Avicenna, the brilliant Muslim philosopher, arguably the most influencial philosopher of the medieval period, was also one of the most innovative and provocative philosophers of that period. He clearly influenced the greatest thinkers in all three Abrahamic-camps in the period (from Al-Ghazzali, to Thomas Aquinas, to Moses Maimonides) in profound ways. Among his contributions of interest is his cosmological argument from contingency for the existence of a necessary being (being ‘God’). Recently I stumbled upon another contribution which he made which is of interest; he consigned it to writing as a thought experiment which he called the flying man or the ‘floating’ man (depending on the translation). In this thought experiment, Avicenna asks us to imagine a human being with absolutely no sensory experience, so that this subject does not hear or see, taste or have experiences of anything at all. Certainly God could create a fully functioning and developed cognizer who cannot have experiences of seeing or hearing or touching or smelling or tasting. Avicenna thinks that such a concept is not self-contradictory, and in fact that we have the ability to imagine such a situation. He then suggests that what this person with no experiences would know is that he himself exists – that person would be aware of themselves (self-aware) quite apart from needing experiences of other things which stand in some relation to him.
This thought experiment has sometimes been recognized as a precursor to Rene Descartes’ famous ‘Cogito ergo sum’, though that’s probably reading a little too much into Avicenna. Avicenna did not, apparently, take this to be a proof of the immateriality of the soul, as though his analysis was the that soul must be a ‘thinking thing’. Rather, his argument is intended to demonstrate conceptually that Aristotle’s empirical axiom “there is nothing in the mind which was not first in the senses” is mistaken: there is at least one thing in the mind which is not contingent upon experiences – self-awareness.