This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
Hi. We are three students at UWC Red Cross Nordic - an international school on the west coast of Norway. We are currently sitting in philosophy class discussing middle knowledge and God´s omniscience, under the wider topic of philosophy religion. In connection to this we watched an interview with you on closer to truth. We think your thoughts on this topic are very interesting, but we are a bit confused about some things. In the interview we watched you are explaining the difference between propositional and non-propositional knowledge. Do you believe that God possesses both kinds of knowledge, if so do you agree that this would lead to some complications regarding God´s perfection? Because if God was perfect and has propositional knowledge (for example knowledge of what it feels like to live in poverty), then would he not do something about it?
From Doreen, Casper and Astrid
William Lane Craig's Response
It’s so thrilling to me to think that three students in Norway are interacting with my material on divine omniscience. May God bless you and use you in His Kingdom’s work!
Your question leads me to think that you’re confused about the difference between propositional and non-propositional knowledge. Propositional knowledge is knowledge that ___, where the blank is filled by some proposition, like Norway is a Scandinavian country. You can think of it as factual knowledge. By contrast non-propositional knowledge is not knowledge that ___, but includes other kinds of knowledge, e.g., knowledge how ___, where the blank is not filled by a proposition but by some other phrase like “to ride a bicycle” or “a lemon tastes.”
So “knowledge of what it feels like to live in poverty” is not propositional knowledge. That is non-propositional knowledge. Someone with such knowledge might say, “I know how it feels to live in poverty.” Propositional knowledge would be, e.g., knowledge that Living in poverty makes one feel desperate or Living in poverty results in malnutrition. You can know those facts without knowing how it feels to live in poverty.
This becomes important with respect to divine omniscience because omniscience is traditionally defined in terms of propositional knowledge:
A person S is omniscient iff, for any proposition p, S knows that p and does not believe not-p.
As an omniscient being God therefore has complete propositional knowledge. This is compatible with His lacking non-propositional knowledge.
But perhaps God’s cognitive excellence exceeds even omniscience! Perhaps He has non-propositional knowledge as well. This becomes important with respect to statements made from a first-person perspective, like “I am Napoleon.” If such a statement expresses the proposition I am Napoleon, then there are purely private propositions, which would make communication of them impossible. If Napoleon says, “Tell Josephine that I am coming,” I cannot communicate to her what Napoleon said. I can tell her, “Napoleon is coming,” but that is not the fact that Napoleon told me to communicate. If I tell her, “I am coming,” that also does not express the proposition that Napoleon told me to communicate. So most philosophers think that statements made from such personal perspectives (via personal indexical words like “I,” “you,” “she,” etc.) express non-perspectival propositions. So when Napoleon says “I am Napoleon” and I say to him, “You are Napoleon,” we express the same neutral proposition from different perspectives.
Now obviously Napoleon’s first-person knowledge involves more than the neutral fact that Napoleon is Napoleon. So this must be a kind of non-propositional knowledge that only Napoleon has. Now God must have first-person knowledge, too, which He can express by such statements as “I am the God of your fathers.” So God must have non-propositional as well as propositional knowledge. But He does not have all non-propositional knowledge, for that would be a cognitive defect, not a cognitive perfection. If God thought that He was Napoleon, He would be mad. So God must have only such non-propositional knowledge as is consistent with cognitive perfection.
So does God know how it feels to live in poverty? Does He have this non-propositional knowledge? That’s debatable; but I don’t see why not. There must be a mental state associated with those who live in poverty. Why couldn’t God put Himself into such a mental state so as to experience it Himself?
I don’t think this augments the force of the problem of evil and suffering in any way, as you fear. Propositional knowledge like Millions are suffering in poverty is enough by itself to prompt your question, why “would he not do something about it?” If there’s a good answer to that question, as I think, that same answer will serve in case God does have non-propositional knowledge as well. Indeed, for those in poverty, it might be a real comfort to know that God knows how they feel and has a plan for human history to solve it.
This Q&A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig's website.