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 XIX
Refutation of their thesis that, having come into being, the human soul cannot be destroyed; and that their everlasting nature makes it impossible for us to conceive of their destruction


LET us demand their arguments for this thesis. And they have two arguments




In their first argument, they say:

The souls can perish (if they perish at all) because of the following things :

(i) The death of the body; or

(ii) the occurrence of the contrary of the soul which comes to replace it; or

(iii) the power of a powerful agent.

Now, it is false to say that the soul might perish because of the death of the body. For the body is not the substratum of the soul, but only an instrument used by the soul with the intermediation of the faculties which subsist in the body. The corruption of the instrument does not necessitate the corruption of one who uses it — unless the latter were subsisting in, or impressed upon, it, as the animal souls or the bodily faculties are. Because the soul has two actions: one with and the other without the help of this instrument, therefore the action performed with the help of the instrument (namely, imagination, or sensation, or desire, or anger) will undoubtedly undergo corruption or destruction, when the body is corrupted or destroyed. But the other action of the soul (viz., the cognition of the intelligibles divested of Matter) is performed without the help of the body. As far as the soul is cognisant of the intelligibles, it does not need the body at all. On the contrary, its preoccupation with the body diverts its attention from the intelligibles. And since now it is clear that the existence of the soul and one of its two functions are independent of body, it follows that its constitution does not depend on body.

Again, it is false to say that the soul might perish because of the occurrence of its contrary. For the substances have no contraries. The only perishable things in the world are the accidents and forms which pass in succession over Things. The form of water perishes because of the occurrence of its contrary — viz., the form of air. But Matter which is the substratum of these forms is absolutely imperishable. And in the case of a substance, which exists in no substratum, perishing because of the occurrence of a contrary is also inconceivable. For that which is not in a substratum has no contrary, as contraries come to pass in succession over the same substratum.

Finally, it is false to say that the power of a powerful agent might destroy the souls. For non-existence is nothing. Therefore, it is inconceivable that the power of any agent should cause it to eventuate.

(This is exactly what they said in the problem of the everlasting existence of the world. We have settled this question, having dwelt upon it at length.)


Objection to the foregoing may be taken from several points:

In the first place, it is based upon the theory that the death of the body does not cause the death of the soul, because the soul does not subsist in body. That theory is based upon the position taken by the philosophers in the preceding pro­blem. And that position is unacceptable.

Secondly, although they do not consider the soul as subsisting in body, yet it is evident that there is a connection between the soul and body, wherefore a soul does not come into existence unless a body exists. This view has been adopted by Ibn Sina and some other thinkers who searched after the truth through independent inquiry, and who rejected Plato's thesis that the soul is eternal and that its relation to body is accidental. The position taken by these thinkers in their independent inquiry is as follows:

"If the soul was one before the existence of bodies, how did it get divided? The division of that which has no magnitude or quantity is unintelligible. If, however, it is asserted that no division took place, still it will be an absurd assertion. For, evidently, the soul of Zaid is other than that of 'Amr. If the two were one, the cognitions of Zaid would be the cognitions of 'Amr; because knowledge is one of the essential attributes of the soul, and the essential attributes enter into all the relations of the essence. And if the souls form a plurality, what is the cause of plurality? This cause cannot be found in Matters, or places, of times, or attributes; for there is nothing in all these to necessitate a difference of quality among the souls. This is not the same case as that of souls after the death of the body, because in the opinion of one who believes in the immortality of souls, the departed souls do differ in quality, insofar as each acquires from its body a different proclivity. No two souls can have the same proclivity; because proclivities result from the moral character, and like external physiognomy, the moral character can never be the same in any two instances. For if the moral character or the physiognomy of Zaid were the same as that of 'Amr, we would confuse one with the other."

