Avicenna and The Floating Man (or Woman)

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Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn ‘Abdallah ibn Sina
was one of the great Muslim scientists and thinkers during the Islamic Golden Age in the 11th Century. He was known as Ibn Sina in the Muslim world, and “Avicenna” in Europe when his works were later translated into Latin. Though he exercised his skills at mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy, he was mainly known for his developments and discoveries in medicine. It’s interesting to note how this 11th century Persian Muslim and physician believed that the only way to understand the functioning of the human body was through scientific testing and observation. He felt that theories contained no value unless proven. He also believed that tuberculosis was infectious, while the Europeans rejected this belief for about 400 years; Avicenna was eventually proven right hundreds of years later by European physicians and scientists.


One new fascinating aspect that I recently learned about Avicenna is how his work touched upon ideas that were later developed by Carl Jung and Norman Cousins. As author Michael H. Morgan writes, “[Avicenna’s] theories about the mind will prove remarkably prescient, finding expression some 900 years later in modern psychology as well as science fiction.” One of Avicenna’s most famous philosophical theories describes the human mind-body connection and how a person has awareness of his/her own existence despite not knowing his/her surroundings or environment. In his “Floating Man” argument, Avicenna writes:


“Imagine, a man floating in a room with zero sensory input, no sound, no gravity, no sensation of any kind, floating in complete darkness, no sensation even of his own body because no part of his body touches any other part — say the man was created this way, would he be capable of thought? Can the human mind have thoughts without any external sensory input? If so, what would this man be thinking? Would the floating man have awareness of anything?”


Avicenna answers: “Yes, even though the man has no awareness of his environment, or anything external to himself, he would at least be aware of his own existence.” It’s interesting to note how this idea is a precursor to Rene Descartes’s famous philosophical statement: “I think, therefore I am.”


Lately, I’ve been thinking about my own existence and questioning what reality is. These existential thoughts are notorious for being looped-thoughts, i.e. it just keeps leading you back to where you started in the first place, until you just eventually go insane. But mysticism is different from existentialism because it emphasizes more on ideas that encourage us to reflect upon our self, who we are, where we are, and where we are going. I’m sure we’ve all thought strange things like “what if all of this is a dream?” or “what if nothing is real at all?” We get caught up in these questions that we almost become numb to feeling the Beauty that exists in our reality. This is one of the many reasons why I believe that if there is no Love, then reality is false. Without the heart being open and receptive to Love, reality is one big lie, one cannot see the Sun, smell the flowers, or hear the music. He may be breathing and thinking, but is he alive?


Like Avicenna’s floating man, we may be aware of our existence, but how many of us are cherishing the Beauties that Allah has created for all of us? People rush to school, rush to meet deadlines, rush to work, get stuck in rush hour every day, come home and eat, and then go to sleep, only to wake up the next morning and repeat the same process over again. Are these beings really alive if they have no knowledge of who they are, what their purpose is, and how to establish a relationship with God? By no fault of our own, we humans live in such a chaotic, operatic, and busy world. We try to say our prayers, we try to stay mindful, but those external forces tend to obstruct us from getting closer to our dreams. In the Holy Qur’an, God speaks of the Divine Signs and how there are always around us, and they not only exist in every Created thing, but also in the Unseen World — the World of Feeling. But what happens when someone finds that Great Love that we all long for, and then loses it to mystery? Does he/she fall only to rise up again, or does he/she become like the floating man: hanging in darkness, unaware of his surroundings, and trying to find his/her self again?