Averroes on the Difference Between God’s Knowledge and Man’s Knowledge

By the Maronite Seminarian
Alejandro Landin

In this paper, I wish to discuss the views of the Arabic and Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, on God’s knowledge, how it differs with man’s knowledge, and the issue of homonymy between the two. I will be discussing materials taken from the following two articles: “Averroes’ Philosophical Conception of Separate Intellect and God” by Richard C. Taylor and “Philosophy Incarnate. Ibn Rushd’s ‘Almohadism’ and the Problem of God’s Omniscience” by Matteo Di Giovanni. I will be discussing what the two authors have to say about the above-mentioned issues between the two articles. I will start by giving a short background of the information at hand and then I will present the basic approach of the two authors in their articles and then talk about in detail their perception of the issues.

Before we begin, it is important to know a little bit of information about Averroes himself and his beliefs, for the greatly help shape the conclusions he reached in his philosophy. Averroes was known in the Western world of Christian Europe as “The Commentator” because of his detailed writings on the works of Aristotle. Also, Averroes was a Muslim, and according to the religion of the Muslims, Islam, God is eternal, omniscient and immutable. Therefore, His knowledge of things must qua divine be eternal and immutable. Concerning God’s knowledge of all things, Averroes took to trying to resolve the following problem: Events that occur in time and space are constantly changing, i.e. something going from non-existent to existing. How does God’s knowledge account for particulars? In what manner does He know them? Does He know them at all?

Averroes solves this problem by saying that we make a mistake in making an analogy between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge, for they are not the same types of knowledge. Averroes says that God’s knowledge is the cause of beings, while man’s knowledge is caused by beings, i.e. non-existence to existence does not change eternal knowledge because just as no change occurs in an agent when his act comes into being, no change occurs in eternal knowledge when the object of its knowledge results from it.

I will now discuss the two articles and how they comment on Averroes’ solution to the problem. I will start with Richard C. Taylor article.

Taylor begins his article by discussing the views in which Aristotle and Averroes agree. Both agree that God is immaterial intellect and complete actuality. However, where the two depart is based on Averroes’ religious beliefs. For Aristotle, God was simply the first and most perfect of many similar intellects or intelligences. For Averroes, this could not be so because God is said to transcend all other entities.

Taylor goes on to discuss another key point where Averroes departs from Aristotle’s thinking is the belief that all immaterial intellects except for God contain some aspect of potency. This is a very important issue in understanding the difference between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge. I will now discuss a very important separate intellect, the Material Intellect.

Although the topic of the Material Intellect is not the focus of this article, I found his explanation to be very helpful in explaining how man himself has knowledge of particular and universal things. The Material Intellect, although so called, is not in fact material at all. It could be better said that it is a sort of unformed matter and is a single substance that is common to all minds. Why is it necessary? Because the knowledge of universals cannot be held in a particular, otherwise it would not be universal, but particular. Also, the unity of science requires a common referent.

Taylor continues by stating that the Material Intellect contains potency insofar as it is receptive of intelligible things by the cogitative powers of human beings and the abstract powers of the separate Agent Intellect. What makes the Material Intellect unique from all other intellects is that it is the only one that is in need of an intention from outside of itself for its own actualization. All other separate intellects do not receive anything from outside themselves. They move by their intellect and through their desire for the First Intellect, or God.

Taylor goes even further and states celestial bodies themselves also possess desire. If they possess desire, they must also possess soul. Therefore, celestial bodies are living entities that themselves have intellect and desire and are moved by their desire for God. God’s knowledge, however, is completely free of both passive potency and active immanent potency because His knowledge contains within itself all of its references.  All other separate intellects must conceptualize in an intellectual way something outside of their own natures – God Himself does not do this.

I found Taylor’s article to be fascinating. It revealed to me a deeper understanding of human knowledge and a very interesting perspective on the nature of celestial bodies and how it is that they move. Concerning religious perspective, I also found myself agreeing with Averroes on insisting that God is unlike all other intellects and transcends them all. I will now discuss Matteo Di Giovanni’s article.

Di Giovanni’s article was interesting for me because unlike Taylor, he makes vocal many disagreements that he has with Ibn Rushd. Di Giovanni recognizes the problem of the understanding of God’s knowledge from Averroes’ perspective as one of language. According to him, Averroes says that God’s knowledge and our knowledge are said to be alike by means of homonymy. Di Giovanni says that Averroes’ statement that God’s knowledge is the producer of all things is problematic because there is at least one case in which God’s knowledge is not productive of something, and that is Himself. And this is not the only area where Giovanni takes issue with Averroes’ writings. There are two other areas I would like to discuss briefly in which Di Giovanni finds problems in Averroes writings.

First, it is important to discuss another teaching of Averroes. He held that there was a relation of synonymy between God and being qua being. Synonymous is to have different forms, but a similar meaning. Thus, to say there is a relation of synonymy between God and being qua being is to say that God is being qua being, and that “God” and “being qua being” are two ways to refer to the same thing. Di Giovanni states that the argument positing synonymy between God and being qua being and the argument from the homonymy of divine knowledge are opposed to one another in structure. This is because the object of knowledge differs in each case. The synonymy argument assumes all knowledge to be synonymous between God and man (except that God causes and man effects) While the homonymy argument asserts a relation of homonymy (similar in name only, but different meaning) between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge. However, Giovanni does ultimately state that, although Averroes appears to have different views in many of his writings, the one notion in Ibn Rushd’s writings that remains constant all along is the homonymy thesis.

Giovanni also points out Averroes’ failure to recognize a distinction between the spatial relation of knowledge the foundation of knowledge. For him, Averroes made the mistake of combining the two, and in doing so, He believed that a change in the relation was equivalent to a change in the foundation.

I now wish to briefly comment on both articles. I enjoyed Taylor’s article especially because it went into much further detail the operations and machinations that take place in man’s knowledge and how they differentiate from God’s knowledge, and how man’s knowledge is in a passive state that receives, as opposed to God’s knowledge which is in an active state that produces. So, it was good to read that article to become more familiar with how Averroes perceived man’s knowledge.

However, what I found interesting about Di Giovanni’s article was that it pointed out some things in Averroes’ argument in which I was not aware, such as the conclusion that God’s knowledge is says to produce all things, but yet He has knowledge of Himself and does not produce Himself.

I am thankful that I was able to research this topic and here about from the perspective of these two authors.

Works Cited

Averroes. “On God’s Knowledge.” Medieval Philosophy: From St. Augustine to Nicholas of Cusa.

Di Giovanni, M. Philosophy Incarnate. Ibn Rushd’s “Almohadism” and the Problem of God’s Omniscience.

La filosofia medievale tra antichità ed età moderna. Saggi in Memoria di Francesco Del Punta, ed. by Amos Bertolacci & Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, with Mario Bertagna (Florence: SISMEL, 2017), pp. 139-62.

Taylor, Richard C. Averroes’ Philosophical Conception of Separate Intellect and God. La lumière de l’intellect, pp. 391-404.


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