Why is Neil Degrasse Tyson wrong?
By Safiyyah Sabreen Syeed

Terribly wrong.

Published in: Science
Date: 05 / 09 / 20

"The good thing about Science is that it's true, whether you believe in it or not"

Neil Degrasse Tyson

On the face of it it seems to be a pretty straight forward quote that exalts science and implicitly derides belief systems. But look closely, what do you see? I'll tell you what I see. I see the grim future that awaits humanity. We have been dumbed down to such an extent that even the brightest among us (supposedly) openly parade their compound ignorance on prime time television and in packed conferences.

I wonder if it is the toxins in our atmosphere or the flouride in the water or the GM food or just  the failure of our education system that has led to a mass dumbing down of humanity. I'll let you decide that ! Even a child playing outside Plato's Academy or Aristotle's Lyceum would be smarter than today's Astrophysicists and Evolutionary Biologists.

Why I say this with reference to Tyson is because the above quote which has now  become an anthem for many people, is philosophically, factually, epistemologically and historically incorrect. I really feel he immediately needs to enroll for at least  two courses before delivering any one of his future dramatic (but misleading)  presentations. If Mr Tyson had taken up a course on the History of Islamic Science and read the original works of Ghazzali, he would've never made the blunder of piling all the blame on the greatest mind in history for the decline of science and philosophy in the Muslim world. Steven Weinberg being the other popular one churning out this misinformation. While it has been sufficiently refuted by scholars, the fake news has done its job on the 'tender' minds of atheists and proponents of the religion vs science conflict thesis. 

 Another course that Mr Tyson should've taken before uttering the above quote publicly on multiple occasions is Philosophy of Science. Such a fallacious statement tends to be the fodder for the (wait for it..) 'tender' minds of atheists. 

 These three words - Science, Truth and Belief are so heavy, value and meaning laden that for centuries, nay, millennia philosophers have tried to grapple with them and arrive at a proper definition. Philosophy is deep and has the potential to seriously mess with your mind. Thus we find many philosophers were diagnosed with chronic depression, while others suffered with psychosis and many commited suicide.

But here we have Mr Tyson, the layperson's charismatic guide to science, throwing these heavy weights around so casually that it offends the history of thought and these martyrs who died under the weight of reason. 

One thing is for sure that new atheists and agnostic scientists lack basic understanding of terms. William Craig and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf are right in saying, “New atheists are not intellectually bright". [1] At Least the older atheists and agnostics had thought their Atheism/Agnosticism through in their 'tender' minds (ok stop !)” 

Going back to the three terms- Science, Belief and Truth. 


Can Science provide absolute proofs?


When Neil uses the word ‘Science’ (physical sciences like Physics, chemistry etc) in relation to truth, it must be known that Science by its very nature has never and can never claim to possess absolute truth or truth in the true sense. So what is Truth? Something that possesses evidence or proof, right? The kind of evidence that suffices Science is physical evidence and that kind of evidence can at best provide what is called Physical Certitude. Since the nature of the evidence is not absolute, hence the nature of the knowledge obtained is provisional and probable, not and never absolute.[2] One of the important criteria of science is its falsifiability [3], which shows that it can never make an absolute claim. For example; when Newton wrote down his Laws of Gravity, those were the best explanation for that time. But it would be senseless for Newton or anyone else to assume that these were absolute and universal till the end of time. And eventually, this Newtonian framework became obsolete for the most part and Einstein's relativistic physics was considered a better explanation. So at best science provides the best possible explanation of a physical phenomena, premised by x number of assumptions and within a time period t (till we arrive at the next best explanation of the phenomena under study). As theoretical Physicist Carlo Rovelli puts it well, "Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge". [4]

Now this is the restricted domain in which science works, which is far far away from being called truth, the way Neil Degrasse Tyson has called it. 


Science is based on beliefs, assumptions and testimonies.


Then he says, ‘whether you believe in it or not’. It is surprising that being an Astrophysicist, he doesn't admit the various ‘beliefs’ one has to accept before conducting scientific research. Science as we know it stands on the premises of beliefs, assumptions and testimonies.[5]  The uniformity of nature, being the number one ‘assumption’ and ‘belief’. The reality of the world, the ability of our comprehension of it, being others. There are various other philosophical constructs on which scientific research is conducted like Methodological Naturalism and Scientific Realism, which are ‘scientifically’ untested assumptions. Then in research the testimony of scientists plays a central role. In order to conduct research a scientist is not expected to conduct each and every experiment and make each and every measurement that has been performed since the advent of science. Rather, research is based on testimonies of other scientists and their findings in research papers. Eg, a scientist working on Quantum Field Theory, will not have to calculate the speed of light or the charge of the electron for themselves. But will have to work their way through using and believing in the values derived by previous scientists Roemer and Josephson. So there is an orthodoxy that determines the mainstream creed (Aqida) even in Science. Scientists are the prophets within this system and their breakthrough discoveries are revelations that others have to accept, until another scientist abrogates the law by bringing a new revelation (the next best explanation or discovery explaining the phenomena).This is how science has progressed for a 1000 years now.


