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Does God have Beliefs?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

William P. Alston
Syracuse University


Beliefs are freely attributed to God nowadays in Anglo–American philosophical theology. This practice undoubtedly reflects the twentieth–century popularity of the view that knowledge consists of true justified belief (perhaps with some needed fourth component). (After all no one supposes that God has beliefs in addition to, or instead of knowledge.) The connection is frequently made explicit. If knowledge is true justified belief then whatever God knows He believes. It would seem that much recent talk of divine beliefs stems from Nelson Pike's widely discussed article, ‘Divine Omniscience and Voluntary Action’. In this essay Pike develops a version of the classic argument for the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and free will in terms of divine forebelief. He introduces this shift by premising that ‘A knows X’ entails ‘A believes X’. As a result of all this, philosophers have increasingly been using the concept of belief in defining ‘omniscience’.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1986

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page 287 note 1 See, e.g. Swinburne, R. G., The Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977);Google ScholarKenny, Anthony, The God of the Philosophers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979);Google ScholarPlantinga, Alvin, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1974).Google Scholar

page 287 note 2 Davis, Stephen T., Logic and the Nature of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), p. 26;CrossRefGoogle ScholarSwinburne, R. G., op. cit., p. 169.Google Scholar

page 287 note 3 a Philosophical Review, LXXIV, 1 (Jan., 1965), pp. 2746.Google Scholar All of the books we have cited contain discussions of Pike's article.

page 287 note 4 p. 28.

page 287 note 5 Davis, Stephen T., op. cit. p. 26.Google Scholar See also Plantinga, , op. cit. p. 68.Google Scholar

page 287 note 6 Divine Foreknowledge, Human Freedom and Possible Worlds’, Philosophical Review, LXXXVI (04 1977), 209.Google Scholar

page 288 note 1 Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. 1, ch. 48. Summa Theologica, 1a, Q 14, art. 2.

page 288 note 2 Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. 1, chs. 51–53. Summa Theologica, 1a, Q 14, arts. 5, 6.

page 288 note 3 Summa Contra Gentiles, bk 1, ch. 58.

page 289 note 1 Summa Theologica, 1a, Q. 24, art. 14, tr. Laurence, Shapcote O. P., ed., Pegis, Anton C.. The Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1 (New York: Random House, 1945), p. 158.Google Scholar

page 289 note 2 Ibid.

page 291 note 1 Appearance and Reality, 2nd ed. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1987), chs. XIV, XV, XIX, XXI.Google Scholar

page 291 note 2 Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. 1, ch. 58; Summa Theologica, 1a, Q 14, art. 14.

page 292 note 1 Note that this is an argument against construing any knowledge, not just God's knowledge as true belief+ …However, though it is an argument against that construal of human knowledge, it is not an argument against the existence of human beliefs; for we, unlike God, can and do believe something without knowing it.

page 294 note 1 See my Concepts of Epistemic Justification” (The Monist, LXVII, 1 01 1985, 577–89)Google Scholar and various references given there for an account of this and other concepts of justification.

page 294 note 2 Some Considerations About Belief”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, XXXV (19341935), 229.Google Scholar Price's formulation is designed to handle knowledge of particulars as well as knowledge of facts, but we shall only be concerned with the latter.

page 295 note 1 For the latter, see Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk. IV, ch. 1, section 2.

page 295 note 2 We have to make an exception to this generalization for beliefs with certain special contents. For example, my belief that I believe something could not be the state it is (a belief of mine) unless its propositional object were true. (I owe this point to Robert Audi.) But this is because of the special character of that propositional object. It is still the case that, unlike knowledge on the intuitive conception, there is nothing about belief as such that prevents a belief from being the psychological state it is even if its propositional object is false.

page 295 note 3 a See Price, , loc. cit.Google Scholar In Descartes' Méditation IV it is the faculty of the understanding that achieves knowledge; the will is then faced with the task of forming judgements or beliefs in accordance with that. See also Locke, op. cit. bk. IV, chs. 5 and 14. In chapter 14 Locke clearly affirms that one judges that p only where one does not know that p; but in chapter 5 he seems to hold that one may also judge that p where one does know that p, though the knowledge is still distinct from the judgement.

page 295 note 4 See, e.g. Bradley, F. H., The Principles of Logic (London: Oxford University Press, 1922), bk. II, pt.I, ch. VI;Google ScholarBlanshard, Brand, The Nature of Thought (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1939), chs. I, II, XXV;Google ScholarSellars, Wilfrid, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind”, in Science, Perception, and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 127–96;Google ScholarWilliams, Michael, Groundless Belief (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), ch. 2;Google ScholarBonjour, Laurence, “Can Empirical Knowledge Have a Foundation?”, American Philosophical Quarterly, XV, 1 (01 1978), 113.Google Scholar

page 296 note 1 For purposes of this discussion I will not distinguish between judgement and belief.

page 298 note 1 Belief (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1969).Google Scholar

page 298 note 2 p. 204.

page 298 note 3 The Personalist, LIII, I (1972), 4362.Google Scholar

page 302 note 1 This point has been exploited by many thinkers to defuse the problem. If God does not exist in time, but rather in an “eternal now”, then God never knows “in advance” what happens. All of His knowledge is strictly contemporary with what is known, since God is all at once contemporary with all of time. Hence His perfect knowledge of all our actions is not more incompatible with our freedom to do otherwise than is the contemporary knowledge of another human being as to what I am doing at a given moment. See, e.g. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1a, Q. 14, art. 13. In order to generate a problem of divine omniscience and human freedom we need to think of God as temporal, as living through a succession of moments, so that He will know in advance what I do at a given moment.

page 302 note 2 This diagnosis of the situation may, of course, be contested, but for the purposes of this discussion I only need to display its plausibility.

page 302 note 3 See Adams, Marilyn, ‘Is the Existence of God a Hard Fact?’, Philosophical Review, LXXVI (Oct., 1967), 209–16;Google ScholarFischer, John, ‘Freedom and Foreknowledge’, op. cit. XCII (1983), 6779;Google ScholarHoffman, Joshua and Rosenkrantz, Gary, ‘Hard and Soft Facts’, op. cit. XCIII (07 1984).Google Scholar

page 303 note 1 See Adams, , op. cit.;Google ScholarFreddoso, Alfred J., “Accidental Necessity and Logical Determinism”, journal of Philosophy, LXXX (05 1983), 257–78;CrossRefGoogle ScholarPlantinga, Alvin, “On Ockham's Way out”, Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 3, no. 3 (07 1986), 235269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

page 303 note 2 See Fischer, , op. cit.Google Scholar

page 304 note 1 In the next to last paragraph of his article (p. 45) Pike acknowledges that his argument will not go through if divine knowledge does not involve belief.

page 304 note 2 Omniscience and Immutability”, Journal of Philosophy, LXIII (07 1966), 409–21.Google Scholar

page 306 note 1 This paper has greatly benefited from comments by Robert Audi, Jonathan Bennett, Norman Kretzmann, Nelson Pike, Alvin Plantinga, Eleonore Stump, and Peter van Inwagen.