Al-Ghazali: First Proof against the Past Eternity of the Universe (Part 1)

Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (c. 1058–1111) was an Asharite theologian of Persian descent who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries. He spent a lot of time in Baghdad teaching at the Madrasa there, and he devoted a lot of his time to rejecting Greek philosophy and more fully embracing the religious traditions found in Islam.

The work we are going to be examining today is his “Incoherence of the Philosophers” which he published as a refutation of men he referred to as ‘corruptors of the faith’ and that anyone who reads their writings becomes more lost in their own ignorance and incoherence. His point is to show that the philosophers do not provide demonstrative proofs of knowledge, they do not even stand up to their own tests of wisdom and truth.

In short: he was trying to show that Philosophy wasn’t able to meet it’s own standards. Or in more modern analytic terms, that it was “Self-referentially incoherent.” He does this by attacking several of the philosophical topics of his day that were commonly held, but not unquestionably. The one we want to focus on here is his first critique, namely of their doctrine in the Past Eternity of the Universe.

In this post I will be focusing only on his first objection to their (the philosophers) first proof. This is for two reasons, the first is for the sake of brevity, and the second is to give me more material for later. Now some of you may think that the Universe’s past eternity was thrown out among People of the Book aeons ago, since the book of Genesis clearly states that God created the world, and the creation accounts in the Koran are similar. (That God created the world in a set number of days.)

So why then the difficulty? In short: Aristotle.

Aristotle(who has reached Ghazali by Al-Farabi and Avicenna) believed that the universe was eternal in the past for several reasons. Existence was a form of motion, and in order for there to be a motion there had to be a motion that set that motion into motion and so on and so forth. Time is a measurement of motion. If motion came into being, then there would have to be movement away from something, and therefore there be something before time, which is contradictory. These arguments held and continued to hold influence over the world from the time of Aristotle, until (arguably) the end of the Middle Ages.1

Ghazali in his work, starts to outline the thinking of the philosophers up to his time and how they have agreed on the past eternity of the universe. He claims that “the view of the multitudes, both ancient and modern, has settled on upholding its 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 being posterior to Him in time, in the way the effect coexists along with the cause and light along with the sun; that the Creator’s priority to [the world] is like the priority of the cause to the effect, which is a priority in essence and rank, not in time.” 2

He talks about how Plato seemed to be an exception to this rule stating that the universe was created in his Timaeus, but this is an exception and not to be noted. He then says he is not going to get bogged down in every single argument they give, but instead only focus on the good ones. He doesn’t want to waste time on the bad arguments but rather the ones that can cause even the best thinkers to doubt because “…arousing doubt in the weak is possible with the most feeble [of arguments]” 3

The first proof he focuses on (and the only one we will be focusing on here) goes from this:

“They say, ‘it is absolutely impossible for a temporal to proceed from an eternal.'”

In short the argument they give for this looks like this. If states of the Eternal are similar then either everything always comes into existence or nothing comes into existence at all. Since there is no difference in one state of the eternal than another there is no reason that in one moment there should be something and in the next moment there not be, unless something changed that brought about its creation. This thing could not be the ‘will of the divine’ because it would be utterly arbitrary to refrain from one thing and then act on it the next moment without something bringing that change in will into being.

The philosopher does his best to bolster the argument by asking why the world did not exist before its creation. There was no logical or physical necessity to stop it, since God has no physical limitations.4 The Eternal would have to change from “…Impotence to Power, and the world from Impossibility to Possibility, both of which are impossible.” And the philosophers argue that it would be unbecoming due to the nature of God, for God to have a will to create. This is because deciding to create is to say that He became a willer of its existence after having not been, but this creates a problem of a will having come into existence. And God cannot receive things that are created because he is separate from creation, nor can it have been created apart from him because that would make him not a willer.5

To push this even further, not only could God not create his own will, but if will can come into existence uncaused then so can anything, even universes. This makes God superfluous really. The question still remains, why the universe came into existence then and not earlier? Was it because God lacked an instrument by which to do his purpose? Or perhaps a purpose, or a nature, that once they come into existence, so then will the universe? But, then why do those things come into existence then and not earlier and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

This is the heart of their argument.6 And we will spend the rest of the time dealing with the first part of Al-Ghazali’s first objection to it. (though he does have two objections.)

Ghazali argues that perhaps God willed the creation of the world at a specific time, timelessly. That past-eternally the will was created that “at such and such a time I will create the universe.” and asks what proof there might be to show this to be false.

The response he then imagines is something like this: That if the necessary conditions exist they always bring about their effects immediately. Since the will exists, and the willer exists, and these two things are related to each other, then the effects of the will will come about immediately. If this is not the case then nothing could ever come into existence, since the Eternal always exists in identical states, that from moment to moment there is no difference.

“Indeed the state of affairs would have remained identical to what it was [before], the object of the will not having come into existence, and would remain thereafter as it was before when [lo and behold] the object of the will would come into existence! This is nothing but the ultimate in impossibility.”

So the problem rests in the fact that nothing changes, no new will is gained, and no new thing is given, but suddenly there is a new thing. And this is the first response of the Philosophers.

