How Is Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Shaping Your View of the Universe?

Cosmos A Space Time Odyssey poster

Cosmos A Space Time Odyssey poster“The cosmos is all there is, was, or ever will be.” Carl Sagan recited this creed at the outset of each episode of Cosmos, the wildly popular PBS show that debuted in the 1980s. A generation later, Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, has revived the show, which is devoted to a reverent, accessible, and almost giddy exploration of the universe.

In this most recent incarnation of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an accomplished astrophysicist who is well known for his work at the Hayden Planetarium and the American Museum of Natural History, replaces Sagan, using his baritone voice and fatherly aura to guide viewers through the universe much like Virgil led Dante through the nine circles of hell. But, with the exception of Venus, which is described as “hellish,” Tyson’s tour is much more lighthearted, filled with special effects and a genuine interest in both the grandest and smallest elements of the cosmos.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Tyson states that Cosmos is the type of show that deserves a wide audience, because it can help inform people’s “cosmic perspective.” “Cosmos can influence you not only intellectually but emotionally. And with its good doses of awe and wonder, it can even affect you spiritually.” Tyson’s televised journeys through the sleek, redesigned “Ship of Imagination” are designed not only to inspire wonder at the universe’s magnificent diversity, but also to shape its audience’s views of the universe.

At one point in the show’s second episode, Dr. Tyson describes his scientific investigation of reality as “a soaring spiritual experience.” But what kind of spiritual experience is Dr. Tyson describing? And what kind of “cosmic perspective” is this show promoting?

The Nature and Destiny of Humanity

According to Dr. Tyson, who presents a strictly materialistic, Darwinian account of the universe, humans are not really that different from other animals. “There’s an understandable human need to distance ourselves from [chimpanzees, with which we share a common ancestry]. A central premise of traditional belief is that we were created separately from all the other animals. It’s easy to see why this idea has taken hold. It makes us feel … special.”

When talking about humanity’s relationship with the rest of the cosmos, Dr. Tyson simply says, “In the tree of life, you are here, one tiny branch among countless millions.” In other words, as much as humans want to feel as if they have a special place in the universe, they actually don’t. Humans — in Tyson’s view — are not designed with a purpose. Instead, we just exist, happily more advanced and evolved than the rest of creation.

But has science really debunked the traditional view that humans are qualitatively different from the animals? This traditional view — which accords quite nicely with human experience — is not strictly religious, but has been held by the brightest secular philosophers as well. Ancients and moderns alike accept the common-sense notion that humans are fundamentally distinct from beasts.

In Politics, Aristotle considers the capacity for reason and speech to be the exclusive domain of man, which makes him unique in all of nature: “That Man is a political animal in a higher sense than a bee or any other gregarious creature is evident from the fact that nature, as we are fond of asserting, creates nothing without a purpose, and man is the only animal endowed with speech. … The object of speech … is to indicate advantage and disadvantage and therefore also justice and injustice. For it is a special characteristic, which distinguishes man from all other animals, that he alone enjoys perception of good and evil, justice and injustice, and the like.”

Similarly, Cicero writes in On the Commonwealth about the distinguishing characteristic of man — that which unites him with the divine — namely, reason and speech: “Reason and speech constitute the most comprehensive bond that unites together men as men and all to all. … [M]an is the only animal that has a feeling for order, for propriety, for moderation in word and deed. And so no other animal has a sense of beauty, loveliness, harmony, in the visible world.

“That animal which we call man, endowed with foresight and quick intelligence, complex, keen, possessing memory, full of reason and prudence, has been given a certain distinguished status by the supreme God who created him; for he is the only one among so many different kinds and varieties of living beings who has a share in reason and thought, while all the rest are deprived of it. But what is more divine, I will not say in man only, but in all heaven and earth, than reason? And reason, when it is full grown and perfected, is rightly called wisdom. Therefore, since there is nothing better than reason, and since it exists both in man and God, the first common possession of man and God is reason.”

In addition to reason, speech, and the ability to engage in moral thought, G.K. Chesterton says that man’s artistic sensibilities — his capability to observe, create, and judge — which are unique to man, are keys to properly understanding his nature: “It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here, that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. … Art is the signature of man. … This creature was truly different from all other creatures, because he was a creator as well as a creature.”

Man has been given the tools — reason, speech, and art — to assume a governing role. To rule — that is the purpose for which we have been given these capacities. But who — or what —gave us these capacities? Since nature is unintelligent and irrational, how could it give us intelligence and rationality? Nature cannot give us what it does not have itself. Wouldn’t it be much more reasonable to assume that our intelligence has been given to us by an intelligent being, who fitted us with rationality and speech precisely so that we could fulfill the role he gave us — to fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28)?

