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Naturalism and the Sublime in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry”

To be sublime is to be “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe” according to Oxford Dictionaries. As Alan Gregory has argued in Science Fiction Theology, scientific (or sometimes nearly magical) sublime frequently replaces transcendent reality in science fiction. I believe this can just as easily be noted within science writing as well. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is a prime example of this subversion of the transcendent by explicitly naturalistic sublime.

Tyson fills his book with language of the sublime. Simply looking at the table of contents shows how he has worked to replace religious themes with his own naturalistic paradigm. Chapter titles include “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” a reference to the popular biography of Christ of the same title; “On Earth as in the Heavens,” a play on the line from the Lord’s Prayer; and “Let There Be Light,” the opening line of the creation account in the Bible. These titles intentionally play on the transcendent themes from which they are are derived.

The naturalistic sublime continues in the opening chapter, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which echoes Genesis with its opening:

In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago… (17)

These words spur a narrative of the universe from a purely naturalistic perspective. Of course, Tyson is not content to merely echo religious language; he must also make explicit that his naturalistic sublime is intentionally replacing God.

The naturalistic sublime effectively turns the universe–the cosmos–into its god. It glories in the beauty of the universe as the telos in itself. Tyson’s language of the “Greatest Story Ever Told” and echoing of the Genesis account with the replacement of God’s activity with purely naturalistic explanation is one example of this. Ignoring that many, many, many Christians agree that his “Greatest Story” is the way that the universe was created, Tyson creates his own narrative of the naturalistic sublime. It becomes most explicit in the closing chapter, which we quote at some length:

The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge… its attributes are clear:
The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it is… for everyone.,,
The cosmic perspective is humble.
The cosmic perspective is spiritual–even redemptive–but not religious…
The cosmic perspective finds beauty in the images of planets, moons, stars, and nebulae, but also celebrates the laws of physics that shape them.
The cosmic perspective [gives an]… indication that perhaps flag-waving and space exploration do not mix.
The cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth, but also valeus our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself. (205-207)

Thus, Tyson makes quite explicit his idea of the naturalistic sublime. It is scientific–by which he means naturalistic–and for all. Eschewing such petty things as definitions or clarity of terms, Tyson allows for spirituality and, generously, an amorphous and undefined notion of rdemption, but not religion in his cosmic sublime. The kinship of all with all is offered as a kind of final, ultimate sublime for all to finally be one (apparently Tyson forgot this idea had already existed in many of those “religions” he rejects, including his clear primary target, Christianity: 1 Corinthians 15:28, for example).

But Tyson is not content to merely offer this vision of cosmic, naturalistic sublime to his readers. He closes with a commandment: to ponder these cosmic truths “At least once a week, if not once a day…” so that we may wonder at the way new discoveries may “transform life on Earth” (207).

When Tyson confronts the Big Questions like how the universe’s beginning may itself have begun, he simply punts the question in typical naturalistic fashion:

…some religious people assert, with a tinge of righteousness, that something must have started it all: a force greater than all others…. that something is, of course, God.
But what if the universe was always there, in a state or condition we have yet to identify…? Or what if the universe just popped into existence from nothing? Or what if everything we know and love were just a computer simulation rendered for entertainment by a superintelligent species?
These philosophically fun ideas usually satisfy nobody. Nonetheless, they remind us that ignorance is the natural state of mind for a research scientist… What we do know, and what we can assert without further hesitation, is that the universe had a beginning. (32-33)

Tyson’s tone is itself an intriguing study in deep irony. Even as he references those silly religious people who assert that God must have created the universe, he throws a dig out there about their self-righteousness. But just as he’s doing that, he turns around to, himself with no small amount of righteous-pride, assert his ignorance of the universe. He throws out a number of answers that he calls “philosophically fun” and then shrugs his shoulders. His own pride–his sublime–is found in the not-knowing. Though we know, according to Tyson, that the universe had a beginning, we should satisfy ourselves with ignorance and just ask “what if?” questions to pass the time.

Tyson’s universe is itself the means, end, and glory. It is the non-transcendent, naturalistic sublime. As we’ve shown above, the universe itself is what replaces the transcendent for Tyson. Devotional rites are proposed. Religious language is wholly appropriate, in Tyson’s world, to use for the universe. It is the Greatest Story; It is the Beginning; It is the Light; Its Will must be done, despite our ignorance of it. It is the naturalistic sublime’s only hope. God help us.

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SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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