causality


causality
   ; cause
(sabab, ‘illa)
   Islamic theology generally employs a weak conception of causality. According to the traditional model, a thing’s cause is simply the occasion (sabab, i.e. ‘channel’ or ‘intermediary’) for its existence – that which permits it to occur without fully determining or necessitating it. Although this idea can be found in philosophical circles as well, the more common term there is ‘illa. This corresponds roughly to Aristotle’s notion of aition as the ‘explanation’ for why a thing is what it is. Islamic philosophers such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina took up Aristotle’s four-fold model of causality (formal, material, efficient and final), but added a Neoplatonic twist to it, by conceiving of cause as a kind of ontological ground that perpetually sustains the existence of its effect. On this model, God is the First Cause, from whom all things emanate necessarily and automatically, as if by a kind of logical entailment. Indeed, the relation between all causes and effects in the world is one of necessity, and this is precisely what renders the world intelligible to human reason. However, it is difficult to reconcile the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic model of causality with the Qur’anic notion of God’s free creation of the world, not to mention the possibility of revelation or miracles. Furthermore, it raises hard questions about free will, moral accountability and divine reward and punishment. Anticipating David Hume’s critique of causality by virtually seven centuries, the Ash‘arite theologian al- Ghazali attacked the philosophers by arguing that it is impossible to demonstrate a necessary causal relation between natural events. One can certainly observe a repeated concomitance between two events, but this does not establish that one necessitates the other. Al-Ghazali articulated an alternative metaphysics of possibility, in which all things are the direct effect of God’s free will and thus can always be other than they are. His so-called ‘occasionalism’ preserves God’s freedom and omnipotence but, as Ibn Rushd and modern philosophers such as Muhammad ‘Abduh have argued, it also undermines the very possibility of science, since it rejects the idea that there is any real intelligible order or regularity hard-wired into nature (at best, it is simply a provisional function of divine habit or custom). Similarly, al-Ghazali recontextualizes the question of free will and moral accountability without adequately resolving it. For insofar as every event – human choices and actions included – is the effect of God’s will, human agency seems subsumed if not obliterated by divine omnipotence. Ibn Rushd’s reply to al- Ghazali pointed towards a purely Aristotelian conception of causality stripped of problematic Neoplatonic innovations, but by then the tide had turned against the philosophers.
   See Aristotle; free will and predestination; al-Ghazali; Ibn Rushd; Ibn Sina; Neoplatonism; occasionalism; science
   Further reading: al-Ash‘ari 1953; Fakhry 1958; al- Ghazali 1997/2000; Goodman 1992a/2006; Ibn Rushd 1954/78; Ibn Sina 2005; Kogan 1985; Marmura 2005; Watt 1948; Wisnovsky 2003

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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