Ethan Goodnight

’15, Spring Arbor University


In this paper I explore Linda Zagzebski’s doctrine of omnisubjectivity. I begin by relating challenges posed against God’s omniscience. Next, I consider Zagzebski’s claim that omnisubjectivity – God’s ability to consciously understand with complete accuracy the first-person perspective of humans – can answer this challenge. This consideration merits elaboration on Zagzebski’s views concerning empathy and inter-personal relationships. Having summarized omnisubjectivity, I question the logical necessity of omnisubjectivity. Also, I contend that adopting Eleonore Stump’s second-person perspective on empathy can provide a suitable alternative answer for problems with omniscience. Nevertheless, I conclude that omnisubjectivity, if further developed, could prove useful in defending God’s omniscience.


In her paper “Omnisubjectivity,” Linda Zagzebski contends that some significant problems involved in the nature of God’s omniscience can be addressed adequately by the notion of God’s omnisubjectivity. As an attribute of a powerful Divine Being (assumed by Dr. Zagzebski to be the Christian God), omnisubjectivity profoundly shapes how the infinite Divine can interact intimately and personally with His finite creation.[1] This essay will examine Zagzebski’s sources and put her into conversation with other current philosophers of religion. After raising a couple serious concerns, this essay argues that omnisubjectivity can provide a solid foundation upon which to build a future defense of omniscience.

Zagzebski’s argument centers on one vital question: Is it possible for an omniscient being to “have the deepest grasp of every object of knowledge, including the conscious states of every creature”?[2] Additionally, if it is logically necessary for an omniscient being to know all possible objects of knowledge, how would this being acquire such knowledge? Some philosophers, including Patrick Grim, argue that the knowledge contained in individual conscious states of humans provides evidence against omniscience.[3] Zagzebski disagrees, defending her answer by stating that “omniscience entails a property I call omnisubjectivity,” which she defines as “the property of consciously grasping with perfect accuracy and completeness the first-person perspective of every conscious being.”[4] Only when omniscience is qualified by omnisubjectivity will an accurate answer to the problem of conscious knowledge of creatures emerge. The first quarter of this essay will be devoted to examining Zagzebski’s nuanced argument for the necessity of omnisubjectivity.

Zagzebski’s argument is best understood as an answer to a series of difficult questions.  The most difficult question comes from the nature of individual self-knowledge. According to John Perry, “on each occasion that I use ‘I’, there is some concept I have in mind that fits me uniquely, and which … characterize[s] my beliefs.”[5] This notion of the indexical “I” as a belief state unique to a person’s context and character is further elaborated upon by Patrick Grim.[6] Grim argues that these “essential indexicals” of beliefs by which I know how and why “I” know something are a silver bullet for omniscience. After all, “surely each distinct self-conscious being will have something that … cannot be known by others.”[7] Zagzebski offers the theory of omnisubjectivity as a response to Grim’s attack against omniscience.

Zagzebski begins her theory by probing the nature of the indexical “I.” A hypothetical example is helpful in this instance. Consider the author attending an orchestral concert with his family. Partway through a moving orchestral arrangement he hears a startling loud belch from behind him. His first thought is something along the lines of “I’m shocked at that behavior.” However, upon turning around he realizes with horror that the belch originated from his own friend Justin whom he dragged to the concert. Now, he still thinks “I’m shocked at that behavior,” but the “I” has gone from being “I-as-observer” to being “I-as-subject” because of his personal responsibility for his friend. “I,” as Zagzebski explains, is an indexical term whose meaning is tied up in the context of utterance.[8] Thus, there is a difference in the two statements; moreover, there is a difference between outside observance of a fact and personal observance of that same fact.

