Posts Tagged ‘Neil deGrasse Tyson’

Podcast Episode #30: “Listen to What the Man Said”

September 18, 2018

In this lengthy podcast episode, the first of two on the subject, I tackle the question of the authority of scripture. We hear many authorities in our culture—even within today’s Church—telling us, in so many words, “The Bible can’t be trusted.” As I argue in this episode, you may as well say, “God can’t be trusted,” because it’s clear from Jesus’ own teaching that the Bible is God’s Word.

I want us instead to “listen to what the man said” and regard scripture the same way Jesus himself did. I want this episode, along with the next one, to serve as an antidote to the skepticism about the Bible that is rampant in our culture and is harming our fellow believers—especially Christian young people.

Podcast Text: 2 Timothy 3:16-17

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, September 17, 2018, and this is episode number 30 in my ongoing series of podcasts. You’re listening right now to a #1 hit song from 1975 called “Listen to What the Man Said” by Wings—written and sung, of course, by Paul McCartney from the album Venus and Mars.

And the reason I wanted to play this song is that I have discerned a troubling trend among my fellow Christians, not least of which my fellow United Methodist clergy: And that is, they often say that when it comes to the Bible, we need to “listen to what the man said”—the “man” in this case being Jesus—and not necessarily pay close attention to what the rest of the Bible says. Especially the Old Testament! They often speak as if the God revealed in the Old Testament isn’t quite the same as the God revealed in “the man,” Jesus. Therefore we can’t quite trust what the Old Testament has to say.

So one of the purposes of this week’s podcast, and next week’s, is to say, “Yes, by all means, let’s listen to what the man said. But we can’t even know who the man is, or make sense of what he said… apart from the whole counsel of God, which includes the Old Testament.”

If you don’t believe me, consider Luke chapter 24. This is Easter Sunday. Two disciples of Jesus were on their way from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus—about a seven-mile journey. The resurrected Jesus appears to them on the road, but, Luke tells us, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Jesus asks them what they’ve been talking about. They explain to him the shocking events of Good Friday and how, today, on Sunday, they heard the reports from the women who went to the tomb: that it was empty, and that angels appeared to them and said that Jesus had been raised. These two disciples were confused; they didn’t know what to make of any of this.

Jesus said, in verses 25 and 26, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then in verse 27, Luke writes, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he”—that is, Jesus—“interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Did you hear that? “Beginning with Moses and the Prophets”—which is shorthand for the entire Bible—Jesus interpreted “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” So: they were walking on the road for about two-and-a-half hours. Assuming Jesus was with them for most of the way, then he must have spoken to them for a long time about what the entire Old Testament had to say about him. Right? There must be a great deal of information in the Old Testament about who Jesus is, why he came, what he accomplished, what his gospel means!

In spite of this, I have actually had United Methodist pastors tell me, “I don’t like preaching from the Old Testament.” Why? “Because I like preaching Jesus.” Aye-yai-yai… I like preaching Jesus, too. And I like preaching the gospel. And I do so in every sermon I preach—whether my sermon text is from the New Testament—be it the four gospels, or Acts, or the Epistles, or Revelation—or from the Old Testament. Because, as I’ve said before, I find Jesus—and I find his gospel message—on nearly every page of the Old Testament! In fact, I would venture to say that if you don’t find Jesus and his gospel there, you’re probably not reading it right!

But I know, I know… There are challenging passages in the Old Testament. What do you do with the ones that seem… at odds… with Jesus’ example and teaching? For example, the Passover story in Exodus 12… In that story, God himself passes through Egypt and strikes down the firstborn male in every family whose house wasn’t covered by the blood of the lamb. Hold on… The blood of the lamb as protection against God’s judgment and wrath? That sounds familiar… That sounds like what Jesus did… on the cross… Jesus, the very one of whom John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”[1] Read the rest of this entry »

DeGrasse Tyson tries his hand at theology (again)

December 29, 2015

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A friend linked to this video on Facebook. Here’s what I wrote in the comments section. Thoughts? I could have written much more, but I thought this was a good start. What would you add or subtract from this response? 

A couple of thoughts. First, who cares what Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks about God? He knows as much about theology as I know about astrophysics. He ought to know enough about science, however, to say that the question is beyond the scope of science—by definition. It’s metaphysical, and science is strictly limited to the physical.

On the question of benevolence, however, does he really think there are no signs of it in our world? The very fact that he’s here enjoying life ought to count in favor of benevolence. Or even that we have this wonderfully life-sustaining world, which works out quite well for most people most of the time. And often, when it doesn’t, it’s not because the universe lacks “benevolence.” It’s because human being are foolish.

This is all an interpretation, of course, but the “problem of good” seems like a bigger problem for an atheist than the “problem of evil” is for a believer.

Moreover, even using the word “benevolence” implies that there is such thing as “good” (bene- at the root). Where does the judgment “good” come from? After all, even natural disasters that don’t work out well for human beings often work out quite well for non-humans and the rest of the planet: a forest fire that destroys lives and property will also replenish the ecosystem of a forest; a tsunami that wipes out thousands of humans will be wonderful for marine life. Who’s to say that’s not “good”? (I’m not saying it is good, but from a strictly “scientific” point of view, why should deGrasse Tyson think otherwise?)

Even more importantly, neither deGrasse Tyson nor myself is in a position to say that our world could be better than it is, at least from a strictly physical point of view. The exact same physical forces that produce a sunny and mild spring day also produce (occasionally) tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Maybe it’s not possible to have one without the other. Who knows?

