Pharyngula

Neil deGrasse Tyson on ID

Since Nick Matzke has become a fanboy, and Larry Moran has never heard of him, I thought I’d mention that I’ve liked Neil deGrasse Tyson’s column (titled “Universe”) in Natural History for a long time. It is generally on astronomy/astrophysics/cosmology, so it’s far afield from my usual comfort zone, but I don’t mind stretching my brain now and then. I’ve put a few excerpts from one column below the fold here that I thought was particularly good, from the November 2005 issue. It’s titled “The perimeter of ignorance”, and subtitled “a boundary where scientists face a choice: invoke a deity or continue the quest for knowledge.”

Writing in centuries past, many scientists felt compelled to wax poetic about cosmic mysteries and God’s handiwork. Perhaps one should not be surprised at this: most scientists back then, as well as many scientists today, identify themselves as spiritually devout.

But a careful reading of older texts, particularly those concerned with the universe itself, shows that the authors invoke divinity only when they reach the boundaries of their understanding. They appeal to a higher power only when staring into the ocean of their own ignorance. They call on God only from the lonely and precarious edge of incomprehension. Where they feel certain about their explanations, however, God gets hardly a mention.

As long as the celestial sphere was generally regarded as the domain of the divine, the fact that mere mortals could not explain its workings could safely be cited as proof of the higher wisdom and power of God. But beginning in the sixteenth century, the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton–not to mention Maxwell, Heisenberg, Einstein, and everybody else who discovered fundamental laws of physics–provided rational explanations for an increasing range of phenomena. Little by little, the universe was subjected to the methods and tools of science, and became a demonstrably knowable place.

Then, in what amounts to a stunning yet unheralded philosophical inversion, throngs of ecclesiastics and scholars began to declare that it was the laws of physics themselves that served as proof of the wisdom and power of God.

Science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. You cannot build a program of discovery on the assumption that nobody is smart enough to figure out the answer to a problem. Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes. We know when and where they start. We know what drives them. We know what mitigates their destructive power. And anyone who has studied global warming can tell you what makes them worse. The only people who still call hurricanes “acts of God” are the people who write insurance forms.

To deny or erase the rich, colorful history of scientists and other thinkers who have invoked divinity in their work would be intellectually dishonest. Surely there’s an appropriate place for intelligent design to live in the academic landscape. How about the history of religion? How about philosophy or psychology? The one place it doesn’t belong is the science classroom.

If you’re not swayed by academic arguments, consider the financial consequences. Allow intelligent design into science textbooks, lecture halls, and laboratories, and the cost to the frontier of scientific discovery–the frontier that drives the economies of the future–would be incalculable. I don’t want students who could make the next major breakthrough in renewable energy sources or space travel to have been taught that anything they don’t understand, and that nobody yet understands, is divinely constructed and therefore beyond their intellectual capacity. The day that happens, Americans will just sit in awe of what we don’t understand, while we watch the rest of the world boldly go where no mortal has gone before.

There was one time I read his column and he made some dismissive comment about biology that I thought odd and irritating (it was trivial enough that I can’t find it now), but otherwise, I’ve been pretty much in full agreement with the fellow. He is a darn good spokesman for good science, and I do hope he gets wider attention.

Comments

  1. #1 0-dot-O
    November 29, 2006

    NOVA | Origins | Neil deGrasse Tyson | PBS:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/origins/

    NOVA | Origins | A Conversation With Neil deGrasse Tyson | PBS:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/origins/tyson.html

    If you have broadband, you can watch the entire 4-hour Nova/Origins series online, starting here:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/origins/program-3114.html

  2. #2 magista
    November 29, 2006

    Hurricanes as ‘acts of God’ in insurance policies, eh? Suppose there’s any way we athiests could challenge for insurance coverage for hurricane damage, then? Seeing as how there is no god causing the wind, only natural forces, surely then we must be covered…

    Of course, I’m currently more worried about freezing to death than hurricanes. -25C is brrrrr.

