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Link Between Skepticism And Religion Philosophy

Essay add: 14-11-2017, 11:26   /   Views: 2

Today, people often find it difficult to reconcile religious beliefs with skepticism or even with philosophy in general. Intuitively, one might view skepticism as contradictory to a commitment to particular theological doctrines and therefore as being destructive for belief in general. In this paper, I shed a different light on the matter by investigating the philosophy of al-Ghazālī (c. 1058-1111). First, I will 'set things straight' with respect to the historical conception of skepticism and explain the concept in the context of theological thought. Then I proceed with discussing the life and skepticism of al-Ghazālī. Hereafter, his solution to skepticism and his attempt to reconcile faith with reason are discussed. I will then link al-Ghazālī's philosophy to contemporary debate in the philosophy of religion, and end with critically reflecting on his skepticism by bringing up some possible criticisms and discussing its current relevance.

Philosophical skepticism and religious belief

Skepticism is often equated with disbelief or a series of doubts or critiques concerning religious beliefs (Popkin, 2003). Yet, when taking skepticism at face value, i.e. as a philosophical position, this intuitive judgment is mistaken. A closer look into the history of skepticism reveals that basically two different positions can be distinguished. First, according to academic skeptics, no certain knowledge is possible (Sim, 2006). They argued that 'dogmatic' philosophers (referring to those who asserted to know some truth about the real nature of things, such as the Stoics) could not prove the propositions they said they knew, since man's senses and reasoning are unreliable and we lack proper epistemological criteria for true knowledge (Popkin, 2003). Hence, knowledge should be considered as 'truth-like' (Bolyard, 2013) or as 'probable opinion' at best. Second, Pyrrhonian skeptics argued that one should withhold assent to all non-evident knowledge claims, since there is no sufficient and adequate evidence to determine if such (certain) knowledge is possible and that the matter would have been fully resolved (Popkin, 2003; Klein, 2011). For Pyrrhonists, skepticism was a mental attitude and a way of life, leading to a state of suspension of belief (epoché) and a consequent dissolving of worries into tranquility (Bolyard, 2013) or ataraxia, i.e. a life free of worry and dogmatism. Pyrrhonists would follow appearances, societal laws and customs, and their natural inclinations, without ever committing themselves to any judgment about them (Sim, 2006).

Contrary to ordinary doubt then, philosophical skepticism entails either the acceptance of the view that nothing can be known or a perpetual inquiry to obtain true knowledge [yet not assenting to the (im)possibility of this knowledge] (Klein, 2011).

Both of the original forms of skepticism attempted to show that the reasons or evidence for our knowledge and beliefs are unsatisfactory and improperly grounded. Now, while skeptics might suspend judgment about the truth of beliefs, they may still maintain certain beliefs (Popkin, 2003). Nonetheless, persuasive factors that induce a belief should not be mistaken for adequate evidence for the truth of that belief (Popkin, 2003).

Interestingly, when ancient skepticism became known in early Renaissance Europe, it was mostly taken on by theologians. As Hoopes (1951) explains, those thinkers are in fact bound to accept a (Pyrrhonian) skeptical attitude, as their teachings [] imply that man's moral and intellectual faculties are unreliable, and that other means must be employed to establish knowledge (Hoopes, 1951). Skepticism was indeed employed as a means to raise doubts about the rational and evidential merits of the arguments of ancient philosophers (mainly Aristotle), which in turn reinforced their own theological positions (Popkin, 2003) and knowledge sources, e.g. the revelations as depicted in their Holy book(s). According to this skeptical position, called fideism, knowledge cannot be attained rationally without the basic truths known by faith or revelation. In fact, Hoopes (1951) explains that this position can be hardly distinguished from skepticism when ancient skepticism became known. Additionally, since all philosophical or theological theories rely on certain assumptions that are not self-evidently true, we may argue that every theory involves an act of faith (Sim, 2006). Popkin (2003) states that any dogmatic view could in this sense be regarded fideistic.

