Cosmos Cage Match! Neil deGrasse Tyson vs. God, Nietzsche & Stephen Hawking

unnamed-26God may be relieved to learn that soon He will be receiving some fairly mustachioed company—his former antagonist, yet a first-rate conversationalist—the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

As you may know, Nietzsche pronounced God dead in 1882 with the publication of The Gay Science.  (Lower your quills, Arizona legislators.  It’s got nothing to do with same sex marriage.)

Just several years ago, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking one-upped Nietzsche and declared philosophy dead, given his opinion that the field has “not kept up with modern developments in science.  Particularly physics.”

If this means that Nietzsche and God can now stretch their toes and enjoy a relaxing game of Grobhäusern and drink Doornkat Schnaps, then death clearly has its benefits.

Get to work, physicists.  Your fearless Cambridge don just declared you the new world-bearing turtles!

I’m not going to spend a lot of time refuting Hawking.  If you’d like to read a comprehensible academic rebuttal to his claim, sneak a peek at this paper by Dino Jakušić, a philosophy graduate student at the University of Warwick.

(Hey, Dino, your paper was just read by someone in Columbia, South Carolina, and shared with the entire world!  Philosophy might be dead, but at least the Interweb is a well-oiled machine.)

Anyway, Jakušić raises a question toward the end of his paper, Stephen Hawking and the Death of Philosophy, that I find extremely relevant to contemporary American global politics:

“The main question we should be asking ourselves, is why has Hawking’s criticism, so flawed and unsubstantiated as it is, been so resonant at all?”

Phew! 

I’ve just referenced Nietzsche, theoretical physics, the Münchhausen trilemma and a German schnapps brand all within the first 300 words of this essay.

You deserve an intermission.

Now, back to the Science v. Philosophy v. Metaphysics Cage Match.

Without getting too technical, Stephen Hawking seems to think that anything worth knowing—rather, anything that can be known—owes royal tribute to King Physics.  I think the Earl of Epistemology and Kant the Jester might disagree, but again I defer to Jakušić if you want to understand why a good many philosophers object to this theory.

I’m interested in a different tack, one a cat memer such as myself is more likely to understand.

If you’ve been an ardent follower of progressive social media these past several months, you’d certainly think that Science just leaped off the turnbuckle and delivered a nuclear flying clothesline to all non-empirical methods of knowing.

The Ham on Nye Battle for Causality & Reality settled that for once and all.  Right?

Creationism is pure hokum as a cosmological theory.  Ergo, Science has all the answers.  (Dang, not even a complete false syllogism.)

Now all one has to do is insert two quarters into the Observation and Replication Mold-a-Rama, and—Voila!—Truth emerges.

Um, you might want to rethink that.

Believe it or not, science has its limits.  If you doubt me, I suggest you submit a grant to the National Science Foundation with the following introduction and see how much funding you receive:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty happy that the Founding Fathers didn’t wait to see the results of the seven-year democracy pragmatic trials before going forward with the Declaration of Independence.  Then again, maybe some junior researcher would have let Mr. Jefferson’s slaves free in order to test the limits of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ clause, and the world would be a vastly better place.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not bashing science.  As Omar Khayyam once declared, “A loaf of bread, a Bunsen burner, and thou.”

But in a mad dash to maintain chasmic separation from Tea Party absurdity, many progressives seem to have forgotten that the scientific method is merely a method for reliably verifying knowledge.

Science could give a flip about normative “thingies.”  (I would have said “truths,” but then someone somewhere would be up my backside.)

Confused?  Here’s the difference:  science can reliably predict what will happen if you eat vegetables on a regular basis, but science doesn’t give a flip whether or not you ingest them.

Thankfully, our parents determined there was idealistic goodness in peas and carrots showing up on our dinner plates.  According to Stephen Hawking, they were idiots.  My six-year-old daughter might agree.

Again, another break is in order.  Another 400 words and you had to look up “epistemology.”  And while doing so you may have accidentally stumbled upon one of the works of Immanuel Kant.  My sincerest apologies.

