God, Science, and Neil deGrasse Tyson

God, Science, and Neil deGrasse Tyson

What does the popular science personality think of God and science?


Transcript God, Science, and Neil deGrasse Tyson

KEVIN HARRIS: This topic continues to be everywhere so let’s keep talking about it. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the the more popular spokesman today on popular science. He writes in the Huffington Post, “You Can’t Bend Science To Suit Religious or Cultural Mores”.[1]

If you cherry-pick scientific truths to serve cultural, economic, religious or political objectives, you undermine the foundations of an informed democracy.

Science distinguishes itself from all other branches of human pursuit by its power to probe and understand the behavior of nature on a level that allows us to predict with accuracy, if not control, the outcomes of events in the natural world.

DR. CRAIG: What that is to say is simply that science has limits. I’m not sure he appreciates that that is what he is saying, but it means that science is a human endeavor aimed at probing and understanding the behavior of the natural world in such a way as to enable us to predict, if not control, events in the natural world. I think he is quite right. You don’t want to cherry-pick scientific truths in order to serve cultural, economic, religious, or political objectives. But that isn’t to say that science isn’t itself shaped by wider worldviews – metaphysical worldviews and perhaps even religious worldviews – and is conducted within the conceptual framework of those sorts of worldviews. Or that there is not knowledge that is available through other methods of human endeavor than science.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says,

The scientific method, which underpins these achievements, can be summarized in one sentence, which is all about objectivity:

Do whatever it takes to avoid fooling yourself into thinking something is true that is not, or that something is not true that is.

Knowing what I know about Dr. Tyson, he is saying, Don’t believe in anything religious.

DR. CRAIG: It is amazing that he thinks that this simple sentence could summarize the scientific method. He is just saying don’t fool yourself!

KEVIN HARRIS: The sword cuts all over the place there!

DR. CRAIG: Right. Don’t think something is true if it’s not, and don’t think that something is false if it is true. That hardly summarizes the scientific method. Indeed, the advice to look for objective truth is universal across human endeavors and not just in science. Astonishingly in the next paragraph he goes on to say, “This approach to knowing did not take root until early in the 17th century.” That is simply astonishing. As though, for example, Aristotle did not follow this sort of advice. In fact Aristotle said in characterizing what is true something very similar to deGrasse Tyson’s aphorism here. Aristotle said to assert of something that is that it is is true while to assert of something that is not that it is is false. That is very similar to what deGrasse Tyson says, and Aristotle would agree. You shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking that something is true if it’s false or something that is false if it’s true. This is hardly a discovery of the 17th century.

KEVIN HARRIS: Obviously we knew before the 17th century some of these things. But let’s be generous and see if he’s talking about maybe a particular scientific method because he says,

. . . shortly after the inventions of both the microscope and the telescope. The astronomer Galileo and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon agreed: conduct experiments to test your hypothesis and allocate your confidence in proportion to the strength of your evidence.

OK. Again, I’m sure that there are scientists and philosophers before the 17th century who recognized that. It is kind of a truism, isn’t it?

DR. CRAIG: Yes. And again if he is talking here about the experimental method – that’s fine. But that is not what his sentence summarizing the scientific method said. In other words, he is now here departing from his own definition of what is supposedly the scientific method.

KEVIN HARRIS: He heralds something that is supposed to be one of the hallmarks of science. You hear it all the time. Science is something that is peer-reviewed. Science has kind of a self-regulating system.[2] He says,

This internal, self-regulating system within science may be unique among professions, and it does not require the public or the press or politicians to make it work. But watching the machinery operate may nonetheless fascinate you. Just observe the flow of research papers that grace the pages of peer reviewed scientific journals. This breeding ground of discovery is also, on occasion, a battlefield where scientific controversy is laid bare.

Checks and balances.

DR. CRAIG: That’s peer review. That is hardly unique to the natural sciences.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says,

Science discovers objective truths. These are not established by any seated authority, nor by any single research paper.

DR. CRAIG: Then he goes on to say,

The press, in an effort to break a story, may mislead the public's awareness of how science works by headlining a just-published scientific paper as "the truth," perhaps also touting the academic pedigree of the authors.

I like that point that he is making there. I recently saw an article in a British newspaper about how physicists have now disproved the creation of the universe by God by some newly published scientific paper. They do exactly what Tyson said. Here was a new model. When you read the story it actually didn’t do anything like it was supposed to. In fact, I think this got an award from some online group that gives awards to bad headlines, bad press. It was so ridiculous. But this is a failure of the popular press. Rather than waiting for scientific consensus to emerge and for the process of peer review and so forth to take place, it loves to talk about the most recent development in science, the most recent paper, as though this has discovered some new truth that upends the apple cart of science. That, I think, we need to be very, very aware of and skeptical of.

KEVIN HARRIS: Don’t just read the headline. The headline can be very misleading.

