On the Will

Introduction by Charles Burnett

Algazel says: “Whatever is, flows from the essence of God and He knows that it flows from Him. And its flow from Him does not displease him so that He recoils from it, since He hates none of these things. Therefore, it pleases Him by means of its flow from Him. And it can be agreed that this disposition should be called 'will'. Every principle of flowing which is from Him is Him knowing the way of arrangement in everything. Therefore, His knowledge is the cause of being known. Therefore, His will is His knowledge.”

Original Latin

The Will in the World

Here Algazel is showing how the First Being, whom both Muslims and Christians can accept as God, voluntarily creates the universe. At the beginning of the passage the Arabic presents two key terms-- 'will' (irada) and 'providence' ('inaya– here translated as cura). That all things have been created by the First Being has already been proven, but it could be thought that this arises merely from his nature as creator.

We could use the analogy of fire: burning arises from its nature, it is natural for fire to burn, but fire has knowledge that it is burning. Algazel assumes the First Being knows what effect He is having. Since this effect does not displease him, it is in conformity with His will.

Where does the Will come from?

Now, an act of will results either from a firm religious belief (this being regarded, in human terms, as the highest motive), or from knowledge, or from opinion, or from imagination. Which of these applies to the First Being? Belief, of course, is irrelevant, and Algazel does not even consider it.

Algazel explains the other three levels of thought, which are in descending order of reliability. By 'knowledge' he means apodeictic or demonstrative knowledge, as is clear from the example of the geometer that he gives. The demonstrations of the theorems of geometry (as in Euclid's Elements) were regarded, from Aristotle onwards, as the clearest example of the incontrovertible truths of mathematics. The decisions of the sick man as to whether a medicine will be beneficial or not are subject to the vagaries of the natural, sublunar world, on which reason and the most likely argument has to be brought to bear.

The knowledge of the First Being, clearly, must be of the highest reliability, and hence is characterized not as imagination or reason, but true (in the sense that demonstrative knowledge is true) and intellectual (in that it is characteristic of the intellect, which is superior to reason).

Imagination is the least reliable judge, since its judgments are based on sense perception, and the comparison of what one senses with the closest equivalent image in one's mind.

Algazel then asks two questions: 1) how is this knowledge the cause of something being put into effect? 2) how can we deduce from the effects that they have resulted from His knowledge?

To answer these questions it is helpful to compare what happens in the case of human action. Three homely examples are given. The first shows how a strong emotional desire (i.e. being in love with somebody), coupled with the knowledge that the action is beneficial or desirable for the acting person, will itself cause the series of physical movements (the movement of the muscles, and the sinews, and eventually of the sexual organs), which will bring the desired action into effect. The second shows how imagining an effect – e.g., drawing a straight line – will guide the hand and the pen into producing that effect. The third shows how another kind of emotion – that of foreboding – can cause the failure of a desired action (a fear of falling causes one to fall).

The human analogy serves to bring out the contrast in the case of the action of the First Being. First of all, it is false to think that the First Being desires anything that will be beneficial to Himself, because He is sufficient to Himself. Secondly, He does not need organs or tools to put His will into effect. Thirdly, intention is irrelevant in his case, because it implies an aim – a final cause--, and the final cause is only a motivation in the case where there is something lacking which needs to be perfected. There is, of course, nothing lacking in the First Being. What he creates, then, is not for Himself, or to complete Himself, but only what He knows will be good in itself and will be better in existence than not in existence.

The inspiration of this passage is again Avicenna, but here Algazel appears to be drawing on both the Danesh Nameh and the Shifa'. The Danesh Nameh (p. 202-204) succinctly states that any action that proceeds from knowledge must come from will, not from nature or accident, and every act that proceeds from the will, must be based on knowledge, not on doubt (in the sense that one avoids something that poses a danger) or on imagination. Avicenna ranges the geometer and the physician on the same level, as both acting according to their respective sciences. He briefly refers to an example from our own experience: when we want something, we have in advance belief, knowledge, doubt or imagination concerning how that thing is useful or good for us. This is in contrast to the Necessary Being who has knowledge and knows that the existence of something is worthy and good in itself.

What the Danesh Nameh lacks are the homely examples, which come, rather, from the Shifa' of Avicenna. Here we read that 'when the soul imagines something and is strong in that imagination, immediately the corporeal matter receives a form which is comparable to that image or quality... Hence the form in the soul is the principle of that which happens in matter' (De anima, part 4, ed. S. Van Riet, p. 62-63). He gives the example of the sick man who believes he is going to recover and the healthy man who thinks he is going to fall ill, and then he tells how a man refuses to walk along a plank which is extended over deep water out of fear that his limbs would be moved by the image of falling that is impressed in his soul. Avicenna is discussing only the power of imagination, but Algazel takes his examples and uses them to illustrate the hierarchy of imagination, thought and knowledge in human beings.

It is curious that the Latin translator appears to be more pious than the Arabic writer, adding 'who is eternally blessed' after 'the First Being' in section 5, and inserting 'because of our imperfection' after referring to man's need of instruments (the phrase could well come from a Christian confession of sins!). Algazel uses strictly philosophical language, referring to the Creator simply as 'the First' (al-awwal) and 'the Necessary Being' (wajib al-wujud). But he enlivens the philosophical terminology and argumentation with apt examples taken from everyday experience.