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

Problems of Time and Divine Immutability

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Problems of Time and Divine Immutability

Al-Ghazali’s first discussion contained two problems, also found in medieval philosophical theology in general: divine immutability and timelessness. Based on al-Ghazali’s theological arguments, this portion of the paper will discuss these problems within al-Ghazali’s discussion, and suggest a possible solution to them.

The medieval concept of divine immutability was clearly articulated by the Islamo-Aristotelian influenced Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas, in which he noted that God cannot have potentiality, change, movement, addition or extension to his being, because he is the first being.62 Though vehemently against all ideas Aristotelian, al-Ghazali did not question the immutability of God. This, even though his dialogue partner accused the theologians’ position of promoting it. Stating that if the world came into existence temporally, God would have “come into anew,” or the world would remain in the realm of possibility, led to a promotion of divine mutability. If this were so, there would be change in the eternal, which never changes.63

In reply, al-Ghazali stated that God had willed from all eternity that the creation of the universe would occur at a specific point in time. The philosophers, however, would respond by saying that to have an event delayed after all conditions for existence have been met, would still imply change in God, because there would be a difference between states of affairs and being before and after creation, along with the need for these causes to come into existence anew.64 The philosophers wondered if, then, one could invoke the idea of “resolve,” in that, God could have resolved from eternity to create the world at a particular point. The problem was, however, that when the time came for creation, a “renewed intentional upsurge” would have had to occur within God to have a cause for creation – which would entail divine change once again.65

Though, according to Fakhry, al-Ghazali’s assertion that the creation of the universe as an act of divine will is sufficient and bypasses “the objection of the Neoplatonists that creation in time would entail necessarily a change in the divine.”66 Al-Ghazali’s only explicit response to the accusation of divine change was to say that the philosophers held the same problem in their doctrine of divine knowledge.67 Nevertheless, the problem of divine immutability remains for al-Ghazali. William Hasker comments that

In the philosophical lineage stretching from Parmenides to Plato to Plotinus, there is a strong metaphysical and valuational preference for permanence over change. True Being, in this tradition, must of necessity be changeless; whatever change, on the other hand, enjoys a substandard sort of being if any at all.68
Al-Ghazali had agreed with the philosophers on this doctrine of immutability when such an agreement was unnecessary. Hasker argues that Plato’s argument was faulty, setting up a false dichotomy, in that Plato falsely assumed that change was either change for the better or worse. Change, however, is not always for the better or worse. A clock, for example, registers a particular time (say 3:30 PM) at one particular point of the day, and at another point it registers another time (say 4:00 PM). There has been change within the clock, but such change was not better or worse, it was simply a change.69 Affirming the possibility of divine mutability, then, requires one to re-define what is meant by divine perfection.

Al-Ghazali, despite upholding divine immutability and having shown from natural science and philosophy that the universe was temporally finite, did not answer the charge of the philosophers.70 If the universe is finite, and there was a time when God existed but the universe did not exist, then God must be mutable. The philosophers, in al-Ghazali’s words, commented that before the existence of the universe,

…infinite time would have existed, and this is contradictory; for the reason of the affirmation of the finitude of time is impossible. If then, time, which is an expression of the measure of motion, is necessarily pre-eternal, motion is necessarily pre-eternal, and that which is motion and through duration time endure is necessarily eternal.71
Al-Ghazali responded by saying that “time is originated and created and before it there was no time at all.”72 Interestingly, al-Ghazali, again, as Michael Marmura has pointed out, follows an Aristotelian understanding of time being a measurement of motion.73 Therefore, God was prior to both the universe and time, neither existed until they were created. This was a natural conclusion from al-Ghazali’s affirmation of the temporally finite creation and the immutability of God. Brian Leftow comments, “God’s being immutable would entail God’s being timeless,”74 as seen in the following diagram:

  1. Necessarily, if anything is God, it acts.

  2. Necessarily, every temporal act is of finite duration. Therefore…

  3. Necessarily, every temporal agent changes in every act from acting to not acting or vice-versa. Therefore…

  4. Necessarily, if God does not change, God is not temporal. Therefore…

  5. Necessarily, if God cannot change, God cannot be temporal.75

Therefore, “if God is not located in time, it follows that God does not change. In fact, as whatever is timeless is necessarily so, if God is timeless, God cannot change.”76 To assert God as timeless would force a theologian to additionally assert that God was immutable. For, as Garrett DeWisse has pointed out, a timeless being would be immaterial, necessary and immutable.77 If, then, al-Ghazali held to a doctrine of divine timelessness, his theory that God eternally willed the creation to occur could be sound. For any immutable being would be bound by its past choices and could do no other than what this being has intended to do from the beginning.