Islam and the road to certainty

The term ‘believe’ needs to be qualified by Neil. The sense in which he uses the term 'believe' in the quote suggests the universal and absolute nature of the 'truth' of science which remains unaffected whether someone believes in it or not. The fallacious nature of this statement has been discussed before when we understood that Science does not make an absolute claim and has it's own set of beliefs. This part of Tyson’s quote assumes that science is the only system of thought that has the privilege to possess truth regardless of anyone's belief in it or acceptance of it. This again is so wrong. Because religion (especially Islam) as well exhibits this indifference with regards to acceptance and belief of people. So he said, "Science is true, whether you believe in it or not". Well, it can equally be said, "God exists, whether you believe in Him or you don't". You may say that scientific theories have evidence which induces certitude. What about Islam? We've already discussed that Science at best provides provisional and probable knowledge of the phenomena at hand, and this knowledge is subject to change, falsifiability and improvement. On the other hand, Islam claims to provide absolute proofs that are not subject to change, improvement or falsification and the highest form of certainty regarding God. How? Read on.

 In Islam, belief can be translated as Iman which is a level of conviction which must necessarily lead to action. The Quran in its totality is an appeal to reason (2:73, 10:24). Blind belief is prohibitted in Islam (67:10, 33:67) and to present clear and resonable proofs in order to satiate and persuade human reason is the purpose of the revelation of the Quran (16:44) and the creation of the universe, according to Islam (44:39, 3:190)

But that's not all. This state of Iman opens the door to the highest state of certainty a person can ever possess regarding anything in the world 

It’s called Ihsan and I have identified it as Ontological Certitude. Ontological means related to existence.So just to draw a comparison, let's say I do accept that the Law of Inertia or Thermodynamics are correct, but I was taught these in school and seeing the evidence, I was convinced. So whenever I drive or I drop something I am reminded of the validity of the two laws. This is Physical certitude. But Ontological certitude is next level. This certainty is coupled with your own existence. You don't have to be told that you exist or this is not something that any book or school can teach you. You know it in the deepest recesses of your self. 

The following thought experiment was expounded by the great Muslim genius Ibn Sina and then adopted by the European Philosopher Descartes, who played a significant role in modern scientific thought [6]. The argument (paraphrased by me) goes as follows:

What is the one thing that I can be sure about. I can doubt everything in the universe, the people in the world, the things around me can be unreal or mere constructs of my mind. But I cannot doubt that 'I' am doubting. I cannot doubt my own existence. I cannot doubt 'me'. This is the one thing that I will have to hold on to.

So when we say that Ihsan is an experiential state, it means that you are so convinced about the existence and attributes of Allah, as you are convinced of your own existence. The proof of the existence of God for you is inseparable from the proof of your own existence. This highest state surpasses the confidence we have on the knowledge acquired from our senses or even our intellect. In the famous hadith, “Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you ‘see’ Him. And if you can’t see Him, He surely sees you”. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 2, Hadith 43)

This kind of ‘seeing’ is not your ordinary seeing. Because God is not a material entity that can be seen with our physical eyes. There are other words for it in Islamic literature like dhawq (fruitional experience), yaqeen (certainty) etc. Imam Ghazzali distinguishes this state from knowledge as follows, "How great a difference there is between your knowing the definitions and causes and conditions of health and satiety and your being healthy and satiated". [7]

So this is to experience God in the depth of your being. In this state one lives the reality. One breathes the reality. 


Islam provides certainty. Science provides probability.


So your consciousness, that inner subjective feeling that you've lived with since childhood, the first person experience that Philosopher David Chalmers called the 'hard problem of consciousness', even in the dead silence of solitude, you always happen to be aware of the existence of 'you', which doesn't leave you even when you sleep. It is at this profoundly deep level, Islam admits that a person can host the experience of God. People who sought after this state came to be called Sufis since the first century of Islam. 


So if you’re thinking why we can’t share this with non muslims, there is a disclaimer. This state of certainty is non-transferable. Why? Because it's like consciousness or existence. Can you transfer or share consciousness? No matter how much you express your current state to me, I will never know what it's like to be you.  Similarly, this state of conviction is so personalized and individualized that no matter how much I may explain it to you, unless and until you yourself don't experience it in your own being, you will never know it. And because some people don't know this state of certainty they deny it's very existence. Imam Ghazzali responds to this attitude of rejection based on inexperience as follows, "The mere fact of the nonappearance of that further perception does not prove the impossibility of its existence".[8]

Neither can science reach this level of certitude nor has anyone claimed such a level of certainty for scientific theories. 

Science is time bound. Islam is timeless.

