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Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. [1904], at


IN this chapter will be given an outline of the proofs by which the Mutakallemim attempt to demonstrate that the universe is not eternal. You must of course not expect that I shall quote their lengthy arguments verbatim: I only intend to give an abstract of each proof, to show in what way it helps to establish the theory of the creatio ex nihilo or to confute the eternity of the universe, and briefly to notice the propositions they employed in support of their theory. If you were to read their well-known and voluminous writings, you would not discover any arguments with which they support their view left unnoticed in the present outline, but you might find there greater copiousness of words combined with more grace and elegance of style; frequently they employ rhyme, rhythm, and poetical diction, and sometimes mysterious phrases which perhaps are intended to startle persons listening to their discourses, and to deter those who might otherwise criticize them. You would also find many repetitions; questions propounded and, as they believe, answered, and frequent attacks on those who differ from their opinions.

The First Argument.

Some of the Mutakallemim thought that by proving the creation of one thing, they demonstrated the creatio ex nihilo in reference to the entire universe. E.g., Zaid, who from a small molecule had gradually been brought

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to a state of perfection, has undoubtedly not effected this change and development by his own efforts, but owes it to an external agency. It is therefore clear that an agent is required for such organization and successive transmutation. A palm-tree or any other object might equally be selected to illustrate this idea. The whole universe, they argue, is analogous to these instances. Thus you see how they believe that a law discovered in one thing may equally be applied to everything.

The Second Argument.

This argument is likewise based on the belief that the proof by which the creation of one thing is demonstrated, holds good for the creatio ex nihilo in reference to the whole universe. E.g., a certain individual, called Zaid, who one time was not yet in existence, subsequently came into existence; and if it be assumed that Amr, his father, was the cause of his existence, Amr himself must likewise have passed from non-existence into existence: suppose then that Zaid's father unquestionably owed his origin to Khaled, Zaid's grandfather, it would be found that Khaled himself did not exist from eternity, and the series of causes could thus be carried back to infinity. But such an infinite series of beings is inadmissible according to the theory of the Mutakallemim, as we have shown in our discussion of the eleventh proposition. In continuing this species of reasoning, you come to a first man, who had no parent, viz. Adam. Then you will of course ask, whence came this first man? If, e.g., the reply be given that he was made out of earth, you will again inquire, "Whence came that earth?" "Out of water." "Whence came the water?" The inquiry would be carried on, either ad infinitum, which is absurd, or until you meet with a something that came into existence from absolute non-existence: in this latter case you would arrive at the real truth: here the series of inquiries ends. This result of the question proves, according to the opinion of the Mutakallemim, that the whole universe came into existence from absolute non-existence.

The Third Argument.

The atoms of things are necessarily either joined together or separate, and even the same atoms may at one time be united at another disunited. It is therefore evident that the nature of the atoms does not necessitate either their combination or their separation: for if they were separate by virtue of their nature they would never join, and if they were joined by virtue of their nature, they could never again be separated. Thus there is no reason why atoms should rather be combined than separate, or vice versâ, why rather in a state of separation than of combination. Seeing that some atoms are joined, others separate, and again others subject to change, they being combined at one time and separated at another, the fact may therefore be taken as a proof that the atoms cannot combine or separate without an agent. This argument, according to the opinion of the Mutakallemim, establishes the theory that the universe has been created from nothing. You have already been told, that those who employ this argument rely on the first proposition of the Mutakallemim with its corollaries.

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The Fourth Argument.

The whole Universe is composed of substance and accidents; every substance must possess one accident or more, and since the accidents are not eternal, the substance, the substratum of the accidents, cannot be eternal; for that which is joined to transient things and cannot exist without them is itself transient. Therefore the whole Universe has had a beginning. To the objection, that the substance may possibly be eternal while the accidents, though in themselves transient, succeed each other in an infinite series, they reply that, in this case, an infinite number of transient things would be in existence, an eventuality which, according to their theory, is impossible. This argument is considered by them the best and safest, and has been accepted by many of them as a strict proof. Its acceptance implies the admission of the following three propositions, the object of which is well understood by philosophers. (1) An infinite series of things, of which the one succeeds when the other has ceased to exist, is impossible. (2) All accidents have a beginning.--Our opponent, who defends the theory of the eternity of the universe, can refute this proposition by pointing to one particular accident, namely to the circular motion of the sphere; for it is held by Aristotle that this circular motion is eternal, and, therefore, the spheres which perform this motion are, according to his opinion, likewise eternal. It is of no use to prove that all other accidents have a beginning; for our opponent does not deny this: he says that accidents may supervene an object which has existed from eternity, and may follow each other in rotation. He contents himself with maintaining that this particular accident, viz., circular motion, the motion of the heavenly sphere, is eternal, and does not belong to the class of transient accidents. It is therefore necessary to examine this accident by itself, and to prove that it is not eternal. (3) The next proposition which the author of this argument accepts is as follows: Every material object consists of substance and accidents, that is to say, of atoms and accidents in the sense in which the Mutakallemim use the term. But if a material object were held to be a combination of matter and form, as has been proved by our opponent, it would be necessary to demonstrate that the primal matter and the primal form are transient, and only then the proof of the creatio ex nihilo would be complete.

