Minggu, 13 April 2008



Necessary Causality

Resolution of the Problem

Hume and Ghazali

Ibn Rushd on Ghazali


Ghazali has been one the most influential philosophers the world has ever seen. He has been called the most original philosopher of Islam. His demolition of Greek philosophy in Tahafut-al-Falsafa (Incoherence of the Philosophers), is considered a turning point in the history of philosophical thought. It is fascinating that Ghazali adopts the methods of logic and reason (i.e. philosophy itself) to demonstrate the conclusion of neo-platonic thinkers are invalid.

Necessary Causality

Although in modern western philosophy Hume is well known to have denied necessary causality, Ghazali several centuries earlier had done the same. Necessary causality is the idea that the relation between a cause and its affect is necessary and always true. 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, the flame caused the cotton to burn. Furthermore, we think that this link is necessary, i.e. it always happens.

In modern terms we can think of it in terms of physics. That is, 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 like the speed, acceleration, angle, curvature of the ball, characteristics of the ball, that would be necessary for this to occur. In other words, we define scientifically 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.

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 an 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 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 affect (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 affect together. Why think that the association would always be true?

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:

Premise1: All As observed before time t have been followed by B


Conclusion: 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 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 say 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 that Ahmad’s sneezing causes it to rain in Mongolia! We think this is absurd, if true we would consider it an extra-ordinary coincidence. In the same way, the notion of necessary causation seems to be flawed. All we observe is:

  1. Flame
  2. Cotton Near Flame
  3. Cotton Burns

To say that the Flame necessarily causes the cotton to burn is not valid, according to the above arguments. Note that this has wide ranging consequences, from experimental scientific research to simple things like pulling a trigger and firing of a bullet! If there was no necessary causation, then anything would be possible! There is no guarantee what will happen next.

Resolution of the Problem

So then why do we as humans adopt this notion of cause and affect if we are not justified in holding such a position? 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. That is, as Hume would say, Nature is uniform. God created the universe to act in a certain way, however, according to Ghazali, this natural course of events can be suspended by God.

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 such conclusions such as causation is because of the remarkable consistency with which such events occur. Hume states, “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 suspended.

Students of philosophy will realize that although both Ghazali and Hume agree on this point, they each have different agenda’s one a theist the other a skeptic. In part 2 we will consider objections by Ibn Rushd and Hume to Ghazali’s proposed solution. Of the series we will see, how superimposed on this apparent resolution of the problem of necessary causation is the problem of induction. We also discuss objections raised by Ibn Rushd.

Does Hume succeed in undermining Ghazali’s theory of Causation

with the Problem of Induction

Ghazali correctly points out many of the flaws with a theory of strict and necessary causality. However, the kind of solution which is offered by Ghazali, seems unsatisfactory to Hume. Ghazali does not accept the kind of induction mentioned earlier in this paper. That is, he rejects the argument of the following form:

In the past cotton near a flame always results in the cotton burning


The next time cotton is placed near a flame it will burn

Ghazali does not think that his relationship is necessarily true, as he points out by his argument. Instead Ghazali states, the only reason the above relationship holds true in general is because 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 because nature is uniform.

Hume 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 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 relies itself on the same sort of an argument. The problem being as follows:

In all observed cases, Nature has been uniform


In the next observed case, Nature will be uniform

If an argument of the above kind is rejected in the first place, why accept it now? Why think that this will always be true? Is Ghazali not overlooking this problem in his argument?

But in reality, 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 must 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 by clinical trials, there would be no reason to think that it will necessarily work when used for 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)

This is precisely what worries Ibn Rushd, as we see in the following section.

Ibn Rushd on Ghazali’s Theory of Causation

Ibn Rushd points out that if we accept Ghazali’s theory of causality, this would preclude any possibility of yaqqni (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 Ghazali’s view is accepted.

Ibn Rushd accepts causality and rejects the driving force (the ability of God to perform miracles) behind Ghazali’s attack on it. He states that miracles are super-natural events, and hence by definition are not subject to human understanding. In other words, they are beyond reason. Therefore, there 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. (Quran 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 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, 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 affect 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 so in the less occationalistic sense). Therefore, definite knowledge can be only achieved from the ultimate cause, that being God. Only God, then, is the source of yaqqini knowledge.

So we see that Ghazali’s strategy to escape the problem of skepticism is a direct relationship with Allah. Ghazali’s accepts many of the skeptics arguments, realizing their power, much before must of western philosophy came to that realization. He continues to state that the source of true and definite knowledge is Allah alone, all other knowledge will in fact be, as Ibn Rushd points out, only probable.


Note: Weather Ghazali is a strict occationalist (i.e. one who thinks God is the ‘link’ between each cause and affect) or not is beyond the scope of this paper. It has been a matter of debate. See Professer Rikers paper in the Monist. This paper will assumes Ghazali took the more moderate position of God working through nature.


Riker, Ghazali on Necessary Causation - Monist July 1996

Al-Ghazali, Incoherence of Philosophers

Ibn Rushd, Incoherence of the Incoherence

Ghazali on science Routledge. (pg. 939)

Dikutip dari muslimphilosophy

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