Avicenna’s floating man argument

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.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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8 Responses to Avicenna’s floating man argument

  1. Mister T says:

    “He then suggests that what this person with no experiences would know is that he himself exists”

    How can this be verified? Even supposing we had a definition of self-awareness that everyone agreed upon, what would the test for that be? If such a test involved provoking a conscious response from the supposedly self-aware entity, he would by definition require at least one sense with which to communicate. Being given that sense or even the act of communication itself could conceivably influence his self-awareness, thus negating the whole experiment.

    • You’re quite right. Remember that this argument of Avicenna’s is one in favor of rationalism over empiricism. The claim is that we can know by rational reflection apart from observation or experience, that our consciousness is self-aware, so that even if it had no sensational experiences, it would still have an experience of a kind: namely something like a ‘Cogito ergo sum’ experience – the experience of coming to recognize that one exists. This recognition is not aided by any auxiliary experiences or ideas.

      We can agree to disagree with Avicenna’s argument. What makes it interesting is what the consequences are for agreeing or disagreeing with it (in other words, where does it put us philosophically if we disagree with it, and where if we agree with it). To my mind, to agree with it is practically to be bound to Rationalism, whereas an Empiricist cannot agree with it, it seems to me, even in principle. Your comments certainly make you sound like an empiricist, so maybe the interesting thing for you to do would be to take inventory of where you stand with respect to thought experiments like Avicenna’s and Descartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      • Mister T says:

        Thanks for responding. I’d agree with you that the experiment cannot be judged by empirical criteria, for the reasons I originally laid out. However, I’m also not convinced that Rationalism would validate the conclusion Avicenna proposed either. I take Rationalism to mean knowledge or truth that is logically deducted rather than arrived at through observation (if there are other aspects of Rationalism that are relevant here, I don’t know what they are). The questions I would ask are, by what logical chain of reasoning can we as external entities conclude that the floating man is self-aware? Crucially, I would follow that question with this one: Even if we could propose a path to that conclusion, how can we as sentient beings be sure we have divorced all sensory experience from the logic we care to apply to the question? In short, I’m doubtful that there is any means by which the experiment (as described) can really be validated. I have only just come across it and started thinking about it, but for me it’s more of a curiosity that stimulates thinking than anything else.

      • Well, in one sense that is all it is meant to be: a curiosity that stimulates thinking. I have heard some construals of Rationalism as ‘the belief that some synthetic truths can be known a priori’ or something like that, but I take Rationalism to be the commitment to Rational Intuition as an epistemic foundation. Intuition here means, as Leibniz says, the simple comprehension of some idea without the aid of any others (Eg. Pv~P). Knowing something like Pv~P is not something we know from experience, but something we know a priori and by rational intuition. I think once you recognize that the rationalists all appeal to this intuition (at least all the rationalists I can think of in the early modern period), then you can come to see how something like an a priori proof of one’s own existence by merely intuiting it might seem plausible and appealing. I have a pretty strong rationalist streak in me well, so I sympathize with the rationalists even more than I sympathize with modern radical empiricists. How can we know as sentient creatures that absent any of the five senses we would still be self-aware? because our self-awareness comes from rational intuition alone, and doesn’t require the aid of other ideas purchased by sensory experience. That, at least, is what I would expect a rationalist to answer.

  2. isko says:

    I think the thought experiment is just to support his claim that existence has primacy over essence.

  3. Why is it that you both never have talked about the most important part he was trying to prove. Intelligence. I think you both overlooked the most important things he was trying to prove. You are not emotionless zombie’s who have no train of thought you are rational thinking beings that proves you have an awareness. weather asleep or awake you can tell the difference between the two which determines a level of awareness of where you are. To say that empiricism is not there is not true. Both of you use your own intelligence to form an argument thus both used your souls to communicate! In order to form an argument you must use your thinking to do so. Guys Empiricism is the theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience. Thus is you learned from a kid or use Locke’s Tabula Rasa argument you are using a similar argument. Also Rationalism is a belief or theory that opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response. I leave you with this if you cannot determine weather you are awake or asleep than how can you ever know what is real and just a dream. The conclusion should go the other way around and his arguments fall apart when he acknowledges that he can determine the difference by his own intellect.

  4. Pingback: 17. Rationalism vs. Empiricism – Kevin Spacey Eyes

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