Neil deGrasse Tyson is a world renowned astrophysicist and, in my opinion, the leading science popularizer in the world today. I greatly respect Tyson as a scientist, but he is not a good philosopher and a much worse theologian! In fact, Tyson’s philosophy is that philosophy is “useless” and that it “can really mess you up.” Be that as it may, Tyson seems to spend much of his time these days stepping out of his field of expertise — science — and stepping into philosophical issues; an area in which he has not been trained.
The problem is this: since Tyson is so popular many people merely assume that since Tyson is a smart scientist, then he must know what he is talking about when it comes to philosophy and theology. I believe Tyson is an awesome scientist, but based on his responses to philosophical and theological questions, it is clear that he needs to stick to his day job!
I do appreciate the fact that Tyson is adamant that he does not affirm atheism. If I had to guess I would describe him as a skeptical agnostic who leans toward atheism. One thing seems certain: he does not believe in the God of the Bible. However, his views are based on ignorance in both philosophy and theology. For example, in a recent interview, Tyson demonstrated his lack of philosophical prowess when he was interviewed by Chelsea on Netflix (click here).
Consider Tyson’s claims through the rest of this article. I will interject my thoughts explaining the errors Tyson commits along the way. The relevant segment of the interview started with a question from the host.
Science vs God?
Chelsea: “As a scientist, do you believe in God?”
Tyson: “In the west, two thirds of scientists pray to a personal God — on the expectation that it will intervene in their day’s affairs. But I can tell you this, productive scientists do not bring their Bible, their scripture, their holy books into the lab because they do not mix there. So they draw a line in the sand and they do one in one place and then they worship on the weekend (Saturday or Sunday — whatever your religious tradition) there. So, to ask whether they can coexist; the answer is empirically, yes!”
Tim Stratton: I am glad that Tyson noted that the majority of scientists in the western world (two thirds of all scientists) believe in God. Moreover, he affirms that this majority of scientists actually engage in an active prayer life communicating with God on a regular basis. This is opposed to the slogan commonly asserted across the internet that “science has disproved the existence of God!” On the contrary, many scientists — the majority of scientists according to Tyson — have found no scientific reason to think God does not exist. I appreciate Tyson making this point.
However, his next comments are irrelevant as he communicates that “productive scientists” do not bring their theistic beliefs into the science lab. This is just as irrelevant as stating “a good plumber — even if he is a Christian — suspends his belief in God while working on the pipes under the kitchen sink!”
What Tyson is referring to is not that a productive scientist must hold the belief that “atheism is true,” when he or she is working in the lab. Tyson is referring to what is called methodological naturalism. This simply means that when one is engaged in the scientific method (studying nature), one does not look for things other than nature (i.e., supernatural) while studying nature. This does not mean that the scientist “draws a line in the sand” or suspends belief in God any more than a plumber has to when he is doing his job. It simply means that science is the study of nature, and thus, a scientist only studies nature.
In fact, a scientist who believes that God created all nature merely goes into the lab to study the stuff God created and to see how it works. It is not the big deal Tyson implies. Moreover, what would be wrong with a scientist praying while trying to find natural explanations? Why could a scientist not pray in the lab and ask God to help her think correctly about the scientific data, or to help her empirically discover an explanation to a current scientific mystery?
Can Science Discover God?
Now, if God created all nature (I have argued that scientific data *points* toward this view), then it logically follows that God is a being who could not logically be tested or discovered in the science lab. Think about it: whatever caused all nature to begin existing cannot itself be nature. Unless one wants to affirm logically incoherent statements like “nature existed before all nature existed.”
With this in mind, the “Ph.D.” behind the names of scientists gives them no special expertise or special authority to speak about the existence or non-existence of things “other than nature” (like God). You might as well ask a plumber what they think! Tyson makes his lack of philosophical expertise clear after the following question.
Chelsea: “I didn’t ask that, I asked do you believe in God?”
Tyson: “Every description of God that I have heard, holds God to be all-powerful (very typical) and all-good.”
Stratton: While I do believe that God is all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-good or all-loving (omnibenevolent), not all descriptions of God must affirm the possession of these attributes. Consider the rational inferences derived from the deductive conclusion of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The cause of the universe must be:
- eternal (without beginning)
- enormously powerful
- a volitional mind
This is what we mean by “God.” Notice that the the words “all-powerful” and “all-good” are not found in this list. So, Tyson could simply hold to these attributes (which are rationally inferred after thinking logically about scientific data).
Be that as it may, however, although cosmological arguments like the Kalam do not get us to omnipotence or omnibenevolence, we have good reason to think that the cause and creator of the universe is all-powerful, all good, and perfectly loving to all people. One might appeal to the Ontological Argument, which if it passes, then it deductively proves that a perfect and maximally great being exists. This maximally great being would possess all “great making properties” in such a way that this being cannot be improved.