What is important for Zagzebski’s argument is that if God is truly omniscient, then God must understand the differences between being outside some event and being intimately involved with the event.[9] He must understand the interplay between having some knowledge (about Justin’s disruption) and being in the belief state “I’m responsible for the disruption by bringing my friend to this concert.” So, an omniscient God must know not only that Justin belched, but He must also understand the embarrassment Ethan feels at such behavior and conceive of Ethan’s personal embarrassment at such an event. In other words, God must know how Ethan feels when he feels embarrassed. In Zagzebski’s words, “it is not enough that an omniscient being knows that there is a difference [between observer and participant]. He must understand what the difference consists in.”[10]

But there is a further problem. Given the event described above, some philosophers contend that it is precisely the concomitance of Ethan’s knowledge of the event and his feelings of personal responsibility – his belief state – that make his perspective unique. What separates Ethan from the other concertgoers seated in the balcony is his belief in his own personal responsibility for the event.[11] The problem with this uniqueness comes when God enters into the equation. Because Ethan’s unique perspective is something that can be known, a truly omniscient God must know Ethan’s perspective as well. One question that Zagzebski tackles, however, is how God can assume Ethan’s unique perspective without losing His own objectivity or overriding Ethan’s subjectivity.[12]

Here Zagzebski begins her discussion of what proves to be a key term in this debate: empathy. Consider a fellow concertgoer with her kids a few rows back from Ethan and Justin. Perhaps she has been in a similar situation to Ethan before and empathizes with his difficult situation. What is the nature of her empathy? Zagzebski contends that it is a reconstruction of the other’s state in her own imagination. As Zagzebski notes, this imaginative act can be inaccurate. What is more, while this empathy could perhaps count as a piecemeal understanding of another’s situation, it most certainly cannot count as full knowledge in the manner intended by Perry. Yet, knowledge is exactly what God needs in this situation in order to remain omniscient. Zagzebski recognizes this problem and spends the rest of her paper comparing human and divine empathy to conclude that “God’s knowledge of our conscious lives is something like the perfection of empathy.”[13]

Since her focus is on knowledge, Zagzebski establishes the relationship between emotions, empathy, and epistemic knowledge.

When A sympathizes with B, A becomes conscious of an emotion of B and sees the fact that B has that emotion as a reason for her to acquire the same emotion. She acquires a similar emotion by taking on B’s perspective, but she is simultaneously aware that her emotion is a simulation of the other’s emotion.[14]

The awareness of the separation of one from the other combined with a desire to fully encapsulate another’s emotion leads to the belief that “copying [the emotion] exactly is epistemically superior to copying it weakly or inexactly.”[15] Establishing the validity of this claim proves logically that for God to truly know a person’s conscious emotions He must have a complete empathetic copy of their emotion. Anything less than a complete copy would mean a lack of knowledge on God’s part.

Following from this claim, Zagzebski now defines her earlier reference to “total empathy” as “the state of representing all of another person’s conscious states, including their beliefs, sensations, moods, desires, and choices, as well as their emotions.”[16] Essentially, total empathy “involves an imaginative shift in the reference of indexicals.”[17] The “I” of one person needs to be adopted fully for the “I” of another being, in this case God, to have complete and total empathy with them. By this action, the claim of Grim that “God does not, then, know what I know… [and so] is not omniscient” is overruled.[18] His ability to know and the necessity of knowing is what Zagzebski defines as omnisubjectivity.

For our illustration, this means that the omnisubjective God is able to know the objective facts of what Justin did and know exactly how Ethan experienced the event. God feels whatever Ethan feels exactly as Ethan feels it. This concept is similar to the mind-meld in James Cameron’s Avatar whereby the aliens are able to become perfectly one with their beasts through connecting sensors from various parts of their bodies. They see as one, feel as one, and think as one, allowing for perfect communication. The vital difference with Zagzebski’s theory is that the omnisubjective Being retains a sense that “He is acquiring a copy of a judgment.”[19] The omnisubjective God will never confuse Himself with the subject because He remains separate through the knowledge that He is omnisubjective. Yet, an omnisubjective God is as intimately connected as possible with each of us. He is as aware of our thoughts, sensations, and doubts as we are. In this sense, an omnisubjective God could write every human’s autobiography.[20]

Due to the nuanced nature of this argument, it has been necessary to spend a significant amount of time summarizing Zagzebski’s claims in order to properly respond to them. Now we can examine the strengths and weaknesses of Zagzebski’s claims to see how they relate to other topics within the realm of philosophy of religion. It is clear from the summary that Zagzebski’s argument could radically affect a believer’s prayer life. Most Christians and other theists believe that God hears prayer, knows all the circumstances, and even knows what we are going to say before we are going to say it. Prayer is not independent from, but rather connected to prior experiences and hope for future work.[21] Awareness of God as omnisubjective – that He is, in effect, praying our prayers with us – certainly gives additional power and importance to prayer. Not only does God hear your prayers, but He also intimately knows your thoughts and feelings about every specific prayer from conception to “Amen.”[22]

