Avicenna's Floating Man Thought Experiment

Even though Avicenna was without a doubt one of the greatest philosophers in the Islamic world and had huge influence on later philosophers and scholars both in the Islamic world and in the West, few people discuss his ideas nowadays.

Abu Ali al-Hussein ibn Abdullah Ibn Sina [Avicenna] (ca. 970-1037) was a Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most significant philosophers, theologians, physicians, astronomers, thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age. His works combined philosophical/scientific Greek late-antiquity thinking and early Islamic concepts to form a rationally rigorous and self-consistent system.

Avicenna wrote on a wide range of subjects including chemistry, astronomy, medicine, theology, logic, and metaphysics. One of his most interesting and thought-provoking ideas was the famous 'floating man' thought experiment. In Avicenna's writings in psychology, he embarked on a comprehensive examination of the existence of the self, and an exploration of the self's nature, and the cornerstone of this venture is his 'floating man'.

In this thought experiment Avicenna asks us to imagine a person created by God in mid-air, in good condition but with his sight veiled and his limbs outstretched so that he is touching nothing, not even his own body. Since the person was just created, he has no memories. A question arose here, will this person's mind be completely blank, since he was devoid of all past and present sensory experience? According to Avicenna the answer is no, the person would actually be aware of his own existence, He writes:

Avicenna, al-Nafs V.7 (Marmura 1986, p. 390):

We say: If a human is created all at once, created with his limbs separated and he does not see them, and if it happens that he does not touch them and they do not touch each other, and he hears no sound, he would be ignorant of the existence of the whole of his organs, but would know the existence of his individual being as one thing, while being ignorant of all the former things. What is itself the unknown is not the known.

Avicenna, al-Nafs I.1 (Marmura 1986, 387):

He will not doubt his affirming his self existing, but with this he will not affirm any limb from among his organs, no internal organ, whether heart or brain, and no external thing. Rather, he would be affirming his self without affirming for it length, breadth and depth. And if in this state he were able to imagine a hand or some other organ, he would not imagine it as part of his self or a condition for its existence. You know that what is affirmed is other than what is not affirmed and what is acknowledged is other than what is not acknowledged. Hence the self whose existence he has affirmed has a special characteristic of its being his very self, other than his body and organs that have not been affirmed. Hence the one who affirms has a means to be alerted to the existence of the soul as something other than the body — indeed, other than body — and to his being directly acquainted with this existence and aware of it. If he is oblivious to this, he would require educative prodding.

We should realize here that Avicenna isn't arguing that the floating person would know that he exists, rather he states it as obvious. This indicates to an essential concept in Avicennian philosophy, the idea that we are always self-aware, even during sleep or when concentrating on an outer thing or activity.

The most debated aspect of this thought experiment is Avicenna's conclusion that we are not identical to our bodies, meaning that the soul and body are two distinct things. Our floating man is aware of himself and his existence, even though he is completely unaware of his body, indicating that he isn't aware that his body exists. So if someone can be aware of one thing but not the other, how can those two things be identical?

Here we have a weakness in Avicenna's thought experiment, because one can actually be aware of something without being aware of everything about it. For example, one can be aware of drinking a certain cocktail without being aware of the fact that salt was added to this cocktail, so it would be wrong to assume this cocktail doesn't include salt.

In defense of Avicenna, several scholars argue that his position in this thought experiment was actually criticizing another view of that soul, one that goes back to Aristotle. Avicenna rejects the view that the soul is so closely linked to the body that it can only be understood as an object or an organizing principle of it, in which in Aristotle's case he called it the body's 'form'. This thought experiment shows us that we have means to access our souls apart from bodily sensation, primarily self-awareness.

This would refute the aforementioned view when we think why our floating man isn't aware of his body. It is because he is not using his senses, and since the only way to be aware of bodies is through sense perception, the thing thing that the floating man is aware of must not be a body, meaning the soul is not a body.

I found in this thought experiment, challenges and reminders delivered from Avicenna to everyone. He challenged his materialist opponents to prove that a body could be aware of itself without using sensory perception. And on a more esoteric aspect, Avicenna reminds us to seek questions and insights higher than what can be perceived through sensory experience. It is a message to spiral out off the limits of the physical, and evolve ourselves more and more mentally and spiritually to experience the majesty of being.

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