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.”


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

[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.

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

  1. Hi Massimo,

    Coel, c’mon, I also prefer explicitly stated arguments, but referring someone to an established and relevant piece of literature is pretty good for this kind of forum, no?

    OK, but as I see it (and I openly admit that I’m coming to this from a scientist’s perspective and am less familiar with the philosophical corpus than many here), Frege’s great program was to distill mathematics into axioms, and then to try to derive those axioms from fundamental logic (which then ran into problems pointed out by Russell). We thus have mathematics founded on axioms (whether mathematical axioms or logical ones).

    At that point I repeat my question, why *those* axioms? The tool that produces them is the human brain. So we can ask where human capacity to reason comes from, and I submit that it can only be from an empirically based learning process: either the learning that all of us do as we develop from babies to adults, or the “learning” process over evolutionary time, where recipes for human brains get encoded in our genes. Both of these are processes that train our brains by contact with empirical reality.

    Thus I don’t think it is at all a coincidence that the logic and maths that our brains develop just happens to be that by which the empirical universe operates, I argue that our brains are programmed by that empirical universe.

    Even if it is the case that the above logic is the only one possible, the only one that we could arrive at, it is still the case that we learn about that logic by empirical means (even if you think you’re born “just knowing” stuff by intuition and/or instinct, that brain recipe and its instinct is still an empirical product).

    I have read Frege, and commentaries about Frege, and don’t see anywhere where he addresses or refutes the above argument. If there is somewhere where he does then could someone please point it out? It seems to me that Frege just starts at the logical axioms (and from comments yesterday, others such as Aravis Tarkheena are perhaps happy to just start with our logical reasoning), whereas scientists tend to keep asking questions, such as about why our brains think the way they do.

    So my request for someone to make the actual *argument*, rather than just point to Frege, is because (having read quite a bit about Frege) I don’t see how his work rebuts my argument. As I also said, subsequent to Frege, Quine has made a similar argument that the axioms are validated because the structures built on them work. Over evolutionary time, our reasoning must have worked, at least sufficiently well, in repeatedly butting against empirical reality, otherwise our brains would not have evolved.


  2. Hi DM,
    I wouldn’t agree that mathematics is “independent of nature”, I would regard mathematics as an account of fundamental patterns/properties of nature.


  3. Perhaps I could have phrased the claim better. When I brought up “the modern computer” I had in mind the laptop sitting in front of me. In order to get such a device off the ground, languages have to be developed. Had the above named figures never existed, however, we would not have had the Principia, the Lambda Calculus, or other breakthroughs found in the historical development of these languages. This is not to say that other developments might not have filled the gap, but the computer sitting in front of me would, I take it, be very different had that been the case. As for Church being a philosopher, I was unaware that this was controversial. He taught philosophy at UCLA, was a member of the APA, and (I am fairly sure) would have considered himself a philosopher.


  4. Coel, I would like to answer your questions, but I’m coming to this conversation late so I don’t quite understand your point. It’s not obvious to me how exactly you claim to be contradicting Frege.

    A big part of Frege’s logicist program was to show that mathematical claims could be approved without appealing to what Kant called “intuitions.” Whether mathematical knowledge is somehow encoded into our genes is completely orthogonal to that debate between Kant and Frege.

    When you insist on the question “why our brains think the way they do”, I think it’s true that Frege doesn’t ask this question, but Frege would probably say you’ve simply changed the subject (this is part of his anti-pscyhologism.) Suppose, for example, that you want to know why the planets move the way they do. The explanation of this phenomenon is given by the fundamental laws of physics. How our brains come to discover and believe in the fundamental laws of physics is a very good question to ask, but the answer to THAT question isn’t going to help explain planetary motion. After all, it seems very odd to think that the explanation of planetary motion depends on human psychology. Frege, by analogy, wants to uncover the fundamental general laws that explain mathematical facts, such as 2+2=4 or Euclid’s Theorem. How we come to know those general laws (“why [do] our brains think the way they do?”) is a fine question to ask, but Frege would say we have no reason to think that the explanation of mathematical facts depends on human psychology anymore than we have reason to think that the explanation of planetary motion depends on human psychology. So while it’s true that Frege may not have addressed this question, I don’t see how it’s particularly relevant, let alone how it challenges him in any way.


