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Neil DeGrasse Tyson: wrong on God, evil, and miracles

Martez R. from the United States writes:

Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Hello, this question has been stuck on my mind for quite sometime. I saw a video long time ago in school where Neil Degrasse Tyson was asked “Does God Exist?”. He described an event that happened in Lisbon, Portugal in 1755 where an earthquake and tsunami happened on a religious holiday and killed many people that were holy and knocked down many churches. It made me wonder why would God kill his own people that did believe in him. He also stated that God is not luck, that when miracles take place it’s just “probability and statistics”. An gave an example where 1000 people would flip a penny and whoever held that penny with tails faced-side up would be eliminated. It would keep going on until there would be 1 person left. It made me question does God really look over us? Are miracles real, or is it just probability? I really hope you answer these questions for me as they have kept me from having a strong belief for God? Thank you.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Dear Martez,

Thank you for writing in. It looks like you’re referring to this.1 Anyway, let’s look at his two objections to God.

The Lisbon Earthquake and the Problem of Evil

The first issue Tyson brings up is a version of the problem of evil (on which see Why would a loving God allow death and suffering? and Why did God allow sin at all?). And Tyson appeals to a classical example: the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. That was used by several skeptics in the 18th century to argue against God. He argues from that event against God like this:

“Either God is not all good, if we define ‘good’ as being in the interest of your health and longevity. That’s a pretty simple definition of something that’s good for you. Or God is not all-powerful. But it’s not clear whether God could be both of those at the same time for that event. So, I take issue with what many people say God is.”

It’s important to remember who has the burden of proof, here. Tyson has put forward an argument against God, so he has the burden of proof. The theist doesn’t have to prove God, in this instance. Rather, we can object to this argument by showing that it doesn’t work, given the existence of the biblical God.

And there are plenty of ways to do this. First, why should we accept Tyson’s definition of ‘good’? Even in this life, there are plenty of things that we know to be ‘good’ that aren’t conducive to a person’s health and longevity: e.g. anyone who dies or even risks their safety to protect someone else. Indeed, on biblical theism, there is an afterlife in which God will set right all these problems. But if death isn’t the end of the story, Tyson’s definition of ‘good’ falls short. Plus, is God’s ultimate desire for us to live long and healthy lives, or to know Him? Clearly the latter. But this isn’t a part of Tyson’s definition of ‘good’, either.

But aside from that, why think God permitting the Lisbon earthquake makes him less than all-good? Tyson offers nothing. Indeed, is he even in a position to know whether God has good reasons for permitting it? Can we see enough of history to know what God’s reasons could be? Of course not. It’s beyond our ability to know. So, Tyson has no good grounds from the Lisbon earthquake (or similar events) to say God is less than all-good (or all-powerful).

Ironically, though, if the Lisbon earthquake is an instance of real evil in the world, then it’s actually evidence for God. How? Well, there’s an argument for God that goes like this:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. If there’s no God, moral values are either just the byproducts of evolution and culture, or merely personal preference.
  2. Evil exists. That’s what the atheist is saying. The world has real evil in it.
  3. Therefore, objective values do exist. Some things are really wrong.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

This is a modification of the moral argument for God. For more on this, please see Can atheism possibly explain morality and reason?, Why believe in objective morals?, Cultural Relativism and Morality, and Answering a moral relativist).

Miracles and probability

What about what Tyson says about probability and the paranormal? This is his scenario:

There are many people who will see things happen to them that are in their favour. They’ll say, well, ‘Someone’s looking over me.’ That’s a fascinating phenomenon, when that happens. And, when you analyze those situations, what you find is that we as humans simply have a profound inability to understand statistics and probability. It’s really that simple.
Here’s a quick experiment. Line up a thousand people, and give them a coin, and have them flip the coin. And, whoever gets tails, tell them to sit down. So, there’s about half—so, 500 people left. You repeat it—250 people left, 125, 60, 30, 15, 8, 4, 2, 1. It’s a thought experiment.
So, approximately half the people sat down every time they flipped the coin. Half of them get heads, half get tails. There’s one person that’s standing at the end: that person flipped heads ten consecutive times.
So, who does the press go to? The press goes to that person. And they say, “How do you feel about this?”
“Well, I felt that ‘heads’ energy about halfway through, and I kinda knew I was gonna win. I felt … I saw heads on the thing …’”.
And did they interview anybody else who might’ve felt exactly the same way but didn’t flip heads ten times in a row? Because they’re on their way home now! They’re not there for the interview.
So, we’re thinking that this guy had some kind of clairvoyance about his fate, or that he prayed, or whatever. And so, whereas every time you do this experiment, basically, somebody flips heads ten times in a row. And so we don’t know how to handle coincidences or things that are rare for you, even if they’re common in total. So, yeah, no, whatever God is, God is not luck. We can demonstrate that mathematically.

