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.


  1. #1 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.

  2. #2 Torbjörn 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. :-)

  3. #3 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.

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