Philosophers and theologians thus held that there are factors (revelation or invocation) that may induce belief, and that good reasons can be given to explain or clarify this belief, yet without infallibly proving it (Popkin, 2003). In this line of reasoning, Augustine already endorsed the concept of 'reasonable belief' and Aquinas most notably employed Aristotelian arguments to defend his religious doctrines. The following explicates that this link between faith and skepticism is also apparent in al-Ghazālī.

Al-Ghazālī's life and skepticism

Al-Ghazālī was a prominent theologian, philosopher, jurist, and mystic. Timothy Winter (in The Alchemist of Happiness, 2004) explains that al-Ghazālī is generally regarded among the five or six most influential thinkers of all time. In addition, he is often called ''the Proof of Islam'' as he proved that belief has a spiritual purpose and requires a process of repentance, upliftment, and inner transformation. After having studied under Imam al-Haramayn, the greatest (kalām and Ash'ari) theologian of his time (Marmura, 2005), al-Ghazālī was appointed as professor at the prestigious university of Baghdad (Watt, 2000). From his early life, al-Ghazālī was exposed to social and political turmoil, to deep tensions between different conflicting parties that claimed to have the truth and that were mostly ignorant of each other's position (Watt, 1963). Al-Ghazālī argues that the resulting arrogance and religious fanaticism veils people from seeing and remembering God (Winter, 2004). Indeed, in his main work, the Ihyā 'Ulūm Al-Dīn (Revival of the Religious Sciences, 1972) al-Ghazālī turns the debate on theological opinions to the importance of focusing on ethical behavior (Griffel, 2008).

It is evident that in the midst of all these conflicts al-Ghazālī was thirsting for ultimate truth. He thoroughly studied the various positions and fully exposed himself to the tensions of his time, e.g. between reason and revelation, between logical and intuitive knowledge (Watt, 1963). A related driver of his search was the observation that parents were determinative for the view that their children would later adopt [Al-munqidh min al-Dalāl (Deliverance From Error), 1980]. He then writes: ''(…) I felt an inner urge to seek the true meaning of the original fitra, and the true meaning of the beliefs arising through slavish aping of parents and teachers'' (al-Ghazālī, 1980).

When he had started his inquiry, al-Ghazālī (1980) realized that neither the senses nor reason could be trusted. First, data from the senses can be deceptive as he illustrates by his shadow example. He writes: ''The strongest of the senses is the sense of sight. Now this looks at a shadow and sees it standing still and motionless and judges that motion must be denied. Then, due to experience and observation, an hour later it knows that the shadow is moving, and that it did not move in a sudden spurt, but so gradually and imperceptibly that it was never completely at rest'' (al-Ghazālī, 1980). Second, there is no guarantee that the primary principles of reasons (e.g. the principle of the excluded middle) can be trusted (Marmura, 2005). Al-Ghazālī (in Watt, 2000) states: ''Perhaps behind intellectual apprehension there is another judge who, if he manifests himself, will show the falsity of intellect in its judging, just as, when intellect manifested itself, it showed the falsity of sense in its judging. The fact that such a supra-intellectual apprehension has not manifested itself is no proof that it is impossible [i.e., it is possible since it is thinkable]''. Moreover, rational knowledge and the principles of logic and mathematics may sometimes be transcended by (mystical) visions, and are dependent on various states of e.g. dreaming or death (Najm, 1966).

As a result, we cannot demonstrate truth without circularity, without making unproven assumptions (Marmura, 2005). This realization led to an inner struggle for ultimate truth and a consequent mental and physical illness of about two months (al-Ghazālī, 1980). It directed him to question every unproven dogma.

