Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy

doiusmpelstbw9isfoykby Massimo Pigliucci

It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson [1] has done it again: he has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise, and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so. But in his case the offense is particularly egregious, for two reasons: first, because he is a highly visible science communicator; second, because I told him not to, several times.

Let’s start with the latest episode, work our way back to a few others of the same kind (to establish that this is a pattern, not an unfortunate fluke), and then carefully tackle exactly where Neil and a number of his colleagues go wrong. But before any of that, let me try to halt the obvious objection to this entire essay in its tracks: no, this isn’t about defending “my” turf, for the simple reason that both philosophy and science are my turf [2]. I have practiced both disciplines as a scholar/researcher, I have taught introductory and graduate level classes in both fields, and I have written books about them both. So, while what follows inevitably will unfold as a defense of philosophy (yet again! [3]), it is a principled defense, not a petty one, and it most certainly doesn’t come from any kind of science envy.

Neil made his latest disparaging remarks about philosophy as a guest on the Nerdist podcast [4], following a statement by one of the hosts, who said that he majored in philosophy. Neil’s comeback was: “That can really mess you up.” The host then added: “I always felt like maybe there was a little too much question asking in philosophy [of science]?” And here is the rest of the pertinent dialogue:

dGT: I agree.

interviewer: At a certain point it’s just futile.

dGT: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly. My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?

(another) interviewer: I think a healthy balance of both is good.

dGT: Well, I’m still worried even about a healthy balance. Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress.

[insert predictable joke by one interviewer, imitating the clapping of one hand]

dGT: How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that. [Note to the reader: I, like Neil, live and work in Manhattan, and I can assure you that I am quite adept at crossing the perilous streets of the metropolis.]

interviewer [not one to put too fine a point on things, apparently]: I also felt that it was a fat load of crap, as one could define what crap is and the essential qualities that make up crap: how you grade a philosophy paper? [5]

dGT [laughing]: Of course I think we all agree you turned out okay.

interviewer: Philosophy was a good Major for comedy, I think, because it does get you to ask a lot of ridiculous questions about things.

dGT: No, you need people to laugh at your ridiculous questions.

interviewers: It’s a bottomless pit. It just becomes nihilism.

dGT: nihilism is a kind of philosophy.

The latter was pretty much the only correct observation about philosophy in the whole dialogue, as far as I can tell.

As I mentioned above, this isn’t the first time Neil has said things like this. For instance, during the q&a with the audience following one of his many (and highly enjoyable) public appearances [6], he was asked by a spectator: “would you rather die now or live forever?” To which his somewhat condescending reply was: “I never believe that the options available to a creative person are ever limited by the choices offered by a philosopher.” Which may be a very sophistic way of just not answering the question.

There is more: during a conversation with Richard Dawkins (another frequent offender), Neil was asked a question from the audience about philosophy of science and Stephen Hawkins’ declaration that philosophy is dead [7].

Here is Neil’s reply, in full:

“Up until early 20th century philosophers had material contributions to make to the physical sciences. Pretty much after quantum mechanics, remember the philosopher is the would be scientist but without a laboratory, right? And so what happens is, the 1920s come in, we learn about the expanding universe in the same decade as we learn about quantum physics, each of which falls so far out of what you can deduce from your armchair that the whole community of philosophers that previously had added materially to the thinking of the physical scientists was rendered essentially obsolete, and that point, and I have yet to see a contribution — this will get me in trouble with all manner of philosophers — but call me later and correct me if you think I’ve missed somebody here. But, philosophy has basically parted ways from the frontier of the physical sciences, when there was a day when they were one and the same. Isaac Newton was a natural philosopher, the word physicist didn’t even exist in any important way back then. So, I’m disappointed because there is a lot of brainpower there, that might have otherwise contributed mightily, but today simply does not. It’s not that there can’t be other philosophical subjects, there is religious philosophy, and ethical philosophy, and political philosophy, plenty of stuff for the philosophers to do, but the frontier of the physical sciences does not appear to be among them.”

Well, Neil, consider this your follow-up call, just as you requested. Not that you didn’t get several of those before. For instance, even fellow scientist and often philosophy-skeptic Jerry Coyne pointed out that you “blew it big time” [8] when you disinvited philosopher David Albert from an event you had organized at the American Museum of Natural History, and that originally included a discussion between Albert and physicist Lawrence Krauss (yet another frequent philosophy naysayer [9]). Moreover, when you so graciously came to the book launch for my Answers for Aristotle a couple of years ago, you spent most of the evening chatting with a number of graduate students from CUNY’s philosophy program, and they tried really hard to explain to you how philosophy works and why you had a number of misconceptions about it. To no avail, apparently.