Besides, if the universe were any “better” (from deGrasse Tyson’s point of view), he likely wouldn’t exist. And neither would I. All of us are where we are because we got the universe that we got.

Who am I to complain about that? 😉

Not that you asked for any of this when you posted this! Sorry!

Truth is true whether or not you believe in it

June 23, 2015

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Yesterday, a Facebook friend of mind posted a picture of his new T-shirt, which had this quote from Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on it. To which I replied:

degrasse_tyson_shirt

Are natural disasters proof against God?

January 22, 2015
"I do not want to take on William Lane Craig in a debate about God!"

“I do not want to take on William Lane Craig in a debate about God!”

As he usually does when confronted with skeptics’ arguments against God’s existence, Dr. William Lane Craig ably refutes the arguments of physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is quickly becoming the most powerful celebrity skeptic out there. (Eat your heart out, Richard Dawkins.)

In Part One of Craig’s response to this Tyson interview, Tyson objects to God’s existence on the basis of morality: How can we believe that God is all-powerful and all-good in the face of natural disasters that kill thousands in one fell swoop? As Craig says,

He enunciates, you’ll notice, a version of the logical problem of evil, based upon so-called natural evil in the world… 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.

Tyson also seems to think that if God allows so-called “natural” evil to occur, then we believers are required to say that these things are really 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.”

Craig responds:

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… 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.

For me, the most enlightening part of Craig’s response comes when Tyson accuses us believers of being presumptuous and hypocritical in our knowledge of God. When, for example, God permits tsunamis to wipe out a quarter of a million people, Tyson says that we believers shrug our shoulders and say, “God works in mysterious ways.” On the other hand, when things go our way,

you did understand [God]. 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.

I would remind Tyson that inasmuch as we “have a clue” about God, we do so because we believe that God has revealed something about himself to us. That’s why, for example, we can assert even in the face of tragedy, evil, and suffering that God is good. But, as Craig points out, it shouldn’t surprise Tyson or anyone else—based on logic alone—that we are unable to say why God permits something to happen. We believers aren’t being irrational; we’re merely recognizing the limits of our finite minds.

Craig says:

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. 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…

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.

Who believes in the God-of-the-gaps anyway?

February 27, 2014
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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.

“Why isn’t God a better engineer?”

December 5, 2012

I’ve noticed that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has become one of pop culture’s go-to guys for science, and it’s easy to see why: He’s charming and friendly, and he obviously knows his stuff, science-wise. I’ve seen him at least a couple times on The Colbert Report, but he’s on TV elsewhere.

The John Templeton Foundation recently asked him (and other notables) to answer this question: “Does the universe have a purpose?” To his credit, he admits up front that answering the question requires “access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations.” We might imagine, therefore, that any argument from “empirical foundations” alone would leave a lot to be desired, as does his answer.

He argues that no universe that looks like ours could be the product of design. If God exists, wouldn’t he at least be the world’s greatest engineer? No engineer would design this universe. It’s far too inefficient and wasteful.

Christian apologist William Lane Craig has handled this objection in debates before. I like this short answer from his blog, in response to a reader named Mike, a software engineer and agnostic:

So these arguments alone give us good grounds to think that a Creator and Designer of the universe exists. Now against this conclusion you oppose two considerations. First, “The universe is wasteful. It’s HUGE and most of it is empty space devoid of life.” Ah, but Mike, recall that it’s one of the insights of the fine-tuning argument that the universe must in fact be very large, since the heavy elements like carbon of which our bodies are made are synthesized in the interior of stars and then distributed throughout the cosmos by supernovae explosions. But it takes billions of years for the stars to go through such a process, and all the time the universe is expanding. So the size of the universe is a function of its age, and that is a pre-condition of our very existence. So all that empty space is not at all a waste! Besides, how do you know it is devoid of life? Maybe there are intelligent beings who exist elsewhere in the cosmos who are also God’s creatures. Why be closed to that idea?

Second, you object that “Even on earth the process of life was very wasteful. The majority of species have gone extinct.” But is it true that life was wasteful? The primeval forests were the basis for the oil and coal deposits that make modern civilization possible. (Try to think of human culture ever evolving very far in the absence of fossil fuels!) The extinct creatures that existed during those times were part of the eco-system that made the planet flourish. And don’t you think that God, if He exists, delighted in the dinosaurs and other marvelous creatures now extinct? I think He did!

That brings us to the real crux of the problem, in my opinion. The implicit assumption seems to be that God wouldn’t create such extravagant waste. God is like a super-efficient engineer who wouldn’t engage in such waste.

Mike, I love you engineers because you respond so well to my approach to apologetics! But you’ve got to be really careful about creating God in your own image and projecting your values onto Him. As I said to Quentin Smith, who originally raised the efficiency objection, God may be more like an artist than like an engineer, someone who delights in the extravagance of His creation, in far-flung, undiscovered galaxies, in flowers that bloom unseen on a remote mountain hillside, in beautiful shells lying in the ocean’s unexplored depths. I see no reason at all to think that God should be like the engineer rather than the artist. Efficiency, as I said, is a value only to someone with limited resources or limited time, or both. But God has unlimited time and resources, so why shouldn’t He be extravagant? Granted that your engineer would marshal his time and resources carefully; but suppose God isn’t (just) an engineer?