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 XI
Refutation of those philosophers who hold that God knows the other, and that He knows the species and genera in a universal manner


We say:

To Muslims, the division of Being into temporal and eternal being is an exhaustive division. And in their view, nothing is eternal, except God and His attributes; for everything else has a beginning in time under the influence of God, and because of His, will. From these opinions, belief in God's knowledge follows as what they consider to be a necessary conclusion. For the object of will is of necessity known to the willer. From this they further conclude that the Universe is known to Him; for it is willed by Him, and owes its origin to His will. All that is, originates from His will. And once it is proved that He is the willer and the knower of what he wills, it is evident that He must also be called the Living. And every living being who knows the Other must a forrsori have self-knowledge. Thus, the Universe becomes in the Muslims' view an object of God's knowledge. And it is possible for them to adopt this theory since they have clearly seen that God is the willer of the origin of the world in time.

But you have asserted that the world is eternal, and that it never originated because of God's will. How, therefore, do you know that He has knowledge of what is other than Himself? You must produce an argument to prove the point.

(The gist of Ibn Sina's elaborate treatment of this problem, as set forth in various parts of his philosophy, can be reduced to the two following theses:)




In the first place, he says

God is a being not-in-Matter. Every being not-in-Matter is pure intelligence. Every pure intelligence has all intelligibles laid bare unto it; for it is the relation to Matter, and the occupation with it, which is the impediment in the way of the apprehension of things. Man's soul is occupied with the direction of Matter i.e., body. When death brings its occupation to an end, and if it has not been contaminated by carnal appetites and ignoble attributes (which might come to it like an infection from the physical things), the realities of all the intelligibles are laid bare unto it as well. For the same reason, it is so decreed that all the angels know all the intelligibles, without a single exception; because they also are pure intelligences not-in-Matter.


We will say:

If by saying that God is a being not-in-Matter you mean that He is neither body, nor impressed upon body, but subsists by Himself, without location or a definite dimension, all this is indisputable. But there remains your assertion that he who has this attribute is a pure intelligence. Now, what do you mean by intelligence? If you mean something which knows all things, that is the very point at issue between us. How did you include it among the premises of the syllogism which would give you the desired conclusion? If, however, you mean something else (e.g., that, as an intelligence, He knows Himself), then that will be a position which your brethren among the philosophers might concede to you. But the conclusion at which you aim is that he who knows himself also knows the Other. So it will be said to you: "Why do you make this assertion? It is not a self-evident truth. Of all the philosophers, Ibn Sina alone holds this view." How, therefore, can you claim that it is a self-evident fact? If, however, it is a matter of theoretical knowledge, what is the argument to prove it?


If it is said:

Pure intelligence has knowledge of things, because Matter is the impediment in the way of the apprehension of things. Therefore, where there is no Matter, there is no impediment.


we will answer:

We agree that Matter is an impediment, but not that it is the only impediment. Their syllogism, which is a hypothetical syllogism, can be stated as follows

If this were in Matter, it could not know things.

But it is not in Matter.

Therefore, it knows things.

This is an interpellation of the contrary of the antecedent, from which (it is agreed on all hands) the conclusion does not follow necessarily. It is like one's saying

If this were a man, he would be an animal.

But this is not a man.

Therefore, he is not an animal.

Here the conclusion does not follow; for if not a man, he might yet be a horse and, therefore, an animal. Doubtless, the contrary of the consequent follows as a necessary conclusion from the interpellation of the contrary of the antecedent, when a certain condition mentioned in Logic is fulfilled i.e., when it is proved that the consequent and the antecedent are mutually convertible. And this will be possible only when between themselves they exhaust all the alternatives. For instance, the philosophers say:

If the Sun had risen, it would be daytime. But the Sun has not risen. Therefore, it is not daytime.

Here the conclusion is valid; for sunrise is the only cause of daytime. So the consequent and the antecedent are mutually convertible. (Explanation of these technical terms will be found in the book Standard of Knowledge, which we have written as a supplement to this book.)




(Ibn Sina's second thesis may be stated as follows:)

Although we do not say that God is the willer of the origin of the world, or that the universe originated in time, yet we do say that the universe is His action, and that it was produced by Him. The only point we wish to emphasise is that He never ceased to possess the quality which characterises agents. So He never ceased to be an agent. But beyond this much, we do not disagree with others. And as far as the fundamental question (whether the world is an action of God) is concerned, there is absolutely no disagreement. Since it is agreed on all hands that an agent must have knowledge of his action (we believe in God's knowledge of the universe), for we do consider the universe as His action.


