Neil Tyson v. Copernicus

Neil deGrasse Tyson, for those who do not know, is the host of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. He is also a very popular author and scientist. Oh, and the people of the internet love the guy.

Two Tyson posts have appeared repeatedly on my newsfeed on The Facebook recently. The first is a quote from Mr. Tyson:

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe it or not.”

This is a good soundbite, but what does it mean? At a glance, it seems to set science up as a foil to religion: unlike religion, science isn’t about belief, it is about fact. But no religion, to my knowledge, actually claims that the source of divinity is belief in divinity. Any god that gets his power from the belief of people isn’t much of a god. Any Muslim could say “the ascension of the Prophet is true whether you believe it or not.” Any Christian could say, “the divinity of Christ is true whether you believe it or not.” Neither of those claims is less (or more) compelling than Tyson’s because nobody says that belief creates truth.

Tyson’s real point is that belief (or, more properly, faith)  has nothing to do with science. That should be accurate. But truth doesn’t have anything to do with science either. Modern science is not the pursuit of truth, it is the pursuit of repeatable results. Science isn’t a belief system, it is a method. If repeatable results should lead to real truth there must be an intermediate step: philosophy.

Which brings me to the other Tyson post that has blown up on The Facebook. An author from The Week called Tyson a philistine because Tyson said in an interview that philosophical questions get in the way of scientific progress.

To some extent, Tyson is right. Questions about what “the meaning of meaning is” do not lead to scientific discovery. This is because scientific progress and philosophy have a very complex relationship. In terms of method and discovery, science does not require or even leave room for philosophical questions. If it is just about the experiment at hand, philosophy can only get in the way. But the big picture requires philosophy to understand what to make of new discoveries. And what the broader goal of the scientific project is. And even where the limits of scientific method lie.

Whether Tyson actually believes that science is actually opposed to religion or philosophy, I cannot say; all I have seen of his work is out-of-context quotations. But to those people who think that is what Tyson is teaching and that he is right, I advise a review of history:

Nicolas Copernicus, in the introduction to his treatise On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, quoted both the Psalmist and Plato in addition to Plutarch and Ptolemy. (He obviously had a thing for “P” names.) Tyson is an astrophysicist and would no doubt hold up Copernicus as one of the greatest fathers of astronomy. If not the greatest father of astronomy. But Copernicus was not single-minded in his pursuit of repeatable results. To be sure, one of his goals was the very practical aim of creating an accurate calender, but he also sought things that scientific method can not yield by itself: personal growth, appreciation of beauty, understanding of divinity. Science is a tool, not an end in itself. And it is certainly not a substitute for religion or philosophy.



Beer of the week: Tyskie Gronie – Copernicus is probably the best known Polish thinker. (Although Marie Curie is quite popular in these parts.) Tyskie is probably the best known Polish beer. This photo makes it look straw colored and hazy, but Tyskie Gronie is actually golden and perfectly clear. The beer is very carbonated and has a very faint aroma, with hints of grain and cider. The head is white and fluffy but fades quickly. The taste is fairly standard for a big brewery European lager. I would, and probably will, drink Tyskie again. But it is mostly just a session beer.

Reading of the week: On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres by Nicolas Copernicus – Copernicus probably had a number of reasons for including a philosophical and religious introduction to his revolutionary (sorry) treatise. Although I suspect that he really did believe what he wrote, it was probably also a sort of defense against censure by civil and religious authorities.

Question of the week: Why has the “natural philosopher” split into the “scientist” and the “philosopher”? Can’t a natural philosopher exist today?


2 Comments on “Neil Tyson v. Copernicus”

  1. Will says:

    Dude, fun blog. I like your style.

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