A Review of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson's Lecture at the Beyond Belief Conference

I recently watched the second lecture from the Beyond Belief Conference in La Jolla, California. On the positive side, I will say that the speaker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, was much more entertaining than expected. He put together an interesting lecture and was (with a couple of important exceptions) in command of the material which he was discussing. However, for the reasons discussed herein, the entire lecture fall flat for me.

Optimistic Naturalism

First, Dr. Tyson appears to be an optimistic naturalist, i.e., he believes that given sufficient time and grant money science will be able to find answers for every known mystery of the universe. In other words, it’s merely a matter of time before science discovers the answer to every difficulty because there’s nothing that exists that cannot ultimately be solved using scientific investigation.

Now, I’m also an optimist when it comes to science. I do believe that many of the puzzles that have plagued scientists will ultimately be solved. For example, I think medical researchers will ultimately discover an effective treatment for cancer. I think that a fuller more sensible explanation of the quantum world will be revealed by the hard work of physicists. But there’s a chasm between recognizing that science has developed some answers to some conundrums and the belief that science will eventually have the ability to solve all mysteries.

Because Dr. Tyson holds this optimistic naturalism he makes assumes that there are no boundaries to what man can discover. This, of course, is an unscientific belief that he holds because it certainly is not a position that is proven by and scientific test. It is undoubtedly true that we can expect more discoveries based upon application of inductive reasoning, but to assume that science will ultimately discover answers to all problems is a philosophical assumption

Christianity Advances Science

The way this comes to a head in Dr. Tyson’s lectures is in relation to his discussion about how various scientists of the past, after making a breakthrough discovery, appealed to God to explain things that they couldn’t explain. To Dr. Tyson, this is evidence that religion leads to ignorance. He suggests that if a scientist who is religious doesn’t have an answer for something, he turns to God rather than roll up the shirtsleeves and get to work trying to identify the answer. For example, he turns to Isaac Newton’s attributing the orbits of the planets to God while a later scientist finds a purely naturalistic explanation. Dr. Tyson suggests that if Newton hadn’t been a religious person, he would have kept looking for the answer until he found it. But since he was a religious person, he gave up by simply attributing the explanation to “intelligent design”.

There are two problems with this analysis. First, it fails to include in the analysis that these ancient scientists were mostly religious people, and it is their belief in God that fueled their initial scientific discovery. In other words, Dr. Tyson acknowledges that the early scientists were very religious in their viewpoints, but failed to recognize the implication of that faith on their scientific study. As I have pointed out in previous posts, there is good reason to believe that if Christianity had not arisen the philosophical underpinnings that led to the advance of science would never have arisen. But Dr. Tyson fails to acknowledge the role of religion in advancing science.

Isaac Newton -- a man recognized in Dr. Tyson’s lecture as perhaps the most intelligent man who ever walked the earth -- was very religious in his viewpoint. Consider the following from the General Scolium of Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy:

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems: and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another.

This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God παυτοκρατωρ, or Universal Ruler; for God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect . . . .

But if, as Dr. Tyson suggests, Newton’s religious convictions inclined him to turn to faith to explain things he didn’t understand, why did he start trying to find natural explanations in the first place? Why didn’t he just look at the heavens and say, “Ah well, must be from God?” Obviously, his religious beliefs did not prevent him from seeking answers to tough questions. As Dr. Tyson notes, Newton invented calculus as a means of finding the answer to questions that the science of the day had been unable to solve. So, it seems apparent that there is little reason to suggest that Newton believed that the existence of God made inquiry and investigation unimportant.

A second problem with Dr. Tyson’s analysis has already been discussed previously: it assumes that in every instance where God is invoked there is a naturalistic explanation simply waiting to be discovered. Such an assumption is a statement of faith in naturalism that is unwarranted.

In a move that may surprise some, I will agree that some scientists who are religious may turn to God as the answer for problems that are beyond them. I agree that such an approach is generally wrong as would virtually every Christian scientist. Christians and scientists should be bound to find natural solutions to problems when possible because Christians should be advocating for the truth above everything else. If science, properly interpreted, leads to the conclusion that something presently believed to be an action of God was purely natural, Christians should accept that fact. In fact, no one in Christianity of which I am aware is advocating otherwise. However, if after many years of study it appears that an area defies any naturalistic explanation because it may bear the earmarks of design as being explored in the area of intelligent design, then Christians and scientists who favor truth of philosophy should just as willingly turn from their assumption of naturalism to embrace what the evidence is revealing.

