on Islam and the Problem of Causation, Induction, and Skepticism
of the Problem
on al-Ghazali’s Theory of Causation
Al-Ghazali is one of the most influential philosophers the world has ever
seen, and has been called the most original philosopher of Islam. His demolition
of Greek philosophy in Tahafutal-Falsafa (The Incoherence of the
Philosophers) is considered a turning point in the history of philosophical
thought. It is fascinating that al-Ghazali adopts the methods of logic and
reason (i.e. philosophy itself) to demonstrate that the conclusions of
Neoplatonic thinkers are invalid.
Although in modern western philosophy Hume is well known to have denied
necessary causality, al-Ghazali had done the same several centuries earlier.
Necessary causality is the idea that the relation between a cause and its effect
is necessary and always true. Al-Ghazali gives us an example: when a piece of
cotton is brought near a flame, the cotton burns. In fact, whenever any similar
piece of cotton is brought sufficiently close to a similar flame, it also burns.
So there appears to be a causal link between the flame and the burning of the
cotton. That is, we would be inclined to say that the flame caused the cotton to
burn. Furthermore, we think that this link is necessary, i.e. it always happens.
We can think of this in
terms of physics. For example, whenever I hit a glass window with a certain
tennis ball, at a certain velocity, from a certain angle, under certain defined
circumstances, the glass window breaks. Furthermore, I can set parameters such
as speed, acceleration, angle, curvature of the ball, and characteristics of the
ball, that would be necessary for this to occur. In other words, we
scientifically define that, for example, a tennis ball at 100 mph at an angle of
0-20 degrees in a horizontal plane and in a vacuum will always break the window.
So we say that under these circumstances, the ball causes the window to break.
Al-Ghazali, however, points out that what we are really observing is
simply a quick succession of events, not any sort of causation. All we see is a
tennis ball hit the window, and then we see the window break. All we see is the
cotton a few centimeters away from the flame, and then the cotton burning. We
are not observing any direct causation, only an association of events.
He gives the example of a blind man who is unable to open his eyes. One
day, through a miraculous event, he is able to open his eyelids and see the
world. In his joy he attributes his ability to see to the opening of his
eyelids. (He thinks the opening of
the eyelids causes him to see). But he fails to realize that it is not the
eyelids, but rather the rays of light refracting into his eyes that give him the
ability to see. The blind man mistakes this association of events for causation.
Hume puts forth the same
criticism. In talking about the cause (flame) and its effect (cotton burning),
he asks, where is the causal glue that holds the events together? In other
words, all we see are two events occurring one right after another, there is no
reason to think that one event causes the other. There is no causal glue that
holds the cause and effect together. Why think that the association would always
Hume points out that the
only reason we have for thinking that it will persist in the future is an
argument from induction of the following form:
All As observed before time t
have been followed by B
The first A observed after time t will be followed by B
That is, all series of events A (cotton near flame) observed before time
t have been followed by B (cotton burning). Therefore, the conclusion, that the
next time we observe a series of events A, it will also be followed by B. Hume
rejects this argument. What reason, he asks, do we have to think that this is
so? Why think that simply because something has held true in the past, it will
it necessarily continue to hold true in the future? To accept the above argument
would be to accept the idea of necessary causation between A and B, something
which al-Ghazali rejects.
This is precisely the problem with causation.
To illustrate the point further, let us consider the following example.
Suppose we meet a person named Ahmad. It so happens that whenever Ahmad sneezes,
it rains in outer Mongolia. We have observed this over a period of several
years, and it has been confirmed by the national weather service. In this
situation, we do not think that Ahmad’s sneezing causes it to rain in
Mongolia! We think this is absurd, if it were true, we would consider it an
extraordinary coincidence. In the same way, the notion of necessary causation
seems to be flawed. All we observe is:
To say that the flame necessarily causes the cotton to burn is
not valid, according to the above argument. Note that this has wide ranging
consequences, from experimental scientific research to simple things, like
pulling a trigger and the firing of a bullet! If there were no necessary
causation, then anything would be possible! There is no guarantee of what will
Resolution of the Problem
So why do we as humans adopt this notion of cause and effect if we are
not justified in holding such a position? Al-Ghazali states, and Hume agrees,
that this is due to the habitual course of events. That is, nature tends to
follow certain rules and laws, and this happens to be the way nature works.
Things have a nature, and by their nature, they tend to act in a certain way. As
Hume would say, nature is uniform. According to al-Ghazali, God created the
universe to act in a certain way, and God can suspend this this natural course
Al-Ghazali thought that accepting necessary causation would deny God the
power to do what he wills. That is, if necessary causation is true, then God
would not be able to perform miracles, since miracles do not follow causal laws.
Hence, when God wishes to perform a miracle, he suspends the habitual course of
nature and allows such an aberration of natural laws to take place.
So, we see that the reason we are led to a conclusion such as causation,
is the remarkable consistency with
which such events occur. Hume states that “nature is too strong for
principle.” That is, although we clearly realize that there is no logical
basis for accepting causation, we continue to believe that, for example, the
next time I clap my hands (cause) it will make a noise (effect). The only time
when such causation is not seen, is during the performance of a miracle by a
prophet, in which case the natural and habitual course of the universe is
Students of philosophy
will realize that although both al-Ghazali and Hume agree on this point, they
have different agendas, one is a theist, the other a skeptic. In Part Two, we
will consider Ibn
Rushd’s and Hume’s objections to al-Ghazali’s proposed solution. Of the series, we will see how the problem of induction is
superimposed on this apparent resolution of the problem of necessary causation.
