Swinburne Omniscience

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    Religious Studieshttp://journals.cambridge.org/RES

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    Divine Self-Limitation in Swinburne's Doctrine of 


     Avery Fouts

    Religious Studies / Volume 29 / Issue 01 / March 1993, pp 21 - 26

    DOI: 10.1017/S0034412500022010, Published online: 24 October 2008

    Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0034412500022010

    How to cite this article: Avery Fouts (1993). Divine Self-Limitation in Swinburne's Doctrine of Omniscience.Religious Studies, 29, pp 21-26 doi:10.1017/S0034412500022010

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    Rel. Stud 29, pp. 21-26 . Copy right


      1993 Cambridge University Press





    In his book,

      The  oherence

     of Theism,


     Ric har d Sw inburn e seeks to co nstruct

    a coherent doctrine of God. As


     pa rt of this endeav our he examines the idea

    of omniscience in cha pte r 10. O ne of Sw inburne s conclusions is th at God as

    an omniscient being must engage  in   cognitive self-limitation   in   order   to

    preserve the freedom of both divine and human future actions. In this paper,

    I want  to   look   at his  a rgument   as it is  presented   in   this chapter.   I   will

    conclude th at S winburne s position on divine cognitive self-limitation results

    in   an  internal contrad iction.

    Swinburne rejects  the  Thom istic doctrine   of  God   as a   timeless entity

    because  it is  clearly non sense to  suggest th at yesterday , to day   and to-

    morrow could be simultaneous with each other (pp.

      220-1 ,

      page references

    are  to  the reprinted edition, 1986). M oreover, Sw inburn e finds   a   timeless

    God incom patible with m uch of theistic doctrine. F or exam ple, talk of Go d s

    warnings  and  Go d s forgiveness w ith ou t   his  do ing these things   at   times

    before   or  after o the r times (often, times on the hu m an scale of time) seems

    inco here nt (p. 221). For these reasons, Sw inburn e retains the notion of God

    as  a  person existing   in  t ime (p.  174).

    Swinburne thinks th a t in norm al use, propositions about a  nam ed future

    time (including claims about any future free actions)


     t rue




    timelessly (p. 175). And as an initial, working definition, Sw inburne defines

    an omniscient person  as a   person who   at a   particular time knows of every

    true proposition tha t it is true (p. 162). M oreover, Sw inburn e thinks tha t the

    notion of a person who knows all true propositions is coherent. He says that



     coherent to suppose that there


     an omniscient


     There would be no reason

    why it


     incoherent to suppose that a spirit, omnipresent and creator of the universe,

    is omniscient. Such a spirit, if asked, could give you the answer to any question, if

    he chose to do


     The state of the universe in the past and future would be so clearly

    known to him


     maybe its whole history could be seen by him at glance and be held

    in his mind -   that he would not need to conduct an investigation to find out how

    things had been years ago or would be in years to come (p. 166).

    Swinburne asks whether the existence of a temporal God who knows all true


      Richard Swinburne,   Th e  oherence


     Theism (Oxford: Claren don Press, 1977; reprinte d (as paper -




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    propositions   at  any partic ular time, including future-tensed propositions, is

    compatible with human and divine freedom. Concerning human freedom,

    Sw inburn e argues th at the tru th values of future-tensed propositions abou t

    future free hum an actions cannot be known until the respective action occurs.

    Fo r exa mp le, if Jone s possesses real freedom either  to   get married   or  not  to

    get married




    , Swinburne would argue that the truth value of Jones will

    get married  at  t

    2 7

      cann ot be known until t


    . For Swinburne, it is of logical


      if P is


      at t, he


     at t all

      true propositions




     And if


    is a   free agent   at t


     and   P  is  a  person   at t   with beliefs about

    everything describable by


      true proposition,


     will be in danger of having

    one of his beliefs made false by the action of


    at t


      (p. 170). Thus, if God

    foreknows Jon es will






     , Jo ne s will


     m arried

      at t


    . If

    Jones decided

      not to get


      at t



     Go d s foreknowledge would


    rendered incorrect.

      But an

      incorrect foreknowledge

      is an

     obvious con tra-

    diction . S win burne s fear here is not so much tha t G od will fail to be future

    omniscient, but that humans will not be free.