DR. CRAIG: And do not go on the basis of a single published report. Wait. Be patient. Wait and let the theory be submitted to criticism by others before you jump on the bandwagon.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says,

Once an objective truth is established by these methods, it is not later found to be false.

DR. CRAIG: That is a surprising statement. Does he think that theories that were once the scientific consensus have not been overthrown? I’m astonished that he would think that. Of course they have. There have been scientific theories that represented the consensus view of the past and then subsequent developments of science have overthrown those. One example, of course, would be Newton’s physics which have now been superseded by relativity theory. He protests this by saying,

The era of "modern physics" . . . did not discard Newton's laws of motion and gravity. What it did was describe deeper realities of nature, made visible by ever-greater methods and tools of inquiry. Modern physics enclosed classical physics as a special case of these larger truths.

He is making a good point there. It is not as though a scientific revolution simply discards the theory of the past. Usually what it will do will set limits within which the earlier theory is still valid and can be used. But it is no longer taken to be the truth about the way reality is. It will be restricted or limited in a certain way. In that sense those former beliefs have come to be discarded. But the truths that were embodied in those earlier theories will be preserved and taken up into the new theories. But it is simply not the case that just because a statement or view is established as a scientific consensus that it will no longer be found to be false. In fact, we know that the two pillars of modern physics – relativity theory and quantum theory – are false. That they will be found to be false because they are incompatible with each other. The twin pillars of modern physics have not been united with each other. So some modification of these theories is going to have to take place in order to unite relativity theory and quantum theory into a single theory. So even though these theories do represent the consensus of science today and have been confirmed individually to enormous precision, nevertheless we know that these theories will be superseded.[3]

KEVIN HARRIS: He is heralding the glory of objective truth and discovering objective truth. Checks and balances. Peer review of the scientific method to get there. Then he goes on to say,

Meanwhile, personal truths are what you may hold dear, but have no real way of convincing others who disagree, except by heated argument, coercion or by force. These are the foundations of most people's opinions. Is Jesus your savior? Is Mohammad God's last prophet on Earth? Should the government support poor people? Is Beyoncé a cultural queen? Kirk or Picard? [Star Trek reference there.] Differences in opinion define the cultural diversity of a nation, and should be cherished in any free society.

DR. CRAIG: I think there he is opposing these personal truths to scientific truths. He seems to be suggesting that in contrast to scientific truths, these personal truths cannot be adjudicated. If, by implication, he is suggesting that this is the nature of religious truths then I would disagree with him that these are not susceptible to adjudication. I think you can give good grounds for thinking that the Gospels are historically reliable in what they say about Jesus of Nazareth. That, by contrast, Mohammad was not a prophet of God because he said many things that were untrue. So I would say that these other non-scientific forms of truth are also susceptible to adjudication through rational methods of argument and evidence.

KEVIN HARRIS: To distinguish between objective truth and personal truth just seems to be inaccurate. I mean, if it is true it is true. Right? You don’t have a false truism.

DR. CRAIG: No. Instead of . . . well, personal truths. I was going to say subjective or maybe person-relative. Maybe that is what he means by personal truths. I took him to mean existential truths. He says personal truths are what you hold dear but have no way of convincing others. Maybe he means person-relative truths like statements of taste – that vanilla tastes good is person-relative. Or “I don’t like ice hockey.” That is a person-relative truth, not an objective truth. But I think that the implication or the subtext is that science discovers objective truth and the rest of these things are just person-relative truths and not really objective and therefore just a matter of opinion.

KEVIN HARRIS: And science discovers objective truth about the nature world. Period.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, and we can agree with that. That’s right. The question is: are there ways of knowing about other things like ethics and metaphysics and aesthetics that don’t involve the natural world and that are capable of being known?

KEVIN HARRIS: Let’s continue with another article that happens to mention Neil deGrasse Tyson. This is another article in Scientific American where John Horgan interviews Carlo Rovelli.[4] Rovelli is an author of a leading textbook on quantum gravity. He talks about the philosophy of guessing has harmed physics. We’ll get into that but there is one thing that he says here. Horgan asks him,

Horgan: What's your opinion of the recent philosophy-bashing by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Rovelli: Seriously: I think they are stupid in this. I have admiration for them in other things, but here they have gone really wrong. Look: Einstein, Heisenberg, Newton, Bohr . . . and many many others of the greatest scientists of all times, much greater than the names you mention, of course, read philosophy, learned from philosophy, and could have never done the great science they did without the input they got from philosophy, as they claimed repeatedly. You see: the scientists that talk philosophy down are simply superficial: they have a philosophy (usually some ill-digested mixture of Popper and Kuhn) and think that this is the "true" philosophy, and do not realize that this has limitations.