I can agree with Tyson that, in the event he posits, there’s no good reason to think the guy who won had some kind of clairvoyance about the win. After all, several people probably had a similar ‘feeling’ to the winner before they lost.

But can probability show us that there was no connection between the winner praying for the outcome and him winning? No. Probability only shows that someone was likely to win, not that the person who prayed was likely to win. If the winner prayed for the win beforehand, there’s no fault in him reasoning from the win to God having answered his prayer. Why? Because we don’t have to assume God did a miracle to make the winner win. God simply sovereignly ordered the natural circumstances such that he would win. And can science or probability refute the idea that God sovereignly controls history? Of course not. Such a claim is beyond science’s ability to test.

But why believe God sovereignly orders history? Well, the Bible teaches it. Plus, Jesus teaches it, and there’s solid evidence that his teaching was ratified by God when God raised him from the dead. (see Why did God allow sin at all? for more information). We don’t need to rely on improbable events to believe God is sovereign over history. But once we believe God sovereignly orders history, when we see improbable events that fall in our favour, I think the impulse to thank God is rational, since all good things come from him.

But Tyson’s scenario doesn’t remotely resemble what most people would call a ‘miracle’. So, let’s change it a bit to give a better example. What are the chances that the same single person will be left standing each time if we run this experiment 10 times? Much smaller, obviously. Smaller than even 1 in 1030 [Though see the comment of Richard P. for a different way of reading the ‘game’, which would give a result of the same specific person winning 10 times a chance of exactly 1 in 1030—Ed.]. So small, in fact, that we’d suspect foul play (e.g. the winning coin flipper has a double-tailed coin). But what if we found out that there was no foul play—everyone played the game properly, and all the coins were fair? Sure, it’s possible for it to happen by chance, but don’t you think we’re starting to deal with probabilities that render a chance explanation implausible? After all, while someone will most likely win each time, there is no necessity in the same person winning every time. It’s at this point most of us would start looking for an intelligent cause beyond the confines of the system. (See Cheating with chance)

But, here’s the thing—I don’t think anyone would deny that this could happen by natural causes. It is possible. So, is it a miracle? It depends what we mean by ‘miracle’. I would prefer to call this a case of ‘special providence’, where God arranges a set of natural circumstances to produce an highly improbable event that is readily recognizable as an act of God. (For more on miracles, please see Miracles and science, God, miracles, and logic, and How do miracles happen?)

Now, I wouldn’t quibble with people calling this a miracle in common parlance. But if we want to get specific, I think a ‘miracle’ is an event natural causes can’t produce, and has a religious significance. For instance, Jesus’ resurrection. Dead bodies stay dead. There are no exceptions to this, and we know the physics of why they stay dead. But, Jesus didn’t stay dead. Even more, he rose never to die again. Does that sound like anybody you’ve ever known? Of course not. Bodies can’t be immune to death, given the laws of physics as we know them. So, we’re looking at a genuine physical impossibility. And it had a clear religious significance: to usher in the first instance of New Creation—God’s restoration program for the world. Thus, what physics can’t do, God did. This is a miracle in the purest sense. And this is nothing like what Tyson describes in his scenario. (On Jesus’ resurrection, please see Argument from miracles: Jesus’ resurrection, Easter’s earliest creed, Proving Jesus’ resurrection without the Bible?, and Can we believe the Gospels?)

Kind regards,
Shaun Doyle
Creation Ministries International

Published: 14 November 2020

References and notes

  1. Tyson, N.deG., Was the Moon Landing faked? | Big Questions with Neil deGrasse Tyson, youtube,com, 22 Nov 2019. Return to text.

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