Al-Ghazali and Averroes: Islamic “Nominalism” vs. Islamic “Realism,” Pt. II

In the last entry I cautiously described the Medieval Arabic philosophers Al-Ghazali and Averroes as, respectively, an Islamic “nominalist” and an Islamic “realist.” Strictly speaking, I suppose the characteristic of Al-Ghazali with which I am here dealing is actually “voluntarism,” for as my exposition of portions of his text below will show, he was deeply concerned with the freedom of God’s will. Now in scholarly works of philosophy “voluntarism” is often paired with “nominalism,” but to be honest, at this point I’m not entirely sure what the relationship of the two is. At any rate, if I occasionally slip between calling Al-Ghazali’s ideas “voluntarism” and calling them “nominalism,” I beg the reader’s indulgence.

In what follows I will be citing from selections of Averroes’ treatise The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in which he extensively cites the work he is refuting, Al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers.:”(These selections may be found in Richard N. Bosley and Martin Tweedale, eds., Basic Issues in Medieval Philosophy: Selected Readings Presenting the Interactive Discourses Among the Major Figures [Broadview Press, 2006], pp. 22-36.)”: Al-Ghazali, being concerned with God’s freedom against the determinism he saw in Aristotelian philosophy, is cited by Averroes as follows:

According to us the connexion between what is usually believed to be a cause and what is believed to be an effect is not a necessary connexion; each of two things has its own individuality and is not the other, and neither the affirmation nor the negation, neither the existence nor the non-existence of the one is implied in the affirmation, negation, existence, or non-existence of the other, e.g. the satisfaction of thirst does not imply drinking, nor satiety eating, nor burning contact with fire, nor light sunrise, nor decapitation death, nor recovery the drinking of medicine, nor evacuation the taking of a purgative, and so on for all the empirical connexions existing in medicine, astronomy, the sciences, and the crafts. For the connexion of these things is based on a prior power of God to create them in a successive order, though not because this connexion is necessary in itself and cannot be disjoined – on the contrary, it is in God’s power to create satiety without eating, and death without decapitation, and to let life persist notwithstanding the decapitation, and so on with respect to all connexions. The philosophers, however, deny this possibility and claim that it is impossible.:”(Ibid., pg. 26.)”:

Al-Ghazali here sounds a lot like the Scottish skeptic David Hume, who, some 600 years later would mount a withering attack on the concept of causality as part of his larger attack on religion. It is interesting, then, that Al-Ghazali sounds this note against causality in the service of religion! Indeed, Al-Ghazali goes on to say that even in the case of fire burning a piece of cotton, the agent of the burning is not the fire, but God, “through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnexion of its parts.” For it is God “who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation.” Repeated human observations of fire burning cotton “proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and in reality, there is no other cause but God.”:”(Ibid., pg. 27.)”:

Of course, Averroes the enthusiastic Aristotelian thinks this is simply ridiculous. He begins his refutation of Al-Ghazali by noting that it is not necessary – and indeed, it is illogical – to deny all causal links simply because one does not wish causal links to be reduced merely to those types of efficient causation:”(Efficient causation is one of the four kinds of causes for Aristotle, referring to that which makes a thing happen.)”: which are perceptible to humans:

Those things whose causes are not perceived are still unknown and must be investigated, precisely because their causes are not perceived; and since everything whose causes are not perceived is still unknown by nature and must be investigated, it follows necessarily that what is not unknown has causes which are perceived. The man who reasons like the theologians does not distinguish between what is self-evident and what is unknown, and everything Ghazali says in this passage is sophistical.:”(Ibid.)”:

Averroes is not done, though. After a somewhat abstruse recitation of why the denial of causal connections is equivalent to a denial of being, and thus equivalent to an affirmation of nihilism, he says:

