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Man Is Not the Measure: Whittaker Chambers on Tyson’s ‘Rationalia’

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tyson-chambers1“Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world.” –Whittaker Chambers

The vain self-confidence of high-minded planners and politicians has caused great harm throughout human history, much of it done in the name of “reason” and “science” and “progress.” In an information age such as ours, the technocratic temptation is stronger than ever.

As the Tower of Babel confirms, we have always had a disposition to think we can know more than we can know, and can construct beyond what we can construct. “Let us build ourselves a tower with its top in the heavens. Let us make a name for ourselves.”

America was wise to begin its project with active constraints against age-old conceits, but we have not been without our regimes of busybody bureaucrats seeking to plan their way to enlightened equilibrium and social utopia.

Such attitudes emerge across a range of specialties, but a recent proposition by popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson captures the essence rather well.

Thomas Sowell is fond of saying that “the most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best,” and for Tyson, his preferred pool of “evidence” hustlers offer a very basic answer.

It’s but one comment in a string of chronically scientistic sentiments from Tyson, each based on the notion that the “evidence is already in,” so what are we waiting for? Tyson routinely chuckles over his growing impatience with “asking deep questions,” which inevitably lead to a “pointless delay in your progress.” Philosophy is a mere “distraction,” he says, and a “waste of time.” (We can assume he feels the same about theology.)

Indeed, why ask “deep questions” about the meaning of life, or the meaning of a good life, never mind the moral merits of Policy X, when the experts already have “science” and “evidence” to lead the way?

Kevin Williamson has already unpacked the ignorance of all this as it relates to the knowledge problem more broadly, so I needn’t attempt that here. But assuming we understand that gap, it’s worth revisiting a piece by Whittaker Chambers, which speaks more directly to what I think is the bigger missing piece: humility before and faith in God.

In a 1948 TIME cover story on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (who is not my focus here), Chambers begins with a lengthy introduction on the temptations of our scientific age and the tendency to idolize humanistic reason. When man defines nature according to God, Chambers writes, “with prayer, with humility of spirit tempering his temerity of man,” he is “driven by the noblest of his intuitions.” When he defines nature according to himself, however, the inevitable result is “intolerable shallowness of thought combined with incalculable mischief in action.” Enter Tyson et al.

Even for the supposedly religious masses — the “untheological Christians,” as Chambers calls them — “God has become, at best, a rather unfairly furtive presence, a lurking luminosity, a cozy thought. At worst, He is conversationally embarrassing.” “Modern man knows a great deal about the nature of the atom,” he continues. “But he knows almost nothing about the nature of God, almost never thinks about it, and is complacently unaware that there may be any reason to.”

Alas, having fully inhaled communism’s own “rational faith in man,” Chambers already knew Tyson’s Rationalia rather well:

Under the bland influence of the idea of progress, man, supposing himself more and more to be the measure of all things, achieved a singularly easy conscience and an almost hermetically smug optimism. The idea that man is sinful and needs redemption was subtly changed into the idea that man is by nature good and hence capable of indefinite perfectibility. This perfectibility is being achieved through technology, science, politics, social reform, education. Man is essentially good, says 20th Century liberalism, because he is rational, and his rationality is (if the speaker happens to be a liberal Protestant) divine, or (if he happens to be religiously unattached) at least benign. Thus the reason defying paradoxes of Christian faith are happily bypassed.

And yet, as 20th Century civilization reaches a climax, its own paradoxes grow catastrophic. The incomparable technological achievement is more and more dedicated to the task of destruction. Man’s marvelous conquest of space has made total war a household experience and, over vast reaches of the world, the commonest of childhood memories. The more abundance increases, the more resentment becomes the characteristic new look on 20th Century faces. The more production multiplies, the more scarcities become endemic. The faster science gains on disease (which, ultimately, seems always to elude it), the more the human race dies at the hands of living men. Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world.

These words were written nearly 70 years ago, but modern society and modern man has only continued down that path, self-constructing towers to humanistic heights at the expense of human freedom — all for the glory and fame of man. Whereas the top-downers like Tyson believe that truth is already known — rendering freedom and struggle and disagreement unnecessary — the bottom-uppers see a world in which truth and goodness must be actively pursued, with freedom being the big thing that will get us there.

Thus, as Tyson and friends indulge their latest daydreams about (another) “rational age” dictated by the enlightened surveyors of “evidence,” let us resist and overcome this “blind impasse of optimistic liberalism.” Not simply by saying “no,” and not simply through science, properly understood. But by elevating and illuminating the very things it rejects: good philosophy, good theology, and the burning Word of the One they inevitably point to.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • Tyson is the spawn of Sagan.

  • “Vain self confidence” — that describes it.

    Many of Tyson’s cult put themselves above the unwashed masses. They believe they’re better able to weigh evidence and make rational decisions than their neighbors.