  5. There’s nothing to debate. Philosophers have no facts with which to debate just a bunch of opinions. There is no useful application of philosophy in the modern world, that is DeGrassi’s point.

    Science has facts. Math has equations that describe the universe. Philosophy as a cadre of dead white guys, some in togas, whose opinions either have no merit or have been proven by science. e.g., Democritus.


  6. I have found working in philosophy to be incredibly rewarding, and I have learned an enormous amount, about a great number of subjects.

    My students, likewise, have found the study of philosophy to be very illuminating, if their course evaluations and my enrollments are any measure.

    Sorry that you have had a negative experience with the subject. But you have no grounds on which to deny the positive experiences of others, so your categorical dismissal is…as you say…”just a bunch of opinions.”


  7. Fred Feldman made a very unfortunate remark against psychology in his book What is this thing called happiness. I can’t say that i see many academic philosophers making the mistake of bashing science, but your typical undergrad and coffee house philosopher does it on a daily basis.


  8. I’m an admin of a philosophy group on Facebook, so when articles about Neil deGrasse Tyson dissing philosophy came out, it brought out quite a few people willing to shoot him down. One of the things I noticed in those responses was that many people felt that since science came from philosophy, science owed philosophy. A bit like how astronomers owe astrology or chemists owe alchemists.

    What I tried to do in the comment sections was highlight what Massimo did on dot point three – to highlight exactly how philosophy as it is practised intersects and enhances what scientists do. What surprised me was how few people would actually accept that answer – instead preferring to make the genetic argument as if that somehow refuted Neil deGrasse Tyson’s point (presumably it’s the same mindset behind those Catholics who claim that science affirms God because the Catholic Church invented science). Though what amateurs say on the Internet is not reflective of the discipline, I can understand why there is the cultural clash between science and philosophy. So articles like this, I think, really should be more widely read to help understanding of the differences between the two disciplines.


  9. Hi C,

    A big part of Frege’s logicist program was to show that mathematical claims could be approved without appealing to what Kant called “intuitions.” […] When you insist on the question “why our brains think the way they do”, I think it’s true that Frege doesn’t ask this question, but Frege would probably say you’ve simply changed the subject …

    Whether one reduces maths to “basic logic” or “intuitions”, you are still reducing it to basic ways in which our brains think. The philosopher then regards these thoughts as a “basic logic” that is taken as primary. That is the starting point , it just is. This primary logic is then taken to have some primary ontological status in some “conceptual space” that is entirely independent of the empirical world. (I’m still trying to get my head round how philosophers think, so may have misunderstood,)

    From my scientific perspective that is weird, and the obvious question is then why our brains think as they do. (This is indeed not a question addressed by Frege, which is why I get slightly frustrated about people waving at Frege as a supposed refutation.)

    In the big picture you have cosmology, forming galaxies, stars, planets, and then in some conditions on some planets molecules hit on self-replication. Such self-replicators develop sensory devices to get input from the empirical world around them. Neutral-networks then develop to process that sensory information about the empirical world. The “training” of these networks through natural selection is entirely empirical, and is all about matching the empirical world. That is the perspective from which we should ask why our brains think like they do.

    From there I dismiss as bizarre the suggestion that our brains just tap into some primary logic, in some manner totally independent of the empirical world. (Perhaps philosophers want to argue for a Sensus Divinitatis next?) Our brains are blatantly getting their ways of thinking, their logic, from the empirical world. The reason our brains think as they do is as a mirror of the empirical world and of the logic (= basic behaviour) by which the empirical world functions. Thus our brains think using modus ponens and 1 + 1 = 2 because those things model the empirical world, not because our brains are somehow bypassing the empirical world and tapping directly into some primary logic that is nothing to do with the empirical world.