The answer from two points:

Firstly, action is of two kinds: (i) voluntary action viz., the action of a living being; and (ii) natural action e.g., the radiating action of the Sun; the heating action of fire; and the cooling action of water. Now, knowledge of the action is necessary in the case of voluntary action only. (For instance, it is necessary in the arts of man.) But it is not necessary in the case of natural action. But according to you

The world is an action of God, following as a necessary consequence from His essence-by nature, or through constraint: not by way of will and choice. So the universe necessarily proceeds from His essence, as light necessarily proceeds from the Sun. And as the Sun has no power to withhold the light, or as fire has no power to withhold the heat, so God has no power to withhold His actions.

(May He be exalted far above what the philosophers say of Him!) Even if it is found permissible to call this sort of thing an action, still it will not require any knowledge on the part of its 'agent.'


If it is said:

Between the two things, there is a difference. The universe proceeds from His essence, because of His knowledge of the universe. The ideal representation of the universal system is the cause of the emanation of the universe. The principle of the universe is His knowledge of the universe. And His knowledge of the universe is identical with Himself. If He did not have the knowledge of the universe, the universe could not be produced which is not true of the emanation of light from the Sun.


we will answer:

On this point, your brethren disagree with you. They say that the existence of the universe necessarily follows from His essence in an order which is determined by nature and constraint, and which does not require that He be a knower. What absurdity do you find in this position? If you agree with the other philosophers in denying will, and if you do not say that the Sun's knowledge of light should be a condition for the emanation of light from the Sun (asserting, on the contrary, that light necessarily follows from the Sun), then the same explanation must be extended to God's knowledge. For nothing can prevent you from doing so.

Secondly, even if it is granted that the procession of something from an agent requires the knowledge by him of that which proceeds, yet God's action is, according to the philosophers, one viz., the first effect which is a simple intelligence. It follows that He should not know any thing except it. Similarly, the first effect should know only that which proceeds from it. The universe has not been produced by God all at once. On the contrary, it came through intermediaries and indirectly connected developments and consequences. Therefore, that which proceeds from something which proceeds from God may not necessarily be known to Him. And from Him only one proceeds!

Knowledge is not necessary in the case of the indirect consequences of volitional action; how can it be so in the case of the indirect consequences of natural action? For instance, the movement of a stone from the top of a hill, which often has a volitional cause, necessitates the knowledge of the original movement; but it cannot necessitate the knowledge of the after-effects of that movement i.e. developments for which the movement served as an intermediary, e.g the stone's falling upon other things, and breaking them.

And to this, the philosophers have no answer.


If it is said:

Were we to judge that He knows nothing but Himself, it would be extremely disgraceful. For the Other knows itself and God and other things. Therefore, it would stand above Him in order of nobility. But how can the effect be nobler than the cause?


we will answer:

This disgraceful element is a necessary consequence of the trend of philosophy i.e., the trend towards the denial of the Divine will, and the denial of the beginning of the world. Therefore, you must adhere to it, as all other philosophers have done. Otherwise, it would be necessary for you to give up philosophy, admitting that the world owes its origin to the Divine will.

Further, it must be said to Ibn Sina: How would you disprove those philosophers who said that greater knowledge does not indicate greater nobility? Since man is by nature imperfect, he needs knowledge in order to be perfected by it. He ennobles himself by the knowledge of the intelligibles either to discover what is salutary for him in this world or the Hereafter; or to perfect his dark and imperfect nature. The same is true of all other creatures. But the Divine being needs no effort for perfection. If we can suppose that He will derive perfection from knowledge, we shall make His essence, qua essence, imperfect. And this is like what you have said concerning hearing, seeing and the knowledge of the particulars which fall under Time. You agree with all other philosophers in saying that God is free from these things that the changeable things (which fall under Time, and which are divided into 'Was' and 'Will be') are not known to Him; and that the knowledge of the changeable things if it were possible in His case would necessitate mutability and receptivity in Him. Now, the denial of this in His case does not prove imperfection, but perfection. Imperfection lies only in the senses, and in the need for them. If man were not imperfect, he would not need the senses in order to guard himself against what makes him amenable to changes. Similarly, you assert, the knowledge of particular temporal events indicates imperfection. So if we know all the temporal events, and perceive all the sensible things, while God knows no particulars, and perceives no sensible things, and if His not knowing the particulars proves no imperfection on His part, it follows that the knowledge of the intelligible universals should also be affirmed only in the case of other beings than the Divine. And His freedom from the knowledge of the intelligible universals would prove no imperfection any more than the absence of the knowledge of the particulars did. And there is no way out of this difficulty.


Table of Contents