The Scientific Method as God

Cosmos_Carousel-carousel-1400x386After the Virginia v. Memphis game became a blowout last night, I flipped over to catch some of the newest installment of Cosmos: Spacetime Odyssey with Neil deGrasse Tyson.  The show is one part astronomy, one part history of scientists, and one part imaginative CGI.  Under Tyson’s supervision, each episode focuses on certain principles of astrophysics.  He whizzes quietly around the universe in his “Ship of the Imagination”–a craft that takes him to unseen features of our universe, and he invites us to ride shotgun.

I’m Sensing a Pattern Here…

In the series, Tyson is not afraid to wear his philosophical heart on his sleeve.  His main purpose in last night’s episode “When Knowledge Conquers Fear” was to show how we have evolved beyond the need for a god concept. Previous generations of mankind feared the cosmos as though a divine being sat menacingly behind the stars.  However, thanks to men like Isaac Newton the world is now a place where gravity is god, and we no longer explain the patterns in the universe through the divine, but through mathematical formulae.

At the beginning of the episode, Tyson points out the key to human survival: pattern recognition.  He asserts that the human ability to identify patterns was the evolutionary trick-up-our-sleeves that allowed us to evolve to a place of supremacy in the evolutionary chain.  Tyson explained that as man discerned patterns of migration, patterns in seasonal change, and patterns in the stars he came to thrive in this world.  Each generation passed down these favorable genes to the next generation, and slowly mankind emerged from the cavernous dark ages and into the bright age of enlightenment.  In the episode, we learn that Isaac Newton gave us the courage to close the door on the age of fear and to open a new door to the dimension of scientific discovery and knowledge.

We have evolved beyond a need for the divine.  And how?  Through the scientific method.

Trading One Divine for Another.

It is no secret that Tyson believes the scientific method is the means to discovering all answers in our universe.  In his mind, the survival of the human race hinges on our unique ability to recognize patterns.  Every advancement of men has come about through the cognitive employment of the scientific method.

And what is the scientific method?  It is a means to discover patterns, plain and simple.

The scientific method allows us to determine correlation.  In other words, you perform certain acts, and you catalog the results.  We can discern a pattern if the same set of acts produce the same results every time.  The scientific method is amazing for the purpose of identifying patterns.  In a sense, Tyson encourages us to abandon our pre-modern concepts of deities, and to deify ourselves.  For goodness sake, we have the ability to recognize patterns in the universe!

“Why” the Scientific Method Falls Short.

There is one problem.  The scientific method cannot answer the ontological question “Why?”  It is great at helping us to recognize patterns: When A is added to B, the result is C.  The scientific method can answer the question “What?” all day.  However, it can never answer the question “Why?”

One of the first principles a student learns in a high school statistics class is this:

Correlation does not imply causation.

The scientific method allows us to describe exactly what is happening.  All of the scientific theories and laws that have exploded since Isaac Newton are merely descriptions of what happens.  They deal with correlation.  No discovery made by the scientific method has ever answered the question of why it happens.  This is causation.  Through the scientific method, our explanation of patterns may get better and more precise, but no matter how good the explanation of what is happening, it never answers why it is happening.

This is no shortcoming of the scientific method.  The scientific method is perfect for identifying patterns.  The problem comes when men like Tyson try to force the scientific method to answer questions it can never answer.

“Why” Tyson Can’t Trust His Logic.

Fredrick Nietzsche is no friend to Christianity, but he is the naturalist’s best critic.  He holds the same basic philosophical assumption as Tyson about our origin: We arose from chaos.  Unlike Tyson, Nietzsche is unwilling to ascribe undo honor to logical beings that arose by chance from an illogical universe.  He writes: “How did logic come into existence in man’s head?  Certainly out of illogic, whose realm originally must have been immense” (The Gay Science, p. 171).  If man evolved from primordial soup, then his logical brain developed from a universe characterized by chaotic illogic.

Moreover, Nietzsche concurs with Tyson about the advantageous nature of pattern recognition: “Over immense periods of time the intellect produced nothing but errors.  A few of these proved to be useful and helped to preserve the species: those who hit upon or inherited these had better luck in their struggle for themselves and their progeny” (169).

One of the “advantageous” errors, Nietzsche asserts, was the naive propensity to assume the possibility of patterns, which he describes as “[guessing] immediately upon encountering similar instances that they must be equal” (171).  Unlike Tyson, Nietzsche sees pattern recognition as a weakness in man rather than a strength: “[This] dominant tendency, however, to treat as equal what is merely similar–an illogical tendency, for nothing is really equal–is what first created any basis for logic” (171).

Nietzsche’s point is that if our logic arose from illogic, then we are foolish to trust the conclusions of our “logical” minds.  The reason logic has prevailed is not because it leads us to truth, but because the conclusions of logic make for the survival of the fittest.  Nietzsche begins with Tyson, but he follows their joint assumption to the painful conclusion.  If our minds arose from a chaotic universe by mere chance, then we cannot trust the logic of our minds.

God is Science’s Friend.

Tyson’s Cosmos is the latest attempt to supplant God with science.  The ultimate problem is that the scientific method cannot answer life’s ultimate questions: the why questions.  I agree with Tyson, and even Nietzsche, that we arose from a chaotic universe.  However, I also believe there was a Creator who caused logic and life to arise in a cosmos that was “formless and void” (Genesis 1:2).  Without a First Cause, we do not have a foundation upon which to build scientific logic and discovery.  Belief in God does not slam the door on scientific discovery.  Belief in God is the open door to fantastic discovery in his beautiful cosmos.

(photo credit)