    The above is *not* suggesting that our logic is dependent on human psychology, it is suggesting that it is dependent on the empirical world (which then produced human psychology).

    Now, it may be that the empirical world had no choice in how it is, because there is only one fundamental logical system possible, but even if this is the case it is still a fact that the only way we humans can have developed brains that know about that logic is by learning about it empirically. (I’ve no idea how the alternative of a conduit that taps in to primary logic while bypassing empiricism is supposed to work.)

    Thus we arrive at very different conceptions of the status of logic. To a philosopher (it seems to me) logic is primary and is just accepted as is, with no need for or possibility of further justification. It is in “conceptual space” (whatever that is) and is independent of empiricism and thus independent of science.

    To a scientist the above idea is bizarre and totally ignores the whole empirical context of what our brains are and how they came to think like they do. From that perspective, our brains, their ways of thinking, and logic, mathematics and indeed science are all empirical products, derived from empirical reality.


  10. Thanks kelskye,

    for making the point. I had made it early on, when I asked Massimo which parts of philosophy he was ready to retire, and asking him to sit down with dTG and establish a joint list. This got lost in the scramble to set the conversation in an either/or mode, rather than seeking common ground.

    Philosophy once made the claim to be “the mother of all…” (Massimo’s blog). While philosophy may have been perceived then as “omni-potent,” over time has become just pluri- or even mono-potent. Such is life. Depth comes at the price of breadth, and while philosophy certainly has a role to play, its position as “mother of all…” no longer can be sustained.

    On its own terms, philosophy has an important – albeit limited – role to play. It helps to straighten out the way we think – this is the point many have made, and one worth emphasizing.

    When it comes to addressing reality in the here and now, however (for this is what we are looking to – the understanding of life in all its facets), logic and the scientific method have (temporary) limits. It is poorly equipped to deal with complex realities – be they biological, or social. Here, we see patterns of causation, not chains. We work by analogy (Hofstadter), rather than logic. In fact we are born and raised “Bayesian learning machines,” (Gopnik et als.) improving on the best available guess, rather than determining first causes. In such a system, the initial guess in the opposite of the axiom.

    Now I do not dispute that in the fullness of time we may learn the first principles of complex systems, but today, we have to make do with the “good enough.” An excessive logical rigor – an obsession with first principles and truth – hampers exploration of the adjacent possible. As Grayling says: we should strive to be wrong in interesting ways. And I’d add: first and foremost.

    The next question is: does rationality help in communication? Among the scientists it does – within limits (justification rather than discovery). In a social setting – and we are all social beings – my repeated (though ignored) point is that it is a poor instrument.

    We need to understand how knowledge moves through a population, not the individual. The outcome is “change in mentality.” Mentalities, though, do not change through rational discourse between individuals as much as through little understood social interactions and processes. Experience, shared experience, and creating “collective intentionality” (some call it “empowerment”) is the name of the game. To improve our understanding of this, we need a complex set of disciplines – all interacting.

    In this game of interaction, philosophy has here a new role to play. To use an analogy: that of the “concert master.” It can focus on the “whole”, rather than the contribution/limits of the individual discipline. It can provide discernment – a “reasonable” if not “reasoned” way forward providing “balance” (which was the original goal of justice). Truth is neither the starting point, nor the outcome. Philosophy can have a vital role as “facilitator,” rather than “mother of all…”

    On a personal note. The old cultures all went for “closure” (even if it meant exploring entrails to achieve it). It is possibly our tragedy that we have moved from “closure” to “truth” – as if it was there for the grasping (remember Tantalus?). May be philosophy’s first task is to re-invent “closure” (without resorting to dogma). This is how the Bayesian system works, after all.


  11. You have just supplied a series of reasons for a conclusion. You are making an argument (albeit a poor one) and others are giving arguments back. That is, by definition, a debate.


