Sunday, September 15, 2013

Against Neil deGrasse Tyson

Someone has decided that Neil deGrasse Tyson is all the sudden in vogue. Fine. Better than the Kardashians. But what gets me is that he has been anointed the spokesperson for "Science" with a capital S. Half of my problem is that some of what he says does not stand up to Science itself. The other half is his attack on faith.

Before I go further, it is very important to point out that I am not anti-atheist. I don't do any proselytizing of my own. On some "god" concepts, I agree more with atheists than with people of faith. For me, it isn't as important the end you get to but rather how you get there. Blind faith belief in God isn't my thing. But neither is blind faith belief in science. So while I will criticize NDT for some of his thoughts on religion, please don't confuse me with the type of Christian that is militant to his views because of evolution or the big bang.

The easiest way to illustrate my point is by using his quotes. Granted, quotes are taken out of context, but they're also more concise. Let's start with places I agree with him.
People cited violation of the First Amendment when a New Jersey schoolteacher asserted that evolution and the Big Bang are not scientific and that Noah's ark carried dinosaurs. This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it's about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers.
Heck yea. We shouldn't allow teachers to teach stuff that isn't true. Period. Can't argue there.

I know that the molecules in my body are traceable to phenomena in the cosmos.

For sure. This is central to Sallie McFague's theology. As he says eloquently, we are made of stardust.

 Now for where I have serious problems with him. Granted, when you're asked to speak as much as he is, some of what you say may not be too well thought out. But this next one shows how his philosophy of science is seriously lacking.

The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.

Wow. Has he never read Thomas Kuhn? Science changes its facts all the time! We believe something as a rock solid fact until something else comes along to replace it. There's nothing wrong with that. That's how it's supposed to work, but he is blind to this fluid nature of scientific knowledge.  It is almost like he clings to science the way the Middle Ages clung to religion. It's true because God/Pope/Bible/Science says so no matter what proves it wrong! Well . . . science has been proven wrong. Ergo it is no more infallible than the trio mentioned above. NDT's view of science is religious.

Which makes his attack on religion a bit bizarre. But first, some of it is just funny.

Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes.... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms.

Ha. Humans are always looking for an out and force majeur is a good one! While this one is funny, it points to a concept that comes up in some of his other quotes. God was only invented as a means to explain the unexplainable. As we explain more stuff, we need less God. That works, but only if you agree with the original presumption. I don't think too many people nowadays believe in God as a means of explaining the unexplainable. We abandoned that God long ago (for good reason). So if NGT is arguing for the Death of God movement, I'm all for it. Our idea of what God is should certainly NOT rest on explaining unexplainable phenomena.

It is this nuance that he seems to always ignore. For instance, he goes on to connect the two (unknown/God) erroneously. He says, to paraphrase, there is no God because I have a wrong definition of God.

The more I learn about the universe, the less convinced I am that there's any sort of benevolent force that has anything to do with it, at all.

Again, if making God out to be the prime mover, then science has done a lot to shoot that theory down. But who says that has to be what people of faith view God as? Perhaps God is something other than the benevolent force that moves the universe?

He goes further to imply that people of faith are not only wrong on a scientific basis, but less intelligent than atheists.

I want to put on the table, not why 85% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject God, I want to know why 15% of the National Academy don’t.

Now there are several fallacies loaded into this quote. First, why should we view the NAS as the experts on whether God exists or not? The end of science is not to prove or disprove the existence of God, so why should he expect 100% of its members to be atheists? Second, why should all scientists be atheists? Is there empirical evidence to disprove the existence of God? Absence of evidence of God's existence does not equal evidence of God's absence. This is a central tenet of science (since Popper) with which I would imagine NGT is familiar. So why ignore it now? Third, if I attended a different conference, say the American Academy of Religion, would it be surprising to find that 85% of its members believed in God? Or that 15% didn't? I wouldn't think so. Studying religion does not require one to believe in God. Studying science should not require someone NOT to believe in God. To assert otherwise sounds like demagoguery.

If we boil science down to a set of beliefs based on the scientific method and empirical data, why should religion not fit the bill? Why should empirical data not include faith? I'll be honest -- I've seen a ghost. That's empirical data. Two other people saw it as well. I'm sure a skeptic could disprove it and I'm not interested in defending my experience. The point is that it was experienced (the definition of empirical). Faith can be experienced as well. With all our senses. Not only seen and felt and tasted, but also intuited in ways that go beyond our traditional five senses. For NGT to argue otherwise does a disservice to his truly awesome scientific contributions.