Since it is proved by this argument:

that the soul comes into existence when the sperm enters the womb; that because of its physical constitution the sperm is prepared to receive the soul (which will be its director); and that it does not receive the soul merely because it is just a soul. For two sperm-drops begetting twins may be with — in the same womb and at the same time equally prepared to receive souls. Then two souls emanate — directly or through intermediaries — from the First Principle to be related to the embryonic bodies. Thus the soul of this body cannot be the director of that body, nor the soul of that body the director of this body. This special relation can arise only from a special affinity between a particular soul and a particular body. For otherwise, the body of one of the twins would not be more apt than that of the other to receive this particular soul; because there were two souls which came into existence simultaneously, and there were two sperm­drops equally prepared to be directed by souls.

the question arises: What is the cause of the special affinity between a particular soul and a particular body? If it is a soul's being impressed upon body, then the elimination of the body will eliminate the soul as well. But if there is some other cause to explain the connection between this particular body and this particular soul (so that the connection is a condition for the soul's coming into existence), then how can it be improbable that this very connection should also be a condition for the soul's survival? Therefore, when this connection is severed, the soul will perish. And its existence will not reappear until God (holy and exalted be His name) causes such reappearance by way of the re-infusion or resurgence of life, as religion teaches us in the doctrine of Resurrection.


If it is said:

The connection between the soul and the body results from a natural inclination or instinctive affection created by God in the soul in favour of this particular body. This affection draws the soul towards this, and away from all other bodies. At no time does it leave the soul; but keeps it im­prisoned in the particular body, so that no other body can receive its attention. But this does not make it necessary for the soul to be corrupted by the corruption of the body towards whose direction it has an instinctive affection. Nay, sometimes, this affection remains even after the soul's departure from the body, if in life the soul's preocupation with the body has been strong enough to divert its attention from the abnegation of desires and from the inquiry into the intelligibles. Then this persisting affection causes the soul pain, because the soul has been deprived of the instrument whereby the object of its affection could be attained.

As regards the definite relation between, say, the body. and the soul of Zaid even in the earliest stage of existence, obviously it has a cause whereby the soul and the body are suited to each other. So this body becomes fitter than any other body for this soul because of its exceedingly suitable character. Hence the definite relationship between the soul and the body is determined. But it is beyond the power of man to know the definite character of such instances of mutual fitness. If, however, we fail to discover the details, this cannot shake our belief in the fundamental need for the cause of a definite relation. Nor will it be harmful to our assertion that the soul does not die because of the death of the body.


we will answer:

Since the mutual fitness of body and soul is invisible to us, and because it is this mutual fitness which demands a definite relation, it is therefore not improbable that this un­ascertainable mutual fitness should be of such a kind as to make the immortality of the soul dependent upon the continuance of the body, wherefore the corruption of the body should cause the corruption of the soul. That which is unascertainable affords no ground for the judgment as to whether it demands a necessary interrelation between the soul and body, or not. Maybe, the relation between the soul and body is necessary for the existence of the soul; and the soul will therefore perish when this relation is severed. It is therefore clear that no reliance can be placed upon the argument which has been advanced by the philosophers.

The third objection is that it is not unreasonable to main­tain that the' destruction of the souls may be caused by the power of God (exalted be He) — as we have conclusively shown in the problem of the indestructibility of the world.

The fourth objection is that we do not admit that the — three ways of destruction mentioned by you exhaust all the possibilities. How will you prove that destruction in any other way besides these three is inconceivable? Since the division made by you does not revolve between affirmation and negation, it is possible to add a fourth one to the three possibilities. Therefore, perhaps destruction will take place in a fourth or even a fifth way other than the three mentioned by you. To limit the number to three is not supported by an argument.




In their second argument, which is their mainstay, they say:

The extinction of a substance which does not exist in a subject is impossible. In other words, the simples are absolutely indestructible.