Science is pragmatic, provisional and probable knowledge of a physical phenomenon within a particular set of assumptions, a timeframe and the present level of scientific advancement. The possibility is always there for a better explanation that the future will provide, which would render our current understanding obsolete. There is no scientist who can claim that the Theory of Relativity held 15 billion years ago ( this is before the Big bang and hence before the universe existed) and neither can any scientist say that it will hold even 10 years from now (because it works only in cases of large objects and fails at the quantum level. A reconciliation between Quantum Mechanics and Relativity may result in a tweaking of Relativity as we know it). So Science by its very nature is temporal (time dependent). It cannot and does not make any atemporal claim. 

On the other hand, in Islam, the religious claim of Tawhid (God is One) is claimed to be true at all times indefinitely in the past as well as in the future. Not only does Islam provide the path to absolute certitude through Ihsan and Yaqeen, it also is atemporal (meaning its claims and methods to validate the claims have been the same throughout history).

We need to appreciate that concerning the question of certainty, Islam theoretically provides a way to achieve knowledge that is certain. And many people in history have achieved this state practically as well and impacted the world through it. But science, on the contrary, never even claims to provide certainty to begin with. Science is not even an eligible participant in the field of certain knowledge and absolute proofs.  So Islam as a system of thought stands on a stronger footing when it comes to providing certain knowledge as compared to science.


The monoculture of Atheism

A salient feature of Islamic history is that while science, philosophy, empiricism and rationalism thrived in the Muslim world, it never led to Atheism, the way it did in Europe. On the contrary, many scientists were mystics and theologians and many religious scholars were scientists. One of the reason is that, there was a deep understanding in the Muslim world of the scope and extent of science. Most scientists were well aware of the Philosophy of Science. 

Now you have half-witted scientists standing on fancy stages and advertising science to lay audiences as if it is the one and only thing that you can be sure of. This is the dogma of Scientism. 

The astonishing part is that most of these celebrity scientists are devoid of basic logic. The fact that they can make such illogical and atrocious statements publicly just reveals their deep ignorance of their own field. Take for instance Hawking’s famous “Given the law of gravity, the universe can create itself”. (Even a 2nd grader will respond with “who created gravity then?”) The primary reason for this disconnect between logical thinking and science, I feel, is the separation of the Philosophy of Science from higher education in science in western academia. Unfortunately many Muslims also don’t understand the stupidity of these sweeping dramatic statements because we also are educated in this paradigm. This needs to change.

What is Scientism? The totalizing view of science as if it were capable of describing all reality and knowledge. This claim in itself is unscientific as there is no way to test it scientifically. Nevertheless, it has seeped across the board. Why? 

There are more brilliant scientists out there, but unfortunately, only the ones who lean towards atheism/agnosticism/scientism get prime time coverage. The intent is obvious- to convince the gullible masses that here are the smartest people on the planet and they don't believe in God. Therefore, you also must follow suit! Its a re-engineering of minds to accept doubt and scepticism over certainty. It's a serious threat to sound thinking and needs to be addressed immediately. One way to combat this is to make the study of Philosophy of Science compulsory with STEM courses atleast in Muslim university curriculae. This would help students to understand the pitfalls of science and how science is not as robust, flawless and absolute as it is portrayed to be by popular scientists. An additional study of the history of Islamic Science would enable Muslim students to see practically how the proliferation of science in society doesn't mean the end of religious experience.

The current promotion of a secular mindset reminds us of the various sayings of the Prophet regarding the tribulation of Dajjal, the False Messiah, which was considered the biggest trial by the Prophet (ﷺ).

He said, "Be prompt in doing good deeds (before you are overtaken) by a tribulation which would be like the dark night. During that time a person would be a Muslim in the morning and an unbeliever in the evening or he would be a believer in the evening and an unbeliever in the morning".

(Sahih Muslim 118, Book 1, Hadith 22)

References and further reading

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14YM7MP6HzY

[2] T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd. ed., Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1970, p. 206. ISBN 0-226-45804-0 

[3] Thornton, Stephen, "Karl Popper," Stanford Encyclopedia of PhilosophyWinter 2011); "Science, Pseudo-Science, and Falsifiability," 1962; retrieved 2012-5-8.

[4] https://newrepublic.com/article/118655/theoretical-phyisicist-explains-why-science-not-about-certainty


[6] Descartes, Rene. 1984. [PW 2] The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. 2, J. Cottingham, R. Stootfhoff, and D. Murdoch (eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7] McCarthy, Deliverance from Error, pg 18.

[8] ibid, pg 4

Safiyyah Sabreen Syeed

About the author

Safiyyah Sabreen studied Mechanical Engineering and is currently pursuing her Master's in Philosophy. She is the Content Director for KNOW. Being interested in the field of Islam and Science and Islamic Eschatology, she produced a documentary on the Golden Age of Islam and directs the Second Golden Age series.

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