    T he conc ern is all the mo re acute w ith rega rd to divine freedom. If God s

    freedom be preserved, not only can God not be future omniscient, but God

    can no t even justifiably predict divine future actions. In chap ter 8, Sw inburne

    defines a perfectly free person as a person w ho is no t influenced in his choices



     causal factors


      145). Moreover,


      says that



      can be

    justified in holding beliefs about the future actions of a perfectly free agent


      172).  If  I unde rstand Swinburne  at  this point, even though hum ans are

    not ab le to know the future, hum ans might be able justifiably to predict w hat

    future human actions might occur because there is a   causal connection with

    the present; but, since there is no causal connection from the present



    actions of a perfectly free agen t, to say tha t God can even justifiably predict

    future divine actions (without knowing them) implies that there is



    connection from   the  future action   to the  present


      But  this implies

    backward causation which


     Sw inburne


     incoh erent (p. 172).


    Swinburne implies that if the Thomistic doctrine of God were coherent


    would resolve  the  problem   of  divine   and  hu m an freedom because there

    would be n o question of God first believing something and then , later, there

    occurring that which makes his belief true   or  false (p. 173). But given,  on

    the one hand, the incoherence of the Thomistic doctrine of God and, on the


      For Swinburne, knowing   x  entails believing x. Mo reov er, he uses belie ve to  refer   to   both those

    propositions which we are ordinarily said to believe and also those propositions about the truth of which

    we are convinced or hav e no dou bt (see p. 169 n. 9). Thu s, as far as


      can tell, God s beliefs, as one who

    knows  all  true propo sitions, are the same   as   God s knowledge.


      This seems immediately problematic. True, God   is  not necessarily influenced  by   causal factors  as

    hum ans a re, bu t is not God causally effected by God s own na ture and will? And if


     it  seems that even

    if God does no t know tru e future-tensed propositions, justifiable predictions could be m ade by God about

    God s own future actions without threaten ing God s freedom. Moreov er, since for Swinburne G od acts

    without influence from non-rational factors (pp. 146-8), it seems all the more likely that, given the nature

    of God and God s purposes, given


      particular state of affairs


     the world, and given standard canons

    of rational behav iour, God s actions could be sometimes justifiably predicted.


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    other ha nd , the problem of reconciling a tem poral Go d s future omniscience

    with free actions, Swinburne argues that theists should modify their defini-

    tion of omniscience. His modified version is:

    A person P is omniscient at a time t if and only if he knows of every true proposition

    about t or an earlier time that it is true and also he knows of every true proposition

    abou t a time later th an t, such tha t w hat it reports is physically necessitated by some

    cause at t or earlier, that it is true (p. 175).

    This modified definition of omniscience is a result of divine self-limitation.

    God limits God so that only those true propositions about physically necessi-

    tated future occurrences are acceptable for God to know. Knowledge of the

    latter does not impinge on freedom and contingency. Swinburne says:

    T ha t G od is omniscient only in the atten uat ed sense would of course - given tha t he

    is perfectly free and omnipotent — have resulted from his own choice. In choosing to

    preserve his own freedom (and to give other s freedom ), he limits his own kno wled ge

    of wh at is to come. H e con tinually limits himself in this way by not c urtailin g his or

    men s future freedom (p. 176).

    For a person would not be less worthy of worship if he voluntarily limited his

    knowledge in order to allow himself and some of his creature s to determ ine their own

    destiny (p. 178).

    Yet to maintain his freedom, he limits his knowledge of his own future choices

    (p .  178).

    (Swinburne defines future omniscience as comprised of true propositions

    concerning both human and divine actions. For the sake of clarity, I will

    discuss human and divine actions individually. Also, I will assume that

    Swinburne is right in saying that a future-tensed proposition can be true and

    as long as God does not know it the event to which the proposition refers

    remains undetermined.)

