Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Review of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Presentation on Intelligent Design and Science

The above video is a presentation given by Dr. Tyson in 2006 at a conference called Beyond Belief and it is his perspective on how he sees religion in the form of Intelligent Design and how he believes it influences science negatively.  While I very much respect Dr. Tyson as an astrophysicist of highest repute, I also must say, "no, no, a thousand times no" to his presentation. 

The presentation proper is called "The Perimeter of Ignorance" and treats Intelligent Design ideas in science and its history as a form of "God of the Gaps."  I will try below to give rough estimates of time in the video so if you are following along with Dr. Tyson's presentation you are familiar with what I am replying to.

At about the 3 minute mark he makes the first of several mis-statements and what I would consider to be errors.  He references religious terminology used when the Eagle Nebula is expanded upon and we see a bit of the cosmos, but that such terminology is not used when the underside of a tarantula's belly is magnified.  I for one don't know why he says that because the intense magnification of such a sight is incredibly impressive and can have the sort of beautiful ordered chaos that is visible in some of the most brilliant nebulae. 

The point of Dr. Tyson's presentation is made clear in the first five minutes.  He intends to contribute to the discussion as a dissenter of Intelligent Design in a realm other than biology.  While my personal feelings about different Intelligent Design ideas may or may not be discussed, there are some philosophical and theological issues raised by Dr. Tyson that I cannot ignore. 

He starts off with Ptolemy and his work on geocentrism, and some notes penned in his margin for this work in which Ptolemy speaks of Zeus and ambrosia while he thinks about the heavens.  Dr. Tyson speaks of this as religious awe at the edge of scientific knowledge.  Dr. Tyson is in error on this fact, for what Ptolemy speaks of in one language and sets to paper is in a sense him getting into the mind of Zeus and the gods.  It is not that it is at the edge of his knowledge, but rather WITHIN his speculations and observations of nature where he believes he has the greatest connection with the divine. What Dr. Tyson calls here "intelligent design" in one of the most brilliant minds of science is ABSOLUTELY CORRECT!  What he gets wrong is where the thought comes into Ptolemy's mind!  It isn't just a note at the edge of his reason and knowledge because it was in the margins...the margins of works are often comments and further thought about what has already been discussed!  He is contemplating in a religious way what he believe he knows from observation and speculation!  It is this idea that Dr. Tyson does not seem to grasp when dealing with this subject.

On Galileo he does get right that Galileo was kind of a jerk, but apart from this, he misunderstands Galileo's "Letter to Christina."  Galileo's statement about the use of reason with regard to science and the world is ALSO INTELLIGENT DESIGN because it grounds reason's ability to discern ANYTHING about the cosmos in the creative hand of the Mind of God. 

On Newton, Dr. Tyson respects the man above almost any other scientist.  There is a reason for this of course, because Newton was a mathematical genius and to hear Dr. Tyson say he was "plugged into the machinery of the universe" I have nothing but agreement about.  Where Dr. Tyson is VERY wrong about is the language used in the "Principia" which is claimed that no reference to God is found.  The fact of mathematical expression when referencing the movement of two bodies IS Newton's use of intelligent design language, for his very view of natural laws would have their language in mathematics.  Math is the language of God to Newton, and that Dr. Tyson missed this fact of Newton's philosophy astounds me.  Why does Newton use doxological language at the edge of his understanding?  Because mathematics is the language of God for what is known, and doxological language is the language of man when we don't fully know about God's work in nature.  Newton would find Dr. Tyson's critique of his work and his invocation of intelligent design astoundingly missing the point. 

Further on at about the 13 minute mark, Dr. Tyson goes off on a tangent about the belief in a personal God for a small percentage of the elite scientists of the National Academy of Sciences.  He is right, that is big news, but nowhere is a discussion of the why present.  He rightly dismisses Dr. Kraus' idea of simply educating the public scientifically will make this belief go away, but he does hit on the reality that it is not the general public that should be examined, but the top scientists.  Why do they believe in a personal God?  This is something I hope to provide an answer to after this review ends.  15% of the most brilliant minds in the nation accept a personal God (strange he only considers scientists brilliant minds with this statement).

Dr. Tyson further goes on to address Christiaan Huygens (did a lot of work on Saturn's rings and also discovered Titan) and his work discussing the possibility of life on the known planets.  Dr. Tyson's comment about Huygen's use of math for issues of gravitation and motion of planets is not something I would disagree with, but again, this would be seen as the language of God.  Such a fact should not surprise Dr. Tyson if he would be familiar with the philosophical predilections of such scientists or even the mindset of the time.  You can't go around and call things "the Law of Gravitation" which can be thought of mathematically (an ideal) and not be surprised people realized an ideal mental thought can predict and describe the external world...why WOULDN'T you think of God???  The issue is Dr. Tyson's INABILITY to recognize mathematics as the language of doxology to religious scientists. 

