Can one establish the existence of an omniscient?

…or can one just say that his existence cannot be denied?

During his commentary on Maṇḍana Miśra’s Vidhiviveka (henceforth VV), 1.14–15, Vācaspati Miśra focuses on the possibility of the existence of omniscients. Why so? Because the VV is a Mīmāṃsaka text and the whole Mīmāṃsā enterprise depends on the idea that the Vedas are the only way to know about dharma. Thus, the existence of omniscient being, who would have direct access to dharma, would automatically invalidate the Mīmāṃsā epistemology. Consequently, the VV and its commentary need to stage from the beginning a debate between a Buddhist Pramāṇavādin (favouring omniscients) and a Mīmāṃsaka (denying them). During his commentary on VV 1.14, the last word is left to the Pramāṇavādin and Vācaspati seems to display some familiarity with Pramāṇavāda material, since he quotes from Dharmakīrti and discusses the existence of concrete omniscient beings (such as the Buddha), rather than the abstract possibility of yogipratyakṣa*. Part of the discussion is agreeable and well-structured:

  1. The omniscient one exists
  2. Because there are no means to deny his existence and because there are means to positively establish it
  3. Discussion of the former, featuring sense perception and then inference
  4. Discussion of the latter, featuring sense perception

The discussion of 3. is rich and interesting, with the Mīmāṃsaka arguing for the necessity of desire for communication (this is Kumārila’s position) and the Pramāṇavādin replying that the compassion which moves the Buddha to help others is not a desire (rāga). A more technical discussion about the impossibility to formalise a syllogism denying the omniscient is also present.

The odd point about the discussion, however, comes after it, at point 4, since Vācaspati does not seem indeed to give any positive motivation for the existence of an omniscient one (although he promises that he will discuss it again later —I do not yet know whether he keeps his promise). Accordingly, the discussion of 4. is also negative in nature:

Nor is it the case that there are no positive evidences. To elaborate, such an [absence] should be either absence of perceptual [evidence] or of [evidence] from all (other?) instruments of knowledge. In turn, the absence of perceptual [evidence] regards either itself or all [the rest]. Even if it regards itself, then it can be either characterised by the fact that [the absence of perception regards] something perceptible, or [the absence of perception] is not characterised (by either perceptibility or anything else). To begin with, the absence of perceptual evidence of itself as regarding something perceptible does not prove the absence of an omniscient. Because the [omniscience] has a remote (i.e., parokṣa) nature and, thus, cannot have its [perceptual] reality arise, as it is well known. And the absence of the whole sense-perception is not established, because the [absence of perceptual evidence] which is not [further] characterised is wrong. For, it is not the case that the entire perception of a normal (i.e, not omniscient) human being (arvāgdṛś-) is absent, for this is not established.

(nāpi sādhakapramāṇābhāvaḥ. tathā hi sa pratyakṣābhavo vā sakalapramāṇābhavo vā syāt. pratyakṣābhāvo’pi cātmanaḥ sarveṣām vā yadātmanaḥ tadāpi dṛśyatāviśeṣaṇaḥ nirviśeṣaṇa vā. na tāvad ātmapratyakṣanivṛttir drśyatāviśeṣaṇā sarvajñābhāvasādhanī, tasya svabhāvaviprakarṣinas tattvānupapatteḥ prasiddhatvāt. nirviśeṣanāyāś ca vyabhicārāt samastapratyakṣanivṛtteś cāsiddhatvam. na khalv arvāgdṛśaḥ sakalapratyakṣanivṛtti asiddhatvāt, Stern p. 457.)

nirviśeṣaṇa possibly refers to sorts of perception which do not need a perceptible object, such as intellectual intuition (yogipratyakṣa).

Do you have any experience with a nirviśeṣaṇa ātmapratyakṣābhāva? And more in general, are there positive arguments for the existence of an omniscient?

*I am currently reading this text with Marco Ferrante and Cristina Pecchia. I owe this last comment to her, whereas I probably owe to Marco almost all the rest. I never write it in my articles, but just in case: All errors remain mine.

(cross-posted on the Indian Philosophy Blog)

Do you think that Sanskrit is hard? Have a look at what our fellow logicians are doing! —On Srinivasan and Parthasarathi 2012

This article uses Mīmāṃsā tools for a non-exegetical purpose, i.e., in order to build a system of representations of imperatives. The purpose of the system is even further away, since it regards Artificial Intelligence. In fact, the authors start with the (evident, but often overlooked) observation that we communicate with computers mostly through imperatives and not assertive statements (do this, then if x, then do z…).

