Tahafut al-Falasifa

(Incoherence of the Philosophers)


Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE)

Translated into English from Urdu Translation by Sabih Ahmad Kamali


Problem XVII
Refutation of their belief in the impossibility of a departure from the natural course of events


In our view, the connection between what are believed to be the cause and the effect is not necessary. Take any two things. This is not That; nor can That be This. The affirmation of one does not imply the affirmation of the other; nor does its denial imply the denial of the other. The existence of one is not necessitated by the existence of the other; nor its non-existence by the non-existence of the other. Take for instance any two things, such as the quenching of thirst and drinking; satisfaction of hunger and eating; burning and contact with fire; light and the rise of the Sun; death and the severance of the head from the trunk; healing and the use of medicine; the loosening of bowels and the use of a purgative, or any other set of events observed to be connected together in Medicine, or Astronomy, or Arts, or Crafts. They are connected as the result of the Decree of God (holy be His name), which preceded their existence. If one follows the other, it is because He has created them in that fashion, not because the connection in itself is necessary and indissoluble. He has the power to create the satisfaction of hunger without eating, or death without the severance of the head, or even the survival of life when the head has been cut off, or any other thing from among the connected things (independently of what is supposed to be its cause).

The philosophers deny this possibility; indeed, they assert its impossibility. Since the inquiry concerning these things (which are innumerable) may go to an indefinite length, let us consider only one example — viz., the burning of a piece of cotton at the time of its contact with fire. We admit the possibility of a contact between the two which will not result in burning, as also we admit the possibility of the transformation of cotton into ashes without coming into contact with fire. And they reject this possibility.

There are three points from which the discussion of the question can be started

Firstly, the opponent may claim that fire alone is the agent of burning, and that being an agent by nature (not by choice), it cannot refrain from doing what it is its nature to do — after it comes into contact with a subject which is receptive to it.

This is what we deny. We say that it is God who — through the intermediacy of angels, or directly — is the agent of the creation of blackness in cotton; of the disintegration of its parts, and of their transformation into a smouldering heap or ashes. Fire, which is an inanimate thing, has no action. How can one prove that it is an agent? The only argument is from the observation of the fact of burning at the time of contact with fire. But observation only shows that one is with the other, not that it is by it and has no other cause than it. To take another example, it cannot be contradicted that the advent of the spirit and of the motive and cognitive faculties into the sperm of animals is not a development out of the natures which are pent up in heat and cold and moisture and dryness. 'By the act of procreation, the father is not the agent of the son; or of the son's life, vision, and hearing, or of any other thing he may have. Obviously, all these things are observed to exist with some other conditions. But we cannot say that they exist by them. On the contrary, they derive their existence from God — either directly, or through the intermediacy of angels to whom these temporal events are entrusted. (This argument is valid against the philosophers who believe in God; and it is they whom we address here.) So it is clear that existence with a thing does not prove being by it.

Let us illustrate. Suppose there is a blind man whose eyes are diseased, and who has not heard from anyone of the difference between night and day. If one day his disease is cured, and he can consequently see colours, he will guess that the agent of the perception of the forms of colours which has now been acquired by his eyes is the opening of the eyes. This will not be absolutely untrue, inasmuch as given the soundness of the eyes: and their being open: and the obstruction being removed: and the object before him having colour, it follows that he must be able to see, and it would be unintelligible if he were not. But when the Sun is set, and the atmosphere is dark, he will acquire the knowledge that the light of the Sun was the cause of the impression of colours upon his sight. Therefore, how can our opponent safely ignore the possibility that:

(a) among the Principles of Being there should be causes from which flow the temporal events which are observed to be connected with each other;

(b) unlike bodies in motion, such temporal events should not be liable to destruction or elimination by us, and

(c) that if they were so liable, only then could we apprehend their separability from each other, and would consequently understand that their cause lies beyond what we observe?

