Al-Ghazali’s Argument for the Eternity of the World in Tahafut al-Falasifa (Discussion One, Proofs 1 and 2a) and the Problem of Divine Immutability and Timelessness Introduction

Tahafut al-Falasifa: Discussion One, Proofs 1 and 2a

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Tahafut al-Falasifa: Discussion One, Proofs 1 and 2a

Al-Ghazali began his first discussion by noting that there are, historically, three philosophical views on the world’s past eternity. The first and most widely held position was that of “upholding [the world’s] past eternity: that it has never ceased to exist with God, exalted be He, to be an effect of His, to exist along with Him, not be posterior to Him in time.”7 The second position, related to Plato, suggested that the world was “generated and originated in time.” The third position was agnostic in nature, and is found in the works of Galen; it holds that one can never know “whether the world is pre-eternal or temporally originated.”8

From these, al-Ghazali turned his polemic to the most widely held position, believing that this position was heretical and had led many Muslims away from their religion.9 Al-Ghazali accuses the philosophers of producing confusion by describing creation as Neoplatonic emanation, instead of a creation ex nihilo. “The philosophers,” comments Watt, “had been adapting Neoplatonic cosmology to Qur’anic conceptions by equating emanation with creation.”10 Though the philosophers had many proofs for an eternal universe, al-Ghazali chose to focus on three of the most powerful, considering all others products of “feeble imagining.” Within this refutation of the arguments for the eternity of the world, can be discovered the kalam cosmological argument for the finite temporality of the world.11

The cosmological argument, according to Majid Fakhry, is considered the “classical argument for the existence of God in the West.”12 Though the cosmological argument was found in philosophers such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd,13 based on an infinite contingency, al-Ghazali argued that upholding the eternity of the universe makes the affirmation of a Creator pointless.14 This was based on a traditional rejection of the concept of efficient causality,15 seen clearly in Discussion Seventeen of the Tahafut, where al-Ghazali “repudiates the validity of the causal principle…on the ground that the alleged necessity of this principle is a mere illusion.”16 Efficient causality was, according to al-Ghazali, an unwarranted inference based only on an apparent observation of a correlation between temporal events. It is God; rather, who directly creates each and every action in the universe in each and every moment.

Therefore, with “nearly a quarter of the Incoherence devoted to the issue of whether the universe had a beginning in time…Ghazali ardently upholds the traditional kalam argument.”17 The kalam form of the cosmological argument was based in the traditional Ash‘arite (along with the Mu‘tazilah18) arguments for God’s existence – the demonstration of the universe as a created thing.19 Fakhry notes,

The general procedure of the Mutakallims in proving the temporality of the universe considered in showing that the world, which they defined as everything other than God, was composed of atoms and accidents. Now the accidents, they argued, cannot endure for two instants of time, but are continually created by God who creates or annihilates them at will.20
Though al-Ghazali did not assert this doctrine explicitly in his first discussion, it factors into his argument implicitly, along with appearing explicitly later in the philosopher’s question about an atom receiving whiteness or blackness from God’s will. This is important to note, because, for the Ash‘arite theologian, the world of atoms and accidents was in a continuous state of change.21 A change that was directly actualized by the power and will of God alone.

Al-Ghazali’s kalam cosmological argument for finite temporality of the universe can clearly be found in his Iqtisad and Jerusalem Letter, while it is only found implicitly in the Tahafut, and was diagramed by the following syllogism.

  1. Whatever began to exist has a cause for its coming into being. (Premise)

  2. The universe began to exist. (Premise)

  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause for coming into being. (From 1-2)22

Al-Ghazali, in accordance with common sense, perceived that the first premise is indisputable. Therefore, it became important to demonstrate the truth of the second premise – that the universe is finite and began to exist. In order to do so, al-Ghazali used two lines of attack: first, showing that the philosophers had failed to demonstrate the impossibility of the creation of a temporal entity from an eternal being; second, that the beginning of the universe is demonstrable.23

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