American Academy of Religion

The deadline for submissions for this year’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego is Monday, March 3, 2014, 5:00 pm EST. The Program Administration Proposal, Evaluation, Review, and Submission (PAPERS) System, the AAR’s online proposal submission system, is open for your proposal! The AAR Meeting will be held November 22-25, 2014.

The Yogācāra Buddhism Group invites proposals on the following:

Call for Papers:

In light of the success and excitement that our text-discussion format has received in recent years, the following candidates for the upcoming AAR were proposed:

• The “Tattvārtha” chapter of the Bodhisattvabhūmi
• A chapter of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, e.g., Paramārthasamudgata
• A short text or significant passage from any text related to Yogācāra

Panel and Paper topics:

• Tantric Appropriations of Yogācāra (for a possible cosponsored session with the Tantric Studies Group)
• The body in Yogācāra (can include medicine)
• Intersubjectivity
• Yogācāra and cognitive science
• Yogācāra and phenomenology
• Modern Yogācāra revivals

Additional topics welcome.

Ready to submit your proposal? Go to the MyProposal page to get started.

Doing research on free will in Indian Philosophy

As a scholar trained in Western Academia, one has at least three choices while dealing with Sanskrit Philosophy:

  1. One can treat it as if it were Western philosophy and discuss, e.g., of monotonic or non-monotonic logic in Nyāya,
  2. One can deal with it in its own terms, e.g., by describing the inner-Mīmāṃsā controversy about whether one has to study the Veda because of the prescription to study it or because of the prescription to teach it (since, in order for someone to teach, someone else must be learning from him),
  3. One can attempt a compromise, looking for how a certain topic is configured in Sanskrit philosophy.

In the case of the topic of free will, it is hard to avoid the third approach. In fact, whereas the topic of free will is one of the major Leitmotivs running throughout the whole history of Western Philosophy, on a pair with ontological issues, it is not formulated as such in Sanskrit philosophy (see Freschi in the volume edited by Dasti and Bryant). Nonetheless, one can look for implicit treatments of it in theological contexts and in in philosophy of action ones.

Veṅkaṭanātha (also known with the honorific title Vedānta Deśika, traditional dates 1269–1370) is one of the most prolific and multi-faceted personalities of Indian philosophy. He attempted to create a philosophic system which should have broadened Rāmānuja’s Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and make it into a more comprehensive philosophical system. Due to its ambition of comprehensiveness, it is legitimate to expect from Veṅkaṭanātha’s system that it deals also with questions relating to the nature of action and of our contribution to it, and, thus, ultimately with the issue of free will.

What do we have at Veṅkaṭanātha’s background?

On the one hand, Veṅkaṭanātha’s relation towards (Pūrva) Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta (and other Indian philosophical systems), on the other his relation with the Vaiṣṇava religious literature he considers authoritative (Pāñcarātra, hymns of the Āḻvārs). Given the fact that most researches on Indian philosophy focus on Sanskrit texts, one runs the risk to neglect the latter component, which is predominant in Veṅkaṭanātha’s non-Sanskrit production.

The Mīmāṃsā background
The Mīmāṃsā school did not explicitly deal with the topic of free will. Nonetheless, its theory of action presupposes that there are real agents and that these can be held responsible for their actions. In this sense, its concept of duty and of responsibility takes free will as self-assumed.

The Vaiṣṇava background
The Vaiṣṇava texts follow a different path, since many of them emphasise the worthlessness of the poet (the Āḻvār) or of his poetical figura (often a woman) and his/her desperate need of God’s mercy, which is the only thing which could save him/her. Interestingly enough, even in these texts, free will is not denied, but rather superseded by God’s intervention. The protagonist is desperate because of her/his sins and states that s/he cannot achieve anything on his/her own. The possibility to achieve salvation through other ways (most notably, through the bhaktimārga, which is based on one’s love for God) is not ruled out. One could theoretically be able to love God and to be saved through that. De facto, however, the protagonists of the Āḻvārs’ hymns feel unable even to do that. Even their love is not perfect, only their surrender is.

Thus, free will seems to remain a pre-condition. But God’s grace can supersede it and save even unworthy ones. Or do Tamil-conversant readers have a better appreciation of what is at stake?

(cross-posted also on the Indian Philosophy blog)