Does God Think Propositionally?

Commenter Jeff posed a question in response to an earlier post:

I was wondering though how you might respond to the view held by some in the Reformed camp such as Oliphint (I think at least, so don’t hold me to it) and Poythress that God does not think propositionally. I am not sure if they would advocate the contingency of propositions, then, but if you ever have the time, could you explain how the argument might still go through, or if the objection has no effect at all?

It depends on what exactly is meant by “thinking propositionally”. If the claim is that God’s thoughts aren’t dependent on propositions (conceived as truth-bearing abstract entities) that exist externally to God and independently of God, in some kind of self-existent Platonic realm, then I wholeheartedly agree. Welty and I have argued that propositions are divine thoughts, which would rule out that Platonist scenario.

However, if the claim is that God does not think in terms of propositions at all, then I strongly disagree. For that amounts to saying that God does not think in terms of truth and falsity. Propositions are conventionally defined as the primary truth-bearers (see, e.g., the recently revised SEP entry). Propositions are simply those entities that are non-derivatively true or false. If God has any true thoughts then it follows by the very definition of ‘proposition’ that God thinks propositionally. And, of course, God does have true thoughts. (How could God reveal truths to us without first having true thoughts?)

Moreover, the Bible presupposes that God thinks propositionally. Consider the following sampling of texts:

Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” (Genesis 20:6)

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:12)

Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.” (Exodus 4:14)

“For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Matthew 6:32)

The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. (2 Corinthians 11:31)

In each case God is said to know something and the object of his knowledge is a proposition (rendered in the English translations as a that-clause). God knows truths: true propositions. (This is not to imply, of course, that God’s knowledge is exclusively propositional, only that some of God’s knowledge must be propositional.)

Jeff continues:

What I was thinking was that even if propositions themselves were created, then there would still be necessarily existing truths, just not with propositions as the primary truth bearers. But that would still entail that there is another primary truth bearer and I figured that if it could be shown that regardless of whatever the primary truth bearer is, it would still be mental in nature and therefore the argument would flow well.

Yes, I think this is correct. If someone wants to insist that propositions were created by God, either (a) they fail to see that (at least some) propositions exist necessarily, (b) they’re advocating something incoherent (that God can freely create necessarily existent entities), or (c) they’re using a different definition of ‘proposition’ than the one we used in our argument. There must be primary truth-bearers; to deny them is to presuppose them. If you want to label them something other than ‘propositions’, so be it. But quibbles over vocabulary don’t affect the substance of our argument one iota.

I don’t know where Oliphint or Poythress make the claim that God does not think propositionally (if indeed they do make that claim). Perhaps they have in mind something other than the two options I consider above. But if so, I’m not sure what that would be.

12 thoughts on “Does God Think Propositionally?”

  1. Dr. Anderson,

    Thanks for the post and answering the question! As I said before, I wasn’t positive that Dr. Oliphint had made that assertion but I knew I read it somewhere and where I read it was on Nate Shannon’s blog where he responds to a question posed by a commenter on your’s and Dr. Welty’s argument. He states:

    “As Oliphint points out, it helps to make a distinction (as Turretin does) between the mode and the object of God’s knowledge. As for mode, it is generally denied that God knows propositions or knows propositionally, as it is denied that God knows discursively, or knows one thing by knowing another. He knows as he is, which is infinite, eternal, simple, and a se. So I don’t think there is any reason to try to put any propositions at all into the mind of God. I said in my response something about God thinking logical laws intransitively; what I was thinking was that the most charitable way to construe AW’s thesis that God thinks the laws of logic would be to remove eliminate the subject-object structure of it, or the form-content structure (they say that the Ls of L are God’s thoughts ‘about’ his own thoughts) and suppose this: God thinks himself; God, himself, is self-consistent and without internal contradiction; therefore God thinks ‘self-consistency’ and ‘noncontradiction’. But even that is just bad theology, if not idolatrous: the triune personal God thinks the triune personal God. Anyway so the mode of God’s knowledge precludes our saying that God knows propositions.”

    Along with that, Dr. William Lane Craig has made mention of this idea on his website and stated the following:

    “Some thinkers such as William Alston, while rejecting complete [divine] simplicity, have advocated that God’s knowledge be construed as simple. On Alston’s view God has a simple intuition of all of reality, which we human cognizers represent to ourselves propositionally. Such a view is in line with Aquinas’s adaptation of the Augustinian notion of the Divine Ideas. In order to preserve divine aseity in the face of Platonism, Augustine located the Platonic forms in God’s mind as the Divine Ideas. Aquinas went further by contending that God does not, strictly speaking, have a plurality of Divine Ideas but rather an undifferentiated knowledge of truth. We finite knowers break up God’s undivided intuition into separate ideas. Similarly, Alston maintains that God’s knowledge is strictly non-propositional, though we represent it to ourselves as knowledge of distinct propositions. Thus, we say, for example, that God knows that Mars has two moons, and He does indeed, know that, but the representation of His knowing this proposition is a merely human way of stating what God knows in a non-propositional manner. Such a conception of divine knowledge has the advantage that it enables us to embrace conceptualism without committing us to an actual infinite of divine cognitions or Divine Ideas.”

