Omniscience : Misconceptions and Clarifications

A Perspective in Jaina Philosophy and Religion

Omniscience : Misconceptions and Clarifications

Prof. Ramjee Singh

Meaning of the Term

There is a striking parallel between `Omniscient’ and `Sarvajna’ becaus we the Latin `Omnis’ corresponds to the Sanskrit `sarva’. Even in ancient Indian languages like Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrt, etc. there are many equivalents of the term `Sarvajna’, but the most commonly used term is `Sarvajna’ itself. The etymological meaning of Sarvajna is governed by a particular rule according to which the affix `ka’ comes after a verbal root that ends in long a, when there is no prefix preceding it and when the object is in composition with it (ato-anupsarge kah). As the Pali and Prakrt grammars practically follow the rules of Sanskrit, the dictionary meanings of other important European languages like German, Russian, Italian, Spanish, French, English etc. are generally grounded on the Latin meaning. Thus literally, the term `Omniscience’ means `all-knowledge’ or `knowledge of all’. But the terms `all’ and `knowledge’ are used or can be used in different contexts. Similarly the term `omniscient’ has got both straight forward and idiomatic meanings. When we call a man `omniscient’, we do not mean that he knows everything, we simply mean that he is very learned and he knows a lot. Thus there is a distinction between the `strict’ and the `hyperbolical’ meanings of the term. Then there are special meanings also that are determined by the philosophical and cultural background of a particular system.

It is clear that the lexical works do help to determine the meaning of a term but they cannot finally decide the meaning because they report only the existing usages. While retaining the lexical identity, the term may have different connotations, hence the meanings of the term `omniscience’ also differ accordingly. For example, “the man who knows the word `all’ may be `all-knowing’ in name.” It means that the man who knows the meaning of `all’ will also know what it signifies. But this is a meaning in name only for no one can prevent another person from giving a word any meaning he likes. The meaning of a term depends upon human stipulation. Secondly, a man may be called `omniscient’, if he knows about everything of a given context (for example, the names of all dramas of Kalidas and Shakespear). This is precisely the hyperbolic or idiomatic meaning, when a versatile genius or highly learned man is described as `omniscient’. A third meaning of `all’ may be understood in the sense of the epitome of the world included under the two categories, positive the Buddhists limit it to the knowledge of morality (Heya-Upadeya) and to the Jainas, it is the knowledge of “all substances with all their attributes and modes in all times and in all places.” (Sarva-dravya-guna-Paryayesu).

Analysis of the Meaning of the term Omniscience

If we suppose that omniscience means the knowledge of `all substances with all their modes’, we can ask : whether omniscience is false or true knowledge ? If it is false, it is sheer non-sense but if it is true, we can further ask : “whether it is knowledge of only the important things or of all the things.” If it is the former, it is not omniscience in the sense under study, if it is latter it raises a further question : Is it the knowledge of all the objects without or with their attributes. If we accept the first alternative, it will raise many complicated metaphysical issues, such as whether or not an object can be known without knowing its attributes or whether objects and their attributes are so separable in knowledge even if not in reality ? Thus, the second alternative is accepted which will imply `knowledge of objects with their attributes’. But on further analysis, it will raise another question : whether the knowledge is of all objects with some or all attributes ? If the former, the scope becomes limited, if the latter, there is another dilemma. Is such a knowledge restricted to some particular place or to all the places ? If we accept the first alternative, it becomes restricted in space but if we accept the second alternative, we are faced with a further problem : whether the omniscient knowledge (unlimited in space) covers the entire present only or the entire span of time – past, present and future. If we accept the former, it is restricted to the present moment only but if we accept the second knowledge is successive or simultaneous ? If it be successive, there can be no omniscience for all the objects with all attributes and modes at all places and at all times can never be exhausted. But if it is taken to be simultaneous, there crops yet another difficulty : Is such a simultaneous knowledge obtained by a single act of cognition or by a series of cognitions ? The first alternative is unacceptable since then it would be impossible to distinguish between contradictory things and characteristics like heat and cold simultaneously through the act of one single cognition. But suppose, if it can be known through a single supernormal cognition brought about by communion, then there can be no means of cognition to vouch for such knowledge because it is not produced either by perception, inference or authority. But if we accept the second alternative, we can still ask : whether it is actual or possible ? If it is actual it would be difficult to conceive a state of knowledge obtained through several cognitions covering even mutually contradictory things. Then it is impossible to apprehend even in hundreds of thousands of years each one of the innumerable things and thus characteristics of all places and at all times. But to avoid this difficulty, if we suppose that such a knowledge is only possible we are again confronted with another problem. If it is possible to know all things and their attributes simultaneously, nothing will remain to be known by the omniscient being. In that case after having the knowledge, he would behave as an unconscious being, since he will have left nothing to cognate. Supposing, for the moment that we somehow try to overcome this difficulty, we shall still be beset with another problem : Whether past and future will be known as present or as they are, i.e., the past as past and the future as future. If we accept the first alternative, distinction of time will be lost because the past and the future will merge into the immediate present. But if we accept the second alternative it will imply that the omniscient being cognise the past and the future which are at present non-existents. Thus, in both cases, our knowledge would be illusory and wrong.