  12. You conflating the question of how one comes to know P and what justifies P. It may be the case that the way I came to know that 2+2=4 is that I was told it by my kindergarten teacher, but that is not what justifies the proposition.


  13. –Thus we arrive at very different conceptions of the status of logic. To a philosopher (it seems to me) logic is primary and is just accepted as is, with no need for or possibility of further justification. It is in “conceptual space” (whatever that is) and is independent of empiricism and thus independent of science.

    This is an incorrect description of philosophy. There is a whole literature on the epistemology of logic. There is also quite a bit of literature on what exactly logical laws *are* (are they like laws of nature? Are they somehow human cognitive or linguistic constructions?) Some philosophers argue that logic (along with mathematics and morality) is known a priori, but then they have to carefully explain what they mean by that and how such a thing is possible (because, for the reasons you mention, few people are willing to seriously propose that we have some kind of magical built-in faculty of knowledge that isn’t somehow shaped our bodies and the world around us). Other people say that knowledge of logic is empirical. Some people argue that beliefs about logic need to be justified. Others don’t. Some people think that logic has some kind of foundational ontological status (perhaps Russell), whereas others don’t even think that logic is “real.” Here are a couple of quick examples of people asking these questions:


  14. I agree with deGrasse Tyson, it’s hard to see any value in philosophy. I have begun to think that it is holding our species back at this point in our development. Not that it was always that way.

    For example, I had a discussion about gay marriage with someone at a party. He was a person with a point of view typical of philosophy majors. I pointed out that homosexuality exists in nature (as in it’s in the human genome; and their is a clear drive for some people to be with the same gender) and the guy started talking about the NATURE of things. And whether it is in the nature of a human being to be gay. It was crazy. As if the behaviour of so many gay men and women didn’t render the point moot.

    Philosophy may have offered something at one point but in the absence of real evidence, it’s hard to take seriously what liberal arts/ philosophy people have to say.

    Let’s imagine you are looking at a map in a shopping mall. And on the map it says “you are here.” Someone trained in philosophy risks never getting past the red dot on the map and actually making it to the store they are looking for because they ponder the meaning of “you are here” in a way that borders on lunacy.


  15. I think you simply hang around with bad philosophers. I guarantee you, there are also a lot of bad scientists, but I don’t use that knowledge to thereby declare science itself useless. That would be bad philosophy.


  16. Science is evidence based, and while my sample size can always be increased, the preliminary experiments suggest further study would be useless.


  17. So what does justify 2+2=4 in your view? If your answer is axioms then what justifies those axioms?

    By the way, I don’t think that anyone really does believe in 2+2=4 owing to it following from axioms, rather they arrive at the axioms from accepted truths such as 2+2=4.

    By “accepted truths such as 2+2=4” I mean that they are accepted because they work empirically.


  18. Your opinions can’t cure cancer. The work my company does and the people I work with every day are working to make that a reality. The warm fuzzy experiences of a college class cannot compare to being restored to health after suffering serious illness.


  19. Thanks for the summary, C. (By the way, do philosophers ever think about reaching a consensus about a conclusion, or are all of those possibilities still “in play” among philosophers?)


  20. neither can plumbing, painting, videogames, farming, computer programming, coffee grinding, writing, driving, watching tv, performing in operas, cooking, reading, calculus, etc.


  21. I’m going to answer this, but after that I’m bowing out. I’m starting to lose interest in what increasingly seems like going around in circles.

    Truths of mathematics are justified deductively. In the case of arithmetic, one can give set-theoretic proofs for statements like 2+2=4.

    This question of justification is entirely separate from the question of how one came to learn something.

    Your question as to “what justifies the axioms?” has already been answered. Nothing.

    Anticipating your inevitable followup question, I will repeat what I said before: I concur with Hume and Reid that belief is prior to reason and that consequently, not all beliefs can be justified. I am satisfied with the idea that reasons run out at a certain point. Not only do I think this is the true state of affairs, with respect to knowledge, it also seems true with respect to human nature: we are only so rational and not more.