If one is not persuaded by the Ontological Argument one can simply go to the Bible to see what it says about God’s properties. This is not circular reasoning because we have good reason to trust the Bible based on the historical resurrection of Jesus. Since God seems to be the best explanation of the historical resurrection of Jesus, this seems to be divine validation of everything Jesus said, taught, commanded, and exemplified. Thus, based on the teachings of Jesus, we have historical reason to think God is a maximally great being.
Tyson, however, seems to think that the existence of evil provides evidence that God is not good — at least, not all-good or maximally great. To make his case, he delves into the waters of theological philosophy in which he has no training. Specifically, Tyson gets into what is known as perfect being theology to make his philosophical case as to why he doubts the existence of God.
Tyson: “And then I look around and I see a tsunami that killed a quarter million people in Indonesia — an earthquake that killed a quarter million people in Haiti. And I see earthquakes, tornadoes, and disease, childhood leukemia. And I see all of this and I say I do not see evidence of both of those being true simultaneously!
If there is a God, the God is either not all-powerful, or not all good. It can’t be both!”
*The crowd applauds!*
Chelsea: “Mmmmmmm… good answer! It’s my question of the year!”
Stratton: Sorry, Chelsea, but this is not a good answer at all! I wrote an entire essay entitled, “Lex Luthor’s Lousy Logic” in which I demonstrate that a perfectly good and all-loving God would create a world in which pain, evil, and suffering are allowed. I cannot help but wonder if Tyson influenced the script of the Batman v Superman movie as Lex Luthor makes an almost identical statement to that of Tyson’s (Tyson made a cameo appearance in this superhero movie)!
Now, to be fair, in the movie Lex Luthor implied that an omnipotent God would be morally evil for causing or allowing humans to be morally evil. This, in turn, would lead to the kinds of suffering Lex Luthor suffered at the hands of his abusive father as a child. This is an easy objection to deflate. Tyson, however, seems to only appeal to what philosophers describe as “natural evil.” This refers to the kind of pain and suffering caused by natural processes as opposed to evil and morally guilty human minds (which on a naturalistic worldview all is caused by deterministic natural forces including the brain structures of Lex Luthor’s abusive father).
This natural evil objection requires a more nuanced approach, but it is still, nevertheless, easily refuted (see here and here). Why would a perfectly good, loving, and all-powerful God allow natural evil leading to pain and suffering of humans and other living creatures? It comes down to this: true love and free will.
A Divine Perspective
First, when appealing to natural evil, one inadvertently assumes heaven exists — a perfect state of affairs — which grounds the objective standard of the way things ought to be! Second, when asking why God would create a world suffused with all kinds of evil — including what seems to be natural evil — perhaps we need to consider things from a divine perspective as the Apostle Paul did. Paul explains why a world full of suffering is actually a good thing as these “light momentary afflictions prepare us for eternity” (2 Corinthians 4:17). That is basically a nice way of saying, “no pain, no gain!”
Consider this: perhaps God created and allows a world suffused with evil, pain, and suffering to secure the eternal election of the saints without violating human libertarian free will. God does not want to violate human freedom because He desires a true love relationship with each and every human being (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27; John 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9) so that true love with God — the greatest good a human can experience — can be attained into the infinite future.
It is vital to note the philosophical difference between could, would, and will. With this is mind, consider C.S. Lewis’ famous quote: “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.” If that is true, then could it also be said that, “the gates of heaven are locked from the inside?” That is to say, could (is it logically possible) for a person in heaven to freely choose to sin, blaspheme the Holy Spirit, and freely leave to go to hell (even if they never would or will)?
Perhaps, yes, but the question is raised: Even if one could freely choose to leave heaven, why would they want to? That would be an important question to ask. Those in heaven would have experienced the imperfection of our world filled with evil, pain, and suffering. Moreover, they would be in an epistemic position to know that hell was even worse in the absence of God and all that is good.
On top of that, those in heaven would be experiencing a personal relationship with the Maximally Great Being who lavishes them with perfect love and meets every single need with perfection. Heaven is a state of affairs in which there is absolutely zero suffering (gratuitous or otherwise)! Why would a saint in heaven, knowingly — and freely — choose to leave this ultimate paradise and perfect love for the imperfection and horror of hell? They would possess the “knowledge of good and evil” and have personally experienced it through pain, evil, and suffering. They would even be aware of the fact that gratuitous evil and suffering exists on earth. Why would anyone leave a state of affairs which is free from all of this evil and suffering when they have already experienced a world that is suffused with it? Moreover, why would anyone freely choose to leave perfection for a world that is far worse (hell) than the world they have already experienced?
