Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A God Omniscient

I've been thinking a lot lately about God and how much He knows. Throughout the scriptures, we are told He has all knowledge. From 2 Nephi 9:20, we read, "O how great the holiness of our God! For he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it."

I wonder, though, how can He know all things? With what specificity does He know? And given that we have agency, why does it matter that I know He knows all things?

This week, I found at least two of the answers in the least likely place. Or perhaps it was the most likely place, since my most poignant spiritual experiences in life have occurred when I was studying science.

It was Monday night, and I was reading an article for my cognition class called "Vision in the Natural World" (Hayhoe & Rothkopf, 2010). The authors essentially emphasize that eye movements are a manifestation of attention, and attention is linked with the observer’s task at hand. Intuitively, we might predict that eye movement follows salient objects or scenes, but the authors point out that “machinery for moving the eyes in a scene appears to be engaged in the service of the immediate cognitive goal” (160). That is, eye movement depends on the task at hand. Suppose you have just made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and are about to cut it in half. Your gaze would be directed at the knife handle to guide the hand to pick it up. As your hand closes on the knife, your eye will move to the corner of the sandwich where the knife tip will be placed in order to begin cutting. Your gaze then moves along the bread with the knife following shortly afterwards. After you cut the sandwich, your eye will move to a location on the table, where you will place the knife. As the knife nears the table, your gaze will move on to the next object of interest, such as a glass.

We perform thousands of tasks such as this every day, and they are fairly complex. Finding the eye movement patterns that aid in these tasks, then, must be learned. The authors of the article explain that "observers must learn the dynamic properties of the world in order to distribute gaze and attention where they are needed." They continue:
When making tea or sandwiches, items remain in stable locations with stable properties, for the most part. In a familiar room, the observer need only update the locations of items that are moved, or monitor items that are changing state (e.g., water filling the kettle). In dynamic environments, such as driving, walking, or in sports, more complex properties must be learnt. In walking, humans need to know how pedestrians typically behave and how often to look at them.
Now, here's where things get good:
In walking, subjects looked at risky pedestrians before they veered onto a collision course. In cricket, batsmen anticipated the bounce point of the ball, and more skilled batsmen arrived at the bounce point about 100 milliseconds earlier than less skilled players. The ability to predict where the ball will bounce depends on previous experience of the cricket ball's trajectory. These [eye movements] were always preceded by a fixation on the ball as it left the bowler's hand, showing that batsmen use current sensory data in combination with prior experience of the ball's motion to predict the location of the bounce. This suggests that observers have learnt models of the dynamic properties of the world that can be used to position gaze in anticipation of a predicted event. (162)
If you believe, as I do, that God was once like us -- a man who had to grow and progress through learning -- then viewing His omniscience from this cognitive perspective makes sense. I'm not sure how old He is, but He must be significantly older than us, if He is our heavenly father. That means He has lots more experience in anticipating events. He doesn't just anticipate how objects will move through a trajectory, though, but how humans act based on various circumstances. And like the skilled batsmen who were more accurate at predicting the bounce point of a ball, God is more accurate than us at predicting what we do and what the outcomes of our actions will be.

I know from my own experience that it's quite easy to predict the actions of a toddler if I set a cookie in front of her, tell her to wait 10 minutes before she eats it, and then leave the room. I can also predict, for example, that every Saturday morning, my dad will get up early and noisily clean the house in order to wake my mom up. If I, at 30 years old, can predict thousands of similar patterns in people I know, God must be exquisitely better at predicting what the whole of the human race is capable of.

In Proverbs 5:21, we read, "For the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord, and he pondereth all his goings." I interpret that verse in this way: God sees the ways of men, and based on His experience and expectation of what should happen, He can accurately anticipate the actions of men.

Why does it matter, you ask? Why is important for God to know all things? You'll have to wait for A God Omniscient, Part 2.

Thing I'm thankful for: a song, From Macaulay Station by The Lucksmiths


Blogger Cory McHardy said...

Very interesting comments. Your interpretation of how God's mind and understanding works is actually a lot like mine. In my personal understanding, I've taken a lot from the concepts behind the theories in quantum mechanics - the general idea that certainty (at the subatomic scale) is replaced by probability. Given the nature of our independence and agency, it would be 'impossible' for God to know all of our actions as it would imply that we ultimately had no choice in the matter. Rather, the way I've come to understand it is that He must work in a similar manner to how things work in quantum scale. Being the omniscient being that He is, as well as being the father of our spirits, he knows us and our personalities better than anyone else possibly could. Therefore, he is intimately acquainted with the odds of each individual making a certain choice in a given situation and thus can predict, so to speak, our behavior based on those probabilities and the understanding of who we are on a personal level. I see God as being a master mathematician, among a host of other things. I'm interested in seeing what you have to say in the rest of your post. ;)

11:28 AM  
Blogger cardlady said...

SARA! You are soooo smart! I agree with how you view GOD. I especially liked the cognitive study on eye movement. In Art, I learned many years ago, that a painting has to start with a person's interest somewhere in the above center and move to the left and down and then over and back to the left toward the above center. When people keep looking that way at art, it is the best possible layout for that painting. Great! Isn't it? Love YOU MOM Keep learning!

12:55 PM  
Blogger Carrie said...

that's how i see it too! when people have asked me about it, i explain it the same way as your toddler paragraph. can't wait for part two!

2:59 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

See, but there's a problem with what you (and Cory) have just said. You started off with this scripture:

"O how great the holiness of our God! For he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it." (emphasis added)

and you ended with a conjecture that God doesn't really know everything, per se, but rather that he was really, really good with statistics and probability and guessing.

So which is it? Is he entirely omniscient (in which case, as Cory states, "we ultimately [have] no choice in the matter"), or does he leave some room for doubt (which, some would argue, would lead to the depiction of an imperfect god)?

3:43 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Nathan, I'm saying that "knowing" might not be how we think of it at all. Perhaps knowledge isn't about some innate thing that God just has. He's not our God because of some inherent intellectual difference. He's our God because He has more experience. This ties into the ideas of predestination and whether we actually have agency, but I'll get into that later.

Still, thanks for your comment; I forgot to tie it all together! :)

4:07 PM  

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