The Oddity of God, Part II: A Concluding Reflection on Alasdair MacIntyre’s Recent Comments

This is Part 2 of my reflections on Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent comments on God that began here.

MacIntyre rightly noted that divine omniscience involves God knowing everything that can be known. MacIntyre’s claim was that the genuine singularities of creative human action cannot be known or predicted before they occur. They cannot even be known or predicted by their agents before they occur, for by definition they do not exist to be known before they occur, and the world is not such that they must come to exist on the basis of the physical unfolding of deterministic natural laws. He is surely right about this. The controversy MacIntyre generated was his additional claim that not even God’s omniscience can know them. Thus, MacIntyre seemed to be denying God’s omniscience. In particular, he seemed to be denying that God’s omniscience knows what I will freely do tomorrow.

Here, however, I want to remind my readers of what I said in the discussion of the problem of other minds. If what we mean is manifest in what we say, it is important to pay careful attention to what we say and how we say it. The task is not to hypothesize what a speaker meant, given what he or she said, but to listen to what he or she meant in the saying of it.

I say this because here a number of features of what MacIntyre actually said have gone unnoticed by the heresy hunters. Indeed, hypothesizing what MacIntyre meant, many of them have gone on to hypothesize that he adheres to Open Theism. Open Theism is the view that because both God and human beings are free, and the free actions of human beings cannot be foreknown, not even by God, God in turn responds to the free acts of human beings in ways he would not have, had they not acted freely in those ways. The implication for God’s providence is that it changes over time in response to human actions in time, reflecting the fact that God Himself is subject to time and changes in time. At a particular time, God intends in his providence that the future go a certain way. Because of the free actions of human beings, the course of time does not go the way God intends at any particular time. So, God is constantly adjusting his intention and his providence in response to the free actions of his human creatures.

Well, MacIntyre did indeed say that not even God can know these singular human actions before they occur. The explicit reason MacIntyre gave for this fact is that there is nothing to be known before these singularities occur. He says that at the very beginning of the talk right after he describes in what God’s omniscience consists (here, minute mark 25:00). His use of the term “before” is crucial to his claim. To say that any cognitive being could know these actions before they occur, given that they do not exist, would be like saying you can see a tree in your backyard that does not exist there. And MacIntyre went on to emphasize that just like the agent, God cannot predict these actions before they occur. As mentioned above, MacIntyre, in describing the kind of knowledge he has in mind, uses some form of the word “predict” some eighty times. And in all of these claims, MacIntyre was certainly correct.

MacIntyre’s use of “before” and the many times he repeated “predict” in denying that these singularities could be known by the agent or God, provides the context for what is meant by knowledge in that context—knowledge by prediction, the kind of knowledge Laplace’s god has of the future. Now the first thing to note is that the term “predict” etymologically means “to say before” from the Latin “prae” and “dicere.” MacIntyre said the singularities of human action cannot be known or predicted before they occur because they do not yet exist and are not the result of the operation of deterministic and predictable causal processes operating according to natural laws. That is correct.

However, what MacIntyre said was also true for a reason he did not discuss, namely, that God does not exist within the context of the temporal universe in which there is an order of before and after in what exists and occurs. God does not and cannot pre-dict that B will happen after A, because his existence is such that he does not exist “before” either B or A, or any other temporal being. And take note of the fact that Open Theism denies this fact about God, denies that God does not exist within the context of the temporal universe.

