Friday, July 11, 2008

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Religion and Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. In 2005 he wrote an excellent essay entitled "The Perimeter of Ignorance" in which he talks about how historically, many famous scientists invoked god when they reach the limits of their own understanding. He begins:

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.

However, he recounts the anecdote of when Laplace presented his work to Napoleon that explained aspects of the movement of bodies in the solar system that Newton's work had not sufficiently explained:

According to an oft-repeated but probably embellished account, when Laplace gave a copy [of his manuscript] to his physics-literate friend Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon asked him what role God played in the construction and regulation of the heavens. "Sire," Laplace replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

Tyson gives other examples of this phenomenon, and then talks about it in its extreme, virulent forms, such as the organized efforts of Intelligent Design.

Another practice that isn't science is embracing ignorance. Yet it's fundamental to the philosophy of intelligent design: I don't know what this is. I don't know how it works. It's too complicated for me to figure out. It's too complicated for any human being to figure out. So it must be the product of a higher intelligence.

What do you do with that line of reasoning? Do you just cede the solving of problems to someone smarter than you, someone who's not even human? Do you tell students to pursue only questions with easy answers?

There may be a limit to what the human mind can figure out about our universe. But how presumptuous it would be for me to claim that if I can't solve a problem, neither can any other person who has ever lived or who will ever be born. Suppose Galileo and Laplace had felt that way? Better yet, what if Newton had not? He might then have solved Laplace's problem a century earlier, making it possible for Laplace to cross the next frontier of ignorance.

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.

Here's a video of Tyson talking about these topics at Beyond Belief:

I plan on reading Tyson's Death by Black Hole soon. I'll post review(s) as I do.

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