    This is just meant to clarify where I had seen this idea and where the question ultimately came from. Along with that, I believe Dr. Poythress holds a similar view which is expected to be addressed in his forthcoming book on logic in February.

    1. Jeff,

      Thanks for these quotes. It’s helpful to have some specifics. I’ll comment on them in a follow-up post.

  2. Dr. Anderson and Jeff,

    I’m the commenter that Nate Shannon was responding to. Oliphint discusses God’s knowledge and thought on pages 93-99 of God With Us and specifically rejects both ideas that God’s mode of thought is propositional and that “the objects of [God’s] knowledge are propositions” on pages 94n12 and 95n14.

    Dr. Anderson,
    I read the paper in question back when you first posted it in December 2011. I’ve since read God With Us and God Without Parts and can’t find a way to reconcile your and Welty’s claims concerning theistic conceptual realism and divine simplicity (especially the traditional view that God thinks only himself in one single act). I’m sympathetic to your claims (in fact, I am very impressed by much of your work so far), and find it interesting that Pruss and Leftow make similar claims concerning possible worlds, but ultimately I think it’s a mistake. Am I right that you and Welty are being influenced by Augustinian divine illumination? Though it defies the principle of parsimony, I think a better route is to posit abstracta but, contra Platonism, to hold that they have contingently necessary de re modality and that God uses this abstracta to give human knowledge. Thus, God is intimately involved in human knowledge–without him human knowledge would be impossible–but propositions and other abstracta are created, analogical and imaged; i.e. not his essential knowledge. They are based upon God’s ad extra nature and thus contingently necessary (in regards to both de re and de dicto modality) because of his free act of condescension. This would avoid ontological univocism.

    I apologize if any of this doesn’t make sense. I’m only a undergraduate, so I don’t claim to be an expert! Thanks for your time!


    1. Thanks for the interesting comments, Ray, and also for the Oliphint references. I’ve read God With Us but I didn’t remember those footnotes. I will take another look at that whole section.

      I’ve also read Dolezal’s God Without Parts; in fact, I’ve written a review for Themelios (to appear in a forthcoming issue). I’m very sympathetic to the doctrine of divine simplicity, but it’s a difficult doctrine to spell out coherently (as Dolezal’s book well illustrates). In fact, we ought to speak of doctrines of divine simplicity, for there are many. Whether any or all of them can be reconciled with theistic conceptual realism is an important question and one that I hope to address in due course.

  3. Dr. Anderson,

    Thanks for the reply! I look forward to reading your review in Themelios. I am very interested in seeing if theistic conceptual realism (TCR) can be reconciled with a doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS) and I hope I wasn’t being too critical. It’s interesting that Leftow and Pruss seem to have many of the same intuitions as you and Welty in regards to abstracta (despite some differences) and they both seem to hold to divine simplicity as well. I know Welty states in his M.Phil. thesis (p. 60-1) that TCR doesn’t entail DDS, do you know if he nonetheless accepts some version of the doctrine?

    I look forward to your future work on this issue!

    Thanks again,

  4. “(This is not to imply, of course, that God’s knowledge is exclusively propositional, only that some of God’s knowledge must be propositional.)”

    What is non-propositional knowledge?

    1. The two standard examples of non-propositional knowledge in the philosophical literature are know-how (e.g., knowing how to ride a bike) and experiential knowledge (e.g., knowing what strawberries taste like or what a violin sounds like).

      But what I mainly had in mind when I wrote that parenthetical comment was the fact that Scripture sometimes speaks of God knowing persons (i.e., the object of the verb know is persons rather than propositions). Whether that involves a non-propositional kind of knowledge is open to debate; my only point was that I’m not ruling out that possibility.

  5. “As Oliphint points out, it helps to make a distinction (as Turretin does) between the mode and the object of God’s knowledge. As for mode, it is generally denied that God knows propositions or knows propositionally, as it is denied that God knows discursively, or knows one thing by knowing another. He knows as he is, which is infinite, eternal, simple, and a se. So I don’t think there is any reason to try to put any propositions at all into the mind of God.”

    What seems to be targeted for exclusion here is the notion that God actually (rather than economically) learns propositions from other propositions.

    For this reason, I think it’s fruitful to state the claim this way: propositions are one class of objects of God’s knowledge, and God knows them communicably, completely, constitutively, immediately, intuitively, non-inferentially, and simply.

    Each of those terms may be unpacked with benefit, and none is redundant.

    1. Well put, David.

      I will soon post a lengthy response to the concerns raised by Shannon, Oliphint, and Craig.

      Good to have you commenting! I hope these will be the first of many.

  6. @sandeman

    What is non-propositional knowledge?

    James offers several important examples of non-prop K. Here’s one additional nuance. A pro-position is something put forth. In view of the Creator/creature distinction and the importance of modeling divine incomprehensibility (in other words, given our scale, status, and situation), we should suppose that in at least some respects and with regard to at least some issues, God not only keeps his own counsel but must (freely) do so. What he knows but will not put forth need not be of a kind with his truth-bearing thoughts.

    This merely acknowledges that we don’t know what we don’t know, that we cannot know what we cannot know, that God suffers no anosognosia, and that we have reason to suspect that we do!

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