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 IV
To show their inability to prove the existence of the Creator of the world


All men can be divided into two classes


the class of the people of the truth. They hold that the world began in time; and they know by rational necessity that nothing which originates in time originates by itself, and that, therefore, it needs a creator. Therefore, their belief in the Creator is understandable.


the Materialists. They believe that the world, as it is, has always been. Therefore, they do not ascribe it to a creator. Their belief, too, is intelligible — although rational arguments may be advanced to refute it.

But the philosophers believe that the world is eternal. And still they would ascribe it to a creator. This theory is, therefore, even in its original formulation, self-contradictory. There is no need for a refutation of it.


If it is said

When we say that the world has a creator, we do not mean thereby an agent who acts voluntarily, after not having acted, as we observe to be the case with so many kinds of agents, e.g., a tailor, or a weaver, or a builder. On the contrary, we mean thereby the cause of the world, whom we call the First Principle, in the sense that His own being is uncaused, while He is the cause of all other beings. So it is only in this sense that we call the First Principle the Creator. As regards the fact of the uncaused being of such an existent, it can presently be proved by a conclusive argument. The world, we will say, and all the beings therein are either uncaused, or have a cause. If they have a cause, this cause itself will either have a cause, or will be uncaused. And the same will be true of the cause of the cause. Therefore, (a) either the series will go on ad infinitum (which is impossible): or (b) it will come to an end at length. So the ultimate term will be the first cause, whose own being will be uncaused. Let us call this cause the First Principle.

If, however, the world itself is supposed to be uncaused, we already will have found the First Principle. For we do not mean by such Principle any thing other than an uncaused being. And on our hypothesis, such a being will be a necessarily recognisable fact.

Undoubtedly, it is not possible to consider the heavens as the First Principle. For they form a numerous group. And the proof of Divine unity prevents number from being attributed to the First Principle. So the falsehood of the view that the heavens may be the First Principle will be seen from an inquiry into the qualities of the First Principle.

Nor is it possible to say that any one heaven, or any one body, or the Sun, or some other thing of the kind is the First Principle. For all these things are bodies; and a body is composed of Form and Matter. It is not possible that the First Principle should be so composed. And this is known through another inquiry (besides the one into the qualities of the First Principle).

Thus, what we wanted to show was that the existence of an uncaused being is an established fact — established by rational necessity and by general acceptance. It is only with respect to the attributes of such a being that opinions vary.

So this is what we mean by the First Principle.


The answer from two points:

Firstly, it follows as a necessary consequence from the general drift of your thought that the bodies in the world are eternal and uncaused. Your statement that this consequence can be avoided through a 'second inquiry' will be refuted, when we come to the problems of Divine unity and the Divine attributes.

Secondly, — more especially to this problem — it may be said: 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 behove you to say that an infinite regress of causes is impossible. For, we will say, do you know it as a matter of immediate inference necessitated by reason, or through some deductive argument? Now, an argument from rational necessity is not available in this case. And methods of theoretical inquiry were betrayed by you when you admitted the possibility of temporal phenomena which had no beginning. If it is possible that something infinite should come into existence, why should it not be equally possible for it to have some of its parts working as the causes of others, so that on the lower side the series terminates into an ineffective effect, without, however, terminating on the upper side into an uncaused cause? This will be like the Past, which reaches its term in the fleeting 'Now,' but had no beginning. If you assert that the past events are existing neither at present nor in any other state, and that the non-existent cannot be described as limited or unlimited, then you will have to take a similar view of the human souls which have departed from bodies. For, according to you, they do not perish. And the number of the souls existing after their separation from the body is infinite. A sperm is continually generated from a man, and a man from a sperm, and so on indefinitely. Then, the soul of every man who is dead has survived. And this soul is by number different from the soul of those who died before, or after, or together with, this man. If all the souls were by species one, then, according to you, there would exist at any time an unlimited number of souls.


If it is said

Among the souls, there is no connection of one part to another. Nor do they have an order-by nature, or by position. We believe in the impossibility of an unlimited number of beings which have an order, either by position — e.g., bodies, some of which are arranged above others — or by nature — e.g., causes and effects. But this is not so in the case of the souls.


we will answer:

This judgment about (the order by) position cannot be elaborated with any greater validity than its contrary would have been. Why do you believe in the impossibility of one kind of beings infinite in number, and not in that of the other? What is the argument to prove this distinction? And how will you disprove one who says

"These souls which are infinite in number do still have an order. For the existence of some of them is before that of others. For the number of the past days and nights is infinite. And if we suppose the existence of a soul in each day and night in the past, the total by this time would exceed all limits, and would still be arranged in order of existence — i.e., one soul having existed after another."?