The Fifth Argument.

This argument is based on the theory of Determination, and is made much of by the Mutakallemim. It is the same as the theory which I explained in discussing the tenth proposition. Namely, when they treat either of the Universe in general, or of any of its parts, they assume that it can have such properties and such dimensions as it actually has; that it may receive such accidents as in reality are noticed in it, and that it may exist in such a place and at such a time as in fact is the case; but it may be larger or smaller, may receive other properties and accidents, and come to existence at an earlier or a later period, or in a different place. Consequently, the fact that a thing has been determined in its composition, size, place, accident and time--a variation in all these points being possible--is a proof that a being exists which freely chooses and determines these divers relations; and the circumstance

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that the Universe or a part of it requires a being able to make this selection, proves that the Universe has been created ex nihilo. For there is no difference which of the following expressions is used: to determine, to make, to create, to produce, to originate, or to intend: these verbs have all one and the same meaning. The Mutakallemim give a great many examples, both of a general and a special character. They say it is not more natural for earth to be under water than to be above water; who then determined its actual position? Or, is it more natural that the sun is round than that it should be square or triangular: for all qualities have the same relation to a body capable of possessing them. Who then determined one particular quality? In a similar way they treat of every individual being: when, e.g., they notice flowers of different colours, they are unable to explain the phenomenon, and they take it as a strong proof in favour of their theory; they say, "Behold, the earth is everywhere alike, the water is alike; why then is this flower red and that one yellow?" Some being must have determined the colour of each, and that being is God. A being must therefore exist which determines everything, both as regards the Universe generally, and each of its parts individually. All this is the logical consequence of the tenth proposition. The theory of determination is moreover adopted by some of those who assume the eternity of the Universe, as will be explained below. In conclusion, I consider this to be the best argument: and in another part I shall more fully acquaint you with the opinion I have formed concerning the theory of Determination.

The Sixth Argument.

One of the modern Mutakallemim thought that he had found a very good argument, much better than any advanced hitherto, namely, the argument based on the triumph of existence over non-existence. He says that, according to the common belief, the existence of the Universe is merely possible . for if it were necessary, the Universe would be God--but he seems to forget that we are at issue with those who, whilst they believe in the existence of God, admit at the same time the eternity of the Universe.--The expression "A thing is possible" denotes that the thing may either be in existence or not in existence, and that there is not more reason why it should exist than why it should not exist. The fact that a thing, the existence of which is possible, actually does exist--although it bears the same relation to the state of existence as to that of non-existence--proves that there is a Being which gave the preference to existence over non-existence. This argument is very forcible; it is a modified form of the foregoing argument which is based on the theory of determination. He only chose the term "preference" instead of "determination," and instead of applying it to the properties of the existing being he applies it to "the existence of the being itself." He either had the intention to mislead, or he misunderstood the proposition, that the existence of the Universe is possible. Our opponent who assumes the eternity of the Universe, employs the term "possible," and says, "the existence of the Universe is possible" in a sense different from that in which the Mutakallem applies it, as will be explained below. Moreover it may be doubted whether the conclusion, that the Universe owes its origin to a being which is able to give preference to existence over non-existence, is correct. For

