Omniscience and realism: Marginal notes about a workshop in Hawai’i

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.

The above is my summary of Michael Dummett’s (somehow idealistic) position in God and the World, a position which prompted Arindam Chakrabarti to host a three-days workshop on “Realism/Anti-Realism, Omniscience, God/no-God”. During these three days, we discussed the nature of omniscience (in fact, a more complex context than one might think), of God (as above) and of whether they are needed for a realist position. The most striking feature of the workshop was the constant philosophical dialogue flowing through the various presentations and connecting them to the global enterprise of philosophy.

Let me now enter into some detail. First, omniscience. The workshop has shown that this concept is multi-faceted in Indian philosophy, possibly even more than in the history of European philosophy and in contemporary mainstream philosophy.
Sara McClintock started the workshop with a discussion, inspired by her 2007 book Omniscience and the Rhetoric of Reason, on the various ways to understand “omniscience” (sarvajñatva), ranging from “dharmic omniscience” to “total omniscience” —according to whether the “omni-” (sarva ‘all’) is understood as meaning ‘every single entity’ or ‘all that is relevant’ (for a certain purpose). This second meaning might seem less convincing, but please consider the same word in compounds such as “omni-vore”. One would not expect an “omnivore” to be eating all (including stones, shampoo, triangles and logical formulas), would one? In this sense, the Buddha can be said to be omniscient, although he does not need to know exactly all, but he knows the four noble truths and whatever is relevant for liberation. As for the general topic of the workshop, however, this kind of omniscience has no bearing as a guarantee of the world’s reality or of its being as it appears to human beings. In fact, one should also bear in mind that Madhyamaka and Yogācāra Buddhists think that the world as it appears to conscious beings is illusory. An accomplished Buddha would see that it is in fact devoid of substantiality.

Similarly, Andrew Nicholson elucidated the supernormal powers (vibhūtis) in the third chapter of the Yogasūtra by drawing on other first millennium texts, such as the Mokṣadharma Parvan of the Mahābhārata and Kauṇḍinya’s commentary on the Pāśupata Sūtras. Omniscience, he argued, is understood in these traditions as one among the supernormal powers, not as the highest (for instance, Kauṇḍinya suggests that a yogin who merely possesses omniscience without commensurate powers of action (kriyā-śaktis) would be like a lame man). Though Pāśupata and Pātañjala yogins are realists, omniscience is not presented by them as a guarantee of the world’s reality. One could argue in favour of direct realism due to the fact that the world needs to agree (saṃvāda) with the perception yogins have of it, but accomplished yogins seem to have remained rather an exceptional case and not the foundation of any school’s epistemology or ontology. A further interesting point is that for Patañjali, omniscience is not an indication that the yogin has achieved the highest state (as it is of God in some traditions—could one conceive a Christian God who is not omniscient?). A yogin should eventually go beyond the vibhūti of omniscience (sarvajñātṛtva, YS 3.49) to reach the vibhūti of final liberation (kaivalya, YS 3.50). In Arindam Chakrabarti’s words, omniscience is “the last temptation of the yogin”.

Arindam Chakrabarti, in his final talk, has highlighted ten types of omniscience. Apart from the three referred to above, he pointed out 1. the Buddhist idea of knowing all in the sense of knowing that all is insubstantial, 2. the (comparable) Advaita Vedānta idea of knowing all in the sense of knowing that all is brahman, 3. the Jaina idea of innate omniscience of all, which is only blocked by our karman, etc., 4. the Nyāya-based idea that by knowing universal generalities, one should be able to know all (just like one knows all starfish by having known the starfish-universal), and the (generally theist) concepts of 5. a God who needs to know the elements out of which He creates the world, 6. a God who is the maximum of what precedes Him, therefore also the maximum level of knowledge.*
Can any of these concepts help guraranteeing the world’s reality? 1 and 2 point to a world much different than how we perceive it. 3 could work —although I do not know whether any Jain author has argued in this way. 4, 5 and 6 might look more promising. One might imagine an author arguing that the world needs to be as we perceive it, because this is how God knows it as well. However, this depends on how one understands God. If He is nothing but one out of the many perspectives hinted at at the beginning of this post, there is no reason to think that His perspective could guarantee the world’s reality, since it is not a priviledged perspective, just like that of a bat or of a human being.

Thus, the discussion on omniscience leads one to an analysis of the schools’ concepts of God (see part 2 of these notes, here).

*Careful readers will have noticed that 6+3=9 and not 10. This is because I have not been able to understand what Arindam meant by his 9th concept of omniscience, described as sarvākārajñāna.
SMALL UPDATE: Many thanks are due to Andrew Nicholson and Sara McClintock for helping me improve this post.

(cross-posted on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

2 thoughts on “Omniscience and realism: Marginal notes about a workshop in Hawai’i

  1. This sounds like a really interesting and productive workshop with great participants. Thank for sharing, Elisa! Do you know if there will be any papers forthcoming or otherwise available from this workshop?

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