  3. #3 George
    November 29, 2006

    I don’t know. I’m watching the first You Tube video and he seems to be enforcing a lot of stereotypes about geeky analytic science vs. the artsy-feelie humanities.

  4. #4 Steve_C
    November 29, 2006

    Watch the last video of the beyond belief conference.

    He’s both a science astro-physics geek and an artsy-feelie lover of the humanities.

    He could also kick your ass. He’s a big guy.

    I think he breaks most “science geek” and “black” stereotypes at the same time.

    Beyond Belief Session 10

  5. #5 CJColucci
    November 29, 2006

    When I first heard about the “Act of God” clause in insurance companies, I was very young and literal-minded. I thought it meant that if you were driving along and a giant, Monthy Python-esque foot came out of the sky and you went “splat,” Mutual of Omaha wouldn’t pay off. In those days, Mutual of Omaha was the only insurance company I knew about, because it sponsored “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlon Perkins.” I thought it was neat that MofO sponsored Perkins, but then I began to wonder, did they INSURE him?
    I could just see it. Perkins goes to MofO’s office to buy insurance. “Occupation?”
    “Curator of the St. Louis Zoo.”
    “Sounds interesting [and safe]. What do you do?”
    “I go around the world with my faithful sidekick, Jim, and film adventures with wild animals.”
    “Oh?”
    “Yes, it’s so exciting. Just last week, Jim was chasing a crocodile on the Zambesi River and…”
    “Mr. Perkins, I think it may be cheaper for us to sponsor a television show about your adventures than to insure you.”
    “That would be wonderful. By the way, should I send Jim up to see about insurance?”
    “Hell No!”

  6. #6 Ginger Yellow
    November 29, 2006

    The whole “act of God” thing has always baffled me. Given how eager insurance companies are to use any legal means not to pay a claim, you’d think that by now they’d have been able to wriggle out of something on the basis you couldn’t prove a hurricane/earthquake etc was an act of God. Conversely you’d think people signing insurance contracts would want the exceptions precisely specified.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    November 29, 2006

    There is a moderately deep point here:

    Then, in what amounts to a stunning yet unheralded philosophical inversion, throngs of ecclesiastics and scholars began to declare that it was the laws of physics themselves that served as proof of the wisdom and power of God.

    It’s hardly fair to say that a miracle — “when God makes the impossible possible,” according to Tarantino — would show God at work and then turn around and in the next breath claim that the very perfection of those inviolable natural laws is also proof of God! A implies God, not-A implies God, and there will be ice cream for breakfast every day.

  8. #8 99 bottles
    November 29, 2006

    “The day that happens, Americans will just sit in awe of what we don’t understand, while we watch the rest of the world boldly go where no mortal has gone before.”

    Well, there ya go. How to fight off the iDeists? Simple: if we don’t teach evolution and the big bang, then the Godless Communists in China will own the moon.

  9. #9 Randy
    November 29, 2006

    PZ, over on PT you comment that Moran could be more like a missionary if he said “they were going to hell” if you didn’t believe the way he did. But…..that is what he has said (or implied), in his secularist version.
    When the Moran’s win the battle, he will say to the theists and the appeasers:

    You will not get into college
    You will not be hired in science and technology field
    You will not pass go
    you will not collect $200

    Of course in the athiest view one won’t burn in hell forever, there is no hell to burn in.

  10. #10 E-gal
    November 29, 2006

    In business contracts we have replaced the “acts of god clause with “Force Majeure.” Typically, force majeure clauses cover natural disasters or other “Acts of God”, war, or the failure of third parties–such as suppliers and subcontractors–to perform their obligations to the contracting party. It is important to remember that force majeure clauses are intended to excuse a party only if the failure to perform could not be avoided by the exercise of due care by that party.

  11. #11 octopod
    November 29, 2006

    Anyone else ever see The Man who Sued God? Pretty good movie.

  12. #12 Dave Carlson
    November 29, 2006

    PZ – Thanks for the correcting my assumption that Tyson took over for Gould. I don’t know why it is that I thought that’s what happened.

  13. #13 Joshua
    November 29, 2006

    and there will be ice cream for breakfast every day

    Whoa, really? Sorry, guys, but I think I’m switching back over to theism.

