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Page last edited on 22 April, 2003

Groundwork on Islamic Philosophy

Cosmological Arguments

Chapters in this essay

Groundwork on Islamic Philosophy

The cosmological argument was first introduced by Aristotle and later refined in western Europe by the celebrated Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas  (d.1274 CE).

In the Islamic tradition, it was adopted by Al-Kindi, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes).  The argument has several forms, the basic first-cause argument runs as follows.

Every event must have a cause, and each cause must in turn have its own cause, and so forth.    Hence, there must either be an infinite regress of causes or there must be a starting point or first cause.  Aquinas and Al-Kindi reject the notion of an infinite regress and insist that there must be a first cause, and the first cause must be God, the only uncaused being.

Another form of this argument is based on the concept of a prime-mover.   This is the Aristotelian form of the argument also propounded by Averroes.  The premise being that, every motion must be caused by another motion, and the earlier motion must in turn be a result of another motion and so on.   The conclusion thus follows that there must be an initial prime-mover, a mover that could cause motion without any other mover.

Two kinds of Islamic perspectives maybe considered with regard to the cosmological argument.   An positive Aristotelian response strongly supporting the argument and a negative response which is quite critical of it.   Among the Aristotelian thinkers are Al-Kindi, and Averroes.   Al-Ghazzali and Iqbal maybe seen as being in opposition to this sort of an argument.
Al-Kindi is one of the many major and first Islamic philosophers who attempt to introduce an argument for the existence of God based upon purely empirical premises.  In fact, his chief contribution is the cosmological argument (dalil al-huduth) for the existence of God, in his On First Philosophy. (Nasr 168)   He presents four different versions of this argument, all are variation of the cosmological argument which require a cause.
One of the arguments revolves around the principle of determination (tarjjih), that is prior to the existence of the universe it was equally likely for it to exist or not to exist.  The fact that it exists, implies that it required a determining principle which would cause its existence to prevail over non-existence.   This principle of determination is God.  (Kindi 58)  This is similar to Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason (Russell 568) (Cassierer 73)   Leibniz argues that everything in the world is contingent that it may or may not have existed.     Something will not exist unless there is a reason for its existence.    This rests on his premise that the actual world is the best possible world, as such we can account for everything in it as being there for a specific reason.  But the universe as a whole, requires a further reason for existence, and that reason for Liebniz is God.   It should be noted that Liebniz’ theory of the best possible world is flawed.    We can conceive of a better world than any possible ‘best’ world that can be created.   An additional unit of pleasure or goodness can be added to it to make it better.  Therefore, it seems implausible to think that a ‘best possible world’ could ever exist.

There are difficulties with this kind of an account of the universe.   It seems to lead to the conclusion that all truths are necessary.   That is, if everything exists because the reasons for its existence supercede the reasons for it non-existence, then it will necessarily exist.   Everything and anything with a sufficient reason to exist will exist.  

Therefore, the universe and everything in it, must necessarily exist.   Since, the superiority of its potential existence over its non-existence provides the required determining principle (of Kindi) or sufficient reason (of Liebniz), for it to exist.    It appears now that the bringing into being of the universe is not contingent upon the will of God, rather it is something that is as necessary as the existence of God Himself.   This seems implausible. In response Liebniz argues that its existence is only theoretically necessary and God may or may not implement it.   However, if God is all good, He would clearly be obliged to bring into being the best possible world.   (Sosa 515).

A second argument of his draws its inspiration from Islamic and Aristotelian sciences.  He argues that only God is indivisible, and everything other than God is in some way composite or multiple.   Kindi describes his concept of God,
He has no matter, no form, no quantity, no quality, no relation; nor is He qualified by any of the remaining categories (al-maqulat).  He has no genus, no differentia, no species, no proprium, no accident.  He is immutable… He is, therefore, absolute oneness, nothing but oneness (wahdah).  Everything else must be multiple.   (Sharif 429)

This for Kindi was a crucial distinction upon which he rested some of his main arguments for God’s existence. In Kindi’s theory only God’s oneness is necessary whereas that of all others is contingent upon God.  Hence all other beings single or multiple must emanate from the ultimate essential being.   In addition this first being must be uncaused, since it is the cause of everything else.  (Fakhry 78)

The material world cannot exist ad infinitum because of the impossibility of an actual infinite (a concept borrowed from Aristotle).   The material world can also not be eo ipso eternal, because of the impossibility of an infinite duration of time, since the existence of time is contingent upon the existence of bodies and motion, which have been shown to be finite.   As such the world requires a creator, or rather a generator (mudhith) in Kindi’s scheme, who could generate the world ex nihilo.    (Fakhry 74-79)