    It is hypocritical when these folks proclaim themselves “more rational than thou”. Many of Tyson’s fans slept through their high school math and science classes. Even Tyson is a bumbling klutz when it comes to disseminating accurate science. See Fact Checking Neil deGrasse Tyson

    Smug, pompous idiocy.

  • (Sigh…)

    Of course we should weigh evidence and strive to be rational. No one is arguing against this very obvious notion.

    We are ridiculing the self appointed citizens of Rationalia who deem themselves more rational than their neighbors. Tyson is an exceedingly sloppy scholar and many of his fans just barely passed high school math and science. I don’t acknowledge they are better able to weigh evidence and come to rational decisions.

    • Their definition of rationality is different, too. Hayek explains it well. Essentially, they start with what they know or can know. Everything done in the past is irrational. Something is rational only if they can completely understand it and see all of the consequences. That doesn’t cause a problem in physics, but it’s deadly in the social sciences. And as I wrote above, people like Tyson try to force social sciences into the physics mold when it requires a completely different method.

  • Marc Vander Maas

    I’d just note that there are a lot of problems in society today that are based on a failure to recognize the limits of science, which often produces “policy based evidence” rather than “evidence based policy.” Science is a tool – an important one, to be sure. But tools used incorrectly produce very bad results.

  • You’re just blowing smoke. Tyson’s attitude is centuries old. Atheist socialists have been saying it since the French revolution. Don’t pretend you’re unfamiliar with it. Saint-Simon, the first modern socialist, wanted a dictatorship by a junta of top scientists with a mathematician at the top. See Hayek’s “Counter-revolution in Science.” Hayek also wrote about it in “Individualism: True and False.”

    There are many problems with Tyson’s perspective. He doesn’t mention goals. Science cannot determine goals. Those come from people’s religion. Science can tell you the most efficient ways to exterminate Jews, but it can’t tell you whether that is a good idea or morally good.

    The main problem is that with people no one can do controlled experiments as scientists do in physics. It’s impossible. Behaviorists have attempted to do controlled experiments for decades, but have come up with nothing but trivia. The evidence of the social sciences is nothing but history, and history is always a complex phenomenon, vastly more complex than anything physics deals with. Physics is child’s play in comparison.

    History is so complex and contradictory that anyone can find support for their crackpot ideas in it. Mises and Hayek proved that for economics, one needs a scientific methods different from physics. Instead of building theory from controlled experiments, which is impossible, the social sciences must work deductively, beginning with a priori knowledge of human nature to build theory and then use it to organize history.

    Scientists should be much more humble. Keep the history of eugenics in mind. Also keep in mind that Nazism, fascism and communism were all based on science and “the evidence.”

  • Tyson likes to claim belief shuts down scientific inquiry. I could point to Isaac Newton, Srinavas Ramanujan, René Descartes, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaître and many other brilliant scientists and mathematicians who were believers.

    I could also point to agnostics such as Tyson. His biggest contribution to astrophysics was a mediocre dissertation rejected by his first doctoral review committee. The rest of his career has been devoted to breezy pop sci lectures that are often over simplified and occasionally out and out wrong.

    However I can also point to stupid believers as well as brilliant agnostics.

    So it’s obvious people with diverse world views can make contributions. And it’s also obvious people with diverse world views are capable of stupidity.

    You seem certain your world view is superior to mine. It is easy to be smug when you’re clueless.

  • Marc Vander Maas

    Are you referring to Tyson? Because that’s who I had in mind.

  • You’re trying to complicate an obvious situation with irrelevant and unnecessary points in order to conceal the truth.

    • Ally Van Andel

      LOL, compared your infinitely simpler 5 paragraph response to me saying that applying reason and the weight of evidence is too “complicated”?

      • Yeah, and you’re doing the same thing now. Do you think Tyson’s remarks can be interpreted many ways? If so then such a short tweet is meaningless. Do you think he intended to tweet meaningless gibberish? Or would it be more reasonable to assume that his tweet was so short because he understood that most people would take it in the context of his previous writings and philosophy?

        It was also short because his philosophy has a long pedigree that he didn’t need to write a dissertation on. It’s well known to most educated readers.

        You’re just trying to obfuscate by claiming the tweet was without any context at all.

        • Ally Van Andel

          “You’re just trying to obfuscate by claiming the tweet was without any context at all.”

          Taking the comment only for what it says is not obfuscation. You have it backward. Your long analysis and verbiage over a 12 word phrase is the obfuscation; driven by an insatiable need to read your own beliefs and feelings into everything.

          • Yes, it is obfuscation if you claim that it has no context and can therefore mean anything. The first rule of hermeneutics is consider the context. As I wrote above, he made a short tweet because he knew that people understood the context. You’re claiming it has no context. My post that you can’t seem to understand was to fill in the context that Tyson was taking for granted