The Incoherence of the Incoherence

by Abū al-Walīd Mu&hs Rushd

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Why, according to Averroes in The Incoherence of the Incoherence, couldn't God have caused the world's existence in time?

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In The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes argues that the creation of the universe depends on God's divine will, which is infinite. As such, there can't have been a moment of time before the universe's existence because it would imply that the existence of the universe was a mere possibility. Averroes posits that the most one can argue for pre-eternity is the existence of the universe as part of the divine that had yet to take form.

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Averroes devotes a significant portion of the Incoherence of Incoherence to refuting the arguments of philosophers and theologians who contend that the universe had a beginning in time, and so God existed in time before the universe. Much of his focus in discussion 1 is on pointing out that the arguments of Ghazali are more weak than wrong. He believes that they are trivial, philosophical exercises that don't amount to non-belief.

Averroes does, however, weigh in on the debate. His argument comes down to the premise that while comparisons can be made between parts of infinite quantities, those same comparisons break down when comparing wholes. He gives the example comparing the motion of Saturn and the Sun in a year. His argument is based on the heliocentric view of the cosmos, which posits that the Sun orbits the Earth every day, while the orbit of Saturn is imperceptible. Therefore, the sun can be said to travel farther over a finite period of time than Saturn. Averroes argues that despite this fact, one can't argue that the sun travels further than Saturn over an infinite time frame.

It doesn't take much effort to bring this metaphor up to date with the present knowledge of planetary motion. Since we know that the Sun is stationary, let's substitute Earth. Let's also substitute the apparent motion of the planets for their actual motion. Whether Saturn travels further than Earth in a month because it has a wider path or Earth travels further because it is moving faster, the distance they travel in a month's time can be compared. This does not mean, however, that either Saturn or Earth has travelled further overall, if the motion of both bodies is assumed to be infinite and eternal.

Averroes applies the same logic to the origin of the universe. While philosophers don't have trouble with the idea of Saturn's orbit having no beginning, they can't accept a universe created before the beginning of time because it necessitates an effect with no cause. Averroes argues that God exists a priori: he is the uncaused cause. At the time of his writing, this position seems to have become a common notion among philosophers, and it becomes a premise in his ultimate point.

Averroes argues that since God is the creator of time and the universe, the instant time begins, so does the universe. The clock could not have been ticking before creation because creation itself was the act of an infinite, divine will. God did not suddenly decide to create the universe at one instant since this implies that the universe was only a possibility and might not have been created at all. Averroes dismisses the argument that God's status as the cause of the universe means that He preceded the universe by pointing out that the universe existed in the divine will even before it existed in form.

Extrapolating this argument to modern scientific and philosophical debate, it is reminiscent of Steven Hawking's notion that there is no moment before the Big Bang. Since time was created with the universe, the question of what preceded the universe's creation makes no sense. Hawking's argument is that the notion of a time before the universe is merely a lapse in our perception caused by our inability to comprehend the infinite. Hawking stated that to know what preceded the Big Bang would be to know the "mind of God," the title he gave to one of his seminal works.

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In The Incoherence of the Incoherence, how does Averroes understand God or the First Cause to be the cause of the world?

As in so many other aspects of his philosophy, Averroes' concept of God takes its point of departure from Aristotle. The ancient Greek philosopher argued that God was the “unmoved mover” on which the eternal motions of the heavens ultimately depended.

According to Aristotle, God was not an efficient cause in the way that a carpenter, say, is the efficient cause of a wooden chair. This is because efficient causation involves change, and God, if He is to act as an unmoved mover, cannot change and cannot be in motion. As the motion that the unmoved mover causes is eternal, then it follows that the unmoved mover must Himself be eternal. This eternal substance is what Aristotle understands as God.

Averroes's own understanding of God is heavily influenced by that of Aristotle, despite the fact that Aristotle was a pagan and Averroes was a Muslim. Nevertheless, Averroes genuinely believed that Aristotle's notion of God as the unmoved mover and as the final cause of the universe was actually beneficial to Islam, because it supplemented the teachings of the Qu'ran with science and common-sense.

Even so, Averroes's understanding of God was highly controversial among many of his fellow Muslims, as it involved rejecting the traditional notion of God as the efficient cause of the universe. Averroes does not believe that God is the creator of the universe in the same way that, as we saw earlier, a carpenter is the creator of a wooden chair. God's agency is that of final, not efficient, causality. In other words, the universe, and everything in it, is God's ultimate purpose.

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