In order to avoid these difficulties involved in the analysis of the concept of omniscience, it has been interpreted to mean the knowledge “important and essential things through their important characteristics” and not of “each and everything in their numerical details.” But it may be told that unless all the objects with all their attributes are known, how can the distinction between the `essential’ and the `non-essential’ be made. Even if it be possible, some of the old difficulties will reappear. But supposing as it is, even then we can ask : what does this omniscience (as the knowledge of important things through their important characteristics) refer to ? To this question, there are some answers in Indian thought, but for my convenience, I shall choose only three for their elucidation and examination : (a) Omniscience as the knowledge of reality, (b) Omniscience as the knowledge of duty and (c) Omniscience as knowledge of the self. I shall take one by one :

(a) Omniscience as the Knowledge of Reality – Suppose, omniscience means knowledge if reality, it is to be clarified : whether it implies the knowledge of the `transcendental reality’ or the `empirical reality’. If it be the former it will mean difficulty in different systems of thought and metaphysics. But if we do not bind ourselves to any particular metaphysical stand-point and instead vaguely hold the general view that omniscience means knowledge of the essential things, we are faced with a difficult task of explaining the status of the contingent and its relationship to the essential. The Samkhya for example, may say that the knowledge of the essential implies that of the contingent world. But if we admit that the knowledge of the essence does not contain the knowledge of the accident, we shall have to turn ourselves to the pluralistic-realistic systems. However, if we accept the second alternative that omniscience is the knowledge of the empirical reality, there is perhaps then no need of philosophy as the different sciences are already doing the work. But no scientist ever makes any claim to omniscience. But suppose we do have knowledge of reality anyhow in any sense, there still remains a problem : whether it is knowledge of the temporal or non-temporal reality ? If we accept the first position, we shall have to argue with science that omniscience is not possible. But if we accept the second view that the ultimate reality is far from spatio-temporal limitations, we will be driven to an idealistic view of the universe. Thus, either we accept the views of science according to which omniscience is not possible or we accept the idealistic position, in which case again, there can be no unanimity.

(b) Omniscience as Knowledge of Duty – Viewing those difficulties omniscience has been treated as the knowledge of duty (dharma), since our moral life and hence its knowledge is of supreme value to us. Here omniscience (Sarvajnata) will be equated with the knowledge of duty (dharmajnata). But even this religious-ethical approach involves some difficulties : whether duty, referred to here, is duty in general (Samanya dharma) or duty in particular (Varnasrama dharma). If the first alternative is accepted, there may be conflicting lists, since duties vary from person to person and to the same person from time to time. If we adopt the second alternative, another difficulty will arise : whether the particular duty is private or public ? If the former, it may lead to narrowness and sectarianism; but if it is the latter, we have to explore some universal and eternal principles of duty, which is very difficult. Even the concept of `Universal Religion’ is still an utopia.

(c) Omniscience as Knowledge of Self – To simplify matter we can give up the dualistic approach of subject and object and identify the object with the subject. Here the knowledge of the object is identical with the knowledge of the subject. However, this meaning of omniscience as the knowledge of the Self is highly specialized and metaphysical because Sarvajnata is identical with Atmajnata.”

