The Elusive Nature of Knowledge
Imam al-Ghazali on the nature of true knowledge:
With great earnestness, therefore, I began to reflect on my sense-data to see if I could make myself doubt them. This protracted effort to induce doubt finally brought me to the point where my soul would not allow me to admit safety from error even in the case of my sense-data. Rather, it began to be open to doubt about them and to say: “Whence comes your reliance on sense-data? The strongest of the senses is the sense of sight. Now this looks at a shadow and sees it standing still and motionless and judges that motion must be denied. Then, due to experience and observation an hour later it knows that the shadow is moving, and that it did not move in a sudden spurt, but so gradually and imperceptibly that it was never completely at rest. Sight also looks at a star and sees it as something small, the size of a dinar; then geometrical proofs demonstrate that it surpasses the earth in size. In the case of this and of similar instances of sense-data the sense-judge makes its judgements, but the reason-judge refutes it and repeatedly gives it the lie in an incontrovertible fashion.”
Then I said: “My reliance on sense-data has also become untenable. Perhaps, therefore, I can rely only on those rational data which belong to the category of primary truths, such as our asserting that ‘Ten is more than three,’ and ‘One and the same thing cannot be simultaneously affirmed and denied,’ and ‘One and the same thing cannot be incipient and eternal, existent and nonexistent, necessary and impossible.'”
Then sense-data spoke up: “What assurance have you that your reliance on rational data is not like your reliance on sense-data? Indeed, you used to have confidence in me. Then the reason-judge came along and gave me the lie. But were it not for the reason-judge, you would still accept me as true. So there may be, beyond the perception of reason, another judge. And if the latter revealed itself, it would give the lie to the judgments of reason, just as the reason-judge revealed itself and gave the lie to the judgments of sense. The mere fact of the nonappearance of that further perception does not prove the impossibility of its existence.”
For a brief space my soul hesitated about the answer to that objection, and sense-data reinforced their difficulty by an appeal to dreaming, saying: “Don’t you see that when you are asleep you believe certain things and imagine certain circumstances and believe they are fixed and lasting and entertain no doubts about that being their status? Then you wake up and know that all your imaginings and beliefs were groundless and unsubstantial. So while everything you believe through sensation or intellection in your waking state may be true in relation to that state, what assurance have you that you may not suddenly experience a state which would have the same relation to your waking state as the latter has to your dreaming, and your waking state would be dreaming in relation to that new and further state? If you found yourself in such a state, you would be sure that all your rational beliefs were unsubstantial fancies.
It may be that this state beyond reason is that which the sufis claim is theirs. For they allege that, in the states they experience when they concentrate inwardly and suspend sensation, they see phenomena which are not in accord with the normal data of reason.
Or it may be that this state is death. For the Apostle of God – God’s blessing and peace be upon him – said: ‘Men are asleep: then after they die they awaken.’ So perhaps this present life is a sleep compared to the afterlife. Consequently, when a man dies, things will appear to him differently from the way he now sees them, and thereupon he will be told:'”
“Thou wast heedless of this! But now we have lifted from thee thy veil, and sharp is thy sight today!” (50[surat Qaf], 22)
Excerpt from “Al-Ghazali: Deliverance From Error – Five Key Texts Including His Spiritual Autobiography, al-Munqidh min al-Dalal” Translated and Annotated by R.J.McCarthy