If true to their principles, the philosophers cannot avoid such a hypothesis. And this is why the masters among them have agreed that these accidents and events which occur at the time of contact between bodies — or, in general, at the time of varying relations between bodies — in fact emanate from the Giver of Forms — who is an angel or angels. Even so. they say, the impression upon the eye of the forms of colours emanates from the Giver of Forms, sunrise and the sound eye and the coloured object being only preparatory and contributory factors in order to make the subject receive a form. And they have extended this explanation to every temporal event. Hence stands refuted he who would assert that fire is the agent of burning: or bread is the agent of the satisfaction of hunger: or medicine is the agent of health, and so on to all other causes.

In the second place, we can take issue with one who admits that the temporal phenomena emanate from the Principles of the Temporals, but believes that

The capacity to receive the forms is derived from these causes which are observed, and which exist here. Emanation from the Principles themselves takes place by way of necessity and nature. It is like the emanation of light from the Sun which is involuntary and inevitable. And the receptive subjects are distinguished from one another by their different capacities. For instance, a polished body receives the rays of the Sun and reflects them, so that some other place shines by the reflected light. But a tarnished body does not receive the rays. Or the air does not prevent light from spreading; whereas a stone does prevent it. Or one thing softens under the Sun, while another hardens. Or the Sun whitens one thing (e.g., the washerman's clothes), but blackens another (e.g., the washerman's face). So the principle is one; but its effects are diverse, because of different capacities in the receptive subjects. Similarly, the Principles of Being give unsparingly and ungrudgingly whatever may proceed from them ; any failings whatsoever must be attributed to the recipients.

This being so, whenever we suppose fire with all its qualities, and suppose two similar pieces of cotton which are exposed to fire in the same way, how can we conceive that one of them should burn, and the other should not? There is no alternative for the other piece.

(From this idea, they come to disbelieve the story that when Abraham was thrown into fire, burning did not happen, although fire continued to be fire. They assert that this cannot happen, unless fire should be devoid of heat (which would put an end to its being fire), or unless Abraham's person or body should turn into a stone or something else which might resist the influence of fire. And, they add, neither this nor that is possible.)


To this, our answer is twofold

In the first place, we will say: We do not agree that the Principles do not act by choice, or that God does not act by will. The refutation of this assertion of the philosophers has already engaged our attention in the problem of the creation of the world. And once it is proved that the Agent creates by His will the burning of a piece of cotton at the time of its contact with fire, Reason will consider it to be possible that He may not create the burning while the contact has taken place.


If it is said

This might lead one to entertain the most egregious absurdities. Once it is denied that effects necessarily follow from causes, and if it is maintained that an effect is to be ascribed to the will of the Creator, and that the will itself has no particular well-defined course, but that its manifestations may be varied and arbitrary, then each one might persuade himself to believe that

(a) In front of him, there are ferocious beasts; widespread conflagration; lofty mountains, and hostile forces equipped with arms ; and that he fails to see them, because

God has not created for him the sight of them.

(b) One who left a book in his house might return to find it transformed into a slave-boy intelligent and resourceful; or into an animal. Or having left a slave-boy in the house, one may return to find him transformed into a dog. Or having left ashes, one may find musk in their place. Or one may find stone transformed into gold, or gold into stone. And when asked concerning the change, he may say: "I do not know what is now in the house. All I know is that I left a book there. Perhaps it has turned into a horse, defiling my library with its excrement." Or he might say: "I left a jar of water in the house. Perhaps it has changed into an apple tree."

And all this should be perfectly intelligible, since God is omnipotent, and it may not be necessary for a horse to be procreated, or for a tree to grow from a seed! Nay, it may not be necessary for either to grow from any thing. Perhaps God would create things which had never before existed. So one who sees a man whom he had not seen until now might hesitate to guess whether that man was born at all. He might say: "Maybe, this man was one of the fruits sold in the market. But now the fruit has been transformed into a man, because God has power over every thing, and all such transformations are therefore possible. Hence my hesitation."

In visualising possibilities of this kind one might go to any length. However, let this much suffice here.