“In the beginning was the Word.” As I explained at the start of this essay, “beginning” is not a temporal beginning before the beginning of time. It is an origin, an arche, of all that exists, including all temporal beings, events, and even time itself. Time does not make change possible. Time is an ordering in terms of before and after among things that change. If there is no change, then there is no before and after, and thus no time. The existence of time is parasitic upon the existence of changing beings. But, it is God who has created beings that change. Thus, God has created the time that is derivative of change. As reflection upon the Gospel of John and the beginning before the beginning of time should tell us, God does not exist as a temporal being subject to before and after, because God has created time as a feature of our existence, we beings of the physical universe, non-living and living alike, beings that are subject to change in terms of before and after. So not only is the beginning before the beginning not a temporal beginning, but the “before” implied by the beginning of John, the “before” in which the Λόγος was with God and was God, is not a temporal before with a temporal after. It marks a metaphysical priority of God and God’s Λόγος to what God has created, not a temporal priority. The before and after of time are created by God, whose Beginning before the beginning of time is beyond time and change.

However, that God does not and cannot exist in time is no limitation upon God’s existence. It is a limitation upon the existence of temporal beings that they cannot exist outside of time in God’s eternity.[1] Thus, also, it is no limitation upon God’s omniscience, whatever it may know, that it does not know things temporally before they occur or by pre-dicting them. That we often must try to pre-dict future things is a limitation upon our knowledge as temporal beings, not God’s. And the denial that God’s omniscience knows or predicts things before they happen is not a denial of God’s omniscience. It is the denial of an error about God’s omniscience.

One way in which the heresy hunters go wrong is in thinking that because MacIntyre denied that God’s omniscience knows what the future holds by pre-dicting it, then MacIntyre must deny that God knows the future at all. But that inference of the hunters commits a fallacy of hasty generalization. As I hope to suggest below, that does not follow at all. And what those who accuse him of Open Theism do not understand is that MacIntyre’s denial that God’s knowledge about the future is knowledge by prediction is in fact a denial of Open Theism, since, on Open Theism, whatever God intends about the future, the best he can do in terms of knowing it is fallibly predict it and wait to see what happens according to the free acts of his creatures, before adjusting his intention according to what does in fact happen. In other words, MacIntyre’s denial that God knows by pre-dicting implies the denial of Open Theism, not a commitment to it.

However, I think MacIntyre’s stated point in denying that God’s omniscience could pre-dict genuinely original human actions raises a rather different question and point for reflection. In what follows I will make no presumption about MacIntyre’s intention in saying what he said, no presumption that he intended to raise what I will now raise. I only consider the meaning of what he actually said in context and an issue that it raises for those who heard it. His denial that God’s omniscience knows by pre-dicting what will happen, including what I or any other agent will freely do in the future, raises the question of how one is conceiving of God when one hears and objects to the denial that God’s omniscience includes knowing by pre-dicting.

All that follows from MacIntyre’s denial that God’s omniscience is beforehand knowledge or predictive is that MacIntyre’s God is not Laplace’s god, whose omniscient knowledge extends to the laws of nature and the present conditions of the universe, such that that god—Laplace’s—can pre-dict, can say temporally before anything happens in the future, what will happen in the future at any particular time and in any particular place. As described by Laplace, the infinite intellect, what I have called his god, exists within the universe as much as we do; it does not create it. It cannot be said of it “that nothing was made without it.”

For Laplace—an agnostic—god was a heuristic device to give expression to his mechanism and his desire for a probability theory that would reduce the actual limitations of finite human knowledge. But that god is also manifestly a projection of ourselves and our timebound finite knowledge into a condition of knowledge of infinite extent, but a knowledge that is no less timebound than is our ordinary knowledge. If the infinite intellect could know today all the operative laws of nature and the past and present states of the universe, then it could pre-dict with absolute certainty what will happen before it happens at every moment of the future and in all places. We cannot have that infinite extent of knowledge, so we will have to do with probability.

If I am right that MacIntyre is denying the omniscience of Laplace’s god, and I think all the evidence of his talk points to that being his target, it is ironic that the heresy hunters, in insisting upon the supposed heretical character of what MacIntyre denied, show that the god they believe in is Laplace’s god, a god in time, subject to time, a god made to the image and likeness of ourselves, but without our cognitive limitations. Their god is not the God who is in the beginning with God and who is God, God through whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made, including time itself. The hunters are either guilty of not paying attention to what MacIntyre said or of idolatry in conceiving of a god who is an ideal projection of themselves.