    Swinburne is not explicit about the nature of this choice to engage in

    cognitive self-limitation. So, let s assume for the sake of the discussion th at

    there was a specific time when G od limited Go d s know ledge an d that God

    foreknew all true propositions before that specific time. Concerning human

    action, it seems that future human action would still be determined after the

    self-limitation. In other words, if Jo n e s will get ma rried at t

    2 7



    foreknown as true, and thus determine d to happ en, Go d s self-limitation

    could do nothing to a/zdetermine it. If it were ever determined, it could not

    become undeterm ined since, by Sw inburn e s own admission, th e idea of

    backwa rd cau sation is inco here nt. If God foreknows at t Jone s will get

    married at t


     , and if God engages in self-limitation at t


    , one would have

    to maintain both that Jones must still get married at t


      so th at God s

    omniscience at t will not be falsified   and  th at G od s self-limitation rend ers

     Jon es will


      get married at t

    2 7

      as a real possibility.

    Concerning future divine action, the problem is more severe. God could


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      become future ignorant after ever being future omniscient since

    future omniscience determines all subsequent divine actions.

    It  is  clear from the foregoing that   at   any time there   is a   free human  or

    divine action, God could never have been future omniscient up to that point.

    Freedom is not just  a  m atter of Go d s not know ing the future, but rather  a

    ma tter of God s never knowing the future up to the time of any particular free

    action . In o ther w ords, it is not a m att er of God simply perm itting free actions

    at any p art icu lar time irrespective of Go d s decisions throug ho ut the ever-

    lasting past. Since all true propositions are timelessly true, God could never

    have been omniscient of all true propositions. On this basis, Swinburne must

    say that God has been everlastingly self-limited


     tha t there has been


    particular time that true future-tensed propositions were ever known. That


      God can know that future omniscience would render the future deter-

    mined without actually knowing any particular true future-tensed propo-

    sitions. God has thus chosen


     each mo me nt of everlasting time not

      to be

    future omniscient thereby preserving future free actions.   I   think something

    like this


     w ha t S win burne means. But while this position seems coherent

    with regard  to  hu m an actions,   it   seems incohere nt with regard   to  divine


    The coherence of everlasting, cognitive self-limitation toward future hu-

    m an actions rests on the fact tha t it is a cond itional necessity tha t God engage

    in such limitation. That is,


     the condition


     hu m an freedom, God has

    never been future omniscient  up to  the time of free hum an action, and  at

    each moment of everlasting time, God has had   to  engage   in  cognitive   self-

    limitation. But God could actually have chosen   to  be future omniscient  at

    any one of those moments, even though   it   would have been   at  the expense

    of hu m an freedom.

    The coherence of everlasting, cognitive self-limitation breaks down when

    divine action enters the picture.


      may seem that future omniscience with

    regard to divine actions is also


      conditional necessity. That is, God chooses

    at each moment of everlasting time not to know future divine actions as


    as   in the  case   of  hu m an actions, God actually could choose   to be   future

    om niscient. But, in Go d s case, God is necessarily free; God is not free because



      not   to  be future omniscient. Th at is tan tam ou nt to saying th at

    God is free because God freely chooses not  to  know the future. Swinbu rne

    himself defines  a   pers on al ground of be ing as inclusive of being eterna lly

    perfectly free (p. 224). In  ch ap ter 14, he a rgues for th e coherence of Go d s



     a   person al ground of bein g . He argues that   it  is necessary

    on, what


     calls, criteria [A ], [B], [C ],

      [D] and [E] (p.


      For our

    purposes here, we need only look   at  criteria [A], [B] and [D ].

    Criterion [A]:

    A proposition  is  necessary   if  and only   if   it is analytic (p. 235).

    Criterion [B]:


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    A proposition is necessary if and only if it is incoherent to suppose that

    the individuals


     fact p icked ou t


      the referring expressions


     th e

    sentence which expresses it do not h ave the p roperties a n d /o r relations

    claimed by the proposition (p. 236).

    Criterion [D]:

    A proposition p is necessary if and only if it is true, b ut the t ru th of w ha t

    it states


     not (was not,


     will not be) de pen den t on a ny thin g,


    description of which is not entailed by


      (p. 250).

