Title: On God’s Knowledge of Universals and Particulars
Author: Emin Reşah
Date: 2017-06-04 03:23:09
In ancient philosophy, knowledge is divided into universals and
particulars, that is the existence of an apple idea or meaning through
which a particular apple can be identified is called universal. It is used to
explain how humans understand the world. We divide the world into categories,
names, events that are pretty much arbitrary and practical. However earlier
philosophers argued that this division is natural and God has also this divided
types of knowledge. Avicenna famously described God having the knowledge of
universals but not particulars. This limit of God’s knowledge was to averse from
the problem of evil: God knows universals of good and evil but doesn’t know
whether my particular existence is good or evil before I commit sins, therefore
we cannot blame him for creating me evil.
This division of knowledge into universals and particulars is arbitrary, does
not consider how humans learn their environment and it also carries the defect
later revealed by Frege’s paradox on set theory.
In this essay I’ll explore the topic in the opposite direction: Instead of
limiting God’s knowledge on particulars, I will claim that all God’s knowledge
is on particulars and God doesn’t need to know universals. Albeit their
higher-ranking name, universals are a product of limited human knowledge. We
can’t describe the difference between two red apples (and don’t need most of the
time) and call both of them apple. For God however, this distinction is
possible, he can differentiate any apple or object, up to their atoms without
calling their names. In Qur’an, God tells Adam the names of the things after he
created and classical commentaries all refer as if God taught something he
already uses. Yes, there was an education process but this is most likely
because of the human’s limited thinking capacity and teaching a finite mental
power to live in a world he can’t fully comprehend. God taught Adam names,
because without names humans are incapable to ponder on things.
However this limit doesn’t apply to God. When we believe in his infinite
knowledge, we also believe this knowledge pertains to infinitesimally small
beings, down to atoms or quarks. If God has the knowledge of every human cell
and every atom in their lungs, does he need to group this knowledge with the
names of humans use? My answer is no. This particulars/universals distinction is
caused by our inability to understand the universe with its full state as it
becomes. So if we need to put a limit to God’s knowledge, our strategy should be
removing human imposed mental limits.
One may pose a question here: In the scripture, Allah is described as knowing
all the things and we are given examples about these, e.g. he knows your
hearts. If he doesn’t know what a heart is, can he what’s in our hearts?
Qur’an describes Allah having knowledge of all things but Qur’an is written for
humans which cannot think or communicate by any other means. Humans cannot
experience knowing everything at once. Our consciousness can only deal with a
limited number of thoughts in a given time. Anything that takes humans as
audience has to address this limitation. So, yes, Allah knows our hearts down to
atomic details but this knowledge does not depend on its name and description.
The reason we need to deal with this problem is the classical paradox of
Theology. If God is infinitely all-knowing, infinitely good-doing and infinitely
capable, why we have evil on Earth? All answers to this question has to limit
these superlatives in some way: Either we need to claim that God has limited
himself not to break natural laws, so that he is not so capable; or we need to
claim that he’s not good as in our understanding of the term or he doesn’t know
the future and his knowledge is limited in some way. All philosophical inquiries
on this topic has to come up with an explanation that limits these infinitudes
with a certain prescription. In some sense, philosopher has to teach God his
occupation. Here I will describe the least limiting version, which I think
could be used as a basis to refute the problem of evil without attributing much
From the perspective of the individual human, there are good and evil things and
events which correspond to needs of it as an organism. When something is good,
the organism benefits from it directly or indirectly, when something is evil,
it’s a source of danger to this organism. Our basic good/evil distinction and
universals are caused by our humane needs.
However when our focus is redirected towards other levels, smaller levels like
cells of that organism and higher levels like groups of people, we will find out
that good/evil distinction is harder to apply. Can we really ascribe some
meaning, like good or evil to an organism’s cell? If so, for example, can
we consider death of a cell in human body is always good or bad? In these upper
or lower levels, good/evil distinction becomes more and more meaningless. If we
have to find good cells, we have to define goodness by the terms of the
individual. Apart from the purpose of the individual, there is no ethics that
we can readily ascribe to cells. This way of thinking goes upwards and downwards
to galaxies or atoms, there are no good or bad galaxies, there are no good or
bad atoms other than their relative merits to the individual.
Attributing universals to God is one of the anthropocentric claims of the
philosophers. We need a way to categorize the world into nouns and verbs, into
events and locations and this need is caused by our limited mind. Suppose we
were able to transmit the whole experience, without linguistic distortion to
others and suppose we had a way to enumerate all our experiences uniquely. In
this case would we need universals?
Such a case of language and communication is pretty much unfathomable. Our sense
and thought is ingrained by this collector that categorize experiences under
identical labels that we are not able to come up a viability of such a
communication. It’s like recording and transmitting videos, but the receiver is
also able to experience the recording directly. In such a case, would we really
When I would like to tell something, I’d dream it with all the unique experience
it has and transmit it to you. You can experience it directly, alter it and send
me. Such a communication method, which relies on direct experience rather than
symbols would not need universals. There would not be any need to collect
experiences under identical labels.
I claim that if God knows the universe in some way, it’s most likely to resemble
such a communication method. He may alter his vision or not, but his knowledge
does not need universals or labeling groups of atoms by names. He simply knows
what is without any linguistic intermediary.
In this case the problem of evil also does not arise because cutting some
parts of the experience as events and labeling these as good or bad cannot be
attributed directly to God.
However this is not to say that God is equal to universe’s existence. Instead
universe is something superficial like word is to the thing it describes. When
Qur’an states that he says be and it is, it seems to underline that the word
of God is what we call reality and the universe. His word is the Truth because
his word is the creation itself, there cannot be a distinction between the word
of God and the reality.
The problem, then, is to conform our limited language and limited thinking to
the reality. Universals are basic structures of human thinking, we cannot
communicate otherwise, nevertheless they also point that our thinking relies on
conventional groups, learned from the environment. When we confront God’s
existence and creation, through the reality, we consider the language we talk as
the ultimate description. This seems the cause all of our problems in a path to
understand God and his creation.