So here we are again, time to set you straight once more. This, of course, is not just because I like you and because I think it is in general the right thing to do. It is mostly, frankly, because someone who regularly appears on The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, and has had the privilege of remaking Carl Sagan’s iconic Cosmos series — in short someone who is a public intellectual and advocate for science — really ought to do better than to take what amounts to anti-intellectual (and illiterate) positions about another field of scholarship. And I say this in all friendship, truly.

Since I’m sure this sort of accident will happen again in the future (whether at your hand or someone else’s), I figured I’d present my case as I would in a classroom, as a series of bullet points to keep handy any time someone  asks you again to comment about philosophy. So here we go:

  • Contra popular perception, philosophy makes progress, though it does so in a different sense from progress in science. You can think of philosophy as an exploration of conceptual, as opposed to empirical, space, concerning all sorts of questions ranging from ethics to politics, from epistemology to the nature of science. Imagine a highly dimensional landscape of ways of thinking about a given question (such as: do scientific theories describe the world as it is, or should we think of them rather as simply being empirically adequate? [10]). The philosopher explores that landscape by constructing arguments, entertaining counter-arguments, and either discarding or refining a certain view. The process does not usually lead to one final answer (though it does eliminate a number of bad ones), because conceptual space is much broader than its empirical counterpart, which means that there may be more than one good way of looking at a particular question (but, again, also a number of bad ways). Progress, then, consists in identifying and “climbing” these peaks in c-space. If you’d like, I’ll send you the draft of a book I’m finishing for Chicago Press that expands on this way of looking at philosophy, provides a number of specific examples, and compares and differentiates progress in philosophy from progress in a number of allied disciplines, including science, mathematics and logic.
  • Another popular myth is that philosophy keeps dwelling on the same questions, the implication being that, again, it doesn’t settle anything and consequently cannot move on to something else. But if “the same questions” are defined broadly enough, we can raise the very same criticism about science itself. I mean, your own profession of cosmology has been dwelling on “the same question” (the origin and evolution of the universe) since the pre-Socratic atomists (philosophers, by the way). And my discipline of biology has been concerned with the nature of adaptation since Aristotle’s (another philosopher!) articulation of his four fundamental causes. I’m not being flippant here, truly. Of course there are plenty of more specific sub-questions in cosmology (or evolutionary biology), some of which have indeed been settled; and of course we have made tremendous progress on the broader picture as well (usually, by settling some of the sub-questions). But the same — at a different scale and within a different time frame — can be said of philosophy, or mathematics, or logic.
  • You and a number of your colleagues keep asking what philosophy (of science, in particular) has done for science, lately. There are two answers here: first, much philosophy of science is simply not concerned with advancing science, which means that it is a category mistake (a useful philosophical concept [11]) to ask why it didn’t. The main objective of philosophy of science is to understand how science works and, when it fails to work (which it does, occasionally), why this was the case. It is epistemology applied to the scientific enterprise. And philosophy is not the only discipline that engages in studying the workings of science: so do history and sociology of science, and yet I never heard you dismiss those fields on the grounds that they haven’t discovered the Higgs boson. Second, I suggest you actually look up some technical papers in philosophy of science [12] to see how a number of philosophers, scientists and mathematicians actually do collaborate to elucidate the conceptual and theoretical aspects of research on everything from evolutionary theory and species concepts to interpretations of quantum mechanics and the structure of superstring theory. Those papers, I maintain, do constitute a positive contribution of philosophy to the progress of science — at least if by science you mean an enterprise deeply rooted in the articulation of theory and its relationship with empirical evidence.
  • A common refrain I’ve heard from you (see direct quotes above) and others, is that scientific progress cannot be achieved by “mere armchair speculation.” And yet we give a whole category of Nobels to theoretical physicists, who use the deductive power of mathematics (yes, of course, informed by previously available empirical evidence) to do just that. Or — even better — take mathematics itself, a splendid example of how having one’s butt firmly planted on a chair (and nowhere near any laboratory) produces both interesting intellectual artifacts in their own right and an immense amount of very practical aid to science. No, I’m not saying that philosophy is just like mathematics or theoretical physics. I’m saying that one needs to do better than dismiss a field of inquiry on the grounds that it is not wedded to a laboratory setting, or that its practitioners like comfortable chairs.
  • Finally, Neil, please have some respect for your mother. I don’t mean your biological one (though that too, of course!), I am referring to the intellectual mother of all science, i.e., philosophy. As you yourself seem to have a dim perception of (see your example of Newton), one of the roles of philosophy over the past two and half millennia has been to prepare the ground for the birth and eventual intellectual independence of a number of scientific disciplines. But contra what you seem to think, this hasn’t stopped with the Scientific Revolution, or with the advent of quantum mechanics. Physics became independent with Galileo and Newton (so much so that the latter actually inspired David Hume and Immanuel Kant to do something akin to natural philosophizing in ethics and metaphysics); biology awaited Darwin (whose mentor, William Whewell, was a prominent philosopher, and the guy who coined the term “scientist,” in analogy to artist, of all things); psychology spun out of its philosophical cocoon thanks to William James, as recently (by the standards of the history of philosophy) as the late 19th century. Linguistics followed through a few decades later (ask Chomsky); and cognitive science is still deeply entwined with philosophy of mind (see any book by Daniel Dennett). Do you see a pattern of, ahem, progress there? And the story doesn’t end with the newly gained independence of a given field of empirical research. As soon as physics, biology, psychology, linguistics and cognitive science came into their own, philosophers turned to the analysis (and sometimes even criticism) of those same fields seen from the outside: hence the astounding growth during the last century of so called “philosophies of”: of physics (and, more specifically, even of quantum physics), of biology (particularly of evolutionary biology), of psychology, of language, and of mind.

