“The good thing about science is it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” With this statement, the man 60 Minutes describes as “Carl Sagan’s successor,” “the country’s most captivating scientific communicator,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, begins a lecture. His audience greets these words with applause.
Now, Dr. Tyson is a very charming man, articulate, attractive, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and convincing, and there’s something disarming at the same time as provocative about his opening salvo. It’s a bit like my punching you in the chest with my finger and saying, “I’m speaking to you whether or not you’re listening.” But is his statement true? Or if it is true, how is it any different from my saying “the good thing about Christianity is it’s true whether or not you believe in it?” I know very few Christians who would argue with that statement, and I suspect that there are very few Jews or Moslems or Hindus who would argue with a similar statement affirming the objective truth of their own beliefs.
For sure, Dr. Tyson’s words imply that some things are true only because we believe them to be. What things might he and his appreciative audience have in mind? My guess is that he’s trying to make a distinction between science and religion, and I suspect most of his audience “gets it.” For them, religious beliefs are “true” only for those who believe them to be so, but science is true for all of us whether we believe in it or not.
Perhaps the place to start is by asking ourselves, what do we mean when we say that science is true? Unlike Christianity, whose truth-claims have been around for two thousand years and have remained remarkably stable throughout that time in spite of repeated challenges from both believers and non-believers, science has continually revised and upgraded its truth-claims, often even dismissing them as falsehoods as it seeks to understand the material universe. The truths of Christianity have informed virtually every charitable work, peace-keeping and non-violent initiative, educational foundation, and ethical code of conduct since the Gospel was written. Thousands, nay, millions have tested its precepts in their daily lives, sought and experienced comfort and healing in its prayers, and found meaning, purpose and hope in its teachings. Man created in the image of God preserved human dignity and freedom, and Nature declared by the Creator “good” sought and often found protection against the depredations of human greed and arrogance.
Science by its own admission and limitations can’t offer us “truths” like these, and the history of science makes it difficult to say science is true because of the “truths” it can and has offered, regardless of whether or not we believe them to be true. Science once believed the earth was flat and enjoyed center stage in the universe. Science once prescribed a good blood-letting as a cure for pneumonia and taught that heavy objects fall faster than light objects. Does anyone doubt that one hundred years from now, or perhaps next year, science will dismiss some claim that scientists are making today about the nature of the universe and the laws governing it?
So if he can’t reasonably claim that scientific truths are infallibly, objectively, eternally true — the equivalent of saying that the sum of the angles of a triangle must equal 180 degrees — what does Dr. Tyson mean when he claims that science is true? Perhaps he is saying, without stating it explicitly, that science alone holds the key to the mysteries of the universe and will, if given world enough and time, unlock those mysteries. Science is a true path. If we apply its methods faithfully, if we ask the right questions and propose the right hypotheses, if we don’t doctor the data or use what science teaches us for nefarious purposes, if we continually refine our instruments and remain open to examining our assumptions, and if it turns out that all that matters is matter, then someday we will unlock the last mystery.
Would anyone care to take million-to-one odds on these suppositions? And even if all those if’s were horses that beggars could ride, doesn’t it seem more likely that we’re talking about some species of Zeno’s Paradox whereby we might halve our ignorance every day between now and when our sun twinkles out in five billion years without unlocking that last mystery? And given our short, selfish and murderous history on the planet, is there really any probability at all that one of our descendants will be around to witness the twinkle out? If these observations are true, their truth will not depend on whether or not we believe in them. Their truth may be caused in part by science, and science may help us anticipate, accelerate or forestall them, but will science as a “true path” help us, either individually or collectively, save ourselves or our planet?
This may not be the right question, but it does seem to be the question Dr. Tyson and the science messiahs want us to ask. They propose we study the stars to find a soft, green place for our descendants to land once the tools of science in our hands have poisoned beyond repair the beautiful planet we saw from Apollo 8. They claim, as Dr. Tyson says, that “if everyone had a cosmic perspective you wouldn’t have legions of armies making war on each other.” Really? Will someone please explain the necessary connection between a cosmic perspective (presumably seeing from outer space the utter insignificance of our planet) and making war? Why is this any more wishful thinking than to make peace because all men are brothers or because God forbids the taking of human life? When scientists make gnomic utterances like this, they elicit applause from their devotees, but only convince the rest of us that these people are just as eager as the rest of us for something to believe in. And science as a “true path” does indeed depend on whether or not you believe in it.
Permit me to doubt.