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Page 1

Why Do Animals Eat Other Animals?
Mulla Sadra on the Best of All Possible Worlds

Ibrahim Kalin

The central problem of theodicy[i] revolves around a tension between God’s power and
generosity to create an optimal world on the one hand, and the apparent imperfection of
the world which He has actually created, on the other. Mulla Sadra states this tension as

The world cannot be better than what it is because if this was possible then [we would
have to say] that the Creator who has a Free Will did not know how to create a world
better than this. In this case, His knowledge which comprises all universals and
particulars would be limited. If He knew [how to create a better world] but did not do so
with His power, then this would contradict His generosity that comprises all beings.[ii]

The argument that the world in which we live is the best of all possible world-orders
(Ihsan al-‘Alam) God could have created is based on the overall assumption of the three
Abrahamic traditions that God acts optimally and that His free act is the best of all acts.
Ghazali’s celebrated phrase that “there is nothing in the world of possibility more perfect
and wonderful than what already is” (laysa fi’l-imkan ibda‘ mimma kan) expresses the
same idea by emphasizing the intrinsic perfection of the actual.

In essence, if this world has been created by an omnipotent and infinitely good God, then
it must be the best He could and would have created. Anything less would fall short of
God’s Power or Providence. Furthermore, from the point of view of God’s act of
creation, what is actual is what is rational with no ontological break between the two. It is
then concluded that “the world-order as it is is the noblest, most perfect and highest of all
the possible orders in that no other order can be conceived as higher than it”. Concurring
with Ghazali’s statement and Ibn al-‘Arabi’s countenance of it, Sadra calls this a
‘demonstrative statement’ (kalam burhani), and declares it to be an argument accepted by
both the philosophers and the theologians whether they subscribe to a view of “eternal
decree” (al-qaèa’ al-azali) or “renewing will” (al-ikhtiyar al-tajaddudi).[iii]

The history of this debate among the mutakallimên is well documented in Eric Ormsby’s
Theodicy in Islamic Thought, and there is no need for us to repeat it here.[iv] It should be
pointed out, however, that while Ormsby’s study lists 43 authors and works from the 12th
to the 19th century, some accepting, some rejecting Ghazali’s formulation of the
problem, it does not mention Mulla Sadra. In what follows, I shall provide a close reading
of Sadra’s discussion of the best of all possible worlds argument in the Asfar and
examine his attempt to reformulate the problem in terms of his overall ontology. By
introducing his gradational ontology, Sadra turns the optimal world argument of Ghazali
into an onto-theological statement. I shall consider here the six arguments, among others,
that Sadra advances in defense of Ghazali’s position.

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As it will become clear, these arguments are closely knit together and show Sadra’s
earnest interest in the larger question of good and evil. Constrained between God’s
infinite goodness and wisdom on the one hand, and His absolute freedom on the other,
Sadra oscillates between two models of creation. While the first model emphasizes God’s
innate nature to be good and wise in His Essence and acts, the second focuses on His
absolute freedom. The first view argues for a self-imposed coherence on the part of God
whereby God is portrayed as essentially incapable of doing anything other than what is
best and optimal. Protesting that this ‘necessitarian’ view puts limits on God’s absolute
freedom and power, the second view takes a ‘libertarian’ position and reduces all
considerations of wisdom, justice, and coherence to God’s will.[v] These two models of
creation, which also lie at the heart of the notorious controversy between the Mu‘tazilites
and the Ash‘arites, point to two aspects of the Divine, the first stressing God’s ‘nature’,
the second His ‘will’. As we shall see below, Sadra considers all these options, and
makes use of them. At the end of his discussion, however, he takes refuge in ignorance
and admits, rather disappointingly, man’s lack of appropriate knowledge in such matters.

Sadra discusses the question of good and evil in the Second Part of the Third Journey of
the Asfar whose eighth mawqif is devoted to Divine Providence (al-‘inayat al-ilahiyyah).
Sadra’s ultimate goal is to produce a framework of compatibility within which he can
overcome the dichotomy between God as an omnipotent and innately good being and the
apparent imperfections of the world in which we live. One way of doing this is to show
the relative imperfection and eventual goodness of all created beings, and this is what
Sadra does throughout his elaborate arguments and various examples. I shall first analyze
each of the six arguments and then give an overall evaluation.