Implications of Omniscience : Doubts and Difficulties

Those who argue for the existence of omniscience as a fact, rests on metaphysical postulates that knowledge is the self-functioning of the self. This is the theory of the innate possession of omniscience by every soul. What is needed is the actualisation of this potentiality. This is a controversial question, whether there is soul or not and if there is, whether even potentially it is capable of knowing everything. But if we accept these metaphysical postulates, there are serious moral implications. If one knows the future acts of human beings, there was no meaning in voluntary action. So Locke says about omniscience of God : “If God exists and is essentially omniscient, no human action is voluntary.” Augustine also says :”If you say, God foreknows that a man will sin, he must necessarily sin. But if there is necessity there is no voluntary choice of sinning but rather fixed and unavoidable necessity.” To say that since God compels no man to sin, though he sees before-hand those who are going to sin by their own will. God’s omniscience cannot entail determinism on the analogy of an intimate friend having the fore knowledge of another’s voluntary actions without affecting his friend’s moral freedom, is not a very good argument. A person’s knowledge about the future action of an intimate friend of his is at most a good guess and not a definite knowledge. To say that a man is free to do something which without knowing that it is within his power to do otherwise is not freedom but ignorance. What is foreseen is necessary and what is necessary is outside the scope of ethics. However, 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 foreknow,” will create awkward situation in which man’s actions will determine God’s knowledge. But suppose if it is the case of human omniscience it will mean that the knowledge of the omniscient being is not unfettered but determined by the actions of other men. But since different people perform different actions, it will create a difficult situation for the cognising mind. To say that the omniscient being believes in an infinitely large number of true synthetic propositions is vague and self-contradictory, for this depends upon the belief at least in one proposition : “Nothing is unknown to him”. But this is to admit his omniscience and hence it is like arguing in a circle.

Validation and Vindication

But such a `Vicious circularity as Fugel says, we cannot escape when we cannot validate any fundamental principle or ideal like this. J.S.Mill also says that “questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof” or as Carnap says that it is necessary always to distinguish between `question within presupposed frame’ and `question concerning the frame’. In order to grasp this situation, a fundamental distinction often neglected and blurred, must be made between the two types of justifying principles or knowledge-claims, namely, validation and vindication. Validation generally means a vigorous logical proof or `legitimizing of knowledge-claims’. Vindication on the other hand, means the justification of an action, which is, though weaker than validation, is an equally respectable method, especially when we know that validation is impossible in matters of fundamental principles.

It seems that although the logicians have exhibited great diabolical skill in enunciating the concept of omniscience and arguing for its exemplification in reality the concept has not been made altogether clear or completely defensible. But apart from the rational approach, there is also another approach. It is sometimes called the approach of faith or the intuitional approach, which is applicable in matters of suprasensible and beyond space-time objects. The non-rational (ahetuvada) approach though different from the rational approaches (hetuvada) is not an irrational approach. After all, there are limitations to our reason as there are limitations to our senses. Thus, there are two separate fields of investigation, science and spirituality. Science deals with spartio-temporal phenomena with the help of senses and common-sense reasoning including scientific experiment. But there are other fields also, unexplored and also beyond the scope of scientific reach. It seems that there are different ways of knowing. True, there is the western emphasis on critical intelligence and eastern emphasis on creative intuition but there is universal recognition of the spirit in man. It is necessary to be reasonable and not logical. Our whole logical life grows on the foundation of a deeper insight. If intuitive knowledge does not supply us with universal major premises which we can neither question nor establish, our life will come to an end. Intuitions are not substitutes for thought. They are challenge to intelligence. This spirit of man or creativity of felt everywhere in artistic achievement and poetic genius, religious experiences and ethical life, in scientific genius and psychological life.

The concept of omniscience is such a concept, which can admit of vindication (justification actions) on the ground of faith which is supported by the seers having intuitional insight. Modern researches in the field of para-psychology specially in clairvoyance, clair-audience, precognition, telepathy etc. also support the knowledge which can be gained by transcending space-time and the senses. The science of Yoga can be also examined in this direction. It has been the abiding spiritual ambition of man to extend the frontiers of his knowledge. The very attempt to put a limit, an absolute limit to our knowledge is unscientific. It was customary for the old philosophy to discredit the knowledge gained by the senses, as it was for an old fashioned theology to discredit the nature of the worth of the body. Both have proved to be erroneous. Human thinking with regard to goodness, duty and morality, art and beauty, “extends without assignable limit the knowledge of mankind.” The growth of human knowledge has been a sort of progressive limitation of sceptical and agnostic attitude. Thus the possibility of omniscience is also contained in the ideal of knowledge or ideal of science. Even in the ideal of epistemological certainty without which all our claims to knowledge must be suspects” suggests that the quest for certainty in knowledge is indeed a quest towards omniscience. In reasoning, context is not seen simultaneously with the meaning which has to be the object of reflection and analysis. Thus reason cannot make prime discoveries. The miracle of mind is well-known. What is needed is to unfold the gates of mind and extend the limitless horizon of knowledge.