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we may apply the terms "preference" and "determination" to anything capable of receiving either of two properties which are contrary or opposed to each other: and when we find that the thing actually possesses one property and not the other, we are convinced that there exists a determining agent. E.g., you say that a piece of copper could just as well be formed into a kettle as into a lamp: when we find that it is a lamp or a kettle, we have no doubt that a deciding and determining agent had advisedly chosen one of the two possible forms: for it is clear that the substance of copper existed, and that before the determination took place it had neither of the two possible forms which have just been mentioned. When, however, it is the question whether a certain existing object is eternal, or whether it has passed from non-existence into existence, this argument is inadmissible: for it cannot be asked who decided in favour of the existence of a thing, and rejected its nonexistence, except when it has been admitted that it has passed from nonexistence into existence; in the present case this is just the point under discussion. If we were to take the existence and the non-existence of a thing as mere objects of imagination, we should have to apply the tenth proposition which gives prominence to imagination and fiction, and ignores the things which exist in reality, or are conceived by the intellect. Our opponent, however, who believes in the eternity of the Universe, will show that we can imagine the non-existence of the universe as well as we can imagine any other impossibility. It is not my intention to refute their doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo: I only wish to show the incorrectness of their belief that this argument differs from the one which precedes: since in fact the two arguments are identical, and are founded on the well-known principle of determination.

The Seventh Argument.

One of the modern Mutakallemim says that he is able to prove the creation of the Universe from the theory put forth by the philosophers concerning the immortality of the soul. He argues thus: If the world were eternal the number of the dead would necessarily be infinite, and consequently an infinite number of souls would coexist, but it has long since been shown that the coexistence of an infinite number of things is positively impossible. This is indeed a strange argument! One difficulty is explained by another which is still greater! Here the saying, well known among the Arameans, may be applied: "Your guarantee wants himself a guarantee." He rests his argument on the immortality of the soul, as though he understood this immortality, in what respect the soul is immortal, or what the thing is which is immortal! If, however, he only meant to controvert the opinion of his opponent, who believed in the eternity of the Universe, and also in the immortality of the soul, he accomplished his task, provided the opponent admitted the correctness of the idea which that Mutakallem formed of the philosopher's view on the immortality of the soul. Some of the later philosophers explained this difficulty as follows: the immortal souls are not substances which occupy a locality or a space, and their existence in an infinite number is therefore not impossible. You must bear in mind that those abstract beings which are neither bodies nor forces dwelling in bodies, and which in fact are ideals--are altogether incapable of being represented as a

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plurality unless some ideals be the cause of the existence of others, and can be distinguished from each other by the specific difference that some are the efficient cause and others the effect: but that which remains of Zaid [after his death] is neither the cause nor the effect of that which is left of Amr, and therefore the souls of all the departed form only one being as has been explained by Ibn Bekr Ibn Al-zaig, and others who ventured to speak on these profound subjects. In short, such intricate disciplines, which our mind can scarcely comprehend, cannot furnish any principles for the explanation of other subjects.--It should be noted that whoever endeavours to prove or to disprove the eternity of the Universe by these arguments of the Mutakallemim, must necessarily rely on one of the two following propositions, or on both of them; namely on the tenth proposition, according to which the actual form of a thing is merely one of many equally possible forms, and which implies that there must be a being capable of making the special selection: or on the eleventh proposition which rejects the existence of an infinite series of things coming successively into existence. The last-named proposition is demonstrated in various ways, e.g., they advert to a class of transient individuals, and to a certain particular date. From the theory which asserts the eternity of the Universe, it would follow that the individuals of that class up to that particular date are infinite in number; a thousand years later the individuals of that class are likewise infinite in number; the last number must exceed the previous one by the number of the individuals born in those thousand years, and consequently one infinite number would be larger than another. The same argument is applied to the revolutions of the heavenly sphere, and in like manner it is shown that one infinite number of revolutions would be larger than another; the same result is obtained when revolutions of one sphere are compared with those of another moving more slowly; the revolutions of both spheres [though unequal] would be infinite in number. Similarly they proceed with all those accidents which are subject to destruction and production; the individual accidents that have passed into non-existence are counted and represented as though they were still in existence, and as though they were things with a definite beginning; this imaginary number is then either increased or reduced. Yet all these things have no reality and are mere fictions. Abunazar Alfarabi in criticizing this proposition, has exposed all its weak points, as you will clearly perceive, when you study his book on the changeable beings earnestly and dispassionately. These are the principal arguments of the Mutakallemim in seeking to establish the creatio ex nihilo. Having thus proved that the Universe is not eternal, they necessarily infer that there is an Agens who created it in accordance with His intention, desire and will. They then proceed to prove the unity of that Agens as I am going to point out in the next chapter.

Next: Chapter LXXV