A Philosopher's Blog

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Science & Philosophy

Posted in Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 12, 2014
Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In March of 2014 popular astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson did a Nerdist Podcast. This did not garner much attention until May when some philosophers realized that Tyson was rather critical and dismissive of philosophy. As might be imagined, there was a response from the defenders of philosophy. Some critics went so far as to accuse him of being a philistine.

Tyson presents a not uncommon view of contemporary philosophy, namely that “asking deep questions” can cause a “pointless delay in your progress” in engaging “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” To avoid such pointless delays, Tyson advises scientists to respond to such questioners by saying, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

Since Tyson certainly seems to be a deep question sort of guy, it is tempting to consider that his remarks are not serious—that is, he is being sarcastic. Even if he is serious, it is also reasonable to consider that these remarks are off-the cuff and might not represent his considered view of philosophy in general.

It is also worth considering that the claims made are his considered and serious position. After all, the idea that a scientist would regard philosophy as useless (or worse) is quite consistent with my own experiences in academics. For example, the politically fueled rise of STEM and the decline of the humanities has caused some in STEM to regard this situation as confirmation of their superior status and on some occasions I have had to defuse conflicts instigated by STEM faculty making their views about the uselessness of non-STEM fields clear.

Whatever the case, the concern that the deep questioning of philosophy can cause pointless delays does actually have some merit and is well worth considering. After all, if philosophy is useless or even detrimental, then this would certainly be worth knowing.

The main bite of this criticism is that philosophical questioning is detrimental to progress: a scientist who gets caught in these deep questions, it seems, would be like a kayaker caught in a strong eddy: she would be spinning around and going nowhere rather than making progress. This concern does have significant practical merit. To use an analogy outside of science, consider a committee meeting aimed at determining the curriculum for state schools. This committee has an objective to achieve and asking questions is a reasonable way to begin. But imagine that people start raising deep questions about the meaning of terms such as “humanities” or “science” and become very interested in sorting out the semantics of various statements. This sort of sidetracking will result in a needlessly long meeting and little or no progress. After all, the goal is to determine the curriculum and deep questions will merely slow down progress towards this practical goal. Likewise, if a scientist is endeavoring to sort out the nature of the cosmos, deep questions can be a similar sort of trap: she will be asking ever deeper questions rather than gathering data and doing math to answer her less deep questions.

Philosophy, as Socrates showed by deploying his Socratic method, can endlessly generate deep questions. Questions such as “what is the nature of the universe?”, “what is time?”, “what is space?”, “what is good?” and so on. Also, as Socrates showed, for each answer given, philosophy can generate more questions. It is also often claimed that this shows that philosophy really has no answers since every alleged answer can be questioned or raises even more questions. Thus, philosophy seems to be rather bad for the scientist.

A key assumption seems to be that science is different from philosophy in at least one key way—while it raises questions, proper science focuses on questions that can be answered or, at the very least, gets down to the business of answering them and (eventually) abandons a question should it turn out to be a distracting deep question. Thus, science provides answers and makes progress. This, obviously enough, ties into another stock criticism of philosophy: philosophy makes no progress and is useless.

One rather obvious reason that philosophy is regarded as not making progress and as being useless is that when enough progress is made on a deep question, it is perceived as being a matter for science rather than philosophy. For example, ancient Greek philosophers, such as Democritus, speculated about the composition of the universe and its size (was it finite or infinite?) and these were considered deep philosophical questions. Even Newton considered himself a natural philosopher. He has, of course, been claimed by the scientist (many of whom conveniently overlook the role of God in his theories). These questions are now claimed by physicists, such as Tyson, who regard them as scientific rather than philosophical questions.

Thus, it is rather unfair to claim that philosophy does not solve problems or make progress—since when excellent progress is made, the discipline is labeled as science and no longer considered philosophy. However, the progress would have obviously been impossible without the deep questions that set people in search of answers and the work done by philosophers before the field was claimed as a science. To use an analogy, to claim that philosophy has made no progress or contributions would be on par with a student taking the work done by another, adding to it and then claiming the whole as his own work and deriding the other student as “useless.”

At this point, some might be willing to grudgingly concede that philosophy did make some valuable contributions (perhaps on par with how the workers who dragged the marble for Michelangelo’s David contributed) in the past, but philosophy is now an eddy rather than the current of progress.

Interestingly enough, philosophy has been here before—back in the days of Socrates the Sophists contended that philosophical speculation was valueless and that people should focus on getting things done—that is, achieving success. Fortunately for contemporary science, philosophy survived and philosophers kept asking those deep questions that seemed so valueless then.

While philosophy’s day might be done, it seems worth considering that some of the deep, distracting philosophical questions that are being asked are well worth pursuing—if only because they might lead to great things. Much as how Democritus’ deep questions led to the astrophysics that a fellow named Neil loves so much.


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18 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 12, 2014 at 8:59 am

    I think too many people turn to science as a substitute for religion or philosophy.

    Science is an effective means of finding out how the world works, but it does not and cannot give a meaning to one’s life.

    At the end of the day science does not provide any significant spiritual nourishment, and I think Tyson is quite right to emphasize that.

    I don’t think that pointing out that science is not philosophy makes one a philistine.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 12, 2014 at 3:31 pm

      I don’t think Tyson is a philistine (but snarky headlines can draw eyes), but his apparent dismissal of deep questioning seems odd.

