The problem with taking a god’s eye-view

Every so often I’ll come across an argument or a definition that seems suspicious to me because it takes a god’s eye-view. Let me explain that gradually with some examples.

There is a tradition in philosophy to define knowledge as a “justified, true belief” and this runs into so-called Gettier problems where you can feel justified in a belief and the belief happens to be true, but we wouldn’t want to call it knowledge. Imagine if I thought I saw a friend at the store from a distance, but it turns out I just confused them with a similar looking person. But say my friend actually was at the store, I just never saw them. My belief was in a sense justified since I inferred from visual experience and it was also in fact true, but did I actually have knowledge that my friend was at the store?

My problem with this definition is more basic though: How can you ever nail down whether your beliefs are really true or not? You are an agent living in and interacting with the universe. It seems like a big problem with the above scenario is that I couldn’t take a god’s eye-view of the situation to ascertain whether my belief was true. Only a god could compile a table of absolute truths like “my friend is actually at the store” whereas I can only make inferences from my interactions with the universe (including introspection since I myself am a physical being).

Another example: Say Person A murders Person B, but the murder is unsolved. Is Person A guilty of murder? If you answered yes, I think that’s taking a god’s eye-view of the problem, since we limited humans can’t have access to that kind of overwhelming knowledge. If we restrict ourselves to saying “Guilt or innocence are labels generated by courts of law,” we might feel that there is a certain unfairness, though. Not only did A get away with murder, but they’re not even guilty of it. This problem is magnified if you witnessed the murder and even have documentation supporting your claim, and the court may still rule Not Guilty. Are they then guilty under your standards but not under society’s standards? This is an issue, but I feel like making a metaphysical claim of Guilt regardless of what a court thinks is taking a god’s eye-view; a vantage point inaccessible to us.

Often when one reads about the history of science, we’ll come across some heroic figure who put forth a theory (that is now accepted by the scientific community) but at the time was up against a rigid orthodoxy that couldn’t accept change. Take for example Galileo, who was up against the Catholic Church in arguing for heliocentrism, or the early theories of continental drift before plate tectonics was worked out. We can assign heroism with the benefit of hindsight, but that’s taking a god’s eye-view. Taken within the context of their own time, these criticisms were often legitimate: That there were moons about Jupiter did not necessarily entail that Earth went about the Sun, and without a mechanism continental drift seemed absurd. People in the past could not know what we know now, so we shouldn’t rush to condemnation of ignorance and inflexibility. When a theory is first proposed, it is often muddled without massive supporting evidence or strong logical foundations (Darwin’s theory of natural selection did not initially have a unit of selection, and this was a big problem until decades later when it was synthesized with genetics).

I am only newly come to the field of epistemology, so perhaps these observations are obvious to the more clear thinking. For me though, when an issue of definition or knowledge comes up I find it instructive to ask: Does this involve taking a god’s eye-view, rather than the more humble, limited experience available to us material beings? If so, perhaps we’re thinking about it in a fundamentally unproductive way.

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