The other arguments he presents are similar versions of the first cause argument, and hence are subject to the same criticisms that apply to any cosmological argument.   These criticisms come not only from western scholars but also Islamic ones.    Ghazzali is unconvinced by the first-cause arguments of Kindi.   In response to them he writes,
According to the hypothesis under consideration, it has been established that all the beings in the world have a cause.  Now, let the cause itself have a cause, and the cause of the cause have yet another cause, and so on ad infinitum.  It does not behoove you to say that an infinite regress of causes is impossible.   (Tahafut 90-91)

Ghazzali thought that it is at least theoretically possible for there to be an infinite regress, and that there is nothing that necessitates a first-cause simply by pure deductive reason.   He thus undermines one of the essential premises of the first-cause argument.

Muhammad Iqbal also rejects the argument stating, “Logically speaking, then, the movement from the finite to the infinite as embodied in the cosmological argument is quite illegitimate; and the argument fails in toto.”   For Iqbal the concept of the first uncaused cause is absurd, he continues:
It is, however, obvious that a finite effect can give only a finite cause, or at most an infinite series of such causes.  To finish the series at a certain point, and to elevate one member of the series to the dignity of an  un-caused first cause, is to set at naught the very law of causation on which the whole argument proceeds.

It is for these reasons that modern philosophers almost unanimously reject the cosmological argument as a legitimate proof for the existence of God.  Kant for example also rejects any cosmological proof on the grounds that it is nothing more than an ontological proof in disguise.  He argued that any necessary object’s essence must involve existence, hence reason alone can define such a being, and the argument becomes quite similar to the ontological one in form, devoid of any empirical premises.

Al-Kindi’s argument has been taken up by some contemporary western philosophers and dubbed the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  Kalam being the Islamic science of dialectical reasoning.   Among its chief proponents today is Dr. William Craig.   (Ramey).    It proposes to show, contrary to what Ghazzali thought, that the universe must have necessarily had a beginning.   A contrast is drawn between two concepts, the “potential infinite” and an “actual infinite.”    A potential infinite is a concept of an infinite series, to which more things can be added.   For example, there maybe and infinite number of integers, however in any one set there will be a finite number of them.   An “actual infinite” would be a set which would contain all possible integers.    This would be impossible, since there are an infinite number of integers.   Once a set is defined, another integer can always be found to add to it.    They can never actually exist. Ramey qoutes a famous mathematician David Hilbert:
… the actual infinite is nowhere to be found in reality.  It neither exists in nature nor provides a legitimate basis for rational thought—a remarkable harmony between being and thought…

This forms an essential part of the argument, it demonstrates that an infinite regress could not exist, and that the universe can not possibly be actually infinite, in and of itself.     The argument goes on to show that if the universe could not be actually infinite or eternal, given the principle of causality, it must have a first-cause or creator, which is God.
Now, it maybe argued, that if an actual infinite cannot exist, then how can God exist? Since the concept of God, is one of an uncaused and infinite being.   Al-Kindi’s answer is quite interesting.   He states that it is not fair to ask this question of God, since God is not an “actual infinite.”   God is not a set or collection of things, He is one.    God is an absolute unity, and hence on Al-Kindi’s scheme God should not be thought of as an ‘infinite’   (Fakhry 77).   It is not clear, however, if the Kalam argument successfully shows the impossiblitiy of an infinite, a common response (which is also offered by Avicenna) has been to point out that there is no problem imagining an infinite that begins at the present and continues into the future, so it follows that it is entirely conceivable for the same infinity to continue in the past as well. (Sharif 503).
Contemporary supporters of this argument have reformulated the first-cause argument to take away the difficulty of explaining why an infinite regress would be impossible.   Hicks explains, “they interpret the endless series that it excludes, not as a regress of events back in time, but as an endless and therefore eternally inconclusive regress of explanations.” 

Thus a move is made from an infinite regress of events to an infinite regress of explanations.  That is, if events can be explained with reference to other events there must be an ultimate reality of self-explanatory events behind this complex that would make the collective set comprehendible.    Hence, no longer is a creator being sought, rather given the creation an ultimate reality is being sought which would explain, or make sense of, the complex and plethora of phenomena in the world.  Even here, the non-theistic skeptic will ask what reason do we have to think that the universe is not simply an “unintelligible brute fact”?   (Hick 21).

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Last updated on 22 April, 2003

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