I hope you can see, dear Neil, that it isn’t just that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but also that there is more active, vigorous, interesting, and intellectually respectable philosophy to be explored than you and some of your colleagues have been able to dream of so far. Please, keep that in mind the next time someone asks you about it. Or ask them to give me a call.

Postscript: I sent a preview of this essay to Neil, and a frank, civil email exchange has followed it over the past few days. However, I’m afraid neither one of us has really conceded an inch to the other’s position. We’ll see if we can do better in person over a couple of drinks.

As for a possible reply from Neil, I have, of course, invited him to submit one. Here is his reply, verbatim: “I generally reply to things if, and only if, they are writing about something that I judge to be untrue about me, or that they have misunderstood about what I have said. Neither is the case with you.”

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Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Whom I interviewed twice for the Rationally Speaking podcast: once on the value of space exploration, the second time on the meaning of atheism.

[2] For a rundown of my dual academic career, go to PlatoFootnote.org.

[3] See the wonderful book by one of Scientia Salon contributors, Rebecca Goldstein: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.

[4] The relevant bits start at 20’ 19” into the show.

[5] Speaking of philosophy and crap, please do yourself a favor and read the wonderful On Bullshit, by (philosopher) Harry G. Frankfurt.

[6] Here is the clip.

[7] Starts at 1hr 2’ 46” or thereabouts.

[8] Jerry Coyne on Neil deGrasse Tyson.

[9] On Krauss, also a Rationally Speaking podcast guest, see two essays I wrote for the Rationally Speaking blog.

[10] This is known as the realism-antirealism debate in philosophy of science. A good introduction can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[11] On the idea of category mistakes.

[12] Excellent sources include the journals Philosophy of Science, published by Chicago Press, and The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, published by Oxford. I’m willing to bet one of your favorite drinks, hot chocolate with double whipped cream, that you’ve never actually perused either one of them. If I win, you buy me a dirty martini.

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520 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy

  1. Actually, science has an amazing serendipity to it. You can head in one direction with your research program and wind up learning something entirely unexpected in the process.

    And while some research may not solve those big marquee problems, they contribute. Remember, I used those as examples, hence the “e.g.” in my comment.

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  2. I note that you still have not answered my question: do you ever engage in activities that don’t have anything to do with curing cancer (going to the theater, movies, dinner out, vacations, reading books), and if you do, how do you explain the “waste” of time and resources by the people that make it possible for you to enjoy such activities?

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  3. I confess that I’m not very familiar with well-argued philosophical defenses of theism, since I haven’t found any such defenses that I would consider really well-argued. But perhaps the best that I am aware of are the arguments by Richard Swinburne (Is There A God, The Existence of God, etc.) and other “inference to the best explanation” authors. They claim that an Abrahamic sort of god is the best explanation for the existence of the universe as we know it, which is a claim worth studying. I think their “explanation” really isn’t an explanation, but that gets down to the question of what a real explanation is, which is an excellent example of a philosophical question.

    On whether philosophy or science is harder for lay people to understand: yes, an actual scientific paper is darned hard for outsiders to comprehend. Take it from a science layperson like me! I think the difference is basically that science just has a better reputation among the public in general–as witness a lot of comments in this thread. People are more willing to take a stab at mastering the terminology of science because they see its results–science takes people to the moon, cures diseases (even some cancers), makes building computers, etc., possible. What has philosophy done for anyone lately? It seems hard to put one’s finger on anything that looks as impressive as those things.

