The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi
The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi

Most of these introductory articles are exracted from Volume I of the Single Monad Model of the Cosmos: Ibn al-Arabi's View of Time and Creation... more on this can be found here.

Discreteness and Continuousness

Discreteness and Continuousness:

There is no doubt that Zeno has presented a deep problem which, despite centuries of efforts to resolve it, still seems to lack a truly satisfactory solution. As Frankel wrote:

The human mind, when trying to give itself an accurate account of motion, finds itself confronted with two aspects of the phenomenon. Both are inevitable but at the same time they are mutually exclusive. Either we look at the continuous flow of motion; then it will be impossible for us to think of the object in any particular position. Or we think of the object as occupying any of the positions through which its course is leading it; and while fixing our thought on that particular position we can not help fixing the object itself and putting it at rest for one short instant.

(Frankel 1942: 1-25, 193-206)

This basic dilemma of discreteness and continuousness has kept coming up in various guises, but most clearly in the long historical debate on the nature of light; whether it is particles or waves. With the success of the wave theory in the nineteenth century, the continuum seemed to have won. But in 1899, when Max Planck solved the 'black body problem'[1] by postulating that atoms could absorb or emit energy only in discrete amounts, the age of quantum theory began. Soon after that, Bohr used the concept of quantisation to construct the first successful atomic model, and Einstein was able to analyse the photoelectric effect only by adopting the quantum nature of light. However, the quantum theory was not able to solve the question of motion and change, where the continuous theory of relativity was more successful.

So the human mind is accustomed to classifying quantities as either countable or uncountable, or either discrete or continuous; there is no other way. This is inevitable on the level of multiplicity. But on the level of oneness (i.e., of all-inclusive ahadiyya or 'unicity') there would be no meaning for such terms. A first look at Ibn al-Arabi's model could conclude that, on the level of multiplicity, the world should be certainly discrete, and therefore that Ibn al-Arabi might easily adopt the atomist view. But the issue this raises is quite similar to what we have discussed earlier in Chapter II about the length of the moment and whether it is composed of discrete sub-moments, or whether it has a length at all. We have seen that it is not easy to decide for either case. Similarly, it is not easy to judge - even on the multiplicity level - whether the world is ultimately continuous or discrete. Although there are discrete events happening in discrete times, still the change from one event to another looks continuous, just like the flow of normal days; there is no abrupt change. Although we can easily divide events over days and classify them according to the date, actually the relation between any two consecutive events that happened during the day is not different from those which happened also consecutively but on different days - for example, right before and after morning or evening. In other words, the motion of the earth around its axis, though generating the appearance of different distinct days, it is itself a continuous process. Likewise, the all-creative 'motion' of the Single Monad is also a continuous process in everlasting alteration between 'daytimes' and 'night-times', manifestation and being hidden, material and spiritual - yet there is no point of separation or abrupt transformation between any two periods or states. That is why Ibn al-Arabi calls the terms of discreteness and continuousness 'disconnected' (munfasil) and 'connected' (muttasil), because for him the actual process of change (re-creation) it is like a one-dimensional flow of divine manifestation. So if there is an apparent continuity or discontinuity that would only be in our imagination or abstract consideration, but not in reality [III.324.35-325.18].


[1] The black body problem was raised by the observation that certain materials (especially black bodies) can absorb all frequencies or wavelengths of light. So when heated it should then radiate all frequencies of light equally - at least theoretically. But the distribution of energy radiated in real life experiments never matched up with the predictions of classical physics.

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