Is a logical justification and explanation of God possible?

Ghazali comes to rescue!

No other question has haunted the minds of the greatest of the great philosophers more than the question, “is a logical justification and explanation of God possible?” Many philosophers like Avicenna believed so and created a set of convoluted arguments that made the matter more complex. Perhaps the only philosopher that argued this point successfully is Ghazali (1058-1128 CE), the brilliant Iranian philosopher. (See below About Ghazali). In his famous book, “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” which comes after his book, “The Intentions of the Philosophers,” Ghazali asserted that such an undertaking was of an inherently contradictory nature, and that the work of his peers, particularly Avicenna, was ultimately fruitless.

He outlines and disassembles (perhaps deconstructs), the defense for the necessary existence of a logical connection linking cause and effect. He focuses, specifically, on the causal relationship of fire and burning, citing the view that the former is the necessary cause of the latter. Ghazali, however, posits that fire is not the agent by which burning occurs, but that God, through direct action of himself or his agents (i.e., angels), causes the burning to occur.

“The connection between what is customarily believed to be a cause and what is believed to be an effect is not necessary…but each of the two is independent of the other.”

In this masterpiece discussion, Ghazali uses the beliefs of his opponents to refute them. A brilliant discussion follows. There are three points Ghazali suggests that might be made by an opponent.

Point I: Burning is the natural (inherent) result of a fire being exposed to cotton—that the fire acts “by nature not by choice.”

Ghazali says that it is God, not the fire, that is the “acting cause of burning,” since fire is inanimate, and, therefore, incapable of “[having] any action.” To support his argument, he cites his opponents’ own belief that reproduction occurs as a result of some intermediary force (here, the “First One”), and merely extends that, past actions involving animate objects, to apply to the inanimate, as well. To illustrate his point further, he provides an example: a man, deprived of sight for his entire life, is granted it. He believes, throughout his first day with this newfound faculty, that it is his sight which makes things visible. Only when night falls, does he finally attribute his vision to the sun’s illumination. He wraps up this section by boldly stating that “there is no exception to this according to the arguments based on principles [of his opponents].”

Point II: Accepting that the change resulting from a “causal relationship” is brought about by God, or an agent of His, the fact remains that there must be an inherent predisposition in the fire and cotton for this change to occur.

The basic claim is that objects have certain properties (air lets sunlight to pass through it, while a stone does not), which make these objects predisposed to certain results from interaction with certain other objects. Ghazali refutes this claim. He cites the biblical example of Abraham’s immersion in fire, without being burned. While Abraham is not a cotton product, his opponents would have to argue that he would have necessarily been burned in such a situation. To the objection that, if one accepts Ghazali’s argument, nothing can be predicted, expected, or known, he replies that “God has created within us knowledge that he will not bring about everything that is possible.” In short, the world generally works the way we expect it to, as God decrees, for simplicity’s sake. “[God knows through his eternal knowledge that he will not do [certain things], even though it is possible…and He will create for us the knowledge that he will not do it at a certain time.” Furthermore, “the statement of the philosophers is nothing but pure abomination.” Ghazali then proposes that, perhaps certain properties of the fire (or Abraham) were changed. Ghazali adduces voluminous discussion of the unlimited intensity of miracles in general, in response to his opponents’ claim that only small miracles are possible. Ghazali makes the point that “the predispositions for receiving forms varies through causes hidden from us, and it is not within the powers of flesh to know them.” In other words, if a prophet can make it rain, why can’t he do something even bigger?

Point III: “What, according to [your opinion], is the definition of the impossible?”

Can God, the opponent wonders, “change genera,” and “change a mineral into an animal[?]” Ghazali’s refreshingly simple answer is this: “No.” If one defines the impossible as “the simultaneous affirmation and denial of something,” than the answer is clear. Ghazali’s lists three types of impossibilities in terms of variables: “(1) X is Y, X is not Y; (2) some X is Y, no X is Y; (3) X is both Y and Z; X is not Y (or Z).” If something were to be done, that would “be impossible,” by virtue of the fact that it’s effects would challenge the definition of the substance acted upon, it cannot be.

About Ghazali

Abu Hamid Ibn Muhammad Ibn Muhammad al-Tusi al-Shafi'i al-Ghazali was born in 1058 CE in Khorasan, Iran. His father passed away when he was very young. He got his education at Nishapur and Baghdad. Soon he acquired a high standard of scholarship in religion and philosophy and was honored by his appointment as a Professor at the Nizamiyah University of Baghdad, which was recognized as one of the most reputed institutions of learning in the golden era of Muslim history. After a few years, however, he gave up his academic pursuits and worldly interests and became a wandering ascetic. This was a period of mystical transformation for Ghazali. Later, he resumed his teaching pursuit, only leave to depart from it soon. An era of solitary life, devoted to contemplation and writing then ensued, which led to the authorship of a number of classical books in the field of religion, philosophy and Sufism. He died in 1128 C.E. at Baghdad. He was a prolific writer. His immortal books include Tuhafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), Ihya al-'Ulum al-Islamia (The Rivival of the Religious Sciences), "The Beginning of Guidance and his Autobiography", "Deliverance from Error". Some of his works were translated into European languages in the Middle Ages. He also wrote a summary of astronomy.

In philosophy, Ghazali upheld the approach of mathematics and exact sciences as essentially correct. However, he adopted the techniques of Aristotelian logic and the Neoplatonic procedures and employed these very tools to lay bare the flaws and lacunae of the then prevalent Neoplatonic philosophy and to diminish the negative influences of Aristotelianism and excessive rationalism. In contrast to some of the Muslim philosophers, e.g., Farabi, he portrayed the inability of reason to comprehend the absolute and the infinite. Reason could not transcend the finite and was limited to the observation of the relative. Also, several Muslim philosophers had held that the universe was finite in space but infinite in time. Ghazali argued that an infinite time was related to an infinite space. With his clarity of thought and force of argument, he was able to create a balance between religion and reason, and identified their respective spheres as being the infinite and the finite, respectively.

In religion, particularly mysticism, he cleansed the approach of Sufism of its excesses and reestablished the authority of the orthodox religion. Yet, he stressed the importance of genuine Sufism, which he maintained was the path to attain the absolute truth.

Ghazali's influence was deep and everlasting. He is one of the greatest theologians of Islam. His theological doctrines penetrated Europe, influenced Jewish and Christian Scholasticism and several of his arguments seem to have been adopted by St. Thomas Aquinas in order to similarly reestablish the authority of orthodox Christian religion in the West. So forceful was his argument in the favour of religion that he was accused of damaging the cause of philosophy and, in the Muslim Spain, Ibn Rushd (Averros) wrote a rejoinder to his Tuhafut.