Friday, February 06, 2009

Ibn Sina: what's all the fuss about? (Essence vs. Existence)

I think I got over excited previously when I had mentioned that Ibn Sina's "floating man" thought experiment might have been a precursor to Descartes Meditations. In the Meditations, Descartes is aiming at answering the skeptics by proving that there is one thing of which a human being can be certain of. This certainty is based on the understanding that whilst everything around us could be doubted initially if we wanted to, including our own bodies, the one thing which cannot be doubted is that we think. Even if all else is a deception, this fact alone cannot be in doubt. For Ibn Sina, the purpose of the "floating man" example is actually aiming for a completely different target. Its primary purpose is to help someone explain to materialists that it is possible to conceive of a soul with absolutely no sensation whatsoever. He tells us to imagine that a fully grown man is brought into being instantaneously, flying in the air in such a way that air resistance would not be felt, his arms, legs and fingers completely stretched apart so that he cannot feel anything. There is no sound at all and his eyes are covered by a thin membrane which would prevent him from seeing anything. Ibn Sina tells us that this man would still, in spite of having no previous experience, be aware of his own existence, that he is alive somehow. This, according to Ibn Sina, is the soul, this "thing" which is deep inside us. He is adamant that the soul is not an organ or part of the body (just like Aristotle), but that it comes into being because the body is suitable for it to exist, sent down by the "Active Intellect". His psychology of the human being was rooted in his neo-platonic understanding of the cosmos and on closer examination it isn't as far fetched as one would think. This is probably more astonishing in that he lived in the 3rd or 4th century Hijri. The man was a polymath and a genius and he also knew it. Arrogant, full of himself and extremely pleased of himself whenever he knew he was onto a good idea, reading his texts is actually really enjoyable. He was once criticised by someone knowledgable in Arabic grammar over the fact that he was originally Persian. In response, he spent a whole year gather the most obscure texts and knowledge about Arabic grammar, compiling these into one work and then questioning the man who insulted him about these. When the man couldn't respond, he then smugly proceeded to bring out the work which he had compiled and learned in front of everyone gathered, humiliating the man for his lack of knowledge. I mean that's just plain mean - but still a brilliant move from Ibn Sina.

Essence and existence.
One of the issues he dealt with was on the difference between the essence of a thing and its existence. This was an argument about what some thing actually is and then whether it exists. For example, when we talk about unicorns how can we make sense of this? Ibn Sina tackled this problem and tried to give us an answer but first we have to remember that Arabic philosophers were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, and Aristotle in particular, through what are now called the Neo-Platonists. Aristotle distinguished between "what" something is and "whether" it existed, but he never considered the idea of existence as a general concept, so a bear and a man both had "existence". The problem arose when the Mutakalimun (speculative theologicans) began discussing the relationship between the essence (ماهية الشيء) and thingness (الشيئية). In the Qur'an there is a surah describing where Allah creates the universe by saying to it be and it is. What is the "it"? Did it exist in some form before being actualised?

For Sunni theologicans, something is if it exists, it is not if it does not exist. But this leaves us with the problem of mental objects and what are these then? Saying that a unicorn does not exist at all, even though we can conceive one, is different from saying that there are square circles. The first can be thought of, the second is not even thinkable and so does not exist. Avicenna believed that it was possible to conceive X separately from whether something actually existed or not. Existence (وجود)  is what we describe it as  when we know that thing is actually real. For him, essence had three aspects: a concrete existent, a mental existant and then finally what is neither of these two. Essence itself has a neutral meaning in relation to the existants. Square circles would be neither mental nor concrete existents and so they simply do not exist, nor do they have an essence.

It is a tribute to Ibn Sina that the stages of Arabic philosophy are divided into the pre-Ibn Sina era, himself and then everything that came after him. Every great Arabic philosopher had to respond to Ibn Sina in one way or another after him. Following Ibn Sina, there was a big debate concerning whether existence or essence took primacy over the other. One one extreme, Suhrawardi believed that the essence was prior to the existence whilst on the other extreme, Ibn Arabi (the Grand Master of the Sufi's) held the view that only existence was real and essences are how existence presents itself to us. Ibn Sina is unclear on this, he holds that both are equally real and that they relate together somehow.

A question of modality

Another area that Ibn Sina built upon was that of modality. For Aristotle, and Greeks in general, modality had a "statistical" understanding. Frequency had three modes:

Necessary - what is always the case
Possible - what is sometimes the case
Impossible - what is never the case

The implication to these modes as understood by the Greeks is that all "possibilities" will be realised at some time. Then again, Aristotle does give us the implication at times that things might happen, but then again they don't have to. This is different. Where Ibn Sina innovated on this was to break the link between frequency and modality. He gave a different explanation of the necessary as that whose denial involves a contradiction (that whose essence implies existence). On the other hand, the impossible is that whose essence rules out existence. As mentioned previously, this was the domain of things which could not even be thought of because to do so would be a contradiction. 

What we are left with is the possible-through-itself whose essence implies neither existence nor non-existence. It is something whose existence or non-existence needs a cause.

For example, we are told that 4 is necessary of existence not by itself but because there is 2+2. Burning is necessary of existence not by itself, but because we join together what burns with what is burned.

So the possible is whatever has an essence that does not necessarily exist on its own and it is also not impossible. It is completely neutral as to the frequency it happens and its necessity is through another. 

If we understand these key concepts, we can then go on and understand Ibn Sina's proofs on God and also on the Soul, which I spoke about in the beginning. Ibn Sina had interesting views on religion and was an extremely devout Muslim, but his conception of what Allah is and how the soul relates to all this are truly out of this world for any person with traditional notions of spirituality. Still, as convincing as this is, I defer more to al Ghazali, who built his criticism on the philosophers from the arguments that Ibn Sina and his teacher, al Farabi, had built upon. I've just started reading what Ibn Rushd did to refute al Ghazali, but so far it seems the two are talking past each other rather than debating. If you want to read more on Ibn Sina, you could check Wikipedia, (warning: it is mainly from a Western perspective) but another place you could read about him is on which actually has his texts in Arabic (pdf format) along with commentaries by Muslim philosophers and scholars. In my next post I'll go through Ibn Sina's proof for the existence of God, which gets very interesting!


yaman said...

I like these summaries on philosophy, keep posting them!

yaman said...

On that note, I was shocked the Wikipedia page was completely devoid of any information that he was a Muslim until the 3rd or 4th paragraph! I modified the page to include it in the 1st paragraph.

Maysaloon said...

I'm glad you like them Yaman, I'll keep typing up more of the notes and lecture details I get when I get them.

As for Ibn Sina, yes, that is one thing. The other is that modern day politics and nationalisms are reinterpreting and rehashing the memory of these people, who lived in a very different world-system to fit the present. For Ibn Sina, there is a considerable effort to remould him into a Persian philosopher, even though almost all his works are in Arabic. The only work, a treatise on governance, is now considered to have been translated later and not something he originally wrote in Persian. Sad state of affairs really.