Al-GhazālÄ« poses skeptical arguments against basically every school or authority who claimed to have knowledge. These included the scholastic theologians (mutakallim or scholars of kalām, which sought theological knowledge through rational argument), the Batiniyyah (a sect that was convinced of the infallibility of the Imam and revelation as only source to truth), the mystics (Sufis), and the philosophical tradition (falsafa) (Watt, 2000), in particular represented by the falāsifa movement [] . In the Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (the Incoherence of the Philosophers, 2000), al-GhazālÄ« notes that none of his opponents did fulfill their own epistemological standard of demonstration (burhān) (Al-GhazālÄ«, 2000; Griffel, 2008, 2009) neither did they fulfill the standard of certain knowledge al-GhazālÄ« himself puts forward, i.e. being infallible and being completely secure from even the possibility of doubt, error and deception, no matter how it is challenged (al-GhazālÄ«, 1980).

In all, he rejects the excessive reliance of the theologians, philosophers and Sufis on authority and tradition, rationality, and ecstasy or experience respectively (Albertini, 2005). To obtain a complete world-view, reason alone is insufficient (Watt, 1963).

Conversion and the attainment of knowledge of God

Al-Ghazālī sets out to attain knowledge by cleansing himself from inherited beliefs, to voluntarily opening himself up to the tensions of his time, and to recover his fitra (Albertini, 2005). As Mahmoud Bina (in The Alchemist of Happiness, 2004) explains, fitra is the nature of man as it is created by God, consisting in the search, love and worship of God, the highest form of worship being knowledge of God. Contrary to what Pyrrhonian skepticism teaches, al-Ghazālī conceives his skepticism as an inner struggle or graving for truth and a disease that has to be overcome (Sim, 2006). The thirst for real knowledge was nevertheless placed in his makeup by God (al-Ghazālī, 1980), and it has the potential to be replaced by certain knowledge of the truth.

Al-Ghazālī comes to the conclusion that the grounds for knowledge cannot be subject to demonstration, but rather they have to be directly apprehended (Najm, 1966). Al-Ghazālī's unveiling the truth and overcoming skepticism indeed came about through the mercy of God: ''(…) this was not achieved by constructing a proof or putting together an argument. On the contrary, it was the effect of a light which God Most High cast into my breast. And that light is the key to most knowledge'' (al-Ghazālī, 1980).

Skepticism (e.g. about sense perception and human reason) thus is overcome by a God-given higher cognitive faculty (Bishop, 2010). Faith is thereby conceived as a form of knowledge attended by certainty. Contemporary Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga similarly argue that beliefs can be conceived as knowledge of God and the truth of the Gospels, which is directly made known by the Holy Spirit (Bishop, 2010). Gholam Reza Avani (in The Alchemist of Happiness, 2004) moreover explains that in Sufism and Islam in general much emphasis is laid on divine invocation. The foundation of all religious practices, and the surest way and 'nearest shortcut' to God, he explains, is invocation. In the Kimiya'e Saadat (The Alchemy of Happiness, 1910), al-Ghazālī writes: ''In the heart of the enlightened man there is a window opening on the realities of the spiritual world, so that he knows, not by hearsay or traditional belief, but by actual experience, what produces wretchedness or happiness in the soul just as clearly and decidedly as the physician knows what produces sickness or health in the body'' (al-Ghazālī, 1910).

Al-Ghazālī's search for certitude is thereby related to the process of obtaining knowledge of God. He states: ''His five senses are like five doors opening on the external world; but, more wonderful than this, his heart has a window which opens on the unseen world of spirits. (…) The more a man purifies himself from fleshly lusts and concentrates his mind on God, the more conscious will he be of [non-sensible, invocated] intuitions. Those who are not conscious of them have no right to deny their reality'' (al-Ghazālī, 1910). Therefore, true knowledge can only be unveiled through cultivating oneself through Qur'anic knowledge (intellectual belief) and exercise, through remembering God, purifying the heart, and fully opening oneself up to 'an infusion of above' (Nofal, 1993). The more we comprehend such knowledge, the better we know God, the closer we come to Him, and the greater is our happiness (Nofal, 1993).

