A plastic feast, part 1

On a recent Sunday evening I tuned in to watch the Fox and National Geographic Channel’s presentation of Cosmos.  While I am a generation too late to have been around for Carl Sagan’s original series by the same title, I had been looking forward to this one for quite a while.  The various promos over the past several weeks have featured both stunning cinematography and breathtaking computer animation of the parts of the cosmos where cameras can’t yet reach.

Neil Tyson-DeGrasse is a compelling host.  His simple, straightforward storytelling approach combined with good editing made for a compelling presentation.  His personal reflections on Sagan, who was his mentor for many years in life and in academics, at the end of the episode was deeply touching.  It is good to see the fruit that can eventually come from a single mentoring relationship.  By the end, the whole thing came off like a great feast…actually that’s not quite right.  It came off more like a great plastic feast.  Here’s why:

Going in I knew enough about Carl Sagan and the original series which ran on the oft-repeated refrain, “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be,” that I was prepared for this remake to be just as utterly atheistic in its worldview assumptions.  Indeed, when you combine Tyson-DeGrasse, an atheist, with Seth MacFarlane, an atheist whose television credits include Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show, none of which are particularly warm and fuzzy toward Christianity, there really wasn’t much more to be expected.  In this I was not disappointed.

On the other hand, from both a scientific and a historical perspective, I was thoroughly disappointed as Tyson-DeGrasse offered gross distortions of history and one long since answered scientific argument after another.  Now, for the uninformed viewer this all had to sound terribly compelling—What an evil institution the church was in the Middle Ages!  Glad science saved us from that and tells us how everything works—but with a bit more light shed on things, the glamor of the meal fades and we find it to be a merely artistic, plastic feast.  Allow me to elaborate.

After repeating Sagan’s refrain to start the show, Tyson-DeGrasse put his scientism on display and made an open appeal to empiricism as the only sure way to know anything about the universe.  This position is not only untrue—there are several other legitimate ways of knowing that do not require empiricism—but self-defeating as empiricism as valid way of coming to knowledge can only be proved non-empirically.  Not only that, but the Darwinian worldview propounded by Tyson-DeGrasse is itself founded squarely on a non-empirical form of scientific reasoning common among the historical sciences called “inference to the best explanation.”  This was bad enough in and of itself.  But, as if to demonstrate the emptiness of the worldview, Tyson-DeGrasse had to leave the empiricism compound each time he offered as factual (or simply possibly factual) a theory regarding the origin of both life generally and species specifically in order to advance the arguments of the show.  This happened on three separate occasions.

The first came near the beginning when Tyson-DeGrasse mentioned the multiverse theory which suggests that our universe is merely one in an infinite “sea” of universes which all exist side-by-side but without any apparent points of contact.  It was tossed out to viewers casually as if it was no big deal.  But there was no mention of the fact that it not only has no way of being verified empirically, but is a fairly naked attempt to multiply cosmic resources to a sufficient degree to make chance an intellectually valid explanation for the origin of the universe and everything in it.

The second problem came after Tyson-DeGrasse admitted that scientists cannot say with certainty how life on earth actually got started.  While the honesty was nice, the theory he floated as a possibility was a minority report called panspermia which is the notion that ancient aliens came and planted the first single-celled organisms here long, long ago, such that things could proceed along Darwinian lines from that point forward.  It comes out of a commitment to an anti-theistic explanation for the origins of life so strong that ancient aliens are thought more probable.  That’s fine, if silly, to believe, but be honest that it is a worldview commitment, not an empirically-rooted scientific one.  Furthermore, how did those aliens originate?  Darwinistically?  By chance?  The universe isn’t old enough for that to have happened fast enough for them to have achieved a level of technological ability light years beyond where we are now, leave their planet in a timely enough fashion, and arrive here in order to give our planet a jump start several hundreds of millions of years ago.  It’s the atheist’s version of intelligent design.

