Omnisubjectivity and passibility


Linda Zagzebski (George Lynn Cross Research Professor, and Kingfisher College Chair of the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, at the University of Oklahoma) made some very interesting reflections a few years ago on God’s knowledge of us in Omnisubjectivity: A Defense of a Divine Attribute (Aquinas Lecture, 2013). There’s a much shorter summary of it (by Zagzebski) also, and there’s a helpful but short review of it here.

Zagzebski’s essential claim is that divine omniscience involves God knowing our conscience states. If this seems an innocuous claim, it isn’t. For Zagzebski it entails grasping with perfect accuracy our first-person perspectives, not simply knowing that we are having the inner thoughts and emotions (which are the experiences we’re having), but having those experiences, experiencing the qualia (the knowing-what-it-is-like) of our unique subjective experience. She believes such knowledge of others is epistemically better to have than not to have and that it constitutes the perfect sort of knowledge of the world an omniscient knower would have.

Zagzebski agrees creatures are not God, and God is not the creatures he knows, and this means that though God has perfect knowledge of our experiences by experiencing the unique qualia that defines those experiences within our incommunicable first-person perspectives, Zagzebski maintains nevertheless that God is able to have our experiences (to know them in their subjective qualia) while distinguishing himself sufficiently from these experiences so as not to confuse or mistake the difference between himself and us. Our first-person perspectives become God’s own first-person perspective but without God thinking himself to be us. She employs the model of human empathy to explain how God is able to know what it is like for creatures to have the unique experiences they are having (sensations, moods, and attitudes) while distinguishing between himself and creatures. Such knowledge of another’s psychic states is “consciously representational,” so that the empathizer is always aware that his emotion “is a simulation of the other’s emotion.” Her essential thesis (to restate it for myself) is that (a) qualia differ from other qualia, (b) the only way to know the different between qualia is to experience them, and (c) if God is omniscient, he knows the difference between qualia by experiencing them.

How can we imagine God being thus defined in his own experience by our experiences so intimately as to know (de se) the qualia that define us while also distinguishing himself from us and thus knowing our experiences are not his? Zagzebski argues that the structure of empathy gives us a way to imagine how this is possible. In empathetic states there is a “transference of emotion” (and other psychic states including beliefs, sensations, desires, moods, etc.) from one person to another. One intentionally imagines oneself in another person’s circumstances. This admits degrees of knowledge, of course. Being finite, we can never reproduce within ourselves another’s experience without some loss of aspect or intensity of the other’s experience. But God, Zagzebski argues, does not suffer from such inabilities and constraints. He has “perfect total empathy”:

God’s knowledge is direct, unmediated by concepts, percepts, the structure of language, logical inference, or any of the other cognitive aids we use in order to know the world around us. And it surely cannot be mediated by imagining what it would be like for him to be in our place. I don’t think we have a perfect model of direct awareness of another’s conscious state, but the closest model in our experience is empathy.

To be specific then, Zagzebski is not arguing that God’s de se knowledge of us, including experiencing the qualia of our experiences, is an instance of empathy as we know it. Rather, empathy as we know it is an analogy, a conceptual model, by means of which we can make sense of attributing to God, by abstraction, such intimate knowledge of us. She is careful about what divine omnisubjectivity implies, but it obviously implies a strong divine passibilism. One attempt to derive such passibilism from divine omnisubjectivity is outlined by Chester DeLagneau. I think it fairly clear that divine passibilism follows from Zagzebski’s view. If God is experiencing the intensity or deprivation of the qualia of our experiences in terms of their aesthetic value (to speak just of the emotional dimensions of those experiences), God is passible.

What might someone holding our particular view here say in response? Dwayne and I view God’s experience as undiminished beatitude. Several responses come to mind.

First, one could simply agree with Zagzebski that God is not omniscient in the sense she understands it. It is not always better to possess such knowledge of others and especially no advantage for God to be thus defined and determined by us. Indeed, one can easily think of experiences God is best thought of as not having, even in the representational sense Zagzebski imagines. The experiences of knowing/feeling-what-it-is-to-be guilty, greedy, or lustful come to mind. Speaking personally, I don’t know how to imagine God feeling such emotions or why loving another person and pursuing their highest good should require it. If at least some experiences we have are experiences of “privation,” i.e., the privation of being (being for which God is ground and end), then it’s extremely difficult to imagine God being privated. Of course, it would have to be the case, first, that being greedy, lustful, and arrogant are indeed ‘privations’ of being (failures of being per se), but I trust no Christian doubts this. Secondly, it would have to follow that the sort of vicarious transference of some privated state of being by God to his own being would constitute a privation of God’s being. I think these follow rather straightforwardly.