Science Isn't The Only Way To Gain Information

Dr. Tyson does something in the lecture that was quite honestly disturbing. After pointing out that 40% of the scientists believe in God and 15% of the best scientists believe in a personal God, he asks “why isn’t that number zero?” In other words, he thinks that scientists who continue to believe in God do so against the evidence. I think Dr. Tyson errs in two ways. First, he fails to recognize that scientists can look at the same evidence and come to differing conclusions. Simply because Dr. Tyson in his optimistic naturalism looks at the evidence of something like the Big Bang and sees a naturalistic creation event doesn’t mean that every scientist will see it the same way.

Second, and more importantly, Dr. Tyson fails to take into account that there are more than one means of obtaining knowledge. Science, after all, is nice in its place. It is a great way to determine how the natural universe works; it can explain a lot of why things are as they are; and it can provide us with the means of manipulating nature so as to make life easier. But science cannot replace other forms of knowledge that deal with other things. No amount of testing the ground around Rome is going to establish what Julius Caesar did when he ruled Rome. It may help to explain or confirm some of the things he did, but it cannot establish what he did. No amount of testing can explain my self awareness. It may be able to relate brain activity with certain emotions, but studying the brain cannot explain my awareness that I am not the tree in my backyard. And no amount of testing is going to establish whether God is really triune or not. This information, like much else in the world, defies scientific investigation. Dr. Tyson’s failure to recognize that any person (even scientists) can reasonably conclude that the information that supports Christianity is partially revealed information that cannot be proven, disproved or even tested by science.

The Cartoonish View Of Intelligent Design

Finally, Dr. Tyson’s view of intelligent design is simply cartoonish. He puts it this way, “Science is a philosophy of discovery, intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance.” It would have been nice if he had put a little time into understanding intelligent design before making such a statement. He views intelligent design as simply throwing up the hands with a big “Gosh, I don’t know the answer so I’ll appeal to God for the answer.” But that isn’t what intelligent design says. Let me try to be clear by pointing out the claim of ID in the area of the formation of the first living organism. ID says that not only are the present theories for the arising of life inadequate to explain how life “evolved”, but that there is such complexity in the simplest of all living cells that the mathematics of probability support the conclusion that it is impossible for such systems to arise by purely naturalistic means.

Nowhere does ID call for anyone to stop trying to find a naturalistic solution to the “evolution” of the first cell. If it can be shown how life evolved from non-living processes, the ID will be shown wrong on this point. But ID believes that the evidence is such that it is appropriate to consider that life is so complex that design by an intelligent being may be the solution to the problem.

Also, nowhere does ID say that the entity that did the designing is God. Now, given that the characteristics of the designing entity would have to have (very intelligent, very creative, pre-existing all life on Earth) it is natural for people (including many in the ID movement) to identify that designer with the God of the Bible. But that is not part of the actual science of ID. It appeals to a designer but readily admits that the information is insufficient to identify the designer -- it can only identify some of the designer's characteristics. Thus, to identify ID as a religious belief is simply erroneous.

For the reasons stated above, I found Dr. Tyson’s lecture interesting but flawed.


Addendum: Januray 10, 2007.

This morning, I found an interesting letter to the editor in the Guardian that deals with some of the same concepts that I discuss in this blog. Entitled Intelligent design is a science, not a faith by Richard Buggs, he makes the following statements with which I wholeheartedly agree:

But, whatever the limitations of Darwinism, isn't the intelligent design alternative an "intellectual dead end"? No. If true, ID is a profound insight into the natural world and a motivator to scientific inquiry. The pioneers of modern science, who were convinced that nature is designed, consequently held that it could be understood by human intellects. This confidence helped to drive the scientific revolution. More recently, proponents of ID predicted that some "junk" DNA must have a function well before this view became mainstream among Darwinists.

* * *

Finally, Randerson claims that ID is "pure religion". In fact, ID is a logical inference, based on data gathered from the natural world, and hence it is firmly in the realm of science. It does not rely upon the Bible, the Qur'an, or any religious authority or tradition - only on scientific evidence. When a religious person advocates teaching ID in science without identification of the designer, there is no dishonesty or "Trojan horse", just realism about the limitations of the scientific method. If certain Darwinists also had the intellectual honesty to distinguish between science and their religious beliefs, the public understanding of science would be much enhanced.


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