City of Brass

City of Brass

Ramadan as a meditation on nothingness (essence vs existence)

Most of the religious obligations of a Muslim are positive actions: pray, strive, donate, go. Prayer is a physical action of movement, zakat is a positive action of donation, jihad is an explicit struggle towards a difficult ideal, and the Hajj is a physical journey laden with specific rituals and symbolic actions. However, the act of fasting in Ramadan is unique in that is is a negative action – you stop doing something.

It is that absence that defines Ramadan – an attempt to remove the distraction of our physical existence and to try and harness that resulting vacuum – that hunger – towards the spiritual.


What does that imply about the nature of our physical existence, then?

The true nature of reality itself is no longer limited to the philosophers. A recent article in Scientific American reviews the philosophical implications of Quantum Field Theory, which is arguably the most successful scientific theory (in an empirical sense) in history. Despite my scientific background, this article resonated (no pun intended) with me on a spiritual level far more than the scientific one. In a nutshell, neither “particles” nor “fields” have any true meaning at the subatomic level, due to quantum mechanics.


(note: Quantum mechanics is a mathematical tool. It is not a philosophy. If anything, QM is dictated by philosophy, not the other way around. Or to put it even more succinctly, see XKCD #1240 at right)

If neither particles nor fields are real, however, then what is real? From the article:

Although the particle and field interpretations are traditionally considered to be radically different from each other, they have something crucial in common. Both assume that the fundamental items of the material world are persistent individual entities to which properties can be ascribed. These entities are either particles or, in the case of field theory, spacetime points. Many philosophers, including me, think this division into objects and properties may be the deep reason why the particle and field approaches both run into difficulties. We think it would be better to view properties as the one and only fundamental category.


Is this ball a particle or a field? None of the above

Is this a particle or a field? Maybe it’s neither…

Traditionally, people assume that properties are “universals”—in other words, they belong to an abstract, general category. They are always possessed by particular things; they cannot exist independently. (To be sure, Plato did think of them as existing independently but only in some higher realm, not the world that exists in space and time.) For instance, when you think of red, you usually think of particular red things and not of some freely floating item called “redness.” But you could invert this way of thinking. You can regard properties as having an existence, independently of objects that possess them. Properties may be what philosophers call “particulars”—concrete, individual entities. What we commonly call a thing may be just a bundle of properties: color, shape, consistency, and so on.


Because this conception of properties as particulars rather than universals differs from the traditional view, philosophers have introduced a new term to describe them: “tropes.” It sounds a bit funny, and unfortunately the term brings inappropriate connotations with it, but it is established by now.

Construing things as bundles of properties is not how we usually conceptualize the world, but it becomes less mysterious if we try to unlearn how we usually think about the world and set ourselves back to the very first years of life. As infants, when we see and experience a ball for the first time, we do not actually perceive a ball, strictly speaking. What we perceive is a round shape, some shade of red, with a certain elastic touch. Only later we do associate this bundle of perceptions with a coherent object of a certain kind—namely, a ball. Next time we see a ball, we essentially say, “Look, a ball,” and forget how much conceptual apparatus is involved in this seemingly immediate perception.


In trope ontology, we return to the direct perceptions of infancy. Out there in the world, things are nothing but bundles of properties. It is not that we first have a ball and then attach properties to it. Rather we have properties and call it a ball. There is nothing to a ball but its properties.

The full article goes into much more depth (SO GO READ IT!) but the key idea here is stunning if you think about it. There isn’t any real meaning to the idea of a physical object, the only thing that matters is the relationships and properties of that thing-we-formerly-called-an-object and really the word “object” itself is part of the problem. If anything, it’s all subjects, not objects.


(the word Islam means to “submit” – and the words submit and subject are intimately related.)