This mystic way to knowledge hence requires a purification of the heart from everything that does not contribute to the remembrance of God (El-Bizri, 2012). Here too, we can observe similarities with Christian thought. As al-Ghazālī (1910) himself notes: ''Jesus (on whom be peace!) said, "The lover of the world is like a man drinking sea-water; the more he drinks, the more thirsty he gets, till at last he perishes with thirst unquenched'' (al-Ghazālī, 1910).

Al-Ghazālī goes on to explain that conversion consists of three states: knowledge of the consequences of sinful behavior, regret for such commission of sins, and determination to give up future sinning after expiation for past (al-Ghazālī, 1972, book IV). Sinful behavior thus clearly forms an obstacle in spiritual itinerary. In the Revival, al-Ghazālī provides a great variety of practical tools to come closer to God, e.g. performing religious practices (such as prayers, repetitions, music and dance) to the remembrance of God, controlling the mind, and cleansing one's heart from worldly desires (al-Ghazālī, 1972, book III). In the second chapter of his Alchemy (al-Ghazālī, 1910) he attempts to establish several factors that might explain why some fail to obtain divine knowledge, largely boiling down to the above mentioned aspects of clinging to worldly matters, to sin, and not opening up ourselves enough for divine invocation.

Al-Ghazālī's search for truth is respectable as it promotes experimentation and a deep investigation into various doctrines that were dominant in his time. In this sense it transcends the aims of theologians that merely attempted to defend orthodox doctrines for their own sake (El-Bizri, 2012). Everyone should extensively search for truth and not blindly follow tradition. Al-Ghazālī (in Najm, 1966) states: ''He who learns the tradition (hadith) and science and then pursues Sufism succeeds, but he who pursues Sufism before learning endangers himself''.

Al-Ghazālī eventually returns to orthodox Ash‛arī theology (kalām) and to Sufism, yet with a new vision: the proof of Islam and the gaining of certitude is an experience (dhawq), i.e. tasting the ultimate reality that exists beyond the sense-perceptible world (Winter, 2004).

Al-Ghazālī's attempt to reconcile faith with reason

The concept of fideism, as described above, can also be found in al-GhazālÄ«. He argued that any dogmatic claim ultimately rested on faith rather than evidence. Griffel (2009) thus notes that the Incoherence is most likely an apologetic work. The alleged knowledge claims of his opponents are refuted, and it thereby follows that their teachings cannot stand up against the competing authority of revelation (Griffel, 2009). Halevi (2002) argues that, while ancient (and Humean) skepticism can be understood as existential, al-GhazālÄ«'s skepticism can be described as 'functional'. His skepticism is exercised as a means to negate one perspective in favor of the other (Halevi, 2002). With respect to the discussion on causality in the Incoherence, Halevi (2002) for instance comments: ''Here it is the philosopher who is the duped believer, arguing in terms of necessity and certainty. For his part the theologian only asserts the rational validity of religious dogma. Never asking for a suspension of disbelief, he merely establishes God's miraculous agency in a possible world'' and ''Compelling the philosopher to admit doubt in knowledge based on observable causes, the theologian stirs the discussion toward unobservable causes, divine agency, and the possibility of miracles'' [] . Yet, we should be careful in interpreting al-GhazālÄ«'s aims here, as he states that his purpose is to refute the philosophers and not to argue for a particular doctrine (al-GhazālÄ«, 2000).

Anyhow, what follows is the view that in both theology as well as philosophy, reason is not self-sufficient. 'It is in a sense subordinate to a 'light from God' shed in the heart which is somehow connected with the light given to men by revelation' (Watt, 1963). Nofal (1993) states: ''The human attributes of the senses and reason, which are deficient, allow man to know the material world in which he lives; while the divine properties of revelation and inspiration enable him to discover the invisible world''.

