Rafed English

The Meaning of Impossibility

Adapted from: "Three Topics in Theological Philosophy" by: "Dr. Ahmad Ahmadi"

The word `impossible' is used in three different senses:

(a) Inherent impossibility (muhal dhati),

(b) Impossibility of occurrence (muhal wuqu `i),

(c) Habitual impossibility (muhal `adi).

(a) Inherent Impossibility: It applies to a statement which, if assumed to be true, would imply self‑contradiction. It refers to situa­tions which are logically impossible. That is , it necessitates that some­thing should be both existent and non‑existent at the same time. It applies to statements like the above‑mentioned example relating to insertion of a bigger body into a smaller one without the larger one becoming smaller or the ‑smaller one larger; because, if true, it would lead to the conclusion that the bigger body in its state of largeness should not be large, since a larger body can be inserted into a smaller one only if it becomes smaller itself; that is, it should not be large, and this is a contradiction.

Similarly, the proposition 2+2=5 is necessarily self‑contradictory, because if 2 books are added to 2 other books, and if instead of 4 we have 5 books, it means that 2+2 is and also is not 2+2, because when 2+2=5, it means it is not equal to 4. So 2 books plus 2 books makes at the same time 4 and not 4 books.

(b) Impossibility of Occurrence: The mere supposition of this kind of impossibility does not necessarily lead to contradiction as such, but if it occurs in reality, its occurrence necessarily leads to contradiction.

For example, if we know that some effect B must necessarily be an effect of cause A, and that existence of A is necessary for causing the existence of B, now if B comes into existence without A, we are con­fronted with a contradiction between what we know to be true and what we observe (namely existence of B without A).

However, there is no self‑contradiction in the supposition itself that B can exist without A. But if A is known with certainty to be a necessary cause of B, emer­gence of B without the presence of A (the necessary cause of B) involves a contradiction. This kind of impossibility refers to situations involving necessary causation.

(c) Habitual Impossibility: Here, an effect B, as a rule, is observed as originating from a particular cause A, but, in fact, occasionally, it might possess another cause C, as well. A case that may be cited as an example is that of the healing of sick by means of miracles. Healing, customarily, has its specific cause like medicine; but when it is caused by a miracle, it is due to the special powers of saintly figures, granted to them by God on account of their piety. This kind of impossibility depends on habitual association between cause and effect.

From among these three kinds of impossibility, the first and second do not apply to Divine power; because the first kind, or inherent impossibility, is something the mere supposition of which involves a self‑contradiction, and occurrence of anything involving a self‑contradiction is also, of necessity, contradictory.

However, the second kind of impossibility, that is impossibility of occurrence, also necessarily involves contradiction like the first kind; since even if the supposition itself is not self‑contradictory, but because if it is known with certainty that emergence of a particular effect B depends on a particular cause A, if B emerges without A, it implies a contradiction; because, the observation that A does not exist is incon­sistent with the deduction that A exists (a deduction derived from the statement known to be true that A is always the cause of B). In these two cases (i.e., the first two kinds of impossibilities), there is no `thing' involved (with reference to the Quranic verse 36:82 quoted above) so that God may command it to be.

The third kind, habitual impossibility, is, strictly speaking, not an impossibility at all; rather it is our ignorance of the actual causes of an event that makes us think so. Therefore, events and effects in this class are subject to the power of God.


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