Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new Constitution Fails Basic Epistemology

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A couple of weeks ago, celebrity astrophysicist, podcaster, and TV host Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed an entire system of global government in a single tweet: “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” This concept is admirable for its brevity… but not much else. While this particular hashtag hasn’t exactly gone viral (less than 400 posts so far), it has had a lot of reach (almost 800,000 viewers). It’s also generated a lot of discussion elsewhere, and US News, Slate, and Popular Science have all published op-eds attacking this popular scientist’s idea, and from several different angles.

Popular Science pointed out that science is merely an evolving tool. Slate’s Jeffrey Guhin lammed scientism, claiming that creationists are as scientifically adept as their evolutionist counterparts, and yet despite all this science they are still wrong. Robert F. Graboyes wrote for US News about several blood-soaked times that this “rational society” idea has been tried throughout history, and it’s a good read. We should never forget the “Temples of Reason” that presided over the French Reign of Terror, the sheer bodycount of “scientific socialism,” or the creeping horror of eugenic engineering.

But none of these articles criticizing the idea of science as a holy and pure ideal are complete. It is obvious that definitions of science change, and that imperfect human scientists will have flaws and foibles. It is even obvious that facts are not self-evident and statistics do not speak for themselves. Facts do not judge; they are judged. All evidence must be interpreted. All interpreters will have a lens through which they view the raw data; a worldview that shapes their conclusions.

Tyson, of course, has his own lens. As an astrophysicist, he is literally focused on the stars. However, he comments on other fields of science often, although usually about science in general, and sometimes religion. He has claimed that “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance,” and that “the stated authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” But who gets to define reason? According to Tyson’s worldview, it is pure science – hard facts and blind truths – that will somehow fully define reason and rationality, as well as morality and ethics.

Now, astrophysics is a pretty heady discipline. I am not criticizing Tyson’s brains in this post, merely his lens. His worldview is that science bestows reason regardless of worldview. He presupposes that scientific understanding is not dependent on presuppositions. As Christians, we understand that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and that we must start with that presupposition in seeking knowledge and understanding. This is why theology has historically been referred to as the “Queen of the Sciences.”

Without a transcendent standard informing your presuppositions, you’ll never know whether to a priori or a posteriori your own arguments, and the next thing you know you find yourself assuming that super-intelligent aliens are inflicting Donald Trump on us for their own amusement. Evidently this is the most rational conclusion.

For those wanting to read more about Christian Epistemology, I suggest The Word of Flux by R.J. Rushdoony. It’s a short book that explains the problem of knowledge in science, philosophy, and theology very well.

  1. Hello, Isaac and Heidi,

    I agree that science and scientists are fallible, and I also agree that there are major problems with scientism (it’s self-refuting, for starters), but I think it’s *generally* a good epistemic practice to proportion many of one’s beliefs to the strength of the evidence presented. I also think that that view is consistent with Christianity. Some people are Christian because they believe that reason and evidence indicate that it is, and while I’m not a Christian, I think that the strongest arguments for Christianity tend to be evidentialist.

    You seem to favor a presuppositionalist approach rather than an evidentialist one. As with scientism, though, I think that there are serious flaws with Christian presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalists tend to deny autonomy and insist that the Bible, through which everything must be interpreted, is the only true foundation for knowledge. But if God’s knowledge far surpasses human knowledge — especially His knowledge of morality and the entailment relationships between various goods and evils — and if humans are too depraved to ascertain morality autonomously, then how can one say that God could not have morally sufficient reasons to lie or to allow us to be deceived when it comes to Scripture? For example, perhaps God had morally sufficient reasons to lie or to allow the human authors of the Bible to be deceived, at least about some things. If that was the case, then the Bible wouldn’t provide a secure, infallible epistemic foundation. And if people are depraved and incredibly limited when compared to a perfect, infallible God, which presuppositionalists insist is true, then we would have no grounds to say what a morally perfect God could and couldn’t do, and thus, we wouldn’t be able to rule out God’s using deception for some greater good. (I think there are additional issues with presuppositionalism, and there are other well-known problems with grounding logic, ethics, and whatnot in God that are discussed in the philosophical literature, but that’s besides the point.)

    Anyway, if some sort of foundationalism is the correct way to approach epistemology — and I’m not sure that it is, though it may be — then it seems that truly basic beliefs would be fallible. Basic beliefs, however, tend to be beliefs like, “I exist” and “The external world exists” rather than entire worldviews. As far as I can tell, the entirety of the numerous views in a worldview tend not to be accepted as basic by most epistemologists. It’s true that people tend to interpret evidence based on their personal biases and past experiences, but I don’t think that that necessarily means that people from various backgrounds can’t come to the same conclusions via reason and evidence. After all, beliefs can be revised.

    – JB

    - JB
    1. Dear JB,

      You have correctly assumed that I am a self-described presuppositionalist, and you raise a good question. If man is fallen and finite, and God is perfect and infinite, how do we know that God’s Word is truthful and not just manipulative pragmatism, and by what standard could we even question manipulative pragmatism had it occurred? But the answer is simple: God actually gives us that standard. The Bible isn’t just a list of genealogies and commands, it is God revealing Himself to us, and one of His primary attributes is that He is Truth. This is reiterated in many passages, and discussed at length in lots of books on the Attributes of God, by the way. It’s a great study.

      But wait, if God Himself is the standard, can’t he just change the rules, like any despot who alters laws on a whim? No, since another foundational attribute of God is His Immutability. Berkhof describes God’s immutability as “that perfection of God by which He does not change in His being, perfections, purposes, or promises.” This, like all those aspects of His nature that He has revealed to us in scripture, is a fundamental part of Him and His creation. And the verses that reveal this, like all of scripture, are totally necessary and required for Scripture to be true and complete.

      The Bible, like God, is either all good and true, or all bad and false. It’s like a mathematical equation; it can only work in its entirety. It’s not possible for most of it to be true, just not those verses where God describes Himself as truthful. And if the verses describing God as Truth are true, then the other verses must be true also.

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