How Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos Completely Bungles the Philosophy of Religion & Science

I’m reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at the moment,  so I’m a a bit sensitized to what is said by the “experts.” But even if I wasn’t, Neil deGrasse Tyson would still bother me. I was excited about the new Cosmos broadcast, optimistically setting our DVR to tape every episode. But after the first one, I hit cancel, mostly because of the ridiculous scientific positivism of Tyson, and the historical/philosophical butchery of the story of Giordano Bruno in episode one.

Full disclosure, I knew very little about Bruno Giordano prior to viewing Cosmos. However, I could tell by the way Tyson told the story that his version was a distortion. So I did some poking around. Cosmos’ take was that Bruno Giordano, an early modern monk and philosopher, was really a scientific rationalist whose mere suggestion that the universe was infinite and that the sun was just another star made him an enemy of the church that killed him. The only problem with their story is that it isn’t remotely true. From a Daily Beast article:

What Cosmos doesn’t mention is that Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild—and occasionally correct—guesses about the universe. As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”

Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno as a “martyr for science” is just a small example of a kind of cultural myth we tell ourselves about the development of modern society, one that’s almost completely divorced from the messy reality. It’s a story of an upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity. Iconoclastic individuals are our heroes, and big, bad institutions—monarchies, patriarchies, churches—are the villains. In the process, our fascinating, convoluted history gets flattened into a kind of secular Bible story to remind us why individual freedom and “separation of church and state” are the most important things for us to believe in.

The myth of the “upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity,” is laughable given the unending violence of secularism, democracy, and prosperity. The notion that secularism & democracy will save the world is the kind of assumption that great minds like Neil deGrasse Tyson need to critique. The problem is, you need to be versed in at least a bit of history and philosophy to make the critique. But Tyson is not a fan of philosophy.

Something called “The Nerdist” podcast did an interview in which Tyson completely dismisses the importance of philosophy, and displays a shocking ignorance of the role it has played in the history of science. Tyson suggests that undergraduates should shun philosophy courses because asking too many questions  “can really mess you up.” Not kidding. Tyson says philosophical questioning is pointless and it will only stall your progress toward the really important questions (of science). The scientific mind should tell the philosopher, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

How ironic is it that? Tyson’s critique basically says that asking certain kinds of questions (the ones that bother him) is a complete waste of time. Tyson would have us all dispense with the stupid epistemological and ontological questions, presumably so we can get back in line & believe what the wise and all-knowing scientists tell us. It’s the exact same treatment Tyson claims the Roman Catholic Church gave Bruno Giordano.

Science is not neutral–morally, rationally, epistemologically or otherwise. All facts are interpreted facts, and our interpretation of them depends upon how we’ve been trained to interpret them. How we’ve been trained to interpret them depends upon the narrative to which we subscribe. Tyson’s narrative is science, and much like a religious fundamentalist, his view dismisses both philosophy and religion. The stream of historical Christianity to which I subscribe has at least learned how to embrace both science and philosophy. From where I’m standing much of Christianity (not all, obviously, but much), has become far more open minded than Tyson’s scientific fundamentalism.

Tyson’s assumption of scientific objectivity is an illusion that has been unmasked scores of times (by philosophers, btw), as a power play dependent upon the narrative to which we subscribe. Tyson attempts to hold up the scientific narrative as the one truly objective narrative. To what does he appeal in order to reinforce this belief? Science. Hence he is as blind to his own assumptions as those who claim the bible is true because the bible says so. That he is so blind means he has not learned the lessons taught by philosophers of science and language like Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, Werner Heisenberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Albert Einstein, and others have helped us to see:

  • There is no such thing as objective knowledge. As objective as scientific knowledge attempts to be, it is still a person doing the knowing from a particular and finite point of view.
  • The very act of observing a phenomenon changes it.
  • The point of view impacts how the phenomenon is viewed or experienced. Even the laws of Newtonian Physics break down at quantum or astro-levels.
  • All thought actually begins from some sort of framework or narrative in which it is imbedded; there is no such thing as a coherent thought which is free from its own narratival presuppositions.
  • Every society depends on its own narrative from which to judge what beliefs shall be deemed reasonable or plausible–the society of science is no different.
  • Science has no privileged access to truth or reality because there is no privileged access to reality or truth. There is just reality and truth and a myriad of ways in which to relate to it.

