Peter Winch on divine omniscience

November 1, 2008 - 8:00am -- Nick Young

It was only after starting this notebook that I googled my old London University professor, Peter Winch, and discovered from Wikipedia that he died back in 1996, at the relatively early age of 71.

He enjoyed early success with his 1958 book ‘The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy’ which attracted attention beyond the narrow confines of the latter discipline. His later work included a volume of essays, ‘Ethics and Action’ (1972), and an edited translation of some Wittgenstein manuscripts published as ‘Culture and Value’ (1980.) But it was his first book that brought him most notice; and that cannot have been an easy fact for a person, however cerebral and unworldly, to grow older with.

Nevertheless, I found him to be a very decent man and a fine teacher. I and half a dozen others attended his weekly postgraduate seminar which started with presentations from one of us students. He must have found it tedious to listen to so much ill thought-out nonsense—like a piano teacher putting up with eight year olds bashing out ‘The Ode To Joy’—but he rarely showed impatience and often elevated the proceedings with remarks of extraordinary lucidity.

Here is one that I remember well. A discussion was under way about the attributes of God. (There wasn’t, as far as I know, a person ‘of faith’ in the room; the point was to explore the nature of religious belief, not to promote it.) The talk got bogged down in the concept of divine omniscience—a familiar pitfall, I dare say, since there is a powerful but banal temptation to see this in terms of a divine super-computer that knows the truth or falsity of all possible propositions, the number of cells in each hair of my forearm and countless other forearms, etc . . .

Winch’s fingers formed agitated claws, as invariably happened when he became engaged. He then related a scene from Robert Bolt’s (1960) play, ‘A Man for All Seasons,’ about the 16th century Chancellor of England, Thomas More. More’s young son in law, Will, appeals to him for help in securing a position in the royal court. More counsels him to put aside his dreams of court politics. Go and become a schoolteacher, he suggests: honourable, worthwhile work that you could do well. The callow, vain, worldly and ambitious Will is outraged. He expostulates: ‘But who would know?’ [about him, about such an act of selfless dedication. What fame and glory would this bring him?] More answers: ‘You would know; your students would know, and God would know.’

The point, if I got it, was to re-focus us on the idea that human souls and deeds are inescapably visible to God, and the difference that this makes to a religious life.

Philosophy (and theology too for that matter) often trivialise what they touch with clever abstraction. Winch had no time for that and his own habits of reflection were invariably rooted in real life. I think this helped me appreciate the importance of trying to understand what is going on rather than hurrying to judge it.

(In the play, by the way, Will ignores his father in law’s advice, manages to get a place at court anyway, becomes a venal politician and betrays More who, famously, is finally executed for refusing an oath of allegiance that he considered sacrilegious.)

November 1, 2007