Now, consistent with my desire to reflect upon what MacIntyre said, and neither to explain him nor defend him, I would like to finish by considering what MacIntyre did not say about God’s omniscience concerning the universe and the genuinely original and singular acts of human beings. But keep in mind, just as I cannot infer from his silence that MacIntyre assents to any of what follows, so also no one can infer from his silence that he dissents from any of what follows. MacIntyre himself did no less and no more in his lecture than deny that God’s omniscience concerning the future is a pre-dictive knowledge of the future.

In going forward with what I think, I do so in fear and trembling, because as foolish as it is to attempt to explain or defend MacIntyre, how much more foolish to think that God’s ways are our ways, and God’s thoughts our thoughts? Indeed, perhaps it was that thought that prompted MacIntyre’s silence, showing him to be a much wiser philosopher than I.

So, pressing forward to where angels and wise philosophers fear to tread, even a brief consideration of what God’s omniscience might involve suggests that God is much odder than any aspect of God’s creation could ever possibly be, including even human beings, who are made to the image and likeness of God and who are made to act freely and creatively. We have already seen that it is a mistake to conceive of God’s omniscience as involving the power to pre-dict the future. It does not follow, however, that because MacIntyre himself said nothing more of God’s omniscience that there is nothing more to be said. In particular, it does not follow from a denial that God’s omniscience involves beforehand knowledge or pre-diction, that God is not omniscient, even omniscient concerning the future, as the heresy hunters seem to think. There may be other ways of describing God’s omniscience of himself and of the temporal beings he creates that do not make his knowledge of them subject to the before and after of time, as one who pre-dicts is subject to time.

Divine omniscience involves knowing all that can be known. MacIntyre affirmed this. I affirm it. But that description tells us nothing about what can be known and how it can be known. In the best tradition of negative theology, all should follow MacIntyre and deny that it involves pre-dicting the future. However, does such a denial involve denying that God is omniscient? Does such a denial involve the denial that God’s omniscience knows God, and knows all that can be known about God? If not, how does it know God? If God’s omniscience can know God, and such knowledge is not pre-dictive, then that is sufficient for acknowledging that Divine omniscience is not denied by denying it is pre-dictive.

What else might Divine omniscience include, if it is not pre-dictive? Does the Divine Omniscience know me, and all that can be known about me? Does it know how many hairs there are on my head, as their numbers rapidly diminish into the future? If so, how? Does Divine omniscience know me the way that it knows God himself, or should its knowledge of me be described in some other way than its knowledge of God himself, some other way that is nonetheless also non-predictive? Does it know how many stars have formed from the beginning of the universe up until the present time? If so, how? Does it know how many stars will be formed in the universe from here on out? How, if not pre-dictively? Does it know whether I will freely continue to work on this essay tomorrow? If so, how, without being pre-dictive? There are many questions about what and how God’s omniscience might know that are not ruled out by a simple denial that however God knows himself and beings other than himself, it is not with pre-dictive knowledge.

So, how might we describe God’s omniscience concerning himself and the created universe? Well, we have seen that even in our own case, we can know things without observing or predicting them. We can know many things by intending, doing, and producing them.

From here on out, I am simply going to plagiarize to the best of my ability the thought of Aquinas, who thought much harder and better about these things than I will ever be capable of. So, the first thing to do when considering God’s omniscience is to distinguish God’s omniscience concerning himself from God’s omniscience concerning the created universe. Aquinas argues that God’s knowledge of himself is speculative, not practical or productive. Being God is not something God does or produces. It is something he is, just as being human is not something you do or produce, although being human allows you to do and produce things in a human way. Just so, being divine allows God to do and produce things in a divine way.

