Pointless Knowledge

                                                Pointless Knowledge



God is said to be omniscient: he knows everything. There is nothing he doesn’t know, no matter how minor or inconsequential. I think this poses a problem for God’s existence, because some knowledge is pointless—and nothing about God should be pointless. It is sometimes noted that God knows about little things as well as big things—a daisy in a field as well as a king on his throne. This little knowledge may not be useful to God, but it shows his tender regard for all of creation and his attention to detail. Still, it cries out for explanation: why bother to know every last thing just for the sake of it? None of us would find that a worthwhile project, even if it came easily. What’s the point of knowing every single detail of the universe?

            Consider the position of particles within planets. There are true propositions stating the relative positions of particles within different planets: a certain particle inside Mars is so many millions of miles from a certain particle inside Earth. There will be many billions of propositions like that. God knows all of them, just as he knows the moral condition of your soul. Presumably all these propositions are at the forefront of his consciousness, since there is no back of it. What is the point of having such knowledge? These propositions are neither useful not interesting; they record utterly mundane facts. You would kill yourself rather than memorize even a tiny proportion of them. So why does God take the trouble to know them all? There is no point to it—except to live up to his reputation as omniscient. He could delete this knowledge from his data banks and sacrifice nothing of value. It is a waste of divine resources as well as a blot on God’s sublimity—like hearing that he has a billion hands he never uses. If God is truly omniscient, then he has a huge amount of pointless knowledge.  [1]

            In the human case we have no time for pointless knowledge; it is certainly not thought to be valuable. Knowledge must either be useful or inherently interesting, but not every fact about the universe is useful or interesting—some things are just not worth knowing. If the bore is someone who insists on telling you things that are not worth knowing, then God is primed to be the supreme bore (though I imagine he would refrain from unloading all his pointless knowledge on you). Rummaging through God’s mind in search of epistemic nuggets would yield an awful lot of junk. Omniscience guarantees the possession of junk information. But this is not how we like to think of God: we like to think of him as discerning, discriminating, superbly intellectually equipped, and interesting to know. He is not the repository of vast quantities of dullness. He is not the Encyclopedia Britannica of pointless epistemic clutter. Someone who has memorized the phone book is not an ideal of epistemic virtue, but God has memorized every phone book in the universe (and everyone’s gas bill and tax return too). Literal omniscience just isn’t anything to write home about. It isn’t cool.

            When you think of God’s omniscience you think of his complete knowledge of yourself and that strikes you as interesting (other people, not so much). There is a point to it, a very personal one. But you forget about all the boring pointless knowledge God is condemned to contain by dint of his omniscience. This doesn’t fit your image of God as glorious and scintillating. He begins to seem like a weirdly obsessive accountant. This is why omniscience puts pressure on the traditional concept of God when pushed to the limit. There is a tension in God’s being—between his splendor and sublimity, on the one hand, and his undiscriminating appetite for information, on the other. He is like the greatest mind in the world obsessed with TV trivia. Vast tracts of God’s mind are of no interest whatsoever. Nor can any rationale be given for this compulsive recording of banality, except that if it were not so God would not live up to his reputation as omniscient. What would be lost of God’s essential being if we stipulated that he falls short of complete omniscience, limiting his knowledge to the interesting and worthwhile? Would we think less of him if he failed to know about one daisy or the position of a single atom? I don’t think so—I would prefer God to be less than omniscient. Surely he cannot be interested in everything he knows. But then I don’t believe in God as traditionally conceived.

            The concept of pointless knowledge is also relevant to the question of the value of knowledge. I submit that pointless knowledge has no value, in which case knowledge as such is not a basic good. Useful and interesting knowledge has value, to be sure, but some knowledge is utterly pointless—just not worth having. We are better off without it given that all knowledge requires the use of scarce resources. It is knowledge it would be good to destroy, so as not to use up cognitive space. To put it differently, many facts are not worth the time of day. Some knowledge adds to the value of the mind that possesses it, but there is a lot of potential knowledge that adds nothing of value—that may as well remain unknown. Someone who searches for knowledge indiscriminately is doing nothing worthwhile; and someone who stores all knowledge without regard for its value is equally misguided. This is why God cannot really be omniscient—because he is not misguided. He sees no point in pointless knowledge.



  [1] The idea of an omniscient God was crafted when the true extent of the universe was not known. At that time it was reasonable to suppose that everything in nature had some human relevance, but this kind of anthropocentrism is no longer viable. Now we are invited to accept that God possesses a huge amount of humanly irrelevant knowledge. I doubt that if we were devising a concept of God today we would sign on to total universal omniscience, but we are saddled with the idea by earlier conceptions. We should reject the idea, which shows that the earlier definition of God is no longer defensible. That is, there is no God as traditionally conceived. 

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