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Neil deGrasse Tyson on God Part 1

January 18, 2015     Time: 23:25
Neil deGrasse Tyson on God Part 1


Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson's influence on pop culture is evident in this recent interview on God and science.

Transcript Neil deGrasse Tyson on God (Part 1)


Kevin Harris: Thanks for coming in! This is Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. Dr. Craig, you always keep an eye out on what is popular in culture. One of the most popular popularizers of science is Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. We’ve talked about him on podcasts, and we also talked about the revived Cosmos TV show which Dr. Tyson hosts. Let’s check out some excerpts of an interview with Dr. Tyson on the Opie and Anthony podcast.[1] No big surprise here – the first thing that comes up – the age of the universe:

Interviewer: Speaking of Earth, how do you feel about the people that think it is only 6,000 years old?

Dr. Tyson: If they think that, they think that because that is mandated by their religious philosophy. OK. Just keep it out of the science classroom. That is all. I don’t try to confuse that with doing science. Science, we have learned. Science has completely transformed our culture. It has doubled our life expectancy. It has brought comfort and health and well-being. Not only science, but the fruits of science – the technological fruits of science. And of course, you need to be good shepherds of this power because in the wrong hands it could be used for evil. Alright. This is the great dichotomy of the great unlocking the secrets of nature. So I am not going to fight them – to tell them the universe is not 6,000 years. Science classroom. If you want to put it in the science classroom, understand the ramifications. Your country will go bankrupt because you will no longer be in a position to forge the economies of tomorrow that will require science and technological innovation.

Kevin Harris: The first thing that comes up, Dr. Craig, is that they are interacting with only one aspect of what some Christians believe – and that is a Young Earth Creation. That haven’t interacted with historically many Christian scholars and others who held that “yom” allows for a long, old universe.

Dr. Craig: I wonder, Kevin, is this a result of their setting up strawmen that are easy to knock down? Or is it rather a manifestation of the incredible cultural influence of Young Earth Creationism in the evangelical church? I am not sure which, but you are certainly right in saying that he is fighting here a minority position that doesn’t represent the range of views held by evangelical Christians as well as other types of Christians.

Kevin Harris: He says, Believe what you want, just keep it out of the classroom.

Dr. Craig: I think this is odd that he should be bringing this up, because that is not an issue in this country anymore. The courts have mandated that Creationism cannot be taught in public school classrooms. I don’t see that that is an issue. He is beating a dead horse there. I thought it was odd when he started bringing in the fact that science can be used for evil. That certainly is true. Atomic weapons or weapons of mass destruction in the hands of evil people can be used for horrible ends as we’ve seen in various places around the world. But what that has to do with whether or not Young Earth Creationism must be taught in the classroom is unclear to me.

Kevin Harris: He brings up what we hear a lot from professional scientists, and that is our economy is going to suffer if we don’t keep up with the rest of the world. If we are a bunch of outmoded, outdated people believing in a young Earth, we are going to be behind the rest of the world. I hear that all the time.

Dr. Craig: I would love to know on what basis he makes that sociological prediction, especially if, say, Young Earth Creationism were taught as one option among many alternatives in the science classroom – which isn’t going to happen anyway, as I say. It has been ruled unconstitutional. But if it were, it is far from clear to me what this would mean to economic depression and bankruptcy in the United States. I think this is hyperbole, frankly.

Kevin Harris: He really does try to distinguish the two realms, doesn’t he? You want to do that? Go ahead and have that belief – but it is not fact.

Dr. Craig: That is interesting. He said it is due to “their religious philosophy” – that was the way he put it. I think Young Earth Creationists would agree with that. They would say that this is a theological position we adopt on the basis of the teaching of Scripture. Then we try to craft a model of the universe, and of Earth’s origins, and development of life that would be consistent with that theological perspective.[2] So Young Earth Creationists don’t claim that they read their views off of the scientific evidence. Rather, they would say we have theological grounds for believing as we do. Then one will develop a theory of the world that will be consistent both with that commitment and then also with the scientific evidence. I think it is doubtful that they can successfully do that, as you know, but that would be the way they describe their project.

