Al-Farabi's First Existent

In Chapter 1 of The Perfect State, Al-Farabi (AF) presents the First Existent (FE) as having several properties:

(i) Unity
(ii) Thinking
(iii) Power
(iv) Eternal
(v) Immaterial

However, AF also claims that any entity that has at least two properties is divisible. This implies the FE is divisible. But if the FE is divisible, then (i) is false. AF seems to be caught in a puzzle.

One strategy to resolve this puzzle is by showing (i)-(v) are just one property. This may initially seem implausible, i.e. to say Power = Thinking. We should remember we're doing metaphysics. Intuition is a good starting point, but only gets us so far. Consider, there is more space in your desk than matter. That's unintuitive; it's true all the same. This truth earns its place in our scientific theories in part by playing a key role in explaining physical phenomenon. A good explanation can override our intuitions. We should give AF the benefit of the doubt with respect to what his theory of the FE - with (i)-(v) each denoting a single property - can explain. If it can do the work he says it can do, it earns its place in a theory; if it can't, it doesn’t. But this is orthogonal to whether his claims are intuitive or not.

We nevertheless must make sense of how (i)-(v) might each denote a single property. We divide our task into examining (i) and examining (ii)-(v).

Consider (i) first: I don't even think it's accurate to say this is a property worthy of entry on the list. This is not to say (i) isn’t a property. Rather, this seems to be a property that is reducible to other properties on the list. I think this is what is called a supervenient feature of the FE. This is what you get when you have all the other properties, which are themselves just one thing, together. Suppose you buy a sandwich and the clerk tells you to pay for the sandwich, the bread, the meat, etc. all separately. Surely you’d balk; buying the sandwich just is buying the bread, meat, etc. Similarly, the FE exhibiting (ii)-(v) just is exhibiting (i), and it is nothing over and above. This brings us to…

Consider (ii)-(v) next: Observe some properties come in degrees, e.g. x being taller than y. Others properties don’t admit of degrees, e.g. x being 6 feet tall. Properties of degree are comparative. I claim properties (ii)-(v) are properties of degree. One can think more or less than another. One can be more powerful, or exist longer, than another. Moreover, there are plausibly some respective maximal degrees of such properties, e.g. some x that thinks the most, or is the most powerful, etc. It seems plausible each of (ii)-(v) are maximal properties of degree, and when understood as reflecting maximal degrees, each dovetails into the same property.

I will only defend (v) as exhibiting maximal degree in what follows; feel free to explore the others on your own. With respect to (v), it seems plausible that something can be more immaterial than another. This trades in part, of course, on whether you think there are immaterial things. I think there are. e.g. numbers are immaterial. You won't find these things one day while looking for your keys. You may be fine with numbers being immaterial, but if you’re astute you’ll notice you can accept the existence of immaterial entities like numbers, without thereby accepting the existence of immateriality being a property of degree. Clever you.

But the world is full of holes. Holes seem like things, not merely absences of things, but they are not obviously material things, e.g. tables, chairs, etc. Holes are plausibly immaterial and they can be parts of material things. You might balk. You might think holes are just perforations of material objects. So that, say, the side of a building doesn't really have two immaterial things - holes, or windows - as parts, but rather perforations of the material that is the building, i.e. just one thing. But things can be perforated in several ways. A building may have two perforations, while a cup only has one. But here we are counting things! What are we counting? We're counting holes! And if we’re counting holes, then we ought to treat them as things in their own right, rather than perforations of things, and if they’re things in their own right they seem sometimes parts of material things.

You might not be impressed. You might think what we're counting are something like hole-linings, i.e. the surfaces of the interiors of holes. So, we don't need to count holes as things, just surfaces. But this sort of commitment is odd. We usually think the surface in which we find holes surrounds the hole, but if holes are just hole-linings, this means we think holes surround themselves. But that's absurd. Nothing surrounds itself. Also, this commitment entails holes are made of their interiors, i.e. the window holes are made of the interior of the building. But this is odd, since it's the absence of the building that we seem to refer to when talking about holes. We could go on to discuss, say, ways to paraphrase away these puzzles, but it suffices for my point here to put on the table that's it's plausible to treat holes as legitimate immaterial things, and it's legitimate to treat them as parts of material things. And with that, we return to whether immateriality is a property of degree.