As regards the cause, all that can be said is that it is before the effect by nature, as it is said to be above the effect by essence, not in space. If this is not impossible in the case of the real temporal 'before,' it should not be any more im­possible in the case of the essential natural 'before.' What has happened to these philosophers who deny, on the one hand. the possibility of bodies arranged above one another in space ad infinitum: but admit, on the other hand, the possibility of beings existing before one another in time ad infinitum ! Is not this an arbitrary, groundless and unconvincing position?


If it is said:

The conclusive demonstration of the impossibility of an infinite regress of causes is this: Each one of individual causes is either possible in itself, or necessary. If necessary, it will not need a cause. If possible, the Whole (of which it is apart) must be describable in terms of possibility. Now, all that is possible depends on a cause additional to itself. Therefore, the Whole must depend on a cause external to itself (and that is impossible).


we will answer:

The words 'possible' and 'necessary' are vague terms — unless 'necessary' is used for an uncaused being, and 'possible' for one which has a cause. If this is the meaning, we will come back to the point, and say that each individual cause is possible in the sense that it has another cause which is additional to itself, and that the Whole is not possible — i.e., it has no cause additional or external to itself. If the word 'possible' means any thing other than the sense we have given to it, that meaning cannot be recognised.


If it is said:

This leads to the conclusion that a necessary being can be made of possible things. But the conclusion is absurd.


we will answer:

If by 'possible' and 'necessary' you mean what we have suggested, then this conclusion is exactly what we seek. And we do not admit that it is absurd. To call it absurd is like one's saying that something eternal made up of temporal events is impossible. To the philosophers, Time is eternal; whereas individual spherical revolutions are temporal. And each individual revolution has a beginning; whereas the aggregate of those revolutions has no beginning. Therefore, that which has no beginning is made of those which have. And the predicate of having a beginning in time is truly applicable to individual revolutions, but not to their aggregate. Similarly, therefore, (in the case of the causes and their aggregate) it will be said that each cause has a cause, but the aggregate of these causes has no cause. For all that can be truly said of the individuals cannot similarly be said of their aggregate. For instance, of each individual it can be said that it is one (of many), or that it is a fraction, or a part (of a whole). But no such thing can be said of the aggregate. Any spot we can specify on the Earth is brightened by the Sun in daytime, and becomes dark by night. And every temporal event originates after not having been — i.e., it has a. beginning in time. But the philosophers would not admit that the aggregate of temporal events can have a beginning.

From this it will be seen that if one admits the possibility of originated things — viz., the forms of the four elements and the changeable things — which have no beginning, then it does not behove one to say that an infinite series of causes is impossible. And this further shows that because of this difficulty the philosophers cannot find their way to affirming the First Principle; and that, therefore, their conception of Him is bound to be an arbitrary notion.


If it is said

The revolutions of the sphere do not (all) exist at present. Nor do the forms of the elements so exist. What actually exists is only one form. And that which has no existence cannot be called finite or infinite — unless its existence should be supposed in the Imagination. That which is supposed in the Imagination is not impossible, even though some of the supposed things are causes of others. For man often supposes these things in his imagination. But here it is the thing existing in reality, not in mind, which we are discussing.

What remains now of the difficulty we had to face is the souls of the dead. Some philosophers have held that, before their connection with the bodies, all the souls are one from eternity, and that, after their separation from the bodies, their unity is restored. So there is no number: let alone the possibility of calling them finite or infinite. Some other philosophers believed that the soul follows the constitution of the body: that death means the non-existence of the soul ; and that by its substance the soul has no character. Therefore, on this view, existence is not attributed to the souls, unless they are the souls of living persons. And the living persons are the actual beings whose number is limited, and to whom finitude is not inapplicable. Those who are non­existent cannot be described at all in terms of finitude or its contrary — except in the Imagination, if they are supposed to exist (there).


The answer

We present this difficulty to Ibn Sina and Farabi and other thinkers who postulate that the soul is a substance which exists in itself. That is also the position adopted by Aristotle and some other authorities in the ancient world. However, to him who would not adhere to this position, we will say: Is it conceivable that something which is imperishable should have come into being? If they say No, it will be an absurd answer; but if they say Yes, we will say: If we suppose that every day such an imperishable thing came into existence to last for ever, obviously, by this time, there should have accumulated an infinite number of such beings. For even if a circular movement were transitory, still the appearance in it of an everlasting being should not be impossible. So by this supposition the difficulty is reinforced. It is irrelevant here whether this everlasting thing is the soul of a man, or a jin, or a devil, or an angel, or any other being you may suppose. For the difficulty will arise, whatever point of view they may have taken. And it will arise because they have posited spherical revolutions which are infinite in number.


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