A friend of mine expresses his doubts about whether something eternal can have a cause. The two predicates seem to him to be mutually exclusive such that to be eternal would seem to straightforwardly entail being uncaused. So, on this view, if x is not caused then x is simply eternal and, contra-positively, if x is not eternal then x is caused.

I think this view involves a misconception (wahm) and so what follows is my attempt to alleviate some of his worries. But first, a brief clarificatory note:

The concept ‘eternal’ in this context concerns duration of existence: x is eternal means x has always existed. And one way to explicate ‘always existing’ is in terms of a denial of x having been ‘non-existent’, i.e., ‘x is eternal’ can then be understood as the claim that ‘it is not the case that x did not exist at some time’. The claim that x is not eternal is just the negation of this. To sum up: for x to be not eternal is for it to be preceded by non-existence; and for it to be eternal is for it to not be preceded by non-existence. The precedence here is temporal. Call this thing – whose existence is preceded by non-existence (at some time t in the past) – a muhdath, i.e., temporally originated (thing).

Now, given the above, what is the relation all this to the notion of causality? It is this: the proponent of the view that nothing eternal can be caused, it turns out, is committed to the proposition that for x to be caused is for x to be a muhdath i.e., proceeded by non-existence. And this – the fact of it having been non-existent at some time – is what is ultimately explanatory of its being a thing that is caused. If this is the case, then it makes perfect sense why anything that isn’t a muhdath i.e., eternal, is eo ipso not caused.

The argument

Take the muhdath and consider its property ‘proceeded by non-existence’ (huduth).

If huduth explained the need for a cause, it would be prior to its subject
But properties cannot be prior to their subjects
Therefore, etc.

Proof of the major: causes are prior to their effects. Proof of the minor: huduth, by definition, is that x’s existence is preceded by its non-existence. From this definition it follows that this property of x is posterior to the existence of x. That is, to hold that this thing x has the property of being a muhdath presupposes that it already exists right now; for nothing that is non-existent can bear the property of ‘being preceded by non-existence’.

(1)   nothing —-> (2) existence of x —-> (3) property of huduth (of x)

Now, given that the property of huduth is the last link in the chain, it evidently cannot be the explanatory terminus of why x is caused. For if it were, it would be prior to itself i.e., it would exist as a property before the thing of which it is a property, i.e., x, itself actually exists. But this is absurd. Therefore, ‘being preceded by non-existence’ or, in other words, not being eternal, is not what explains being caused. That is, it is not the case that for x to be caused is for it to be a muhdath.

What the above considerations show, I hope, is that it is possible for a thing that is eternal, i.e., not preceded by non-existence, to be caused on the basis of showing that not being eternal, i.e., being preceded by non-existence, is not what explains being caused.


One thought on “The eternal as possibly caused

  1. salam Friend.

    ‘If huduth explained the need for a cause, it would be prior to its subject
    But properties cannot be prior to their subjects
    Therefore, etc.’

    I think the question here is about the causation and agency, since, according to masha’is, anything that has the capability to cause (whether animate or inanimate) is the agent, while for other thinkers (ash’arites) that is not the case – inanimate objects canot be any causes, and animate obects are the (apparent) causes (and agents) and the ultimate Cause (and the Agent) is God.

    Huduth is only a condition, and in itself cannot explain the need for the cause. It has to BE in order for an agent to actualitize an effect: to cause is to bring a new, renew, etc., and it is only possible for the presence of huduth of what is to be caused (meaning, for an effect to be caused it must be non-existent, because if it is not non-existent then there is no causation at all).

    A property can be prior to its subject, like the property of a particular design in the mind of the designer. The design (property) is in huduth state in the agent’s mind, and after actualizing what was to be created that particular property of the design gets actualized. I believe this is what arestu thinks as well.

    The only way the universal premise of yours “But properties cannot be prior to their subjects” is valid is if we are talking about properties in the corporeal level, not mental existence. In the mind, properties have to be before the subjects.

    Regards, and salam

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