Unthinkable: The Islamic thinker who ‘proved’ God exists

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What has medieval phi­los­o­phy ever done for us? Seri­ous­ly, name a thinker of mer­it to emerge from the 5th to 15th cen­tu­ry. Thomas Aquinas? William of Ock­ham? Mere curiosi­ties today, one might argue; part of an irrel­e­vant tra­di­tion of reli­gious superstition.

Prof Peter Adam­son, cre­ator of the His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out any Gaps pod­cast and book series, begs to differ.

For starters, pre­cise­ly because of their impor­tance in the his­to­ry of reli­gion, medieval philoso­phers remain rel­e­vant in some cul­tures and con­texts,” he says.

If you want to under­stand the doc­trines of the Catholic church you had bet­ter know your Aquinas, and in the Islam­ic world today peo­ple still have strong views – both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive – about medieval thinkers such as Aver­roes and Avi­cen­na. ”

Sec­ond­ly, says Adam­son, “you can’t under­stand where the ideas of famous fig­ures of ear­ly mod­ern phi­los­o­phy such as Descartes, Spin­oza and Leib­niz came from with­out know­ing about medieval phi­los­o­phy”. Third­ly, “it’s just not true that medieval phi­los­o­phy is always about top­ics in reli­gion. They [the philoso­phers] address the full range of philo­soph­i­cal top­ics, from ethics and polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy to log­ic, phi­los­o­phy of lan­guage, you name it.”

Of fur­ther inter­est today is the fact that some of the most sig­nif­i­cant thinkers of medieval times emerged from the Arab world in the Islam­ic “gold­en age” of the 8th-13th cen­turies. This was an era when Mus­lim thinkers were at the fore­front of rea­soned debate in math­e­mat­ics, sci­ence and philosophy.

Adam­son, a spe­cial­ist in ancient and medieval phi­los­o­phy, high­lights in his lat­est book Phi­los­o­phy in the Islam­ic World just how influ­en­tial cer­tain the­olo­gians and mys­tics from this milieu have been. Asked to sin­gle out one thinker, he names the Per­sian poly­math Avi­cen­na (980‑1037) who invent­ed “prob­a­bly the most influ­en­tial and inter­est­ing medieval attempt to show that God exists”.

Just how influ­en­tial was he?

In the Islam­ic world peo­ple who called them­selves ‘philoso­phers’ at first respond­ed above all to Aris­to­tle,” Adam­son explains. “But once Avi­cen­na came along, doing phi­los­o­phy meant respond­ing to him.”

How did Avicenna ‘prove’ God exists?

The full argu­ment is a bit com­pli­cat­ed, but here is a some­what sim­pli­fied ver­sion. Avicenna’s proof actu­al­ly has noth­ing to do with design, he doesn’t need the idea that the uni­verse is intel­li­gent­ly put togeth­er. Instead, he argues from the idea that the things we see around us are ‘con­tin­gent’ or mere­ly ‘pos­si­ble’.

The idea here is that a con­tin­gent thing is some­thing that may either exist or not exist; its nature does not guar­an­tee that it exists. What Avi­cen­na wants to do is show you that although all the things we expe­ri­ence direct­ly are indeed con­tin­gent, there is also some­thing else that exists nec­es­sar­i­ly, in oth­er words, whose very nature guar­an­tees that it exists.

To do this, Avi­cen­na points out that since a con­tin­gent thing on its own mer­it could either exist or not exist, it must have some exter­nal cause that made it exist — like ‘tip­ping the scales’ in favor of its exis­tence rather than its non-existence.

So take me, for instance. I am con­tin­gent, mean­ing that I am the sort of thing that could eas­i­ly have failed to exist. In fact, at one time I didn’t yet exist, and in the future I will cease exist­ing, that proves I’m not necessary.

So there must have been a cause, maybe my par­ents, who brought me into exis­tence. Now Avi­cen­na observes that the aggre­gate whole of all con­tin­gent things – in oth­er words the phys­i­cal uni­verse – is also con­tin­gent. After all, every­thing in the uni­verse is con­tin­gent, so tak­en all togeth­er as one thing, it too must be con­tin­gent. Thus it also needs an exter­nal cause, just like I do.

