Recently, Fox and National Geographic aired a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos hosted by science popularizer, Neil deGrasse Tyson. With this new series, Tyson hopes to inspire a new generation to wonder at and study the universe. The show is certainly well produced and fascinating, though it is not without its controversiesparticularly its treatment of Giordano Bruno.
The Bruno controversy might have some merit, but it’s more interesting to watch Tyson’s Cosmos keeping in mind Walker Percy’s parody of Sagan’s original TV show, Lost in the Cosmos (subtitled “the last self-help book”). Given that more than thirty years have gone by since its publication, do Percy’s criticisms still have something to say to Tyson? Or does Tyson, in fact, have some criticisms to offer Percy?
In Lost in the Cosmos, Percy criticizes Sagan’s scientism and proposes a more Christian science, one that accounts for the “irreducible complexity” of man. Percy praises Carl Sagan’s “defense of science as a reliable and self-correcting method of attaining truth.” Yet Sagan’s preoccupation with extraterrestrial life leads Percy to ask the question: “Why is Carl Sagan so lonely?”
Percy’s answer to his own question is that because Sagan’s science reduces man to something base and natural“matter in interaction”Sagan has “no one left to talk to.” Percy calls for a new humanist science that combines the insights of the existentialists with the knowledge of the modern scientist. Man, as a self-conscious being, must “place himself in this world”; that is, man must face the fact that he is alienated and homelessly at home in this world.
Modern man tries to reconcile himself to the world through two mistaken approaches: immanence and transcendence, both of which miss the mystery of the human person. The immanentized person places himself in the world through his interactions, finding his identity in his consumership. He loses himself in the fray of his aesthetic enjoyments.
The transcendent person chooses to place himself outside of this world, abstracting himself away from everyday life. In doing this, the transcendent person uses science and art to gain knowledge and exist outside of the world of the human person. But, like Sagan, he has no one left to talk to.
What kind of answer does Tyson give to Percy’s concerns? As he begins his show, Tyson presents the scientific method as the terms through which the “Cosmos becomes ours.” Using it, the viewer transcends (Tyson’s word) the world to enter the larger realm of the universe. As we ride his “ship of the imagination” through the cosmos and multiverse, Tyson explains that we are merely “one form of lifeearth life.” Tyson demonstrates the infinitesimally small place humans have in his Cosmos as his ship departs from earth, noting that we are merely “star stuff” that appeared because of cosmic accidents, such as an asteroid’s gravity nudging another asteroid an inch to the left.
After giving a stunningly well-produced history of the universe, Tyson approaches the genesis of life on earth. He notes that the origin of life “is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of science.” After showing a possible explanation for the origins of life, Tyson awkwardly points out that “pioneering microbes,” in addition to their function of creating life on earth, “also invented sex.” Here, Percy would object, Tyson is falling prey to a naturalistic fallacy. A mysterious aspect of man’s communion with God is reduced to a biological function.
Wonder at the spiritual mystery of man may not fit anywhere in Tyson’s Cosmos. However, Tyson makes it clear that a sense of wonder still exists toward the mysteries of the universe. He even uses religious language when the occasion calls for it: In the second episode, Tyson presents his account of the cosmos with the famous line “in the beginning.” But Tyson holds firm to his naturalism. It’s the unanswered questions of science, not religion, that serve as the great mysteries that inspire wonder.
As he presents his scientific method at the beginning of the first episode, Tyson explains that science is the study of reality. In fact, this point serves as the one premise on which the rest of his show is built. Anything that falls outside of Tyson’s understanding of reality is outside of the purview of scientific inquiry and does not merit wonder. As seen in his explicit dismissal of religious accounts of man in the second episode, much of the foundations of Percy’s science would be deemed by Tyson to be anti-scientific.
Falling prey to transcendence, Tyson might point out, has not exactly hurt modern science’s efficacy: When man was the focus of scientific inquiry, nature was allowed to run unfettered, resulting in early death, disease, and starvation. Once man was “dethroned” and nature became the focus of inquiry, man tamed nature and thus was able to live longer, cure diseases, and provide food in abundance. Certainly, the ancient myths and science may have held great psychological insight; however, this psychological benefit never really improved man’s earthly condition.
Percy, like Tyson, embraces science and technology. And like Tyson, Percy understands that science is “guided and shaped by what is.” But in contrast to Tyson, Percy holds that the spiritual realities that shape our physical realities must also be incorporated into our scientific inquiry. Rather than distracting himself from his spiritual condition, Percy’s science highlights man’s vain attempts at placing himself solely within this world.
Like Percy, we can ask, “Why is Neil deGrasse Tyson so lonely?” He, too, suffers from transcendence. No one but another “god-like intelligence” can understand his objective and transcendental knowledge. If man is placed in the world as nothing more than “matter in interaction,” then Tyson, the daring explorer, must exist on a level higher than his fellow man. He promises to take his viewers on a voyage through the universe, but Tyson’s commitment to scientism ensures that he and his “ship of the imagination” will inevitably become lost in the cosmos.
Jacob Stubbs is a former John Jay Fellow and will be attending Yale Divinity School in the fall of 2014.