God of the Gaps

Friday’s post (sorry for yesterday’s service interruption; I had a very long day of recording and mixing) mentioned the “Beyond Belief” convention sponsored by Edge.org, and alerted readers to the availability of streaming video feeds of the presentations. I’ve been watching them myself as time permits, and the discussions, if not exactly balanced — the speakers generally regard the influence of religion on society as something that we ought be outgrowing sometime around now — are calm, thoughtful, and considerate of the centrality of religion in many people’s lives.

While everything I have seen of the presentations so far has been well worth the screen time, I was particularly impressed by one speaker I hadn’t seen before. His name is Neil de Grasse Tyson, and he is the director of the Hayden Planetarium, which is part of the American Museum of Natural History here in New York. He is an enthusiastic and engaging speaker, and obviously a very, very intelligent man.

In his remarks he addresses the argument, made by some of the other speakers, that the problem is simply one of education — that the American people, once educated in the methods and discoveries of science, will simply no longer feel the need to include any gods in their worldview. After all, while belief in a personal God is professed by about 90% of the population as a whole, the number is below 10% among fellows of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tyson, however, rather than focusing on the 90% of these scientists who are not religious as being an example of the persuasiveness of the scientific worldview, is interested, instead in the few who are. What goes on in their minds? They are certainly not uneducated. The issue, says Tyson, seems to be a matter of how people confront the limits of their knowledge. He gives as an example the man he considers to be the greatest genius who ever lived, Isaac Newton.

Newton, who worked out the laws governing the mechanics of gravity, and was able, using this knowledge, to account for the elliptical orbits of the planets, made no mention of God in his description of any of this. This, says Tyson, is because he understood it; because he saw for himself how it worked. But when the great man tried to account for the solar system’s overall form, with the planets laid out in stable orbits that lie in the same plane, he found himself baffled by the intractable difficulty of the “many-body” calculations involved, and it was here — having reached the uttermost edge of what even his extraordinary mind could encompass — that he he invoked the designing hand of God.

If this is true even for the greatest scientific mind of all time, argues Tyson, then we should not kid ourselves that weaning our culture from its reliance on an invisible god to fill the gaps in our understanding is simply going to be a matter of better education.

Tyson’s speech goes much further than this, and I strongly urge you all to watch it. An interesting panel discussion ensues, including some very humane and thoughtful remarks by the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg.

The main page for the videos is here, and the Tyson segment is here.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Andrew says

    I have not had the chance to watch any of the video’s from the meeting but I am familiar with Tyson. He has a column in Natural History and with the passing of Gould it is now the first thing I read each issue.


    Posted December 17, 2006 at 8:37 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Andrew,

    I well remember Gould’s wonderful essays in his This View of Life column, but I hadn’t read Natural History in a few years, and didn’t know Tyson at all. He is really quite something; e combines great intelligence and understanding with a truly infectious enthusiasm. He’ll be an outstanding advocate for science, something we desperately need.

    Posted December 17, 2006 at 11:03 pm | Permalink