In addition to prayer, omnisubjectivity presents a new and profound understanding of morality. Zagzebski argues that an omnisubjective God can combine both objective and subjective points of view for moral equations. God possesses an impartial picture; He is neither totally separate from nor completely entrenched in a human’s subjective perspective. Rather, He can see, appreciate, and fully grasp the point of view of every rational creature while maintaining His own sinless perspective. This understanding makes the words of Hebrews 4:16 ring especially true: “We do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness….”[23] Zagzebski goes so far as to say that this perspective is exactly what is “needed to solve our most entrenched philosophical problems.”[24] Zagzebski’s argument for the powerful effect of omnisubjectivity upon any moral system is compelling.

Although Zagzebski presents omnisubjectivity in a clear, concise, and readable manner, her argument can be pushed in at least one aspect: the logical limits of indexical knowledge. What neither Grim’s attack nor Zagzebski’s response addresses adequately is the idea that it is logically impossible for God to know personal experiences outside of His own indexical “I.” To reiterate what Grim and Zagzebski disagree on is whether God can know each individual person’s own indexical knowledge. Grim says God cannot (by definition of the indexical “I”) and therefore is not omniscient.[25] Zagzebski says He can through a perfection of empathy and through awareness of his own Being outside of each individual.[26] What neither author discusses adequately is the logical impossibility of this action inherent in this discussion.

According to the doctrine of omnipotence, God is still omnipotent despite not being able to do logically impossible things. Despite not being able to make a married bachelor, God is still omnipotent because logically impossible acts, like making a married bachelor, fall outside the realm of omnipotence.[27] By this same logic, God is still omniscient despite His inability to know unknowable things. The tricky part of this definition is clarifying what things are possible to know and what are impossible to know. For instance, does God know all counterfactuals? So, if Joseph Stalin was born female, as Josephina instead of Joseph, does God know what the history of the world would be? Molinism contends that God would know because He knows how each person would act given any theoretically possible situation. On the other hand, proponents of simple foreknowledge contend that God only knows the actual past, present, and future. When it comes to counterfactuals, some proponents of simple foreknowledge argue God can know with some degree of certainty what would happen, but He cannot know with absolute certainty. Open theism argues that God cannot know the future by definition of it being the future. From an open theist perspective, the future is logically impossible to know because of the effect that individuals with free will can have to shape it.[28]

Despite these varying beliefs, all three positions still contend that God is omniscient.[29] Hence, each of the three views allow for compatibility between God as an omniscient Being and there existing describable things outside of God’s knowledge. The question now becomes if personal, indexical “I” experiences are among those knowable things. This paper does not attempt to answer this question, but instead proposes that regardless of whether Grim is right in his hypothesis, he is wrong in his conclusion. Grim’s contention that God cannot logically know our own personal indexical knowledge does not necessarily lead to a denial of God’s omniscience. If it could be shown that it is logically impossible for God to know such knowledge, then God remains omniscient; so Grim’s conclusion is incorrect.[30]

For the sake of argument, assume that Zagzebski’s essay on omnisubjectivity no longer needs to defend God’s omniscience. Is omnisubjectivity still a useful attribute? While there are many avenues to explore, perhaps the easiest way to answer “yes” to this question is to say that omnisubjectivity is potentially useful because of how it describes God’s relationship with each individual human. As previously expressed, this doctrine has significant impacts for our prayer life. Additionally, the idea of God as possessing totally perfect empathy is alluring.[31] A God who is so connected to His creation that He even shares their indexical “I” is a potentially powerful discovery. That being said, a number of problems exist in the proposed doctrine. After examining potential problems with Zagzebski’s argument, a separate argument will be expressed for how Zagzebski’s goals can possibly be achieved outside of omnisubjectivity.

