The Incoherence of the Incoherence

by Abū al-Walīd Mu&hs Rushd

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363

Averroës, the last of the great Islamic philosophers, lived roughly one hundred fifty years after Avicenna, his philosophic rival, and about three generations after al-Ghazzali, the greatest of Muslim theologians. In his controversy with these two men, he concerned himself primarily with the defense and purification of Aristotle, whom he followed as closely as he could. Because he, too, accepted such spurious works as Theologia Aristotelis (derived from Plotinus), his interpretation is still permeated by Neoplatonic elements, but to a lesser extent than that of Avicenna. The success of his endeavor is indicated by the fact that he was known to Scholastic writers as the Commentator and that no less a person than Saint Thomas Aquinas had him constantly at hand as he wrote his Summa contra gentiles (c. 1258-1260; English translation, 1923) and his various commentaries on Aristotle.

The Incoherence of the Incoherence was written in reply to mystic al-Ghazzali’s book, Tah-fut al-falsifa (1095; Incoherence of the Philosophers, 1958), in which al-Ghazzali attacked the philosophers, and in particular Avicenna, for advocating doctrines that were incompatible with their faith. As the title of his own book suggests, Averroës came to the defense of the philosophers. Adopting a position similar to that of the later medieval thinkers who distinguished between revealed and natural theology, Averroës scrupulously avoided denying any tenet of his faith; nevertheless, he sided firmly with the philosophers. His interpretations of religious doctrines were so far removed from those of the theologians that even though he was studied carefully by Hebrew and Christian philosophers, he was not recognized to any great extent by his Islamic contemporaries. Averroës’s book plays a very important role in the long controversy between the philosophers and the theologians because it is concerned chiefly with the nature and existence of God and with the relationship between God and the cosmos. Averroës does not spell out his position in detail, for he agrees on the whole with the earlier commentators on Aristotle and with the version of Aristotle he receives from them. In particular, he agrees largely with Avicenna, disagreeing on those points, and they are important points, where he thinks Avicenna departs from Aristotle.

A First Cause and Time

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Averroës agrees with Aristotle that there is a First Cause, and he accepts a modified version of Avicenna’s proof from contingency. Objects whose existence is contingent rather than necessary must have a cause. If the cause is itself contingent, and if its cause is contingent, and so on, there would be an infinite regress and therefore no cause at all, a conclusion that, it can readily be seen, denies the assumption that contingent objects must have a cause. Hence, any series of contingent objects must be preceded in existence by a necessary cause that is either necessary through another or necessary without a cause—necessary in itself. However, if we have a series of causes each of which is necessary through another, once more we have an infinite regress and thus no cause. Hence, any series of causes necessary through another must depend on a cause necessary in itself—a First Cause.

The nature of this First Cause and of the way in which it causes is illuminated by Averroës’s discussion of creation. Averroës agrees with the philosophers against al-Ghazzali that the world was not created in time. The philosophers had argued that if the world was created in time, it was created directly or indirectly by God, because an infinite regress of causes is impossible. If God created it in time, then he acted at a time and therefore underwent a change in time; but unquestionably, this is...

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an impossible state of affairs because God is perfect and changeless. To al-Ghazzali’s objection that God did not act in time but decreed from all eternity that the world should come into being at a certain time, Averroës replies that even if God had so willed from all eternity, he must also have acted at the time of creation in order to implement his decision, for every effect must have a contemporaneous cause. Consequently, the philosopher’s objection cannot be avoided. It can be shown similarly that the cosmos is incorruptible; that is, that there is no time at which it will come to an end, for this too would require a change in God. Change occurs only within the world and then only when one thing is changed into another. The world itself is eternal and everlasting.

Al-Ghazzali had already attacked Avicenna on this point, asserting that the followers of Aristotle now have a problem on their hands, for they must give some account of how an eternal First Cause produces things that have a beginning in time. The problem is complicated by the fact that Averroës and Avicenna agreed with Aristotle that because the world is eternal, infinite temporal sequences do occur. For instance, there was no time when the celestial sphere began to move and no time when the first person appeared. Why not, chides al-Ghazzali, agree with the materialists that because there is an infinite sequence of causes, a First Cause is not only superfluous but impossible?

