Tahafut al-Falasifa

(Incoherence of the Philosophers)


Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE)

Translated into English from Urdu Translation by Sabih Ahmad Kamali


Problem II
Refutation of their belief in the evelasting nature of the world, time, and nature


LET it be known that this problem is a corollary of the preceding one. For as the philosophers consider the world to be eternal — i.e., without a beginning in time — so do they consider it to be everlasting — i.e., never coming to an end. (They say that) its corruption or annihilation is impossible; and that it always was, and ever will be, as it is.

The four arguments they advanced to prove the eternity of the world apply to its everlasting nature as well. And the same objections will be taken to them as have been taken before.

They say that the world, as an effect whose Cause is eternal and everlasting, must be together with the Cause; and that since the Cause is unchangeable, the effect cannot change either. This is the basis for their denial of a beginning (of the world); and this very argument is applicable to the end (of the world). This is the first line of thought they take in this problem.

In the second place, they say that if the world passes away, its non-being will be after its being. Thus it will have an 'after'; wherein lies the affirmation of time.

In, the third place, they say that the possibility of existence never ceases. Therefore, it is proper that the possible being should be (unceasing) in agreement with the possibility. [But this argument is not cogent. For we consider the eternity of the world to be impossible; but not its everlasting nature — if God (exalted be He) grants it an everlasting existence. It is not necessary for something which has a beginning in time to have an end; while it is necessary for an action to be originated and have a begin­ning in time. No one, except Abu Hudhayl al-'Allaf, has laid it down as a necessary condition that the world should come to an end. Said he: As an infinite number of spherical revolutions in the past is impossible, so is it in future. But this is wrong; for the whole of the future does not enter into existence, either concurrently or successively; while the past has entered into existence successively, although not by concurrence. Since now it is clear that we do not find from the rational point of view any impossibility in the supposition of the everlasting existence of the world, and that, on the contrary, we consider its perpetuation as possible as its annihilation, the knowledge as to which one of the two possibilities will actually happen is to be derived from the Sacred Law, for it has nothing to do with theoretical investigation.]

Their fourth argument is allied to the third one which we considered above. For they say: When the world passes away, the possibility of the existence must still remain, for that which is possible can never become impossible. But possibility is a relative attribute. And (they claim) everything which is in time needs a preceding Matter; hence everything which passes away must also need a Matter out of which to pass away. This shows that the Matters and the Roots do not perish; it is only the Forms and the Accidents subsisting in them which perish.

The reply to all this has been stated earlier. However, we put this problem in a separate place, because they have two new arguments.



The first argument is the one adopted by Galen. Said he: If the Sun were liable to annihilation, signs of decay in it would be visible in course of time. But the astronomical observation of its size has for thousands of years revealed the same quantity. If, therefore, it has not decayed through these long ages, it follows that it is incorruptible.


Objection to this argument from several points

The syllogistic form of this argument would be:


If the Sun were corruptible, decay should befall it.


But the consequent is impossible.


Therefore, the antecedent is impossible.

This is what they call a hypothetical conjunctive syllogism. Here the conclusion does not follow; for the antecedent is not true — unless a new condition were added to it, viz., the assertion that if the Sun were corruptible, decay would be inevitable. So this consequent does not follow from this antecedent, without the addition of a condition, such as the assertion that if the Sun were liable to corruption by  decay, then decay would be inevitable, or it must be shown that decay is the only way in which corruption takes place. For only then would the consequent necessarily follow from the antecedent. And we do not admit that decay is the only way in which things are corrupted. On the other hand, decay is one of the ways in which corruption takes place. And it is not improbable that even in the state of perfection something should be overtaken by corruption all of a sudden.

Secondly, even if it is granted that there is no corruption without decay, how did Galen know that decay has not befallen the Sun? His reference to astronomical observation is absurd. For quantities discovered by astronomical observation are only approximate. If the Sun, which is said to be one hundred and seventy times as big as the Earth, or any other thing of the same size as the Sun loses as much as a range of hills, the loss cannot be apparent to the senses. So it may be assumed that the Sun is in decay, and that so far it has lost as much as a range of hills, or a little. more; and that the human senses cannot perceive this loss, for in sciences which depend on observation quantities are known only approximately. This may be illustrated. The philosophers tell us that gold and sapphire are composed of elements and are, therefore, liable to corruption. But if a sapphire is kept for a hundred years, the senses will not be able to perceive the diminution it has suffered. Therefore, the loss suffered by the Sun during the entire history of astronomical observation may be compared to that suffered by a sapphire in a century. In neither case is the loss or decay apparent to the senses. Hence the utter unsoundness of Galen's argument.

We have ignored many other arguments of this kind; for intelligent people laugh at such things. This one was mentioned here only to serve as an example of what we have passed over. And this is the reason why we proposed to confine our attention to the four arguments which, as already has been seen, require some ingenuity in order that we may solve the doubts raised by them.