We also discuss objections raised by Ibn Rushd.
causation with the problem of induction?
Al-Ghazali correctly points out many of the flaws in a theory of strict
and necessary causality. However, the kind of solution offered by al-Ghazali
seems unsatisfactory to Hume. Al-Ghazali does not accept the kind of induction
mentioned earlier in this paper. That is, he rejects the argument of the
In the past, cotton near a flame always resulted in the cotton burning
The next time cotton is
placed near a flame, it will burn
Al-Ghazali does not think that this relationship is necessarily true, as
he points out by his argument. Instead, al-Ghazali states that the only reason
the above relationship holds true in general is that God has created things with
certain natures, and these natures tend to act in certain ways. That is, the
reason we can rely on an argument of the above form in our everyday lives is
that nature is uniform.
Hume’s response is that the theory advanced to support the above
argument from induction is itself subject to the same argument. In other words,
no progress is made. Namely, in defending the above position, al-Ghazali proposes
the idea of the uniformity of nature. Since nature is uniform, it makes sense
for us to accept an argument of the form above. But this defense itself relies
on the same sort of argument. The problem being as follows:
In all observed cases,
nature has been uniform
In the next observed
case, nature will be uniform
argument of this kind is rejected in the first place, why accept it now?
Why think that this will always be true? Is al-Ghazali not overlooking
this problem in his argument? In fact, al-Ghazali would not accept this argument
either. He would continue to state that there is no necessary link causing
nature to continue to be uniform. In fact, the uniformity of nature can be
suspended if God so wills.
Now a greater question arises, a question upon which much of modern day
skepticism is based. If there is no way for us to determine truth from
experience, then how can we be sure that we know anything at all (besides
necessary truths)? For example, if a medicinal drug has been demonstrated to
cure cancer in clinical trials, there would be no reason to think that it will
necessarily work when used the next time. This would undermine vast portions of
human knowledge. Bertrand Russell states,
It is therefore important to discover whether there
is any answer to Hume within the framework of a philosophy that is wholly or
mainly empirical. If not, there is no intellectual difference between
sanity and insanity....This is a desperate point of view, and it must be hoped
that there is some way of escaping from it.(Russell 646)
precisely what worries Ibn Rushd, as we see in the following section.
Ibn Rushd on al-Ghazali’s Theory of Causation
Ibn Rushd points out that if we accept al-Ghazali’s theory of
causality, this would preclude any possibility of yaqqini (definite)
human knowledge. That is, if there is no necessary causality between events,
then we cannot claim to have knowledge about them. At most, we can claim to have
probable knowledge concerning science. We can say that since nature is uniform,
A tends to cause B, but we will never have any definite knowledge. We will lose
the ability to verify all knowledge by experience. There can be no conclusive
scientific knowledge if al-Ghazali’s view is accepted.
Ibn Rushd accepts causality and rejects the driving force (the
ability of God to perform miracles) behind al-Ghazali’s attack on it. He
states that miracles are supernatural events, and hence by definition are not
subject to human understanding. In other words, they are beyond reason and it is
inappropriate to attempt to use logic and reason to justify events which are
beyond reason. He argues that the cause and effect relationship is unalterable
and is testament to the wisdom of God in giving us scientific knowledge.
(Qur’an 35:43) But Ibn Rushd fails to give a reason why he thinks necessary
causation is in fact necessary.
In Ibn Rushd’s argument against al-Ghazali, he is assuming that
definite scientific knowledge is in fact possible. That is, he is being an
epistemic optimist in the Aristotelian sense. However, al-Ghazali would,
surprisingly, agree with Ibn Rushd. He would say that in fact, it is true that
no scientific knowledge is possible by experience alone. Only probabilistic or
working knowledge is possible. Since there is no necessary intrinsic causality,
the cause and effect relationship observed is due to the nature of the things
involved. The nature of those objects is created by God, and God has the ability
to change them at his own will. God is the ultimate cause of all events (even if
in the less occasionalistic sense). Therefore, definite knowledge can only be
achieved from the ultimate cause, that being God. Only God, then, is the source
of yaqqini (definitive) knowledge.
So we see that
al-Ghazali’s strategy to escape the problem of skepticism is through a direct
relationship with God. Al-Ghazali accepts many of the skeptics’ arguments,
realizing their power, before most western philosophers came to that
realization. He continues to state that the source of true and definite
knowledge is God alone, all other knowledge will in fact be, as Ibn Rushd points
out, only probable.
Whether or not al-Ghazali is a strict occasionalist (i.e. one who thinks
God is the ‘link’ between each cause and effect) is beyond the scope of this
paper. It has been a matter of debate; see Professer Riker’s paper in the
Monist. This paper assumes
al-Ghazali took the more moderate position of God working through nature.
“Ghazali on Necessary Causation,”- Monist, July 1996
The Incoherence of the Philosophers
Incoherence of the Incoherence
on Science, Routledge
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