    Also, a lot more education has taken place in scientific fields than in philosophy. Science is taught beginning in the grade school years, at an age-appropriate level, whereas in the U.S., at least, it’s only encountered beginning on the tertiary level, and even then only by relatively few students.

    If I could interject a comment here about the benefits of philosophy to society, I was just having another look yesterday at Plato’s Apology, his version of Socrates’ defense speech to the Athenians who condemned him to death for corrupting the youth, etc. I was reminded how stirring a battle-cry it is for many philosophy instructors who assign it to their Philosophy 101 classes to give them an idea of what the subject is about.

    You may remember that Socrates argues that he alone among Athenian intellectuals knows how little he or anyone else knows, and his service to the public is to go around questioning them and showing that they don’t really know much of what they think they know. He even does that in a little dialogue with one of his accusers who was present during the trial, showing how ignorant he is in bringing up the charges lodged against Socrates. That certainly didn’t help Socrates with the jury deciding his fate, but generations of philosophers since then have taken this as a classic statement of what philosophy can contribute to human welfare.

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  4. Often it is needed. Philosophical argument proceed in stages: initial argument, proposed objections, reply to objections, reply to that reply, etc. After a while (for example, several centuries), the arguments can get pretty abstruse. But to philosophers, that’s a feature, not a bug.

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  5. That’s not true. All computers, at a base level, think in electrical states. On or off. They all operate on binary and that’s how the original computers were programmed. On or off. 1 or 0. We developed computer languages, not because of philosophers, but because of utility. It was just easier for humans to write code in a higher level language than it was to do it in binary or hexadecimal or whatever low-level operating conditions the computer uses. There may have been people who were philosophers involved, that doesn’t mean that philosophy was responsible.

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  6. “Well I don’t know that I would call it superior, but it is necessary for certain types of problems or ideas. If you don’t want to address those ideas that’s fine, but don’t pretend you can use some other tool like science to address issues that are not scientific.”

    Human thought is very good at coming up with ideas, philosophy is not very good at taking those ideas and proving that one is better than another or that one is correct and others incorrect. Take ethics. There are philosophical schools that support a wide range of ethics. Has philosophy shown that one particular school of ethical thought is best? Nope. You end up with a lot of people arguing with each other, with no actual demonstrable conclusions being had.

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  7. Do realise how much of present-day political ideology and policy is based partially/fundamentally on political philosophy. It doesn’t always appear so on the outside (i.e. media) but this is definitely the case. And if it’s not for your average representative, it surely is in top institutions (UN, World Bank). Google “Capability Approach” for a rather recent example.

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  8. I’m reminded of a remark from the late Alan Saunders:
    “I, as somebody trained, insofar as I’m trained at all, in the philosophy of science, I have occasionally talked to scientists about the nature of science and they don’t have very clearly defined notions of what they do, they just get on with doing it. And I remember talking to a scientist who said he didn’t use theory at all. And I said, ‘Well you must use theory.’ And I said, ‘If you’re doing some experiments and somebody comes into the laboratory wearing a red tie, do you immediately write that down, because it might be relevant? No, you don’t, because you have a theory that tells you that men in red ties coming in to the laboratory are not relevant to what you’re doing’. But his reaction I thought indicated a fairly low level of theoretical awareness.”

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  9. Not quite. Those “opinions” really should be arguments, presented in a rationally coherent way, and informed by the best available evidence. Then you are doing philosophy.

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  10. Challenge for common definition of thinking, cognition and decision making –

    “People usually think of ants as sort of stupid, that they can’t really compare options, or that they don’t have good cognition,” said Sasaki. “But actually, individual ants can compare options, and that’s why they too experience cognitive overload—a well-documented phenomenon in human beings.”

    Our notions of the subjective experience of thinking need a bottom up reset.

    Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-09-ants-decision-making-lessen-vulnerability-overload.html#jCp

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  11. I see very little curiosity here for the reasons why physicists have such a low opinion of philosophy. Steven Weineberg has written an article about it:
    http://www.physics.utah.edu/~detar/phys4910/readings/fundamentals/weinberg.html
    It turns out that is has to do with Kuhn (and Feyerabend).
    Kuhn was the most influential philosopher of science of the second half of the 20th century.
    He gave scientists the idea that their “science” was just the latest fashion in an unending conveyer belt of paradigms.
    It specifically challenged the notion of the universal and unmutable law.
    No surprise that physicists felt insulted by this idea.
    From here it got worse. Feyerabend didn’t rate scientific knowledge any more important than any random traditional cult-idea. (Absurd and vaguely obscene – Kuhn’s words)
    Then there was postmodernism and “continental” philosophy.
    Physicists saw their worldview challenged. They believe in the laws of nature. They will say: “Step out the window at the 20th floor and see if the laws of nature hold true.”
    The dominant currents of philosophy of the 20th century have been strongly anti-science. No wonder the physiscists react irritated and want no part of it.

