Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy

Some of us, led by Michelle Joelle, had a Twitter conversation about this the other day.  Apparently Tyson is doubling down on his views about philosophy, which is unfortunate for such a public figure.  Tyson is a brilliant science communicator, but he appears to have some serious blind spots.

Scientia Salon

1-12-14-Neil-deGrasse-Tyson-inside-alternate-ftr by 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…

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

  1. ‘Philosophy buries it undertakers.’ – Gilson

    Anyone who says such dumb things about science and philosophy isn’t really worth engaging with. All that happens in cases like this is that you do poor philosophy, not no philosophy, and conceptually confused science.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cool quote! Tyson is a major public figure whose words carry a lot of weight, so I think Pigliucci is right to try to change his mind. Unfortunately, Tyson doesn’t seem to be open to doing that or even discussing it.


      1. It is indeed unfortunate. You’d at least think he’d be open to the work of guys like Tim Maudlin, who are doing some great work in philosophy of physics. But I guess that’s the rub.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I would agree with WF completely and like that great quote about undertakers. What a blithering idiot this Tyson fellow must be. I pity his students. But there’s no point in arguing with fools. It’s amazing that such people can hold down jobs in academia. Or maybe not.


      1. I’m sticking to my guns. Someone who has such strong philosophical views and discusses it at such length, who at the same time argues that there is no point in considering those views or even discussing them, clearly has a screw loose.


  3. I couldn’t agree more with Tyson.

    The scientific method = a collection of techniques used to filter subjectivity from measurements and design reliable, consistent models of reality.

    Science = those parts of philosophy that remain after removing everything that’s inconsistent with the available data or the models based on that data, using the scientific method as a filter.

    Science makes philosophy obsolete as a distinct concept, because :
    * the scientific method is the ONLY reliable method for knowing anything about those aspects of reality that are both objective and provable. All other methods are unreliable.
    * aspects of reality that are objective but not provable and thus not accessible with the scientific method are not accessible with ANY degree or reality and thus allow only pure speculation / conjecture.

    Some might argue that science is irrelevant to subjective aspects of reality, like our individual attribution of value to an object or an idea. This begs the question, however, if such subjectivity is justified in advanced intellectual discourse and why judgements on morality, economics, psychology or other areas of life as science allows us to develop objective data-driven models for eg. morality, economics, psychology with such great reliability that there is but little to no room left for subjectivity. And where such room still remains, the value attribution is typically both arbitrary and unimportant.

    This brings me to the core problem of philosophy as it exists beyond science, which is well explained in the Principia Discordia :

    The Aneristic Principle is that of apparent order; the Eristic Principle is that of apparent disorder. Both order and disorder are man made concepts and are artificial divisions of pure chaos, which is a level deeper than is the level of distinction making.

    With our concept-making apparatus called “the brain” we look at reality through the ideas-about-reality which our cultures give us.

    The ideas-about-reality are mistakenly labeled “reality” and unenlightened people are forever perplexed by the fact that other people, especially other cultures, see “reality” differently.

    It is only the ideas-about-reality which differ. Real (capital-T) True reality is a level deeper than is the level of concept.

    We look at the world through windows on which have been drawn grids (concepts). Different philosophies use different grids. A culture is a group of people with rather similar grids. Through a window we view chaos, and relate it to the points on our grid, and thereby understand it. The order is in the grid. That is the Aneristic Principle.

    Western philosophy is traditionally concerned with contrasting one grid with another grid, and amending grids in hopes of finding a perfect one that will account for all reality and will, hence, (say unenlightened westerners) be true. This is illusory; it is what we Erisians call the Aneristic Illusion. Some grids can be more useful than others, some more beautiful than others, some more pleasant than others, etc., but none can be more True than any other.

    Disorder is simply unrelated information viewed through some particular grid. But, like “relation”, no-relation is a concept. Male, like female, is an idea about sex. To say that male-ness is “absence of female-ness”, or vice versa, is a matter of definition and metaphysically arbitrary. The artificial concept of no-relation is the Eristic Principle.

    The belief that “order is true” and disorder is false or somehow wrong, is the Aneristic Illusion. To say the same of disorder, is the Eristic Illusion.

    The point is that (little-t) truth is a matter of definition relative to the grid one is using at the moment, and that (capital-T) Truth, metaphysical reality, is irrelevant to grids entirely. Pick a grid, and through it some chaos appears ordered and some appears disordered. Pick another grid, and the same chaos will appear differently ordered and disordered.

    Reality is the original Rorschach. Verily! So much for all that.

    —Malaclypse the Younger, Principia Discordia, Pages 00049–00050


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