  14. #14 Kagehi
    November 29, 2006

    When the Moran’s win the battle, he will say to the theists and the appeasers:

    You will not get into college
    You will not be hired in science and technology field
    You will not pass go
    you will not collect $200

    Umm.

    1. Not all colleges are science colleges, so if they want to take, “traditional basket weaving”, I don’t fracking care, as long as they don’t take something like physics or biology…

    2. And this is bad why? You really want some ass working for the company that makes your car that thinks that when they make some horrible mistake in the design, which might cause it to blow up for no reason, that “praying” for it to not happen will *fix* the problem? Just saying…

    3. Too late, most of the people we really truly have a problem with are still afraid to pass the Middle Ages, they have most of the entire fracking board to pass through, assuming they don’t land on “go to jail” the moment they finally do roll the dice, like some creationists I could name. Its not our fault if they are scared of progress and insist on using shaved dice (while being too stupid to understand how to shave them properly).

    4. ??? Why the heck are they even bothered? All they need to do is open up a church on one of the high rent places they have gotten to, like Pacific Avenue and then thumb their noses at the people actually going “around” the board. They make million, if not *billions* that way and provide free soup kitchens and beds for the other bankrupt idiots that are equally scared to challenge their wacky beliefs, but didn’t have the cash to *buy* Pacific Avenue first and build the damn church on it.

    If we are going to extend your analogy that is…

  15. #15 Rienk
    November 29, 2006

    The day that happens, Americans will just sit in awe of what we don’t understand, while we watch the rest of the world boldly go where no mortal has gone before.

    He is right! Why am I fighting ID / Creationism here in the US while I have a EU passport? Go ahead, teach your kids inquiry is evil, that “goddidit” is enough to get you published in Cell. Go ahead, I’ll move back to Europe, Europe will do better and I am worth more on the job market.
    Please, ban science classes all together, please!

  16. #16 Sastra
    November 29, 2006

    I have been a NdG Tyson fan ever since I heard him speak at a Center for Inquiry convention several years ago. One of the other speakers was a Dr. Gary Schwartz, who claims to have scientifically verified the ability of psychics to speak to the dead. In addition to the data on his studies with mediums, Schwartz’s presentation included an elaborate physics theory which he thought might explain how consciousness could survive death.

    During the question and answer period, Dr. Tyson went up to the mike and in his rich, deep voice thanked Dr. Schwartz for a most interesting talk — and he would specifically like to address the physics portion. The room hushed with anticipation. With the exception of the first few slides, it was, he pronounced, “pure drivel.” The scientists in the room laughed as Tyson then proceeded to demonstrate, step by step, where poor Dr. Schwartz had begun to go wrong.

    Schwartz’s response was interesting. As I recall, he said something to the effect that his physics “theory” had preceeded his research, not the other way around — and he usually didn’t give this talk in front of physicists. The implication seemed to be that he would take care not to do so again.

  17. #17 Torbjrn Larsson
    November 29, 2006

    I find the Star Trek phrase effectful. It captures willingness to be open to all sorts of adventure, the intellectual included. It is a taunt and a revelation for worshippers.

    Of course in the athiest view one won’t burn in hell forever, there is no hell to burn in.

    It is likely Moran finds a heavenly hell improbable. But a more agnostic atheist would say that it is unknown.

    And of course there is an everlasting hell, here on earth – having to listen to evangelical religionists. 🙂

  18. #18 Torbjrn Larsson
    November 29, 2006

    I find the Star Trek phrase effectful. It captures willingness to be open to all sorts of adventure, the intellectual included. It is a taunt and a revelation for worshippers.

    Of course in the athiest view one won’t burn in hell forever, there is no hell to burn in.

    It is likely Moran finds a heavenly hell improbable. But a more agnostic atheist would say that it is unknown.

