Truth suffers from too much analysis

On Causality by Al-Ghazali

Posted by allzermalmer on December 16, 2011

This blog will be based on one chapter of a book done by  the Arabic philosopher Al-Ghazali. This blog will be derived from the 17th discussion/chapter in his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which is based on the idea of causation. You can also find his take on causality on page 96 of this PDF.

Al-Ghazali was, what can apply, an Islamic philosopher. He eventually took up Sufism, and was also part of the Ash’arites. He went after some of the influential Islamic Philosophers vies like Al-Farabi and Avicenna (Ibn Sina). These two philosophers held a view of necessary causation. And this is where Al-Ghazali brings up the Ash’arite view, and the one used against the idea of Necessary Causation. And the view espoused by the Ash’arites and Al-Ghazli becomes known as Occasionalism.

I will quote some of the arguments and points made by Al-Ghazli in his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers. These quotes will be taken from the PDF given above, and the chapter starts on page. 96 with the title of “Refutation of their belie 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…or any other set of events observed to be connected together…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…”

This is the stated view of Al-Ghazli and the Ash’arite. Now some of the philosophers who believe in necessary connection, of those times, might give a certain refutation or questioning of what Al-Ghazli stated. So Al-Ghazali will give an example of what he is talking about with causality, and how certain objections might be presented. Al-Ghazali uses the example of fire and cotton, (in distinction from David Hume’s example with billiard balls.)

“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 [the philosophers] reject this possibility.”

Now there are three objections that can be presented. The first thing, possibly, raised by someone who holds into necessary causation, could be along these lines: Fire is, by itself, the agent of burning. It is by it’s very nature to take part of burning, and it cannot refrain from doing it because it does it not by choice. When it comes into contact with a something that is receptive to it, an effect follows necessarily. But Al-Ghazali has a response to something along these lines.

“We say 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 of 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 causes than it.”

There could be an objection to this, by the philosophers. But they might accept a part of the argument, but have their own twist to it. They will accept that we observe one with the other, not that it is by it and has no other cause. They would say something along these lines: This is not That, but both of them have their own capacities which allow us to distinguish one from the other. We can take the example of how one things softens under the sun and another hardens under the sun. This is because They are different receptive capacities in these objects, and they necessarily respond like This and like That out of the necessity of their capacity when acted upon by another certain capacity.

Al-Ghazali, in a previous section of the Incoherence of the Philosophers, he refutes the idea of the capacity of things that they must necessarily act in a certain, and he references back to that previous refutation. That is a long argument in itself, and shall be skipped over here.

There is another objection the Philosophers could raise: Now that you deny necessary causation, and replace it with contingent causation, this would mean that anything could happen at any moment. For example, you could drop the ball from your hand and it would go shooting up into the sky and outer space. It could turn into an elephant and crush your hand, and other logically possible things like this. This would mean that God has no well-defined course in which He brings things about, and that what God brings together as cause and effect would be arbitrary.And Al-Ghazali responds.

“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.”

“Now, if in extraordinary 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.”

Al-Ghazali goes on further to meet the criticism of the philosophers, and this is a partial response to the criticism of the capacities of things, which is suppose to be part of their necessary connection.

“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.”

“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?”

Now the philosophers might agree that God’s power extends to all that is possible and  that no power extends to that which is impossible. Everything has been divided into three kinds. [1.] an impossibility that is known; [b.] the possibility that is known; and [c.] those things we are hesitant in affirming their possibility or their impossibility. So what does Al-Ghazali mean by “impossibility”? Would it be a combination of affirmation and negation in the same thin, then say those two things don’t presuppose the existence of the other.

For example, it seems that Al-Ghazali is saying that (a.) God has the power to create will without knowledge of the object of will; (b.) God has the power to cause movement of a dead man’s hand to look like they are alive and write a book while holding a conversation with you; (c.) or God could cause a body to move when the person is not alive and in the body and etc. The problem becomes that when these things are possible, all distiniction between voluntary and spasmodic movements are gone. “No controlled action will be an indication of knowledge or power on the part of the agent.” This, indirectly, points out the problem of Other Minds. We could say, with the problem of the “dead man” moving looking like they’re alive, that we can’t tell if their conscious like us or if they’re just machines/zombies without consciousness like us.

Al-Ghazali responds to their point in this manner, but first responds to what he takes to be “impossible”.

“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.”

“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 new-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.”

“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 outcomes 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 Rob becoming a serpent, or of dust becoming an animal. But between the Substance and the Accident there is no common Matter.”

This is a response to point (b.), which is about the person that we took to be dad looking like they’re alive and writting a book and talking with us.

“…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 is 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.”

Now Al-Ghazli has a response to point (c.), which is based on us not being able to tell the difference between voluntary and spasmodic movements. And this point also deals with the Problem of Other Minds.

“As regards your statement that thee 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 alternative.”

And such is part of Al-Ghazli’s view on causality, or more specifically, Efficent Causation. His position touched on problem of Other Minds, Things continuing as they have before (Uniformity of Events), Change in things to keep uniformity of Matter, and God is the cause of all events.


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