Alvin Plantinga,  Cornelius Van Til,  Epistemology,  James Anderson,  Open Theism

If Human Beings Know Anything God Must Know Everything

I have become fascinated by a single thought lately. I began thinking about it last year and have been trying to understand it ever since. The thought is something like this: In order for anyone to know anything, someone must know everything. Expressed more visually: if there is knowledge, there must be KNOWLEDGE. I found the idea in the writings of Cornelius Van Til who writes, “there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere.”1 The following, gleaned from something I wrote for a class during my MA, traces some of my thoughts on the matter, in particular, relating the idea to divine foreknowledge and human anxiety.

What I want to suggest is that God’s exhaustive, comprehensive, complete knowledge of the past, present and future is what makes human knowledge possible. Furthermore, in order for God to know anything, God must know everything, including all future events. Because God knows the future comprehensively, he is able to design human beings who are able to come to reliable beliefs about the universe. Stated slightly differently, God’s comprehensive knowledge of past, present and future is the necessary condition for human knowledge.

The argument begins with human rationality. In particular, how we can be confident in the accumulation of reliable or warranted beliefs. I attempt to show that since there is a God, human beings can trust their belief forming faculties, but that this would not be possible if God’s knowledge was not comprehensive.

It seems fairly trivial to say that human beings cannot know everything (despite what one or two people might say). What some do say, however, is that human beings can obtain a “unity of knowledge,” the idea that human knowledge can be unified into a coherent system of thought based on a model of knowledge.2 Such a system of knowledge would lead to the claim that human beings, in principle, can obtain comprehensive knowledge – “a mental act of seeing together things not experienced together.”3 A unity of knowledge requires that each piece of knowledge or fact has been worked through the other pieces of knowledge so that a comprehensive picture of reality is rendered according to a theory of knowledge such as mathematical idiom, empiricism or legal argumentation.4

For example, if one takes modern, naturalistic science as the way in which true knowledge is obtained, such a unity of knowledge is sought in scientific explanation of natural phenomena. The goal of such an enterprise is a naturalistic unity of knowledge:

It’s important to see that naturalism depends on taking science as your way of knowing about the world and what ultimately exists in it. Scientific explanations tend to unify our view of what exists, since once something gets understood scientifically, the connections between it and the rest of what science understands are made clear. This is what science does: to show the pattern of connections between different things. These connections are sometimes literal physical connections, such as how our bodies are put together, and sometimes they are causal connections, such as how the wind causes a sailboat to move. Either way, science inevitably unifies the constituents of the world into a single whole, in which everything is either closely or remotely connected to everything else… So, science is the basis for naturalism. If you take science as your preferred way of knowing about the world, you’ll be led to naturalism.5

As we can see the scientific naturalist assumes that a unity of knowledge is possible on scientific grounds. As we accumulate knowledge of the world, human beings are able to form a complete description of the world. Dennett and Taylor argue that the purpose of scientific endeavor is to provide a complete explanation of reality: “science strives for a description of the universe that is as thoroughly and comprehensive as possible, composed in an orderly mathematical idiom.”6

Moreover, for their proponents, such systems of knowledge are systems of knowledge that ought to be accepted – they are binding upon others. The unity of the account of reality implies authority since nothing is left unknown: “Physics… has authority on account of its claim of completeness. It is not merely an account of some part of reality. It tells you what is in all of reality—at least, physical reality, including our bodies, and why all things there happen.”7 Naturalistic scientists claim that the scientific method is the only method to be able to obtain a comprehensive system of knowledge about reality. It is the confident assertion that what we do not know can and should be known by human beings.

In contrast to such theories of knowledge, Christians affirm the existence of an all knowing God. Consequently, what is to be known is fully known by God. This belief has the effect such that a human theory of knowledge, for the Christian, does not seek to make such a claim. Human beings are said, by Christians, to think God’s thoughts after him. Cornelius Van Til thought that this should make a difference to our commitments in epistemology. He wrote:

It is only a Christian epistemology that does not set before itself the ideal of comprehensive knowledge for man. The reason for this is that it holds that comprehensive knowledge is found only in God. It is true that there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere, but this comprehensive knowledge need not and cannot be in us; it must be in God.8

According to James Anderson, Van Til’s argument can be put more formally as an argument for God’s existence: (1) If no one has comprehensive knowledge of the universe, then no one can have any knowledge of the universe. (2) Only God could have comprehensive knowledge of the universe. (3) We have some knowledge of the universe. (4) Therefore, God exists.9

Anderson suggests that what is missing from Van Til’s argument is what might give us reason to accept (1). He suggests that what Van Til had in mind was that unity of knowledge depends on a guarantee that what one does not know will not so radically undermine what one already knows that it will render what one already knows as untrue and consequently not known. Unity of knowledge would be possible if one could guarantee that one’s model of knowing would not somehow be derailed by something one does not yet know.

