Hunger for Wholeness: "How the Universe Challenges Us" with Neil deGrasse Tyson (Part 2)
In part 2 of Ilia Delio’s conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, she is joined by Robert Nicastro and Gabi Sloan. Robert and Gabi ask Neil about how the universe challenges us to be better individuals, what we can learn from the cosmos about ourselves and the difficulty of public science education. Ilia digs deeper into the complex relationship between religion and science, and finally, Neil shares his critical thoughts about the religious fundamentalist voices in modern science.
ABOUT NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON
“The challenge for the human brain is to think on the same continuum as the thing it is that you're measuring. And that's near impossible for some people.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a renowned astrophysicist, planetary scientist, and author. His research interests are broad, but include star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our Milky Way. In addition to dozens of professional publications, Tyson has written, and continues to write for the public. His recent books are Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization and Welcome to the Universe in 3D: A Visual Tour. His newest book, To Infinity and Beyond: A Journey of Cosmic Discovery, is scheduled for release in September 2023. Tyson is the recipient of nine honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid 13123 Tyson.
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Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness, a podcast from the Center for Christogenesis. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. Today, Ilia, Gabi and I continue our vibrant conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson. We speak about the challenges of thinking scientifically and what we can learn about ourselves from the universe. How would you say the universe or the nature of the universe can help us relate better to one another, especially in the midst of artificial intelligence and an age of such divisiveness that can either be caused by AI, enhanced by AI, or maybe not even AI is considered in the equation for some of us who take a divisive way about us?
Neil: Well, in my recent book, the subtitle is “Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization,” and the main title is Starry Messenger, which I just stole from Galileo. One of his first books was called Starry Messenger, where he looked up in the universe and he found things about the universe that conflicted with what people thought were true or wanted to be true or felt should be true on earth, and it conflicted. And so, Starry Messenger was, there's messages in the stars that you need to reckon here on Earth. And one of them was that Earth is not the center of all motion, which any straight read of biblical genesis has you thinking. And so, this notion conflicted with what he found in the sky with his telescope. So, what I did was sort of update that and found all the things and all the lessons that we can glean from the universe that might have—yeah, I have to cherry pick that a little bit because one of the things in the universe is like there's an asteroid that might render us extinct.
So what do we learn from that? No, let's deflect the asteroid. Okay, that's not a good thing that we might go extinct. I don't want that to happen. If we leave the universe to its own devices, it will happen. So the universe is not all wine and roses, right? So, there are things that we should know that are in the sight lines, that the universe has us in its sight lines. But let me just throw a few things out here. How might we learn? Okay, I have an entire chapter on gender and identity. Very hot topic today, as we know, especially in the United States, likely elsewhere as well. Gender and identity. Well, what's that about? Oh, well, do you realize in my field, in astrophysics, most things we measure occur on a continuum. I won't use the word spectrum, but we use the word spectrum for very specific applications.
But on a continuum, they're low mass stars, medium mass stars, high mass stars, and everything in between. Low luminosity, high luminosity, everything in between. Densities, temperatures, pressures, locations, everything is on a continuum. So when we talk to each other about the universe, we need some way to categorize the continuum. So how do you do that? Well, you got to find out what's relevant, what's important; we'll label them with this category, but it has some of these other features, and then it's two categories combined, maybe three, just to get a handle on this continuum. The challenge for the human brain is to think on the same continuum as the thing it is that you're measuring. And that's near impossible for some people.
Before I get to the gender, let me ease into that with hurricane strengths. As you may know, there are five categories of hurricane strengths, but why are there five categories and not two or 10 or a hundred? Well, somebody came up with five categories. Do you realize that it's a continuum of wind speeds from zero to the max. It's a continuum. But now we have categories because now we can talk about it. What category was that? Now, watch what happens in the news. If Hurricane Irma is a low category three up to a high category three, that barely makes the news, because it's just category three. It goes one mile an hour faster, it's breaking news, hurricane Irma now strengthened to category four. Do you know what we just did there? We forced nature to fit categories in our head just so that we can talk about it and think about it, even though the categories are warping our sense of how things actually vary in the actual universe. So here's my point about gender, okay?