DR. CRAIG: I love that response.[5] In response to people like Hawking, Krauss, and Tyson, he says that philosophy has been a vital part of the greatest scientific work that has been done. They could not have done the great science they did without the input they got from philosophy. That is an astonishing statement. He then goes on to point out that these fellows themselves actually have a philosophy of their own but that they are probably usually not well aware of it. It is probably superficial. They are really pulling the rug out from under themselves. The fact is that philosophy is very vital and helpful to science in providing things like conceptual clarity, definitions of key concepts, and understanding logical connections, assumptions, and presuppositions. In all of these ways philosophy can help the task of science. A great example of this would be with regard to people like Krauss and Hawking’s use of the word “nothing” as a term referring to something when, in fact, the word “nothing” is just a term of universal negation meaning “not anything.” They are misusing the term and the concept of nothing and arriving at quite wrong conclusions.

KEVIN HARRIS: I had nothing for lunch and it tasted just like chicken. [laughter]

DR. CRAIG: Similarly, people like deGrasse Tyson’s epistemology that they adopt is going to be a philosophical stance that they take about the nature of knowledge and the nature of truth and it needs to be philosophically examined. It isn’t enough to just assume it and then to trash philosophy as though you don’t have one.

KEVIN HARRIS: Here’s the main part of this article. Rovelli gives an example here of this philosophical superficiality. He says,

Here is an example: theoretical physics has not done great in the last decades. Why? Well, one of the reasons, I think, is that it got trapped in a wrong philosophy: the idea that you can make progress by guessing new theory and disregarding the qualitative content of previous theories. This is the physics of the "why not?" Why not studying this theory, or the other? Why not another dimension, another field, another universe? Science has never advanced in this manner in the past. Science does not advance by guessing. It advances by new data or by a deep investigation of the content and the apparent contradictions of previous empirically successful theories. Quite remarkably, the best piece of physics done by the three people you mention is Hawking's black-hole radiation, which is exactly this. But most of current theoretical physics is not of this sort. Why? Largely because of the philosophical superficiality of the current bunch of scientists.

DR. CRAIG: Wow. Those are powerful words. I have seen this “why not?” attitude that he describes exhibited by certain quantum physicists where they will actually assert that if it is not impossible then it is actual. If this is permitted by quantum theory, say, then it actually exists. This sort of why not have another dimension, another field or something of that sort. Rovelli says that this has been sterile in terms of the advancement of science. George Ellis has similarly criticized contemporary multiverse theories and other speculative theories of the origin of the universe as also being too detached from experimental data, testable hypotheses, and having this sort of “why not?” attitude based on sheer possibility.

KEVIN HARRIS: It is like he is calling for some restraint. Maybe some conservationism here. Just because the latest theory is exotic or the latest sexy theory (to use modern terminology) some theories perhaps aren’t sexy enough so we have to come up with multiverses and things like that. He seems to say that string theory has gone in this direction – once that was the darling and now it is kind of kaput.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, it has not lived up to its promises according to the physicists that I’ve read. It has disappointed.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let’s wrap up today and look at a little bit about what Rovelli says about belief in God. Horgan asks him,

Horgan: Do you believe in God?

Rovelli: No. But perhaps I should qualify the answer, because like this it is bit too rude and simplistic. I do not understand what "to believe in God" means. The people that "believe in God" seem like Martians to me. I do not understand them. I suppose this means that I "do not believe in God". If the question is whether I think that there is a person who has created Heavens and Earth, and responds to our prayers, then definitely my answer is no, with much certainty.

DR. CRAIG: I am a little surprised at his answer here that he claims not to understand theists and that they are like aliens to him.[6] Apparently he has not encountered many theists in his discipline or in his work with other scientists. But I think the question is rightly framed – do you believe that there is a personal being who has created the universe and who answers our prayers. He says he doesn’t believe in such a thing. I think that is unfortunate. I think there are good reasons to believe that such a being exists. But I think that that, at least, is a clear understanding of the question that he claims that he finds it difficult to understand.

KEVIN HARRIS: I would hope that Rovelli would encounter some theists who could discuss these things with him on his level and in his field. I think he would find some fascinating things and might answer some of the questions that he has. How do you reach somebody like Rovelli, though?

DR. CRAIG: I do think you are right that it would be most effective through his own peers. Those who are Christians and working in the fields of natural science need to be lights in those fields. They need to do first-rate scientific work, but then also be ready to share the reason for the hope that is in them when they have opportunity.[7]



[1] See http://www.alternet.org/culture/neil-degrasse-tyson-you-cant-bend-science-suit-religious-or-cultural-mores (accessed April 18, 2016).

[2] 4:56

[3] 10:13

[4] See http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/the-philosophy-of-guessing-has-harmed-physics-expert-says/ (accessed April 18, 2016).

[5] 15:04

[6] 20:22

[7] Total Running Time: 21:50 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)