This paper examines Avicenna’s (Ibn Sina) theory of reference, and then examines Al Ghazali’s refute to this. God’s knowledge of particulars is a widely debated theory in Islamic philosophy.
God having universal knowledge is a subject of discourse in Islamic philosophy for many reasons, one of which due to it the issue of multiplicity. Avicenna’s theory of reference attempts to solve this problem. Ghazali puts forth several arguments to refute Avicenna’s theory of reference.
Avicenna on God’s Knowledge of Particulars
Avicenna’s theory of reference defends the claim of God knowing “the minutest particular or detail in the universe, in parts and in sum” as a result from “His being their [humans’] cause” (Nusseibeh 276). In this sense, God’s involvement in Creation allows him to also have knowledge of particulars, as God acts as the First Cause, creating a chain of causal events that lead to particulars. Whatever God caused, he “cognitized”, and thus he has knowledge of the principle of these things. Because “it is established that He is a Necessary Being […] and that the universe is brought into being from Him […] it follows that nothing in heaven or earth is remote from His Knowledge” (Avicenna 1951, 98).
As the Origin of all realities, the Giver of being, the First Cause, the Necessary Being, it follows from such logic for God to know what order and goodness are, what all the possibilities entail and the best flow of events. Thus, Avicenna claims God knows particulars through goodness and order, as he brought the world into existence through self-contemplation. From this it may be deduced that God then knows the attributes, the principles, the relations and time intervals of his causes, of all things existing. Universal knowledge may be defined here as true for more than just the object of which it happens to be true, which is compared to the singular term that can only be applied to a singular individual entity or object.
For example, because he created matter, the natural law, and humans, he would therefore know the set of attributes humans entail. He has the knowledge of a human sitting in a classroom, learning, and being a student. Therefore, he knows the possibility of someone currently being at Pitzer, learning, as a student (me). This is derived from Plato’s theory of forms. God, as the “Giver of the Forms”, connecting to all living beings, relies on Plato’s notion of the “form” that exists outside individual objects but rather in its universal essence. For example, a “chairness” that connects all chairs. To apply this to God’s knowledge, because God contains the knowledge of material beings, capable of occupying space and time, and the genus species, that live, move, talk, speak, procreate, and so on, thereby he is able to know I am currently here, as a Particular.
Avicenna’s theory of reference relies on the statement of particulars as presented in such a way as to be ascribable with eternal truth-values and having spatio-temporal conditions that allow these truth-values to not restrict the agent of knowledge (Nusseibeh 288). The theory concerning God’s knowledge of particulars relies on God having such knowledge, and his knowledge of particulars as universal and therefore not subject to change. This is based on the assumption that a description is a universal term, such as knowing a particular eclipse by knowing its universal description.
God, being the First Cause and Originator of all Beings, knows all the heavenly motions, each eclipse and each particular conjunction and opposition, but in a universal way; however, God might not be able to “judge that this eclipse exists or does not exist at this instant” (Avicenna 2007, 218). Using the example of the eclipse, the statement “the moon is at an eclipse at time T and position P” is true before, during, and after the eclipse in a spatio-temporal condition. This is always true given various pre-existing conditions, including the circumstances of the formula “*T*P” as the qualifier or condition. Therefore, the statement may be re-written as “the moon is at an Eclipse at *T*P*” (Nusseibeh 281). God, as being outside time and space, is able to know particulars as they are included in the category of conditionally true statements, and this is why “not even the weight of an atom in the heavens and the earth escape Him”. While God understands how all things undergo change, and apprehended, just he knows the form of a chair, he therefore knows all particulars as derived from these universal truth-claims. Furthermore, his knowledge introduces no change, due to the lack of the introduction of time, which would arguably change the state of the knower (God).
Ghazali’s critiqued Avicenna’s theory by proposing two main objections. The theoretical claim argues that God does not know particulars but merely possibilities. He uses the example of a man named Zayd, as a Particular. God does not know of Zayd’s belief or unbelief, but only of man’s attributes of being able to believe or not believe (universally). It would then follow for God to not have knowledge of the Prophet Muhammad or of Islam, but merely the possibility of such things occurring, because God has knowledge of himself, the First Cause, therefore having knowledge of all subsequent causes. Were this the case, “what difference is there between Him and the dead, except for His knowledge of Himself?” (Ghazali 108).