In this argument, the first thing to be proved is that the death of the body does not necessitate the extinction of the soul. The reason for this has been considered above. Next, it is to be maintained that it is impossible for the soul to perish because of anything else than the death of the body either. For when something perishes by any cause whatsoever, it follows that it had the potentiality for corruption before its corruption actually took place. That is, the possibility of extinction precedes actual extinction, just as in case of a temporal event, the possibility of existence precedes existence. The possibility of existence is called the potentiality of existence; and the possibility of extinction is called the potentiality for corruption. Just as the possibility of exis­tence is a relative attribute which requires something in which to exist (so as to be a possibility in relation to it), so does the possibility of extinction require something in relation to which it could be a possibility. This is the reason why it is said that (as shown in the problem of the eternity of the world) every temporal existence needs a preceding Matter in which the possibility of the existence of that temporal existent, or its potentiality, should reside. So Matter in which the potentiality of existence resides is the recipient of the existence which occurs. And that, which receives is other than that which is received. Therefore, the recipient and that which is received (and which is other than the recipient) exist together at the time when that which is received occurs. Similarly, therefore, it is necessary that the recipient of non-existence should exist at the time when non-existence occurs — so that something passes out of it into non-existence, just as something in it had come to exist. Now, that which passes out of it into non-existence is other than that which remains. And that which remains is that in which the potentiality for, or the receptivity to, or the possibility of non­existence resides — just as that which remains at the time of the occurrence of existence is not that which occurs, but that in which the potentiality for the reception of the occurrent resided. From this it follows that anything to which non­existence occurs is composed, on the one hand, of that which passes into non-existence; and, on the other hand, of that which receives non-existence, and which remains at the time of the occurrence of non-existence (because it was the bearer of the potentiality for non-existence before the occurrence of non-existence). This bearer of potentiality is Matter; and that which passes out of it into non-existence is Form.

But the soul is simple. It is a non-composite Form divested of Matter. If in it the composition of Form and Matter is supposed, we shall thereby reintroduce into the discussion Matter which is the primary Root or Stuff; for it will be necessary for the series thus started to end at such a fundamental principle. Thus we shall arrive at the impossibility of the extinction of this primary principle, and that is called the soul — as we have already seen the impossibility of the extinction of the Matter of bodies. For in either case, Matter is eternal and everlasting. Forms come into existence in it, and pass into non-existence out of it. It has the potentiality for the occurrence of forms to it, and the potentiality for the extinction of forms out of it. For it is equally receptive to the two contraries. And from this it is clear that every being which has a unitary essence is imperishable.

This may be set forth in another way. The potentiality of the existence of a thing is before its existence. Therefore, it is other than that thing, which (thing) cannot be the potentiality of existence itself. This can be understood in the light of the fact that one who has a sound vision is said to be a potential seer. That is, he has the potentiality for vision, which means that the quality indispensable for the eye in order to perform sound vision exists. If, however, actual vision is delayed, the delay is to be ascribed to the failure of some other condition. So the potentiality, say, for the sight of blackness exists in the eye before the actual sight of blackness. When the sight of blackness is actually attained, the potentiality for the sight of blackness will not coexist with the actual sight of blackness. For once sight is attained, it will not be possible to say that it exists actually as well as potentially.

This premiss having been proved, we proceed to say: If a simple thing were to perish, the possibility of perishing should have been possessed by that thing before actually perishing, for that is what potentiality means.' And, further, it must have also possessed the possibility of existence. For that whose non-existence is possible cannot be necessary. Therefore, it must be possible of existence; and by the potentiality of existence we only mean the possibility of existence.

So the conclusion to be drawn from this will be that there can be combined within the same thing the potentiality for its own existence and the actual attainment of its existence, or that its actual existence can be identical with the potentiality for its existence. But we have shown that the potentiality for sight which resides in the eye is other than actual seeing. It cannot be identical with actual sight; for that means the existence of the same thing actually as well as potentially — which are mutually exclusive terms. Nay, when something is potential, it cannot be actual; and when it is actual, it cannot be potential. So the affirmation of the potentiality of the non-existence of a simple thing before actual non-existence carries within itself the affirmation of the potentiality for existence as concurrent with the state of actual existence. And that is impossible.

[This is exactly the same thing as we have dealt with in the problems of the eternity and of the everlasting existence of the world (wherein the philosophers had recourse to the assumption of the impossibility of the temporal origin of Matter and the elements, and the impossibility of their non­existence). The source of confusion is their postulate that possibility is an attribute which requires a subject in which to exist. We have exposed the specious character of this assumption; and we will not repeat our criticism. For the question remains the same in this problem as it was in those problems. It makes no difference whether one is speaking of a material or a spiritual substance.]


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