While initially inviting,[32] there are a couple of problematic notions inherent in Zagzebski’s discussion of empathy and God’s relationships to us. On the one hand, omnisubjectivity seems substantially invasive. At no point does Zagzebski talk about whether the individual has a choice in whether God knows his or her first person perspective.[33] Instead, it is simply logically necessary that He does, a claim this paper has already discussed. Most philosophers would hold that one’s individual perspective is one’s own, Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” being a notable example. Yet an omnisubjective God also possesses each individual’s perspective by necessity. I do not concede it to Him. I do not ask for it. It is simply a fact of life. Some theistic philosophers, especially Descartes, would probably be uncomfortable with this truth-claim.[34] On the other hand, it is of course easy to see how theological determinists, among others, would think of this claim as a given. Since God has complete sovereignty it is not incompatible for Him to also have access to our first person perspectives.[35] Yet, while most Christians believe that God knows everyone’s thoughts, it is quite a different statement to assert that God knows everyone’s thoughts from everyone’s individual, indexical perspective. This statement is a potentially invasive truth-claim that needs more explanation.

In addition to being invasive, omnisubjectivity lacks personal relationship. As Eleonore Stump describes elegantly, for the relationship between a person and God to actually be one of union and comradery, “it has to be the case that each of them is close to the other and sharing attention with the other.”[36] Omnisubjectivity, as expressed in Zagzebski’s relatively brief article, does not mention the mutual interaction between the believer and God. In order to accept omnisubjectivity as part of omniscience, it would be necessary to also take into account the free will of believers and the beneficial relationship that comes from mutual friendship. Throughout her essay, Zagzebski maintains the dichotomous relationship between first and third person.[37] Yet, this is a false dichotomy that ignores a different possibility for how God knows each individual: the second person. If the notion of the second person proves able to explain God’s knowledge of us, then Zagzebski’s argument, in its current state, is not necessary for understanding God’s interaction with humanity.

Essentially, Zagzebski’s argument revolves around “him” and “I” but not “you.” Looking back to our illustration, Zagzebski contends that knowing “Ethan’s friend is disruptive” and knowing “my friend is disruptive” are essentially different acts of knowing due to indexical knowledge. I have no dispute here. Yet, what about “your friend is disruptive”? Instead of adopting our own first person perspective, perhaps God can know our own view sufficiently well to be omniscient through second-personal interaction. As Eleonore Stump explains, a second-personal interaction is “a matter of one person’s attending to another person and being aware of him as a person when that other person is conscious and functioning, however minimally, as a person.”[38] So for our illustration, Ethan’s interaction with his friend after the incident is second-personal when both Ethan and Justin are aware of each other as conscious beings engaging with each other. This second-personal narrative matters because it allows for two independent beings to interact on a relational level and communicate desires and beliefs and perspectives to each other without needing for one being to somehow literally adopt the other’s perspective. In its traditional form, second-personal awareness results in a “distinctive kind of knowledge and understanding of each other.”[39] Additionally, this awareness involves an understanding “of the other as a self-conscious ‘I-thinking’ subject.”[40] This concept is explained simply by the idea that after a particularly fruitful discussion, two conscious beings can say in good faith, “I know what you are thinking.”[41]

As expressed, the idea of second-personal communication does not seem much different from the traditional doctrine that God knows what each individual is thinking. Yet, what sets the second person understanding apart from the omnisubjectivity doctrine is the possibility for our own second-personal experience with God. Because God is eternally cognizant of all other conscious beings, He is in constant second-personal interaction with them. He knows how and what they are experiencing through this interaction and is able to respond as He deems fit. As opposed to omnisubjectivity, this second-personal framework allows for each individual in turn, when they take time to become truly aware of God’s conscious presence, to also understand God’s point of view (to a limited degree, of course). Thus, “both parties retain their distinct first person perspective and yet come to have this different, unique, shared ‘I-you’ … awareness.”[42]

This “I-You” awareness allows both parties to experience and know an event through interpersonal communication. It is much more representative of human to human interaction, yet, because God is always conscious of us, it still allows God the omniscience He “needs.” So, assuming that omnisubjectivity is not necessary to defend God’s omniscience because it is logically impossible for Him to experience each individual’s first person perspective, and assuming that second-personal awareness accomplishes a similar task as omnisubjectivity but with better interpersonal relationships and without recourse to an invasive “I-I” relationship, omnisubjectivity is unnecessary.