Kevin Harris: Let’s continue with some audio:

Interviewer: That leads to the next question because a few people on the lines are asking: do you believe in God?

Dr. Tyson: I am not convinced. Here’s the thing. Every time I talk about God with someone who is a believer, God is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and all-good. Right? Good is a big part of this. And then I look at all the ways Earth wants to kill us. You know, a tsunami takes out a quarter-million people. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Tornadoes. Floods. And I add all of that up. Either the God is not all-powerful or is not all-good. But it can’t really be both, given all the ways the universe wants to kill us. And if Earth is not finished killing you, there is the asteroid that could come in. An asteroid rendered 70% of all lifeforms extinct – the famous one 65 million years ago that took out the dinosaurs. So there is so many ways to die not at the hands of someone else who has free will that I don’t know what is the nature of the God that you are talking about.

Interviewer: I got to, like, try to, like, use your logic back at you. But don’t we define what is good and what is bad? So we see a tsunami wipe out a whole bunch of people and we’re as human beings going “Wow, that is bad” because we define what bad is. Maybe in God’s brain,eyes, whatever the hell, that is not bad?

Dr. Tyson: Well, but except you defined what God is.

Interviewer: Oh, boy. Wow.

Kevin Harris: Let’s stop there. When asked if he believes in God, he seems to take a more agnostic position.

Dr. Craig: Yes. He’s not convinced, which is an agnostic, not atheist, position.

Kevin Harris: But then immediately goes to – if there is a God, why on Earth is this Earth such a dangerous place?

Dr. Craig: Right. He enunciates, you’ll notice, a version of the logical problem of evil, based upon so-called natural evil in the world. The suffering that results from natural disasters. I think it is pretty clear from his remarks on free will that he does that so as to circumvent the free will defense with respect to the problem of evil. But what our listeners, I think, need to understand is that this version of the problem of evil (that it is impossible for God to be all-powerful and all-good) is rejected by virtually everyone today – both theist and non-theist – because it lays upon the non-theist so heavy a burden of proof that nobody has been able to sustain it. The non-theist would have to show that it is impossible logically that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil and suffering in the world that is due to natural disasters. There is simply no way that the non-theist can justify such a claim. He can say, as Tyson does, Well, I don’t see why these things would occur. But that doesn’t even take one step toward proving that it is logically impossible that God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing these disasters to occur.

Kevin Harris: He said something at the end that I want to listen to again:

Dr. Tyson: . . . not at the hands of someone else who has free will that I don’t know what is the nature of the God that you are talking about.

Interviewer: I got to, like, try to, like, use your logic back at you. But don’t we define what is good and what is bad? So we see a tsunami wipe out a whole bunch of people and we’re as human beings going “Wow, that is bad” because we define what bad is. Maybe in God’s brain, eyes, whatever the hell, that is not bad?

Dr. Tyson: Well, but except you defined what God is.

Interviewer: Oh, boy. Wow.

Dr. Tyson: Why do you have the power to define who and what God is, but not have the power to define what good is?

Dr. Craig: I think that the interviewer is raising a very good question here, namely, on naturalism, on what basis do you say something like this disaster is good or bad? Take the tsunami which sweeps across a South Pacific island carrying its population into the ocean.[3] As my colleague, Doug Geivett, has pointed out, this would be very bad for the people living on the island, but it would be a great boon for the marine life surrounding the island.

Kevin Harris: The fish would love it!

