Talking Wonder, Faith, and Science with Neil deGrasse Tyson

FOX's "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" - Season One

Neil deGrasse Tyson might be the most intelligent man alive. The case for this claim would not be hard to make. If not THE most intelligent, he’s certainly one of the most interesting. As a sage of science, he’s made the complexities of the cosmos understandable to the average American – no small feat. Through his work on shows such as NOVA ScienceNow, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and now Star Talk, a new generation has become fascinated with the inner workings of our universe. While science never fell out of favor with nerd culture, a wider audience has come to embrace astronomy and astrophysics – including, to the surprise of many, people of faith.

The Atheist community quickly claimed Tyson as one of their own, assuming that his views would easily align with theirs. However, when asked about the subject, Tyson surprised many. In 2009, he said, “I can’t agree to the claims by Atheists that I’m one of that community. I don’t have the time, energy, or interest in conducting myself that way.” Later he further clarified himself, “So what people are really after is my stance on religion or spirituality or God, and I would say if I had to find a word that came closest, I would say agnostic … at the end of the day I’d rather not be any category at all.” And while his thoughts about God remain inconclusive, his thoughts about those who do believe are not.

I asked Tyson if we could talk about wonder, faith, and science. He was kind enough to oblige. I began by asking if he was aware that he had quite a following in the faith community. “I think that often in modern times we equate people of faith with people who reject science, and that’s a false assumption. There’s the percentage of people of faith who completely embrace science. For example, the Head of the National Institute of Health, Francis Collins. He’s a born again Christian, recently wrote a book on it. Here’s the difference, he understands science and he knows what scientific data means. He’s not saying the universe is 6000 years old and he’s not saying dinosaurs coexisted with Jesus. So the fact that he’s religious is not synonymous with him behaving the way the fundamentalist religious community behaves. But they get all the press, because they are the most vocal.”

Neil went on to explain, “It’s led people to presume that one would be at odds with the other. Plenty of people accept science, including the Pope. So, that’s why there’s no need for me to take some kind of stance. If I would take a stance, which I rarely do, but if I were to, I would say – if you have fundamentalist religious beliefs in a free country, go right ahead, but don’t confuse that with science. And if you try to influence a science curriculum, you will undermine the understanding that an entire generation will have of what science is and how it works. And it’s that understanding that forms the engines of an emergent economy. Then I go home, I’m not going to debate you. It’s not my interest.”

Somehow our conversation quickly turned to debating whether Pluto was a planet and whether Captain Picard or Captain Kirk was superior. I handily lost both debates. We then made our way back to debates on faith and science. “It’s not about debate, I’m not interested in creating a cage match for you to listen in on or to look at. We are creating a learning opportunity for you to walk away from and at the end of the hour say ‘I know something more now that I’ve watched the show than I did at the beginning.’ And that doesn’t typically happen if we just have people going at it. We had Richard Dawkins in one of the interviews and we thought we should bring on someone else, so we had a Catholic priest, who is articulate and vocal and written a couple of books but also very liberal in his outlook. So he is there not so much to promote his doctrines, but just to talk, so you can hear another view, how people think about this. And I try to come back at it if I know he said something that is objectively false, but there is value in people seeing and hearing how people see and think, and as an educator that’s what I do. But I would not have a crystal healer or an astrologer, there’s no place for me to go with that,” Tyson said.

At this point, Neil deGrasse Tyson fell into the mode he best operates in – arousing thoughts we haven’t considered before. “Maybe one day we will discover some other way to decode knowledge, that works better than the scientific method, but no one has come up with that yet, and science has been really effective and that is basically since Galileo and Frances Bacon and the industrial revolution. Look at the transformations in our culture — in those few hundred years compared to the previous thousands of years. This is all because of science and how we have learned to do science.”

He began to expand on the idea, “I’ve even had people say, could there be another civilization that we come upon that’s more advanced, we think they have fine cars or whatever. So they asked a very interesting question of me, ‘Could we come upon a species that is more spiritually advanced than we are? Forget technology, maybe there is a spirituality to it.’ So I said, ‘what would that be? Give me an example of what that might be.’ And they said, ‘Well they have a certain power of mind and they control something that uses spirituality to figure something out.’ So then I said, ‘Well, that would just be absorbed into what science is and does.’ Is it spirituality if you read someone’s mind? Is that spiritual? Is that spirituality or is that some other power that we measure. I would be measuring that. That would cause wonder.”

Catch Neil deGrasse Tyson on the National Geographic Channel with his new late-night talk show, Star Talk.