We have our chromosomes: X, Y. Biologically, aside from rare variations in the chromosomal tagging, people are male or female biologically. No one's arguing that. What gets argued is, what do I feel like today? Do I feel female or male, am I my half and half, 90? No. People come up and say, "You're either male or female. Which are you?" "No, I'm somewhere in the middle." "You can't be in the middle you." So why are you forcing me? Well, I know why you're forcing me. because you can only think in two categories. There's that shortcoming of the human brain that requires categories, even if it's a continuum, it has to be one or the other. We can go back to Joan of Arc. Oh my gosh, okay. Joan of Arc—do you realize nearly half of the reason why they burned her at the stake was for cross-dressing? Go read the court files on her—for cross-dressing. Well, how are you going to leave soldiers into battle wearing a skirt on a horse? That doesn't work, so she puts on boy clothes. She probably had short hair. She's one of the earliest, most famous tomboy. We have words for girls like that. Tomboy. They exist within us. We've seen them in our classrooms. No, but they're girls. Are they really boys or their girls? No, they're on a continuum—on a continuum. And why was she burned at the stake? It's in Deuteronomy, it says it very clearly. If a man dawns the clothes of a woman or a woman, dawns the close of a man, it is an abomination unto the Lord thy God. So you had—and it was a religious court, said you had the reasons that you might have done that. Of course, the Catholic church recanted that and now she's a saint, so they took care of that one. But we must recognize at some point that the actual world of human beings, the actual world has people expressing themselves on a gender spectrum. And if you're going to create a law requiring they be one or the other in their expression, then you are creating laws based on the shortcomings of your capacity to even think about the world. And that lesson comes from space. A matter of fact, everything in the universe is on a spectrum.
Think about this. Well, you know computing. Computing, what is the basic unit of information in a computer? It's a bit. The bit is either zero or a one. A bit is literally binary. Okay, fine. Do you know what quantum bits are? We call them qubits. A quantum bit is a bit that can be zero, but can be one or any statistical combination of zero and one. It could be half, zero and half one. 90% zero, 10%, one. 90%, one 10% zero. That is the nature of a qubit. You're going to say, but it's got to be either one or the other. No, it doesn't have to be either one or the other. It has to be, because that's the way your brain is wired. You don't know how to think about it any other way. So for me, there I am spending two chapters, one of them is color and race, where a crime is committed, and someone that reports to the police officer, "Oh, a black male stole my purse." Okay, well what other category? It might have been a white male or Asian male, or a brown male. Really? You're going to report a crime based on one of four categories, really? A crime?
So I'm going to get picked up by the cops because I'm black male, even if the actual black male was much darker or much lighter. I'm in a bin because you are intellectually lazy and can't divide up that spectrum of humanity that's actually out there. And I know we have the ability to do this. Go to the pharmacy, go to the hair color aisle, there's a hundred hair colors, all shades of blonde, each with a different model in font, and there's a different word for each color. So I know we have the ability to do this.
Do you know Benjamin Moore paints? There's 150 shades of white. So here's what we should do with the future of law enforcement. If a crime gets committed, then the police officers getting the info, they should have an interior decorator with them that opens the book that says point to the hair color and the skin color of where it is. So what I'm telling you is, yes, there is no end of wisdom that we can draw from the universe that will pass judgment on human behavior in such a way that we can and should change in response to it. The fact that the universe has unlimited resources, rare earth elements are common in the universe. Think of the history of wars fought over access to limited resources. That's an entire category of warfare. After religious wars and political wars, there's resource wars. If the solar system were our backyard, an entire category of war would evaporate overnight. So yes, there's wisdom in the universe that we can bring to earth.
Robert: So Neil, as a follow up, do you think this tendency to categorize is one of the main reasons why science has come under so much suspicion and attack today?
Neil: What do you mean by that?
Robert: So you're mentioning that many of us don't have the ability to think in terms of spectrum, and many of us don't look at what science is really telling us.
Neil: Okay, so that's a good—okay, I think I know what you mean now. So what happens is the scientist, when we come up with studies, there's usually a statistical couching of the likelihood that something will happen. So it works among ourselves, but when we go to the public, they say, "Well, is the coast going to flood or is it not? Is it this or is it that?" And they demand an answer. And maybe, so I guess, yeah, we can blame not the people themselves, but how they learn what science is and how and why it works. If they had a better understanding of it, a more authentic and accurate understanding of how science works, then you wouldn't have people saying, tell me the date that global warming is going to flood my home. That's not how this works. And if I can't give you the date, then you're going to be in denial of it? So this is a failure of the education system to fully understand what science is and how it needs to play out in our daily lives and in governance, especially.
Robert: Our fear of technology usually begins with some challenge it poses to our everyday life and thought. So is contemporary scientific discourse helping or hindering our adjustment to political and technological progress? Next, Gabi asks Neil more about the reasons for these challenges to our thought. And finally, Ilia and Neil delve deeper into the interface of science and religion.
Gabi: I guess my question for you is, do you think that people, even though they struggle, they put things into boxes because they struggle with the continuum and then the boxes make them worse about it? Like it self-perpetuates?