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  12. “Dominant currents of philosophy of the 20th century”? Hardly. Kuhn and Feyerabend have been widely read and reacted to, but the reactions by actual, professional philosophers specializing in philosophy of science have been very mixed, with a very large proportion (maybe a majority) quite critical.

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  13. Well, professional philosophers have been critical of Popper, but falsificationism is still the gospel outside philosophy departments. Likewise for Kuhn. The criticism of his work is a well kept secret outside philosophy departments.
    For generations Popper and Kuhn have been taught in courses for scientists without much criticism. Especially Kuhn’s work has led to widespread relativism, which doesn’t seem to go away. Physicists don’t like that.

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  14. John Wilkins had some illuminating thoughts about “Why do physicists hate philosophy”
    http://evolvingthoughts.net/2014/05/why-do-physicists-hate-philosophy/
    He named Popper. (And Feyerabend).
    Popper is an interesting case. He was at first very popular, because the falsification principle is in the same corner as “testability” that comes with empiricism. His ideas were thought useful to weed out pseudoscience, the demarcation problem, which helped to argue against parapsychology en analytical psychology. But it turned out that his ideas were founded on the “problem of induction” which holds that if your hypothesis passes the test there is still no way to verify its truth. Scientists know very well that passing the test doesn’t give certainty, but the people that came after Popper (Feyerabend and postmodernism) saw no value at all in the results of induction. Physicists are still pissed off about that.

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  15. Wouldn’t be incumbent on physicists to get their philosophy of science up to date, then? Not to mention that Krauss, as recently as a few weeks ago, told me during a Rationally Speaking podcast that he is a Popperian. And Neil deGrasse Tyson quoted Popper approvingly to me during our private correspondence following the publication of my essay critical of his dismissal of philosophy.

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  16. That’s weird. It shows what I allready suspected, that most physicists have only vague notions about philosophy. Which is in itself not a problem, but they should be aware of their ignorance and stay out of dabates about philosophy.

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  17. It would give them a broader understanding of what they are doing. But they are the scientists, they are supposed to do the science, not the philosophers.

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  18. I think I replied already, several times: a better understanding of the nature of what that scientist is doing. If said scientist is intellectual curious about his/her own profession, good. If not, not.

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  19. You know, I’m really trying to be patient and constructive here. I’ve given you plenty of reasons to take a loo at philosophy of science, including essays posted on this very forum (like the one on deGrasse Tyson). Now I’m suggesting an excellent introductory book on the topic and you want a soundbite while accusing me of making an argument from authority? You may want to look into a book on logical fallacies as well, here is a good one.

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  20. Without an understanding of the philosophy of science, one cannot have a solid understanding of what it is that they are doing when they practice science, and not thoroughly understand what that practice and its results means and does not mean. An understanding of the philosophy of science allows us to think critically of the practice of science and allows us to identify and correct fundamental errors in practice. It also articulates how the measurements scientists make relate to the physical real world around us. Perhaps the scientist could wield more force of persuasion in certain arenas if he could better articulate how his practice connects to phenomena in the world and the basis upon which that relationship between concept, theory, and reality durably holds.

    So how about this tl;dr; for you:
    It gives the scientist the argumentative and critical tools to identify and correct flawed science, but also to argue articulately, in detail, the legitimacy of his results without making his own appeal to the authority of “Science”

    If you want to learn a rather complex and subtle subject, then yes, I’m afraid you have to go and read old books.

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  21. In other words, how do you judge theory without philosophy? We can all agree that its capacity to produce reliable predictions gives a theory merit. But what about theory that suggests results that we are unable to produce, either because they require unattainable circumstances (like some of the high energy predictions of string theory), or because they make claims on phenomena that is impossible to measure (theory that endeavors to go into detail about conditions beyond the event horizon of a black hole), or even theory that makes claims that theory itself even admits is beyond the ability to even interact with (theories that are buttressed by multiverse based versions of the anthropic principle). You can invoke principles like occam’s razor, but why does that principle carry any force and when is it appropriate? Why is string theory spoken of in some circles with such certainty and authority when some of its predictions are as elusive as alchemy’s prediction of a path from lead to gold? Is preference of one theory over another equally predictive theory a matter of opinion, or can reason guide us to make a selection? These are philosophical questions, not empirical ones.

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