    Thanks for the discussion. As I said, I am bowing out on this particular line of conversation, so I will not answer you further.


  22. Who was this person at the party? How representative was he of professional academic philosophers? Was he even a professional academic philosopher at all?

    There is no license required for practicing philosophy, unlike, say, medicine. Anybody can claim to be a philosopher, and anybody can be regarded as one by anybody else. The reason I specify “professional academic philosophers” is that, as far as I am concerned, they are the people who tend, by and large, to do what I consider philosophy right.

    The problem is that what they do tends to be very hard for people outside their circles to comprehend. Long, long arguments filled with very technical terminology, seemingly going nowhere. It’s no wonder that many non-philosophers consider that sort of thing mere word-juggling, arm-chair chit-chat, etc. Philosophers, on this view, appear to be doddering idiots, not even aware that what they are spending their lives on is pure silliness.

    Well, if that’s the image they have for the general public, then they have a problem. Because (in my view, as someone who used to be in that racket but has moved to other pursuits, though still having an interest in it) they are in fact, mostly, quite intelligent folks who are working on very important problems. But, as someone wrote up-thread, what they do doesn’t seem as important to society as curing cancer. Or even finding the Higgs boson, which probably struck most non-scientists as a rather pointless way to spend a huge amount of money.

    It would be nice, for example, if people who are concerned about the famous science-religion conflict were aware of what some philosophers have done on the subject; for example, books on the question of whether the existence of the Abrahamic god or other divine beings can be rationally demonstrated, such as _God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason_ by Herman Philipse, _Arguing About Gods_ by Graham Oppy, _Logic and Theism: Arguments For and Against Beliefs in God_ by Jordan Howard Sobel, and _Atheism: A Philosophical Justification_ by Michael Martin, to mention just a few recent books which all defend atheist positions with great subtlety (a lot more subtly than the famous New Atheists show). But outside the philosophical community, neither atheists nor theists pay these sorts of analyses of the science-vs.-religion thing any mind. So the public discussion tends to proceed on a very unintelligent level.


  23. “it’s hard to see any value in philosophy.”

    Amen, brother. All we need is science. Get rid of all these silly armchair fancies like “justice” and “equality” that cannot be proven in a laboratory, they’re as phoney as religion. Let society get on with living instead of worrying about civilization and enlightenment and what is the good life. Scientists are bound to tell us any day now and settle the problem globally and permanently what a just war consists of, and whether or not we ought to sentence weed smokers to punitive punishment.


  24. “There is no useful application of philosophy in the modern world, that is DeGrassi’s point. ”

    especially in hospital ethics boards. useless. we’d be better off if no one had to think ahead or reflect at all, especially if they’re only doing it rigorously and logically.

    “Your opinions can’t cure cancer.”

    And our science can’t give free slaves, or give plebs the right to elect a leader, or tell us whether or not it’s ok to kill a woman who gets an abortion. we should really just rely on intuition, feelings, and religion for things this trivial. there’s no reason to waste any real time thinking about them.

    No amount of mindless beaker-filling and calculator-tapping will advance civilization, it merely furnishes it with new products.


  25. I love how Tyson’s statement wasn’t scientific, but he still seemed to think it was a gem that might enrich society. I guess, in his mind, the product of mental work I’ll here call _uneducated opinion_ is more valuable than that which is _philosophy_, because we certainly can’t accuse him of philosophizing.


  26. I’m curious:

    1. Is there a similarly well-argued defense in favor of *theism*? That is, what is the best philosophical material available on *both* sides of the science-religion atheism-theism etc. “conflict”/debate? After all, you can’t form an honest opinion without both sides being heard and presented in their strongest forms.
    2. How is it that professional philosophy can be dashed for having “long arguments full of technical terminology” when in a scientific paper you also find an abundance of such terminology that would be equally opaque to someone who is not familiar with the discipline? Just try reading a cutting-edge paper done by professional theoretical physicists on String Theory with no knowledge of professional physics. I think you’d find it just as impenetrable.