However, it would be a mistake to think of that speculative knowledge of himself as a kind of observational knowledge of himself, the way we might have speculative knowledge of the Sun by observation and then theoretical modeling, as if God attempts to stand apart from himself, to reflect upon and observe himself, and develop a model of himself. No. Among other things with respect to the existence of God, being God just is God’s perfect knowing of himself as himself. There is no distinction in God between being God and knowing God, as there is a distinction in us between being human and the speculative knowing of ourselves as human, where we do in effect stand apart from ourselves to observe and then try to formulate ways of understanding what we observe of ourselves. In the beginning was the Λόγος (intelligibility) and the Λόγος (intelligibility) was with God and the Λόγος (intelligibility) was God.

The created universe, however, is another matter. A favorite image of some is that God’s omniscience concerning the universe and its future is possible because God stands, as it were, in the height of eternity, as if upon a high mountaintop, looking down upon the universe as a kind of valley below, in which the entire course of the past, present, and future of the universe is laid out. From that great height, God can take in with his speculative vision the entire course of past, present, and future laid out before his infinite gaze. The limitation of our knowledge is that we are in the universe that God gazes upon, down within the valley of time. Being in the valley of time, our speculative vision is limited to the past and the present moment, and only predictively and very imperfectly concerning the future. But God is another story. In this way of thinking, while his speculative vision of himself is not by observation, his speculative vision of creation is. He knows the past because he observes it as past. He knows the present by observing it as present. And he knows the future because from the great height of eternity, he can observe it as future. All exist, past, present, and future, to his speculative observation.

A crucial feature of this image is that the future, or rather the beings and events of the future exist as objects to be known speculatively. They have a kind of reality in themselves that allows God to gaze upon them from the height. They are the rule and measure of the true knowledge he has of them. What is past and present rather than future is a matter of human perspective—what we are presently aware of. And the appearance of time is really just the unfolding of our consciousness of the valley. Soon enough I will become conscious of what to me now appears to be future, but that in some sense already is, the reality that in some sense already is, and is simply waiting in watchfulness for me to become aware of it. If an event exists in the future, but there is no one conscious of it, does it really exist? Not to worry, God is conscious of it from the heights of eternity.

Aquinas rejects this picture. When denying that the future can be known, MacIntyre gave as the reason that it cannot be known that there is nothing of the future that exists to be known. That is why it is future—in itself, it does not exist to be observed, speculatively or predictively. So, it is no praise of God to say that his eternity consists in knowing speculatively what cannot be known speculatively.

However, it does not follow from the fact that God does not know the universe and its future speculatively that God cannot know the universe and what will happen in its future. Aquinas argues that God’s speculative knowledge extends solely to himself, to his own being, and nothing else. In the beginning was the Λόγος, and the Λόγος was with God, and the Λόγος was God. However, God has practical and productive knowledge of what he intends and does create. God knows what exists other than himself, because all that exists other than himself—the Cosmos, the Universe at every moment of its existence—is created by God, a divine knowing by doing. “Through him (the Λόγος) all things were made, and nothing was made without him (the Λόγος).” God knows what he intends beyond himself. God knows what he does beyond himself. God knows what he produces beyond himself. And the practical knowledge that God has of his creatures is their measure or rule making them true, not vice versa.

Thus, God knows the future of the mysterious universe by intending the future of the universe. He does not know it because it already exists to be known in his speculative gaze. He knows it by intending for it to be in the unfolding of his providence. Through him all things will be made, and nothing will be made without him. However, the temporal character of the verbs of that last statement does not apply to the Maker and the making. It applies to the things made. Shakespeare makes it be that Shylock will not get his pound of flesh. And he makes it be that Shylock does not get his pound of flesh. God makes it be that yesterday I would freely work on this essay now. And God makes it be that I am freely working on this essay now. But yesterday there was nothing to be known as a matter of speculation or infallible prediction that I would freely work on this essay now, unless, that is, one wants to claim that God’s ways are our ways, and God’s thoughts our thoughts.

