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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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The Impossibility of a Neutral Worldview

There is no such thing as a “neutral worldview.”

It is often proposed that some worldview is “basic”, in the sense of being “the worldview from which all others should be judged.” This proposition is wholly false. Within any worldview (which will be interchangeably referred to as a “noetic structure”), certain premises are taken in some sort of presupposed form. For example, within Christianity, the existence of God, on that worldview, is a presupposition. This isn’t to say that one can’t argue for the presuppositions within one’s worldview. One can certainly argue for the validity of one’s presuppositions, but this in itself doesn’t change the fact that every worldview is built upon some background.

I have seen it claimed that atheism does not or cannot constitute a worldview. This is also false. Any human being has his or her own noetic structure from which he or she judges the probability of propositions. Various atheists are not immune from having noetic structures or beliefs.

As Stephen Parrish writes, in God and Necessity, “…there are differences in the way people judge the probability or plausibility about the truth of certain propositions, and these judgments are made on the basis of the noetic and probability structures which are believed in” (147). It is simply not possible to divorce oneself from one’s presuppositions.

Thus, it is impossible to declare some worldview “neutral” and determine that from this worldview, all others should be judged. I would call this the height of self-edification. Christians, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, etc. all have certain presuppositions within their worldviews which will make the propositions of other worldviews more or less likely. One cannot retreat to, say, agnosticism and argue that one will then judge everything from that “neutral” worldview, for everyone is going to maintain some kind of noetic structure which will, in turn, define what propositions are to be believed–or even considered.

Further, it’s not as if retreating from belief in all gods or affirming that there is no god–that is, atheism in its varied forms–will allow one to stand on “neutral” grounds in order to judge worldviews. Instead, the presuppositions within an atheistic worldview will serve to confirm that noetic structure. Again, as Parrish writes, “[r]ealistically, for many thinkers, no amount of evidence would ever be enough to justify a belief in God or miracles” (157). This, of course, is due to the noetic structures which are presupposed.

Further, writes Parrish,

“Every person capable of considering or having an opinion on issues brings with them a specific noetic structure or world-view accompanied by a corresponding probability structure. If a person did not bring this component to the debate he would be unable to formulate an opinion, as he would have no way of judging probability. So before considering the evidence on a particular issue, there must already be in place a noetic and probability structure. Probability  is inherent in one’s world-view and thus is used in judging the evidence” (158).

The same, of course, applies to Christians or believers in various faiths. Their own presuppositions guide their thinking and discernment of probability structures. Again, there is no neutral worldview.

Cornelius Van Til, one of the great apologists of the last century, was well known for his own views on how presuppositions affect judgment of worldviews. He wrote, “In spite of th[e] claim to neutrality on the part of the non-Christian, the… apologist must point out that every method, the supposedly neutral one no less than any other, presupposes either the truth or the falsity of Christian theism” (Christian Apologetics, 129). Furthermore, Van Til goes on to make the point that in some sense, then, all reasoning is circular,

“To admit one’s own presuppositions and to point out the presuppositions of others is therefore to maintain that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning. The starting point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another” (130).

This is not to say that we should be relativists when it comes to worldviews. There are ways (logical reasoning, scientific exploration, philosophy, etc.) to explore the validity of the claims of worldviews, and thus serve to confirm or disconfirm various presuppositions found within these noetic structures. The point, rather, is twofold:

1) It is question begging to assume that one’s own worldview is “neutral” or basic, and that all other worldviews should be judged from within this structure

2) We should be modest when comparing our worldview to that of others’, realizing that our presuppositions cannot be the basis for rejecting the claims of competing noetic structures.


Parrish, Stephen. God and Necessity. University Press of America. 2001.

Van Til, Cornelius. Christian Apologetics. P & R Publishing. 2003.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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