Since human beings do not have complete knowledge of the universe we do not know how much is left unknown. What there is yet to know may be a small amount or a large amount. What we do not know might even be infinite. Since we do not know how much we do not know, how much we do know may be a large amount (if there is not much yet to know) or small amount (if there is a large amount yet to know). One might suggest that we are quite near to a complete picture of reality, but there is no way to know this. If there was someone to ask how far we have to go before we reach completeness then he might be able to tell us, but if you are a naturalist and an atheist you do not believe there is such a person.

The second part of the argument is that everything we know is in someway connected to everything else we know and, presumably, to everything we do not know. This is based on the idea that everything is in some way connected to everything else. Potentially, what we do not know could change what we do know. If all things are connected to everything else, then each “piece” of knowledge has the potential to alter already assumed “pieces” of knowledge.

For example, Horton Hears a Who by Dr Seuss10 illustrates how a new discovery has the potential to alter assumptions commonly held before the discovery. Horton, the elephant, discovers a whole ecosystem complete with minute people living in a structured society all living on a speck of dust. After quite a battle, Horton convinces the rest of the animals of what he has discovered. There the story ends. However, such a discovery would alter much of what the animals took for granted. They would never look at specks of dust the same; how they saw reality would be changed forever knowing that it included microscopic worlds within it. Moreover, the effect might be paralyzing. What if there are many invisible worlds lurking in the jungle? How could one walk in peace again, knowing that one might be trampling on millions of people with every footstep? How would the animals deal with such a worry? They might limit walking or re-evaluate the value of life. One piece of knowledge (a speck) has the potential to radically alter the way everyone thinks about everything!

The kind of change I am thinking of is what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift whereby a discovery has the potential to force a change in the basic assumptions of a worldview.11 Kuhn argued that the assimilation of a new fact requires that it be allowed to force adjustments to a whole system of thought and that only after such an adjustment takes place, when “the scientist has learned to see nature in a different way,” that the new fact becomes known.12 According to Kuhn, such an adjustment entails the discarding of some “previously standard beliefs and procedures” and the replacing of previous components of a paradigm with others.13

The problem, then, is not that a shift will take place, but the possibility that such a shift will overrule what we take to know in the present. James Anderson remarks that, “who can say that there is not some fact about the universe which, if discovered, would reveal that our reliance on probability judgments is entirely misplaced anyway?”14 Although, the objector may say this is preposterous, there is nothing inherent in the scientific method that would rule out this kind of discovery, a discovery that would rule out the scientific method itself.

Given this possibility the most appropriate response should be to worry about what we take to be knowledge. The point is not that we are worried, but that it is perfectly reasonable, given naturalism, to be in a constant state of worry that something will turn up that will render all that we thought we knew to be unjustified. Even if this is only a possibility, we cannot know how possible this might be since we do not know how much there is that we do not yet know. Indeed it might be highly probable!

Therefore, we do not know how damaging new knowledge will be to our assumed knowledge. The possibility that it will radically destroy how we have come to think thus far (the collapse of induction as a method for coming to true beliefs, for example) should leave us more concerned. Robert Fogelin recognizes the problem:

Reason, pursued without constraint, tends to drive us in one of two contrasting directions. The first is the way of metaphysics, which… is an attempt to produce a purely rational account of the underlying structure of the unchanging, underlying structure of reality. The second, contrasting tendency is for reason, when driven to its limits, to undercut itself, yielding radical skepticism or radical relativism.15

Fogelin argues that rational life is inherently a precarious activity. He argues that given the paradoxes that arise in the sciences (e.g. the inductive problem) and in rationality (e.g. C.I. Lewis’ paradoxes) it would be reasonable to despair. The reason for despair is that inherent in both epistemologies is the requirement of completeness. Fogelin offers some strategies for dealing with the problems but insists they are ultimately unresolvable. Fogelin’s argument is that while we might realize our epistemic position as precarious and be reasonably worried, we should not worry. The reason, he argues, is practical – it is impossible to live as a skeptic. For Fogelin, while one cannot have any surety, the pursuit of knowledge remains “high adventure”16 and this is reason enough not to worry. Whether or not one can continue to live in the way he suggests is not the question. The problem Fogelin recognizes is that it is reasonable, given rationalism, to despair. Furthermore, it is inherent to those systems of knowledge that one is obligated to solve paradoxes on their own terms.

