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Page last edited on 22 April, 2003

Groundwork on Islamic Philosophy

Ontological Arguments

Chapters in this essay

Groundwork on Islamic Philosophy

The modern form of the ontological argument in modern western philosophy was made famous by Anselm and Descartes.    The argument rests on the premise that existence is a predicate that a being could have or lack.     A summary of Anselm’s argument is as follows:
P1)  God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.
P2)   A being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist in our thought.
P3)   Either a being than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in thought alone and not in reality or a being than which nothing greater can be conceived exists both in thought and in reality.
P4) If the greatest conceivable being existed in thought alone we could think of
another being existing in both thought and reality.
P4) Existing in thought and reality is greater than existing in thought alone.
C) Therefore: A being than which nothing greater can be conceived (God) exists in thought and in reality.

Simply by pure reason, without any reference to the world, Anselm argues for God.    A key feature of this these kind of arguments is that they try to show not only that God exists, but that he necessarily exists.   That is, He cannot, not exist.   The existence of God is an essential feature of its being just like the angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees.   It would be impossible to think of God without it existing.   Descartes writes,
From the fact that I cannot think of a mountain without a valley, it does not follow that a mountain and a valley exist anywhere, but simply that a mountain and a valley, whether they exist or not are mutually inseparable. But from the fact that I cannot think of God except as existing, it follows that existence is inseparable from God.

 Hence, the very essence of God, to even make the concept of God intelligible it must exist.     This argument has been widely criticized.

Kant criticized the argument from two perspectives.   First he points out that, although, the concept that all three sides of the triangle add up to 180 is an analytical concept, there is still nothing that shows that it must exist.   Similarly the idea that existence analytically belongs to the concept of God is an illegitimate inference.  He writes,
To posit a triangle, and yet to reject its three angles, is self-contradictory; but there is no self-contradiction in rejecting the triangle together with its three angles.  The same holds true of the concept of an absolutely necessary being.   (Kant 3:4)

Secondly, he rejects Descartes argument on the grounds that existence is not a predicate that can be added or taken away from a concept.    That is, existence is not like any of the other properties that are associated with ‘things.’     To say that something exists, is simply to say that the concept is instantiated in the world.     He claims this on the basis of his distinction between analytic and synthetic statements.
An analytic statement is one of the kind, “all bachelors are unmarried males,” or “the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180.”    In these statements the predicates, “unmarried males” or “sum of angles is 180” does not add any new information to the concept of “bachelors” or “triangle.”   Analytic statements are true by virtue of their meaning alone.

A synthetic statement is something that adds more information about the object in question.    For example, “all ravens are black,” is synthetic.  The predicate “are black” tells us more information about the subject “ravens.”    Kant’s claim is that statements of the sort, “X exists” are analytic.   It does not add anything additional to the concept.   Hence the inference that existing in reality is greater than existence in thought alone is false.     The reductio ad absurdum from pure thought to God, of Anselm and Descartes thus fails according to Kant.

The closest form of parallel thought to this can be found in the thought of Avicenna (981 – 1037 CE).   He also shared Descartes methodological doubt and proposed a somewhat similar ontological argument for the existence of God. (Shiekh 77).    Avicenna also propounded that God is a necessary being, however, his argument unlike Descartes is not a purely rational one.    Avicenna believed that we possess a direct intuitive apprehension of the reality and existence of this necessary being.   He believed that it would be impossible to think concretely without the existence of such a being.    Averroes, however, insists that there can be no rational proof for God’s existence and it can only be grasped via the medium of intuition.

The God that Avicenna argues for is a Necessary Being.    A being that necessarily exists, and everything else besides it is contingent and depends upon it for its existence.   God has no other essence besides his existence.  His essence (mahiyah: quidditas), just is His existence.    Since, God is the only being in which the essence and existence are to be found together, the essence of all other beings precedes their existence.   Thus He is absolutely simple, and no has no further attributes.  (Sharif  501)

In his book al-Shifa Avicenna explains that since the Necessary Being has no genus or differentia it is both indefinable and indemonstrable.   As such “neither its being or its actions can be an object of discursive thought, since it is without cause, quality, position or time.” (Fakhry 153-154)  All other entities do not exist necessarily or essentially, rather they are merely contingent beings (per accidens).   The characteristics of God offered by Avicenna drew major criticisms from the contemporary Muslim orthodoxy, who found his definition incompatible with Islamic doctrine.   “not a particle remains hidden from God in the heavens or on the earth.”  (Quran)  How can God be omniscient if He has no attributes.   He does try to explain, however, how his description would be compatible with God having knowledge of the world.   In knowing Himself, God is capable of knowing everything that emanated from Him.   Since God does not have sense-perceptual knowledge He cannot know the particulars, but rather only the essences or universal principles.   But according to Avicenna this does not exclude him knowing the specifics of any given event.   Knowing all the antecedents and consequences in the causal chain, allows God to place the event temporally and differentiate it from all other events.    Hence, his theory does not preclude God’s knowledge of the specifics.    Al-Ghazzali was not satisfied with this account and criticized Avvicenna stating that the theory being presented would not allow for change in divine knowledge with the introduction of the time factor.   (Sharif 502)

Another important characteristic of Avicenna’s ontology was the fact that he believed that the universe is eternal.   This was another belief, which was not acceptable to the Islamic orthodoxy.   He thought the creative ability of God was linked to His intellectual nature and thus flowed eternally of rational necessity from Him.    Although the universe exists as an independent body, its existence is still contingent upon God.   God and the world are different, but the existence of the world depends upon God.   This can be seen as refinement, or rather ‘islamization’ of the Aristotelian view that God and the universe were two distinct beings which did not interact with each other.

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Last updated on 22 April, 2003

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