Argument 1: “God acts optimally”

The first argument, which we also find among the Mutakallimên and the philosophers, is
predicated upon Divine providence and wisdom. In this view, God acts not only freely
but also optimally. This is something that emanates from His Essence and Nature rather
than Will per se. God acts wisely and optimally by way of necessity – a necessity that is
called for by His own nature. Since God is the most perfect being, what emanates from
Him is also perfection. Since essence and action are united in God, God’s acts that come
in the form of creation reflect His essence: “His being, by which His essence is
substantiated, is the same as His being by which He acts”.[vi] And since God’s essence is
good, what comes from Him must be good. In short, God’s providence and infinite
goodness stipulate that He act wisely of necessity.[vii]

A classic statement of this problem among the Greeks is found in Timaeus 29E-30B
where Plato reiterates the necessitarian view of creation without appealing, as the
Neoplatonists would later do, to emanation as an alternative model to creatio ex nihilo:

Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the
good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired
that all things should be as like himself as they could be … God desired that all things

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No less significant than hierarchic purposiveness is the ‘principle of reason’, which
Heidegger attributes to Leibniz’s celebrated phrase nihil est sine ratione, i.e., “nothing is
without a reason”.[xxv] Within the theistic context of Abrahamic faiths, there is nothing
surprising about the idea that there is a reason for things to be the way they are rather
than they are not. It is, however, important to note that Leibniz’s statement is not to be
understood solely in terms of causation. What the principle states is also an axiomatic
statement. It is obvious that if B is caused by A, then B is not without a reason. The same
applies to A but in a different way. When considering A from the standpoint of the
principle of reason, we take a step back and place A within a different causal matrix in
which it becomes an effect caused by something else.

But the real issue is not so much the ‘whatness’ (ma-huwa) of things as their ‘whyness’
(lima-huwa). Keeping in mind the theistic context of Sadra’s (and Leibniz’s) discussion,
our question is as much causal as it is axiological. This leads us to revise the principle of
reason in an important way: nothing is without a reason for the way it is. It is not difficult
to see where this revision takes us. In the language the medieval philosophers, “the way it
is” is interchangeable with “the way it should be”. For Sadra,

whatever happens in the world of generation happens because of a reason. Therefore
whatever is not necessitated by a cause does not exist. The chain of reasons leads to one
single source by which all things are caused through His knowledge of them and His
wisdom and providence. There is nothing in existence that is not compatible with the
nature of its causes and reasons leading up to the One Truth.[xxvi]

Now, I have to leave the further articulation of this point to another discussion. But it is
clear that Sadra locates the principle of reason in both senses of “is” and “should” within
God’s ‘teleological wisdom’ (al-åikmat al-gha’iyyah). This teleological wisdom desires
the ultimate perfection of things. It also sets up a framework of relation in which
everything benefits from something else and is benefited by others. Sadra expresses this
in his typical style:

When God the Wise created the beings of this world either for acquiring a benefit or
dispelling a harm from animals, He did not leave anything without a benefit and utility.
Had He not made the animal corpses a food for these bodies [of other animals], these
corpses would be null and without any benefit and return. In fact, they would cause many
harms and general corruption.[xxvii]

In addition to hierarchic purposiveness and principle of reason, Sadra uses one more
argument to demonstrate the relative imperfection of the natural order. The principle of
“best possibility” (imkan al-ashraf), which Sadra traces back to Aristotle, Ibn Sina and
Suhrawardi, states that every lower cause or being points to the existence of something
higher than it.[xxviii] This is to be understood in terms of a reversed causality in that we
move from effect to cause, from B to A, and assume that A as cause/reason has a higher
ontological status than B as effect. As a causal term, A is certainly prior to B. But what
Sadra wants to assert is that causal precedence allows for ontological priority. Once this

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is warranted, then it becomes easier to move from a lower cause to a higher one and,
consequently, from a being of lower ontological complexity to a higher one.