Alvin Plantinga rejects such a pragmatist response in his engagement with Hilary Putnam. Putnam poses an awkward question to the metaphysical realist: how can one imperialistic model of knowledge, working in ideal conditions, still fail to guarantee being able to find the truth of the kind that is independent of the mind? If a model of knowledge was perfectly attained, Putnam suggests, there would be no way to know whether or not what that model produced would be true. Anti-realists notice that even an ideal model of inquiry cannot claim to have found mind-independent truth and so claim that truth is really a term for the mind’s creation of the truth. Plantinga agrees with the criticism of realism and with the intuition of the anti-realist. However, according to Plantinga, the anti-realist is prone to a kind of self-referential incoherence when he attempts to argue for his position. The kind of truth we are left with is confined to interpretive communities who happen to agree on how their minds impose order on the world. Plantinga concludes: “the thesis, then, is that truth cannot be independent of noetic activity on the part of persons. The antithesis is that it must be independent of our noetic activity.”17

What one needs at this point is some way to guarantee that what we know is indeed anything like knowledge. More pointedly, what we need is a guarantor. Plantinga’s candidate for the position is God:

The fundamental anti-realist intuition—that truth is not independent of a mind—is indeed correct. This intuition is best accommodated by the theistic claim that necessarily, propositions have two properties essentially: being conceived by God and being true if and only if believed by God.18

If true propositions exist because God thinks them and believes them, as Plantinga says,19 then they cannot fail to be true once God has believed them. Since there is no possibility that God could contradict himself, God must have comprehensive knowledge of all true propositions.

God, in order to fulfill this role must have comprehensive knowledge of the universe. If God did not have comprehensive knowledge of the universe, then he too would be subject to the worry that something he does not know would alter radically what he assumes to know. God, since he is all-knowing, has unity of knowledge since, “Knowing everything in the nature of the case includes knowing how one’s knowledge of one fact bears on one’s knowledge of another fact.”20

The Christian says that it is a good thing to not obtain a comprehensive knowledge of the universe. One can enjoy the knowledge that is received as a gift. This has existential implications. We call this trust which leads to peace that surpasses human understanding: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7). The importance of prayer in Paul’s letter is that it practices trusting knowledge. A finite, fallen, knower affirms her trust in the all knowing God through prayer. This leads to peace not because God provides explanations, but because one is assured that he knows even if she does not. The Christian says that while we realize our precarious position we do not worry and there is a good reason that we do not worry.

Worry is generated not by lack of knowledge in oneself, but by lack in everyone. It is if no one knows and no one can know that worry is produced. When a freshman arrives at their new school and is gathered with other equally clueless freshmen their worry is alleviated by the arrival in their presence of an upper class-man. If one person in the room knows what to do, then no one else necessarily has to know. To the degree that the presence of a more knowledgeable person alleviates the less knowledgeable person’s worry is maximized between the creature and all knowing creator.

Furthermore, God’s knowledge must not be dependent on anything outside God. This pertains to the doctrine of Divine aseity and “that the universe is created and controlled by a personal God who is a se, not dependent on the world in any way.”21 Since God’s knowledge is not dependent on any external source, human knowledge must be of a different kind. This means we only ever think a thought after God has already thought it. If this was not the case God would not be a se and his knowledge would not be comprehensive. There is a difference not only quantitatively, but qualitatively. Whereas human knowledge is attested externally, God’s knowledge is self-attested. Unlike human beings, God has no external cross-check mechanism by which he tests what he knows. Conversely, in order for human beings to obtain a unity of knowledge each fact must be cross-checked with every other fact. But for God no such procedure is necessary since all that there is to know is already known.

John Frame notes that philosophers have always sought an alternative a se that functions to perform the role of God. It might be that we could reason transcendentally towards all sorts of postulates that might, in part, explain reality being what it is. Idealism postulated an abstract absolute; Plato postulated the forms; Aristotle postulated a prime mover; and some propose a universal dialectic. But since each postulate is an abstraction from the sense world, it is correlative to it. In other words, it is only arrived at through abstraction from the world it attempts to explain. Even the skeptic, in denying any such coherent explanation, makes a claim which universally denies human knowledge as possible of the world and consequently needs to account for how one can deny that knowledge. This does not appear possible since to do so assumes the very thing that the skeptic wishes to deny.22If true propositions are those conceived by God and believed to be true by God, as Plantinga contends, then God’s aseity is intact.