Neil: So the boxing makes it easier for them to think about the problem. And I don't mind that, but then don't force your box thinking on other people. I didn't mean to overstate my position there. I get it. By the way, not only is there a box binning problem, there's a statistics problem. The human brain, as far as I can judge, is not natively wired to think statistically about anything. And some evidence I have for that is, if you look at the development of branches of mathematics, so geometry, algebra, arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, geometry. This is not an order. I'm messing up the order, but certainly calculus after all the rest of them. Do you realize the first research paper that decided that taking an average of numbers would be a good idea was published after the development of all these branches of mathematics?
That is weird because you can teach probability and statistics at a relatively early age, long before you learn calculus, of course. But it didn't come naturally to people. And it is so unnatural that entire industries have arisen to exploit the fact that it's not natural, and they're called casinos. You go to a casino and you're betting on seven multiple times at the roulette tech. And I ask, "Well, why are you betting on seven?" "Well, it's due." I said, "What do you mean it's due?" "Well, they show the list of previous roles and it's not there, so it's due." No, it's not due. You just have no freaking idea how probability works and they're taking your money. Do you understand this? No, they don't understand it because we're not taught it.
Gabi: Do you think that, even though everything we create is natural, it's still important to engage with things that we haven't created, like the world, you know, you'd usually call it nature, but like the world outside of what we've built?
Neil: It's a great question. Thank you for that. I don't require that other people feel the same way about technology as I do. And by the way, all of my opinions, I don't care if anyone ever has my opinions, they're my opinions. What I care about is that whatever opinion you have, that it's based on some objective truths, otherwise your thoughts are just air. And what are they based on? Nothing. You have some foundation as objector truth, then formulate your opinion based on it. Fine! So like I said, I view human technology as part of nature because we are part of nature as homo sapiens. So is it still important to interact with nature? Not always. Nature can batter shorelines with storms. Nature has poisonous venomous creatures that can kill you, that can create, you know, let's interact with pollen. No, because I'm allergic to pollen. I'm not really, but others are okay. No, nature is not some panacea, all good things. All that's good is not natural, and all that's natural is not good. There's stuff out there that will kill you. So if you cherry pick the stuff that's beautiful and nice, then sure. I like sitting on the ocean shore. I like watching a beautiful sunset. I don't like hiking on mountains, but I like being on a mountain as though I hiked it and looking at the view. If there's an easy way to get me to the mountaintop, take me there. So, sure, but don't think of nature as some all-encompassing, beautiful, healthy thing in the service of your longevity because it's not.
Ilia: Several points. I just want to recap here. Well, right here on the point of nature, you know, what is your view of the whole global warming, ecological thing? Obviously, we haven't really attended to nature. I mean, where do you see, if I can just ask you in a snapshot, what do you think is the principle problem here?
Neil: Well, first I was delighted to see that in the, was it six or seven years ago, the pontiff included reference to the need to protect nature and to stop global warming. So to have that in such a high level religious statement, many people follow what the Pope does—more than a billion people for sure. For it to make it into such a document, I think was a good thing. By the way, if all fossil fuels were burned and all the carbon dioxide went into the atmosphere, human beings will still be here, but everything we've built as part of civilization wouldn't be. So we would lose civilization that we've spent 10,000 years developing. So, it's not going to render us extinct, but it would be very bad for everything we care about and that our ancestors helped to build.
So, I don't know what you mean by “what do I think of climate change and global warming?” If we don't do something about it, it will be catastrophic. First for coastal cities, as we melt the land ice on Greenland and Antarctica, the water levels will rise. If we melt all of that ice, then the water level will reach the height of the Statue of Liberty's left elbow. This is the elbow holding what I think is the Declaration of Independence, but it has July 4th, 1776 on it, so that'll flood every coastal city. And why are cities on coast? Because that's where we built them, because it provided commerce and irrigation, and transportation, and all the useful things you might want that people are gathering at a city. And you may have read that—is it State Farm?—has stopped ensuring homes in California against wildfires. So the scientists, military and insurance companies are the three who know best what the impacts of climate change will be.
And even if we have major political factions that remain in denial of it, they'll come around eventually when—if they're wealthy, their second home gets flooded on the coastline and other things hit their pocketbook more directly. It's unfortunate that it would take that long, but it kind of looks that way right now. I don't know. Electric cars, that's a nice thing. Many people have gotten that bug. That's a good bug to have. Kind of take yourself off of the dependence on fossil fuels, which is what running anything electric is the beginning stages of that achievement.