In reply, Averroës asks us to consider the case of the infinite sequence of past positions of a celestial sphere. Like Avicenna, he says that so far as the sphere is concerned this sequence is an accidental infinite, for the motion of the sphere at any given moment does not cause the motion it has at any other moment. First, if motion did cause motion there would be an infinite regress of causes and therefore no cause at all. Second, because motion is continuous, there are in it no discrete units that have a beginning and an end and therefore no units that could stand in a causal relationship to one another. Finally, because the cause must be contemporaneous with the effect, the causal relation cannot span an interval of time, and past motion cannot influence present motion. In the case of the celestial sphere, the motion it has at any given moment follows, not from the motion it had at some previous moment, but from its desire at that moment to emulate the perfection of the associated Intelligence. Through all eternity, this Intelligence has sustained it in motion from moment to moment by continuously acting as its final cause. Because this Intelligence is itself a being whose existence is necessary through another, one is led back to the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover who stands behind the world. The Mover itself does not operate in time nor does it cause time directly, but it does produce an Intelligence that, because it is immaterial, is changeless, but that, because it is imperfect, is able to produce change of position in the sphere and thus to produce change in time.

Averroës’s treatment of the infinite sequence of humanity begetting humanity is somewhat different from the preceding argument, for in this case there are discrete objects that do seem to cause one another successively. However, here, too, Averroës says the sequence is, in itself, an accidental infinite. To be sure, the sequence does depend upon humans, but only in several secondary senses. First, as he puts it, the third person can come from the second only if the first person has perished. That is, because the amount of matter in the universe is limited, human bodies can continue to come into existence only if others perish. Second, through the phenomena of conception and growth, people are the instrument by which God produces other people. However, having functioned in both cases as a material cause by providing suitable matter, the human role is complete, for no body can produce a form in another. Directly or indirectly, the First Mover is the source of the eternal form that, when individuated by matter, animates that matter. Here again Averroës describes the Mover or one of the Intelligences as operating eternally as a final cause, again and again drawing forth from complexes of matter the form that is contained in them potentially.


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Averroës then considers the question raised by al-Ghazzali as to how it is possible for the plurality in the world to arise from the Mover, who is simple. Avicenna had argued that only one thing can emanate from God, but that this thing, the First Intelligence, is able to generate more than one thing by contemplating both itself and the Mover. Averroës replies, first, that because thought and its object are identical, the Intelligence is really identical with its thought of God and with its thought of itself and, therefore, that these thoughts are identical with each other. Hence, there is no plurality of thought and no plurality of creation.

Second, he says that when Avicenna insists that only one thing can come from God, he is thinking of the Supreme Intellect as if it were a finite empirical one, but this concept is a mistake. Because our intellect is limited by matter, any particular mental act can have only one object, but because God is not so limited he can think all things even though his simplicity and changelessness preclude a plurality of acts. If it is argued that to think of all things is to have many thoughts and that because thinker and thought are identical, God must be plural, Averroës replies that when God thinks all things, he does not think them discursively as people do. People either entertain images, a process that unquestionably involves spatial apprehension and thus spatial plurality, or they understand concepts by genus and species, a process that again introduces plurality. In either case, because people apprehend the object of thought by abstracting it from its material context, they apprehend it imperfectly. God, who is perfect, does not apprehend the nature of things in these ways and therefore does not apprehend them as either individual or universal. In some manner that people do not understand, he comprehends that which is plural to people but does not comprehend it as numerically plural. (This is a particular application of the general principle that any property or capacity attributed to God must be attributed only by analogy.) God, then, is the source of all plurality even though he is simple and changeless.

The Avicennian Cosmology

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Averroës accepts the Avicennian cosmology in its general outlines. The First Mover produces a number of pure intelligences that may produce others and that cause the motions of their respective spheres or, in the case of the Agent Intellect, preside over generation and corruption in the sublunar world. The Mover is the efficient cause of these intelligences, producing them by means of a power that it emanates, and the final and formal cause insofar as it is the thing they seek to emulate. They in turn are the efficient, final, and formal causes of the motion of the spheres. Averroës agrees with Avicenna that though prime matter is not created, the existence of material things depends upon the Mover who is the source of the forms and also the agent, final, and formal cause of the manifestation of any form in matter.

