Overview of "The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Concerning the Natural Sciences."

"The Incoherence of the Philosophers," Abu Hamid Ibn Muhammad Ibn Muhammad al-Tusi al-Shafi’i al-Ghazali's follow-up to his previous work, "The Intentions of the Philosophers," is an attempt to respond to the efforts of those individuals outlined in the other work (the "Intentions"); specifically, it is al-Ghazali's retort to the professed belief of his predecessors, and contemporaries, that a logical justification and explanation of God is possible. Al-Ghazali thought that such an undertaking was of an inherently contradictory nature, and that the work of his peers was ultimately fruitless. I focus here on a selection from the final section of "The Incoherence of the Philosophers.," wherein al-Ghazali outlines, and dissasembles, the defense for the necessary existence of a logical connection linking cause and effect. He focuses, specifically, on the causal relationship of fire and burning, citing the view that the former is the necessary cause of the latter. Al-Ghazali, however, posits that fire is not the agent by which burning occurs, but that God, through direct action of himself or his agents (i.e.: Angels), causes the burning to occur. Interestingly, his approach is wholly logical (and therefore somewhat convoluted), reflecting his desire to offer his refutation by means of the very system his opponents would proport to use, in order that they might prove their point.

“The connection between what is customarily believed to be a cause and what is believed to be an effect is not necessary…but each of the two is independent of the other.”

The majority of the excerpt that I will be addressing focuses on three hypothetical points, which al-Ghazali suggests might be made by an opponent. Apparently, it was Ibn Sina (Avicenna), in particular, that he was addressing. At any rate, the bulk of the text focuses on al-Ghazali’s arguments against, and ultimate refutation of these three points. I will attempt to briefly outline my own understanding of said arguments right here, to facilitate a better understanding of my personal evaluation of the text, when I get around to writing it. The first point that al-Ghazali responds to is this: Burning is the natural (inherent) result of a fire being exposed to cotton—that the fire acts “by nature not by choice.” Al-Ghazali responds that it is God, not the fire, that is the “acting cause of burning,” since fire is inanimate, and, therefore, incapable of “[having] any action.” To support his argument, he cites his opponents’ own belief that reproduction occurs as a result of some intermediary force (here, the “First One”), and merely extends that, past actions involving animate objects, to apply to the inanimate, as well. To illustrate his point further, he provides an example: a man, deprived of sight for his entire life, is granted it. He believes, throughout his first day with this newfound faculty, that it is his sight which makes things visible. Only when night falls, does he finally attribute his vision to the sun’s illumination. I take from this that al-Ghazali believes his opponents to be in the same proverbial boat. They don’t see God, so they make up causal relationships to explain effects. He wraps up this section by boldly stating that “there is no exception to this according to the arguments based on principles [of his opponents].”

The second point al-Ghazali presents on his opponents’ behalf is this: Accepting that the change resulting from a “causal relationship” is brought about by God, or an agent of His, the fact remains that there must be an inherent predisposition in the fire and cotton for this change to occur. Of course, this applies to more than just fire and cotton, but the example does help to ground his assertion. The basic claim is that objects have certain properties (air allows sunlight to pass through it, while a stone does not), which make these objects predisposed to certain results from interaction with certain other objects. Not surprisingly, al-Ghazali refutes this claim. He cites the biblical example of Abraham’s immersion in fire, without being burned. While Abraham is not a cotton product, his opponents would have to argue that he would have necessarily been burned in such a situation. To the objection that, if one accepts al-Ghazali’s argument, nothing can be predicted, expected, or known, he replies that “God has created within us knowledge that he will not bring about everything that is possible.” In short, the world generally works the way we expect it to, as God decrees, for simplicity’s sake. “[God knows through his eternal knowledge that he will not do [certain things], even though it is possible…and He will create for us the knowledge that he will not do it at a certain time.” Furthermore, “the statement of the philosophers is nothing but pure abomination.” Al-Ghazali then proposes that, perhaps certain properties of the fire (or Abraham) were changed. Here, al-Ghazali devotes an inordinate amount of time to the discussion of the unlimited intensity of miracles in general, in response to his opponents’ claim that only small miracles are possible. Al-Ghazali merely makes the point that “the predispositions for receiving forms varies through causes hidden from us, and it is not within the powers of flesh to know them.” In other words, if a prophet can make it rain, why can’t he do something even bigger?

From this rather antiquated (and comparatively unimportant) discussion, al-Ghazali moves on to the third, and final, point which he imagines an opponent might make: “What, according to [your opinion], is the definition of the impossible?” Can God, the opponent wonders, “change genera,” and “change a mineral into an animal[?]” Al-Ghazali’s refreshingly simple answer is this: “No.” If one defines the impossible as “the simultaneous affirmation and denial of something,” than the answer is clear. Here, the footnote in my text is extremely useful, as it lists al-Ghazali’s three types of impossibilities in terms of variables: “(1) X is Y, X is not Y; (2) some X is Y, no X is Y; (3) X is both Y and Z; X is not Y (or Z).” His examples are helpful, and I’ll relate one here, to illustrate his argument. If, he proposes, a mineral were to be granted cognition, it would no longer be a mineral. Therefore, a thinking mineral is impossible. Get it? His argument, for once, appeals to simple common sense. If something were to be done, that would “be impossible,” by virtue of the fact that it’s effects would challenge the definition of the substance acted upon, it cannot be. I thought about the rock that’s too heavy for God to lift when I was reading this passage. One realizes that the issue is moot, since it (X) cannot be both too heavy for God to lift (Y), and theoretically possible (Z). Since Y and Z are mutually exclusive, X cannot possess both properties. The section ends with this issue rather abruptly, so, in honor of al-Ghazali, I’ll do the same. Ciao.


  • Ahmed, Monzur. "Abu Hamid al-Ghazali." Muslim Gateway. July, 1998.
  • Buchman, David, trans. The Niche of Lights by al-Ghazali. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1998.
  • Hyman, Arthur and James J. Walsh, Philosophy in the Middle Ages 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1973).
  • author unspecified. "Ghazali, Al." Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia. 1999.

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