    And of course there is an everlasting hell, here on earth – having to listen to evangelical religionists. 🙂

  19. #19 Ken Cope
    November 29, 2006

    I caught Dr. Joan Roughgarden interviewed on the radio yesterday afternoon. (For only a couple more hours you can stream it here. She’s making the radio rounds– I just heard her on an Air America station, on Tom Hartman’s “Everything You Know Is Wrong”segment. If this is what Nick Matzke would prefer to hear from scientists regarding religion, I’m going to hurl.

    Francis Collins, move over, another scientist has her own recipe for a science/religion Reese’s peanut butter cup. Bookslut has a review of her tract, Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist. Lindsay of Majikthise has a review of her earlier book, Evolution’s Rainbow.

    Roughgarden assures us all that we should be as confident in evolution as we are that the earth is round. She emphasizes the evolutionary view of the relatedness of all life–“hug a redwood, you’re hugging a distant relative.” But I got whiplash trying to follow her claim that evolutionary theory “has antecedents in the Bible.” She talks about Jacob the farmer (yes, colored sticks for colored breeding stock Jacob) from Genesis, how that parable is an antecedent of the notion of natural selection, and Jesus and the parable of the sowing of the mustard seed as an antecedent for the notion of random variation.

    I call that magical thinking and constellating signal onto whatever noise flits in front of your faith field.

    Here is a quick rough transcription of a few bits that made my skin crawl. In response to a question about the selfish gene: “..I think that religious objection to evolutionary biology is well taken on that matter, and I do think that a lot of scientists have been spinning a story of nature red in tooth and claw and filled with selfishness and sexual conflict, which is not supported by the data. And so, I think it’s really important that scientists not be implicitly projecting a view of nature as nasty, and then retrieving that view as though that were a fact. I think that there’s a real role for a Christian presence within science because without that, we’re not getting a full suite of hypotheses out on the table to be tested.”

    “I do know that the committed atheists on this matter really do see religion as causing a great deal of human harm and they actually do want to see the institutions abandoned. On the other hand in my discussions with atheists on this it’s difficult to see how they’re going to develop value systems and so on from scratch. It seems as though if you have a certain amount of time each week so to speak to put into moral goals and moral programs that you have a choice of either reforming and improving existing faith traditions or otherwise starting one from scratch. And it seems to me the atheist program is not very practical.”

  20. #20 Steve_C
    November 29, 2006

    Something like that happened at the Beyond Belief Conference.

    Stuart Hameroff, An Anesthesiologist gets up and gives this weird fast description of consciousness, backwards time amd qunatum mechanics and it’s totally incoherent.
    He’s claiming that morality is “imbedded into the universe”.

    One of the previous speakers (a physicist) gets up and said all of it was complete nonsense. And the some neuro scientists do the same.

    It’s as id the whole room has their mouth hanging open… wtf? He of course attempts to defend himself but pretty promplty leaves to “catch a plane”.

    It’s entertaining. I was listening to it and thinking it sounded like crap but thought it was just over my head. I was relieved to hear it was, but not because I’m uneducated but because it was mumbo jumbo.

    Beyond Belief Session 4

  21. #21 Ken Cope
    November 29, 2006

    Stuart Hameroff is responsible for the notion of quantum microtubules, upon which Roger Penrose explicitly relies to claim that machines can never be conscious and brains aren’t machines. Right, consciousness is some sort of Mysterianist woo that exists in microtubules (as prolific in your kidneys as any other part of your body). Yay, quantum. Penrose is fine when he’s solving sums for Stephen Hawking, and I think his tiles are nearly as nifty as Escher’s, but he can keep his platonist dualism to himself.

  22. #22 George
    November 29, 2006

    Re “Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist.”

    She says polarization isn’t helpful. [Why the hell not?]

    She says: “There is no science to justify such extreme condemnation of religion.”

    Jebus… now she’s agreeing with Genesis!

    “When God creates the natural processes, he then says it’s good.”

    “Studying natural processes is a form of prayer.”

    She’s in deep.

  23. #23 George
    November 29, 2006

    Apologies if this has been referenced already.

