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Aristotle, Avicenna, Aquinas on God's Existence
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-07-07 10:14:39
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As already elaborated in previous articles, there is little doubt in the mind of any educated and fair person that the medieval monks deserve much credit for their enormous contribution to the preservation of Western Civilization as we know it. There is, however, another great civilizing influence upon the European Christianized barbarians which needs to be mentioned and acknowledged: that of the Muslims. To my mind the best way to convey such a phenomenon is to look at a particular Muslim philosopher who was greatly influenced by Aristotle and then made some unique contribution of his own; I refer to Avicenna (980-1037).

Avicenna is responsible for bringing Aristotle’s works into the wider European consciousness in the post-Classical era, the era that some have misguidedly dubbed as “dark ages.” He took Aristotle’s argument of First Cause for the existence of God (which Aristotle calls “The Unmovable Mover) and originated a unique version of his own. He was also widely known for his medical writings as exemplified in his book The Canon of Medicine.

Avicenna was born near Bukhara in what is modern-day Uzbekistan. By the age of 10 he had memorized the Koran and by 21 he was already a well-rounded intellectual accomplished in all areas of learning, including medicine, mathematics, music, astronomy, logic. He lived in turbulent times when Turkish forces were vying for dominance in Central Asia and the local Iranian dynasties were struggling to gain independence from the central Muslim dynasty, the Abbasid caliphate, based in modern-day Baghdad, Iraq. Despite the fact that he had to move from town to town in Khorosan (north-eastern Iran and modern western Afghanistan) to make a living as a physician, Avicenna managed to write 200 treatises and several major works of which the most famous are the Kitab ashshifa (Book of Healing) and al-Qanun fi at-tibb (The Canon of Medicine). In the first book he covers logic, mathematics, the natural sciences, music and metaphysics. He draws on Aristotle and other Greek philosophers to develop and argument for God as a necessary existent from which the entire universe was created. The second book is a sort of encyclopedia which draws on the medical knowledge of the Greek physicians of the Roman Imperial age and of Arab physicians as well as his own experience. It is in essence a summary of one thousand years of medical practice and remained a standard textbook of medical knowledge in Europe till the 17th century.

The other major contribution of Avicenna was in the field of philosophy. Reason and reality were central in his philosophy. He was convinced that through reason it is possible for any individual to progress through various levels of understanding and eventually reach the truth about God who is the ultimate object of knowledge. He held that God, the originator of existence is pure intellect.

He arrives at this conception of God by attempting an integration of elements of Aristotle and Plato’s philosophy with his belief in God as the Creator.

Avicenna took what for the Greeks was the central subject of metaphysics, the existence of God, and drawing on Plato’s ideas made a distinction between essence and existence. Essence is the nature of things, while their physical manifestation is separate. For example, the essence of a horse does not imply that the particular horse exists. Existence has to have been created by a necessary essence that is itself not caused. To put it another way, for the material world to have come into being, another factor must have caused it; in turn another factor must have brought this factor into being. But an essential cause and its effect cannot be part of an infinite chain. There has to be a First Cause, and this is God who is the necessary existent. The world emanates from God.

Avicenna then goes on to show that God, reflecting on his own existence, emanates another Intellect (an intelligence or consciousness); the self-awareness of this intellect in turn gives rise to a Second Intellect. Successive levels intelligences emanate from them, creating the universe and the matters that fills it; the tenth and final intellect produced the material world. As far as Avicenna is concerned, the nature of God means that the universe has to exist as it does. Every stage from the First Intellect through all the emanations to the creation of the material was necessary. In this notion of necessity creation in which God and the universe are part of the same process the Biblical and Koranic theory of Creation as an act of free will on the part of God is contradicted. It is doubtful that Avicenna would have passed mustard with the Inquisition.

