What doesn’t exist can’t be known

91HvBls+5-L._AC_UL320_SR208,320_You Aquinas experts out there, help me out. I know Aquinas held God to be timeless and to have timeless knowledge of the world’s entire history of becoming. But there’s an interesting passage in the Summa ( that has me stumped. For those unfamiliar with citing the Summa, that’s Part 1, Question 89 [on the knowledge of the separated soul], Article 7 [on whether local distance impedes the knowledge in the separated soul], and then Aquinas’ reply to Objection 3).

The Objection:

Further, as there is distance of place, so is there distance of time. But distance of time impedes knowledge in the separated soul, for the soul is ignorant of the future. Therefore it seems that distance of place also impedes its knowledge.

Aquinas’ reply

The future, which is distant in time, does not actually exist, and therefore is not knowable in itself, because so far as a thing falls short of being, so far does it fall short of being knowable. But what is locally distant exists actually, and is knowable in itself. Hence we cannot argue from distance of time to distance of place.

Aquinas seems pretty matter-of-fact about the unknowability of non-existent/non-actual entities, and obviously I want to agree with him. Future events and objects are simply not actual, and are thus unknowable. They have no ‘being’. This has obvious consequences for one’s knowledge of the future. We don’t know the future not because there is in fact something to know of which we’re ignorant. We don’t know because there’s nothing there to know. I was surprised to find this passage though. John Sanders mentions it in an article on his site.

My guess is that Aquinas qualifies all this when it comes to God. God is not limited in his knowledge of creation to creation’s own temporal perspectives. It’s only finite knowers who exist at a time who cannot know future actualities because those actualities do not exist at the knower’s time. But God is not a finite knower located at a time. If anything, he’s at all times and so is immediately present to Creation’s entire timeline (as it were). So God doesn’t fall within the scope of Aquinas’ comments.

Yes? No?

You experts out there?

2 comments on “What doesn’t exist can’t be known

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    God knows what God does … and what God does is eternally bestow being from out of nothing.

    Thus David Burrell:

    God, who knows eternally and who knows by a practical knowing what God is doing, knows all and only what is, that is, what God brings into being. Yet by that knowledge, like an artist, God also knows what could be, although this knowing remains penumbral and general, since nonexistent “things” are explicitly not constituted as entities. By definition, an eternal God does not know contingent events before they happen; although God certainly knows all that may or might happen, God does not know what will happen. God knows all and only what is happening (and as a consequence, what has happened). That is, God does not already know what will happen, since what “will happen” has not yet happened and so does not yet exist. God knows what God is bringing about. Yet since our discourse is temporal, we must remind ourselves not to read such a statement as saying that God is now bringing about what will happen, even though what will have happened is the result of God’s action. (Freedom and Creation, 105)

    Given that we cannot picture God’s knowing of what-will-have-been, it is better to say that God does not now know what will-be and then correct the inevitable implications of that statement by insisting that God will not, however, be surprised by what in fact occurs, since what-will-have-been is part of God’s eternal intent, either directly or inversely, as in evil actions (ST 1.10.10). It remains that we will try, inescapably, to picture such an intent as God “peering into the future,” so we must then insist that the entire point of calling God’s knowledge of the “actual world” that of vision is to call to attention to the “contemporaneity” of an eternal creator with all that emanates from it, whereby what is, is so in its being present to its creator (ST 1.14.13). Yet the manner in which temporal realities are present to their eternal creative source is not available to us, so it is hardly surprising that we lack a model for God’s knowing eternally what-will-have-happened. For that reason I would prefer the arresting picture of God not knowing “the future” (which is also literally true) to the one which seems invariably to accompany the assertion that God does eternally know what will-have-happened—namely, that God can do what no one else can: peer into “the future.” God knows eternally what God brings about temporally; but this assertion does not entail that God now knows what God will bring about. The hiatus between eternity and time presents another manifestation of “the distinction” [i.e., the distinction between the transcendent Creator and the world he has made], so it is only plausible in the perspective of creation and never comprehensible. (110)

    So it’s not even a matter of God eternally gazing upon history as an outsider. He knows it eternally from the inside, as its transcendent Creator. God knows what God does.


    • Tom says:

      Right. Sorry for the shorthand; I was aware that for Thomas, God’s knowledge of the world is in fact self-knowledge. I was wondering how the above passage might fit into that – but it seems my assumption was right, viz., God is exempt from limitations of created being/non-being when it comes to knowing created actualities, i.e., God eternally knows created (non-eternal) entities in their temporal actuality. I can’t begin to ascribe any meaning to it, but I’m going to guess that’s an argument in its favor from the classical point of view.


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