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.