Problem number three: even if something like panspermia happened to be correct, there is no empirical evidence absent badly circular reasoning that the macroevolutionary pathway Darwin prescribed to transform single-celled organisms into something more complex did or even could happen.  As modern geneticists have come to better understand the nature of DNA and the information it contains, Darwinian macroevolution is falling on harder and harder times.  There have even been a few calls from formerly committed neo-Darwinists to shuck the whole theory and come up with something else that better accounts for the empirical observations being made today.

It’s too bad the creators of Cosmos decided the viewers were not worthy of the whole truth in these matters, settling instead for long-since debunked or fringe views the likes of which still haunt some high school and college biology textbooks.  They could have had a series that was both gripping and true.  Their worldview commitments, however, seem to be keeping that from happening.  So again, the plastic is pretty, but it doesn’t satisfy.  In part two I’ll shift from science to focus more on the historical problems.

Jonathan Waits

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Jonathan is the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Church Road, VA. He's the husband of one beautiful woman and the father of three active boys. A graduate of Denver Seminary, he loves connecting the dots between the Christian worldview and culture.

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  • Matthew Johnson

    This is embarrassing. I had hoped the moderate Baptists of ABP would be spared being lumped in with the pseudo-scientists and Flat Earth Society, but, alas, that does not appear to be the case.

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a PhD in astrophysics. A local pastor taking him to task on matters of science reminds me of the arguments my 2 year old tries to engage me in: cute sometimes, sure, but not to be taken seriously.

    But we really need to read no further than the fact that the author repeatedly refers to Dr. Tyson as “Tyson-DeGrasse.” So, so much fail.

    • Jonathan Waits

      Matthew, thanks for the name correction. I can’t believe I missed that! I’ll make sure the subsequent two parts of this series reflect that.

      On the rest of your comments, I’d love to hear more substantive feedback (for example, thoughts that go beyond suggesting I’m a member of the Flat-Earth Society) from you on exactly which of my scientific criticisms of Dr. Tyson’s presentation fit within the category of “pseudo-science.” Dr. Tyson’s PhD in astrophysics certainly makes him smarter than me when it comes to astrophysics, but it doesn’t necessarily make him more correct on all these matters. If you’re interested I can point you to some folks with PhDs of their own who offer similar scientific criticisms as I do. That said, where did I cross the line into pseudo-science? Was it my criticism that scientism (or hard empiricism), the likes of which Dr. Tyson promoted right out of the gate, is self-defeating? Was it my suggestion that M Theory, which as a point of fact has no empirical evidence meaning that at least according to the parameters for knowledge set out by Dr. Tyson in the beginning we can’t actually know anything about it, may fall more in line with the “pseudo-science” you mention? Was it my pointing out that Panspermia, another non-empirical theory, comes off sounding pretty silly when you think about it? Or perhaps it was my suggestion that the structure supporting Darwin’s inherently non-empirical macroevolutionary pathway to the origin of species is crumbling as scientists construct with more detail the picture of when and how ancient species arose and learn more and more about just how complex life really is? I’d value your insight here.

      Thanks again for your feedback, Matthew. I hope you’ll engage more fully with me in the second and third parts of this series…that is, if you can stand the ramblings of a pseudo-scientific flat-earther. Blessings on you as you prepare to celebrate Resurrection Sunday.

  • George Gantz

    Jonathan – Great article! The boundaries between empirical science and speculative metaphysics have been so thoroughly and subtly blurred in the past fifty years that it is quite difficult sometimes to separate the two, something which you have done nicely in your article. I find it interesting, however, that at the very frontiers of scientific inquiry, particularly in quantum physics, some scientists are beginning to talk about the necessity of a priori consciousness – and putting the name “God” to it. “New” atheism is an outgrowth of the material successes and deterministic formulation of science as it existed a century ago. As science explores the hard limits of the empirical world, the bankruptcy of materialism is being exposed and the door to spiritual reality is opening for those who choose to walk through. We can hope that this change will eventually be more evident in the public media as well. I invite you and your readers to my recent article on this topic – http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/quantum-physics/.

    Cheers! – George

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