I was directed to this video of Neil deGrasse Tyson from a post on Jerry Coyne’s blog (which I read from time to time), and was curious… Would I learn anything? Is it just an atheist rant? Time is very precious to me, so I debated on whether I should spend (or waste) the 39 minutes on this guy. The obvious implication from Coyne’s quote below is that the more advanced and educated a scientist becomes, the more silly religion would become. All the serious scientists should be atheists.
“The “strident” part starts at 10:30, when Tyson contrasts the pervasive religiosity of the American public with the pervasive atheism of scientists, showing that more than 90% of the former believe in God but that just 15% of members of the National Academy of Sciences accept the notion of a personal God (actually, I think the figure is closer to 2%). Referring to the latter figure, though, Tyson says that everyone missed the big story about this disparity: why isn’t the percentage of scientist-believers zero? (He mentions this later in the talk, too.) Tyson clearly thinks that science promotes unbelief.”
So, I decided to watch it, and I learn quite a bit—about Tyson and straw men, anyway.
Newton Made of Straw
Tyson uses the examples of Ptolemy, Galileo, Newton, and Huygens as superb scientists who, at some point reached their capacity discover, basically threw up their hands and invoked God (intelligent design). Tyson emphasizes that these were all brilliant men, especially with Newton, and so their use of (or invocation of) intelligent design cannot be just “swept under the rug.” This fact, he says, needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. But the problem is, Tyson mischaracterized them and builds them into straw men.
He portrays them as essentially irreligious during their scientific discoveries, but when it comes to confronting the unknown, then, and seemingly only then, do they give up to “only God knows.” Based on this false presentation, Tyson makes the claim, “Science is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance.”
This is simply not true. As Nancy Pearcey clearly shows in her book The Soul of Science, the flowering of modern science depended upon the Judeo-Christian worldview. Their belief in God drove their discovery, not hindered it. These men may have spoken of the miracle of God concerning the unknown, but that does not mean that their belief in God’s order and design was not interwoven throughout their life of discovery.
For Newton, intelligent design drove him, not hindered him. He was constantly trying to fit God into the universe he observed. For instance, Newton’s discovery and characterization of gravity was described by the Cartesians as being “an occult concept.” To Newton, he had “discovered a new active principle through which God acts through his creation.” Even Wikipedia admits he was highly religious and wrote more on religion than he did on science and mathematics. Sometimes we was wrong—like thinking God needed to tinker with the universe to stabilize it. That certainly does not imply because he “had God on the brain” he couldn’t figure out the stability of the solar system (which Laplace later did). Every person does have their intellectual limit (even Newton) and should not be faulted for it.
But wait, you said religion was a bad thing…
A very interesting example Tyson used was the period of Islam between 800-1100 AD. This was a period of high learning, and Baghdad was its center. I am not very familiar with this period, quite frankly, but according to Tyson it was Imam Hamid al-Ghazali who destroyed it. He taught that math was from the devil–scholarship faltered, declined, and the region never recovered it’s excellence to this day.
Perhaps I missed the point on this one. Isn’t Tyson making a case against religion? How exactly did this period occur within the confines of the religion of Islam? And if we extrapolate to the modern age, is he saying the intelligent design movement is saying math (or science or evolutionary biology) is of the devil? Or just those scoundrel Republicans are saying it? Newton’s theory of gravity was described as of the devil…did science come to a screeching halt then?
Tyson is trying to connect intelligent design to intellectual resignation and the destruction of science itself. If I researched this period in Islam, would I find that the Muslims did not believe God created the universe? Would I really? I just don’t think I would. Was Imam Hamid al-Ghazali an ID advocate? No, he wasn’t. He was a religious zealot.
So, if anything, religious fanaticism is a “show stopper,” not intelligent design.
Stupid Design (a Fast Tirade)
To drive the hammer home and in rapid fire mode, Tyson mocks intelligent design, or I should say the Designer. He goes on and on about how imperfect the universe is, the inefficiency of star formation, etc. He references intelligent design’s insistence that the universe is set up for life (is that just ID or do non-religious people observe that as well?).
No, Tyson says, it set up to kill you (chuckle, chuckle).
Yes, the universe is inhospitable–that’s what is so amazing about the earth. That’s the point. Yep, you got it. (Chuckle, chuckle). In an inhospitable universe, the universal constants, the earth, it is all set up in balance (here on earth) for life.
Tyson also presents a list of imperfections of the earth and human life: extinctions, 3.5 billion years to make multi-cellular life, diseases, birth defects (paused slide for effect), eating/breathing from the same hole (guaranteeing a certain percentage of people will choke to death), etc, etc.
This similar to the claim by Francisco Ayala, insisting to Stephen Meyer that Christians shouldn’t claim intelligent design because we are attributing all this observed imperfection to a perfect God. So, did God screw up? It is a legitimate, hard question.
A patient with multiple sclerosis recently visited my workplace to give a talk, and one of the things that struck me about her was how reflective she was. She did not claim any religion at all, but it was obvious that she preferred Eastern philosophy and yoga. She said, throughout the course of dealing with the disease, she had a lot of dark nights and had to “talk herself off the ledge” at times/ Having MS has helped her to slow down her Type A Go-Go-Go lifestyle and let go of many of her personal milestones. The disease has made her more reflective, gotten her in touch with life, true life, more and more. She said it has brought her to humility and compassion.
So the hard question (for me) is this: can we be spiritual in a perfect world? If we had everything, would we learn anything? Without imperfection, would we understand love and compassion? I am not saying I like adversity or disease or death, or want more of it, or delight in it, but I am saying I believe we need it for our spirits to grow. For the Christian, this life is just temporary and our hope is set on God’s preparations for our eternal home. These questions, I think, fall outside of an atheistic mindset.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4
Watch that last step…
Tyson concludes his presentation saying he doesn’t want someone in the lab who believes in intelligent design, because they will give up on trying to find cures for disease like cancer and Alzheimer’s. Here he extrapolated his “philosophy of ignorance” into a realm of absolute fantasy. There is not a Christian alive who believes this or practices it, who would throw up their hands and give up. That is complete hogwash and Tyson should be ashamed of himself for even stating it.
By the way…
Intelligent design is not a god of the gaps theory…this is from Bonhoeffer:
“…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.”
Intelligent design proponents look at the evidence. DNA is code-like. Evolution provides not mechanism for the generation of this code (let alone the actual assemblage of it sans information). The only known cause for codes or information is intelligence. Therefore, an intelligence agent produced the DNA code. It is a way to interpret the evidence. No one is throwing up their hands and embracing ignorance. You may disagree with intelligent design, but you cannot say it is a god of the gaps theory.