  27. Hi Aravis,

    Your question as to “what justifies the axioms?” has already been answered. Nothing. […] not all beliefs can be justified. I am satisfied with the idea that reasons run out at a certain point.

    If you’re happy with that then ok. (Though to me it seems a bit bizarre to pick an arbitrary stopping point and declare a stop.)

    Not only do I think this is the true state of affairs, …

    OK, but you don’t *know* it to be true (since philosophers tend to define knowledge as “justified” true belief, and you accept that you don’t have justification for it.) Hence I hope you don’t object to others asking whether this is indeed true, and whether there is a deeper justification for the axioms we have arrived at, even if you personally don’t wish to participate.


  28. I would suggest philosophers spend more time solving the problems of the world, e.g., hunger, homelessness, environmental change, and disease, and leave the philosophizing for after dinner with a glass of sherry. There is real work to be done in this world to help the least among us. Philosophy is a luxury of the first world. It doesn’t help to end real pain, suffering and death.


  29. Well, let’s take a different approach. Do you ever go to the movies, theater, concerts, art exhibits? Would you suggest that actors, directors, musicians and artists should drop what they are doing and join your company to do research on cancer? It’s a serious question, since it follows pretty much directly from your attitude as expressed in your latest comments.


  30. @Tyler Mlčenlivý Davis

    Actually science, by looking at genomics through the lens of logic, would not allow slavery.
    On the other hand, a 19th Century Pope believed that slavery was moral by reasoning of Natural Law.

    And the idea you promote: killing a woman who has an abortion comes from the dungeons of philosophy (probably Plato) not from the world of science.

    Your life bemoaning science will be longer than that of your ancestors because of the work of scientists. But listening to the nagging rants of philosophers might shorten mine.


  31. Wow, genomics implies a moral injunction against slavery? How? And you really ought to read Plato before commenting on what he didn’t write.


  32. Two quick things and then I *am* out.

    1. Calling things “bizarre” is not an argument.
    2. Philosophers have known that the “true justified belief” model of knowledge is problematic, since Gettier.

    Take care.


  33. … just a few recent books which all defend atheist positions with great subtlety (a lot more subtly than the famous New Atheists show). But outside the philosophical community, neither atheists nor theists pay these sorts of analyses of the science-vs.-religion thing any mind.

    You say this as though subtlety is a good thing in its own right, even where not needed. If the non-subtle version of the argument is sound, and if it is more effective (which you seems to admit it is), then why favour a much subtler version?

    Oxford dictionaries defines “subtle” as: “so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyse or describe”. Why is being difficult to analyse and describe a good thing in an argument, unless absolutely needed to be valid?


  34. Polar Beast,

    “Your opinions can’t cure cancer.”
    “I would suggest philosophers spend more time solving the problems of the world, e.g., hunger, homelessness, environmental change, and disease.”

    Say goodbye to most of science then, since the majority of scientific disciplines don’t solve problems like world hunger, homelessness, environmental change, and disease.


  35. Catching up, the first thing that comes to mind is the oddity of thinking Kurt Godel’s being a mathematical Platonist was a good argument for Platonism, given the fragility of the poor man’s mind. That doesn’t prove he was wrong, but it sure raises questions as to how someone could convince themselves he was a good example of sound judgment.

    Nor am I convinced that you can declare deductive reasoning non-empirical. Indirect measurement requires deduction, therefore it is non-empirical? Statistical controls require mathematical analysis, therefore they are non-empirical? Just say philosophy=reason and be done with it!

    2+2=4 in every number system that contains “4.” In a number system that only contains 1,2,3,, the 2+2=10. I omit zero to keep the discussion simple. Mathematics proves that no one can traverse all the bridges of Koenigsberg once and only once, if, and only if, none of the bridges are Moebius loops. Deciding which mathematical proofs apply to the real world is an empirical process.

