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

Returning to his earlier example of there being no necessary causal connection between fire and the burning of a piece of cotton brought into contact with the fire, Al-Ghazali gets to the root of his voluntaristic understanding of God: “If it is established that the Agent creates the burning through His will when the piece of cotton is brought in contact with the fire, He can equally well omit to create it when the contact takes place.”:”(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], pg. 30.)”: He is aware of the “reprehensible impossibilities” which some will charge his view. His examples range from humorous to weird to absurd, and I will quote them at length:

For if you deny the necessary dependence of effects or their causes and relate them to the will of their Creator, and do not allow even in the will a particular definite pattern, but regard it as possible that it may vary and change in type, then it may happen to any of us there should be in his presence beasts of prey and flaming fires and immovable mountains and enemies equipped with arms, without his seeing them, because God had not created in him the faculty of seeing them. And a man who had left a book at home might find it on his return changed into a youth, handsome, intelligent, and efficient, or into an animal; or if he left a youth at home, he might find him turned into a dog; or he might leave ashes and find them changed into musk; or a stone changed into gold, and gold changed into stone. And if he were asked about any of these things, he would answer: “I do not know what there is at present in my house; I only know that I left a book in my house, but perhaps by now it is a horse which has soiled the library with its urine and excrement, and I left in my house a piece of bread which has perhaps changed into an apple-tree.”….For God can do any possible thing, and this is possible, and one cannot avoid being perplexed by it; and to this kind of fancy one may yield ad infinitum, but these examples will do.:”(Ibid., pp. 30-31.)”:

This is basically what Averroes, following Aristotle, had said earlier (see Part II): the denial of causes is equivalent to a denial of knowlege. To deny the necessity of the cause-effect relationship is to deny that any knowledge may be had of the events in the world. It leads, as Al-Ghazali’s own examples show, to an absurd world – a world where all manner of nonsensical events could happen at any second, merely because God willed them to happen. But, says Al-Ghazali, the absurd world does not result from the denial of causation, for “God has created in us the knowledge that He will not do all these possible things, and we only profess that these things are not necessary, but that they are possible and may or may not happen…”:”(Ibid., pg. 31.)”:

Averroes’ counter-argument is that because the theologians say that the possible opposite of any actual thing is equally possible as the actual thing itself, they affirm of God that “there is no fixed standard for His will either constantly or for most cases, according to which things must happen.” God would, on this account of things, be like a tyrant, “for whom nobody in his dominion can deputize, of whom no standard or custom is known to which reference might be made.” Like a tyrant, God’s actions would be unpredictable and, because his will would swing free of rationality, would be in principle unknowable.:”(Ibid.)”:

Now, this are incredibly fascinating lines of argument to me. They appear also in the Medieval Christian philosophical debates between the broad schools of “nominalism” and “realism.” In some ways, Al-Ghazali sounds not just like Hume, but like Ockham. I don’t know offhand who Averroes sounds like, but one can certainly see in his complaint about the supposed arbitrary, tyrannical God of the non rationally-necessary world the argument of many Catholics against Calvinistic predestination. Al-Ghazali, as a “voluntarist,” would stand in the same broad tradition as later Medieval Christian covenant theologians. Averroes, as a “necessitarian,” would stand in the same broad tradition as the anti-covenant theologians. But, alas, further elaboration of this point is beyond my capacity at this point.


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