Since that exter­nal cause has to be out­side the whole aggre­gate of con­tin­gent things, it can­not itself be con­tin­gent. So it is nec­es­sary. Hey presto, we’ve proven that there is a nec­es­sary exis­tent which caus­es all oth­er things! And this, of course, is God.”

How did this argument mark an advance on theological proofs in the Christian world?

One thing I like about this proof is that it cap­tures, in rig­or­ous terms, a rea­son that I think actu­al­ly under­lies people’s belief in God. Effec­tive­ly, Avi­cen­na is try­ing to show that when you look around and think, ‘All of this could have failed to exist; why is there some­thing, rather than noth­ing?’ you are ask­ing a good question.

The answer to the ques­tion is that not every­thing can be con­tin­gent; that is, not every­thing could have failed to exist. There must be some­thing that just has to exist, to explain why every­thing else has wound up existing.

This con­trasts favourably to oth­er medieval proofs, which turn on clever but uncon­vinc­ing con­cep­tu­al tricks like Anselm’s onto­log­i­cal argu­ment, or do invoke the intel­li­gent design of the uni­verse, which many peo­ple nowa­days think is a premise dis­cred­it­ed by science.”

Philosophical debate in the Islamic world, as you depict it, seems to have been quite robust and at times fearless in previous centuries. Was there a relatively high degree of intellectual freedom then?

There were cer­tain­ly exam­ples of reli­gious and intel­lec­tu­al per­se­cu­tion in the pre-mod­ern Islam­ic world. But it would be fair to say that these were not the norm and that, espe­cial­ly in the ‘clas­si­cal’ or ‘medieval’ peri­od of Islam, philo­soph­i­cal thought was far less con­strained than in con­tem­po­rary Latin Christendom.

We shouldn’t be sur­prised by this, because in sun­ni Islam there is no hier­ar­chi­cal insti­tu­tion like the West­ern Church that could try to enforce ortho­doxy. Rather, there was a class of schol­ars that have reli­gious author­i­ty through their learn­ing, but for the most part these peo­ple weren’t in a posi­tion to enforce what­ev­er they took to be ‘cor­rect belief’.”

As you continue with your project of compiling a history philosophy “without any gaps”, have you discovered any variation between cultures in the acceptance of women philosophers?

I have cov­ered four cul­tures so far in the pod­cast, and in the books based on them: the ancient Greek and Roman world; the Islam­ic world; ancient India (this I have been cov­er­ing with a co-author, Jonar­don Ganeri); and Latin medieval Chris­ten­dom. Of these four, by far the rich­est tra­di­tion for women thinkers is, sur­pris­ing­ly, the last one.

We have a whole series of medieval female authors whose works actu­al­ly sur­vive. The most famous is Hilde­gard of Bin­gen, but there are numer­ous oth­er philoso­pher-mys­tics like Hadewi­jch, Mechthild of Magde­burg, Mar­guerite Porete — who by the way is an exam­ple of a thinker of medieval Europe who was put to death for her teach­ings — and Julian of Nor­wich. ”

Anoth­er par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ure is Chris­tine de Pizan, who lived in the ear­ly Renais­sance and is per­haps the first woman who wrote sur­viv­ing works on a wide range of philo­soph­i­cal top­ics, includ­ing polit­i­cal philosophy.

Back in antiq­ui­ty, the sit­u­a­tion was less favorable.

As for Islam and India, I was dis­ap­point­ed to find that although there were female Mus­lim intel­lec­tu­als — espe­cial­ly reli­gious schol­ars — before the mod­ern era, one is hard pressed to name any women philoso­phers in clas­si­cal Islam beyond cer­tain mys­tics, includ­ing an impor­tant ear­ly one named Rabia.

Ancient India is a fas­ci­nat­ing case. There are texts pre­sent­ing us with wise women in debate with male philoso­phers, as in a cou­ple of pas­sages from the Upan­ishads. It seems this must depict a real phe­nom­e­non, though as with Euro­pean antiq­ui­ty we don’t have many, or per­haps any, sur­viv­ing works that were actu­al­ly writ­ten by women.”