Saturday, February 12, 2005

Divine Opinion

A couple of my friends have recently been arguing about whether God could have opinions. The dispute may be less about theology than the meaning of the word 'opinion'. (A pity. I find it surprisingly fun to speculate about the characteristics of a non-existent being. Isn't that odd?)

One might define 'opinion' simply as "a belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof". If that's accurate then, by definition, an omniscient being would have no opinions - for he would never fall short of knowledge.

But I'm not sure that this definition is correct. Patrick writes:
In many contexts, "opinion" seems to have definite connotations of weak justification or uncertainty; but I think, perhaps, they are just connotations... The fact that 'opinion', rather than 'knowledge' was used in the sentence will often be a reason to take it as meaning 'merely opinion' or 'opinion and not knowledge' even though the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Scalar implicature is the technical term for this semantic phenomenon. An underlying assumption of communication is that the speaker will convey sufficient information. If a set of statements can be compared in terms of their relative informational strength, we can assume the speaker chose the strongest possible statement. So we infer that any stronger statements are false (even though this isn't strictly entailed by the statement).

Consider: "Ten guests came to a dinner party. One guest died of food poisoning." Strictly speaking, all this entails is that at least one guest died, and possibly more. But of course we infer that only one guest died; for otherwise the speaker surely would have said more. Similarly, if I say something is "possible", you will usually infer that it is "not certain" - even though that's not a strict entailment.

Now, it may be that <opinion, knowledge> is a scalar ordering much like <possible, certain>. This could explain why we find it odd to call knowledge 'opinion'. Knowledge is the stronger term, so we should attribute that instead whenever both are true. 'Opinion' alone would implicate 'not knowledge'.

But how can we tell whether the strangeness we observe is due to contrary implicature or outright contradiction? The standard test is that implicatures can be 'cancelled' by further clarification. I could say "one guest died - indeed, several did", and this is not a contradiction. We no longer infer that only one guest died. (Compare: "exactly one guest died - indeed, several did".)

So, how about this: "I am of the opinion that X is true; indeed, I know it is." That sounds like a reasonable statement, not a contradiction. This shows that knowledge and opinion are not mutually exclusive after all. Any appearance to the contrary is merely due to the connotations that arise from scalar implicature.

Alternatively, consider moral judgment. It seems natural to call value judgments 'opinions'. I think this holds even if we are realists and believe that there are objective moral facts. Being omniscient, God would know these facts, e.g. that murder is wrong. But I think it's still natural to concede that God has the opinion that murder is wrong. (Perhaps my intuitions are unusual here; as always, I'm curious to hear what others think.) So, at least in the case of morality, we can have opinions even about things we know. [I assume this case applies just as well to mortal people. If you doubt we can have moral knowledge, just replace 'we' with 'He'.]

We've established what opinion is not. But what is it, then? I think the key is not uncertainty, but subjectivity. By that I mean subjectivity of representation, not of truth. You can have opinions about objective facts, but the opinion itself is a subjective thing. There is a sort of 'agent-centeredness' to it. (I think that's why opinions and values go together so naturally - even for God.) An opinion is a relation between a person and a proposition, whereby the former entertains some sort of commitment to the latter. It's as if you were to say, "Well, based on my experience of the world, it sure does seem to me as if X is the case."

I think Patrick was getting at something similar when he wrote:
In order for god to have any sense of self at all (or any personality), he must have opinions. Sure, his subjective truth will correspond perfectly with objective reality, but thats what it means to be omniscient. Without an opinion, he wouldn't be god, he would just be objective truth.

What's interesting about this is that the introduction of intentionality almost threatens God's perfection. An essential characteristic of believers is that though they can represent the world, they can also misrepresent it. So if God can have beliefs, then he can have false beliefs. It just so happens that he doesn't, assuming he's omniscient; but such errors are within his powers (and 'nature') as an opinionated self.

Further, opinions and beliefs represent some proposition as true. It may even be true. But beliefs and opinions are not the truth, itself, directly; they're a step away, representing reality rather than embodying it. We may decide that the most perfect being would not be separate from truth. That is, rather than representing the truth, we may prefer to say that God is the truth. But then we cannot use personal pronouns, for there is no person left. Some impersonal 'truth' is not what most people are talking about when the use the word 'God'. So I think we should conclude that God can - indeed, must - have opinions.


  1. God can only know the future if you're a strict determinist. I don't think the Christian version of God is consistent with strict determinism, because if God knew when he created Adam and Eve that they would eat from the forbidden tree, then the moral lesson of that story is seriously undermined.

    So if you believe in the Christian God at least, you would also believe that at least some future events are not knowable at the present. So God could have opinions about those.

  2. I think some philosophers a being extraordinarily optomistic to think that they can define what a TRUE creator/ transcendant/sublime/ infinite GOD may or may not be like as regards opinions ! or that they might, by using what someone convinced them was a 'Holy book', safely use someone else's definition.

  3. Non-existent being is an oxymoron.

    God is imagining you imagining God.

    Otherwise you are a non-existent non-being.

  4. Firstly, I don't believe opinion is a pre-requisite for knowledge, but I doubt that we could even agree on a definition of knowledge, so I think that course of argument is best avoided.
    Here is what I think it comes down to; It is necessary to have incomplete knowledge and sensory experience in order to form opinions. Otherwise, the internal belief system isn't a reflection of the external world, it isn't an interpretation of reality, it's a complete parallel of the universe. The space outside gods head would therefore be equivilant to the space inside - there's the idea of omnipresence.
    It's said that a joke isn't funny when it was explained to you, but what if you also knew the history of each joke, how it was created inside the author's head? God would have no sense of humour, if we could ask him to tell us if a joke was funny or not, he could not tell us. The origin of such value judgements is always how one feels towards it personally.
    What could god tell us about this joke, then?
    Would a statistical evaluation of it be within his reach? I think not. For any given person, It could be imagined circumstances in which they would find the joke funny, and the various particulars of opinion in subjective creatures such as ourselves would make an omniscient evaluation of us irrelevant. All statistics are given meaning by the way they are shaped and limited in scope, itself an excercise of creativity, which is at minimum a dubious area for god, and at most an act which he is incapable of from the metaphorical or literal moment of creation onwards.

    Imagine sitting down with god to watch a sitcom. What does god think of the font chosen for the opening credits? Does it remind him of the handwriting of someone he knew a long time ago, and bring back a pleasant sense of nostalgia?
    Or does he change the channel because he prefers to watch the news?

  5. Chase, I would like to say to you, that this is a philosophy blog, and you spouting off statements about god that have so clearly been pre-prepaered for you by your local church, which amount to dogma(and very common, overused dogma at that)and nothing more, have no place here. Unless you have something new to add to the topic at hand, which involves you being willing to engage your reason and think for yourself, then go elsewhere. Philosophy is about exploring ideas, not scrounging for validation from a intellectual field about a superstition.

  6. Hi Sylvie! As you know, I largely share your low opinion of religion. Nevertheless, I'm happy to have religious people discuss their thoughts on this site (when relevant to the topic, of course), and that's difficult if others start trying to scare them away! So please keep it civil :)

    Dillon, you raise some interesting points in relation to divine value judgments. Some of our values seem downright trivial, and it's odd to imagine an omniscient God having opinions about such things. Nevertheless, an objectivist about aesthetic value would no doubt think that God prefers those shapes and fonts that are most 'objectively beautiful'. That sounds at least vaguely plausible to me.

    More obvious cases involve moral value. Presumably God has a low opinion of murder and such, right?


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