Perhaps when chimpanzees host a television show in which they contemplate the order of the universe or sit in a Sunday school class considering matters of theology and ethics, we can without hesitation discard the traditional notion of humanity’s special place in the universe. Until then, we should treat humans as beings with purpose, who are deserving of respect and dignity.

Who Wrote the Genetic Code?

While delivering a paean to DNA, which contains intelligible written messages — the instructions necessary for life — Dr. Tyson says that each DNA molecule contains as many atoms as there are stars in a typical universe. “We are each of us a little universe,” Dr. Tyson booms.

If our genetic code authored itself, then we are answerable to no one and fully capable of doing whatever we want with our little universe. But, if there is an author of our genetic code and a maker of our bodies, then we necessarily have obligations to the giver of life. We don’t own our universes, but we have them on loan and are responsible for their safekeeping. We are little universes who are answerable to the divine governor — the sustainer of every little universe.

A single cell has as much information as four 30-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is highly improbable that natural, random processes would produce something as orderly, intelligible, and functional as the written information contained in that cell. An intelligible message requires an intelligent writer, who is extraordinarily wise, powerful, and creative.

Biblical Insights:

What is more deserving of honor — the creation or the creator? (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:25)

“The heavens tell of the glory of God. The skies display his marvelous craftsmanship.” (Psalm 19:1)

“Instead of believing what they knew was the truth about God, they deliberately chose to believe lies. So they worshiped the things God made but not the creator himself, who is to be praised forever. Amen.” (Romans 1:25)

While Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey heaps praises on the splendor, diversity, and complexity of creation, it makes absolutely no mention of a creator or even the idea that a creator might exist.

But there is no escaping the irresistible tendency to attribute design of the universe to something. And in Cosmos, that design is attributed to evolution and to natural selection.

Dr. Tyson gives natural selection — a so-called blind process — an unusual amount of agency. “This is the awesome … power of natural selection,” Dr. Tyson declares. “Natural selection was sculpting the eye.” For something that is described as blind, impersonal, and unintelligent, natural selection sure does quite a bit in Dr. Tyson’s view of the universe. In numerous instances, Dr. Tyson makes evolution the main actor in the history of the cosmos, frequently remarking about all of the striking actions evolution has performed. But is evolution a personal agent capable of doing anything?

We humans can’t help but describe the universe as the result of cause and effect, creator and creation. When this kind of language is used, the human propensity to seek a designer of the universe’s order and beauty is clearly revealed. Is it more reasonable to attribute this design to a rational, creative, powerful, purposeful personal being or an irrational, lifeless, blind, purposeless natural process?

When scientists eschew the notion of a supernatural creator who set all things in motion — the first cause, the self-existent being who is responsible for the existence of all things — they must replace the creator with something else. And they do — with natural, unaided evolution.

“The eye and all of biology make no sense without evolution,” Dr. Tyson notes. Unfortunately, if our primary explanation for the development of the universe, the sustaining of life, and human purpose is limited to evolutionary processes (without the guidance of God), then morality, too, is limited to natural selection. In a materialistic universe, there is no objective, universal morality. Without a transcendent being, there is no transcendent purpose. According to this cosmic perspective, ethics is no longer based on universal norms established by the author of nature, but on contingent, situational standards. In a naturalistic model that spurns the supernatural, man, created by purposeless processes, is himself devoid of purpose. But in a design model that accepts the idea of a transcendent God, man is created by a purposeful maker who imbues his universe with splendor, beauty, order, and meaning.

According to the biblical worldview, God is the spiritual, powerful, creative agent behind the cosmos. It is God who does. It is God who sustains.

Toward the end of episode two, Dr. Tyson shrugs his shoulders, admitting, “Nobody knows how life got started.” It’s OK to admit ignorance, Dr. Tyson states. The only shame is in pretending you have all the answers. But we Christians don’t assume we have all the answers about how God created the world — whether he did so in six days, over thousands of years, or through the means of divinely guided evolution — but we do take a common-sense position: If it looks designed, it probably is.

At the beginning of the series, Dr. Tyson informs his viewers of the “rules of science,” namely, use your imagination and follow the evidence wherever it leads. Evidently, we are to exercise imagination and follow the evidence in all cases except those in which we are led to believe in an intelligent designer. The last “rule” of science is to “question everything.” Wouldn’t it be scientific, then, for Christians to question the idea that the universe created and sustains itself?

Whatever your cosmic perspective, it will have a significant effect on your actions. A biblical worldview will lead you to honor the author of all of life as well as human beings who are made in his image. Scientific materialism, on the other hand, denies the existence of God and subsequently absolves humankind of the responsibility to treat each other with inherent dignity and worth. What is your cosmic perspective?