The first words one hears on the debut episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Cosmos are those of its creator, Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Sagan’s trademark phrase was meant to make clear the fundamental atheistic assumption defining his entire worldview: science explains why there is no God. Science makes God irrelevant, an idea of our ignorant ancestors that is long overdue for sweeping into history’s dustbin. Sagan’s Cosmos was the brush.
Will the new Cosmos be different? That’s a good question.
DeGrasse Tyson was asked in an interview what has changed since Sagan’s original version Cosmos, and he answered, “Everything!” One of the things that has changed is the way scientific hypotheses and conjectures can be presented because of the enormous advances in computer generated imagery.
The same technological advances that enabled Hollywood to create armies of orcs invading the bulwarks of Minas Tirith in the epic movie The Lord of the Rings, also allows even the most rarified and speculative hypotheses to be presented as visual facts. DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos takes full advantage of that technology, with the result often being that one is not clear whether one is seeing an actual picture of something that is real, a computer generation of something that is real, or a computer generation of something merely imagined. The actual and the imagined are therefore continually blurred, with the result being that viewers will implicitly accept fancy along with fact.
I am not condemning the use of computer generated imagery. It is often used on the new Cosmos to great effect. The first episode begins with DeGrasse Tyson whipping around our solar system on a metallic star-warsy Ship of the Imagination, visiting the moon, sun, and the various planets. The CG animators have done a wonderful job with the trip, giving us a dramatic set of planetary landscapes based upon science’s informed understanding of what the planets are actually like.
Such imagery is leading, rather than misleading. Is that exactly what Jupiter’s giant red spot would look like if we could, like DeGrasse Tyson in his imaginary spaceship, pull up close for a look? Well, more or less. We know there is a red spot, we’ve seen it with ever-more powerful telescopes, and it would probably look something like the fantastic CG imagery if we got as close as the Ship of the Imagination.
But what about the purely conjectural notion that our universe is but “one tiny bubble in an infinite ocean of other universes,” the so-called multiverse hypothesis? Well, there they are!—bubble universes floating across the screen.
Seeing is believing? Believing is seeing? “Universe upon universe, worlds without end,” deGrasse Tyson intones.
The conjectured CG multiverse is immediately opposed, by deGrasse Tyson, with the “old view,” held until about four centuries ago, that we lived in a small and cozy universe, a “universe made for us.” But (so the narrative continues) one man in the year 1600 stood against this view, and imagined “an infinitely grander cosmos,” And there he is, “in prison, of course,” shivering in his cell—Giordano Bruno, a man who lived in a time in which (as we are later informed) “there was no free thought.”
Here, Cosmos switches to an almost comically primitive cartoon of Bruno, one that in comparison to the fantastic CG so far, accentuates the comic foolishness of those who condemned Bruno for being a proto-Sagan. And then, we switch to a shot of the Vatican.
Get the picture? So, the narrative continues, Bruno with his noble vision falls into the “clutches of the thought police.” Why did this happen (the question is asked, as the camera pans over various intricate and strange torture devices)? Because, deGrasse Tyson tells us, “if Bruno was right, then the sacred books and the authority of the Church would be open to question.”
We are then treated to various scowling clerics issuing horrifying ultimatums, and then a dramatic burning of Bruno, the hero of science.
Much more could be said of the distortions of the new Cosmos, but the problem with it is perhaps most quickly grasped through one interesting fact: the whole cartoonish Bruno episode takes up about one-third of the first program. There is no doubt about the worldview that deGrasse Tyson will bring to all the remaining episodes: religion is evil because it opposes science; science is good because it rids us of religion.
The problem is—please see the sidebar for more on this—that Bruno was executed for heresy, not for putting forth scientific hypotheses. Bruno was not a scientist, but a man who hated Christianity and used the philosophical musings of the first-century BC Epicurean Lucretius as his battering ram against biblical religion. Lucretius also hated religion and believed it was the cause of all our human ills. Therefore, he invented a cosmos which had no need of the gods: a materialist cosmos, dotted with infinite worlds generated by the random jostling of atoms. Bruno adopted this worldview because he believed that it eliminated Christianity, not because he had any scientific evidence for it.
So, that helps us understand why deGrasse Tyson’s imaginary spaceship takes us on a ride through our solar system, into our galaxy, and then finally, beyond our universe to other bubble universes where (allegedly) an infinite number of worlds with an infinite number of creatures exist. Like Lucretius, he wants an infinite cosmos, a multiverse, which has no need of God.
The difficulty with the multiverse hypothesis is that—oddly enough—there is no evidence for it. Nor can there be any evidence for it, as even its proponents admit. DeGrasse Tyson doesn’t mention that, nor does he note that the multi-verse hypothesis, which he presents as a CG animated fact, was historically only set out to counter the actual evidence that our universe, the only one we can know, had a definite creation point from nothing. Even more telling, this Big Bang, this initial explosion, was so finely calibrated that it couldn’t have been an accident. But deGrasse Tyson makes no mention of all the scientific work that has been done on the fine-tuning of the Big Bang and the consequent cosmic development.
Sometimes he does make note of the difficulties that press upon anyone who attempts to explain, without a divine hand, how we got here. He admits that the attempt to explain the origin of life on Earth has entirely stymied scientists, but then merely continues with a CG account of it as if this were unproblematic. Computer generation smudges over the great gaps in the materialist account of life-by-chemical-accident.
Does that mean I’m condemning the new Cosmos? DeGrasse Tyson ends with a stirring account of his first meeting with Sagan, who went out of his way to befriend a young kid interested in science. One can see tears in the host’s eyes, I believe. Equally inspiring is deGrasse Tyson’s final appeal to the glory of science, which unites the splendor of nature and the strange and wonderful fact that human beings are able to know the cosmos in its intricate breadth and depth, from the smallest subatomic particles, through the endless parade of creatures, to the far edges of the universe. That is truly inspiring. Let’s just keep to the science, and leave the anti-religious worldview on the cutting room floor.