    The denial that the basic notions of mathematics do not have an empirical origin is equivalent to claiming they are direct intuitions of concepts, which is a very extreme claim that flies in the face of all our knowledge of how human brains work.

    It is true that mathematics historically keeps refining away all its notions of any earthly taint. I agree that abstraction=reason, but I still disagree that reason=philosophy, so this is not a compelling argument for me. Abstractions of abstractions, derived from the practice of mathematics, such as groups, may be deemed products of reason. Again, unless you assume reason=philosophy, that isn’t the stunning blow against an empirical bent some appear to think. I also am rather dubious about the tacit assumption that applied mathematics isn’t the real thing. I strongly suspect that applied mathematics has been far more important to the advancement of mathematics than foundational problems (the part most closely related to philosophy.)

    Most of the comments attacking the inability of empiricism (as they represent it) to justify itself, are assuming that its justification is some sort of logical or mathematical proof, overlooking the point that whether logical and mathematical proofs apply to the real world is an empirical question. Worse, the process of justification appears to be regarded as something that takes place in an individual’s mind. Science is inherently collective. Any one of the people involved in the scientific enterprise may be sitting in an arm chair but the real issue is whether they are working with each other, however indirectly. The scientific view is the view from, potentially, everywhere. Philosphers I gather despise science as the view from nowhere. I think in the end that this difference is why there is merit to Tyson’s dismissal of philosophy.

    If you want to justify war or the jailing of marijuana smokers, it is perfectly true that you need religion, law and philosophy. Science has not found justifications for war or jailing marijuana smokers. I suppose the relative uselessness of science thus far in sancitifying the “ought” over the “is” makes the unwelcome suggestion that many of our ideas are baseless and possibly arbitrary. I can understand why some, rather than accept this and start from there, would rather posit an alternative source of justification.


  36. Reblogged this on Jordan Scott Martin and commented:
    Another great analysis of the relationship between philosophy and science by Massimo Pigliucci. I too have grown weary of the flippant critiques of philosophy put forth by many of today’s well-known scientists. Their comments expose a strange sort of naive arrogance that appears to be fashionable among many science popularizers. All scientific endeavors are founded upon numerous philosophical assumptions that scientists as practitioners frequently take for granted. It appears that individuals such as Neil deGrasse Tyson remain unaware of the contributions of philosophers to important topics such as quantum information theory and the evolution of social norms and moral behavior through willful ignorance. This is certainly a disappointing state of affairs, as it so clearly contradicts the methods of scientific thinking and encourages the growth of a false dilemma that continues to inhibit the success of students of both philosophical and scientific disciplines.


  37. Perhaps I just took something different that others have, but it seems that Neil is saying that philosophy has its place and there is a time to ask the questions and ponder implications, but at some point, the scientific models that actually answer questions and give us understanding of the natural world need to be the focus and that we are at that point already. Too much philosophy, that is to say ‘the bottomless pit of the mind and of thought’ can hinder one’s efforts to gain any practical advantages which science can address directly through its methods and application.

    Philosophy is there for constructing rules and definitions of those rules and so it does have value, but again, once that foundation is in place, like the scientific method, it has done its job and needs only to be addressed for the purposes of keeping integrity of the system it helped build – maintenance in a sense. Yes, philosophy is a part of basically anything related to how one thinks, so its certainly not to be minimized in what it can offer, but it can often become like an album on a loop. It can be distracting in that way. That’s the inherent problem of the field.

    PS – I’m sure you’re aware of this, but mathematics is a science. 😉


  38. Scientists engage in both philosophy AND science, all the time. Otherwise Neil wouldn’t be able to think of the things he does and ask the questions that drive his work. All passionate scientists philosophize. So philosophy by itself has no real meaning. If there is no action to follow it up, it’s just a waste of resources and brainpower.


  39. There is only but one philosophy that applies in science. “What is true?” That is the only thing that science must concern itself with. Philosophy is conjectural at best. To follow “What is True?” is a simple matter. None of this matters in the end.


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