In their second argument for the impossibility of the annihilation of the world, the philosophers say:

The substances in the world are imperishable. For no cause of their annihilation will be intelligible. If that which has not been non-existent becomes so there must be a cause of this change. Such a cause will either be the will of the Eternal. But this is impossible. For if not having been the Willer of the non­existence of the world, He becomes one, He undergoes a change. Or it will lead to the conclusion that the Eternal and His will continue uniform in all states, but the object of the will nevertheless changes — first from non-existence to existence, and then from existence to non-existence.

Thus, the argument we had advanced to prove the impossibility of the origination of something in time because of the eternal will also proves the impossibility of its passing into non-existence.

Besides, there is another difficulty which is even more formidable. Namely, the object of the will is obviously the action of the willer. Now, even if he who was not an agent, but became one later, does not change in himself, yet it is necessary that his action should become an existent after not having been one. For if the agent remains as he was at the time when he had not effected an action — viz., even if at present he has no action — then he will have done nothing. And non-existence is Nothing. How, then, can it be an action? Suppose He annihilates the world, whereby an action which had not been done before emerges. What can this action be? Is it the existence of the world? Impossible, for existence has come to an end. Is it the non-existence of the world? No, for non-existence is Nothing; hence it cannot be an action. To be an existent is the least degree of an action. But the non-existence of the world is no existent; hence it cannot be said to be effected by an agent, or produced by a producer.

This difficulty (claim the philosophers) has divided the Mutakallimun into four groups, each attempting the impossible by trying to solve it:

(a) The Mu'tazilah say: The action which proceeds from Him is an existent — viz., Annihilation, which is created by Him not in a substratum. So the whole world will perish all of a sudden. And the created Annihilation itself will perish, so that there will be no need for another Annihilation, which would start an infinite regress.

But this is false for several reasons. Firstly, Annihilation is no intelligible existent whose creation could be supposed. Secondly, if it were an existent, it would not perish by itself, without any cause of annihilation. Thirdly, even on this assumption the world does not perish. For if Annihilation is supposed to be created within the world itself, the whole supposition will be absurd. For the substratum and that which subsists in it come into contact. and, therefore, coexist — though only for an instant. If, therefore, the world and Annihilation could be supposed to coexist, they would not be mutually exclusive: and then the world would not be annihilated. But if Annihilation is created neither within the world nor in any other substratum, how then can the existence of the one exclude that of the other?

Further, this view is obnoxious for another reason. It implies that God has not the power to annihilate some of the substances of the world, and allow others to survive. Nay, it is implied here that He has not the power to do any thing, except to create Annihilation which is to annihilate the whole world at once — for not being in a particular substratum, it is brought to bear upon the whole simultaneously and indiscriminately.

(b) The Karramiyah say: Destruction is an action of God, which (action) signifies an existent originated within the Divine essence (may He be exalted above what is said of Him). Thus, the world becomes non-existent through this action. Similarly, existence is the result of an act of production which occurs in His Essence, and because of which the existent becomes an existent.

This is also false. In the first place, it makes the Eternal subject to temporal phenomena. Further, it goes outside the scope of intelligible reality, for b production is understood a being which can be ascribed to will and power. To affirm any thing else besides will, power and the being to which power extends — viz., the world is unintelligible. The same is true of destruction.

(c) The Ash'ariyah say: The Accidents perish by themselves, and their immortality is inconceivable. For if it were conceivable, their annihilation would be inconceivable in that sense. As regards the Substances, they are not immortal in themselves, but because of an immortality which is additional to their being. So when God does not create immortality for them, the Substances will perish because of the absence of that which would make them immortal.

This is also false: because it comes into conflict with the sensible facts, inasmuch as it implies that blackness or whiteness does not survive and continue, but has its being renewed ever and anon. The Intellect rejects this assertion, as it would reject the assertion that body has its being renewed ever and anon. For the Intellect, which judges that the hair on the head of a man today is the same hair as, and not merely similar to, the hair which was. there yesterday, makes the same judgment in regard to the blackness of the hair.

There is yet another difficulty in this theory. For if that which survives does so because of a (derived) immortality, it follows that the Divine attributes should likewise continue because of a (derived) immortality: that this immortality should need another immortality to immortalize it, and that, therefore, an infinite regress should follow.

(d) Another section of the Ash'ariyah say: The Accidents perish themselves: but the Substances perish when God would not create in them motion or rest, etc. When it has nothing of the sort, it perishes.

It appears that both the groups among the Ash'ariyah incline towards the view that destruction is not an action, but a refraining from action: for they do not find it intelligible to regard non-existence as an action.

Since all these methods of explaining the destruction of the world have been found to be invalid, there is no ground left for anyone to believe in the possibility of the destruction of the world.

