The day after news broke about Bill O’Reilly’s dismissal from Fox News, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson went on Twitter and joined in the current conversation taking place about the former host and TV personality. Tyson’s tweet was only eight words long, but served as a lead-up to a YouTube video that he linked, which featured him speaking about Bill O’Reilly in a 2011 interview.
The YouTube clip, titled “Neil DeGrasse Tyson Destroys Bill O’Reilly,” sounds much more violent than it turns out to be. In fact, the clip features an elegant discussion on the nature of human reasoning, and how it sometimes tries to grapple with the question of God’s existence. Though somewhat dated in its context, the video nonetheless provides a timeless meditation on these issues, and is well worth the watch.
In the video, an interviewer asks Tyson to respond to a comment O’Reilly had recently made on his program The O’Reilly Factor, in which he told a guest that nobody (scientists included) understands why the tides come in and out.
“Tide goes in, tide goes out, never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that,” O’Reilly had told his guest, implying that a supernatural entity must be responsible for the phenomenon.
Tyson, in the video that he linked in his recent tweet, laughed at Bill O’Reilly’s remark.
“So, O’Reilly’s giving a list of things that are fully understood,” he told the interviewer. “If he had given a list of things that are not understood, that would be a different reaction, and it would be less susceptible to comedic mockery than saying, ‘tides come in and out, you can’t explain that.'”
In response to O’Reilly’s point that nobody can explain the tides, Tyson continued.
“Yes, we can. We’ve known that one for the last couple hundred years.”
Tyson then went on to propose that a more interesting point O’Reilly could have made would have been to assert the possibility that God was behind dark matter and dark energy – two phenomena that scientists are currently unable to account for. The “you can’t explain that” line would have had more of an impact that way.
But according to Tyson, such an argument to invoke the existence of a God ends up falling flat on its face before long.
“Does it mean, if you don’t understand something, and the community of physicists don’t understand it, that means God did it? Is that how you want to play this game?” The point he proceeds to make is one that shows the inherent flaw sewn into this line of reasoning. He explains that a whole host of scientific mysteries had once puzzled the world, which science has since gone on to solve. If the argument is that God appears only in those places where human understanding has yet to tread, then, according to Tyson, “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.”
The implication is that the more we learn about the universe as a whole — that is, the more we come to understand dark matter, dark energy, and dark everything else — the smaller our conception of God will grow, when we think of God in that way.
This concept is known as the “God of the gaps” argument. As the gaps in our knowledge begin to shrink, the God we’ve invoked to initially explain these enigmas will likewise begin to disappear.
Tyson, however, was quick to clarify that he supports everyone’s freedom to believe what they want. But he does warn about the danger of keeping one’s mind closed to new possibilities.
“I don’t even care if someone wants to say, ‘you don’t understand that, [therefore] God did it.’ That doesn’t even bother me,” he explained. “What would bother me is if you were so content in that answer that you no longer had curiosity to learn how it happened. The day you stop looking because you’re content God did it, I don’t need you in the lab. You’re useless on the frontier of understanding the nature of the world.”
Although Tyson shared this video in the wake of O’Reilly’s departure, it’s unlikely he did so as a comment on the O’Reilly scandal itself, but rather to make a bigger and more significant point. In his quest to educate his viewers, Tyson tapped into this opportunity to share some of his insights with the world, and to encourage each and every one of us to think deeply about the beliefs we hold.
[Featured Image by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images]