The Problem with ‘Cosmos’ as Popularization of Scientific ‘Reality’


This is the problem with people like Neil deGrasse Tyson: the people he criticizes are spreading nonsense, but in a certain sense he is doing exactly the same. While what he is saying has validity in a specific context, outside that context, which is where he is putting it, it is also nonsense. Worse, his underlying motive is the *same* as those who he is disputing. He’s not a sham ideologue like Dawkins or Hitchens, he’s sincerely trying to get across what ‘scientific reality’ looks like, but that’s precisely the problem. Much like Sagan and the first Cosmos series, there’s an assumption that ‘scientific reality’ is ‘really real reality’, which is a human, all too human desire, but one that can never be accomplished, because at root it is an unverifiable model that happens to be predictively more or less accurate, but nothing more.

“Both types of knowing possess their validity. One cannot claim that one is concerned with mere appearance while the other is concerned with reality. For elementary knowing vindicates its validity by the survival, not to mention the evolution, of animal species. On the other hand, any attempt to dispute the validity of fully human knowing involves the use of that knowing, and so, if the attempt is not to be frustrated by its own assumptions, it must presuppose that validity. The problem set by the two types of knowing is, then, not a problem of elimination but a problem of critical distinction. For the difficulty lies, not in either type of knowing by itself, but in the confusion that arises when one shifts unconsciously from one type to the other. Animals have no epistemological problems. Neither do scientists, as long as they stick to their task of observing, forming hypotheses, and verifying. The perennial source of nonsense is that, after the scientist has verified his hypothesis, he is likely to go a little further and tell the layman what, approximately, scientific reality looks like! Already we have attacked the unverifiable image; but now we can see the origin of the strange urge to foist upon mankind unverifiable images. For both the scientist and the layman, besides being intelligent and reasonable, also are animals. To them as animals, a verified hypothesis is just a jumble of words or symbols. What they want is an elementary knowing of the ‘really real,’ if not through sense, at least by imagination.”

Lonergan, Bernard (1992-04-06). Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Volume 3: 003 (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan)

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