I finally got a chance to sit down and watch the first episode of the new Cosmos series with host astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. It began with exciting animations and music to set your mind adrift like one of Sagan’s dandelions, untethered from the weight of substantive science. My daughter and I enjoyed the cosmic micro-to-macro journey, reminiscent of the intro to the movie Contact. It opened up some interesting conversation. I found Tyson’s personal experience with his mentor Carl Sagan touching and his excitement for science encouraging. But the effort to divide faith and science was both disappointing and misleading. Even though Tyson is not an atheist (he self-identifies with agnosticism) the executive producer Seth Macfarlane is an outspoken one. It seems pretty obvious to me his bias was allowed to drive the direction of the first episode.
I’m going to skip over the first half of the show and the pop-science introduced briefly by Tyson’s comment: “Many of us suspect” everything in our observable universe is “but one tiny bubble in an infinite ocean of other universes...worlds without end.” [i] Tyson was allowed to quickly brush over this speculative, unobservable, metaphysical conjecture as if it were a genuine scientific theory. Since I’ve already blogged about the multiverse, I’ll move on to the second half of the show where for over 20 minutes I listened to Tyson attempt to widen the gap between those who look at the world through science and those who look at it through philosophy and theology. I won’t go into how badly Cosmos mishandled the history of the church and Giordano Bruno. You can read this excellent article showing how embarrassingly inaccurate Cosmos portrayed things. I do want to briefly mention how their divisive approach was unnecessary.
The new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, believe those on the side of science must ridicule the other side of faith. There are also those like Hawking and Krauss who seem to think philosophy is dead because of the advancement of science. On the other hand, strict literalists like Ken Ham often appear to ignore any scientific view which might require a rethinking of one’s theological interpretations. The producers of Cosmos appeared, to me at least, to be fueling the fires in all of these camps. However, there are many scientists, philosophers and theologians who reject the notion science, philosophy and faith must forever be at odds. John Polkinghorne, who won the Templeton Prize in 2002, is an example of such a scientist and theologian. I’ve blogged about this elsewhere but Polkinghorne’s words are worth repeating.
We must take account of what science has to tell us about the pattern and history of the physical world in which we live. Of course, science itself can no more dictate to religion what it is to believe than religion can prescribe for science what the outcome of its inquiry is to be. The two disciplines are concerned with the exploration of different aspects of human experience: in the one case, our impersonal encounter with a physical world that we transcend; in the other, our personal encounter with the One who transcends us. They use different methods: in the one case, the experimental procedure of putting matters to the test; in the other, the commitment of trust which must underlie all personal encounter, whether between ourselves or with the reality of God. They ask different questions: in the one case, how things happen, by what process?; in the other, why things happen, to what purpose? Though these are two different questions, yet, the ways we answer them must bear some consonant relationship to each other.
Science, philosophy and theology are all trying to make sense of the world from different angles. They all have their primary domains of inquiry into a single world; a single reality. These domains may overlap at points (contrary to Gould’s NOMA.) For example, we cannot divorce ourselves from scientific knowledge when developing a theology of creation. Nor should we air the conjecture of materialist scientists regarding unobservable constructs beyond the event horizon of our universe – at least not without the input of philosophers and theologians. So when you have an executive producer of Cosmos saying: “There have to be people who are vocal about the advancement of knowledge over faith.”[ii] It’s no wonder why the main message of the show is one of division instead of unity.
[i] Neil Tyson, 15:00-24 Cosmos Ep1.
[ii]Esquire interview Aug, 18,2009