Laplace is then brought up.  Ultimately Laplace brought calculus to physics and planetary motion in order to figure out how small tugs from other small and large bodies affect the relationship of motion between two bodies.  This was of course, infinitely better than doing two body problems for every conceivable relationship in the solar system.  However, Dr. Tyson brings up the story of Laplace and his interaction with Napoleon where Laplace said he had no need for the hypothesis of God when dealing with physics. 

First of all, let's discuss where Dr. Tyson goes with this observation.  He believes that when "you have God on the brain," you get to a limit, invoke God, and move on without contributing anything else to that field.  This is problematic on several fronts, because it isn't like Newton simply went to the pub and just drank for the rest of his life, or sat watching reruns of the Golden Girls.  For all his brilliance, he also began projects in OTHER fields than just mathematics and physics.  This is something people who believe the universe is a coherent system do, and when one challenge is done, why stay within that field?  After all, other times, scientific advancements are done by people outside of a given field because the scientific establishment is too hard headed to change (Wegner and Continental Drift anybody?).  "Philosophy of Ignorance" is used to describe Intelligent Design and "Philosophy of Discovery" is used to describe science.  This is an absurd construct which seems to be drawn from one apocryphal story about Laplace and I find mind-blowingly arrogant.  Further discussion and investigation about the life of Laplace shows that he tended towards Deism or Atheism even though he was raised a Roman Catholic, and that even near the end of his life, he was interested in Christianity and discussed God with another astronomer Jean-Frederic-Theodore Maurice (Swiss).  The other suggestion of the apocryphal event has more to do with a "when" in time that God acted rather than simply setting the rules going at the beginning. 

It seems to me that scientists often are not thinking either philosophically or historically, because Laplace did indeed still find the question about God an interesting one and did not seem to find the belief destructive of the scientific enterprise. 

Moving from his conclusion based more on ignorance than on historical investigation or philosophical grounds, Dr. Tyson moves into a discussion of different golden ages for civilizations in terms of their growth, apogee, and/or decline.  He calls these times where a nation excels in discovery "Naming Rights."  While not necessarily in Dr. Tyson's mind, I can't help but remember what a friend had told me when she said a European statue sat in South America as the "discoverer of the Pacific Ocean."  All I could think of was, "yes, because the natives closed their eyes every time they looked West."  This is not what he is thinking about, but there does seem to be a potential for abuse of this term. 

This idea he carries to such areas as the discovery and naming of heavy elements, the internet, postage stamps, and stars/constellations.  With regard to the last one, 9/11 came up and his relation to the Twin Towers on that day.  This leads to a discussion of President Bush and his statements of distinguishing between the terrorists and us with a loose Bible quote (Psalm 137:4) about how our God named the stars.  Of course then Dr. Tyson mentions that many of the names of stars are Arabic, and of course Dr. Tyson recognizes that was not Bush's point.  The reality of what President Bush meant was more theological in a nationalistic way than in a historical way.  Now, why Arabic names?  Well, Dr. Tyson does describe the period of Baghdad's intellectual growth in the Middle Ages.  While much of what he says is true and represents the great creative power of the human intellect, he then brings up the Islamic theology of al-Ghazali who said mathematics was the language of the devil.  He brings up further philosophical codification of Islamic principles and then says that their culture collapses. 

The next move is in my mind a tremendous jump in logic and rationale.  He then moves to 21st century America and talks about how in Baghdad revelation replaced reason and the civilization let's show a simplified billboard saying "Big Bang Theory, You've Got to be Kidding me. - God."  This is very low hanging fruit.  He then moves to the idea of "God spoke and BANG it happened" on a bumper sticker and declares "Intelligent Design is a God of the Gaps."  I'm sorry, but you expect me to take your conclusion seriously when you point out bumper sticker theology as the serious intellectual challenge to atheistic minded scientism?  Please.  Then he goes off into "stupid design" and says how the universe wants to kill us...yet we're still here as a collection of self-aware star dust.  He has actually painted himself into a difficult corner to answer, which is why here?  Why do we exist then?  If what he says is true (and to a large extent it is), then how is no God a good answer to life?  This makes life and especially intelligent life anathema to the universe which is all there is.  He further addresses other earthly concerns to further illustrate how ludicrous it is that we exist (though when it comes to 3.5 billion years to make multi-cellular life, there's no life around to give a crap about that).

