Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What any god can do or know


On Tues, Oct 12, 2010 at 03:18:29
Crystal asked this question:

Does God know what it's like to be a bat?

On Tues, Oct 5, 2010 at 18:53:14
Marl asked this question:

My question here is, Can God himself reverse history so I can change something in the past? Also I have some reasons to go against but also to go with the theory that maybe he can reverse history.

A. Reasons against the theory:

1. God makes it clear that we make mistakes and must learn from them.

2. God is not a genie in a magic lamp.

3. God cannot reverse history because he does not have the power.

4. God would not do this for one person and not the whole world.

5. God would not reverse history because it would wind back everything that had happened to everyone else and take their free will away.

6. God does not need to reverse history.

B. Responses to A:

1. We have the right to make heaven on Earth. If all time in history is the same, we can go back to make it as we want to correct our mistakes.

2. Nothing else we know can make us able to change history so God is the only thing that can. We do not need to ask for money because we can get it but [without God] we can't reverse history and change it.

3. If God has no control over reversing history, then he cannot do everything. If God made the universe, he can do what he wants with it, anyway, how big a thing is reversing history? why should reversing history be hard?

4. But if God has done it, nobody will ever know.

5. If you changed something in history, it would not take everybody else's free will away because they could react how they wanted to what had been done.

6. God can do what he likes but if you do need to reverse history, he's the only thing that can.


I love the question that Crystal has asked, but Marl has to be given credit for attempting an answer his question — something that we advise anyone submitting questions to Ask a Philosopher to try do do.

Before we get started, there's an excellent discussion of changing the past in Michael Dummett's article 'Bringing About the Past' reprinted in Richard Gale Ed. The Philosophy of Time Macmillan 1968 pp 252-274. Crystal's question is prompted by Thomas Nagel's famous piece, 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?' Philosophical Review 1974 pp 435-450, reprinted in many anthologies.

I don't recall that Nagel brings up the question whether God can know what it is like to be a bat; he argues that we can't, and therefore a basic assumption of physicalism is brought under strong pressure. Dummett in his long and intricate discussion considers as one of his examples asking God to make something have happened in the past, praying 'that the announcer has made a mistake in not including my son's name on the list of survivors'. That is something we seem to have no difficulty in imagining, and yet which seems to imply God's power to bring about something in the past.

What is the point of all this? Especially if you're an atheist, why get so het up about what God can do or not do? As a principled non-believer, my justification would be that considering what God can know or do, or, better, what any god (with a small 'g') can know or do, we are using a kind of shorthand for considering fundamental questions of epistemology and ontology.

Let's start from that premise. There are very good reasons (in my view) for holding that no god exists. But if he (or she, or it) did, what knowledge or powers could conceivably be attributed to such an entity?

The crux of Nagel's argument in 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?' is that we can't conceive of what bat awareness or consciousness is like because there is too wide a gulf between human perception (through sight, hearing etc.) and bat perception (through sonar). It is crucial to his argument that the issue we are considering is knowing what something is like. I know what eating pineapple ice cream is like, even though I have never tasted pineapple ice cream, because I have eaten ice cream many times and I have also tasted pineapple. It doesn't require a great mental feat to put the two together. But no amount of mental gymnastics will bring me to the point of appreciating how the world 'appears' from the point of view of a bat. You can make up anything you like (as a novelist writing a story whose main characters are bats would) but in this case it is pure fantasy.

But God (or 'any god') isn't confined to our forms of human perception. He (or she or it etc.) doesn't need eyes to see or ears to hear. Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason speculates that God does not acquire knowledge by subsuming 'intuitions' under 'concepts', because He has a form of knowing which is directly intuitive. He grasps each and every thing in its very existential essence. There is no logical or perceptual gap, as is the case for created beings such as ourselves.

Consider this analogy: in order to determine the current state of my Apple Power Macintosh G3 (soon to be replaced, I hope, by a G5), I need to look at the screen. Whatever is going on inside the grey box, information written to RAM or onto disk, or the instructions being processed by the CPU, is something to which I can have no direct access. There is software (the MacsBug debugger, as my G3 crashes rather often) which can give some information about this, and display the information on the screen. But would it be possible (leaving aside the question of the immense amount of time needed, given that thousands of instructions are being executed every second) to display all the information?

There does seem a logical problem here, which one can illustrate with the somewhat simpler example of HTML code. One of my pages, Today's Note consists of a representation of a Unix screen, running the text editor Pico. This is in fact the method I use to update that page. I don't upload the page using an FTP program. I write directly onto it using my text editor. On your monitor you will see representations of the HTML code which has been used to create this effect. What you don't see is the extra code which is needed to represent the code. (You can check this for yourself by going to 'View → Page Source'.) In principle, it would be impossible to show everything using HTML. I could add even more extra code to represent the 'extra code' but then this new extra code would not appear on the screen.

All human knowledge is in a sense 'representative' knowledge. There is a space, a gap, between knower and known. Even when we have so-called 'direct' knowledge through action (the sense of touch, or awareness of making an effort, or the proprioceptive feedback which enables us to know how our limbs are moving) this knowledge is immediate and non-representative only when described from the point of view of the agent. I may know that I am moving my fingers as I type this, but what is going on beneath the skin, in my muscles and sinews, is out of my immediate ken. Even if I lacked all senses other than the sense of touch (as in the Helen Keller story) I still need language and concepts, to represent the knowledge gained through 'direct' action.