To be fair, Zagzebski argues that with this kind of transference there remains a difference between “imagining yourself in someone else’s situation” and “imagining being that person in that situation” and God does the former, not the latter. But this seems to me a distinction without a difference, for Zagzebski insists that “to empathize with surprise is to feel surprise, and to empathize with the sensation of color is to have colored qualia.” So even if we grant God’s awareness that his experiences are only representational, they are, as Zagzebski argues, still experiences of that kind. But following this logic, to empathize with despair is to feel despair, and to emphasize with fear is to feel fear, and similarly with anxiety, lust, greed, guilt, and arrogance. And for all the reasons we’ve explored on our blog, supposing God’s aesthetic experience to be thus diminished (privated) is hugely problematic.

A second objection to Zagzebski’s proposal is that it involves an extremely segregated view of God’s experience. I’ve discussed integrated vs segregated aesthetic valuation before, and Zagzebski’s view, like the segregated model, partitions God’s own experience into as many distinct and competing aesthetic experiences as there are distinct created subjects in the world. God’s experience of the world’s diverse values would not be a consummate act of integration, and this threatens the unity of God’s experience. There would be no divine experience (singular) of the world. There would be only divine experiences (plural), none defined or shaped by the other. Nor would God’s own self-constituting triune (first-person, if you will) perspective contextualize all our diverse experiences of value in light of his own perspective. God’s aesthetic experience would simply be the sum of all finite experienced values.

How very Whiteheadean/Hartshornian — God simply the apprehended totality of all our experiences, the truth of our pain and suffering, not a truth which heals our pain and suffering. I don’t know Zagzebski’s wider theological convictions, but I want to assume she’d agree God has a perspective upon himself as triune, as infinite beauty antecedent to the world (i.e., What of the qualia of God’s antecedent triune actuality?) Perhaps she’s a process theist. I don’t know. But if not, she may not have considered how God’s own self-constituting perspective (and the beauty and value and beatitude of that perspective) would integrate and so contextualize all creation’s finite perspectives within its embrace.

image_previewThird, does God not empathize with us? In a careful sense that would always require a conversation to explain (as inclined as we are by our pain to view all things in terms of it), I’d say no, God doesn’t empathize us in the sense Zagzebski maintains. But what can we then “mean” to God? What can our sufferings “mean” to God if he is not defined in his experience by them as I’m defined by them? On what basis does God pursue us, desire us, rush to our aid, even freely will to incarnate and so suffer the vagaries of human existence if not in response to feeling our pain (as his own) as Zagzebski argues? Surely my pain has to mean for God what it means to me (if he loves me at all). I’ve previously described the direction our answer to these questions would take and from which I’ll borrow a few concluding comments:

The search for meaning is wired into us. And if what we’re describing is the case, then our “meaning” is God-given. Essentially, our “meaning” is not the difference we make to God but the difference God makes to us, a difference we freely partner with God in realizing—yes—but a “meaning” which in the end is just our logos which God offers us as the aim/telos of our being.

Metaphysically speaking, ‘privation’ is ‘meaninglessness’, not an alternative meaning that competes with our logoi. All things exist in virtue of their God-given logos, which we might think of simply as God present in us saying “be this…” as the ground of our being. Absolute aesthetic failure, strictly speaking, is non-being or non-existence (and thus non-meaning). Hence, the measure to which we fail to conform to our logos is the measure of our meaninglessness, not our meaning, while the measure to which we conform to God’s subjective aims for us is the measure to which we achieve our God-given meaning.

If our meaning to God is the difference he makes to us, if our significance and worth are God-given and God-derived, then we enjoy the same (not less) attention and affections with which God pursues Godself. We’re suggesting that our true ‘meaning’ to God is our ‘worth’ or ‘value’ to God and as such is derived and unchanging. He loves us as he loves himself. So we receive the full measure of God’s attention, affections, desires and resources. To say our pain, suffering and all other forms of privated being are ‘meaningless’ to God, then, is not to say God doesn’t recognize or care about our well-being. It’s to say he cares only about our well-being, and that he is our well-being.


3 comments on “Omnisubjectivity and passibility

  1. Extremely interesting idea and some interesting reflections on it Tom. Thanks for sharing.


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