"Everything Other Than God Is Unreal"

Windows at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

“Everything Other Than God Is Unreal” Exploring a Kalam Ontological Argument

That is because God alone is the Absolutely Real, and what they call upon other than Him is unreal, and God alone is the Sublime, the Exalted. Qur’an 31:30

The most truthful statement a poet ever uttered is the statement of Labīd: “Verily, everything other than God is unreal.” Prophet Muĥammad , Śaĥīĥ al-Bukhārī

Monotheism is to singularize the Eternal and to regard Him as absolutely distinct from everything temporalImam al-Junayd (d. 298/911), Muslim scholar and mystic

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) famously divided arguments for the existence of God into three main types: ontological, cosmological, and teleological. The latter two categories begin with a premise known as a posteriori—that is, based on experience or empirical data. Ontological arguments seek to demonstrate the existence of God using a priori deduction, or deduction from a purely conceptual analysis without recourse to any empirical observation. A valid ontological argument would be akin to sound mathematics and hence rationally undeniable. In the history of Western philosophy, arguments of this kind were attempted by figures such as Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) and René Descartes (d. 1650), although their arguments were received with much criticism and to this day remain highly contentious. Their ontological arguments begin with a certain conception of God and, from that conception, conclude that God exists. In the Arabic philosophical tradition, the Proof of the Truthful by Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, d. 428/1037) is regarded by some contemporary philosophers as an ontological argument for the existence of God, while others do not consider his argument as purely ontological, because of his premise that something exists, which is known empirically.1Jon McGinnis cites Parviz Morewidge as a leading proponent of the view that Avicenna’s argument is ontological, Herbert A. Davidson as a proponent of the view that it is cosmological, and S. A. Johnson and Toby Mayer as proponents of the view that it is a combination. McGinnis’s own assessment is that Avicenna’s argument is not strictly speaking ontological, since his premise “something exists” is not deduced a priori but is instead taken as a primary intelligible—not because it is innately known to the intellect, but because it is the very first thing humans experience, and anything known by experience is empirical, no matter how primary. Accordingly, the argument is technically cosmological. See Jon McGinnis, “The Ultimate Why Question: Avicenna on Why God is Absolutely Necessary” in The Ultimate Why Question: Why is There Anything at All Rather Than Nothing Whatsoever?, ed. John F. Wippel (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 65–83. Moreover, the conception of divinity in his conclusion was rejected by orthodox Islam as both rationally incoherent and scripturally untenable.2The conclusions of Avicennian metaphysics that were most grave, to the extent that Imam al-Ghazālī declared them to entail unbelief (kufr), are that the universe is eternal in its past (a view related to his theory of Neoplatonist emanation and resultant denial of divine will) and that God’s knowledge is of universals but not of particulars. See al-Ghazālī, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, trans. Michael E. Marmura (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2000); al-Ghazālī, Deliverance from Error, trans. R. J. McCarthy (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, n.d.), 66–67. Nevertheless, the tradition of Sunni scholastic theology (kalam) benefited from Avicennian metaphysics and appropriated from it certain conceptual tools and methods, such as the modal categories in logic and the related term the necessarily existent.

This essay offers an attempt at an ontological argument that employs many conceptual tools of the kalam tradition and thus reflects contributions of Avicenna and of scholars such as Abū al-Ĥasan al-Asharī (d. 324/936), Abū Manśūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/944), Abū Ĥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111), Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1210), and others. The classical kalam argument begins with the empirical premise that the world exists, and it is therefore a cosmological argument. While much of the argument presented here resembles the kalam cosmological argument (KCA), it has no empirical premises and thus can be termed a kalam ontological argument. The KCA is a sound demonstrative proof, meaning its premises are known with certainty, its syllogistic form is valid, and it therefore yields a conclusion known with certainty. As such, the argument presented here is not offered due to any deficiency in the cosmological version. But a sound ontological argument would show that even without human experience of the world, pure reason itself necessarily arrives at the existence of God. And, unlike most ontological arguments in Western philosophy, which begin with some specific conception of God, the point of departure for this argument is the concept of reality, and its conclusion is that reality cannot exclude the divine. Hence, God is real. In that way it resembles Avicenna’s point of departure with existence itself and, critically, avoids the common objection against the arguments of Anselm and Descartes that they are begging the question (or more crudely, that they are trying to “define God into existence”).3Anselm’s argument is that God is the greatest conceivable being (“something than which nothing greater can be thought”), and if the greatest conceivable being exists only in the mind, then something greater can be thought of—namely, the greatest conceivable being in actual existence. Therefore, God actually exists. Descartes’s argument is that God is the greatest possible being and thus possesses every perfection that would make a being great, and actual existence is just such a perfection, so God must actually exist. Critics respond that these arguments can be shown to beg the question. By replacing the first premise with a statement such as “For anything to count as God, it would be the greatest conceivable being/it would possess every perfection,” the conclusion of these arguments is merely “For anything to count as God, it would have to actually exist,” which differs from the premise “God actually exists.” See Michael J. Murray and Michael Rea, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 124–30; Brian Davies, “Anselm and the ontological argument” in The Cambridge Companion to Anselm, ed. Brian Davies and Brian Leftow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 157–78. Yet, unlike Avicenna’s argument, this argument concludes with the same conception of the divine as deduced in the KCA and presented in classical Sunni doctrine. Moreover, while this argument employs no premises taken from scripture, it can be seen as a conceptual unpacking of the Arabic divine name al-Ĥaqq (the Real) revealed in the holy Qur’an.4This argument begins with the concept of reality rather than existence, largely for the blessing of commencing with a Qur’anic name of God, in light of which it is also hoped that the argument provides some exegetical value for Muslims. Moreover, the argument avoids the equivocal reading one might have of the term existence when used without qualification, for it could refer to either extra-mental existence (in re) or mental existence (in intellectu), while reality connotes only extra-mental existence.

