Al-Ghazali and Decartes

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Melanie Camero
Professor Singer
Philosophy 5
6 June 2011
In this essay I will explain Al-Ghazali’s skeptical epistemological project described in his autobiography, Deliverance from Error. By doing so, I will explain his investigation on the certainty and reliability of knowledge attained through sense-perception and intellectual truths (reason). I will also explain why he doubts knowledge attained through the senses and how he uses dreams to doubt intellectual truths. I will continue by summarizing his religious epistemological theory in which he describes the Sufi mystic experience and how it relates to certain and reliable knowledge. By explaining his religious epistemological theory, I will thereby explain the connection between goals and knowledge. Subsequently, I will explain Descartes’ skeptical epistemological project described in his Meditations I and II. By doing so I will describe his search for certain knowledge, in which he finds doubt in the foundations of most of his beliefs, particularly beliefs created by sense-perception. Then, I will explain his dream conjecture and his demon conjecture. I will continue by explaining what certain knowledge he finds by using the demon conjecture. Following, I will compare and contrast ideas of Descartes and Al- Ghazali; such as their quest for certain knowledge, doubting the senses, their dream theories, and lastly their conclusions on what qualifies as certain knowledge. Finally, I will assume that the supernatural does not exist and observe whether Descartes and Al-Ghazali’s concepts such as: doubting the senses, dream theories, and approaches and conclusions for certain knowledge, still hold without the element of the supernatural.

Al-Ghazali defines certain and reliable knowledge as knowledge that cannot possibly be doubted and that is incapable of error (Al-Ghazali p. 312). For example, knowledge such as two plus two equals four is in all circumstances true and could never be doubted, despite any attempt to show it doubtful (ibid.). So, if knowledge attained by sense-perception or intellectual truths can in any circumstance be doubted, it is not certain and reliable knowledge. When knowledge attained through sense-perception is examined to determine whether it qualifies as certain and reliable knowledge, its falsities arise (ibid.). Sight (the most powerful of the senses) best illustrates sense-perception’s faultiness, for it is often known to deceive you into perceiving something that is not true (ibid.). For example, if you look at a mountain that is several miles away, you perceive it as being as big as a finger, but through your reason, you know the mountain is not in fact as big as your finger, but over 2,000 feet tall (ibid.). Therefore, because knowledge attained through sense-perception can be doubted, it does not qualify as certain or reliable knowledge (ibid.).

Intellectual truths are responsible for deciding whether something is impossible, possible, existent, or nonexistent (ibid.). Intellectual knowledge can also be doubted through the use of a different method. By using the dreaming- state and waking-state as analogies for the waking-state and a superior state of awareness, doubt in intellectual knowledge is introduced (Al-Ghazali p. 313).While dreaming, you hold all that you imagine as genuine and infallible(ibid.). However, when you awaken from your dream-state, all that you have imagined while dreaming is exposed as false (ibid.). For example, if in a dream you imagine yourself flying, while in that state, a human flying is true. However, when you awaken, your intellectual knowledge disproves your imagination, by assuring you that humans cannot possibly fly without the assistance of some kind of machine. Similarly, it is possible that there is a higher state of awareness that disproves knowledge such as that attained through sense-perception and intellectual truths which are typically considered reliable knowledge in our waking-state...
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