Neil deGrasse Tyson

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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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Really Recommend Posts 6/27/14- Bible Literacy Quiz, YA Lit, and more!

postAnother week, another slew of posts for you to add some extra reading to your plate! This time around, we have a comic about self-deception, a quiz for you to test yourself, some young adult literature, and more! Let me know what you thought of the posts, and if you liked them, let the authors know on their blogs!

How to Spot a VBS Volunteer (Comic)– I found this hilarious because it speaks so well of my time as a VBS Volunteer many moons ago. I had an absolute blast though, which is something left off the comic. There’s a reason we keep going back: we love the kids, we love what we got to do, despite our eyes twitching from the caffeine (my preferred stimulant was Mountain Dew). Do you have a fun VBS Story? Share it below!

[Not your Sunday School’s] Biblical Literacy Quiz– Speaking of VBS, how about brushing up on some Bible literacy questions? Warning: this won’t be as easy as just answering “Jesus!” every time. Post your grade here! Let’s have some fun with this and maybe motivate ourselves to read more.

Why Neil deGrasse Tyson should stick to science– The host of “Cosmos” has attempted ironic philosophical critiques of philosophy, metaphysics, and more. Here’s a post arguing he should stick to science–if that.

Common Routes to Self-Deception (Comic)– Do you catch yourself following one of these common paths to pulling the wool over your own eyes? How might we work to prevent self-deception? Check out this thought-provoking comic.

Steelheart: Helping Heroes Along– Brandon Sanderson’s latest YA literature has people abuzz. For good reason? Check out this analysis from a worldview perspective by Anthony Weber.

Darwin’s Finches Show Rule Constrained Variation in Beak Shape– Here’s some heavy reading for you. Could it be that variation operates through certain constraints? What might this imply for evolution? What do you think?

Really Recommended Posts 4/25/14- Dean Koontz, egalitarianism, “Cosmos,” and more!

sketch-for-the-crucifixion-thomas-eakinsHere, I have a list of great reads for you to browse, from Easter errors to Dean Koontz, from marriage to atheism. Check them all out, and let me know what you thought!

Five Errors to Drop from Your Easter Sermon– Check out this read on common mistakes made when talking about Easter.

Tie-Breaker– What happens when married couples come to a point where they are at an impasse? Does there need to be a marital tie-breaker grounded in notions of hierarchy of genders? Check out this thought-provoking post on the topic. For my own thoughts on the topic, check out my post “Who’s in Charge?” over at CBE.

Dean Koontz’s “Innocence”– From the author (links removed), Anthony Weber, “Dean Koontz is perhaps the most famous Christian author alive today. He has sold over 450,000,000 books, with 17,000,000 added each year.  He’s sold more books than Stephen King…” That’s why you should care about the guy. Check out this look at a recent book from Koontz.

What I Needed to Hear as an Atheist (And How I Needed to Hear It)– Approach matters! Check out this fantastic post on how we may approach atheists who are wondering about the faith.

Cosmos Scrubs Religion’s Positive Influence from the History of the Scientific Revolution– The TV series “Cosmos” has seemingly purged any notion of the positive influence of religion from the history of scientific development. Check out this insightful article which explores some of this history and the way “Cosmos” has distorted it.


Really Recommended Posts 3/14/14- “Cosmos,” The Monuments Men, C.S. Lewis, and more!

postHere, I have compiled a kind of special edition of the “Really Recommended Posts.” We first focus on a number of critical responses to the first episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” It seems to me the episode did some pretty shoddy history and also made any number of metaphysical claims. After that, we look at some more extremely interesting posts which focus on educating children in the faith, literature as a way to discover meaning, and the film “The Monuments Men.” As always, I’d love to read your thoughts on these posts.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Cosmos, Giordano Bruno, and Getting it Right– A brief but incisive critique of a number of major historical errors made throughout the first episode.

Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson: Same Old Product, Bright New Packaging-  In this post, Casey Luskin takes on the notion that science and religion are at war alongside some other errors in the episode.

Is there any science in the new “Cosmos” series, or is it all naturalistic religion?– Wintery Knight takes on the episode for making a bunch of claims without evidence.

Cosmos Revives the Scientific Martyr Myth of Giordano Bruno– “[T]he materialist bias of the producers, editors, and writers of Cosmos is so complete that they couldn’t be bothered even to check Wikipedia.” Yep. Check out this incisive critique of the way Bruno was presented in the episode.

Cosmos: Episode I Recap and Review– I give an overview of the episode and critique it for making rather poor metaphysical and historical assertions instead of presenting more observational evidence.

More Great Reads

The Number One Sign Your Kids Are Just Borrowing Your Faith– Natasha Crain shares some interesting thoughts on how to better develop the faith of your children. Here, she looks into the possibility that your kids may just be borrowing your faith.

Be Careful What You Read… C.S. Lewis’ literary encounter with George MacDonald– The ways in which literature can shape one’s thoughts are astounding. Here, the impact of literature on C.S. Lewis’ conversion is explored.

The Monuments Men: A dialectic not to be ignored– The film “The Monuments Men” has rather mediocre reviews overall. However, Max Andrews over at Sententias points out that the film’s emphasis on the importance of identifying and preserving art and beauty may hint at greater things. Check out his interesting thoughts on the topic.

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