However, despite this agreement Averroës disagrees with Avicenna on a number of points. Some, such as the number of intelligences (more than forty), and the nonlinear order of the intelligences (the Mover may have produced all of the intelligences of the principle spheres directly) are unimportant, but others are crucial. Averroës insists that the intelligences really are simple in that they do not contemplate themselves in several essentially different ways. The spheres are not composites of soul and body even though they are animate, and God is the source of plurality. Consequently, God does not function as Avicenna says he does. Whether by intention or not, Avicenna left the impression that God’s role in the creative process was completed when he produced the First Intelligence and that the further creative acts were contributed piecemeal by the various intelligences acting from their own natures. In locating the source of plurality in God, Averroës is insisting that direct responsibility for the whole creative process rests with God. It is true, he says, that the intelligences are creative agents, but they are the Mover’s subordinates who, out of respect for him, implement his commands throughout the cosmos. Setting aside the theological analogy, a theory such as this means that God’s essence functions as the efficient, formal, and final cause of the First Intelligence, that this intelligence is an imperfect manifestation of the essence of God, that God as thus reflected functions once more as the efficient, formal, and final cause of an Intelligence or soul inferior to the first one, and so on down through the hierarchy.

Averroës also differs from Avicenna in that he loosens the Avicenna bonds of necessity. To be sure, in some sense God acts necessarily, but this is not logical necessity, for the world God contemplates and thus produces is the best of all possible worlds. Similarly, the various intelligences respond to God, not because it would be contradictory not to, but because they respect him. There is a definite normative element permeating the system. On the general issue of the relation between God and the world, Averroës does not differ from Avicenna as greatly as he frequently says he does; nevertheless, his modifications are important and they do result in a weakening of the Neoplatonic elements, a fact that was appreciated by later Aristotelians.

Existence and Essence

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Another historically important feature of Averroës’s philosophy is his rejection of Avicenna’s sharp distinction between essence and existence. Avicenna had insisted that except in the case of God, existence is an accident that happens to an essence. For Avicenna, existence is a condition that must be satisfied by an essence before it can occur outside a mind, a property that must be added to it. Therefore, the existence of a material object does not stem from its essence, but from what happened to its essence. However, Averroës insists that the very being of an existent thing is its essence, that its being depends upon the essence and not upon what happens to the essence. For him, the terms “being” and “existence” are not verb terms, but substantives applied primarily to the object itself and secondarily to the essence that makes it the sort of thing it is. Because the object is a being or existent in virtue of its essence, it is impossible to separate essence and existence save in thought. The essence itself may be regarded as an existent in a secondary sense of that term, but in this case it is impossible to separate essence and existence even in thought.

This difference between the two men is reflected in their views, inasmuch as Avicenna is very much concerned with how things come into existence and Averroës shows himself to be more concerned with the manner in which things change. Thus, in their proofs of the existence of God, Avicenna moves from the contingent existence of things to a necessarily existing ground, whereas Averroës proceeds from the occurrence of motion to an unmoved mover. Again, whereas Avicenna’s Giver of Forms is bringing essences into existence by impressing them on suitably prepared matter, Averroës’s Agent Intellect is coaxing out forms nascent in complexes of matter. Averroës insists correctly that Avicenna is moving away from Aristotle and that he himself is truer to their common master. Later, Saint Thomas Aquinas and his followers follow Avicenna in making a sharp distinction between essence and existence, but they acknowledge Averroës’s objection by transforming existence from a property into an act of being that is prior in principle to essence. On the other hand, William of Ockham and the Averroists of the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries insist that Averroës is right and that Avicenna and Thomas are wrong.


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Additional Reading

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Medieval Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. Provides a good overview of medieval Islamic philosophy, and the contributions made by Averroës in particular.

Davidson, Herbert A. Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes on Intellect: Their Cosmologies, Theories of Active Intellect, and Theories of Human Intellect. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A significant study of the most important Arabic philosophers from the medieval period.

Hitti, Philip K. Makers of Arab History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968. This collection of popular biographies includes a lively introductory account of Averroës and his thought.

Kogan, Barry S. Averroes and the Metaphysics of Causation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985. A detailed analysis of Averroës’s theory of causation and his understanding of the nature of reality.

Leaman, Oliver. Averroes and His Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. A helpful overview of the philosophy of this leading Arabic thinker.

Wahbah, Murad, et al., eds. Averroes and the Enlightenment. New York: Prometheus Books, 1996. Significant essays concentrate on Averroës’s influence on the Western philosophical tradition.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Islamic Philosophy and Theology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1962. A compact and still useful general account of Islamic philosophy that helpfully interprets Averroës’s place in that tradition.