Logic implies the existence of causes and effects, and knowledge of these effects can only be rendered perfect through knowledge of their causes. Denial of cause implies the denial of knowledge, and denial of knowledge implies that nothing in this world can be really known, and that what is supposed to be known is nothing but opinion, that neither proof nor definition exist, and that the essential attributes which compose definitions are void. The man who denies the necessity of any item of knowledge must admit that even this, his own affirmation, is not necessary knowledge.:”(Ibid., pg. 28.)”:

No doubt in his first phrase, “Logic implies the existence of causes and effects,” Averroes is referring to the Law of Noncontradiction, which says that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time in the same way. If we say that a thing exists, it cannot at the same time in the same way not exist. But, as the Aristotelian tradition has long held (see Avicenna on the Muslim side), if a thing exists, it exists either necessarily or contingently – that is, it either exists in such a way that it cannot not exist (this is how this tradition of argument, which appears also in Christian apologetics, thinks of God) or it exists because it was caused by another. If it exists necessarily, then it itself is the cause of all contingent existents. If it exists contingently, it is ultimately dependent for its existence on the necessary existent. Thus does logic imply the existence of causes and effects.

The second phrase, “knowledge of these effects can only be rendered perfect through knowledge of their causes,” comes from Book II of Aristotle’s Physics (194b18-20), which says that “Knowledge is the object of our inquiry, and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’ of it (which is to grasp its primary cause.”:”(In The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon [New York: The Modern Library, 2001], pg. 240.)”: On this definition, obviously, a denial of cause and effect would entail a denial of knowledge, which would further entail that all so-called “knowledge” was really only “opinion.” This is an intolerable position for Averroes, and, he implies, it ought to be intolerable for Al-Ghazali as well.

Al-Ghazali reveals his fundamental concern for the freedom of God by discussing the issue of miracles. For him, Aristotelian determinism destroys the possibility of God performing miracles. For, since for the philosophers “[all] events proceed from [natural] principles not by deliberation and will, but by necessity and nature,” it becomes impossible to imagine that of two pieces of cotton brought into contact with fire God could cause one of them not to burn. Likewise, apparently citing a story from the Koran, Al-Ghazali says that given their principles the philosophers must

deny that Abraham could fall into the fire and not be burned notwithstanding the fact that the fire remained fire, and they affirm that this could only be possible through abstracting the warmth from the fire (through which it would, however, cease to be fire) or through changing the essence of Abraham and making him a stone or something on which fire has no influence, and neither the one nor the other is possible.:”(Ibid., pg. 29.)”:

Averroes is ready to meet this objection, and I suspect that his way of stating it is one reason why his later Latin readers got the notion of “double truth” from him:

As to the objection which Ghazali ascribes to the philosophers over the miracle of Abraham, such things are only asserted by heretical Muslims. The learned among the philosophers do not permit disputation about the principles of religion, and he who does such a thing needs, according to them, a severe lesson. For whereas every science has its principles, and every student of this science must concede its principles, and may not interfere with them by denying them, this is still more obligatory in the practical science of religion, for to walk on the path of the religious virtues is necessary for human being’s existence, according to them, not in so far as he is human, but in so far as he has knowledge; and therefore it is necessary for every human to concede the principles of religion and invest with authority the human who lays them down…:”(Ibid., pp. 29-30.)”:

Averroes goes on to say that none of the philosophers discuss miracles despite knowing about them, for miracles are the foundational principles of religion, and even if a religious man eventually becomes a philosopher he may say of the religious principles only that “we believe in it, it is all from our Lord.”:”(Ibid., pg. 30.)”:

Above I said that passages such as this might be where certain Latin readers of Averroes got the notion of “double truth.” This is the notion that a thing which is true in philosophy can be false in religion, and vice versa, so that there is no concord between philosophy and religion. This view was long attributed to Averroes, and gave birth to a school in Western Christendom called “Latin Averroism,” but so far, in my limited readings, I am seeing indications that Averroes himself did not hold to the doctrine of “double truth.” Further discussion of this subject will have to await a future entry, but in any case, as this entry has gone on too long I am going to stop it here. The next, and final entry of this quick set will get more deeply into Al-Ghazali’s “nominalism / voluntarism.”


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