Dr. Craig: To have such a feast! So on the naturalist basis, what meaning is there to speak of good or bad with respect to these disasters? What Geivett points out is that when we say that these things are bad, we are saying they ought not to happen. These things ought not to be. But when you say that, you are presupposing there is a way things ought to be and this isn’t it. But if there is a way things ought to be, that means there is some sort of design plan for the universe and for the Earth that these things are or are not fulfilling. You can’t have a design plan unless you have a designer. So when the naturalist claims that these things are bad, that these things ought not to be, he is implicitly, I think, assuming there is some kind of a designer – some sort of a standard against which these things can be measured. I think that the interviewer is actually making a very good point here with respect to natural evil.

Tyson tries to change the subject. This is so typical when confronted with a difficult objection – one changes the subject so as to avoid the objection. He says define what God is. But he has already defined it for us. He says God is an all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing being who has presumably created the world. So there is not a problem of defining God. That gambit there at the end about if you can’t define what is good then how you you define God. Well, that is very easy. Even the naturalist can understand what we are talking about when he says God does or does not exist. The question isn’t defining good. That is a question of the English language and looking up the meaning in a dictionary. The question, rather, for the naturalist is why think that tsunamis are bad rather than good? As I said, it is difficult on naturalism to make those kinds of judgments because there is no design plan according to which the universe is developing.

Kevin Harris: Continuing with the audio:

Interviewer: My point is, we just don’t know it all. Not even close.

Dr. Tyson: Sure. So therefore, if you are going to say God actually is good and a quarter-million people dying from an earthquake and a tsunami and other natural disasters and God presumably has control over that and God is good then we have to then say God works in mysterious ways. People only say that when their understanding of God fails them.

Interviewer: When it is something bad.

Dr. Tyson: No, when they can’t understand it, they say God works in mysterious ways. But somehow in these other ways, you did understand him. How are you saying this is the handiwork of God? You are doing God’s work. God wants you to do this. Somehow you know God’s motives every other way, but when a quarter-million people get wiped out, God works in mysterious ways. Why do you even claim to have access to God’s mind in some context and not others? Just admit you have no clue and get on with life. That is how I look at it.

Kevin Harris: He really gets excited, doesn’t he?

Dr. Craig: Yes, and, again, notice here rather than respond to the objection, there is the attempt to shift the burden of proof to the theist’s shoulders. Remember I said the atheist is the one here who is making the claim that it is logically impossible for God to have morally sufficient reasons for permitting these things. That is the atheist burden of proof to show that there cannot be morally sufficient reasons for these. It is no response to that objection to say, Well, but you theists claim to know what he is doing in other cases. All that would suggest is that theists should be equally skeptical about knowing what God is doing in these other cases. It does nothing to show what the atheist needs to show: that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for allowing these disasters to occur.

In fact, I think from the examples he gives, that he is again mixing apples and oranges. When something good happens, the theist doesn’t, I think, necessarily say, “I know that God did it for this reason.” How do you know what reason he did it for? The reason might not emerge until hundreds of years from now through the reverberation this event sends through human history.[4] We can be thankful for the good things that happen, but I don’t think any informed theist would be so presumptuous to think that we know all of the reasons for which God permits things to happen whether good or bad because these are simply beyond our scope of knowledge as finite creatures limited in time and space and in intelligence and insight.

But that doesn’t mean, for example, that you can’t have good arguments for the existence of God – from the origin of the universe or from the fine-tuning of the universe – because in that case, you are not trying to read God’s mind, as Tyson puts it, rather you are making an inference from certain effects to an explanation of those effects. But you are not making guesses about the motivation of God or trying to read his mind.

So I would simply say that in going through life we don’t have the ability to make any kind of guesses about why things happen in the world. We are just not in a position to make those kind of judgments. Rather, our responsibility, I think, as the book of Job emphasizes, is to trust God and live faithfully for him through the circumstances that we go through. Maybe some day in heaven looking back we’ll see the reasons why good and bad things occurred, but while we are here in the midst of life, that knowledge is simply not within our grasp.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, I really want our listeners to get this because I hear this complaint from our non-theist friends all the time. It is number one on the chart, almost. That is, they are very irked by the reply “Well, God works in mysterious ways.”