Thus scientific “knowledge” is a misnomer. We should most properly call it scientific belief–especially given the fact that nearly everything science professes to “know” is disproved at some point with a better explanation (narrative/story), about what is really going on. This is not to say that science has no value. Antibiotics, pasteurization, weather prediction, physics, engineering, this stuff is essential to my life and a huge blessing. Science has fundamental value. (My undergraduate is a science degree & I’ve always loved the disciplines of science… except chemistry; I always hated chemistry). But science is not objective, nor is it the arbiter of all reality. It is a narrative; a very helpful productive narrative, but a narrative nonetheless. Thus science is subject to the very same critiques it makes of philosophy or religion.

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  • Sven2547

    Cosmos’ take was that Bruno Giordano, an early modern monk and philosopher, was really a scientific rationalist…

    Did you sleep through the part where Tyson says, plainly and unequivocally, that Bruno was not a scientist? In fact, at no point did Cosmos refer to Bruno’s ideas as “scientific”. Cosmos didn’t claim he was a martyr for science, but a victim of saying something that went against the prevailing opinion of the day.

    I wish people would critique what the show actually portrayed, rather than the strawman the apologists keep propping up.

    • Steven Brown

      I know, right. This article is a complete misrepresentation of what the show actually said. The point was Bruno defied religious authority and turned out to be more right than they were.

    • RyneBeddard

      I think we are all missing the most important problem with this article: the author thinks the guy’s name is Bruno Giordano lmao…

  • ic3y

    No matter what way you slice it.. church still killed him for what he believed in. The part ‘He believed in all sorts of magic and spirits’ made me laugh.

  • Jeff

    Tim, I just binged on all these episodes as I was finishing up finals. I agree with you–Cosmos seems willing to treat history lightly in order to make a scientific point. In the animated portions, there simply is no historical caution as they do what is clearly a retelling from a contemporary perspective.

    It seems like there’s some serious irony here, too. The denizens of a medieval institution (the university) castigate another institution for what amounts to a varying ontology, essentially calling them medieval. And its all wrapped in deep misunderstandings of the medieval period.

    Thanks for the post.

  • clocinnorcal

    Really reaching for an argument here.

  • Science is empirical and criticism is speculative

  • “Even the laws of Newtonian physics break down at quantum levels.”

    This is true. And what’s why when “creationists” claim that life and the Universe can’t be created out of nothing, they don’t consider the quantum Universe. At the quantum level, there really is no such thing as “nothing.”

    Perhaps the height of human narcissism is the notion that, since we are the culmination of life on Earth, “God” must somehow resemble us, or that the Universe needed some sort of anthropomorphic “God” to be spoken into existence. Once again, at the quantum level this is meaningless.

  • Craig Axford

    “The myth of the ‘upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity,’ is laughable given the unending violence of secularism, democracy, and prosperity. The notion that secularism & democracy will save the world is the kind of assumption that great minds like Neil deGrasse Tyson need to critique. ”

    While I admit the “upward march” of humanity is hardly inevitable, let alone smooth, it isn’t true that secularism and democracy have “given us unending violence.” Quite the contrary. Democracies are the most peaceful of all governments, both when it comes to their neighbours and their own citizens. They are not perfectly peaceful, but they are more peaceful than any other system you could mention. Significantly so.

    In addition, humanity in general is less violent now than at any point in its history. Europe, which is probably the most secular place on earth, is experiencing a period of unprecedented peace. Prior to the 20th century the continent never went more than a decade without at least one war somewhere. After two great wars in the first half of the 20th century (neither the most violent in human history if you adjust for population), there hasn’t been a single war in Western Europe in roughly 70 years, and there have only been a couple of flare ups – minor by historical standards – in the eastern half of the continent. When was the last time any of the major powers in North or South America engaged in serious conflict, or in Asia for that matter? Some of these nations have been less than respectful to their own citizens, but major international conflicts have become remarkably rare compared to previous centuries. We could revert back to our old ways at any time, of course, but at the moment at least peace is the norm.

    Tyson distorted the Bruno story, but we shouldn’t engage in our own distortions of history in response. Democracy and secularization both correlate very strongly with declines in violence. This is true with war as well as with homicide rates and other violent crimes. I refer you to Steven Pinker’s excellent work on this subject for more information.