Nonetheless, in al-Ghazālī mystical experience and philosophy tend to complement each other. Once acquired knowledge and certitude in God, trust in sense perception and rational reasoning is restored (Marmura, 2005). Al-Ghazālī furthermore states: ''…the highest faculty in him is reason, which fits him for the contemplation of God'' and ''…man acquires here, by the use of his bodily senses, some knowledge of the works of God, and, through them, of God Himself…'' (al-Ghazālī, 1910). Another important aspect is that revelation, as depicted in the Qur'an and the Sunna, forms the basis of morality, while rational means are to be employed to extract general rules (Griffel, 2008). Lastly, reason can and should be employed to explain, clarify, defend, and interpret revelation, which in turn may help the personal appropriation of revelation (Albertini, 2005).

In addition, al-Ghazālī attempts to reconcile philosophy and reason with belief and revelation in his -in my opinion remarkably modern- concept 'the rule of interpretation'. He states that philosophical theories need only be rejected if these unproven theories are incompatible with a literal interpretation of revelation. Thus, one should only read the Qur'an figuratively, i.e. in symbolic or metaphoric language, if its literal outward meaning could be proved by demonstration to be impossible (Griffel, 2009). This rule implies that not only philosophical theories but revelations too must somehow be open for falsification.

This open attitude resulted in a wide application of Aristotelian notions and their successful introduction into the fields of theology and ethics (Griffel, 2008; 2009). Indeed, in his Revival al-Ghazālī develops a virtue theoretical framework. He for example states: ''There is none who does not sin. But whose nature is knowledge and whose habit is faith, sins do not ruin him. For whenever he sins he seeks forgiveness and expiates for his sins and remains sad, hence he is forgiven and as some virtue still remains in his favour, he enters paradise'' (al-Ghazālī, 1972, book I). This passage also illustrates al-Ghazālī's criticism of the traditional Sunni ethics, which limited its scope to mere compliance with sharia law (Griffel, 2008).

As Griffel (2008) explains, al-Ghazālī's approach to resolving apparent contradictions between reason and revelation was accepted by almost all later Muslim theologians and moreover had a profound impact on Medieval thought (Griffel, 2008).

Relevance for contemporary philosophy of religion

In this section I want to briefly highlight the relevance that al-Ghazālī's work as a skeptic still has in debates in the philosophy of religion. As described above, al-Ghazālī employed his skepticism to question the soundness of his opponents' arguments. At the same time he rejects some of his opponents' views, e.g. on the eternality of the world (al-Ghazālī, 2000). Yet, he discovered that ancient philosophy had elements of strength and truth that could be employed in defense of Sunnite Islam (Watt, 1963). Among other things he introduced aspects of logic and philosophy into the schools of fiqh and kalām (Nofal, 1993).

Now, after his period of Pyrrhonian-like skepticism, al-Ghazālī established his own views and arguments, one of which is the Kalām cosmological argument. The cosmological argument, as rooted mainly in Aristotle, assumes that something exists and then argues towards the existence of a First or Sufficient Cause of the cosmos (Craig, 2008). The kalām cosmological argument is one type of cosmological arguments that were employed to rebut Aristotle's doctrine of an eternal universe and developed by medieval Islamic theologians into an argument for the existence of God (Craig, 2008). Al-Ghazālī reasons: "Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning; now the world is a being which begins; therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning" (al-Ghazālī, 1947 in Craig, 2008).

With respect to the first premise, al-Ghazālī reasons: 'anything that begins to exist does so at a certain moment of time. But since, prior to the thing's existence, all moments are alike, there must be some cause that determines that the thing comes to exist at that moment rather than earlier or later. Thus, anything that comes to exist must have a cause' (Craig, 2008). Al-Ghazālī had his arguments for the second premise (see e.g. Craig, 2008), yet contemporary science already has established it as evident. The conclusion of the argument is that the universe must have had a cause of its beginning, which he identifies with God.

Al-Ghazālī's kalām cosmological argument has been re-popularized and forcefully defended by William Lane Craig. Using philosophical and scientific arguments, he establishes the trustworthiness of the both premises, and moreover proposes arguments regarding the nature of this first Cause, e.g. that it has to be external, a-temporal, non-spatial, and personal. While there is debate about the soundness of this argument, we must grant that he has done quite well defending it up to now and it is used by numerous contemporary philosophers of religion.