For Sadra, the principle of best possibility accomplishes, inter alia, two things. First of
all, it sets up, once more, a hierarchy of causal relations. This leads to the idea that what
emanates from God is not the lowest possibility (imkan akhass)[xxix] in the world, i.e.,
the hyle and other forms of non-existence and natural evil but rather “what must be the
noblest of beings that have no blemish of nonexistence and imperfection”.[xxx] In other
words, what is considered evil and imperfect in itself does not come directly from God.
This explains why even the most wicked beings in the world do not blemish God’s
generosity, power and wisdom, and leads us to the second aspect of the principle of best
possibility: the actual imperfection and baseness of corporeal (i.e., created) beings is the
contrastive component of things in the descending order of creation. Put differently,
creation necessitates the gradual privation of things, and it is this process that gives rise to
the basest possibility in the world of generation and corruption, i.e., the source of all evil
and imperfections.

The overall result of the principle of best possibility is to establish a hierarchic world-
order with intermediary stages of being between God as pure goodness and everything
else. As we shall see below in Argument 6, this confirms one more time the relativity of
both natural and moral evil while at the same time constructing a holistic view of the
cosmos. After stating these points, Sadra adds that

when we witness the relationship of some beings to others, their benefiting from one
another, the inclination of every imperfect being towards its perfection, and the desire of
every lower being to reach what is higher through a noble inclination and natural desire
as God entrusted in His own essence, we see the affection of every sublime being for
what is underneath it, the providence of every powerful being for what is lower than
itself, and the governance of every soul and intellect for what falls under its jurisdiction
… We see this to be the soundest governing, the most intense description, the best
fashion, the subtlest perfection and completion in such a way that it leads them to their
penultimate perfection and completion.[xxxi]

Argument 5: “The world cannot take pure goodness without ceasing to exist”

In the ascending order of created beings, the closer a being is to pure goodness, the more
‘beingful’ it becomes, and this enables it to have a bigger share in goodness. A plant has
more being and thus more goodness than inanimate objects because it contains more life
and complexity, and benefits other beings in the cosmos.[xxxii] In this onto-cosmogonic
scheme, Sadra sees an axiological hierarchy of natural objects with different degrees of
goodness and evil. In his commentary on the Shifa’, he says that

good by itself is that which effects every one and by which others become delighted and
to which others are attracted. In reality, this is being (al-wujêd). The variation of things in
goodness is proportionate to their variation in being. The stronger a thing’s being, the
greater its goodness.[xxxiii]

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knowing subjects, we do not interact with the world as a tabula rasa shorn of any or all relations. According
to sadrà, we encounter the world as derivative of relational being. In this sense, relationality is an essential
function of particular objects in that we cannot perceive particular objects in complete isolation from the
sets of relations within which we find them. This view, which I call the metaphysics of relations, breaks
down the conventional barrier between “perceiving through particulars” and “thinking through universals”.
For a defense of this view of relations and particularity, see Brian John Martine, “Relations, Indeterminacy,
and Intelligibility” in R. C. Neville (ed.), New Essays in Metaphysics (Albany: State University of New
York Press, 1987), pp. 237-252. See also his Individuals and Individuality (Albany: State University of
New York Press, 1984).

[xxiii]. Asfàr, III, 2, p. 101.

[xxiv]. Op. cit., pp. 101-102.

[xxv]. Cf. Martin Heidegger, The Principle of Reason, tr. By Reginald Lilly (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1996).

[xxvi]. Asfàr, III, 2, p. 112.

[xxvii]. Op. cit., p. 102.

[xxviii]. For sadrà’s short history of the principle of best possibility and his praise of it, see Op. cit., pp.

[xxix]. sadrà claims credit for the “principle of lowest possibility”, which he cites as complementing
Suhrawardi’s original “principle of best possibility”. See Op. cit., 2, p. 257.

[xxx]. Op. cit., p. 258. For the same reason, the first being that is created by God or emanates from Him
must be something incorporeal free from the limitations of matter and nonexistence. Hence the
significance of the oft-repeated hadith that “the first thing God created was the intellect”, “the first thing
God created was the pen”, and still “the first thing God created was my light”. Cf. op. cit., p. 117 and other
places. Even the classical Ash’arite Kalàm appears to agree with this explanation. Cf. Sa‘d al-Din al-
Taftàzàni, Sharå al-maqàæid, ed. by A. ‘Umayra (Beirut: Alam al-Kutub, 1989), Vol. 3, pp. 355-6.