    • Mandy R-G

      Democracy has brought peace, and meanwhile the US takes it upon itself to impose its “peaceful democracy” quite violently on other nations and peoples all over the world. I could list MANY examples, but just look at the chaos and violence the US supported and caused in a number of Latin American countries throughout the Cold War period. Give me a break. Talk about buying into a particular “narrative” – the narrative that modern liberalism tells itself.

      • Craig Axford

        I didn’t claim that democracies don’t have the capacity to use their influence for ill. Vietnam and US actions in Latin America and other Cold War examples are cases in point. However, when making the argument democracies are less violent than non-democratic countries and using the Cold War period as an example, we need to include the actions of the former Soviet Union as well as other contemporary non-democratic nations in our analysis before we can conclude that US foreign policy was more or less violent than the prevailing alternatives at the time.

        The Cold War aside, currently the US is the most violent, or nearly so, of the developed democratic nations both domestically and in terms of foreign policy, but after adjusting for population it is far from the most violent nation on earth. Obviously I wasn’t arguing that democracies never go to war, or that when they do there aren’t the same tragic consequences we would associate with any war no matter who started it or why. I was pointing out that wars started by all nations (democracies or not) now tend to be less frequent and less violent on average than they used to be, and that of all the contemporary nations democracies/secular nations on average start fewer wars and have been starting fewer wars than their less democratic counterparts for quite some time. This isn’t just a “narrative.” It’s an historical and statistical fact. The US may be among the most violent of the modern democratic nation-states, both domestically and in terms of its foreign policy. However, picking out the outlier among the world’s current democracies to disprove the argument is a non-starter, especially given the democratic outlier is still better than most non-democratic/non-secular nations in many respects.

  • Robert Landbeck

    As a pastor with religious views of both God and theology/philosophy, your own opinions are already ‘bent’ by your own narrative. That remains the human condition in the absence of perfectly objective knowledge to anchor the mind and perception. While under that ‘bent’ universal paradigm all knowledge is relative, that is to say our species remains on an unknown point of that great learning curve. Science continues to move up the curve, for better or worse, incrementally, often and necessarily at the expense of older ideas or theory. But is able to demonstrate the realization of purpose with each move. That process is it’s great strength. Religion on the other hand does not move at all but remains fixed upon it’s own dogmatic foundations, and by the very self limiting nature of philosophy and theology, is unable to demonstrate directly anything of the God it proclaims. Priviledged access to understanding is the gift to those who search for and discover it. Science, for all it’s limitations, continues to push for more insight, with the built-in critical self scrutiny to accept error and change course. No such self correcting intellectual mechanism exists for religion. They have yet to to prove anything! We have only their apologetics.

  • paizlea

    “There is just reality and truth and a myriad of ways in which to relate to it.”

    But only one way allows us to make claims, test them, reject those that don’t work, and use proven ideas to predict future outcomes – science. If you believe you have another way of knowing that accomplishes what science does, please let me know.

  • Hugh Caley

    This sort of statement is exactly why “philosophy”, is dead. The author has all sorts of ideas about what is and isn’t science, just like any non-scientist, and especially like ” philosophy” buff. Meanwhile, energy equals mass times the speed of light, everywhere. Sheesh.

  • well, it’s a good work what you’re doing…
    in a way, you’re so wrong as him i guess it balances.

    Cosmos is a TV show. It purpose is to inform the masses – read, the average American – about complex laws of our universe.
    By complex I mean that most people – again, read, the average American – won’t understand in it’s most accurate therm. It would be great if we could graduate in Physics or Geology by watching the sow. But we really can’t, because TV shows are paid by producers, and producers don’t have infinite amounts of cash – even though people say things like that, that’s what they call an expression – and so the show can’t really explain every tiny detail. That’s usually how informative TV works. The rest should be done by the viewer.
    Had you watched more episodes and you’d be confronted with thousand other little unexplained detail, and you’d know what I’m talking about.

    But as I stated before (twice actually) you did your job. You did some research. Found out the truth about Giordano. Even some rotten stuff about Tyson.
    (Must say I find it creepy how he hopes humanity expands its living quarters to other planets, as a spreading virus.) And posted it on the internet.
    I just did my part

  • Amy Trembacz Smathers

    Thank you thank you thank you! This is what I have been trying to say! I shouldn’t blindly follow the bible (which I don’t) but I should blindly follow science because you said so. It’s all the little quips that irritate me, along with the roll of his eyes and the obvious smirk at the stupidity of Christians.