If there are holes which are immaterial entities, and material things can have more or fewer of them as parts, then material things can have more or fewer immaterial parts. But then it seems immateriality comes in degrees, since we can compare counts of immaterial parts. Moreover, the maximal degree of immateriality would be some entity lacking any matter as part. And the maximal degree of immateriality is what AF seems to think the FE has; the FE has no material entity as part.

Now, it remains to show maximal immateriality is equivalent to each of (ii)-(iv). I’ll sketch how some of the equivalencies might go:

  • Matter impedes power, so absent matter there is no impediment, and so power is exhibited in the maximal degree by purely immaterial entities. (v) -> (iii)

  • Nothing can prevent a maximally powerful entity from existing, so they’re eternal. (iii) -> (iv)

Try your hand at showing (iv) -> (ii) and then complete the equivalencies by showing (ii) -> (v). This is known as a round robin proof.

Assuming the above equivalencies hold, I think the initial puzzle can be resolved by reducing (i) to (ii)-(v) and observing each property in the latter collection comes in degrees which, when understood as exhibiting maximal degree dovetail into a single property. If this is correct, then FE may be said to exhibit (i)-(v) consistently, since there is but one fundamental property exhibited by the entity, just as AF requires.

That said, I think there are other worries not so easily avoided.

  • First, AF treats properties like they're parts. I think this is confused. My hand is part of my arm, but it's not a property of my arm. It's a part, and parts aren't properties. This is important because divisibility concerns parthood, not properties. To say something cannot be divided means it can't be divided into parts. But an indivisible thing can have many properties. An atom - a true atom - can be red and have a shape. If this is correct, then AF's insistence on the FE being indivisible is just to say it has no parts. But it might have all these properties nonetheless without there being a problem.

    • Response: But you have the property of having an arm.

    • Rejoinder: This seems just a way of speaking. It's not the case that just because you can use a predicate - a piece of language that applies to a subject - that you have a property that corresponds to it. Properties aren't so easy to come by. The predicate being the set of all sets that are not members of themselves does not, for example, pick out a property. Moreover, being red is a property, it seems, since being red is a quality objects have that they share with other objects. Suppose there are two red apples before us. Then there are two instances of red. Properties are repeatable across instances. Having an arm isn't, since plausibly if you had your arm and I had your arm, then my arm would be attached to you. Still, we have both have distinct and yet identical properties of redness. The objection stands.

  • Second, AF is committed to the following:

(CON) If S can clearly and distinctly conceive that x is P, then x has P

For example, if I can clearly and distinctly conceive that a triangle has three sides, then it has three sides. If I can clearly and distinctly conceive God exists, then God exists. In fact, we can construct an ontological argument from AF for the existence of God based on this:

  1. If S can clearly and distinctly conceive of x with property P, then x has property P

  2. S can clearly and distinctly conceive of FE with necessary existence

  3. Hence, FE has the property of necessary existence

  4. If x has the property of necessary existence, then x exists

  5. Hence, FE exists

Indeed, AF seems to argue in just this way. Note: Necessary existence is just eternal existence. It simply means that in any way the world could have turned out, God exists. Put another way, God couldn't fail to have existed. That holds both for the future and past.

But (2) is questionable. It's not because I think it's false though. It's because I don't think I can know if it's true with respect to certain things. And AF agrees with this. He admits we're fallible creatures with limited minds. How can we be sure that we clearly and distinctly conceive of something? I might believe - be convinced - that a number I'm considering at a time is prime, but be entirely mistaken. If this is true, then it seems - whether or not this argument is sound - it's useless to us. To me, that's as bad as being unsound. I'll take known sound arguments over unknown sound arguments any time. To make this useful to us, we'd need a principle like the following:

(CON-CON) If S clearly and distinctly conceives that x has P, then S clearly and distinctly conceives that S clearly and distinctly conceives that x has P

 Put another way, if you know, then you know you know. But is (CON-CON) true? Come up with a counterexample.

It's for this reason that I'm not too interested in exploring AF's various arguments for whatever properties he thinks the FE has. This seems a crux of his metaphysical picture, and I have no reason to accept it and several reasons to reject it. Let this be an illustration of a way of thinking I've found valuable. Sometimes philosophical views are very detailed, and can take much time to work out. There are so many of them too, that it's daunting. There's no way you'll understand them all. But that's okay, since you only want to understand the true ones anyway. If you can examine a philosophical proposal and find a core thesis - a thesis the picture cannot do without - that there are good reasons to reject, then you can put that picture aside and move on to a more worthy project. That's what I'm doing here with AF.