Ibn Sina (Avicenna)

Ibn Sina (Avicenna)

If the idea that the physical world is basically an illusion seems somewhat familiar, it’s because it’s actually about 2400 years old – Plato’s Theory of Forms. These ideas were refined by another titanic philosopher, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who sought to integrate Platonism with rationalism about a thousand years ago. Avicenna theorized that the essence of a given thing (an object… or a subject) is of primary importance over its existence. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Avicenna’s philosophy of ontology thus:


Avicenna’s famous distinction between existence and essence in contingents, between the fact that something exists and what it is. It is a distinction that is arguably latent in Aristotle although the roots of Avicenna’s doctrine are best understood in classical Islamic theology or kalam. Avicenna’s theory of essence posits three modalities: essences can exist in the external world associated with qualities and features particular to that reality; they can exist in the mind as concepts associated with qualities in mental existence; and they can exist in themselves devoid of any mode of existence. This final mode of essence is quite distinct from existence. Essences are thus existentially neutral in themselves. Existents in this world exist as something, whether human, animal or inanimate object; they are ‘dressed’ in the form of some essence that is a bundle of properties that describes them as composites. God on the other hand is absolutely simple, and cannot be divided into a bundle of distinct ontological properties that would violate his unity. Contingents, as a mark of their contingency, are conceptual and ontological composites both at the first level of existence and essence and at the second level of properties. Contingent things in this world come to be as mentally distinct composites of existence and essence bestowed by the Necessary.


The passage above labels Avicenna’s ideas as Aristotelian, but they were more Platonic. The difference is subtle but as usual, critical: Avicenna and Plato held that essence is ontologically prior to existence. 150 years later, in Andalusia, the philosopher Ibn Rush (Averroes) defended Avicenna’s rationalism but embraced Aristotle over Plato and thus denied that essence precedes existence, arguing instead that the two concepts are co-equal. Most of the Islamic world turned away from such distinctions and embraced Ghazali’s occasionalism, but that’s too much a tangent even for this already-sprawling piece, so I’ll restrain myself.


Keep in mind that I’m no philosopher – I’m just a scientist. For my own comprehension, I simplify the above as: essence is not contingent on existence, but existence is contingent on essence. Therefore, the material existence of a thing – or a particle, or a ball, or a person, or a soul – is not what is important. Sometimes we have to actually deny the reality of existence, to remove its demands from our attention, in order to more faithfully contemplate the essence.

Fasting is the most literal possible action of denial of our existence. As living sentient beings, we are distinct from animals in that we possess the faculty of reason (al Aql). We still share the physical needs of sustaining our life with animals, though, so by fasting we try to suppress that commonality and in so doing emphasize what sets us apart. And that faculty of reason is how we contemplate and approach God – via the medium of religion:


Al-Aql indeed is a substance which comprehends
Everything that is made, created or formed

Man, through Aql, perceives the truth
In everything as a discerning observer

Falsafato Faydhil Aql (A Philosophical Discourse), Syedna Taher Saifuddin AS, 1963

Science is the act of employing ‘Aql to attempt to discern truth, as is Philosophy – they just use different tools (and animals have neither science nor philosophy). So as both a scientist and as a fasting muslim in Ramadan, I can’t help but wonder what Avicenna would have thought about Quantum Field Theory. Or Plato, for that matter…

Related: [1] Ramadan, the month of Jihad; [2] A Philosophical Discourse by Syedna Taher Saifuddin AS.

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posted July 21, 2013 at 7:51 am

Excellent insights. Thanks for sharing your views.

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posted July 21, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Lovely piece. The links to the Buddhist premise that objects have “no inherent existence” are perhaps too obvious to mention (of course I just did!). And the discrimination within what you have named Al Aql brings us the revelation that the subject, the ‘I’ likewise has “no inherent existence,” being always linked, necessarily, to and object in perception. So we fast, or pray, or meditate, not so much to separate ourselves from the animals, as to approach that indeterminate region of no-thing, repository of all possible manifestation. That there are strong parallels between science and spirituality, or religion, on this point is, for me, one of the wonders of our age: the rational mind and the faith mind are coming to the same conclusions.

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posted July 22, 2013 at 2:39 pm

I’m thinking much of science and math is rooted with philosophy. The development of the science and the development of the philosophy go hand in hand in the different math ways I’m familiar with. Over time the philosophy gets overlooked, but it’s still there and the science is rich with implications.

Very interesting thoughts about existence. Thanks for posting!

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