God’s Knowledge

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: Dear Mesora,

In a recent issue of Jewish Times, a question was asked regarding the Ralbag and Ibn Ezra's understanding of Divine knowledge. It was answered that no Jewish sage could possibly deny Hashem's knowledge of particulars. I do not believe this to be entirely correct; the Ralbag's position is quite nuanced.

In the third section of his Milchamos Hashem, the Ralbag develops his theory of Divine knowledge as an intermediate position between that of the "philosophers" (Hashem can have no knowledge of earthly facts) and that of the Rambam (Hashem has perfect knowledge of all the facts of this world, particular and general.) For many reasons which he enumerates there, Ralbag does not believe that it is possible for Hashem to know particulars qua particulars. Hashem cannot know what I had for breakfast, nor even that I exist. What Hashem does know is the divine order of creation, the "source code" which dictates all aspects of reality.

The best metaphor I can imagine is that of a computer programmer who has perfect knowledge of his program. For any given set of inputs into the program, the programmer knows exactly what the outcome will be. But he cannot know how the program is being used at any given moment. Hashem's knowledge of any conceivable possibility within his world is what allows prayer and providence to remain meaningful. If I change myself in a certain way, the Divine program will cause me to be benefitted in a specific manner, and vice versa. But for Hashem to know the actual "facts on the ground" would be a violation of Hashem's unity for the Ralbag and Ibn Ezra.

I hope I have presented this information clearly. If you have not yet studied the Milchamos Hashem, particularly the third section, I highly recommend it. If you have studied it and believe that I have misread it, I am very interested to learn how you understood it.

Kol tov,

Dovid Campbell

Rabbi: Wherever there are two opposing opinions, either one is wrong, or both or wrong. But both cannot be correct. This applies to your question as to whether God has knowledge of everything, or is His knowledge deficient, and you cited Ralbag as referring to the latter. Maimonides maintains the former, that God is omniscient and nothing escapes His knowledge (Guide, book iii, chap. XX).  Maimonides explains: the error in assuming God’s knowledge as deficient is due to equating human knowledge to God's knowledge (Ibid.); the only similarity is the name “knowledge.” In my opinion, man also errs about God’s knowledge because he assumes that God exists in time. With that error, man makes another error that God can’t know what does not yet exist—just as man cannot know this—and that God cannot know the number of possible events that might occur in the universe.

However, as all that exists is due to God’s will and His creation, He cannot be ignorant of what he creates! This truth alone suffices to disprove claims that God is ignorant of anything.

It is crucial to recognize that time too is a creation (Maimonides). Thus, God is above time: He has no past, no present and no future. There are arguments that as the future has alternative possibilities and multiple variables, there exist almost endless possibilities for almost endless causes and effects. Does God know which possibility will occur? The answer is “possibilities” exist only in a frame of time, of which, God is not part. He knows the universe’s future, in every detail. He knows every outcome, and for Him, there are no alternatives or possibilities. He knows all causes and effects, and all man’s choices. Therefore, He knows all precisely. He created every atom and molecule. He created how they interact. He knows every minute detail. As He created everything, He is knowledgable of all that transpired, transpires and will transpire in our time/space system. 

Some suggest that God’s knowledge is deficient regarding what is yet non-existent. Meaning, as X is not yet real, can God possess knowledge of what is non-existent? But this too is an error made by the assumption that God exists in time. In truth, as God does not exist in time, He knows what will come into existence and what will occur (in the universe’s time framework) either by His will, man’s will, or by natural law. The future is as real to God as is the past and present (in human terms). That God created the universe from nothing clearly teaches that God knows what is not yet in existence. He knew what He would create. Man cannot have such knowledge, as human knowledge depends on observation. But God’s knowledge is of a different type. We don’t know how God created the universe from nothing, or how He knows. But He must know all, as He created all. 

A meteorologist can know future weather, although he does not cause it. It is no more difficult for God to know man’s actions without causing them Himself. Also, God’s foreknowledge does not remove free will. For although God knows man’s future actions, He also knows that man will choose those actions with free will, and nothing coerces man’s will. Despite His certain knowledge of man’s future choices, He does not cause them. When I select my actions, I am not coerced. As Maimonides teaches, God’s fully certain knowledge of the future does not cause that future.

By acknowledging that God created time and is not governed by His creations, we remove all these questions regarding God’s knowledge of the possible, the future, and man’s choices. 

Ralbag also writes, “God lacks the apparatus for perception, and it would be denigrating to attribute such a lowly form of apprehension to the Creator.” But this contains a contradiction: God created the apparatus of perception, and He created all that which can be perceived. Thus, He knows the limits of perception, i.e., what is beyond the sensory capacity of every sense. Which means that He knows all. But primarily, God does not need perception to create everything. As He created everything without senses, He knows everything he created...without sensing. His knowledge does not require senses.

Finally, you write that it is Ralbag’s opinion, “To know what I chose to eat for breakfast, Hashem would need sense perception in order to observe me.”  This is false as stated above: God knows without sense perception. But there is a fundamental truth this notion hints to: It is a grave misconception that all that exists, exists of its own nature. Although God created everything, it cannot exist with God’s “constant” will. Thus, all that exists and transpires is all by God’s will. Otherwise, once God created something, if He does not sustain it, it would vanish, as we read, “Who renews in His goodness each day the works of creation” (Siddur, morning prayers).

And God told us the following: “God knows the thoughts of men” (Psalms 94:11). “For the Lord searches all minds and discerns the design of every thought” (I Chronicles 28:9).