It follows that God’s comprehensive knowledge must also include the future. If a proposition refers to a future event and it is true solely on the basis of it having been conceived of by God and it being believed by God, then God’s knowledge of the future must be comprehensive.

This is vehemently denied by Open Theists who argue that God has comprehensive knowledge of the past and the present, but it is not possible to know the future. Therefore God does not know the future and yet is omniscient. William Hasker defines God’s knowledge in terms of what it is logically possible to know: “at any time God knows all propositions such that God’s knowing them at that time is logically possible.”23 It is not logically possible for God to know the future, according to Hasker, because the future has not happened yet – there is nothing to know. It follows that God’s knowledge is open to a certain kind of change, but, for Hasker, the change is in the accumulation of new knowledge.24 God does not know if Ben will finish my paper on time. If I do finish my paper on time God will know something that he did not know before.

However, if God’s knowledge is only of the past and present, but not of the future, then God does not know how much there is left to know. God may actually know very little. Moreover, it is possible that God would come to know something that would force him to revise what he already knows. If it is possible that God might learn something that will alter what he already knows then the open theist’s claim falls flat since their definition of omniscience cannot be held to. The same principle applies – in order for God to know anything, he must know everything. If God does not know the future then what he knows of the past does not count as knowledge since it might be found to be false. Unlike human knowledge, God’s knowledge, in order to remain intact, must be unable to change a single proposition from true to false since God cannot come to believe a false proposition as true since a true proposition is true if God believes it. Whereas human beings can revise what we think to be true or false based on discovery, God does not because if he did he would no longer have a perfect knowledge (in any sense) and no longer be God.

In order, then, for God to know anything, he must know everything. But how does this help guarantee human knowledge? Do we somehow tacitly rely on God’s comprehensive knowledge to know anything? If that was so how does the human access this tacit knowledge? Anderson suggests that presumably God has made human beings with such noetic capacities that are able to come to obtain knowledge: “God, the omniscient creator of the universe, constructs human beings so as to ensure that their noetic practices (rightly conducted) furnish them with generally reliable beliefs about that universe.”25 What we can see from this is that in order for God to construct human beings in such a way as to be able to produce reliable beliefs, God would have to know comprehensively all true propositions. If God did not know all true propositions he could not guarantee that the kind of human being he designed could come to reliable beliefs. Since God does know comprehensively he is able to design human beings to be able to come to reliable beliefs about the universe, to think God’s thoughts after him.

The alternative, proposed by the open theist, is that God comes to knowledge in a similar way to human beings. Hasker portrays God as having an epistemology similar to our own: “God’s knowledge concerning the future will in many instances be probabilistic; to be sure, it is informed by perfect knowledge of the past and present and of the laws of nature.”26

God, in Hasker’s conception, is similar to Putnam’s ideal knower who has obtained an ideal model of knowledge. However, the laws of nature are merely descriptions of how the world appears to work, but, as Hume points out, there is nothing in those laws that precludes the possibility that the world won’t work in a different way tomorrow.

Furthermore, the laws of nature are ways in which the inductive method explains, predicts and interprets the universe, but they are designed to render explanations for the way the world works. But, if God does not have comprehensive knowledge of the future, and only comes to know the future as it unfolds, then he does not have any ultimate explanation of the universe. God’s knowledge of the universe can only be perfect if it is not contingent on the universe for an ultimate explanation for it. And, as Ian Markham remarks, “if the universe is not ultimately explicable—if there is not an ultimate explanation—then it would be just good fortune that we are able to explain anything at all.”27 It appears that even apart from the lack of guarantee that God will have his theory of knowledge thwarted, he will be as lacking in an ultimate explanation for the universe. As Markham notes, if no one has an ultimate explanation, then human rationality is a matter of chance.

One might object to this conclusion by saying that the reason we are not in a constant state of worry is that the universe exhibits uniformity and it is on that basis that human beings are able to trust their knowledge of it. However, as the problem of induction shows, induction is justified only by presupposing induction. Consequently, the very idea of the uniformity of nature assumes unity of knowledge. If we are without such a unity of knowledge, we cannot guarantee the uniformity of nature. In other words, one cannot show the uniformity of nature without presupposing the unity of knowledge.