    Roughgarden at Beyond Belief (YouTube):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHwN3TfArRk

  24. #24 Anton Mates
    November 29, 2006

    When the Moran’s win the battle, he will say to the theists and the appeasers:

    You will not get into college
    You will not be hired in science and technology field
    You will not pass go
    you will not collect $200

    Are you saying all theists and appeasers support ID? Because it’s only ID supporters that Moran was talking about, whether or not he was joking.

  25. #25 Anton Mates
    November 29, 2006

    I still can’t wrap my head around the audience Roughgarden thinks she’s targeting; people who are a) heavily dependent on Biblical imagery and b) distrustful of science and hostile to evolution in particular, yet c) have no problem taking advice from a post-op transsexual. That’s gotta be a small demographic.

    (Although as I understand it she–unusually–doesn’t reference her sexuality at all in Evolution’s Rainbow.)

  26. #26 Greco
    November 29, 2006

    Sorry, guys, but I think I’m switching back over to theism.

    Before you do, maybe I should warn you that, although they’ll insist it is really ice cream, it still looks and tastes like a dry wafer.

  27. #27 Steve_C
    November 29, 2006

    At Beyond Belief she states she turned to religion during a difficult time in her life. Her parents were missionaries.

  28. #28 Steve_C
    November 29, 2006

    You just have to have faith that it’s ice cream.

  29. #29 Glen Davidson
    November 29, 2006

    Having studied Augustine I can say that there is nothing new about “laws of nature” being credited to God. Tyson might have a point about its being something of a reversal at the time (some natural philosophers cast doubt on “laws” ruling the cosmos prior to the revolution in scientific thinking), but certainly older theologies easily fit in with the new emphasis on the “laws of nature”.

    I found a source on the web to back up my claims:

    http://66.102.7.104/search?q=cache:uuHoYwElRfIJ:www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2003/PSCF12-03Padgett.pdf+augustine+%22laws+of+nature%22&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=2

    It’s well referenced. Here’s a bit of what’s said there:

    Patristic authors such as Augustine and Basil of Caesarea used the term “laws of nature,”and understood these as coming from Godthe Creator. 3 This was particularly true in those works of the patristic period that sought to harmonize the teachings of the Bible with the then-current science or natural philosophy. 4 For both Augustine and Basil,the natural world operated according to regularities ordained by the divine Creator and Lawgiver. 5 Basil taught, for example, that the various types of fish are assigned to theirown watery habitats by “a law of nature.” 6 Augustine, too, stated that “the ordinary course of nature in the whole of creation has certain natural laws.”

    Otherwise, I’d say that Tyson does well in the article, except that he doesn’t point out how really meaningless and useless invoking God for the unknown was, regardless of humanity’s state of ignorance. And I say this because the IDists continue to try to exploit (and to considerably exaggerate) the unknowns in science and to claim the areas of ignorance for their God (however pathetic that may be). In a sense he seems to be excusing the resort to God in the past, while disallowing it to the IDists.

    The principled response to both ages shoehorning God into the gaps is that it is only an admission of ignorance, and not an answer at all. The theistic scientists of the past who did push our knowledge outward had to question the theistic “explanations” for what was not known, and got into trouble for it in some cases.

    That’s the real lesson of the past, that those who clogged up the gaps with God impeded science, just as the IDists desire to do.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  30. #30 the great and powerful oz
    November 29, 2006

    octopod said:
    “Anyone else ever see The Man who Sued God? Pretty good movie.”

    Yeah, Billy Conolly is denied a payout after an act of god destroys his boat.
    He starts a lawsuit and sets the insurance companies against the churches.
    If there’s a god, the churches, as god’s representatives, should pay up.
    If there isn’t, the insurance companies should pay up.

    Since the movie came out, Billy got a gig advertising ING Insurance in Australia, and has made many ads for them.

  31. #31 reallyordinary
    November 29, 2006

    Roughgarden is a male-to-female transsexual?

    Holy cripes. I wouldn’t have guessed.

  32. #32 thwaite
    November 29, 2006

    Not much to guess from in her writings. But you’ll find earlier writings as ‘Jonathan Roughgarden’.

  33. #33 Anton Mates
    November 29, 2006

    Not much to guess from in her writings.