In reply to the foregoing, we will say:

If you could prove that in regard to things which 'can exist' there cannot be created for man a knowledge that they 'do not exist,' then these absurdities would be inescapable. We have no doubt in regard to the situations described by you. For God has created for us the' knowledge that He would not do these things, although they are possible. We never asserted that they are necessary. They are only possible — i.e., they may, or may not, happen. It is only when something possible is repeated over and over again (so as to form the Norm), that its pursuance of a uniform course in accordance with the Norm in the past is indelibly impressed upon our minds.

It is possible for a prophet to know after the manner described by the philosophers — that a certain traveler will not return tomorrow. Although the return is possible, still the fact that it is not to happen can be known. Or look at a common man. It is known that he does not know anything of the Hidden World, and that without learning he cannot know the intelligibles. In spite of this, say the philosophers, he can know exactly what a prophet knows, if his soul and intuition acquire sufficient strength. But the philosophers know' that this possibility has never happened. Now, if in extraordinay times, God breaks the Norm by causing such a thing to happen, then our cognitions (that a certain possible thing 'does not happen') will slip out of our hearts and will not be recreated by Him. Therefore, there is nothing to prevent us from believing that:

(a) something may be possible, and may be one of those things to which God's power extends;

(b) in spite of its being possible, it might have been known as a rule in the past that God would not do it; and

(c) God may create for us a knowledge that He would not do it in this particular instance.

So the philosophers' criticism is nothing but obstinate fault-finding.


Our second answer, which will enable us to get rid of the philosophers' captious criticism, is as follows:

We agree that fire is so created that when it finds two pieces of cotton which are similar, it will burn both of them, as it cannot discriminate between two similar things. At the same time, however, we can believe that when a certain prophet was thrown into the fire, he was not burnt — either because the attributes of fire had changed, or because the attributes of the prophet's person had changed. Thus, there might have originated — from God, or from the angels — a new attribute in the fire which confined its heat to itself, so that the heat was not communicated to the prophet. Hence, although the fire retained its heat, its form and its reality, still the effect of its heat did not pass onwards. Or there might have originated a new attribute in the prophet's body which enabled it to resist the influence of fire, although it had not ceased to be composed of flesh and bones.


Impossibility of a Departure from Natural Course of Events

We see that one who covers himself with asbestos sits down in a blazing furnace, and remains unaffected by it. He who has not observed such a thing will disbelieve it. Therefore, our opponents' disbelief in God's power to invest fire or a person's body with a certain attribute which will prevent it from burning, is like disbelief on the part of a man who has not observed asbestos and its effect. Things to which God's power extends include mysterious and wonderful facts. We have not observed all those mysteries and wonders. How, then, can it be proper on our part to deny their possibility, or positively to assert their impossibility?

Also in this way can be seen the possibility for recalling the dead to life, or changing a rod into a serpent. That is, Matter can receive every accident. Dust and all other elements are transformed into plants. Having been eaten by animals, plants are transformed into blood. Blood becomes sperm. Sperm fertilises the womb, and develops into a living being. This is the usual course of events extending over a long time. Why should the opponent refuse to believe that God may have the power to rotate Matter through all these phases in a shorter time than is usually taken? And if a shorter time is admissible, there is no bar against the shortest one.

So this is how the action of the natural processes can be accelerated to produce what is called a prophet's miracle.


If it is said

Does this proceed from the prophet himself, or from one of the Principles of Being — at the prophet's instance?


we will answer:

When you admitted the possibility of the occurrence of rains, thunder, and earthquake by the power of the prophet's soul, did you mean that they proceed from the prophet himself, or from some other principle? We will reply to your question as you do to ours. It behoves both of us to relate this to God — whether immediately, or through the intermediacy of the angels. However, let us add, the time quali­fied for the occurrence of a miracle comes only when the prophet's resolution is directed to it, and when, as a means of strengthening the system of the Sacred Law, its appearance becomes a specific condition for the establishment of the System of Good. This, therefore, is the determinant in favour of existence. In itself, the thing is possible: and the Principle is generous and bountiful. Nevertheless, the emanation from Him does not take place, until the need for the existence of the emanant operates as the determinant, and it becomes a specific condition for the establishment of the System of Good. And it cannot be such a condition, unless a prophet stands in need of it to prove his prophecy in order to bring about the propagation of Good.