Furthermore, if there are discoveries yet to be made that will alter what we take to know now, it is possible that one of those discoveries might be something that would undermine induction as a method for coming to know anything. In which case our inability to justify induction should be conjoined with the fear that something we don’t know has the ability to undermine it completely!

I have argued that human rationality depends on God’s comprehensive knowledge of the past, present and future. Human reasoning, when it attempts to form a unified, comprehensive account of reality without God, cannot do so with any surety or without confronting paradoxical barriers to the project. No merely human model of knowledge is designed to achieve such an end. However, what I have not argued is that human knowledge is impossible. Instead I have attempted to show that human knowledge is possible because of God’s comprehensive knowledge. God’s comprehensive knowledge of the future guarantees that God cannot be mistaken in anything he already knows and guarantees that he is able to design human beings with the ability to come to warranted beliefs. Open theism denies that God knows the future and thereby cannot, in principle, guarantee human rationality. Because Christians who accept God’s comprehensive foreknowledge are conscious of the resulting trustworthiness of God, they are able to carry on accumulating knowledge in multiple fields of study without the worry that the universe will turn out to be irrational.

If what I have said is true, then the reason human beings should be able to continue to accumulate knowledge without worrying about tomorrow is that God has comprehensive knowledge of the universe. If God exists and created human beings and the world we live in, then it is possible for human beings to know things about the world (and about God) because God has designed human beings in such a way that they are able to hold those beliefs.

It also follows that what we know is not always grounded in our own ability to argue. There are some things we know not because we have a rational system able to comprehend the universe, but because belief in God is appropriate to the kind of creatures we have been created to be. Alvin Plantinga notes that Christians who do base what they believe about God on rational argumentation of the kind that presupposes human ability to comprehend fully ought to follow through on their convictions. They should, strictly speaking, be compelled to continually check what they assume to be true against new arguments: “If my belief in God is based on argument, then if I am to be properly rational, epistemologically responsible, I shall have to keep checking the philosophical journals to see whether, say, Anthony Flew has finally come up with a good objection to my favorite argument.”28

The specter of doubt that lurks in the Christian defender’s mind as she engages with her naturalistic sparring partner could be greatly alleviated by the knowledge that her confident partner has no other option than to attempt to fully comprehend reality. What the Christian considers to be her greatest weakness—her knowledge of her finite epistemic capacities—may in fact turn out to be her greatest strength.

1Cornelius Van Til, Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2008), 65.
2E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage Books, 1999) & Louis Mink, Historical Understanding (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).
3Historical Understanding, 13.
4Mink’s division of models here can be mapped onto apologetic methods: classical method and “mathematical idiom,” evidentialism and “empiricism,” cumulative case and “legal argumentation.” The latter, observes Mink, is in vogue at present. I wonder if that explains why cumulative case apologetics is popular at the moment. Ibid., 35.
5“Q & A on Naturalism,”
6Christopher Taylor and Daniel Dennett, “Who’s Still Afraid of Determinism? Rethinking Causes and Possibilities,” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, ed. Robert Kane (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 222.
7Ted Honderich, “Effects, Determinism, Neither Compatiblism nor Incompatiblism, Consciousness,” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, ed. Robert Kane (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 448.
8Cornelius Van Til, Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2008), 65.
9James Anderson, “If knowledge The God,” Calvin Theological Journal 40 (2005), 20.
10Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! (New York: Random House, 1954).
11Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
12Ibid., 53.
13Ibid., 66.
14“If Knowledge Then God,”
15Robert Fogelin, Walking the Tightrope of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
16Ibid., 170.
17Alvin Plantinga, “How to be an Anti-Realist,” in Proceedings from the American Philosophical Association , 56 (1982), 69.
18Ibid., 70.
20“If Knowledge Then God,” 21.
21John Frame, “Divine Aseity and Apologetics,” in Revelation and Reason, eds. Scott Oliphint, Lane Tipton (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2007), 120.
22Ibid., 126.
23William Hasker, “A Philosophical Perspective,” in Clark Pinnock et al ed., The Openness of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 136.
24Ibid., 133.
25“If Knowledge Then God,” 10.
26William Hasker, “Divine Knowledge and Human Freedom,” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 52.
27Ian Markham, Truth and the Reality of God (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 91.
28Alvin Plantinga, “Reason and belief in God,” Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 67.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.