The problem of God’s immutability, however, remains even with the doctrine of timelessness. As Leftow indicates, the classical doctrine of God in Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology holds that God is also omnipresent. Since the world and time were created at the same moment, space, like time, would be temporally finite. Thus, how can God be omnipresent when space is not existent? Change in the divine, therefore, would have to have taken place when the universe was created.78

Furthermore, “no immutable being can be aware of change occurring. If no object of an immutable God’s experience can change, God must have a changeless experience of the world.”79 “The notion that deity is ‘Absolute’ has meant that God is not really related to the world.”80 As Hasker points out, “temporal events exist in time as the medium of temporal succession, so it would seem that a being which experiences them directly must itself exist in time and experience succession – but of course, this is just what a timeless being cannot do.”81 Hasker outlines the problem as such:

  1. If God is directly aware of a thing, that thing is metaphysically present to God. (Premise)

  2. If God knows temporal beings, God knows all their temporal stages. (Premise)

  3. If God is directly aware of temporal beings, all of their temporal stages are metaphysically present to God. (From 1-2)

  4. If the temporal stages of a temporal being are metaphysically present in God, they are present either sequentially or simultaneously. (Premise)

  5. If God is timeless, nothing is present to God sequentially. (Premise)

  6. If God is timeless and is directly aware of temporal beings, all their temporal stages are simultaneously, metaphysically present to God. (From 3-5)

  7. If the temporal stages of a temporal being are simultaneously, metaphysically present to God, those stages exist simultaneously. (Premise)

  8. The temporal stages of a temporal being do not exist simultaneously. (Premise)

  9. If God is timeless, God is not directly aware of temporal beings. (From 6-8)82

Such an idea would counter al-Ghazali’s criticism of the philosopher’s doctrine of divine knowledge of particulars. It is obvious from Discussion One of the Tahafut,83 as well as Discussions Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen, that al-Ghazali wants to avoid saying that God is not aware of particulars.84 Al-Ghazali, therefore, is caught in a dilemma, either he affirms that God is timeless and ignorant of particulars or that God is not timeless and is personal.

From the Tahafut, along with his sufi tendencies, it would be likely that al-Ghazali would wish to affirm the personal nature of God in relation to creation. As such, al-Ghazali could have given up his premise that God is timeless, instead holding to some notion of absolute or metaphysical time. Gregory Ganssle outlines this logic:

  1. If God is personal, God is temporal.

  2. If God is temporal, time exists.

  3. God is necessarily a person.

  4. God is necessarily temporal.

  5. Time, therefore, exists necessarily.85

This affirmation that God and time are necessary would have allowed al-Ghazali to reject the Aristotelian notion of timethat was held by the philosophers. The philosophers, however, in al-Ghazali’s representation of them, seemed to be implicitly aware of some notion of absolute time, in their question of how God determined one moment over another, in time, to create the world. They, no doubt, wanted to show that the world needs to be eternal, yet in granting al-Ghazali the possibility of a temporally finite universe, a notion of absolute time, time that exists before and after creation, may have been admissible. It is this notion of absolute time that can make al-Ghazali’s argument consistent once again.

This would then divide our notion of time into two concepts, physical time and metaphysical (or absolute) time. DeWisse defines physical time as referring “to time in any temporal world containing physical objects;” and defines metaphysical time as “the succession of moments or events through which concrete objects persist, but since concrete objects need not be material objects, metaphysical time is not identical to physical time.”86 If absolute time exists, God need not be timeless, for God could be, in DeWisse’s terminology, omnitemporal. In other words, God’s divine eternity is not timeless, but infinite and everlasting temporal duration.

By definition, the same relation that constituted by any other type of time – causation, constitutes metaphysical or absolute time. Since, as Michael Robinson states, “time devoid of events is meaningless,”87 for there is need for some movement or change. As it relates to God, according to DeWisse, it is the “causal succession of mental states in God’s conscious life [that] grounds the flow and direction of metaphysical time.”88 This involves denying any doctrine of immutability, for it would entail that God’s mind, anthropomorphically speaking, could move from successive foci of thought. Additionally, if God is considered the Creator of this universe, then it is absolute time that forms the ground of physical time in the universe.

An entity that is metaphysically temporal, existing at all times, therefore, exists necessarily. Also, the omnitemporal entity would exist in a temporal stream where the metaphysical “now” relates to the physical “now.” Thus, “an omnitemporal entity will be temporally present at every present moment of any possible physical time.”89 This, then, alleviates the denial of God knowing particulars and the implication of an impersonal God. A temporal notion of God, therefore, allows: a period of metaphysical time to pass before the creation of the universe; for divine action in the physically temporal universe; and for theology to allow God to have a pre-existing determination of when the world will come into being (though not necessary if Platonic notions of change are disregarded).

The problem of asserting absolute time, according to Robinson, “is that it is allegedly incompatible to Einstein’s Special and General theories of relativity.”90 Craig answers this criticism, in his article “The Elimination of Absolute Time by the Special Theory of Relativity.”91 Focusing on the distinction made between absolute (metaphysical) time and relative (physical) time in Isaac Newton’s cosmology, Craig suggests that philosophers and scientists have often overlooked the close attachment between God and absolute time in Newton’s writings.92 God constitutes absolute time and ”because God is eternal, there exists an everlasting duration” – hence absolute time is contingent on God.93 Physical time, however, is relative and relativistic, being dependent on physical motion. Einstein’s positivistic theory, therefore, can only correct Newton’s notion of physical time, not absolute time that is not empirically detectable, but philosophically grounded.94

If absolute time, therefore, is logically coherent, and establishes a foundation for the kalam cosmological argument, as seen in Craig’s contemporary defense of the argument, al-Ghazali would have been able to deny Aristotelian and Neoplatonic notions of the eternity of the world, and have developed a new philosophical foundation for his theological affirmation.

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