Omniscience : Determinism and freedom

A Perspective in Jaina Philosophy and Religion

Omniscience : Determinism and freedom

Prof. Ramjee Singh

(1) If X foreknows that Y will act in a manner known as Z, and if Y really acts in the same manner, there seems to be no choice for Y but rather fixed and inexorable necessity. If it is admitted that somebody is omniscient, no human action can be free or voluntary. So it may also be deduced that if the omniscience is a fact, morality becomes a delusion.

(2) In the case of God, omniscience is regarded as the very nature of God, because He is the maximum being and the only cause of the effected beings. As maximum being, He is the most perfect being, hence most conscious and absolute self-conscious. But being the only possible cause of beings, God is eminently whatever any effected being may be. Thus knowing himself perfectly and most directly, he knows himself as he is, hence as the only possible cause of all possible beings, and thus knows everything real or mere possible, in the awareness of his own essence. One reason why God is omniscient is His omnipotence. Since He created all things He knew them before they existed, while they were still mere possibilities. He knows not only that which actually exists, but also that which could possibly exist, i.e., future realities and future possibilities, in word, everything. The second reason for God’s omniscience is His omnipresence from which no one can escape whether he ascended into heaven, lay down in sheol or sojourned ate the furtherest limits of the sea.

(3) Now, a serious consequence might follow from such a position, “when God created man, He foresaw what would happen concerning him”, for to confess that “God exists and at the same time to deny that He has foreknowledge of future things is the most manifest folly… …one who is no prescient of all future things is not God.” If we say that God foreknows that a man will sin, he must necessarily sin. But “If there is necessity there is no voluntary choice of sinning but fixed and unavoidable necessity.” So also Locke says, “If is voluntary.” Boethius also says, “If God is omniscient, no human action is voluntary.”

(4) Now, one may say, if we apply the concept of omniscience to human beings, the results will be all the more devastating. But it may be pointed out that “God compels no man to sin, though He sees beforehand those who are going to sin by their own will.” Hence, it may be argued that divine omniscience cannot entail determinism. For instance, an intimate friends and have foreknowledge of another’s voluntary actions but it does not in anyway affect his moral freedom.

(5) But this does not seem to be very good argument. A person’s knowledge about the future action of an intimate friend of his at most a good guess and not definite knowledge. Locke’s argument that there may be a man who chooses to do something which without knowing that it is within his power to do otherwise (e.g., “If a man chooses to stay in the room without knowing that the room is locked.”) seems to reconcile necessity with freedom but in fact it is a reconciliation of ignorance and knowledge, e.g., he thinks himself free only so long he does not know that he is not free.

(6) If it is said that “It is not because God foreknows what He foreknows that men act as they do : it is because men act as they do that God foreknows what He foreknows”, it will create a very awkward situation in which man’s actions would determine God’s knowledge. We can also apply this to human omniscience, where it is likely to create greater complications. It will mean that knowledge of the actions of other men. Different people perform different actions, often quite contrary to that of their fellows. This will create a difficult situation for the cognising mind if it is to be so determined.

(7) To say that the omniscient being is one who is justified in believing an infinitely large number of true synthetic Proposition is not only vague but also self contradictory. For example, it all depends upon the belief in one proposition at least. `Nothing is unknown to him’. But this is to admit his omniscience and hence it is like arguing in a circle. Thus, the concept of omniscience whether logical or actual does involve difficulties.

(8) According to the early Pali sources, Buddha offered a qualified support for the doctrine of omniscience even with regard to himself, and he often criticized Nigantha Nattaputta claiming omniscience in the sense of knowing and seeing, all objects on all times – past, present and even future. His reluctance in claiming unqualified omniscience is mainly concerned with knowledge pertaining to future possibly because it will lead to some sort of determinism in metaphysics and morals. “To speak of omniscience in relation to future is to maintain an impossible position,” because the course of future events are partly determined, by the past and present and partly undetermined. I think, Buddha’s hesitation in claiming unqualified omniscience was influenced mainly by moral considerations. If he knew the future acts of human beings, there was no meaning in voluntary action or freedom of will which forms the basis of ethics and morality. In fact, what is foreseen (i.e., known conclusively), is necessary and what is necessary is outside the scope of ethics.

(9) In view of these difficulties, I wonder why the belief in omniscience in some form or other has been a matter of faith, closely connected with the spiritual aspirations of the people. In India, it has been accepted sometimes as a religious dogma, sometimes as a philosophical doctrine and sometimes as both. Except the Carvakas, almost all the systems of Indian Philosophy -both orthodox and heterodox accept it. Even to the Mimamsakas, “All that is pertinent is the denial of knowledge of dharma by man..” They do not intend to deny “the possibility of person knowing all other things. Even the famous passage of Kumarila in question “does not set aside omniscience.”

(10) To my mind, the reason and motives in formulating the concept of omniscience are extra-logical, for it is always at the cost of freedom of will, the basis of our moral life.