This leads to a rather simple (possibly too simple) characterization of the difference between human knowledge and God's knowledge. God doesn't know the world and His creatures by means of representations (bringing intuitions under concepts). He knows them directly, just as they are. According to Descartes, He is their creator and sustainer for every moment that they continue in existence.

It follows that there isn't a synapse or a cell or a molecule in the body of a flying bat that that God doesn't 'know'. Nor is God confined to only knowing about the world on the very lowest level. He can abstract. He can consider the bat as a collection of molecules, or cells, or organs, or as a discrete entity in relation to its environment. But I don't think that this is enough for knowing what it is like to be a bat. God knows too much — not least, that he is God.

In Western philosophy, Spinoza is the philosopher who has come closest to solving this conundrum. The bat is just a 'mode' of God. It no independent existence from God, the only true 'substance'. God 'knows' himself as the bat, but the bat, from its point of view doesn't know this and necessarily cannot know this (otherwise it would be God). Spinoza, through the medium of his finely wrought philosophy, knows and yet doesn't know that he is God.

For making this claim, Spinoza incurred the charge of pantheism, and his insistence on arguing the case at every opportunity got him excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community. But we're not concerned with the finer points of theology. Our question is what any god could know. The question of what kind of god would be worthy of adoration or worship is something which does not the least bit interest me.

I said that this was the best case for explaining the possibility of God's knowledge of what it is like to be a bat. But I don't think it is good enough. It depends, ultimately, on a fudge. If God 'knows' everything only in Spinoza's sense, because God just is everything, then I have lost my grasp of what 'know' means. Even if we assume that God's knowledge is 'intuitive' (in Kant's sense) and non-representational, we still need conceptual room for God as a self-conscious entity, which Spinoza does not seem to provide.

In other words, if God just is the universe, seen under the aspect of unity, then the term 'God' reduces to a mere 'something concerning which nothing can be said'. To talk about God is just to talk about the universe.

Let's now look at the case of changing the past. Dummett notes in his article that the possibility of praying to God in order to change the past is unacceptable to orthodox Jewish theology. I didn't know that. You learn something new every day. But are the orthodox Rabbis right?

I remember the day when I received my A-level examination results, which would determine whether or not I went to university (I'm keeping this simple for the sake of the example). Suppose I did believe in God. I have no difficulty in imagining that I might pray to God that I passed, and that God heard me and granted my request. I'm sure many people have done this.

One easy get-out would be to say that God exists outside of time, and therefore knows my prayer 'before' I made it. So no funny backwards causation is involved. But this solves the problem of how God can change the past by effectively destroying the difference between past, present and future. I no longer know what 'cause' means in this scenaro. So let's stick with a world in time, and a God who is also in time and not looking down on the universe sub specie aeternitatis.

What did God have to do, in the exam results example? The slip of paper inside the envelope with 'failed' written on it had to change to 'passed'. All the steps which led up to the typing of that word (and my marks or grades) had to alter also, right back to the point where some examiner was marking my script, and indeed before that to when I was actually sitting in the exam making a total mess my (say) Pure and Applied Mathematics paper. But how could I have written a good paper, if I hadn't revised? How could I have revised, when most of my time was spent going to parties and getting stoned?

I can totally see how Marl would object that this is a serious encroachment into my free will, not to mention the other difficulties.

But we're looking for a logical objection, if there is any. The question of whether or not you would like the kind of God who would do this, or consider them 'worthy of adoration or worship' is neither here nor there.

Dummett's case rests largely on a single observation: If I know that it was the case that P (e.g. that it was the case that I failed) then I can't, by any action including prayer intend to bring it about that not-P (e.g. to bring it about that I passed). It's a logical contradiction. In fact, it is more or less the same logical contradiction which vitiates time travel (as traditionally conceived — see my Afterword to David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself).

Okay, but let's look at this from another angle. Where is the past? The past is gone, its water under the bridge. (John Donne: 'Tell me where all past yeares are, Or who cleft the divel's foote'.) But where we are, always, is on the bridge of the present. We can remember, infer from evidence, hypothesize more or less accurately about 'what happened', but always with the proviso that we could be wrong, that is to say, there is no logical contradiction in the idea that the most vivid memory of something that happened only ten seconds ago could be false.

As long as I don't know what's inside the envelope, the question whether I passed or failed is up for grabs, at least by me (as indeed is the question whether my maths teacher knows, whether the secretary at the examining board knows etc.). It's not that difficult to think in this way of the past as something malleable, or flexible, not fixed and final. From my perspective, at least, there is just me and God and the world which God partially reveals to me and partially conceals. That's all 'the world' is — from my perspective.

This sounds rather like anti-realism about the past (which Dummett defends in another article, 'On the Reality of the Past' in Truth and Other Enigmas Duckworth 1978 pp 358-374). But there is just one rather important difference: it is essential, in order to make sense of exam results example that one is only considering my perspective (or our perspective if a group of persons is praying together) not human knowledge generally, not 'what can be known' of the past, but only what I (or you and I) can know.

As Marl has seen, if God changes the past, as such, He changes it for everyone, not just for me. Whereas, if all God changes is 'my past' or 'our past' then we have left behind the very idea that there is such a thing as the past. This is just a little too close to Solipsism for comfort. (If you can be a quasi-solipsist about 'we'.)

Ultimately, as I have indicated, the question whether God can know what it is like to be a bat, or whether God can change the past isn't about theology. It is about the nature of the universe and our knowledge of it. But one thing it does show is that as a theologian you can't make assumptions about God's powers without at the same time making fairly hefty commitments to your epistemology and metaphysics.

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