Rene Descartes and Abu Hamid Al Ghazali lived, worked, and studied in drastically different atmospheres under radically dissimilar social constraints; the former being an early 17th-Century Christian Frenchman, while the latter lived 500 years earlier as a Muslim in the Middle East. Even though these cultural differences existed, both men at one point sought to establish absolute truth and certainty by casting extreme doubt onto their perceptions of truth and reality. In Meditations and The Deliverance from Error, Descartes and Al Ghazali, respectively, lead the reader down comparable paths in the quest for certainty, both in a philosophical sense and in a literary one, despite the incongruities between the two writer’s eras and life experiences.
The first feature of both texts that needs to be discussed is the genuine desire that each of them had to come upon a point of certainty, or some unalterable way of instilling confidence in their senses and reason. Al Ghazali states that his quest started “with great earnestness” (10). Likewise, Descartes mentions in the beginning of Meditations that “this enterprise appeared to be a very great one,” and he later ends the first paragraph stating, “I shall at last seriously and freely address myself to the general upheaval of all my former opinions” (165-166). When you consider that the act of writing itself was a much more arduous task in the 11th and 17th Centuries than it is today, Al-Ghazali and Descartes’ words carry more weight. Even though Al Ghazali’s words were recorded after his initial skepticism, these still were not merely hypothetical philosophical musings, but instead deep reflections with great intrapersonal ramifications to each of the men.
With that said, the step-by-step approach that each takes to doubt everything that is possible to doubt in order to find any undeniable certainty must be examined. Descartes first and foremost dismisses his senses as a possible solid foundation, for “these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely to anything by which we have once been deceived” (166). He does not appear to give any direct examples of this in the immediate surrounding text, so one must assume that he is referring to common sensory deceptions. Al Ghazali reaches an identical conclusion, albeit after a more contemplative passage, concluding, “My reliance on sense-data has also become untenable” (11).
However, the human being traditionally is recognized as utilizing five senses, which for the most part operate independently of each other. Al Ghazali errors in grouping them as a single entity and labeling all five as unreliable because of the failure of one. He states, “the strongest of the senses is the sense of sight” (10), and presumably reasons that if the strongest sense can deceive, then the others surely are untrustworthy, since the only two examples he gives of deceptive senses are vision-related. Because the senses are independent, though, this is flawed logic. The fact that one perceives a shadow as stationary through one’s vision does not imply that one’s sense of taste is dubious, even if sight is the greatest sense. Most likely, Descartes was also referring solely to the phenomena of optical illusions, either through his work with Optics and Astronomy, possibly alluding to the Socratic example of the stick in the water, or maybe even drawing a connection to The Deliverance from Error’s examples. The reliance on natural vision can be question, as can the sense of hearing through the occurrence of echoes and the doubt that arises from wondering where the original sound came from. It can even be argued that the senses of smell and taste can be doubted because the two have been shown to be related and the strength of a smell can be altered by the wind. But can humankind doubt the sense of touch? If one reaches their hand out and touches an object, they feel the surface of the object as it is, in the real proportions it holds. Granted, the individual, their hand, and the object might all be fictional distortions inside of a fantasy world, but that is an entirely different issue.
Regardless, the next step both philosophers take is to question whether anything is real; that is, they both ponder reason and consider the possibility that the world in which they live is just a dream and that there exists a faculty higher than reason in the same way that reason is higher than the senses. Descartes states eloquently “there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep…it is almost capable of persuading me that I now dream” (167). Al Ghazali, through the personification of his sense-data, contemplates a nearly-identical thought:
“What assurance have you that 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?” (13)
This is certainly a logical step to take in the search for absolute certainty, and a necessary step when using total and relentless doubt. If the senses can often be corrected by human reason, is there another greater mechanism to remedy false rationale? If dreams appear to be real and factual until they are ended, could our perception of reality also be a dream that has yet to end?
Up until this point, the two texts take a somewhat parallel path in their skepticism-based approach. However, directly after writing on the possibility of another reality, Al Ghazali quotes the religious answer to the question of alternate consciousness, and soon after states that his “effort was unsuccessful,” and eventually deduces that it is impossible for him to construct any concrete conclusion (15). In the end, he claims that his knowledge comes from divine power, “of a light which God Most High cast into my breast” (15).
Conversely, Rene Descartes does not have the luxury of claiming that his knowledge comes from a divine source, since has set out on the explicit task to prove God’s existence and must first establish a point of absolute certainty without the assumption of divine forces. Thus, he proceeds to analyze the content of all dreams, deducing that all the items in a dream are manifestations of reality. Then, he continues casting doubt, suggesting that there is an “evil genius” (Descartes 168-169). Finally, after being suspicious of everything he can, Descartes concludes that it cannot be doubted that he exists solely because they thinks (171).
Therefore, the main divergence between Meditations and The Deliverance from Error is that Descartes doubts even his own religion, whereas Al-Ghazali believes he has come to a philosophical dead-end, from which he is rescued by God, who allows him to have confidence in the “self-evident data of reason” (15). More than anything, this is a sign of the era these men lived in. It would have been quite unrealistic for Al-Ghazali to suggest the possibility that God is really a deceiver as Descartes did, or even to conclude that the acceptance of reason can come from anywhere else but from God. Rene Descartes, on the other hand, had the relative comfort of living in a more accepting time, where religious doctrine was slowly becoming subject to evaluation, and the notion that perhaps God might be an evil being would not be as shocking to the reader.
In addition to the similar initial path taken by both writers on a logical level, the two pieces share style similarities. The most prominent congruency is that both authors chose to write in a first-person narrative voice. These works could have just as easily been written as a dialogue, such as the form shown in Meno, or possibly told from a third-person vantage point. However, the first-person technique, in this particular case, is superior because it aids in conveying the fact that the writers honestly undertook their project for their own personal good as much as anyone else’s. It also gives the reader a more private sense of the author; that is, when these texts are read, it feels as though Al Ghazali or Descartes are sitting near, reciting their own words face-to-face. Works written in the third-person, and even in an observant dialogue, style can disconnect or confuse the reader quickly. On the contrary, the narrative voice allows the reader to easily follow the logic of one person’s thoughts coherently.
Descartes and Al Ghazali also, in very short passages, use the same basic metaphor, comparing light to knowledge. Although it is a common metaphor, and quite applicable in this situation, it is still interesting that both chose to mention it in such small samples of text. Descartes says at the end of Meditation I, “Lest the laborious wakefulness…should have to be spent not in daylight, but in the excessive darkness of the difficulties which have just been discussed” (170). Regardless of what he literally means with this quote, Descartes has just figuratively connected darkness with difficulty, and since difficulty and ignorance are both negative traits, an analogy can be drawn that light is a symbol of knowing. A more blatant association is made in Deliverance, where Al Ghazali ends with “and that light is the key to most knowledge” (15).
In conclusion, when the similarities in style and substance are evaluated, it should be assumed that Descartes, at the very least, was inspired, if only subconsciously, by Al Ghazali’s The Deliverance from Error. There are a lot of different paths Descartes could have taken besides doubting things in the order he did. Yet, Descartes’ work stands out in spite of any similarities to Al Ghazali’s because his skepticism goes well beyond the questioning done in Deliverance until he finds an absolute truth to found his knowledge on without reaching a dead end and resorting to divine inspiration for help in restoring his faith and conviction in his senses and reason.