Bill Moyers interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson.
“The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”
Or so said Carl Sagan billions and billions of years… well, back in 1980, when PBS’s Cosmos became the most widely watched PBS series ever.
The series is being revived with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as its host on various Fox-owned channels. I’m sure that, like the original, the new version will be a hit. For a science nerd, Tyson is very comfortable in front of the cameras. (You may have seen him, for instance, matching wits with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.)
In this recent Reasonable Faith podcast, Christian philosopher/apologist William Lane Craig and his cohost Kevin Harris wondered aloud if Tyson’s version would “continue this sort of cultural prejudice that science and an appreciation of the wonder of the cosmos lends support to naturalism or to atheism.”
The quote above, for example, which kicked off the original series was a metaphysical, rather than scientific, proposition. It was fine for Dr. Sagan to express his metaphysical beliefs, so long as his viewers understood that he was speaking metaphysically, rather than scientifically. No one was paying Sagan to be a metaphysician.
So it’s another example of a scientist overstepping his boundaries. (And, yes, I’m aware that religious people like me often do the same in the opposite direction.)
What about Tyson? Will he make the same kinds of mistakes?
Based on a recent interview Tyson gave to Bill Moyers, which Craig and Harris discussed in the podcast, they aren’t holding their breath. In fact, I’ve rarely heard the normally mild-mannered Dr. Craig sound so passionately indignant.
When Moyers asks Tyson his opinion about the relationship between science and religious faith, Tyson says that “if you are going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread.” In other words, you can’t base your faith on the so-called “God of the gaps”—the God who explains what science is currently unable to explain.
If you do, Tyson says, what room will be left for God once science fills in all the gaps in our knowledge of the universe?
While I don’t share Tyson’s confidence that science is making such great strides, I agree that God-of-the-gaps is an insufficient reason to believe in God.
But who doesn’t?
Here in the real world, do many practicing Christians—or, for all I know, any practicing theists—really believe in God simply because he “explains” what science is unable to explain? I don’t deny that some people who believe in God have this kind of “faith,” but it certainly isn’t worth getting out of bed on Sunday morning. And so they don’t.
Yet celebrity scientists like Tyson often talk as if most religious believers are like that!
Be that as it may, Craig takes Tyson to task mostly over his assertion that reason is at odds with faith.
At one point, Tyson says that since scientists can measure the “neurosynaptic firings when you have a religious experience,” God is strictly a product of the mind—which itself is contained within the cosmos. So Sagan was right: The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. There’s no sense talking about a God who transcends time, space, and matter.
I like Craig’s response:
Now, Tyson is quite happy to say, well, God is just in your mind, and he thinks therefore you can give a neurosynaptic analysis of religious experience. Now, I would point out, Kevin, that my idea of Neil deGrasse Tyson is in my mind and you can give a neurosynaptic analysis of my experience of seeing Neil deGrasse Tyson. Does that mean that therefore he is illusory? That he is just an object in my consciousness – as you say, there is no external referent for that experience? Obviously not! This is a terrible argument! To think that because you can analyze neurologically my experiences of an object that therefore the object isn’t real or objective, that is a ridiculous argument and would ultimately lead to solipsism, right? The external world and everyone around me are all unreal and everything is an idea in my mind. I don’t know if Tyson is a solipsist but I would hope not. Then, having described this absurd position, he then starts talking about how he supports constitutional free exercise of religion. That’s wonderful, I’m glad he does. But don’t let it into the classroom of science. Well, where did that come from? How does defending the objectivity of God’s existence and that it is not just an idea in your mind lead to the claim that we are trying to introduce this into science classes. It is just guilt by association. He is blurring issues here. This is not representing clear thought, I think.
To be clear, Craig mostly agrees with Tyson on “God of the gaps.” It’s that extra step Tyson takes—to assert that reason and faith are irreconcilable—that’s got his goat.
Dr. Tyson: What he did was invoke – he didn’t invoke Zeus to account for the rock that he is standing on or the air he is breathing – it was this point of mystery. And in gets invoked God. This over time has been described by philosophers as the God of the gaps. If that is where you are going to put your God in this world then God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance. If that is how you are going to invoke God. If God is the mystery of the universe, we are tackling these mysteries one by one. If you are going to stay religious at the end of the conversation God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread. So to the person who says, maybe dark matter is God, if the only reason why you are saying it is because it is a mystery, then get ready to have that undone.
Kevin Harris: Bill, I can agree with a lot of that. I think you probably can, too.
Dr. Craig: Absolutely. He says that if that is where you put God, the undiscovered, then he is ever receding. God has to be more to you than where science has yet to tread. Absolutely. So what I want to know, though, from Tyson is for the person whose God is more than just where science has yet to tread, is that irrational? Is faith and reason irreconcilable, as he claimed? I do not understand that opening salvo against the rationality of religious faith. For the person who doesn’t believe in a God of the gaps, whose God is more than the God of the gaps, how is that person’s faith and reason not reconcilable? How is that person irrational? Nothing he said supports that opening bold claim. Instead, he has attacked a caricature.