I'm reading a discussion of Al-Kindi's cosmological argument. Al-Kindi is widely considered "father of Islamic philosophy" and this argument is a version of what is now known as the "kalam cosmological argument". I followed the discussion up to the point that after Al-Kindi concluded that a thing cannot cause itself to come into being:

But even at this point, Kindi does not conclude to God's existence. Instead he plunges into an elaborate Plotinian discussion of unity and multiplicity and conclude that the association of unity and multiplicity in the world cannot be due to change, but must be caused. This cause he calls, in good Neoplatonic nomenclature, the True One ... (William Lane Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument, page 33-4)

I don't get this part. To me, after one concludes that a thing cannot cause itself into being, one could instead just argue that something else causes the universe and that is God, but instead he brought in this "Plotinian discussion of unity and multiplicity". What is this discussion and how does it help Al-Kindi's argument?

The source I'm reading doesn't explain further but cites Al-Kindi's On First Philosophy with a footnote to p. 94 of the 1974 translation: Alfred L. Ivry, Al-Kindi’s Metaphysics.


3 Answers 3


The True One does not "pop up" suddenly; it is present from the start [first page, see page 55 of Engl.transl.]:

"The True One exists necessarily, and therefore beings exist."

Then, after a long examination, the True One is mentioned again [page 104]:

"Consequently, the True One has no genus whatsoever. We have already stated that what has a genus is not eternal, and that the eternal has no genus. Consequently the True One is eternal, and in no way whatsoever ever becomes multiple; and the One should not be spoken of in relation to something other than itself."

See Plotinus and the One:

The One is the absolutely simple first principle of all. It is both ‘self-caused’ and the cause of being for everything else in the universe.

and compare with Demiurge: "In the Platonic, Neopythagorean, Middle Platonic, and Neoplatonic schools of philosophy, the demiurge is an artisan-like figure responsible for the fashioning and maintenance of the physical universe. Although a fashioner, the demiurge is not necessarily the same as the creator figure in the familiar monotheistic sense."

Thus, al Kindi, as well as Plotinus, is searching for a proof of the existence not of "a creator" whatsoever, but of the True One.


The question is:

To me, after one concludes that a thing cannot cause itself into being, one could instead just argue that something else causes the universe and that is God, but instead he brought in this "Plotinian discussion of unity and multiplicity". What is this discussion and how does it help Al-Kindi's argument?

After al-Kindi argued that the universe had a beginning and that it could not cause itself to be, he wanted to show how God could have made the universe from nothing. His view of God guided how he attempted to do that.

He was aware of the Neo-Platonic True One presented by Plotinus, but Plotinus claimed the universe was eternal. (Enneads, II.1.1.) If God were like the True One he might be able to use some of what Plotinus did to show how the True One related to the multiplicity of the material universe viewing it however as having a beginning.

Al-Kindi was also sympathetic to the theological positions of the Mu‘tazilites. See Adamson, Peter, "Al-Kindi", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/al-kindi/ for more information. In particular:

...al-Kindi held an austere view on the question of attributes, on the basis that predication invariably implies multiplicity, whereas God is unrestrictedly one. This has been compared (Ivry 1974, Adamson 2003) to the position of the Mu‘tazilites, who were the main contemporary theologians of the ninth century.

Although Craig traced in detail al-Kindi’s argument when it came to the universe having a beginning and not being self-caused, he felt al-Kindi’s view of the True One involved a “rigorous determinism” (*The Kalam Cosmological Argument, page 35). Based on his reference to al-Ghazali in Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology, page 66) he apparently preferred a view of God as a personal agent:

The answer to Kant’s conundrum was carefully explained by al-Ghazali and enshrined in the Islamic principle of determination. According to that principle, when two different states of affairs are equally possible and one results, this realization of one rather than the other must be the result of the action of a personal agent who freely chooses one rather than the other.

So, after showing the universe had a beginning and did not create itself, al-Kindi needed to show how God could create the universe from nothing. He used Plotinus’s True One as his view of God. This was in accord with the views of the Mu‘tazilites although it involved a “rigorous determinism”. Craig preferred a different argument provided by al-Ghazali that viewed God as a personal agent.


I would suggest that Al Kindi and Plotinus give the 'non-dual' description of unity and multiplicity. These opposites must be reduced for a fundamental view. The language here is tricky and can be misleading. The opposite of multiplicity is not unity but singularity, while 'unity' would encompass singleness and multiplicity within itself. The word would not imply a numerical value. Thus to say the Universe is a Unity is to say it is both Many and One. Unity allows us to overcome this logical antinomy and all others.

The idea that Unity cannot be described or conceptualised is necessary to this view as is the inappropriateness of predication to the True One. Bradley discusses this in Appearance and Reality where he writes that predication (thus language) is necessary for metaphysics but also illegitimate and misleading. As Lao Tsu puts it, the 'Tao that is eternal' cannot be spoken.

Causation here should not be thought of in our usual way. For this view we would need to replace the idea of causation-as-action with that of identity. The world would be the way it is not because it is intentionally caused but as an ineluctable consequence of the nature of Reality or the True One. No creator God is necessary, all would follow 'Tao being what it is'. Al Kindi cannot ground his philosophy on a phenomenon that is in the world of change because this is the world he needs to explain. He reaches back before this to the Unity of the Source, from which perspective the world of change is emergent and not truly real.

To make sense of this view requires studying the meaning of 'Unity' in depth. To me it seems the most difficult word in all of philosophy. It refers to a phenomenon beyond all distinction and division which cannot be said to be 'this' or 'that' in any instance. It is for this reason that the mystics use a language of contradictory complementarity when speaking rigorously about the world. When Heraclitus claims 'We are and are-not' he is endorsing this view and indicating the problem of predication and proposing the Unity of All. We would have to acknowledge the partial truth (thus falsity) of two opposite views (we are and are-not) in order to transcend them.

In order to see why two opposite statements are required for rigour in our statements about the world a study of Nagarjuna's 'Two truths' or 'Two Worlds' would be valuable. It is not easy stuff, however, and some dedication would be required to see the equivalence of the views of Al Kindi, Plotinus, Bradley and Nagarjuna.

It's such a huge topic that justice cannot be done to it off the cuff here. The view endorsed by these philosophers may be justified in logic or even more or less arrived at, but really it is an outcome of experimental practice and direct experience. Al Kindi is leading us towards the Perennial philosophy and the idea that we can establish the facts about the One and the Many, the Origin of this universe and even God without having to read books or visit internet forums.

There is a very useful and afaik trustworthy series of books called 'The Essence of ...' by Eagle Editions. I think one is 'The Essence of Sufism' and this would be a good introduction to the view that Al Kindi is describing. Sufism pre-dates Islam but nowadays is viewed as Islamic mysticism. If he is read alongside Al Halaj and Rumi and the rest of the literature his ideas may seem more clear and well-developed.

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