Reality connotes extra-mental existence (what actually exists), and conceptually, existence can be either metaphysically necessary or possible. Possible existence refers to the existence of something contingent and conditional—that is, the essence of which does not entail its extra-mental existence. In contrast, necessary existence is by definition absolute and not dependent on anything; something necessarily existent must exist, by its very essence, by definition. The remainder of this argument will demonstrate the coherence of the concept of “necessary existence.” The argument does not assume its coherence by begging the question; rather, it demonstrates by reductio ad absurdum that there is no logical alternative to affirming a necessarily existent entity, as otherwise some metaphysical impossibility is affirmed.

For any possible existent, a number of metaphysical possibilities can be attributed to it as its properties or conditions. For example, humans, cows, and trees are metaphysical possibilities, and each of these can be either living or not living, in a particular place or not, of a particular size or not, etc. If one reflects on any possible property of a metaphysical possibility, it can be either present or absent, yet both its presence and absence cannot simultaneously be true. Otherwise, a contradiction is affirmed, which is conceptually and metaphysically impossible. Thus, the only way a metaphysical possibility can actually have any properties or qualities—which it must have if it is to exist—is for it to exist within a temporal nexus, for only time allows for the presence and the absence of any property, without contradiction. That is, a possible existent can be of a certain size and then not be of that size, it can be in a certain place and then not be in that place, or it can be living and then dead or vice versa. Thus, any possible existent must by definition be changeable5This premise holds true whether one considers changeability to be primary to and thus the basis of temporality, or temporality as primary to changeability. It also holds true whether one deems time to be ontologically existent or only a measure of change (what Aristotelians call “motion”). Either way, what is affirmed here is the inseparability of possible existence and change, the inseparability of change and time, and thus the inseparability of possible existence and time. Any possible existent is by definition changeable and therefore bound to the temporal nexus. and must by definition be temporal, bound as it is to the temporal categories of past, present, and future. Inherent to the very essence of any possible existent is time, which limits and conditions its existence.

In light of its temporality, a possible existent must necessarily have a beginning, for the notion of an infinite past entails an analytic contradiction. Conceptually, the infinite6What is meant here is an actual infinity, which by definition cannot exist in any possible world, because that would entail a contradiction (as explained above). A potential infinity, on the other hand, deals with what is actually finite and thus can be posited for any possible world; it denotes the continuous addition to, or division of, any quantity or measure. Those mathematical functions could conceptually go on forever, yet nonetheless the quantity or measure would always remain finite. The afterlife, according to the creed of Islam and many other religions, is an example of a potential infinity as a result of endless addition of events.
Formal definitions of each are as follows (taken from a discussion on the KCA): “By an actual infinite, the argument’s defender means any collection having at a time t a number of definite and discrete members that is greater than any natural number {0, 1, 2, 3, ...}. This notion is to be contrasted with a potential infinite, which is any collection having at any time t a number of definite and discrete members that is equal to some natural number but which over time increases endlessly toward infinity as a limit” (J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview[Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003], 470.
 is that which has no end, yet the past of anything has been completed and ends with the present moment. So, an infinite past would entail the ending of the never-ending or the completion of what cannot be completed. Hence, any possible existent necessarily had a beginning: it was originally nonexistent and only entered into existence.