[xxxi]. Asfàr, III, 2, p. 117.

[xxxii]. For sadrà’s discussion of these examples in relation to the creation of human beings, see Op. cit., p.

[xxxiii]. Sharå wa ta‘liqa-yi æadr al-muta‘allihin bar ilàhiyyàt-i shifà’, ed. by N. Habibi (Tehran: Intisharat-
i Bunyad-i Hikmat-i Islami-yi sadrà, 1382 A.H.) (SIPRIn) p. 75.

[xxxiv]. Asfàr, III, 2, p. 122.

[xxxv]. Op. cit., p. 58.

[xxxvi]. Plantinga’s “free will defense” is based on such an argument. Plantinga defines his position as
follows: “A world containing creatures who freely perform both good and evil actions – and do more good
than evil—is more valuable than a world containing quasi-automata who always do what is right because
they are unable to do otherwise”. Alvin Plantinga, “The Free Will Defence” in Philosophy in America, Max
Black (ed.), reprinted in Baruch A. Broody (ed.), Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytical
Approach (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1974), p. 187. see also his “God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of
Freedom” in Marilyn M. Adams and Robert M. Adams (eds.), The Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1990), pp. 83-109.

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[xxxvii]. Giving even a summary of sadrà’s elaborate examples from the creation of the elements to the
creation of man will take us too far a field. For sadrà’s discussion, see Asfàr, III, 2, pp. 123-144.

[xxxviii]. Asfàr, III, 2, p. 143.

[xxxix]. Ibid.

[xl]. Op. cit., p. 71.

[xli]. Op. cit., p. 77.

[xlii]. Op. cit., p. 95.

[xliii]. Cf. Ibn Sinà’s remarks and têsi’s commentary in Ishàràt, Vol. 3, p. 320.

[xliv]. Asfàr, III, 2, p. 58.

[xlv]. sadrà mentions five categories of things: that which is pure goodness, that which has more goodness
than evil, that which has more evil than goodness, that which has equal amount of goodness and evil, and
finally that which is pure evil. sadrà rejects the last three categories of things by saying that “in reality they
do not exist in the world”. He thus reduces everything to the first two categories. Asfàr, III, 2, p. 68. This is
a freelance adaptation of Tusi’s commentary on Ibn Sinà’s defense of evil as the privation of goodness. Cf.
Ishàràt, Vol. 3, p. 321.

[xlvi]. Najàt, p. 321. Locating evil within non-being is a typically Plotinian theme. Consider the following:
“… evil cannot have any place among beings or in the beyond-being; these are good. There remains, only,
if evil exists at all, that it be situated in the realm of non-being, that it be some mode, as it were, of the non-
being or to a certain degree communicate in non-being”. Plotinus, Enneads, I, 8, 3, tr. Stephen MacKenna
(London: Faber and Faber, 1962, 3rd edition). But Ibn Sinà and sadrà are careful not to push this argument
too far since if evil were pure non-being, our statements about it would have no truth-value. For a defense
of the view that Plato’s thought, statements or claims about non-being are not proper statements and thus
have no truth-value, see J. Xenakis, “Plato on Statement and Truth-Value”, Mind 66 (1957), pp. 165-172.
See also Nicholas Rescher, “The Ontology of the Possible” in Michael J. Loux (ed.), The Possible and the
Actual: Readings in the Metaphysics of Modality (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 166-7;
reprinted from Rescher’s Logic and Ontology (New York: New York University Press, 1973).

[xlvii]. Asfàr, III, 2, p. 62.

[xlviii]. Cf. Najàt, p. 324.

[xlix]. Asfàr, III, 2, p. 105.

[l]. Op. cit., p. 104.

[li]. Op. cit., p. 61.

[lii]. Op. cit., pp. 147-8. The Qur’anic verse sadrà quotes reads “They ask you about the spirit. Say: the
spirit is of my Lord’s command, and of knowledge you have been given but little”. The specific referent of
this verse is the nature of spirit. But, as we see in numerous other cases, sadrà takes this to be a general rule
for all kinds of knowledge that pertain to the invisible world (al-ghayb).

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