Why is the topic of omniscience relevant in Indian philosophy? Because of at least two concurring reasons. On the one hand, for schools like Buddhism and Jainism, it is a question of religious authority. Ascribing omniscience to the founders of the school was a way to ground the validity of their teachings. Slightly similar is the situation of theistic schools ascribing omniscience to God, as a way to ground His ability to organise the world in the best possible way. On the other hand, for other schools the idea of omniscience was initially connected with the result of yogic or other ascetic practices. In this sense, omniscience was conceptually not different from aṇimā `the faculty to become as small as an atom’ and other special powers.
Can God as the perfect omniscient knower guarantee the possibility of a reality disidentified from all local perspectives and thus independent of them, though remaining inherently intelligible (by God Himself)? It depends on how one understands God.
As discussed already here, Indian authors can mean at least four different things when they speak about “God”, namely:
- —the devatās of mythology, like Indra and Zeus (during this workshop in Hawai’s, Andrew Nicholson has shown several examples of how philosophers make fun of this naive conception of Gods)
- —the īśvara of rational theology. He is usually omniscient and omnipotent and mostly also benevolent. In Indian thought, He can be proven to exist and to be such through rational arguments (e.g., through an inference from the fact that mountains, being an effect, need a creator, like pots).
- —the brahman of Advaita Vedānta is an impersonal Deity. In some forms of Vedānta it is interpreted pantheistically as tantamount to the universe.
- —the bhagavat kind of God is the one one is linked to through a personal relationship. His or Her devotees might consider Him omniscient or omnipotent, but in fact their reasons for loving Him of Her are different and regard their being in relation with Him or Her.
Which God can help guaranteeing the world’s reality? The devatā kind of Gods are clearly irrelevant for this purpose, since they are not even omniscient and surely do not represent an impartial perspective. The brahman kind of God is omniscient only in a sense akin to the Buddha’s being omniscient, namely insofar as it does not lack any relevant information, but it does not at all guarantee the reality of the world of direct realism. In fact, the world is for Advaita Vedāntins an illusion.
The īśvara kind of God seems the best candidate. But which kind of īśvara? Matthew Dasti‘s talk elaborated on the early history of īśvara in Nyāya, showing how the system’s basic premisses at least facilitated the elaboration of an īśvara concept. This evolution culminates in a full-fledged rational theology by Udayana. For Udayana, the īśvara he tries to prove rationally is not just any intelligent maker that can be inferred as the cause from the premise that the earth, mountains and plants sprouting from it are effects. That intelligent maker had to be:*
- A super-soul with eternal knowledge of everything, and especially of the past and future good and bad actions of all human beings that ever lived.
- One who has natural control or lordship over the material universe and other individual souls whose bodies he creates according to their beginninglessly earned merits and demerits.
- One who joins the eternal atoms in the beginning of each cosmic cycle according to a remembered blue-print giving rise to the two-ness in a dyad by his primordial act of counting.
- One who makes the otherwise unconscious “destiny” (unseen karmic traces, adṛṣṭa)) or law of moral retribution work.
- One who acts directly through his eternal will and agency without the mediation of a body, although all the “intelligent makers” one has ever encountered produce effects with a body of their own.
- One who composes the Vedas which tell human beings how to live a good life, through “do”s and “don’t”s, which would otherwise be devoid of the imperative force that they command.
- One who establishes the conventional connection between primitive words and their meant entities.
- One who, after creating the world, also sustains and in the fullness of time destroys it.
- Showers grace on humans and other creatures so that each soul can eventually attain their summum bonum—final liberation from all ensnaring karma and suffering.
- One who remains constantly and uniformly blissful through all these actions which do not touch his changeless essence and for which he has no “need”.
Such an īśvara has been discussed by Arindam Chakrabarti in his final talk on Vācaspati, insofar as He seems to be the only kind of God who can be said to be omniscient in the “hard” sense of possessing a complete knowledge of all states of affairs. However, He is vulnerable to objections to omniscience raised both in European and Indian philosophy. E.g.: How to delimit the range of “all” in “omniscience“? Can He really know also future events? If so, this seems to contradict our free will and even the possibility of non-necessary, contingent events. More in general, how can God know past and future events as such, though being Himself atemporal (this topic has been dealt with by Shinya Moriyama in his talk as well as in his 2014 book)? Not to speak of the pragmatic problems caused by omniscience, namely that it is altogether different from the way we usually experience knowledge to happen, i.e. in a processual way, and that one could never be sure that anyone (even God) is omniscient, since we are not omniscient and, therefore, could not test Him. Last, as outlined by Arindam (and by Patrick Grimm’s Cantorian argument against omniscience), God’s omniscience seems deemed to fail, since it cannot be proven to be logically conceivable.
The general problem appears to me to be that the īśvara is at the same time the knower of all and part of the system which He should know completely, so that He cannot escape the restrictions which apply to this world (in which knowledge is experienced to be processual, entities are not at the same time temporal and non-temporal, and one element cannot know the whole).
*The following points are all discussed by Udayana. For further details, see Chemparathy 1972. The present formulation of the list is largely indebted to Arindam Chakrabarti.
Shinya Moriyama also wrote a report about the same workshop, unfortunately (for me) in Japanese. Google translate was enough to understand that it is quite interesting and gives one a perceptive insight in the Philosophy Department in Hawai’i. You can read it here.
A non-intelligible entity cannot be conceived to exist. But, if the world needs to be known in order to exist, we need to postulate a non-partial perspective out of which it can be known. Since the perspectives of all human beings (as well as those of other animals, I would add) are necessarily partial and cannot be reconciled (how could one reconcile our perspective of the world with that of a bat?), this perspective needs to be God.
You might want to come and raise some interesting objection at one of the two lectures below:
—Body and self in Śrīvaiṣṇavism. A “hands-on” discussion of Veṅkaṭanātha’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā (ad 1.1.5) (Wed, 11 am)
—Knowing the unknowable: Vedānta Deśika on supersensory perception (at the Pedagogical University of Cracow, Wednesday, 4 pm).
Veṅkaṭanātha is an important milestone for the reconstruction of the history of Indian philosophy. In fact, he is a historical figure and the reconstruction of his thought is also facilitated by the contextual knowledge already available about the times, the cultural and geographical milieu, and the religious tradition related to him.
Does sense-perception have natural limitations? Or can it be improved through practice and still be perceptual?
In the world-view of a fundamental Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta teacher like Vedānta Deśika (1269–1370, aka Veṅkaṭanātha), theology is the center of the system and epistemology and ontology assume their role and significance only through their relationship with this center.
…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:
- The omniscient one exists
- Because there are no means to deny his existence and because there are means to positively establish it
- Discussion of the former, featuring sense perception and then inference
- 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)
प्रचीनजैनदर्शने प्रमाणे द्विविधे, प्रत्यक्षम् परोक्षं च ।
प्रत्यक्षमित्युक्ते किम् ? अन्यदर्शनेषु इन्द्रियसम्यज्ज्ञानमिति । केषुचिद् योगिप्रत्यक्षं स्वसंवेदनं मनसाप्रत्यक्षमपि प्रत्यक्षेऽङ्गीक्रियन्ते । जैनदर्शने
A religion without mystics is a philosophy.”
I cannot enroll the Pope among my supporters, but this quote offers a further interesting insight on a point I raised here.