Concluding remarks

For al-Ghazālī, skepticism and religion tend to go hand in hand. The above discussion makes clear that while skepticism and philosophy in general may compliment religion, the relationship may also hold the other way around (Aulie, 1994). In addition, this paper has shown that skepticism can be employed not only against theological doctrines but against philosophical theories as well. Yet, while al-Ghazālī's skepticism may have destroyed the ancient philosophers in the Incoherence, we may well employ the same skeptical attitude towards the claims of religion (Sim, 2006).

I think one point of critique would be that, while al-Ghazālī's holds that virtuous behavior is essential to belief, he too conversely states that belief (and overcoming skepticism) is essential to moral behavior: ''Practice is not beneficial and possible without faith. Practice is ever in accordance with faith and when certainty is less the practice carried out is little'' (al-Ghazālī, 1972, book I). On this point there certainly will be controversy, as moral philosophers might argue that morality is independent of religion, and other theological positions might claim that only their followers would act in nearest accordance with morality.

A second point where I am personally skeptical about is the extent to which al-Ghazālī ''cleansed'' himself from external and internal disturbances, and the possibility to do this fully and honestly, independent of socio-cultural influences or own predispositions and preferences. I find it surprising that al-Ghazālī refinds 'truth' in orthodox Sufi Islam, whereas other searchers for true knowledge and meaning will -by means of a very similar process of inner cleansing and opening up oneself to this higher knowledge-find themselves persuaded of the truth of Jewish or Christian theology.

The poet Abul-Ala al-Maarri (973-1057, in Sim, 2006) writes: ''Each party defends its own religion, I wonder in vain where the truth lies!'' Especially in our postmodern times then, skepticism can form a powerful tool to establish an ongoing dialectic between philosophy and theology (Sim, 2006). Al-Ghazālī reminds us of the importance of an open attitude towards others' views, e.g. on the possibility of the existence of a Creator that is personal and can reveal himself to us. Al-Ghazālī's story indeed stresses the importance of 'subjective', certain knowledge, i.e. it needs to move you. Perhaps one has to accept that the truthfulness of revelation is certified by the fact that it is revealed knowledge (Albertini, 2005). Just as philosophers of al-Ghazālī's time often closed themselves for this possibility, modern science too can learn to shift from a narrow-minded naturalist perspective of the world to a more open one (Watt, 1963). In his recent work Where the Conflict Really Lies (OUP, 2011) Plantinga indeed argues that radical (methodological) naturalism, which many scientists implicitly adopt, forms an impediment for intellectual debate.

Al-GhazālÄ« can be further respected for his great influence on Medieval Jewish and Christian theologians, such as Maimonides and Aquinas [] , and early Modern philosophers such as Hume [] . His work still contributes to discussions in the philosophy of religion, as we have seen on the argument for creation, but also on e.g. the nature of God's action in the world, the possibility of miracles, morality, suffering, hope and salvation (Iqbāl, 2012). As Klein (2011) explains, the current debate between skeptics and their opponents is over whether grounds can make a belief sufficiently justified that one should assent to the proposition. Al-GhazālÄ« and with him a stream of notable contemporary philosophers of religion, such as Craig and Plantinga, have done a good attempt to defend this 'reasonable belief'.

As this paper has illustrated, al-Ghazālī did a reputable attempt to reconcile skepticism and philosophy with belief and theology, and moreover successfully brought together mysticism and orthodoxy within Islamic theology (Watt, 2000). He too helps us recognize the illness in religious arrogance and fanaticism. Al-Ghazālī then is among the best Muslim authors to learn about Islam and help Western people towards a positive appreciation of it (Watt, 2000).

Lastly, al-Ghazālī's search illustrates that ignorance does not bring about change, neither in a personal nor in a socio-political context. Regarding skepticism then, we might conclude with Sim (2006):

''Regardless of whether it is conceived of as disease or cure it is something to build upon''.

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