At 33 minutes 50 seconds is where his ultimate assumption comes out...true to the Enlightenment arrogance and ignorance that derives from fundamental worldviews that have not been challenged nor needed to be defended, he says, "hardly an efficient plan with us in mind."  If your story of events is true and the universe that hostile to our existence, I must ask how we can even exist?  That we do exist and that we still view God as being rational, loving, and just is something that every serious Christian has had to wrestle with.  Surely we are at enmity with creation...the Bible SAYS WE ARE!  Our own life experience SAYS WE ARE!  But we also recognize something greater and also realize that our very existence here is evidence of God PRECISELY BECAUSE of the universe Dr. Tyson addresses.  As per his earlier rant against Intelligent Design in scientists, I'd like to see his "math" on the likelihood of us existing for as long as we have, and then ponder that reality.  Of course, he won't, because he is showing his religious predilections here.  They are like his hand in poker being shown, and it is found wanting.  His view is no better in many ways than the very views he seems to decry (and as seen above, it is not as simple as he has presented it). 

His other "poor design" arguments are tired and old.  They assume that we must be superhumans who can survive no matter where we go with any adaptation to be considered perfect.  He also discusses what I would say is the result of a fallen world, one which HE HIMSELF ARGUES FOR by his constant discussion of how bad design is, BUT WE'RE STILL HERE AND CAN THINK ABOUT IT AND ANALYZE IT.  "The universe is not here for us" is both true and false.  After all, we should probably bow down to our true masters, the waterbears which are able to survive in the vacuum of space.  Of course, he won't admit to this because he is still an Enlightenment westerner who has benefited from the assumed values of Judeo-Christianity.  You start to really analyze that worldview with some of the other statements made and it tumbles like a house of cards. 

Even his discussion of reproductive organs is both laughable (it is funny) but totally misses the point that the stupid engineer of evolution DID make it.  So apparently it wasn't that big of a deal in all the history of life which he glosses over.  Not a good design, but apparently reality doesn't see the problem he does.  At 37 minutes and 30 seconds he says what is one of the most "audacious" claims, and it is interesting because he says that's what the religious person does, but he says that he doesn't want the religious person in the room telling him what they can't discover.  Please.  No honest Christian would say "stop discovering" even if they did think that.  Investigate all you want and what you discover?  Cool!  But don't BE SURPRISED if that reason you hold so high yet is the leftover improvement of our coming down from trees on a planet that hates life, in a universe that hates life, is insufficient to the task you have set for it.  THAT is the hubris of atheistic humanism as shown in the New Atheist camp.  I have the foundational views to push for scientific and logical investigation, but Dr. Tyson is left with a view of reason highly elevated but no foundation to stand it on. 

Dr. Tyson doesn't want them in the science classroom either, but apparently from what he has shared about his view, consistency and other things get in the way of "progress."  Yes, "progress," that scientifically vapid term that is left with no real substance when stripped of a formal/final cause.  We need discovery, yes, but I'm also not stupid because if he really studied the history of science he'd realize that "progress" is a loaded term (cf. Kuhn).  Following this is a discussion of Republican politics and how they deal with science, progress, and money.  Our future is going to depend on scientific discovery, but apparently the greatest danger isn't black holes, magnetic fields, or even nuclear or biological weapons, but religious thought. 

Some interesting points, but overall, not greatest content.  What is real, how can our senses determine that?  These are very important questions.  How can human reason understand the world through scientific endeavors when science only deals with particular events and we cannot move from the particular to the universal deductively and certainly?  Other good questions.  There is of course danger with fundamentalism or religious doubt, but a truly incarnational view of God entering into humanity and entering into the world He made as one of us who are rational and embodied people should drive us to learn more about the universe as it is, and look forward to the day when Christ returns to put us back at peace fully with creation so that we can enjoy it and it can enjoy us in a way that is truly progressive and the fulfillment of all the natural laws and their meaning.  We see now through a glass darkly, or in the current scientific time-frame, a miniscule sand speck on a beach of time and we expect to figure it out and sit in judgment of those who believe that at the end of all of the discovery, God is there?  No.  We sit being given a world that we have some control over, and much we don't.  We need to respect where we are now, and avidly look to creation to see and learn about it, and to remain in awe of the creator who not only made it, but who also became one of us, walked the same earth, and who sits our human nature in heavenly places in His body...that is the true impetus of scientific discovery...understanding the mind of God in and through creation.  Glory to God for all things.

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