As your reward, here’s the 2012 Junior Women’s Bikini Fitness World Championship from Budapest.

For everyone else, here’s the “How It’s Made” hot dog video.

To reiterate:  I’m no basher of science.  In fact, I’m one of many millions enjoying the new Cosmos series with Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

First, I learn something about science every week.  This past week, I was reminded about the principles of spectroscopy—which, as a single parent, somehow had slipped my mind after so many readings of Elephant & Piggie and ballet rehearsals up the wazoo.  Less scientifically, I learned about the anti-intellectual ruthlessness of the Chinese Qin Dynasty.  And I had no idea the camera obscura debuted independently in several different ancient cultures.

Second, at the end of each episode of Cosmos, I find it satisfying to know that I’m part of a national community of learning.  A lot of snide attention has been paid to the fact that the show is airing on the conservative Fox Network.  (Yeah, so conservative that it brought us Glee and Family Guy.)  If Cosmos were buried on PBS, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.  As it is, science for the masses, with the appropriate amount of CGI imagination spaceship clips, sells.

But I am concerned about a certain element of the current national conversion to science.

In a matter of months, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s career has exploded from the level of esoteric household name to Tom Hanks superstardom.

And you can’t go a single day without seeing some meme with Bill Nye and Tyson joined at the scientific hip.  It’s just a matter of time before they start gallivanting about New York City in bowler hats like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.

Again, no complaints.  This orthodox Christian is grateful for anything to take us one step closer to the Age of Rodenberry.  I consider Tyson and Nye heroes.  I hold both of them as role models for my young daughter.

But I have one rather major concern:  science is not a values font.

Every episode of Cosmos is loaded with general utilitarianism messages.  For instance, in the most recent episode, we learned that future King Maximilian of Bavaria rescued Joseph von Franhofer from his glassmaking taskmaster, the result of which was the education of the former rock-shoveling laborer, who eventually discovered the science of spectroscopy.

Unless I missed something in my educational training, the scientific method has absolutely nothing to do with egalitarianism, adherence to the Golden Rule, etc., et al.

This is not to say that science and the U.S. Constitution cannot live in harmony.

They can!

But science can be a bedfellow with any political philosophy.  Just ask the human lab rats in the Auschwitz experiments of Eduard Wirths.  Or, if you haven’t the stomach to Google that last sentence, let’s settle on German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, who used the same scientific method as Peter Higgs.

Science is dispassionately interested in telling us whether a phenomenon can be reliably declared as knowledge, for lack of a better term, through repeatable observation and measurement.

Science doesn’t care whether a discovery is made in Paula Deen’s experimental kitchen or a National Institutes of Health-funded pragmatic clinical trial for erectile dysfunction.

Scientific inquiry applies equally to questions such as “how old is the universe?” or “how does a human being fare while submerged within a tank of ice water for five hours?”

But the values Neil deGrasse Tyson imparts throughout each episode derive from beyond Stephen Hawking’s particle physics playground.

From whence do they derive?  Where are they coming from?

Nature?

You mean the violent universe of quasars and black holes, the survival-of-the-fittest animal kingdom with its harems and ram horn-butting, all of which put CPAC to shame?

I don’t think so.

As the Apostle Paul once suggested:  Let us think on these things.  (Note the word “think,” versus the Hawkingsean desire that we throw everything into a particle collider.)

I put a lot of thought into this essay, and I earnestly welcome the correction of philosophers and theologians and scientists—professional or amateur—everywhere.  This essay isn’t intended to be anything other than a conversation-starter.

Correct me where I’m wrong.  Have at “it.”

We’re some 238 years into this political experiment known as the United States of America.  We haggle over democratic values every day which, oddly, as a nation, we have never bothered to define.

Maybe that’s the whole point.  Maybe we just figure out some of this stuff as we go along.

At any rate, if God and Nietzsche are indeed playing cards in the void, while Science and Physics dictate all current and future human knowing, then I’m very curious to see what becomes of this glorious human experiment.

But of course I have presented a false proposition.  Everybody knows that God prefers Boggle.

