Avicenna and Michael Bolin

Listening to Peter Adamson’s brilliant podcasts on Islamic philosophy, it struck me that al-Farabi and Avicenna had a theory about the the genesis of substantial form similar to that proposed recently by Michael Bolin. According to al-Farabi, the parents of an animal (say) merely dispose the matter, which is then informed by the lowest created intellegence (angel),  whom he famously identifies with the agent intellect, and which would later come to be called the dator formarum, the giver of forms. Avicenna develops him further and argues that spontaneous generation of a human being is possible in principle, since if the elements happened to be mixed in the right way, the dator formarum would infuse the form. I think this is basically the same as Bolin’s idea that the artificial construction of a living being is (in principle) possible. Bolin, however, thinks that the form is immediately given by the highest universal cause (God), rather than by a created universal cause. At first glance, al-Farabi’s idea that it is done by a created universal cause seems much more probable—especially in the light of De Koninck’s work on universal causality in The Cosmos— but I would like to look at al-Farabi’s and Avicenna’s arguments in detail.

4 thoughts on “Avicenna and Michael Bolin

  1. Two observations:

    First, as indicated in the talk, that the artificial construction of a living being is possible is not really a speculative question any more, since it has already happened with respect to the most distinctive feature of simple organic beings (e.g. bacteria and yeast), namely the genetic material. The idea that if the remaining parts, such as the organelles, were also synthesized from scratch, the resulting organism would suddenly be be non-living might charitably be described as wishful thinking at best (although, I am sorry to say, I have little doubt that some decades out, when this is actually accomplished, wishful thinking will be replaced by outright denialism). That being said, to simply say that in such a case the giver of forms would infuse the form can be misleading, as it could be taken to imply that something different was going on in such a case from what happens in natural generation, when in fact the substantial form is present for the same reason in both cases, namely that it is in accord with nature that matter so disposed should be such a substance.

    Second, there are several reasons why the thesis ascribing the source of substantial form to a created universal agent is less plausible than that ascribing it directly to the first cause. The most important is also stated in my talk but bears summarizing, namely that a philosophical analysis of the known facts regarding substantial generation indicates that the natural parent’s causality (insofar as it is a substance of the same kind) is not a strict requirement of substantial generation, and that the reason for this is that causing the form requires the power to cause being as such. But this power is proper to the uncaused cause, and so no created agent, no matter how universal, is any more able to cause it than is any lower created agent.

    Another reason is that this thesis (that a created universal agent causes the form) implies a radical insufficiency of material nature even within its own order, i.e., that natural agents are somehow lacking with respect to the power to generate even their own kind. This does not follow on my account, since every act of every nature is and must be from God anyway, regardless of the nature of generation. I suppose some might see this as a virtue of the opposing account, if they desire to have angels involved in the operations of nature; but in that case there seems no reason to stop at generation–perhaps we need to posit an angel of gravitation that serves as the more universal cause at work in the case of falling bodies, and so on.

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    • You write: «to simply say that in [artificial generation] forms would infuse the form can be misleading, as it could be taken to imply that something different was going on in such a case from what happens in natural generation, when in fact the substantial form is present for the same reason in both cases, namely that it is in accord with nature that matter so disposed should be such a substance.» I don’t see why it implies any difference; for Avicenna natural generation and spontaneous generation are basically the same— in both cases the form is given because matter is disposed in a certain way.

      On the second point I think your strongest argument is «causing the form requires the power to cause being as such.» I want to look at what the Arabs themselves say on this, as I suspect they have a way of accounting for this.

      On the other argument: I of course think that angels are involved in all natural operations.

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      • Just came back and discovered your reply now.

        To the first, I didn’t mean to say that the one statement necessarily implied the other, but just that it’s a possible interpretation I’ve heard before.

        To the second, I do think your view is more plausible than the view that sees angelic involvement as somehow peculiar to substantial generation. For the latter seems to view generation as a kind of gap in nature’s causality that must be filled in by angelic power, while the former views the entire created order, material and spiritual, as a single unified causal order. One difficulty I have with it is that it’s not presently clear to me how we would establish the truth of the claim, or determine its extent. That is, at level does the involvement take place? Is there an angel of photosynthesis, or of the molecular or even atomic interactions underlying such? Or something at a much higher level? I don’t know how to go about thinking about the questions of this nature that arise on the view in question.

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  2. Pingback: per manus sancti angeli tui | Sancrucensis

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