    Not in her peer-reviewed output. But I’d never seen her give a talk or an interview without mentioning it several times (frequently in the context “Other biologists don’t listen to me enough because I’m a transsexual!”)…before she started writing a book about religion, that is.

  34. Stuart Hameroff is responsible for the notion of quantum microtubules, upon which Roger Penrose explicitly relies to claim that machines can never be conscious and brains aren’t machines. Right, consciousness is some sort of Mysterianist woo that exists in microtubules (as prolific in your kidneys as any other part of your body).

    So how exactly do the microtubules interact with your midichlorians?

  35. #35 Ken Cope
    November 30, 2006

    So how exactly do the microtubules interact with your midichlorians?

    The MIDIchlorian specification is an open standard, so interaction is via the internet, which is a series of quantum microyoutubules.

    Speaking of youtubules, watch as Roughgarden is extemporaneously pwned by Richard Dawkins.

  36. #36 Dianne
    November 30, 2006

    …frequently in the context “Other biologists don’t listen to me enough because I’m a transsexual!”

    Um…that’s not the problem or at least not the entire problem. She gave up male privilege and is noticing the effects. I remember reading (I think in Nature) about another person (a mathmatician, I think) who was a female to male transexual who remarked on how much more people listened to him after his transition. One quote that stands out in my memory is one that he overheard after giving a seminar: “Name gave an excellent talk today…of course his work has always been much better than his sister’s.” He doesn’t have a sister, of course.

  37. #37 George
    November 30, 2006

    I remember reading (I think in Nature) about another person (a mathmatician, I think) who was a female to male transexual who remarked on how much more people listened to him after his transition.

    Don’t forget Deirdre McCloskey, the economist. She seems to be doing perfectly well in her profession.

    http://www.mccullagh.org/db9/9/deirdre-mccloskey.jpg

  38. #38 Steve_C
    November 30, 2006

    Wow. I remember listening to her thinking that her voice is so deep and soft that it’s putting me to sleep… her monotone is punishing. No wonder people don’t listen to her.
    Not a very good speaker regardless of her gender. The other women were much more engaging.

  39. #39 Anton Mates
    November 30, 2006

    Um…that’s not the problem or at least not the entire problem.

    It’s certainly a claim she makes very frequently, as in that Seed interview PZ blogged on a while back: “I think many scientists discount me because of who I am. They assume that I can’t be objective, that I’ve got some bias or hidden LGBT agenda.”

    She gave up male privilege and is noticing the effects.

    I’m well aware that male privilege exists, in science as in almost every other part of culture, but I really don’t see Joan Roughgarden in particular as being its victim. She’s a household name in biology–co-authored three papers in Science as Joan, primary author on one. She’s been profiled and had extensive book reviews in Nature. When she gave a talk at OSU, she was treated as deferentially and respectfully as any evo-bio speaker I’ve ever seen. And, though she seems to have worried that she might lose her Stanford position, by her account it appears that she was instantly assured that wouldn’t happen when she informed them of her upcoming sex change.

    If mainstream biology hasn’t accepted much of her take on sexual selection, it’s not because she’s being ignored or dismissed–simply disagreed with.

  40. #40 Keith Douglas
    December 2, 2006

    Penrose really goes off the deep end on the anti-AI/computational theory of mind stuff. The physics is ridiculous, the neuroscience worse, and the understanding of logic even worse still. (Since, there, at least, he’s provably wrong.) He also doesn’t understand different meanings of algorithm, as it turns out. (I asked him this in person, as it happens.)I don’t understand why such a clever guy threw his weight in with Hameroff …

  41. #41 Blake Stacey
    December 2, 2006

    I have the suspicion that Hameroff exaggerates his connection with Penrose at every opportunity. That’s the natural thing to do, anyway, since Penrose has done enough good math/physics to have earned a good name, although every physicist I know either tunes out or actively scoffs the quantum mind business. Hameroff even sits on the editorial board of a “journal”, NeuroQuantology, dedicated to providing a home for neuro-quantum woo.

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