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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.2.2., “Al-Ash’ari”

 summary by David Baggett

Of al-Ash’ari’s ten objections to the Mu’tazilites, three have to do with the matters discussed here (human freedom). The Mu’tazilites assert that human beings create evil, they think that God may wish what is not and that what He does not wish may be, and they think that they alone, and not their Lord, have power over their works. Al-Ash’ari responds that he who doesn’t will the existence of anything except what exists, and nothing exists except what he wills, and nothing is remote from his will, is the worthier of the attribute of divinity. If there are under His authority the existence of things of which He disapproves, this shows an attribute of weakness and poverty. Such a being would be weak in comparison with the sovereign omnipotent God of the tradition.

It’s tempting to think of al-Ash’ari as privileging God’s omnipotence over God’s justice, but this is not how he sees it. He is completely convinced of God’s justice (though he thinks we have to be careful not to think it is the same thing as human justice), and he’s convinced that we are responsible for our actions, and that God rightly holds us responsible. To understand this, we need to describe his notion of “acquisition.” This is the view that a single act can both be created by God and “acquired” or performed by a human being. We can distinguish between the one who lies, who is not the one who makes the act as it really is, and the one who makes it as it really is (namely, God) who does not lie. Similarly, we can make the distinction familiar from experience between cases of casual constraint and cases where we have the power to act, and so responsibility for our action. Al-Ash’ari calls these two cases “necessary motion” and “acquired motion,” and he gives the examples of shaking from palsy or shivering from fever, for the first case, and coming and going or approaching and receding, for the second.

We can ask al-Ash’ari whether God creates evil (or wrong). The answer is not straightforward. Has not God, then, created the injustice of creatures? Al-Ash’ari replies that God created it as their injustice, not as His. But then we deny that God is unjust? Al-Ash’ari replies that one who’s unjust is not unjust because he makes injustice as another’s injustice and not as his. The same reply comes with the question about whether God creates evil and whether God creates lying. God creates evil for another, and lying for another, but God Himself can’t do evil, or lie. Does this mean that God has decreed and determined acts of disobedience? Here al-Ash’ari makes another distinction, between decreed and determined acts of disobedience in the sense that He has commanded them. This is the difference Hare identified in Chapter 2 between two different kinds of prescriptions, namely, “precepts” (or “prohibitions”) and “directly effective commands.”

Someone might worry about God’s commanding things when God does not provide the recipients of the command with the power to carry it out. The interlocutor asks, “Has not God charged the unbeliever with the duty of believing?” Al-Ash’ari answers that He has. But this does not mean that God has given the unbeliever the power of believing, because, if God had given that power, the unbeliever would believe. It seems to follow that God enjoins on him an obligation that he cannot fulfill. Here, al-Ash’ari makes another distinction. Strictly, an inability is an inability both for some act and for its contrary. A stone has the inability to believe, because this inability is also an inability to disbelieve. But the unbeliever has the ability to disbelieve, and so does not strictly have the inability to believe. Al-Ash’ari considers an objection to this account of inability: namely, that he has denied that a power is for an act and its contrary. How can he deny this of powers and affirm it of inabilities? The reason is that, on al-Ash’ari’s conception of power and inability, they are necessarily concurrent with their exercise. The exercise of the inability both for the act and the contrary (to believe and to disbelieve) makes sense (as in the case of the stone). But the exercise of the power both for the act and the contrary does not make sense. It would require a thing to have two contrary attributes at the same time. His opponent could try to reverse the argument and say that it is obvious we have the power both to act and not to act, and so a power can’t be necessarily concurrent with its exercise. This dialectic will continue with the next section (on al-Maturidi).


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