Ghazali extends the argument to criticise Avicenna’s stance as heretical. An inert God, unable to exercise full Providence over the world, unable to know each individual – such as whether or not Zayd obeys or disobeys God but merely the possibility of man obeying or disobeying God – thereby leads to the crumbling of the theory of the afterlife. God would not know, for example, the eclipse presently exists, or at the time it has cleared, similarly, he would not know Zayd “in his particularity”, therefore, he does not know the individual, he does not know Muhammad and when he challenged the heathen with his prophethood, but rather “among people there would be those who would make the prophetic challenge” (Ghazali 137).
Ghazali’s philosophical objection questions one of the basic foundations upon which Avicenna built his argument on- that of which a change in essence of knowledge therefore necessitates change in the essence of the knower, of God, and the importance of this. Were an individual to move to God’s right, then to God’s left, which he terms as a “pure relation” rather than an essential attribute, it is the individual and the relation between God and the individual which undergoes change, but the “essence does not change in any way” (Ghazali 137). While God’s mind would alter from “state 1” to “state 2” to “state 3”, and so on, this does not constitute a change in his essence. Similarly, knowledge of things before the eclipse, the time of the eclipse itself, and when it clears, does not necessarily mean a change in his essence. Furthermore, Ghazali argues, multiplicity and variety inevitably exist, as “species, genera, and universal accidents are infinite and are different”, therefore it is irrational to deem impossible this knowledge as unifying, when it is able to be divided into past, present, and future, and when the differences between species are greater than the differences occurring between states of one thing relative to time (Ghazali 139, 140).
Emptying the Basket of Apples
To refute Ghazali’s theoretical objection, one might claim God, as not being suppressed by the rules of time and space, lies outside spatio-temporality, and thus, does not need to know Zayd at this point in time does or does not believe in God, but rather, that a person will at one point in time believe or not believe in God, due to the humans hold. Yet if God does not have knowledge as bound by time and space, does it matter if he has this knowledge at all? Is not the whole point of having a God, who has knowledge, to uphold the system of reward and punishment of the afterlife, and to hold people to a more moral, just, life, devoid of sin?
Avicenna’s theory is based on the following assumptions:
- God is the First Cause, therefore he knows all
- Change in knowledge = a change in the knower’s essence
- A change in God’s essence is not possible because he is perfect and unchanging
Assuming these three statements to be true, I agree with Avicenna and believe God, if he were to exist, is not bound by space and time, as we are, and would have knowledge of all things, as the Creator, universally. Therefore, God knows all particulars but not when they occur. Unlike Avicenna, because I do not believe his mind is able to be discussed with our language, concepts, and ideas (as we are restricted by our own knowledge), thereby I do not believe the issue of multiplicity is of importance, as his mind may not be anything resembling the “mind” we know. Furthermore, perhaps it would not matter if a change in knowledge changed his essence.
Avicenna’s theory, while foul proof as long as it relies on the premise of the truth-value of these statements, becomes immediately problematic when questioning the truth-value of these statements, some of which are derived from monotheistic beliefs (such as God being perfect and unchanging). As I attempt to discuss my positionality in relation to Avicenna’s theory of reference, I find myself leaning more to Socrates: “I only know one thing; that I know nothing.”
Al-Ghazali. The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Brigham Young University Press, 2000. pp. 134-147.
Avicenna. On Theology: God’s Nature and Knowledge. J. Murray, 1951. pp. 93-98.
Avicenna. Classical Arabic Philosophy: An Anthology of Sources. Hackett Publishing Company, 2007. pp. 217-219.
Nusseibeh, Sari. Avicenna: Providence and God’s Knowledge of Particulars. Avicenna and His Legacy: A Golden Age of Science and Philosophy. Brepols Publishers, 2010.
 Date added in citation to distinguish between the two different texts of the same author.
 Date added again in citation to distinguish between the two different texts of the same author.