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Neil DeGrasse Tyson Shows Why Science Can’t Build a Utopia

Last week agnostic astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted, “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence." I did my best in 140 characters to show how this sentiment is the exact of opposite of profound. I said, “@neiltyson‘Rationalia’ is as useless as ‘Correctistan,’ or a country whose constitution says, ‘Always make the correct decisions.'”

Obviously, public policy should rationally consider all the relevant facts and circumstances. But it is naïve to think that all it takes to create a just society is a scientific mindset that “follows the evidence where it leads."

That’s because the “evidence" we need includes not just facts Dr. Tyson and other scientists can confirm in a laboratory but values that help us interpret those facts and come to correct conclusions. In fact, a tragedy that took place last week perfectly illustrates how we can’t solve every problem with a facile appeal to scientific reasoning.

The driverless car dilemma

Last week Joshua Brown became the first fatality in an accident involving a car using autopilot mode. This won’t spell the end of driverless cars any more than the very first automobile crash kept the horse and buggy in business, but the technology does raise important questions related to ethics and highway safety regulations. For example, a recently published article in the journal Science revealed the attitude of 2,000 people towards this dilemma:

A driverless car is about to run over ten people, and there is not enough time to for the car to stop. The only the way the car can avoid killing the pedestrians is to swerve into a wall, which will probably kill one or more of the vehicle’s passengers. Should driverless cars be programmed to save as many lives as possible in an accident (utilitarian programming)? Or should they be programmed to do what is necessary to protect their passengers?

The survey revealed that 76 percent of people believe it is more moral for a driverless car to receive utilitarian programming. In other words, most people think it’s better if a car’s computer sacrificed the vehicle’s passengers in order to save as many lives as possible. But the survey also revealed that 81 percent of respondents would not purchase a driverless car with such programming. Instead, they would prefer a car programmed to protect them and their passengers at all costs.

This brings us back to Dr. Tyson’s suggestion that we follow “the weight of the evidence." How should Rationalia’s transportation authority deal with the problem of highway fatalities? Should it mandate utilitarian programming in driverless cars in order to achieve the goal of reducing highway fatalities? Or should it allow drivers to choose which programming they want in order to achieve the goal of respecting civil liberties, even if it causes an increase in traffic fatalities?

The “evidence," or facts and statistical relations, can support both policies, so an appeal to facts alone doesn’t tell us what we ought to do. The “Rationalia" approach won’t resolve dilemmas like this, because ethical disputes tend to be about the values people hold and not just the facts they observe. This means Rationalia’s anemic constitution cannot resolve societal disputes any more than your GPS unit can resolve a fight your family has over a summer vacation.

In both cases science can give us facts that describe what is, but only philosophical reflection can tell us what we ought to do.

The myth of objectivity

In a video posted a few days ago, Dr. Tyson explained in more detail why something like Rationalia is necessary. He said, “It is unstable to build a government on a belief system." [Audience applauds] “What you want is objectively verifiable truths, that we can all agree—that’s what you build your economic system on, your government system."

What does he mean by “belief system"? In the video Dr. Tyson is clearly referring to religion. He says those kinds of belief systems are unstable, because religious people disagree with one another. Instead, we should build public policy on “objectively verifiable truths," which are apparently secular in nature. I agree that public policy should not simply mirror what is found in divine revelation (something natural law theorists like St. Thomas Aquinas have known for millennia). But the materialistic, utilitarian thinking that motivates scientists like Dr. Tyson is not exempt from this critique.

Many people, religious and nonreligious, disagree with that belief system. Furthermore, the truth of this value system can’t be “objectively verified" with a scientific instrument. In other words, you can’t build a political philosophy, even one as simple as Rationalia’s, out of something like the periodic table of elements. You need objectively true values or moral facts that can be known only through nonscientific means like intuition or ethical reflection. Since God is pure goodness itself and can be known through reason, we can build equitable societies on moral principles derived from the natural law that compliment the special moral principles we receive from the same source in divine revelation.

There’s nothing wrong with someone like Neil De Grasse Tyson encouraging us to be rational when we debate important social issues. What is objectionable is the claim that because some scientists are successful at solving practical problems we should adopt their personal value systems. We should instead critically examine these value systems and apply nonscientific (but equally valid) philosophical tests to see if they support just societies and affirm the intrinsic dignity of the human person.

Written By Trent Horn



  1. Tom Rafferty Reply

    Knowing the thinking of NDT, I would guess that this article is not correct in its understanding of what he really is saying. Science must be the base upon which reason is conducted. Yes, various philosophies can be included in the discussion, however, religious revelation in ANY form must never be used because it is unsupported dogma.

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    I think Trent Horn misrepresents Tyson to some degree. I encourage everyone to watch the entire video he links to, and not just the last couple minutes that the link takes you to. Listen to Tyson’s entire argument, and not just Trent’s paraphrasing of it. That we should not trust belief systems, (which to me would include ideologies like Communism and Nazism as well as religion), is pretty well proven, based on the historical record of all the damage these systems have invoked on us, and still do in places like Iran, KSA, Pakistan, N. Korea, etc.
    As to how one might use rational thought and logic, i.e. tools of science, to evolve or develop personal and social value systems or morals, I would suggest reading Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape." Harris puts forth a compelling argument for how science can participate in this endeavor. Essentially, he defines a landscape in which peaks represent the very best that we can imagine for individuals and society at large (personal freedom, full employment, peace), and valleys are the very worst we can imagine (slavery, starvation, oppression, war, etc.) Then for any event, action, idea, etc. one can evaluate, using a scientific process, whether this item moves one towards a valley or towards a peak. That such a practice will never provide 100% accuracy is immaterial. There are better and worse ways to do things. One can get a count of all the mosquitoes in the Everglades by sending out every citizen in FL out with a little bag to catch them, or one can take a scientific sample in representative areas – there are always better and worse ways to do things. Science can help determine the best ways to help us make these decisions.
    We’ve already seen the results when belief based systems determine our values and morality. The results aren’t pretty. And we certainly can’t use the bible as a source of morality unless we’re going to descend back into those valleys of genocide, slavery, sexism, rape and pillage, brutal punishments for imaginary crimes, etc. It’s time to look to the peaks and use the tools we have, the tools proven again and again to simply work, the tools of science. It’s time to try another way. Science is not a competing belief system – it is a process that simply works. What’s wrong with that?

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