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Metaphysics and Mathematics in Classical Islamic Culture - Avicenna and His Successors

Metaphysics and Mathematics in Classical Islamic Culture - Avicenna and His Successors

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Published by Amira
by Roshdi Rashed.
For seven centuries, advanced mathematical research was carried out in Arabic in the urban centers of Islam. We are justified in wondering whether philosophers found themes for reflection in this work, and if they were incited to seek in mathematics for models for the elaboration of their systems, or if, on the contrary, they fell back upon what historians like to call falsafa, that is, a doctrine of Being and the Soul which was indifferent to other branches of knowledge, and independent of every determination save that of religion: in brief, an inheritance from Late Antiquity under the sign of Islam. Such a question might be of interest both to the historian of philosophy and to the historian of sciences.
by Roshdi Rashed.
For seven centuries, advanced mathematical research was carried out in Arabic in the urban centers of Islam. We are justified in wondering whether philosophers found themes for reflection in this work, and if they were incited to seek in mathematics for models for the elaboration of their systems, or if, on the contrary, they fell back upon what historians like to call falsafa, that is, a doctrine of Being and the Soul which was indifferent to other branches of knowledge, and independent of every determination save that of religion: in brief, an inheritance from Late Antiquity under the sign of Islam. Such a question might be of interest both to the historian of philosophy and to the historian of sciences.

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Published by: Amira on Mar 29, 2009
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Metaphysics and mathematics in classical islamic culture: Avicenna and his successors
 
by Roshdi Rashed
For seven centuries, advanced mathematical research was carried out in Arabic in the urbancenters of Islam. We are justified in wondering whether philosophers found themes for reflectionin this work, and if they were incited to seek in mathematics for models for the elaboration of their systems, or if, on the contrary, they fell back upon what historians like to call
 falsafa
, that is,a doctrine of Being and the Soul which was indifferent to other branches of knowledge, andindependent of every determination save that of religion: in brief, an inheritance from LateAntiquity under the sign of Islam. Such a question might be of interest both to the historian of  philosophy and to the historian of sciences. Indeed, how can we imagine that, in the face of theunprecedented flourishing of mathematical disciplines and results - algebra, algebraic geometry,Diophantean analysis, the theory of parallels, and methods of projection - philosophers couldhave remained indifferent? It is even more difficult to believe that they could have failed to reactwhen, before their very eyes, brand-new epistemological questions were being raised by the new
mathesis
. Among these was the question of the applicability of mathematics: never before had themathematical disciplines been applied to one another; never had the need been conceived of applying mathematics to physics, as a condition of the latter's apodicticity; finally, never had itoccurred to anyone to invent a discipline able to express its results by positional geometry as wellas by metrical geometry; in other words, a topology
avant la lettre
. These epistemic events werefar from being the only ones; and it would be astonishing if all of them had escaped the attentionof the philosophers, some of whom were themselves mathematicians, and most of whom were upto date in the field. It is not, of course, necessary that a discipline or scientific activity shouldhave the philosophy it deserves, nor that the philosopher should play any kind of a role in thedevelopment of mathematics and of science. There is, in other words, no
a priori
necessity in therelations between mathematics and theoretical philosophy; but this is one more reason to raise thequestion, and return to the writings of both philosophers and mathematicians, in order to try toelucidate these relations. One result already seems established: having attacked this task onseveral occasions, I believe I have shown the hitherto-unsuspected wealth of the philosophy of mathematics in classical Islam, in mathematicians such as al-Sijzî, Ibn Sinæn, Ibn al-Haytham,etc., and that of philosophers like al-Kindî, al-Færæbî, and Ibn Sînæ.This time, we intend to examine another aspects of the relations between mathematics and philosophy in classical Islam: the connections which are inaugurated when the philosopher  borrows from mathematics an instrument for the solution of a logico-mathematical question. Thesituation which interests us here has one specific feature: by a backfire effect, this borrowingturns out to be fruitful for the progress of the mathematical domain which furnished theinstrument. The exchange between combinatorial analysis and metaphysics is an excellentillustration of this double movement. On the basis of his ontological and cosmogonic doctrines,Ibn Sînæ had given a formulation of the doctrine of emanation from the One. In order to derivemultiplicity from the One, NaÒîr al-Dîn al-™ºsî glimpsed within Ibn Sînæ 's doctrine itself the
 
