What is Neil deGrasse Tyson's Academic Story

Has al-Ghazali led to the decline of science in Islam as Neil Tyson claims?

This is an old myth from the days of orientalism. Unfortunately, Wikipedia is often edited precisely by people who simply read popular reports from the likes of Tyson (or Skeptoid Podcast or The New Atlantis ) that were produced with no understanding of the history of science or human thought. The fact is, Ghazzālī nowhere stated that reason or knowledge are useless. On the contrary, he was trying to construct a better model of human reason and natural knowledge than previous philosophers, hence the title of his book The incoherence of the philosophers . The "philosophers" in the title are literally "lovers of knowledge" (φιλόσοφος) from the Platonic tradition; Ghazzālī does not criticize the knowledge itself. In the words of a historian of philosophy,

Ghazali makes it clear that his aim is to refute the metaphysical theories of Islamic philosophers, rather than their natural sciences. [...] Indeed, the misguided zealot who attacks science in the false belief that he is defending religion does harm not to science but to religion. It does this damage, argues Ghazali, precisely because the science is demonstrable and safe. If it actually contradicts religion, then the latter becomes suspect and not science.

Michael Marmura, "Ghazali and Demonstrative Science." Journal of the History of Philosophy , Volume 3, Number 2, October 1965, pp. 183-204

Or to quote Ghazzālī's own words:

The best thing atheists are pleased about is that the defender of religion declares [that the results of an astronomical observation] contradict religion. Thus, the way for [atheists] to refute religion becomes easy when like-minded people [such an argument] are made a condition [of their truth].

Quoted in Basit Bilal Koshul: "Ghazzālī, Ibn Rushd and Islam's Residence in Modernity: A Comparative Analysis" Islamic Studies Vol. 43, no. 2 (summer 2004), pp. 207-225

Ghazzālī lived from AD 1058 to 1111. His criticism of the religionists' blind devotion to Aristotelian metaphysics surfaced in France over a century later (the famous convictions of 1210 and 1277). Richard P. Aulie, a science journalist and Protestant Christian, suggests a causal link between the two events:

Al-Ghazali's place in the rise of modern science is clear and significant. It lies in its opposition to large parts of Aristotelian thought and that through its theistic affirmation of creation. Creation meant for him a coming into being; Creation was an expression of the divine will. For him, arising meant that creation was separate from the Creator. By affirming creation and rejecting eternity, he helped to leave an inescapable doubt in the heart of Aristotelian thought. ... [T] his creed was bequeathed to Christianity by Islam in the later Middle Ages to become an integral part of the rise of science during the Renaissance.

Richard P. Aulie, "Al-Ghazali Contra Aristotle: An Unforeseen Overture to Science in 11th Century Baghdad". Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith vol. 45 (March 1994): 26-46.

It is completely anachronistic, let alone philosophically dubious, to object to Ghazzālī's philosophy for placing too much emphasis on theology and divine revelation. For these reasons one could also object to Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus. As in Aquinas and Scotus, Ghazzālī was not intended to describe natural mechanisms, but rather to accurately describe human reason and its relationship to the world. His work is often compared to Descartes, although it differs greatly from epistemology. He is also compared with Kant and Wittgenstein, namely:

While Ghazzālī does not formulate the subject that way, the fundamental mistake of philosophers is that they associate the results of logical thinking with empirical reality. Centuries before Wittgenstein, Ghazzālī argues that philosophy violates its own rules and violates an area for which it has no jurisdiction.

Koshul, "Ghazzālī, Ibn Rushd and the stay of Islam in modern times"

A blogger named Ibrahim Arsalan responded directly to Tyson and wrote:

The quarrel that Al Ghazali would have with the philosophers, and that Averroes would have with him, is about the nature of aristotleic metaphysics, not the demonic nature of scientific thought. Such an attack by Tyson on Al Ghazali is ridiculous considering that it promoted the development of secular methods and is later lauded by European secular thinkers whom Tyson is so fond of praising. Furthermore, Tyson is wrong when he says of Al Ghazali: "... from his work arises the philosophy that mathematics is the work of the devil". Al Ghazali named the sciences and mathematics of his time actually mamduh (commendable), adding "... because of their absence the community would be reduced to narrow straits."

You can find out more about Ghazzālī in this podcast: History of Philosophy Without Gaps. This podcast also covers the full spectrum of Islamic philosophy in his time and after him.


Damn it, but I wish more people would see the fallibility of Wikipedia. Every time you venture outside of the "hard" sciences, the reliability rapidly deteriorates.


@ Wildcard Wikipedia is collaborative work. There is no such thing as "they", it's just "we". I am amazed that even with 1,500 views, a highly rated question, a well-sourced answer, and so many knowledgeable people here no one took the time to fix the damn item . So I did and the statement is now gone. It took me about a minute.


@isanae, this is wonderful. The percentages are not in your favor; Wikipedia's reliability outside of the hard sciences remains relatively low and becomes stay low. It is more important to realize this fact than to fix individual pages. (Much like evaluating information for yourself is more important than correcting any person who talks nonsense on street corners.) But when you fix the problem, you have more power.


@Wildcard Well that sounds pretty dismissive. But yes, I will continue to work on fixing Wikipedia whenever I can, perhaps out of a misguided or futile attempt. And it is no longer power for me, but for everyone. We should all strive to correct mistakes, whether it be in textbooks, news articles, encyclopedias, user-generated websites, or even people talking nonsense. Cynicism and accepting ignorance are not okay.


@Wildcard There is nothing in this Wikipedia article that would make a sane person believe this unquoted phrase. It expressly says "Citation required", which raises suspicion, and immediately afterwards a counterclaim containing a quotation follows. You can also check out the debates and discussions on the talk pages and find exactly what it's about. However you choose to criticize Wikipedia, this is what it has to offer: it is scrutinized, discussed, and revised with a regularity that blogs or published books in many cases don't.