Both stated assumptions, however, are debatable. Perhaps Grim and Zagzebski are correct, and it is logically necessary for God to know how we experience events from our unique first-person perspective. Perhaps it can be shown that second-personal methods of understanding are not complete enough to grant God omniscience. If Zagzebski’s notion of empathy is correct – if an omnisubjective God will be the most empathetic being possible – then omnisubjectivity provides for a God who knows our hurts as deeply as we know them ourselves.[43] This paper has noted some potential failings of omnisubjectivity that make it a questionable doctrine to accept wholeheartedly in its current form. Yet, omnisubjectivity could prove to be a suitable answer for problems of omniscience, were these questions of logical necessity and second-personal relationships addressed.

[1] While Zagzebski does briefly mention animals, the focus in her paper is on humanity.

[2] Linda Zagzebski, “Omnisubjectivity,” in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion: Volume 1, ed. Jonathan Kvanvig (Oxford: OUP, 2008), 1.

[3] Patrick Grim, “Against Omniscience: The Case from Essential Indexicals,” Noûs 19, no. 2 (1985): 151.

[4] Ibid., 1-2.

[5] John Perry, “The Problem of the Essential Indexical,” Noûs 13, no. 1 (1979): 7.

[6] Grim, “Against Omniscience,” 152.

[7] Ibid., 154.

[8] Zagzebski, “Omnisubjectivity,” 4.

[9] Ibid., 6-7.

[10] Ibid., 6. Zagzebski contends that there is an essential difference between knowledge and understanding. While God can know what Hill experiences in this situation from outside, he can only understand the event once he knows what happened from Hill’s perspective. In this way, understanding as an essential form of knowledge involves first person experience.

[11] Perry, “Essential Indexical,” 19.

[12] Zagzebski, “Omnisubjectivity,” 7-8.

[13] Ibid., 7-9.

[14] Ibid., 12-13.

[15] Ibid. Emphasis original.

[16] Ibid., 14.

[17] Robert M. Gordon, “Sympathy, Simulation, and the Impartial Spectator,” Ethics 105, no. 4 (1995): 733-734.

[18] Grim, “Against Omniscience,” 171.

[19] Zagzebski, “Omnisubjectivity,” 15.

[20] Ibid., 19.

[21] Robert Louis Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought (New Haven: YUP, 2003), 25-26.

[22] Zagzebski, “Omnisubjectivity,” 19.

[23] Hebrews 4:16 NASB.

[24] Zagzebski, “Omnisubjectivity,” 19-20.

[25] Grim, “Against Omniscience,” 171-172.

[26] Zagzebski, “Omnisubjectivity,” 18-19.

[27] Matthew Hill, “Divine Omniscience: Does God Know?” (presentation, Philosophy of Religion, Spring Arbor, MI, September 29, 2015).

[28] Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: OUP, 2013), 161, 167, 171.

[29] Ibid., 163-174.

[30] Grim, “Against Omniscience,” 151-152.

[31] Zagzebski, “Omnisubjectivity,” 9.

[32] After first reading her argument I was personally impressed and attracted to the idea. Once I thought about it more, however, I perceived some of the inherent problems. I recognize that not everyone may think it alluring at first glance.

[33] Since she is a virtue ethicist, I find it hard to imagine that Zagzebski would not figure out a way for omnisubjectivity to unite believers with their God on a more intimate level. This is an avenue future research could explore.

[34] Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief, 367.

[35] Ibid., 162.

[36] Eleonore Stump, “Atonement and the Cry of Dereliction from the Cross,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4, no. 1 (2012): 8.

[37] See Zagzebski, “Omnisubjectivity,” 4-9 for a fitting example.

[38] Eleonore Stump, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010), 112.

[39] Naomi Eilan, “Joint Attention and the Second Person,” (seminar essay, Saint Louis University, 2015), 8.

[40] Ibid., 8.

[41] Audra Goodnight (Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy at St. Louis University) in discussion with the author, December 2015.

[42] Ibid.

[43] The difference between sympathy and empathy and whether God becomes empathetic through first person experience would be an interesting avenue to explore further.


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