Ghazali wants to know if they know of the impossibility of Eternal Will through basic knowledge, or through investigations? He wants to know if they use a middle term to connect “eternal will” and “temporal creation” for they have not shown it. And if it is basic knowledge why do men like Ghazali and the others not have it? Is it because they lack some knowledge, but this knowledge is basic and necessary? Since you have done neither, but instead given “nothing but [an expression of] unlikelihood and the drawing of an analogy with our resolve and will, this being false, since the eternal will does not resemble temporal [human] intentions.” And just saying something is unlikely is not enough, without a proof that can be demonstrated!

The Philosopher might say then, we know this by the necessity of reason, and one who denies this is stubbornly defying their own reason and resorting to irrationality!

This is where Al-Ghazali resorts to some of his most famous arguments, the arguments based on the concept of infinity. He asks what the difference is in that response and someone who says that they are stubbornly defying reason with their own doctrines. This is not a reasonable response, but instead an irrational one, as it puts forth no argument or explanation. Indeed, Ghazali thinks that their ‘necessity of reason’ can be shown to be demonstrate logical contradictions, or at least logical absurdities, and therefore must be false.

  1. If the universe is past eternal then there must be an infinite number of movements by each heavenly sphere. 7
  2. These spheres all rotate at different rates, one being a sixth, a forth, a half, and so on, of the radius of the whole heavenly body.
  3. If Jupiter rotates twice for every rotation that Saturn makes then Jupiter has logically rotated twice as many times as Saturn.
  4. Yet they have both rotated the same number of times, namely, an infinite number of times.
  5. Indeed, they are not only the same number, but infinitely different, for with every rotation Saturn falls further behind.

He then asks, if someone says “This is impossible by the necessity of reason!” how does this differ from their defense? How would they answer if they were asked whether the rotation is even or odd? It cannot be one or the other. If it were odd then by adding one you could make it even, but how can the infinite be in need of one? If on the other hand you answer it to be both or neither, these Ghazali argues, are also false by necessity.8

If they try and rebut saying that infinites cannot be measured like finites, then we can simply say that they can be divided into eighths, and sixths, and fourths, why not into odds or evens?

Interestingly an appeal to what came to be known as the “A” theory of time was made to try and fenagle their way out of this. That the past is ‘non-existent’ and only the present exists, and the present has a finite number of rotations, because past rotations do not exist.

Ghazali does not find this objection very strong saying that numbers are even or odd regardless of existence of the objects or non-existence. He gives an example of horses. If we suppose we have six horses, this number of horses is even or odd, even if the horses are hypothetical or non-existent.9

He then goes on even more of an offensive, saying that they claim that there are existing substances that vary in properties and are infinite. These are human souls that have been separated from their bodies. These then are neither even or odd, if the philosophers are to be consistent.

The philosophers might then throw up their hands and say that is it is not Avicenna who is correct but Plato, who thought that there is but one soul and it is divided into bodies and then returns and becomes one with the over-soul again after death.

Ghazali thinks that this is repulsive, and contrary not only to experience but also to logic. We experience ourselves as ourselves and not as other people. If we were the same as other people we would experience ourselves as one. But logically he also holds it to be untenable. Since souls are immaterial talking about ‘dividing’ it is nonsense. You cannot divide things that do not have extension. This only makes sense in objects that have quantitative value. For example an ocean can split into three rivers that all merge back into the ocean again. Non-quantitative substances cannot be divided. This is impossible according to logical necessity.

“What is intended by all this is to show that they have not rendered their opponents unable to uphold belief in the connectedness of the eternal will with the act of temporal creation except by invoking [rational] necessity and that they are unable to disengage from those who [in turn] invoke [rational] necessity against them in those matters opposed to their own belief.”

This ends his treatment of the rejection of rational necessity. He then begins to treat the same objection from a different angle, of a person who rejects rational necessity as the starting point of the disagreement on will. He takes this approach from the impossibility of actually distinct events among the eternal. But this will be a topic for another post, for now, this is the first argument in his first objection to the doctrine of the Past Eternity of the Universe, and we shall sit content with that. (Or at least I shall.)


  1. I say that this is arguable because of thinkers like Crescus and Abū l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī brought into question the Aristotelian framework long before the end of the middle ages. 
  2. Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Translated Michael E. Marmura. Pg 12. 
  3.  Ibid. Pg. 13 
  4. And in certain Islamic schools, no logical limitations either. 
  5. The similarity this has to the Euthyphro problem always makes me smile. Either wills exist because God wills it, or wills exist apart from God. The answer is of course that God is will. 
  6. This is much more Avicennan than Farabian metaphysics. 
  7. Note that this is dependent on Aristotelian physics though many of his arguments still hold water in my opinion given a non-Aristotelian system. 
  8. Modern set theory has something to say about this it is true. Actual Infinities are both even and odd. 
  9. Similarly I suppose you could invent an object. “I have seven glarks.” The number of ‘glarks’ is still odd, despite the fact that glarks are a nonexistent thing. 
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