Perhaps allowing humans to attain this “knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17) is how God can guarantee free creatures will persevere into the infinite future! After all, according to the Bible, Satan, a third of all the angels, Adam, and Eve all took suffering-free worlds for granted; since you and I possess the knowledge of good, evil, and suffering, we will not. Therefore, it is “very good” (Genesis 1:31) that God created this imperfect and suffering-filled world that we are currently experiencing. It therefore follows that natural evil — and even what appears to be gratuitous suffering from our perspective — actually serves an eternal purpose!
Consider the words of Paul Draper, a well-known atheist philosopher:
“Logical arguments from evil are a dying (dead?) breed. . . . even an omnipotent and omniscient being might be forced to allow E[vil] for the sake of obtaining some important good.”
I contend that at least one of these “important goods” is that this temporary suffering-filled world allows humans the ability to freely love for eternity and teaches us not to take a perfect state of affairs for granted. With this in mind, it is easy to answer the following question:
Why did God call this world, “very good?”
Because He knew it would lead to an “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). God has eternity in mind; we ought to as well. Consider the following argument:
1- God desires a genuine & true love relationship with all people for eternity.
2- Genuine & true love between two persons requires libertarian freedom (LFW) to be possessed by both persons.
3- Therefore, God creates humanity with LFW.
4- Created beings who possess LFW take “perfect states of affairs” for granted and freely choose to leave or ruin perfect states of affairs (i.e., Adam, Eve, Satan, & a third of all the angels).
5- With (4) in mind, God creates a world where libertarian free humans can experience evil in limited amounts so that they will not take the perfect state of heavenly affairs for granted and freely leave or ruin it for eternity (1 Corinthians 4:17).
6- Therefore, God creating a world where free creatures can learn from our evil mistakes and natural suffering is good! (This is a gift from God!)
With God’s eternal intent in mind, it is easy to see that God is not a morally guilty mind. Mens rea does not apply to God if Molinism is true! This is a knockdown argument against Tyson’s assertion that if God is all-powerful, then He cannot be all-good (or all loving). In fact, when we keep eternity in mind, we see that this world suffused with suffering is the most loving kind of world God could have created!
Tyson seems to be completely unaware of the work philosophers have done in this field which leads to his ignorant claims. The philosopher, Peter van Inwagen made it clear:
“It used to be widely held that evil was incompatible with the existence of God: that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able to tell, this thesis is no longer defended.”
Tyson must not have received the memo.
Tyson: “So if you have good evidence I’m good for it. But I’m evidence driven more than I am faith driven.”
Chelsea: “Yeah, it’s good to know.”
Stratton: Hold on a second, Dr. Tyson! What do you mean by evidence? Since you just appealed to a philosophical argument in an attempt to justify your agnosticism (or at least your rejection of God as a maximally great being), I assume you were hoping that this would count as a form of evidence. With that in mind, there is plenty of logical evidence for the existence of the God. These arguments include, but are not limited to, the following hyperlinks:
The Kalam Cosmological Argument
The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument
The Moral Argument
The Teleological Argument
The Ontological Argument
The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism
The Freethinking Argument Against Naturalism
The Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus
So, if logical conclusions counts as evidence, then the evidence for Christian theism is overwhelming! In fact, as Frank Turek is famous for saying, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” Christianity is a reasonable faith, atheism is nothing but a blind faith. With the cumulative case of arguments in mind, why even be an agnostic? At the very least, it would be much more reasonable to be an agnostic who leans toward Christian theism!
Tyson: “By the way, to be faith driven is one thing, but to be faith driven and try to create legislation on that — that effects other people who don’t share your faith — that’s the beginnings of a theocracy. And we have evidence of what that is in the past and our founding fathers specifically founded this country to prevent that from happening.”
Stratton: Dr. Tyson, everyone is “faith driven” to some degree. As noted above, it does not require much faith to be a Christian because of all the logical arguments and evidence pointing to its probable truth. Atheists, on the other hand, hold to a blind faith, and you hold a faith that if God is omnipotent, then God cannot be omnibenevolent because of the suffering in the world. I have provided good reason to reject your faith.
With that said, I agree with you that our founding fathers did not want a theocracy. I do not want a theocracy either. However, contrary to popular opinion, our founding fathers did seem to have Christian theism in mind when they founded the United States of America (read their own words from that particular time: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and Adams).
Tyson is hard not to like. As noted above, I do respect him as a scientist and I have watched some of his science lectures with my son. I have told my son that Tyson is a great scientist who we can learn science from, but be careful to watch when he steps out of his field (science) and into areas in which he is completely ignorant.
Tyson has been asked to debate his philosophical claims with professional philosophers. He seems to have accepted and then backed away from a debate with Dr. William Lane Craig which was supposed to take place in Oklahoma City. One wonders if Tyson is so confident in his claims he espouses on late night talk shows and interviews, then why will he not have discussions with fellow academics who have specialized training in these philosophical issues?
Bottom line: Tyson is a good scientist but a poor philosopher. He should stick to his day job.
Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),