Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

The Case of Tim Peake Shows the Perils of “Awe”


In 2016, British astronaut Tim Peake finished a 186-day mission to the International Space Station. More recently, back in August, he gave a talk at Peterborough Cathedral that raised eyebrows. 

The Times noted in surprise, “Tim Peake makes leap towards intelligent design thesis.” From The Week:

 “Although I say I’m not religious it doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t seriously consider that the universe could have been created from intelligent design,” he said while [standing] beside the capsule that helped him return to Earth from the ISS in 2016.

“There are many things in science that lead us towards that conclusion. From a point of view of seeing how magnificent the Earth is from space and seeing the cosmos from a different perspective, it helps you to relate to that.

“That’s the macro level. When you look at the smaller scale, the micro level, and you understand quantum mechanics and quantum physics, there are many things that lead us towards intelligent design of the universe.”

The Week and Quartz report that other astronauts have experienced the same kind of unforgettable “overview effect” or “moment of awe.” Perhaps we get so distracted down here that we miss the forest for the trees, while up there you can’t fail to feel the wonder. 

Meanwhile, still hyper-focusing on trees, The Guardian challenges Peake and demands to know, “Intelligent design? How come He made so many blunders?” Yes, it’s the familiar complaint about “poor design” including, you guessed it, the design of the human eye. But even ID critic Josh Swamidass admits that the “poor design” charge fails to persuade, while Brian Miller classifies it as the “imperfection-of-the-gaps fallacy.”

Shock and Awe

It will not shock you to hear that Peake, following his comments on ID, came under pressure to toe the materialist line on evolution. Although his thoughts about intelligent design were aroused two years ago, he seemingly walked them back a bit in a BBC radio interview.

PEAKE: I don’t think anybody can leave this earth and look back and not have a changed perspective, but in terms of my belief, it hasn’t changed my belief. I’m still agnostic. I think I describe myself as waiting for science to discover the truth.

INTERVIEWER: But you said as well, did you not, that you could at least when you’re out there looking back at the earth you can at least entertain the possibility that it is, as I think you put it, it could be created from intelligent design?

PEAKE: I certainly, I certainly can — I think, I think most scientists also keep a very open mind about the possibilities, the creation of the universe. I think that’s an area where science still has an awful lot to discover. I think that’s one of the very exciting things. I think it doesn’t matter whether you believe in intelligent design or whether you believe that the creation of the universe was a spontaneous random event — both of those are absolutely incredible possibilities…

Pressure to Conform

To be honest, his comments to the BBC sound at first like backpedaling, but at the same time the language about “absolutely incredible possibilities” is ambiguous. “Incredible” can mean wonderful and exciting, or it can mean not credible. Well, you can imagine the pressure to conform that a prominent person like Peake would be subjected to, having endorsed a radioactive idea like ID. 

Some materialists criticize the feeling of “awe” itself as a problem for people, especially the young, in getting with the program and embracing evolution. You can see why. As the case of Tim Peake demonstrates, a bit of wonder is a dangerous thing.

Photo: Tim Peake, by NASA/Timothy Kopra [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.