All this fits very well into their theory. In fact, they are bound to draw such conclusions, since they have opened the door to the special character of a prophet by means of a property which is contrary to the ordinary qualities of men. The degrees of this special character cannot be exhausted by intellectual comprehension. Why should it be necessary for one, who believes in any degree of this special character, to disbelieve an account of it which has been handed down on the strength of uninterrupted testimony, and which finds its confirmation in the Sacred Law?

In fine, from the facts:

(a) that only the sperm receives the form of an animal;

(b) that the animal faculties flow on to it from the angels who are — according to the philosophers — the Principles of Being;

(c) that the sperm of man gives birth only to a man, and the sperm of a horse only to a horse — since the origination of the latter from a horse is most apt to determine the selection of the form of a horse, in contradistinction to all other forms, for the offspring which, therefore, can receive only the form so determined. For the same reason, barley does not grow from wheat, nor an apple from the seed of a pear;

(d) that, further, we see many species of animals which grow out of dust, and do not reproduce their kind — e.g., the worms. There are some other species which grow out of dust, but also reproduce their kind — e.g., the mouse, the snake, and the scorpion, and

(e) that the growth of such animals out of dust, and their different capacities to receive forms have for their causes things which are hidden from us, and which it is impossible for human faculties ever to discover. For their forms do not come to them from the angels in mere frivolity or caprice. On the contrary, only that form comes to the subject to which the subject is specifically receptive because of its own preparation. And the preparations are different and multiple, and — according to the philosophers — their principles are to be found in the configurations of stars, and in the different relations of celestial bodies in course of their movement, it is plait that the principles of preparations have within them mysterious and wonderful things. For this reason, those versed in talismanic arts can use their knowledge of the properties of mineral substances and of the stars to procure combinations of celestial powers with mineral properties. Thus, they take some of the terrestrial figures, and by seeking out a particular horoscope for them, they can produce mysterious and wonderful things in the world. For instance. they often drive away snakes or scorpions or bugs from a city, or do some other thing of the kind which their talismanic science may have enabled them to do.

Seeing that the principles of preparations are innumerable, and that we cannot discover their secret or exhaust their number, whence can we know that it is impossible that there should be certain preparations in some bodies which (bodies) might pass through all the phases of transformation in the shortest time, so as to receive the form for which they were prepared — thus giving rise to a miracle? Disbelief in such a thing betrays a lack of spirit on the disbeliever's part, and his unfamiliarity with the High Beings, and unawareness of the Secrets of God (glory to Him) in the world of created beings and in Nature. He who observes the wonders which are revealed by sciences will never hesitate to admit the possibility of God's power extending to those things which have been related as prophets' miracles.


If it is said

We agree with you that God's power extends to all that is possible. And you agree with us that no power extends to that which is impossible. Now, things are divided into three kinds: (i) those whose impossibility is definitely known; (ii) those whose possibility is definitely known; and (iii) those in regard to which the Intellect is hesitant, affirming neither their possibility nor impossibility. What is your definition of the Impossible? If it is the combination of affirmation and negation in the same thing, then say that of every two things, This is not That, nor That This, and that therefore the existence of neither presupposes the existence of the other. Further, say

(a) that God has the power to create will without the knowledge of the object of will; or knowledge without life; or

(b) that He has the power to cause the movement of a dead man's hand, causing him to sit up, write out a book, or pursue some other art while his eyes may be open, and his vision concentrated on what is before him; and

(c) that still the man may not be able to 'see,' and may have no life or power — for his systematic actions have been created by God, by causing his hand to move, and by directing the movement Himself.

