Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is my favorite scientist. He is an affable man with a unique ability to communicate complex science in a way that the non-science trained person (me) can understand what he is talking about. I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of COSMOS, especially the part where deGrasse Tyson used the calendar year to explain the history of the universe. I thought, what a wonderful, easy way to explain the history of the universe.
Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson (NDT) sat down for an interview with Bill Moyers (BM), another man I greatly admire. The interview is quite long and the complete transcript of it can be found on Alternet. What piqued my interest was what deGrasse Tyson had to say about science, myth, and religious faith:
BM: So when a child sings, or used to sing, I don’t think they do anymore, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are,” it’s not twinkling. Something powerful, dramatic, and dynamic is happening to it. Right?
NDT: Well, yes, and we call that twinkling. So yeah, there’s starlight coming billions of, or millions of light years, well it depends on if it’s a galaxy, well, hundreds of thousands of light years across space, and it’s a perfect point of light as it hits our atmosphere, turbulence in the atmosphere jiggled the image, and it renders the star twinkling.
And by the way, planets are brighter than stars typically, like Jupiter and Venus. Venus has been in the evening skies lately. And if you go, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are,” and you, I want, you want to wish upon the star, most people are wishing on planets. That’s why their wishes don’t come true. Because the planets are the first stars to come out at night.
BM: Don’t you sometimes feel sad about breaking all these myths apart?
NDT: No, no, because I think it’s, some myths are, deserve to be broken apart. The, out of respect for the human intellect. That, no, when you’re writhing on the ground and froth is coming out of your mouth, you’re having an epileptic seizure. You have not been invaded by the devil. We got this one figured out, okay? I mean, discovery moves on. So, I don’t mind the power of myth and magic. But take it to the next frontier and apply it there. Don’t apply it in places where we’ve long passed what we already know is going on.
BM: Do you give people who make this case, that that was the beginning and that there had to be something that provoked the beginning, do you give them an A at least for trying to reconcile faith and reason?
NDT: I don’t think they’re reconcilable.
BM: What do you mean?
NDT: Well, so let me say that differently. All efforts that have been invested by brilliant people of the past have failed at that exercise. They just fail. And so I don’t, the track record is so poor that going forward, I have essentially zero confidence, near zero confidence, that there will be fruitful things to emerge from the effort to reconcile them. So, for example, if you knew nothing about science, and you read, say, the Bible, the Old Testament, which in Genesis, is an account of nature, that’s what that is, and I said to you, give me your description of the natural world based only on this, you would say the world was created in six days, and that stars are just little points of light much lesser than the sun. And that in fact, they can fall out of the sky, right, because that’s what happens during the Revelation.
You know, one of the signs that the second coming, is that the stars will fall out of the sky and land on Earth. To even write that means you don’t know what those things are. You have no concept of what the actual universe is. So everybody who tried to make proclamations about the physical universe based on Bible passages got the wrong answer.
So what happened was, when science discovers things, and you want to stay religious, or you want to continue to believe that the Bible is unerring, what you would do is you would say, “Well, let me go back to the Bible and reinterpret it.” Then you’d say things like, “Oh, well they didn’t really mean that literally. They meant that figuratively.”
So, this whole sort of reinterpretation of the, how figurative the poetic passages of the Bible are came after science showed that this is not how things unfolded. And so the educated religious people are perfectly fine with that. It’s the fundamentalists who want to say that the Bible is the literally, literal truth of God, that and want to see the Bible as a science textbook, who are knocking on the science doors of the schools, trying to put that content in the science room. Enlightened religious people are not behaving that way. So saying that science is cool, we’re good with that, and use the Bible for, to get your spiritual enlightenment and your emotional fulfillment.
BM: I have known serious religious people, not fundamentalists, who were scared when Carl Sagan opened his series with the words —
Carl Sagan, from “Cosmos”: The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.
I mean, that scared them, because they interpret that to mean, then if this is it, there’s nothing else. No God and no life after.
NDT: For religious people, many people say, “Well, God is within you,” or God, the, there are ways that people have shaped this, rather than, God is an old, grey-bearded man in the clouds. So if God is within you, what, I’m sure Carl would say, in you in your mind. In your mind, and we can measure the neurosynaptic firings when you have a religious experience.
We can tell you where that’s happening, when it’s happening, what you’re feeling like at the time. So your mind of course is still within the cosmos.
BM: But do you have any sympathy for people who seem to feel, only feel safe in the vastness of the universe you describe in your show if they can infer a personal God who makes it more hospitable to them, cares for them?
NDT: In this, what we tell ourselves is a free country, which means you should have freedom of thought, I don’t care what you think. I just don’t. Go think whatever you want. Go ahead. Think that there’s one God, two Gods, ten Gods, or no Gods. That is what it means to live in a free country. The problem arises is if you have a religious philosophy that is not based on objective realities that you then want to put in a science classroom. Then I’m going to stand there and say, “No, I’m not going to allow you in the science classroom.” I’m not telling you what to think, I’m just telling you in the science class, “You’re not doing science. This is not science. Keep it out.” That’s where I, that’s when I stand up. Otherwise, go ahead. I’m not telling you how to think.
BM: I think you must realize that some people are going to go to your show at the planetarium and they’re going to say, “Ah-hah! Those scientists have discovered God. Because God,” dark matter, “is what holds this universe together.”
NDT: So is that a question?
BM: It’s a statement. You know, you know they’re going to say that —
NDT: So the history of discovery, particularly cosmic discovery, but discovery in general, scientific discovery, is one where at any given moment, there’s a frontier. And there tends to be an urge for people, especially religious people, to assert that across that boundary, into the unknown lies the handiwork of God. This shows up a lot. Newton even said it. He had his laws of gravity and motion and he was explaining the moon and the planets, he was there. He doesn’t mention God for any of that. And then he gets to the limits of what his equations can calculate. So, I don’t, can’t quite figure this out. Maybe God steps in and makes it right every now and then. That’s where he invoked God.
And Ptolemy, he bet on the wrong horse, but he was a brilliant guy. He formulated the geocentric universe, with Earth in the middle. This is where we got epicycles and all this machinations of the heavens. But it was still a mystery to him. He looked up and uttered the following words, “when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies,” these are the planets going through retrograde and back, the mysteries of the Earth, “when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch Earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”
What he did was invoke, he didn’t invoke Zeus to account for the rock that he’s standing on or the air he’s 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’s how you, if that’s where you’re going to put your God in this world, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.
If that’s how you’re going to invoke God. If God is the mystery of the universe, these mysteries, we’re tackling these mysteries one by one. If you’re 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’re saying it is because it’s a mystery, then get ready to have that undone.