    Swinburne argues


     these ground s tha t the p roposition

      I f


      be a

    Personal Ground of Being, this Personal Ground of Being is not eternally

    perfectly free is incohere nt. O n cr iteria [A] and [B], freedom is necessarily

    a predicate of G od , or Personal Grou nd of Being . O n criterion [D ], God s





      the sense th at


      does not d epend



    including G od s own choices. (C riterion [A]


     logical necessity for Swin-

    burne, and criterion [D]


     ontolog ical necessity.) So, Sw inburn e himself

    supports the predication of God as necessarily free.

    Given Sw inbu rne s position tha t future omniscience of all true propo sitions

    is not compatible with freedom,


     must be conc luded that G od necessarily

    does not know the future. The necessity arises not because God is everlast-

    ingly ignorant


     the future, bu t ra the r because there

      is no



    everlasting time at which God could do otherwise. For Sw inburn e to say tha t

    God could do otherwise is to make freedom an accidental property of God

    rath er tha n a n essential one . God s know ledge is necessarily limited by Go d s

    essential freedom.

    Moreover, Swinburne says


      perfectly free person

      is a

     person who ca n

    only perform an action if he believes that there is no overriding reason for

    refraining from doing i t (p. 159; see also chap ter 8 ). Assuming tha t





     more rational tha n


      determined God,


     every logically possible

    situation there would always be an overriding reason to refrain from fore-

    knowing all true propositions.

      I t

     seems to me that this in itself would make

    the refraining


      necessity. Swinburne himself says there is


      logical limit on

    God s freedom —  tha t is, God will never do




     he acknowledges

    overriding reasons for refraining from doin g it (p. 148). But to speak in such

    a way presupposes, as Swinburne does, that God has the power to become

    future omniscient even th oug h God never does so because of this logical lim it.





     necessarily free, God does not possess the pow er



    future omniscient. Swinburne s definition of om nipo tenc e is:

    A person P is omnipotent

      at a



      if and only if he is able to bring about the

    existence of any logically contingent state of affairs x after t, the description of the

    occurrence of which does not entail that P did not bring it about at t, given that he

    does not believe that he has overriding reason for refraining from bringing about x

    (p .  160).

    Given this definition, God does not possess the power


     become future


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    2 6 A V E R Y F O U T S

    omniscient since a persona l gro und of being lacking eterna lly perfect freedom

    is not only n ot a logically con tingent state of affairs bu t, on the ab ove criteria,

    is neither logically nor ontologically possible at all. Again, it is a necessity

    that God not know the future because God does not possess the power to do


    If my arg um en t be correct, there is no point in talking of a cho ice as if

    God had an alternative. Since God can never choose future omniscience,

    God does not choose not to be future om niscient. M oreov er, if future knowl-

    edge is of one piece comprised of knowledge both of divine and human free

    actions, it follows that God is necessarily limited of both types of knowledge.

    Swinburne thinks it is coherent to suppose that God can be both omni-

    scient in the sense of knowing all true propositions and perfectly free. He says

    that an om niscient person if asked, could give you the answer to any


      if he chose  to do so (emphasis mine; see above quotation from p.


      It seems to me that Swinburne wants to retain in his doctrine of God

    the notion that God  is capable  of knowing all true propositions. This much of

    the classical Thomistic God Swinburne wants to preserve. In other words,

     self-limitation mean s more th an G od m erely creating a world with free

    actions as opposed to creating a world where all actions are determined.

    Since an omniscient person who knows all propositions is coherent for

    Swinburne, he retains the notion that God is able to be such a person but

    chooses not to be such a person for the sake of freedom. But, again, if my

    arg um ent be correct, on Sw inburn e s own groun ds, it is not coherent to

    suppose that a perfectly free Go d can be omn iscient. Sw inbu rne s God simply

    cannot know the future.

    In sum m ary, given Sw inburn e s position th at future omniscience of all true

    propositions is incompatible with free acts, future omniscience never has

    occurred and, more impo rtantly, can never occur. Th us, talk of ch oic e and

    a self-limiting G od becomes highly prob lem atic. S win burne s God seems to

    be a God for whom future omniscience is neither a logical nor an ontological



    Department of Religion,

    Claremont Graduate School,



    Thanks are due to Stephen T.


      John Hick and Keith Ward for reading drafts of this paper