledge; He will have proper non-propositional knowledge. Here is the link to the video (11 mins.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfhIkiT3g8A&index=33&list=WL

    Posted by Miguel | May 24, 2014, 2:56 PM
    • Thanks for sharing, I’ll check out the video. I know in the conversation I had with Craig about this notion, Craig denied that there is such a thing as a “private access” truth. As I point out in this post, the core of Craig’s objection is the definition of omniscience. He denies it may be modal–that it may involve possibility–and so it simply is defined as knowing all truths. But if it is true that “I am J.W.” and that is an ontologically grounded truth, God cannot know that truth in the same way that I do, because (thankfully!), I am not God. I’m not sure of my own discussion of my (7) and proposed definition/objection, but I do think there are such things as private access truths.

      I’ll check out that video when I get the chance!

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 25, 2014, 11:52 AM

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