Academic journal article Islam & Science

Causality in Islamic Philosophy: The Arguments of Ibn Sina

Academic journal article Islam & Science

Causality in Islamic Philosophy: The Arguments of Ibn Sina

Article excerpt

Few ideas in the history of philosophy in Islam have been so much debated, attacked, and defended as has the thesis that a necessary connection exists between cause and effect, that cause and effect are so inextricably linked that the existence of one necessitates and implies that of the other, and that if the cause has occurred, the effect cannot fail to occur. For instance, it is this conception of causality, with its hidden assumptions and far-reaching ramifications (e.g. the fettering of God's Will, the eternity of the world, the denial of the possibility of miracles, etc.), that prompted al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) to charge Ibn Sina with heresy and infidelity. This article reexamines Ibn Sina's views on this crucial issue by looking first into his exposition of the four causes and his account of causal efficacy and necessity, before finally discussing his theory of chance.

1. The Four Causes

Ibn Sina, like Aristotle, (1) recognizes four kinds of causes, or rather four modes of explanation in the study of nature: (1) the efficient cause ('illah fa'iliyyah), namely, that which causes a thing to move or change and hence is dubbed the source or principle of motion and change (mabda' al-harakah); (2) the material cause ('illah 'unsuriyyah), defined as that out of which a thing is generated, that in which change or motion is produced, and that which persists before, during, and after the process of change; (3) the formal cause ('illah suriyyah), that is, that into which something is changed or moved; this is the essence or 'what it was for so-and-so to be' of a thing; and (4) the final cause ('illah gha'iyyah), or that for the sake of which a change or motion is produced.

Ibn Sina takes these four causes as explanatory principles which are indispensable as a theoretical framework for the successful investigation of the natural world. This four-cause method of analysis is applied by him to natural bodies: everything that is generated and destructible, everything subject to change (li-kulli waqi' fi al-harakah), and everything composed of matter and form. For example, he says, a bed is produced by a carpenter (its efficient cause) by his imposing changes upon a block of wood (its material cause) for the purpose of possessing a piece of furniture on which to sleep (its final cause), the wood thereby acquiring the form, or certain distinctive properties, of a bed (its formal cause). (2)

While he admits that the ancient philosophers utilized all these four explanatory principles, Ibn Sina criticizes them for emphasizing some of the causes to the neglect of other equally, perhaps even more important factors in explanation. Thus he laments that some of the early thinkers were concerned too much with material causes, believing they could explain the natural world by discovering the basic matter out of which all things are made, such as water (for Thales), air (according to Anaximenes), or fire (in Heraclitus' view). On the other hand, others, like Plato, often spoke as if the explanation of all things would be achieved simply by discovering their Forms, or formal causes. The concept of efficient cause did not emerge until the time of Empedocles, who postulated two motive forces, Love (mahabbah) and Strife (ghalabah), to account for the various changes observed everywhere in the universe. (3)

According to Ibn Sina, the material cause is important inasmuch as it is the potential bearer (hamil) of form and insofar as it is the locus of change from potentiality to actuality. Every natural thing has a material cause that is subject to generation, be it through the change of attribute or state (istihalah), by way of aggregation and combination (bi-hasab ijtima' wa tarkib), or both by way of aggregation as well as change of state.(4)

The formal cause is understood by Ibn Sina as having a variety of meanings. This is because he says the term 'form' (surah) can stand for: (1) essence (mahiyyah), which, when present in matter, transforms it into a species (naw'); (2) the species itself; (3) figure or shape (shakl); and (4) the reality (haqiqah) of a thing. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.