Ilia: I was asked this question not too long ago and I'd love to hear from you who are renowned an esteemed astrophysicist and that is in the long future of this universe, you know, as it begins to wear down, is there a possibility that all life in the universe could go extinct? Like all lights out, that there would actually be like the last thought in the universe?
Neil: Yeah, of course. Oh yeah. Oh, by the way, you said earlier and I didn't jump on it because the topic was actually something different. You're talking about this search for intelligent life in the universe and consider, and this is also a cosmic perspective. Generally, we think of humans as being intelligent, of course. But who said that about humans? Who said we're intelligent? We did. Okay, so what kind of definition is that? It might be that alien life is vastly more intelligent than we are, and that we would not even rank among their levels of intelligence. That's entirely possible. So you are thinking we have these thoughts and the last thought existing in the universe, how tragic would that be? The aliens, more intelligent than we are, might be thinking. Humans are not capable of any kind of interesting thought. Everything is trivial. Our greatest thoughts to them are trivial.
So, I will never bask in our own intelligence, always thinking about the possibility that there could be another life vastly more intelligently aware. That's first. Second, the universe, if evolution of life on earth is any indication, spent billions of years without intelligent life having a thought or any kind of life having a thought. So the idea of a universe with no thought to me is not scary. It's, when a species goes extinct, which has happened for 95% of all species that ever existed, that species will never have a thought relevant to that species again because the species is extinct. So, this loss of thought is going on all the time. But we're also introducing thought—we invented dogs. They're the first GMO. Dogs are having thoughts that have never been had in the history of the world before there were dogs. We invented dogs for this purpose, just for our own entertainment and our own comfort and our own, in early days our own survival, to protect us against bears. So, I don't value, I can't be as concerned as you might be about that moment where there’s a last day that we would ever have a thought.
Ilia: Ah, okay. I mean, you're just saying this is a natural part of cosmic life?
Neil: So I would say, if we go extinct, and then there's another intelligent species out there, they're having thoughts. So you are worried about the last one; there could be some other universe in a multiverse where there's plenty of thoughts going on, so I can't think that highly of my thought.
Ilia: I mean, I'm of the persuasion that there is indeed the possibility for life on other sectors of the universe and other corner
Neil: Evidence points to the likelihood of that, even if we haven't found it yet.
Ilia: And I too would agree that there's nothing to say that we're the most intelligent species, and I don't think in the universe, and I definitely think there can be other forms.
Neil: And by the way, there are people who are alien religious, who are certain that we are the creation of a more intelligent alien species that live on planets in the group of stars called the Pleiades, and they're the ray aliens and that they've created us. Either in their own image or otherwise, but that we are their handiwork. They took the monotheistic religious sense of the world and applied it to aliens.
Ilia: We are involved in projects in astrophilosophy/astrotheology, so it's an area that's really interesting. But I also want to ask you this. So this is our visible universe, right? Do you think that it's possible that we're living in tandem or entangled with other universes or other possible universes?
Neil: If we're entangled, we would see it in some way and interact with it and then we'd call that part of our universe. It's definitional at that level, but we do have a horizon, a cosmic horizon, we cannot see beyond that horizon. Surely the universe extends beyond that, but when we give the dimensions of the universe, it's not the dimensions of the universe, it's the dimensions of our pocket of the universe. And when we give the age of the universe, it's the age of our pocket. Though, if we go beyond our edge, beyond our horizon, there's no reason to think that there aren't other universes out there, other life forms. No one stops you from thinking that.
If I could just say one thing more sharply tuned to science religion dialogue, I think the fundamentalist community, they tend to get most of the media attention. Not only because they're very good at it and they have media machines and the service of it. But also, it makes very good clickbait for news stories because it's so extreme. And I can tell you that whatever is or will be intersections between science and religion, it will not come from religion making declarations about the physical world. It just will not. And if you want to say, “I don't believe what the scientist says about the nature of water or planets or the universe or the Big Bang because my Bible tells me different.” In a free country, you are free to think whatever you want. And of course, religion in the United States is protected, constitutionally protected. But that doesn't mean that what you gleaned from your holy book about the physical universe is objectively true, verifiable by experiment. And so, if you can't embrace that, then stay within your world and don't try to reach for the science because the science will not always agree with what you need it to say. And so this puts people in boxes that I don't know if they had intended. It boxes them into some worldview. And again, keep doing it, and there's plenty of things for you in the world, but head of NASA should not be one of them if you're running around saying the universe was created in six days 6,000 years ago, there's really no room for you at NASA.
Ilia: We're radicals, we're pushing the edge on religion.
Neil: Okay, so your enlightened religious folk.