This criticism applies when the world is admitted to have originated in time. For, although they admit the temporal origin of the human souls, still they assert the impossibility of their destruction, basing the argument on the same principles as we have related above. In short, the position taken by them is : The annihilation of anything — whether eternal or originated in time — which exists in itself, not in a substratum, is impossible. If one says to them: "When fire burns under water, water is destroyed, they will answer It is not destroyed. It only changes into steam. Later on, steam will change into water once again. Matter, i.e., the Hayuli, persists in Air. It is the same Matter as was there beneath the Form of water. Now the Hayuli has put on the Form of Air, having divested itself of the Form of water. When the air is cooled, it will condense, and water will re­appear. Matter does not emerge anew (during these changes). On the contrary, the Matters are common to all the Elements. It is only the Forms passing over them in succession which change.


The answer:

We might possibly defend all the classes of the Mutakallimun mentioned by you, and demonstrate that inasmuch as your fundamental postulates include much like what is to be found there, it is unjust on your part to criticize them. But we prefer brevity, and will confine our attention to only one of these classes. Thus, we will say: How can you disprove one who says that production and destruction are the effects of the will of the Omnipotent? So when God wills, He produces: and when He wills, He destroys. And this is what His being the Omnipotent par excellence means. And in the course of all these activities He Himself never changes: it is only the action which changes. As regards your objection: "It is necessary that an action should proceed from an agent. What proceeds from God?" we will reply that that which proceeds from Him is what has newly emerged, viz., non-existence. For there was no non-existence before the action. Since it newly emerges, it is that which proceeds from Him.


If you say:

Non-existence is nothing. How can it proceed?


we will answer:

Being nothing, how did it happen at all? Its proceeding from God only means that that which happens is to be related to His power. If its happening is intelligible, why should its relation to power not be intelligible? And what is the difference between them and one who absolutely denies the occurrence of non-existence to Accidents and Forms, saying that since non-existence is nothing, it cannot occur, and occurrence and emergence cannot be predicated of it? For our part, we never doubt that the occurrence of non-existence to Accidents is conceivable. Therefore, that of which the occurrence can be predicated can also intelligibly happen, regardless of whether it is called a thing, or not. And, finally, the relation of this intelligible occurrence to the power of the Omnipotent is also intelligible.


If it is said:

This objection may be taken to the position of a man who thinks that the non-existence of a thing after its existence is possible, Such an one might be called upon to explain what it is that occurs. But in our view it is impossible that any existent should cease to exist. To us, the non-existence of Accidents means the occurrence of their contraries, which are themselves existents. It does not mean the occurrence of abstract non-existence which is Nothing. How can occurrence be predicated of that which is nothing? If the hair whitens, it is whiteness which occurs. And that is all. And whiteness is an existent. We would not say that that which has occurred is the non­existence of blackness.


This is false for two reasons

Firstly, does the occurrence of whiteness include the non-existence of blackness, or not? If they say No, they will be opposed to intelligible reality. If they say Yes, is that which includes other than that which is included, or identical with it? If they say that it is identical, it will be a self-contradiction: for nothing includes itself. But if they say that it is other, then is this 'other' intelligible, or not? If they say No, we will answer: How, then, do you know that it is included? The judgment about its being included is an admission of its being intelligible. But if they say Yes, then is this intelligible included one — namely, the non-existence of blackness — eternal, or originated in time? If they call it eternal, it will be absurd. But if they call it originated, how can that of which a temporal origin is affirmed not be intelligible? If they say that it is neither eternal nor originated in time, it will be absurd. For if before the occurrence of whiteness it were to be said that blackness is non-existent, it would be false. If after the occurrence of whiteness it is said to be non-existent, it is true. So, obviously, it has occurred. And this occurrence is intelligible. Therefore, it is reasonable to ascribe it to the power of the Omnipotent.

Secondly, there are some accidents which, even accord­ing to them, perish not-by-their-contraries. Thus, motion has no contrary. The antithesis between motion and rest is the antithesis between possession, and non-possession, i.e., being and non-being. Rest means the non-existence of motion. So when motion is non-existent, it is not a contrary, viz., rest, which has occurred, but pure non-existence. The same is true of attributes which are to be classed as perfection, e.g., the impression of the image of sensible objects on the vitreous humor of the eye: or the impression of the Form of the ineligibles on the soul. All these represent the commencement of a being, without the disappearance of a contrary. And their becoming non-existent means the loss of a being to which no contrary succeeds. So their disappearance does mean pure non-existence. Hence non-existence comes to occur. And the happening of this occurrence non-existence is intelligible. And that of which the occurrence is in itself intelligible can intelligibly be related to the power of the Omnipotent, even if it were not a 'thing.'

From this it is clear that if the happening of any thing because of the eternal will is conceivable, it makes no difference whether that which happens is existence or non­existence.


Table of Contents