Now, anything that has a beginning necessarily had a cause of its existence. This cause cannot be the effect itself, because the notion of “self-causation” is inconceivable: the act of causing presupposes the existence of a cause. This causal principle itself is not discovered a posteriori but rather known a priori, for it is a necessary first principle of reasoning itself. Denial of the causal principle is incoherent, because denial of anything requires causality in its very aim of convincing the interlocutor in a dialectic: premises lead to a conclusion only through causality, and sound conclusions convince other people only through causality. Arguments against the causal principle are effectively rendered mute, since causality has been either removed altogether or reduced from a necessary first principle to an indefinite probability. Lastly, appealing to “brute facticity” (to say that a possible world is simply a brute fact or “just there”) is not an application of reason but rather an attempt to escape its unequivocal conclusions.7In his debate with the theist Frederick Copleston, Bertrand Russell famously appealed to the notion of brute facticity when he said, “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.” Such statements are simply a rejection of reason, for they reject a first principle that is known a priori and intuitively. As John Locke said, “Man knows by an intuitive certainty that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles.” See Al Seckel, ed., Bertrand Russell on God and Religion (Amherst, MA: Prometheus Books, 1986), 131; John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Amherst, MA: Prometheus Books, 1995), 528.

The cause of a possible existent can conceivably be either metaphysically necessary or metaphysically possible. If the cause itself is merely possible, then it too needs a cause, which would be either necessary or possible. But an infinite regress of possible causes is metaphysically impossible, because, as discussed above, the notion of completing or achieving an infinity is self-contradictory and therefore rationally inadmissible. Hence, the causal series must originate from a cause that is metaphysically necessary—that is, the essence of which entails its existence. The existence of this ultimate cause must therefore be absolute, without any conditions or limits. Its essence must be pure being, independent of time, space, or any mere metaphysical possibility.

Consequently, based on the rational impossibility of infinite past time or an infinite regress of possible causes, and based also on the rational necessity of the principle of causality, the very concept of reality ends at an entity whose existence is metaphysically necessary and absolute, independent and self-sufficient, and transcendent above any temporal nexus of past, present, or future. This entity cannot be confined to moments of time or any other limits, cannot have a beginning or conceivable end, and is therefore eternal. Hence, it cannot change or actually resemble anything possible and temporal. Such a conception is essential to what the term the divine signifies in classical Sunni theology.8Thus, no temporal entity or entities, temporal quality or qualities, or temporal process could qualify as being divine. As the above considerations make clear, divinity precludes anything possible or physical or temporal, such as matter, energy, gravity or other forces, a universe, a multiverse, or abstractions (such as theories or laws of physics). Reality, therefore, by definition cannot exclude the divine being.

Now, if no possible existent actually existed, then it would seem that the above conception of the divine is the extent that a priori reasoning could conclude with. (One could, perhaps, assert that a priori reasoning is itself a temporal process and is metaphysically merely possible, and then proceed with what follows below. But this argument will avoid self-referential premises, as they might render the argument “not fully ontological.”) But if a metaphysical possibility existed,9The KCA begins here, with the existence of a metaphysical possibility, namely, the cosmos. Based on the possibility, temporality, and hence finite past of the cosmos, the argument proceeds to deduce the ten divine attributes listed in the conclusion of this essay. And as this essay attempts to demonstrate, the same inference applies with respect to any possible existent. Thus, were a sophist to claim that the cosmos we inhabit is in some sense unknowable or merely imaginative, the inference to the reality of God remains valid, given that some possible existent (misperception, imagination) is still affirmed in that claim. Nevertheless, such sophistry is fallacious in its denial of what is self-evident.
Furthermore, in view of the apodictic inference from a possible existent to the reality of God, it is plainly evident that no empirical data or scientific theorem regarding a possible world can falsify the existence of God. Science deals with mechanism, while metaphysics and theology deal with the ground of being of any world and of its mechanisms.
 additional necessary divine attributes could be deduced a priori from the existence of that possibility. Anything possible could actually exist only if the necessarily existent divine entity possessed the attributes of (1) power, to cause the existence of the possibility; (2) will, to select its existence and any of its conceivable accidents (e.g., qualities, traits); (3) knowledge, because selection is not conceivable without knowledge; and (4) life, given that only a living entity can possess knowledge and choice. These four attributes must be eternal qualities of the divine entity and must be distinct attributes that are neither identical to the entity nor separable from it, given that the eternal is by definition unchangeable, for no temporality obtains with its being. Only something bound by time and existing sequentially within moments of time can change.