To conclude, if Aquinas is correct that God knows the future in his omniscience in something like, but also very different from, what we mean by knowing by intending and knowing by doing, then God is a very mysterious being indeed, much more mysterious and creatively original than anything in the mysterious universe, indeed much more mysterious than any human agency capable of the kind of creativity MacIntyre noted in pointing us to genuine singularities of human agency, like a Shakespearean sonnet or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

In the first place, because of his ability to produce ex nihilo—that is, to produce from nothing all that exists in every respect in which it exists, including the history of its existence—it is better to say that God is nothing like us, than that we are like him, however true the latter may be. Our creativity is conditioned by many things for which we are not responsible. To write I must have instruments. To write well I must have a certain kind of education. To write the kinds of sonnets Shakespeare wrote, I likely have to have been born in England in the Elizabethan age. To write the Merchant of Venice or the Jew of Venice, I might have had to have been in general envious of another playwright, but also disgusted by his rabid antisemitism expressed in a play called The Jew of Malta. To develop the Theory of Relativity, I have to have an intellect, a will, and an imagination to plumb the depths of a universe that I did not create, in which time, space, and energy are bound up in a very mysterious and beautiful way, and modeled in my theory that E=mc2. However creative we are in this mysterious universe, we presuppose it and its mysteries, including the being and mystery of ourselves as humans made to the image and likeness of God; in creating the universe, God presupposed nothing other than himself.

That oddity of God is only deepened when we reflect upon the fact that our creativity resides in our freedom. But as I mentioned above, our freedom is itself created by God, not just as a power to act, but the very character of it as free in every exercise of that power. Anything that exists as a being that is other than God—in every aspect of its existence, at every moment of its existence—is created by God to be in that way at that moment. And that includes the very free character of our actions as they occur. God does not simply enable us to be free in our acts; he causes our acts to be free as the expression of that agency. That is mysterious indeed, for no other cause can enable and cause us to act freely in the very aspect of freedom. God causes my free act to be free. If no other cause can do that, then God in his creativity is like no other cause, like no other being that we know.

To acknowledge this utterly unique mystery and oddity of God is no small thing, and he is to be honored. If God is just a bigger version of myself, made to the image and likeness of me projected into infinite power, infinite knowledge, infinite goodness (what I would be were I not so weak), then there is no mystery in the motherhood of Our Lady, the one who bears God to us, the Θεοτόκος, and no mystery in the Incarnation of Our Lord. If he is already like us “in the beginning,” what then is genuinely mysterious about his appearing among us? If Zeus wants to come down from Mount Olympus and appear in human form among us, what is the big deal? Except that he cannot die, Zeus already appears in human form on Mount Olympus. Perhaps after two thousand years we have come to think of God and the Incarnation as a kind of mundane truth, a quotidian, even banal truth, despite our pious protestations to the contrary, something we believe, but not something that arrests our attention, causes us to wonder and say with St. Augustine, “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.”

No. If the universe is odd and mysterious, so much more the God who created it from nothing, who is as God nothing like us. But, and I say this in fear and trembling, if there is anything at all more mysterious than that God who was in the beginning, and who was with God, and who was God, it is that he “became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” Glory be to Jesus Christ, true God and true man, “full of grace and truth."

AUTHORIAL NOTE: In what I have written, I do not believe that I have asserted anything either materially or formally heretical. But, in all I have written, I submit myself to the legitimate teaching authority of Christ’s Holy Church, and no one else, to teach me that I have.

[1] Note that Christ is both God and man, having both a divine nature and a human nature, which does not contradict what I just wrote. Christ is subject to time in virtue of his human nature, but it does not follow that his divine nature is subject to time because he is in virtue of his human nature.

Featured Image: Cellarius Southern Sceongraphic, 1661; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 



John O'Callaghan

John O'Callaghan is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and a permanent member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

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