2 possibility of providing it with a combinatorial framework, which he then borrowed from thealgebrists. Yet, in order for al-™ºsî's act to be possible, the algebrists' combination rules had to beinterpreted in a combinatorial way, and it was this combinatorial interpretation which, as it were,signed the birth certificate of this discipline called combinatorial analysis, which al-™ºsî'smathematical successors, men like al-Færisî and Ibn al-Bannæ’, among others, were to exploit.On the basis of this contribution, the late philosopher al-Îalabî would try to organize the elementsof the new discipline, by designating it with a name in order to mark its autonomy.Before we examine this movement, however, we must first distinguish it from an itinerarylike that of Raymond Lulle. He combined notions according to mechanical rules, the results of which later turned out to be arrangements or combinations. Yet Lulle did not borrow anythingfrom mathematics, and never recognized anything mathematical in his own procedure. Al-™ºsî'sdevelopment, by contrast, is closer to Leibniz' procedure, despite all that separates the two projects. As we have said, the former intended to give a mathematical solution for the problem of the emanation of multiplicity from the One, which lead him to provide the Avicennian doctrine of the creation with a combinatorial framework; the latter wished to construct an
 Ars inveniendi
onthe basis of combinatorics.
II
 The emanation of the Intelligences and the celestial orbs, as well as the other worlds - that of nature and that of corporeal things - from the One, is one of the central doctrines of Ibn Sînæ'smetaphysics. This doctrine raises a question which is simultaneously ontological and noetic: how,from a unique and simple being, can there emanate a multiplicity which is also a complexity,which, in the last analysis, contains the matter of things as much as the forms of bodies andhuman souls? This ontological and noetic duality raises the question to the status an obstacle, or  both logical and metaphysical difficulty which had to be unraveled. From this viewpoint, we canat least begin to understand why Ibn Sînæ, in his various writings, returns tirelessly to thisdoctrine and, implicitly, to this question.The study of the historical evolution of Ibn Sînæ's thought on this problem in his variouswritings would show how he was able to amend an initial formulation as a function of such adifficulty. To restrict ourselves to
al-Shifæ’ 
and to
al-Ishæræt wa-al-Tanbîhæt 
, Ibn Sînæ setsforth the principles of this doctrine, as well as the rules for the emanation of multiple things froma simple unity. His explication seems to be an articulate, ordered exposition, but it does not havethe value of a rigorous proof: for in it Ibn Sînæ does not give the syntactical rules capable of adapting to the semantics of emanation. It is precisely here that the difficulty of the question of the derivation of multiplicity from the One resides; yet this derivation had long been perceived asa problem, and examined as such. NaÒîr al-Dîn al-™ºsî [1201/1273], the mathematician, philosopher and commentator on Ibn Sînæ, not only grasped the difficulty, but sought to supplythe missing syntactical rules.In his commentary on
al-Ishæræt wa-al-Tanbîhæt 
, al-™ºsî introduces the language and procedures of combinations, in order to pursue emanation as far as the third rank of beings. Hethen stops the application of these procedures, in order to conclude: "if we then go farther than
 
3these ranks [that is, the first three], a denumerable multiplicity may exist (
læ yuÌÒæ ‘adaduhæ
) inone single rank, and so on to infinity". Al-™ºsî's intention is thus clear, and the procedure appliedto the first three ranks leaves no room for doubt: he seeks to provide the proof and the meanswhich Ibn Sînæ lacked. At this stage, however, al-™ºsî is still far from his goal. It is one thing to proceed by combinations for a number of objects, but quite another to introduce a language,together with its syntax. Here, the language in question would be that of combinations; and al-™ºsî devotes himself o the introduction of such a language in an independent paper, the title of which allows for no ambiguity:
On the demonstration of the mode of emanation of things ininfinite <number> from the Unique First Principle
. As we shall see, this time al-™ºsî proceeds,generally speaking, with the help of combinatorial analysis. Al-™ºsî's text, and the results itcontains, were not to disappear with their author; we find them in a late treatise entirely devotedto combinatorial analysis. Thus, not only does al-™ºsî's solution distinguish a style of  philosophical research, but it represents an interesting contribution to the history of mathematicsitself.In order to understand this contribution, we must return to Ibn Sînæ, in order to recall theelements of his doctrine necessary for our exposition. We must also to grasp, within his syntheticexposition, to however slight an extent, the formal principle whose principle renders possible theintroduction of the rules of combinatorial analysis. In fact, it is this principle which allows IbnSînæ to develop his exposition in a deductive way. On the one hand, he needed to ensure theunity of Being, which is thus said of everything in the same sense; on the other, he required anirreducible difference between the First Principle and its creations. He thus elaborates a general,as it were "formal", conception of Being: considered
qua
being, it is not the object of anydetermination, not even that of the modalities; it is only being. It is not a genus, but a "state" of all that is, and it lets itself be grasped only in its opposition to not-being, without the latter  preceeding it in time - this opposition exists only in accordance with the order of reason.Moreover, only the First Principle receives its existence from itself. It is thus the only necessaryexistence, and it is therefore only in this case that existence coincides with essence. All other  beings receive their existence from the First Principle, by emanation. This ontology, and thecosmogony which accompanies it, supply the three viewpoints from which a being is envisaged:
qua
being,
qua
emanation from the First Principle, and
qua
being of its quiddity. Seen from thefirst two viewpoints, it is the necessity of this being which is most prominent; whereas itscontingence is revealed by the third. These, mentioned schematically, are the notions upon whichIbn Sînæ was to establish his postulates, which are:1. There exists a First Principle, a Being necessary by essence, one and indivisible in everysense, which neither is a body, nor is in a body;2. The totality of being emanates from the First Principle.3. This emanation takes place neither "according to an intention" (
‘ala sabîl qaÒd 
),
 
nor inorder to reach a goal, but by a necessity of the First Principle's being; that is to say, his auto-intellection.4. Nothing emanates from the One but the One.

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