Be that as it may, for individuals to gain knowledge and grow closer to the truth about the Creator, they had to attempt to grasp the intelligible, using reason and logic. In this Aristotle follows Aristotle’s thought in Prior Analitics, in which Aristotle identifies the capacity for a person to hit upon the middle term of a syllogism to develop arguments. A traditional syllogism has two premises and a conclusion, such as “All mortal things die. All men are mortal things. Therefore all men die.” The middle term is the term that the two premises have in common—in this case mortal things. For Avicenna, when a person understood such intelligibles, he came in touch with the Active Intellect, the final level of Being that emanated from God. This capacity for gaining knowledge varies enormously between people; a prophet, who knew all the intelligibles had the greatest capacity.

For Avicenna, it was the human soul that engaged with the task of gaining knowledge of reality. The human soul was incorporated-separate from the material world. This was because an intellectual thought, in order to remain a coherent concept, could not belong to different intellects, but instead was held by one single intellect. Therefore the soul was also immortal and the disintegration of the body after death did not affect it.

In the century after his death the two above mentioned books of Avicenna were translated into Latin. At first they were taken for mere commentaries but a century or two later his efforts to integrate faith with reason were greatly appreciated by Christian scholars; the foremost of these was the Scholastic Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1274-1323) who incorporates the distinction between essence and existence in his own philosophy and builds the foundations for the harmonization and synthesis of Christian faith with universal reason in his Summa Theologica. But that’s another story for another article.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-07-07 11:34:33
Errata: the above "Aristotle follows Aristotle's thought..." should read "in this Avicenna follows Aristotle's thought..."

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-07 20:53:41

For a more thorough treatement of the issue of disembodied spirit or soul, transcending silly foolish caricatures,open to the above link.

jJack2008-07-07 22:15:29
Aristotle: Philosopher and scientist. He could not simply believe that creation just came out of nothingness, nor into existence without first the Unmoved Mover, the Prime Causer of all that is creation (enveloping the entire physical realm).

Modern medicine has Avicenna to thank for his chronology and written documents over the history of medicine, still in it's infancy. You are right in where you wrote that "reason and reality were central in his philosophy". Using reason, reality and logic, all necessary for human inquiries, leaves no stone unturned (and no fossil records to prove otherwise!)in relating that Something must have caused all things, for effects always point backward. Nowhere has an effect preceded a cause. This is an impossiblity and rationally can not happen. This leaves only one explanation. It came from a Causer, lest no effects would exist.

Chris2008-07-09 20:30:24
Christans, Muslims -- both informed by Manichianism (I dreamed I saw St. Augistene). Mani was informed by Zoroaster (Zarathrustra). Cyrus and Darius of Persia were also informed by Zoroaster. After they took Babylon, Perisa funded and protected the rebuilding of Israel. Hebrew tradition is thus also informed by Zarathrustra. The Avesta and the Vedas speak of the same universe in what is basically the same language. God or Deva -- Zeus, Deus, Hod, Jah, etc. -- no need to prove anything -- just look at what you see, Emanuel. It should be clear without contention.

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-10 19:55:03
Indeed it is , Chris, but the ones we are dealing with put forth reason as their highest endowment by which to ridicule the idea that willy nilly Man is religious by nature. And the fool says in his heart, there is no God (Psalms 14: 1). What the Aristotelian "rational animal" who has reduced everything to logic fails to consider is that only an imperfect creature needs reason (or the left part of the brain), a perfect being would merely intuit and create at the same time. Which is to say, the Enlightenment still needs to enlighten itself.

Tired but pushing on. . .2009-06-03 12:28:05
A vitally important and earlier intermediary between Avicenna and the Greeks, particularly Plato, is Philo of Alexandria. Little to no medieval platonism would have been conceivable without his work. It has even been reasonably argued that there would be no Middle Ages as it existed - hence, no later Reanaissance - with respect to the kind of philosophy seen here without Philo's critical interpretation of Plato's "ideas" here alluded to.
Avicenna learned Philo's teachings well, to be sure, and was a giant in his own right. He was certainly original and certainly, also, a man of God.
But recall: "Either Philo platonizes or Plato philonizes".

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