When such a thing is regarded as possible, all distinction between voluntary and spasmodic movements will disappear. No controlled action will be an indication of knowledge or power on the part of the agent. Further, it will be reasonable to maintain that He has the power to change the Genera — e.g., substance into accident; knowledge into power; black into white, and sound into smell — just as He has the power to change inorganic Matter into an animal, or a stone into gold. And many other absurdities will follow; in fact, their number will be unlimited.


The answer:

No one has power over the Impossible. What the Impossible means is the affirmation of something together with its denial; or the affirmation of the particular together with the denial of the general; or the affirmation of two together with the denial of one. That which does not fall under these heads is not impossible. And that which is not impossible is within power.

The combination of blackness and whiteness is impossible; for by the affirmation of the forms of blackness in a subject we understand the negation of whiteness, and the existence of blackness. Therefore, if the negation of whiteness is understood by the affirmation of blackness, then the affirmation of whiteness together with its (understood) negation will be impossible.

It is not possible for one person to be in two places at the same time. For by his being in the house we understand his not — being in the not — house. Therefore, it is impossible to suppose his being in not-house together with his being in house which only means the denial of his being in not — house. Similarly, by will we understand the seeking after something which is known Now, if the seeking is supposed, but knowledge is not supposed, then there will be no will. For the supposition will have within itself the negation of what we understand by will.

Nor is it possible that knowledge should be created in inorganic Matter. For by inorganic Matter we understand something which has no cognition. If cognition is created in it, it will be impossible to call it inorganic Matter in the sense in which we understand it. If in spite of the new — created cognition, the stone does not cognise, then it will be impossible to name as knowledge this newly-created thing which does not enable its subject to have any cognition whatsoever. So this is the reason why the creation of knowledge in inorganic Matter is impossible.

As regards the transformation of Genera, some of the Mutakallimun believe that God has power over it. But we maintain that it is unintelligible for something to become another. For instance, if blackness becomes power, does blackness remain, or not? If it disappears, it does not become, but only passes away, and something else comes into existence. If it still exists together with power, it has not become, but something else has just been added to it. If blackness remains, and power is not there, then there is no becoming at all. The whole, thing remains as it was.

When we say that blood becomes sperm, we mean that one and the same Matter has put off one form to take on another. So the final outcome is that one form has passed away, and another has come into existence, while Matter remains unchanged beneath successive forms. Again, when we say that water becomes air because of heat, we mean that Matter which had received the form of water has now discarded that form to receive another. So the Matter is common; it is only its attributes which change. Similarly, therefore, we may speak of the Rod becoming a serpent, or of dust becoming an animal. But between the Substance and the Accident there is no common Matter. Nor is there any common Matter between blackness and power, or between any other two Genera. Hence the impossibility of transformation in their case.

As regards the case in which God causes the hand of a dead man to move, and places him on the footing of a living man, so that he may sit up and write, till the movement of his hand results in coherent writing, we must say that in itself it is not impossible. For we ascribe all temporal events to the will of One who acts by choice. But it is to be rejected insofar as it is subversive of the usual course of events. Your statement that the possibility of such a thing will destroy the probative value of the adjustment of an action as an indication of knowledge on the agent's part is not true. For it is God who is the agent; He makes the adjustment, and performs the action — through the dead man.

As regards your statement that there remains no distinction between voluntary and spasmodic movements, we will say that we know such a thing from ourselves. When in our own case, we observe a distinction between the two states, we designate the cause of distinction as power. And then we conclude that what actually happens is only one of the two possible things — i.e., either the state in which movement is produced by power, or the state in which it is produced not-by-power. So when we look at someone else, and see many coherent movements, we acquire the knowledge of his power over the movements. Now, this knowledge is one of those cognitions which are created by God, .and which depend upon the continuance of the regular course of events. Knowledge of this kind can only tell us of the existence of one of the two possible things. But, as shown earlier, it does not prove the impossibility of the other alternative.


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