 

 

Note:  This essay was composed while listening to Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” as performed by the University of California-Davis Symphony Orchestra, the University Chorus and Alumni Chorus, and the Pacific Boychoir.  Damned fine; I recommend you give it a listen.

Arik Bjorn

Arik Bjorn lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate for U.S. Congress in the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina. Visit the archive for Arik’s campaign website, and check out his latest book, So I Ran for Congress. You can also follow his political activities on Twitter @Bjorn2RunSC and on Facebook. And be sure to check out more from Arik in his archives!

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  • Pipercat

    Oh heck, I think even scientists are allowed to voice an opinion. Heck, I’d much rather watch Cosmos than listen to one of John Hagee’s apocalyptic rants. The expense incurred when ingesting antacids would probably break me. Besides:

    “… there’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ‘ya ’bout the raising of the wrist!”

    • Arik Bjorn

      There you go again, Piper, standing on the shoulders of the San Francisco Giants.

      • Pipercat

        You know, when you take into consideration the sequence you mentioned and the part how Newton missed the connection, it reminded me of James Burke and… Connections!

      • Arik Bjorn

        “We’re on the edge of a revolution in communications technology that is going to make that more possible than ever before. Or if that’s done, to leave an explosion of knowledge with those of us who don’t have access to it as powerless as if we were deaf, dumb and blind. … Within yourself, recognize the ability to understand anything. … And then go and ask for explanations. … Then ask yourself if there’s anything in your life you want changed. That’s where to start.” –James Burke, final words of “Connections”

        Gave it the old try, James, gave it the old try.

  • Arik Bjorn

    Also, there’s this guy out
    in Facebooklandia name George Shiber. I highly recommend you follow
    him. If you do, you’ll get a most amazing daily macaroni salad of all
    things science, religion, philosophy and politics in your newsfeed.

    I would have included this tribute to him in the original post, but I wanted his permission first, which I just received. He’s going to help guide me through “Cage Match II: In Search of the Quantum Value.”

  • SeekingWisdom

    Excellent article! And I love the witty writing style. I completely agree that Stephen Hawking got it wrong. Philosophy is still relevant, for the very reason Arik Bjorn states. Science, as important and awesome as it is, does not, and cannot, address normative issues. There is no way to get to what we ‘ought’ to do, with science. What is right and what is wrong, in the area of human values, cannot be addressed by science.

    Science matters. And Philosophy matters! Sadly, most modern ‘philosophy’ is screwed up. Descarte started the disaster by separating reason from the senses; Spinoza & Liebniz rejected that senses contribute to knowledge; Locke & Hume denied reason and believed all knowledge was due to the senses; Kant, who attempted a synthesis of both, ended up believing that existence cannot be known in itself. Nietzsche’s “will to power” as the ruling principle of all life, and his idea that life on earth has an absolute value is only one absurd ‘conclusion” that stems from the forgoing philosophies. They all took philosophy on a roller coaster ride to never-never land.

    It is no wonder philosophy has been dismissed by so many. Aristotle, on the other hand, considered my many to the the greatest mind the world has ever known, should be our starting point. He didn’t get everything right but he put us on the right path. I encourage everyone to read “Little Errors In The Beginning” by Mortimer J. Adler. If you are interested in becoming grounded in reality, this is a great starting point. Read Aristotle’s Children, by Richard E. Rubenstein to learn about Aristotle’s contribution and influence.

  • Matthew Reece

    Logic is a non-empirical, a priori way of gaining knowledge, which Hawking seems to deny. The problem with such a denial is that the scientific method is dependent upon the use of logic at every step, and that which is dependent cannot supersede that upon which it is dependent. Thus, sound logic overrules observation.

    Also note that some ideas are not subject to scientific investigation. For example, a person who tries to prove the Law of Cosines by empirically observing triangles is not being more scientific than other people. He is demonstrating confusion by using an a posteriori approach in mathematics, an a priori discipline.

    • Arik Bjorn

      Matthew, you’re hired as a values consultant!

  • Shymal Sagar Kumar

    Neil deGrasse Tyso is my idol

  • Sagar Kumar

    NDGT is full of crap