Omniscience (pronounced /ɒmˈnɪsiəns/) (or Omniscient Point-of-View in writing) is the capacity to know everything infinitely, or at least everything that can be known about a character including thoughts, feelings, life and the universe, etc. In monotheism, this ability is typically attributed to God. The God of the Bible is often referred to as "The Great I Am," among other similar names, which also incorporates His omnipresence and omnipotence. This concept is included in the Qur'an, where God is called "Al-'aleem" on multiple occasions. This is the infinite form of the verb "alema" which means to know. In Hinduism, God is referred to as sarv-gyaata (omniscient), sarv-samarth (omnipotent) and sarv-vyapt (omnipresent) gyaata (knowing).
There is a distinction between:
- inherent omniscience - the ability to know anything that one chooses to know and can be known.
- total omniscience - actually knowing everything that can be known.
Some modern theologians argue that God's omniscience is inherent rather than total, and that God chooses to limit his omniscience in order to preserve the freewill and dignity of his creatures. Certain theologians of the 16th Century, comfortable with the definition of God as being omniscient in the total sense, in order for worthy beings' abilities to choose freely, embraced the doctrine of predestination.
Nontheism often claims that the very concept of omniscience is inherently contradictory.
Some theists argue that God created all knowledge and has ready access thereto. This statement invokes a circular time contradiction: presupposing the existence of God, before knowledge existed, there was no knowledge at all, which means that God was unable to possess knowledge prior to its creation. Alternately if knowledge was not a "creation" but merely existed in God's mind for all time there would be no contradiction. In Thomistic thought, which holds God to exist outside of time due to his ability to perceive everything at once, everything which God knows in his mind already exists. Hence, God would know of nothing that was not in existence (or else it would exist), and God would also know everything that was in existence (or else it would not exist), and God would possess this knowledge of what did exist and what did not exist at any point in the history of time. It should be added that the above definitions cover what is called propositional knowledge (knowing that), as opposed to experiential knowledge (knowing how). That some entity is omniscient in the sense of possessing all possible propositional knowledge does not imply that it also possesses all possible experiential knowledge. Opinions differ as to whether the propositionally omniscient God of the theists is able to possess all experiential knowledge as well. But it seems at least obvious that a divine infinite being conceived of as necessary infinitely knowledgeable would also know how, for example, a finite person [man] dying feels like as He [God] would have access to all knowledge including the obvious experiences of the dying human. There is a third type of knowledge: practical or procedural knowledge (knowing how to do). If omniscience is taken to be all knowledge then all knowledge of all types would be fully known and comprehended.
A related but distinct ability is omnipotence (unlimited power). Omniscience is sometimes understood to also imply the capacity to know everything that will be.
Foreknowledge and its compatibility with free will has been a debated topic by theists and philosophers. The argument that divine foreknowledge is not compatible with free will is known as theological fatalism. If man is truly free to choose between different alternatives, it is very difficult to understand how God could know in advance which way he will choose. Various responses have been proposed:
- God can know in advance what I will do, because free will is to be understood only as freedom from coercion, and anything further is an illusion.
- God can know in advance what I will do, even though free will in the fullest sense of the phrase does exist. God somehow has a "middle knowledge" - that is, knowledge of how free agents will act in any given circumstances.
- God can know all possibilities. The same way a master chess player is able to anticipate not only one scenario but several and prepare the moves in response to each scenario, God is able to figure all consequences from what I will do next moment, since my options are multiple but still limited.
- The sovereignty (autonomy) of God, existing within a free agent, provides strong inner compulsions toward a course of action (calling), and the power of choice (election). The actions of a human are thus determined by a human acting on relatively strong or weak urges (both from God and the environment around them) and their own relative power to choose.
- God chooses to foreknow and foreordain (and, therefore, predetermine) some things, but not others. This allows a free moral choice on the part of man for those things that God choose not to foreordain. It accomplishes this by attributing to God the ability for Him, Himself, to be a free moral agent with the ability to choose what He will, and will not, foreknow, assuming God exists in linear time (or at least an analogue thereof) where "foreknowledge" is a meaningful concept.
- It is not possible for God to know the result of a free human choice. Omniscience should therefore be interpreted to mean "knowledge of everything that can be known". God can know what someone will do, but only by predetermining it; thus, he chooses the extent of human freedom by choosing what (if anything) to know in this way.
- God stands outside time, and therefore can know everything free agents do, since He does not know these facts "in advance", he knows them before they are even conceived and long after the actions have occurred. The free agent's future actions therefore remain contingent to himself and others in linear time but are logically necessary to God on account of His infallibly accurate all-encompassing view. This was the solution offered by Thomas Aquinas.
- Instead of producing a parallel model in God's own infallible mind of the future contingent actions of a free agent (thus suppressing the agent's free will), God encodes his knowledge of the agent's actions in the original action itself.
- God passively seeing the infinite future in no way alters it, anymore than us reading a history book influences the past by simply observing it retrospectively. However, He might choose (or not) to read any chapter or the ending, or open the book at any page.
- Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has stated that man does have limited free will; he can decide whether or not to surrender to the will of Krishna. Otherwise, all material happenings and their implications are inconceivably predestined. This concept being subject to challenge in customary affairs, it is then also somewhat ridiculed as a philosophy.
- God cannot be Omniscient and Omnipotent. If he is omniscient, he knows exactly what he is going to do and he cannot change that, so he is not omnipotent.
Omniscience is also studied in game theory, where it is not necessarily an advantageous quality if one's omniscience is a published fact. For example, in the game of chicken: two people each drive a car towards the other. The first to swerve to avoid a collision loses. In such a game, the optimal outcome is to have your opponent swerve. The worst outcome is when nobody swerves. But if A knows that B is in fact omniscient, then A will simply decide to never swerve since A knows B will know A's logical decision and B will be forced to swerve to avoid a collision — this is assuming each player is logical and follows optimal strategy.
Omniscience is also used in the field of literary analysis and criticism, referring to the point of view of the narrator. An omniscient narrator is almost always a third-person narrator, capable of revealing insights into characters and settings that would not be otherwise apparent from the events of the story and which no single character could be aware of.
- The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) ISBN 0-19-861-263-x - p.1293 "omniscience /ɒmˈnɪsɪəns/"
- see eg John Polkinghorne Science and Theology for a discussion of his position and that of other scientist-theologians
- For a clear example of this incompatibility argument, see http://www.valdosta.edu/~rbarnett/phi/free.html
- Gospel of Thomas 3
- Holy Bible, 2 Peter 1:10, Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary
- The Philosopher's Handbook, Stanley Rosen, ed., Random House Reference, New York, 2000.
- See also Divine Providence versus the concept of Fate