Ilia: So, your saying reminds me of Galileo. When he was brought before the Inquisition, he said, “the Bible tells us not how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven.” We're not meant to use scripture as a science book.
Neil: But you got to say that with a little more, sort of attitudinally. “The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” You’ve got to like rattle that off. Now, it's rumored that he was requoting someone he was corresponding with in his mail, the Queen Christina. I think he was quoting her when he repeated that. That's not even his best quote. Holding aside all his good quotes: about wine, you know the one about the sun can hold the planets in their appointed paths, yet somehow managed to ripen a bunch of grapes as though it had nothing else in the world to do?
Ilia: I love that one. Spoken like a true Italian. Only an Italian would come up with something like wine and sun. Oh, that's great.
Neil: Oh, that's great, that's Galileo. Exactly. But another one was, and I'll mangle this but only a little bit, it's, "I refuse to believe that God would give us this level of intelligence and somehow expect us to forgo its use,” as he's decoding nature, discovering starry messages that conflict with prevailing dogma.
Ilia: Well, that's it. Alfred North Whitehead said, "Unless religion changes in the same spirit as science, it really has nothing to offer." So we're very attentive to science as science. We're not trying to make science into religion or religion to science and all that kind of thing.
Neil: Just to clarify that quote, this is a misunderstanding, I just want to clarify it here in the little time we have. Science in a heartbeat will adjust its understanding of the world in the face of new data. But the understanding of the world, if it's been established by the methods and tools of science and repeated experiment, peer review and observation, that does not change.
Ilia: Not easily.
Neil: No, not at all. No, I just want to make that clear. It does not change. What happens is, this is in the era of...
Ilia: The data's still there.
Neil: What I'm saying is, in the era of science as we now practice it, which is basically from Galileo onward, from some 1600 onward. If a measurement has been made and verified and you draw conclusions based on those measurements, there is not a time in the future where that becomes false. What can happen and does happen is we find a deeper truth in which that truth becomes embedded so that we have a deeper understanding of the universe. So news', laws of motion fail, outright fail in high fields of gravity and high speeds, but at every speed he had ever tested it for, it still works. And in fact, we went to the moon and back only on Newton's laws with no Einstein laws at all, because we weren't going fast enough, and the gravity of the moon is not high enough. So people say, well, scientists change their minds all the time. On the frontier we do, before there's enough evidence to decide what gets put in the books and what does not. So, I just want to make that very clear about this.
Ilia: That's a really important point actually.
Neil: And in medicine, if someone says, oh, cholesterol's good for you or bad, whatever it is, if everyone is doing that and you find out that it reversed, if because whatever they originally based on was on one study, not multiple studies that verified that conclusion. In basically every case, that's what's happening. When you see something flipped back and forth, it was never actually fully supported.
Neil: Objective truths. That's correct. Objective truth, the methods and tools of science are exquisitely tuned to be established. And once those objective truths they're established, they're not later on shown to be false. Another example is, volcanologists had an understanding that maybe magma was gurgling up from the mantle, punching holes through the crust and gurgling up and making—that was understood before we knew about continental drift. This was understood and everybody agreed on it when they want to solve other problems. Then we learned about continental drift. Oh my gosh, this hotspot can move as the plates drift and it can punch through the crust again. Then the volcano can go dormant, the crust moves, they can through again. My gosh, this is how you make the archipelago—the island change. Every island in Hawaii is a volcanic island. Not because it all happened at once—and one island is bigger than the other, bigger than the other, bigger than the other. It explains so much more. But the idea that magma came up through a hole in the crust was still intact. But now it was understood on a much deeper level. So this is the point, and the bleeding frontier of science, we are arguing. So if someone says, not even the scientists can agree on this—we never agree on anything on the frontier. That's the whole point of the frontier.
Ilia: You know what's so wonderful, Neil, about you, is you're very much a scientist and focused on objective truth, but you have a real passion for science. You're given a great love of -
Neil: It's a passion, it's a curiosity passion, I think.
Ilia: Oh, give it up. It's a passion. No, really, clearly you're a fantastic scientist and you've done so much really for the public to your contributions.
Neil: Well, thank you for the endorsement and keep shaking things up as you clearly are.
Ilia: We will. We're so grateful for your time this afternoon for your incredible conversation, your wisdom, your knowledge, your expensive knowledge, and your takes on different matters. So keep writing, keep those books in the oven, keep them cooking because we need to in the universe.
Neil: Thank you.
Ilia: Thank you so much.
Robert: We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Neil DeGrass Tyson. Next week we're delighted to host theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute and for all your generous financial support during our June fundraiser at the Center for Christogenesis. As always, I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.