    • paizlea

      Science doesn’t say you should blindly follow science, unlike some faith systems out there. Science cannot prove or disprove any clam of faith, and when you act like scientists are trying to prove god doesn’t exist, you’re just showing how little you know about the scientific process.

  • paizlea

    Look at the cute little troll! *giggle*

  • paizlea

    Yep, with good ratings too. Fox was so convinced this is a great show, they produced all 13 episodes before airing a single one. It makes your little troll brain sooooo mad that a black astrophysicist is hosting a science show written by a woman, doesn’t it? *giggle*

  • paizlea

    Yes, he’s not only recognized as one of the best in his field, but he’s also a great public speaker. NDT is helping make science interesting and accessible to a whole new generation of Americans, like Carl Sagan before him. It’s no wonder Sagan tried to recruit him to do his undergraduate work at Cornell.

    But you’re losing steam with your troll schtick, sweetie. Time to get some better material, or move on to a board that may fall for your idiotic rantings. Or better yet, watch Cosmos tomorrow, and learn something.

  • paizlea

    *yawn* I told you, your faux outrage schtick is getting tired. Perhaps you should try wit, or even intelligent discourse? I understand it’s difficult to jump from grade school-style “humor” to something that adults can relate to, but I’m sure you can do it if you try.

  • paizlea

    It’s quite telling that you assume I agree with you but won’t admit it due to some political correctness. If you had a real argument to make, you’d have made it by now. You’re only proving that baseless inflammatory rhetoric is the best you’ve got. Your boring, unoriginal and childish ranting only serves to undermine whatever case you’re trying to make here.

    I’m off to hang out with the grownups now. Once you get over your little tantrum, feel free to take a nap.

  • Tim_Suttle

    I’ve enjoyed reading the comments, & wanted to add one thought that seems to have gotten lost in the critique. Many comment-ors seem to assume that I’m anti-science. I have a bachelor’s in Life Science/Biology. I’m not your typical evangelical young-earth creationist. I can hardly do anything in my life w/out interacting with some practical outcome of scientific research–air conditioning, alarm clocks, toothpaste, indoor plumbing, computer chips, wireless technology, food preservatives, internal combustion, allergy medicine, polymers in my shoes, petroleum in the plastics that make up my car and propel it… that’s just the tip of the iceberg from the first 15 minutes of my day.

    I’m not arguing science is a ruse. I’m simply pointing to the work of other scientists–like Einstein, Kuhn, Polanyi, et al–who have explored the dynamics of how we know what we know. This isn’t my original thought, nor is it dreamed up by young-earth-creationists. This comes from philosophy of science. Science has no privileged access to truth or knowledge. Reason is but one means of knowing. It is not even the most pervasive, most important, or most reliable means of knowing…even for Newton or Einstein, it was not the source of their breakthroughs (Einstein always credited intuition–his favorite means of knowing).

    So, take the Bruno Giordano example away, take my critique of NDT away (who I’m inclined to like, btw. His interview on NPR is why I recorded Cosmos in the 1st place), and we still need to understand the dynamics at work behind how we know what we know (or think we know… for now). What this should produce in us is a humility, not hubris, and certainly not a blind fundamentalism whether religious or scientific. Humility would produce in us the ability to respect the questions asked by other disciplines, and not to belittle them (as NDT did in the “Nerdist” interview).

    As Polanyi taught, all thought begins from a narrative framework (plausibility structure, paradigm, whatever you want to call it), and is embedded in that system. There is no escaping your system. The ability to acknowledge that narrative framework is important. To try and be fair when we embrace and extend our narrative to our kids is important. This critique is leveled at Christians constantly, and rightly so. I’m making the same critique of NDT, and I stand by it.

    To be humble about our own thinking is an essential aspect of any discipline, including theology, philosophy, and science. This post was a reaction to what I sensed was a lack of this essential humility in NDT’s Cosmos performance. The narrative in which we find ourselves is important. I don’t want to leave it to scientific fundamentalists any more than I want to leave it to the religious fundamentalists to shape and describe that narrative. Both are mistakes that will lead to ever more violence and pain.

  • Starbugger

    Religion says you should follow it blindly. That’s why there’s the threat of eternal punishment for not believing in deities that for some reason never provide proof of themselves despite how incessantly certain folks say they exist.

  • RyneBeddard

    Lmao… Who the hell is Bruno Giordano. Do you mean Giordano Bruno? Hard to be convincing when you get the person you are writing abouts name wrong buddy.