      • apollonian said, on May 12, 2014 at 3:43 pm

        That’s way Tyson invokes/hails his audience, his fans–who respond and want to hear this sort of cant–it’s “inside” thing, Mike.

      • T. J. Babson said, on May 12, 2014 at 8:50 pm

        The key word is “apparent,” because he only dismisses thinking about deep philosophical questions in the context of advancing science. And he is perfectly correct.

        • WTP said, on May 13, 2014 at 9:45 am

          Have you noticed how modern philosophers have evolved very thin skin? They’re all for attacking and finding fault with what is, but when the world bites back in even the most gentle way, they are stunned to find how little they really understand. Which of course can be quite a shock to their sophisticated temperaments. Requires significant reflection and introspection to use criticisms to understand why the world is different than how you perceive it and thus to change one’s ways for the better.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on May 12, 2014 at 10:37 am

    In depth remarks from Tyson:

    • T. J. Babson said, on May 12, 2014 at 10:39 am

      The action starts at 1:02:47. The vides was supposed to start at that point, but it didn’t work.

  3. apollonian said, on May 12, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Philosophy Defines What Science Is, For One Thing

    Well Mike: it’s a trick question, isn’t it?–something that teachers well put to their students at the very first day–what in heck is philosophy, anyway?–what’s it good for?–what are U looking for in way of philosophy?

    Consider Gorgias of Leontini, the sophist: “nothing exists, if it did u couldn’t know it, and if u did u couldn’t communicate it to someone else.” Ho ho hoho–how would u answer old Gorgias?

    Thus one needs philosophy to know what science is; indeed, philosophy is necessary to provide context to everything and anything–such is philosophy.

    So Tyson feels need to impress his faggot friends, ho hoho ho–w. this girly-like non-chalance and brainless ignorance–why?–because those morons think it’s cool and neat to be that way–because other morons are soooooooooooo impressed by such stupidity, ho ho hoho hoho.

    Thus people are rational creatures who function by means of reason and knowledge–what then is knowledge?–all these are PHILOSOPHIC considerations, obviously. And science then is a certain kind of knowledge–esp. for the way it’s obtained, as there’s a distinct method involved.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on May 12, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Someone needs to remind Tyson that “science” is “natural philosophy”.

    Mary Midgley has thoroughly trashed the foolishness of the sort Tyson subscribes to:

    Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and its Meaning, by Mary Midgley – http://www.amazon.com/Science-Salvation-Modern-Myth-Meaning/dp/0415107733

    Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears, by Mary Midgley – http://www.amazon.com/Evolution-Religion-Stranger-Routledge-Classics/dp/0415278333/

    • T. J. Babson said, on May 12, 2014 at 10:15 pm

      In the 18th century science was “natural philosophy” but a fair bit has happened since then and they have parted ways.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 13, 2014 at 4:17 pm

        True. The point is not that science is philosophy now. Rather, the point is that current sciences arose from philosophy when these branches became big enough to be their own academic fields.

        Ultimately, philosophy is in the business of putting itself out of business: once an area of philosophy reaches the point of being large enough to be its own field and once significant progress has been made, it becomes its own field. To use a simplified example, Aristotle’s inquiries into life eventually evolved into biology. To use another, Democritus’ inquiry into the nature of the world evolved into physics. Perhaps some day there will be a hard science of ethics.

        • apollonian said, on May 13, 2014 at 5:04 pm

          Tyson Desperately Tries To Ignore Fascist Hi-Jacking Of Philosophy & Science

          Science is still what Aristotle described: that method by which we achieve necessarily true knowledge–this then, by means of applying logic to any given subject-matter.

          But what then is philosophy and its relation w. science?–philosophy is what gives depth and context–the BASIC PREMISES. And hence even logic requires basic premises–hence metaphysics.

          Thus philosophy entails metaphysics (basic premises), epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and ethics & politics, answering what should we do.

          Thus philosophy discusses Aristotelian objectivity (“Immanence”), only possible premise for logic (non-contradiction), hence science, and why it necessarily implies determinism–no perfectly “free” will.

          Thus as fascists must remove determinism in order to achieve OBEDIENCE, founded on “good-evil” Pharisaism, they’re very interested in subverting philosophy, metaphysics, and Aristotle–Tyson, understandably, doesn’t want to discuss this.

          Thus the fascists use public funding to taking over education, turning it into thought-control, controlling the teaching and understanding of philosophy, subverting it and pretending philosophy and science are then consistent w. perfectly “free,” hubristic will and Pharisaism and “good-evil.”

          Tyson, not wanting to acknowledge or discuss all this about fascist “edjumacation” prefers then to ignoring the necessity of Aristotelian objectivity and determinism (called “teleology” by Aristotle).

          • apollonian said, on May 13, 2014 at 6:49 pm

            See, Tyson HAS to set-up in order to avoid such things as “global-warming” fraud–pretending there’s a “special science” in regard thereto, ho ho ho ho.

            And as science and logic proceed fm objectivity and determinism, they (science and logic) have to be separated fm such determinism and objectivity in order to provide for “ethics” of Pharisaism and “good-evil” delusion.

  5. Does Plato matter? | Episyllogism said, on May 15, 2014 at 9:07 am

    […] Neil deGrasse Tyson, Science & Philosophy […]

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