Moreover, the divine attributes of knowledge, will, and power cannot conceivably be limited in any way, for only something temporal and possible can be limited. Thus, anything that can conceivably be known must be known to Him, and anything metaphysically possible must be within the scope of His divine will and power. His knowledge is therefore omniscience, and His will and power omnipotent. As such, His entity must necessarily be one and unique, without any duality or partnership in His divinity. Were there a second eternal deity (or second person in divinity), either or both deities would necessarily be limited in will and in power, which contradicts the omnipotence entailed by eternality and thus the very eternality and necessary existence of divinity. Because plurality entails limits of each member, and because only what is temporal can be limited, there can be no category of “divine entities” with members or persons. The absolute plenitude of eternality contradicts restriction or limitation, and it therefore contradicts sharing or partnership. The eternal can only be one.

To summarize, by pure reason and a priori conceptual analysis, it is known with certainty that God is real. The concept of reality necessarily signifies an entity whose essence entails its existence (wujūd) and who is therefore necessarily existent, eternal without beginning (qidam), immutable without conceivable end (baqā’), absolute and unconditioned and thus self-sufficient (qiyām bi al-nafs), and transcendent above any possibility or temporal nexus and hence dissimilar from anything merely possible (mukhālafah li al-ĥawādith). The concept of the real cannot exclude the divine.

And, if one or more metaphysical possibilities were existent and thus also real, their contingent existence would signify the necessarily existent entity as well as its additional eternal attributes of omnipotent power (qudrah), unlimited will (irādah), omniscience (ilm), life (ĥayāh), and absolute oneness and uniqueness (waĥdāniyyah). These ten necessary divine attributes, listed here with their corresponding Arabic terms, represent the Sunni conception of God, based solely on rational deliberation, as deduced in the traditional KCA, prior to and independent of scriptural knowledge. Scripture undoubtedly confirms this conception, although it reveals much more detail regarding the divine attributes and perfections, particularly as manifested in the world.10Most salient in this regard are the ninety-nine beautiful divine names revealed in the Qur’an and prophetic teaching. Also, the divine attributes of hearing, sight, and speech—which are deduced from revelation—are traditionally listed in Sunni creeds, along with the ten attributes deduced by reason, to comprise thirteen necessary attributes of God.

Lastly, existent possibilities are conceptually recognized as divine actions, for omnipotent power admits of no partnership in the act of causing existence. Only the temporal can be limited. To say that something besides God is real is in essence to say that it is an act of God: were it not for the divine act of causing its existence, a metaphysical possibility could never exist. A possible existent is necessarily a divine performance.11Although not directly relevant to the argument above, it should be clarified that this specific doctrine does not negate human free will, since the latter is affirmed by Sunni theologians as a feature of human existence that is rooted in moral agency. Man’s experience as a moral agent with free will is not contradicted by God’s agency, which accounts for the existence of human actions. God’s agency is ontic, while human moral agency is inextricably woven into the fabric of human experience. Each is real but contextualized: the context of God’s agency is His absolute reality, while the context of human free will is one’s temporal experience. When man exercises his will, God creates in him the corresponding act, resulting in the lived human experience of authentic moral choices translating directly into actions, for which one is responsible. As the scholar and mystic Ibn Aţā’ Allāh (d. 709/1310) states, “Temporal realms of being are real only insofar as He makes them real, yet they are utterly effaced by the absolute oneness of His Being” (Aphorism #141).12Tāj al-Dīn Aĥmad b. Aţā’ Allāh, Al-Ĥikam al-Aţā’iyyah (Cairo: Dār al-Salām, 2005), 53. That is, conceptually, when a possible existent is considered in and of itself, it is nonexistent (“effaced”), for its essence is not its existence and does not entail it. But when God is considered in and of Himself, He is existent and necessarily so, for His essence is pure Being, and necessary existence is true only of Him. Hence, the underlying truth of a possible existent is a divine act of granting existence. Possible existents are “real only insofar as He makes them real.”

Therefore, what is real is God, as well as any metaphysical possibilities He freely chooses to create. What is real is God and whatever He wills to make real. What is real can only be the divine entity, the divine attributes, and divine actions.

Faraz Khan is on the faculty of Zaytuna College. His specialty areas include Ashʿari and Maturidi theology, Hanafi jurisprudence, and Logic. He has taught as an instructor at the Qasid Institute in Jordan and also serves as a researcher and instructor for SeekersHub Global. His education began with a BA in biology from the University of Texas, Austin. Afterwards, he lived and studied in Amman for several years, while earning diplomas in traditional Islamic studies and classical Arabic.

( Source: This article was first published by Renovatio: The Journal of Zaytuna College and is republished with permission. )

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