Avicenna On Mental Existence – “Metaphysics” I.5.12

In Cure “Metaphysics” I.5.12 Avicenna writes:

Concerning what is said—namely, ‘A thing is that about which information is given’—this is true. But when, in addition to this, it is said ‘A thing may be absolutely nonexistent’, this is a matter that must be looked into. If by ‘nonexistent’ is meant the nonexistent in external reality, this might be [true]; for it is possible for a thing that does not exist in external things to exist in the mind. But if something other than this is meant, this would be false and there would be no information about it at all. It would not be known except only as something conceived in the soul. To the notion that the nonexistent would be conceived in the soul as a concept that refers to some external thing, we say ‘Certainly not!’

This passage draws on the broader context of Cure “Metaphysics” I.5.

The first sentence: ‘Concerning what is said—namely, ‘A thing is that about which information is given’—this is true’ states that when defining something. that thing must be defined through something else. This appies to everything except necessary truths. Necessary truths are self-evident. For example, if an individual just considered the nature or essence of a triangle, he or she would be capable of deducing that a number of things follow this essence. For instance, the triangle must have three sides and it cannot be round. But one thing the essence of the triangle will not tell is whether or not triangles actually exist. Both the triangle and the individual thinking about the triangle have ‘contingent existences’, which means they have essences that are compatible with both existence and non-existence. In this, the individual and the triangle are unlike concepts such as a round-square or four-sided triangle. Round-squares and four-sided-triangles cannot exist, because their essences preclude their existence, they are impossible. Supposing the existence of such a thing would yield a contradiction. The test for metaphysical possibility is not solely conceivability, but also what is compatible with the essence of the thing. Hence, round-squares and four-sided triangles are impossible.

The next part of this passage states ‘But when, in addition to this, it is said ‘A thing may be absolutely nonexistent’, this is a matter that must be looked into.’ Here, Avicenna claims there are no non-existing things because every contingent essence gets existence somehow even if it is only mental existence. Furthermore, the passage goes on to say ‘If by ‘nonexistent’ is meant the nonexistent in external reality, this might be [true]; for it is possible for a thing that does not exist in external things to exist in the mind’. To help understand this, consider the mythological bird the phoenix. According to Avicenna, the phoenix does exist. The sort of existence the phoenix has is mental, rather than concrete or external. In other words, the phoenix exists by virtue of being something people think about, even if its reality does not exist outside of human’s minds. Avicenna further points out that for each item other than God, the item’s essence leaves whether or not the item in question physically exists open to interpretation. Lions and humans do not need to exist; that they do is the result of some cause that has made them exist. This is true even in the case of mental existence since mentally existent things are made to exist by someone’s thinking about them. So it is that lions and humans are merely possible or contingent beings. By contrast, God is a necessary existent, which means that Gods essence guarantees his existence. In fact, Avicenna suggested that Gods essence just is existence.

The passage goes on to say ‘But if something other than this is meant, this would be false and there would be no information about it at all’. Avicenna claims that things that never exist at all are impossible to think and talk about. Again, he gives the example of the phoenix. A phoenix has to exist, because people are able to talk and think about it. Moreover, Avicenna claims there are no non-existing things because every contingent essence gets existence somehow even if it is only mental existence. Anything that can be talked and/or thought about exists. To understand this, one needs to grasp that concept of mental existence. An item that can be talked/thought about exists (mentally) even if it does not physically exist.

Lastly, the final part of this passage states ‘It would not be known except only as something conceived in the soul. It would not be known except only as something conceived in the soul. To the notion that the nonexistent would be conceived in the soul as a concept that refers to some external thing, we say ‘Certainly not!’’. According to Avicenna, even things that are logically impossible can have mental existence; they just cannot exist in physical reality. For example, a round-square is logically impossible, but given that human beings can think about it, round-squares exist. Their existence is solely mental, not physical. Thus, any thing that can be talked about/thought about has mental existence.

 

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