Dr. Craig: I don’t hear Christians putting it that way. That sounds like a cop-out. What William Alston says is that due to our inherent cognitive limitations we are not in a position to make probability judgments with any sort of confidence that this or that event could not have been justly permitted by God. That, I think, is absolutely true. Think of our limits in time and space. We have no idea of what the reverberations might be in future history of some event that occurs like, say, your daughter being run over by a drunk driver. God’s morally sufficient reason for allowing that tragedy to occur might not emerge until centuries from now or in ways utterly unanticipated by us. Just our limits in time and space make it impossible for us to make the kind of judgment that the atheist wants to make. You can call that “God works in mysterious ways” but that is not some sort of irrational statement. That is based upon very real cognitive limitations that make it impossible to make the kinds of judgments that the atheist wants to make. Remember, he is the one who has the burden of proof here to show that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for allowing this or that to occur.

Kevin Harris: So we should clarify a little when we say God works in mysterious ways.

Dr. Craig: Or not say it at all. I think that Christians typically don’t say that. I think that is like the phrase “The God of the Gaps.” It is a phrase that unbelievers use to describe Christian positions in emotionally pejorative language.

Kevin Harris: Let’s continue with some audio.

Interviewer: We just don’t have a clue when it comes down to it.

Dr. Tyson: Well, I’d like to think that preserving health and longevity is a nice operational definition of something that is good. How can you debate something that keeps you alive and healthy?

Dr. Craig: OK, stop. Health and human longevity defines the good? There is absolutely no reason to think that that is true. Why would the health and longevity of this little species down here on this planet Earth, on naturalism, constitute the good? I don’t see any reason on naturalism to think that that is true.

Kevin Harris: There is a group in Northern California that wants to see human beings go extinct because we mess up the planet. So our health and longevity is not a good thing for them.

Dr. Craig: You know, this really does have sinister implications – this kind of ethic. Suppose that through some fluke of history – the reverberations of an event through history – that the rape and murder of a little girl would result in greater health and longevity for the human race as a whole.[5] Then on this kind of ethic, not only would that event be good but you’d be morally obligated to rape and murder her in order to bring about this great good for humanity. I just see no reason at all to think that the good is what promotes health and longevity for human beings.

Dr. Tyson: That has got to be something that is good. I refuse to allow someone to say, “I’m going to give you cancer, birth defects, and shorten your life, and somehow call that good.” I am not going there.

Dr. Craig: Now, wait a minute, Kevin. He seems to think that if God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing something to occur, that that makes the thing good. I don’t think that follows at all. He is assuming that what ought not to be ought not to be permitted. That doesn’t follow. I think that there could be cases which one permits evil or suffering to take place because even though that event is evil or bad there can be some greater good that would come out of it, or the prevention of some even worse evil in the future. As Christians, we believe there is a provident God who guides human history in such a way that his good purposes will be achieved. I would say that contrary to what deGrasse Tyson assumes, that ultimate good is not going to be realized in some earthly way. Ultimately, God’s purpose is to bring as many people as he can freely into his Kingdom where they will find eternal life and infinite happiness. It may well be the case that only in a world that is permeated with natural evil and suffering would that great good be realized.

Kevin Harris: Clarify for us, any of us who may be thinking the ends don’t justify the means, but permitting something is not the same thing as promoting or causing something?

Dr. Craig: Right. That is obvious. We will sometimes permit something. Say that you got a choice between either allowing one person to be shot and killed or three people to be shot and killed – you can’t do both. You can only prevent one. If you prevent the three people being shot and killed, you’ve permitted the one person to be killed. But that doesn’t mean you’ve done something evil.

Kevin Harris: Is one of them a lawyer? [laughter] OK, anyway. I’m only kidding! We love lawyers at Reasonable Faith! We are out of time. Let’s pick it up right there next time[6]