Neil deGrasse Tyson is wrong to dismiss all of philosophy, but he may have a point on some of it

Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...

So, I reblogged Massimo Pigliucci’s post responding to Tyson’s remarks about philosophy, which appears to have generated some heated discussion.  After reading some of it, I realized that I have a few thoughts on this.

First, I suspect Tyson’s blanket dismissal of philosophy is simply the result of insularity.  I’ve noticed that philosophy’s critics tend to be those who’ve never read any of it, or only read a limited amount.  I don’t know for sure if that applies to Tyson specifically, but I’ve noticed a lot of it from his field, physics, and most intensely from theoretical physicists.  (Although certainly not all of them.  Sean Carroll comes to mind as a prominent exception.)

Ironically, this is in a field where the practitioners arguably cross over into philosophy regularly.  What’s more ironic, as I’ve discovered a few times in various internet forums, pointing that out to them is received as a major insult.  Indeed, among many physicists, one of the harshest criticisms of areas like string theory is that it’s philosophy rather than science.

I’ve wondered a few times why so many physicists have hostility toward philosophy, a hostility that I rarely see from biologists, social scientists, or members of other scientific fields.  I’m not certain about this, but I’ve often wondered if part of it is that they realize that some of what they do is perilously close to philosophy, and they defensively want to insure that they distance themselves from it.  I write this with some trepidation because similar musings I made last year in a  HuffPost comment thread resulted in a fierce reaction from an offended physicist.

That said, while I disagree with Tyson’s dismissal of the entire field, I understand the reaction he has to certain types of philosophy.  I’ve written before that if you’re engaging in philosophy, but you’re not tracking the science related to the subject you’re philosophizing on, then there’s a risk your philosophical conclusions are obsolete right out of the gate.  Examples are philosophers of mind who think neuroscience isn’t relevant to their deliberations, or moral philosophers who ignore social psychology.

I also have to admit that I find continental philosophy incomprehensible and I so strongly suspect that much of it is designed to be that way, that I long ago stopped regarding it as an interesting endeavor.  I’m sure there is good continental philosophy out there, but I’ll likely never read it because I’m not willing to wade through the vague ambiguous language.  If this is what Tyson has in mind when he ponders philosophy, then I have some sympathy with his reaction.

I’ve also written before about the difference between scientific and philosophical conclusions.  Sorry philosophers, but scientific conclusions have a higher degree of reliability.  Indeed, in my view, the difference between science and philosophy is that reliability.  Technology is built on scientific conclusions, not philosophical ones.

Some analytic philosophers like to assume that their logical conclusions are as solid as scientific empirical discoveries, or even more so since they’re often based on impeccable logic, but history just doesn’t back that up.  (Think humors, geocentrism, or heavier objects falling faster than lighter ones.)  Philosophical conclusions are only as good as their starting premises, and we often don’t understand those premises as well as we think we do.

That doesn’t mean philosophy shouldn’t be engaged in.  It’s often our only systematic alternative for areas that science either can’t address yet or may never be able to address.  But we should understand that philosophical conclusions are at best hypotheses that may or may not ever be tested.

Now, Tyson might insist that he’s only interested in reliable knowledge.  That’s fine, but he should understand that that’s a personal preference of his, a personal…philosophy.  Given a choice, I strongly prefer reliable knowledge myself, but I’ll take less reliable knowledge if it’s the only thing available.  In my view, a philosophical conclusion is usually far preferable to one arrived at only through emotion, superstition, or tradition.

Science can’t address things like whether euthanasia is right, whether free will exists, what to value in life, whether God exists, and many other topics.  (Often when people think science can address these things, they are actually drawing from philosophical reasoning and calling it science.)  But I’m still interested in these subjects and I’ll take insights on them from wherever I can, which for now is philosophy.

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54 Responses to Neil deGrasse Tyson is wrong to dismiss all of philosophy, but he may have a point on some of it

  1. Well said SAP. Much the same as my own thoughts. I do think there is a lot of really bad philosophy out there, so NdGT isn’t completely wrong, but there’s good stuff too which he should not throw out with the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the answer on both sides is a solid dose of humility. On the side of philosophy, I think the best “conclusions” we can find aren’t answers, as such, but approaches and methods of unlearning – tearing down assumptions, thought experiments, and the like. Philosophical conclusions aren’t supposed to be reliable, they’re supposed to undo your expectations of reliability. At least, that’s why I love philosophy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. guymax says:

    In my view philosophical conclusions are either reliable or they are not conclusions, and if they can never be reliable then philosophy is a waste of time. So I cannot agree with Michelle. If there is no reliability in philosophy then Tyson is right and we philosophers might as well go home.

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    • I don’t think reliability is a binary on or off trait. It’s more of a continuum. And it’s better to be more than less reliable. Science isn’t itself perfectly reliable, often revising long held theories on new evidence. Philosophical conclusions are less reliable, but because it is systematic and logical, it is often more reliable than tradition and other ways of arriving at conclusions. And often the issues that philosophy raises in earlier centuries become scientific investigation in later centuries.

      I definitely don’t think good philosophy is a waste of time.

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      • guymax says:

        Well, opinions differ on this. I approach philosophy as mathematics, and mathematical proofs are not arranged along a spectrum of reliability. Either they work or they don’t. But many people do not take this approach, so for them reliability is not a binary judgement.

        I think you sum it up well by saying that good philosophy is not a waste of time. Unfortunately this has little bearing on the currently orthodox academic approach, which in my opinion rarely qualifies. This is not arrogance, or not entirely, but a carefully researched conclusion. It seems that bad philosophy earns better money. Progress in professional field need not be anticipated, and it is highly vulnerable to attack from folk like Tyson.

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        • I think if we were to do a pure logical proof, with no reference to real world entities, it would be like that, like a mathematical proof. Indeed, it’s often said that mathematics is quantitative logic. But in both cases, as soon as we try to impose it on real world entities, we run the risk that we don’t understand those entities as well as we think we do, and that although the logic or mathematics is impeccable, we could still be wrong.

          The problem with good philosophy versus bad philosophy is that there’s rarely consensus on which is which. In science, we have empirical data as an arbiter. In philosophy, we only have appeals to reason. Consensus is rare (scroll down to see the survey results).

          Massimo Pigliucci has pointed out how much more difficult this makes it for philosophy to change the world. Science only needs to convince the engineers for the rest of us to have things like computers. Philosophy generally has to convince everyone on topics like whether or not animals should have rights.

          Liked by 1 person

    • I guess to look at it another way is to actually see science – as an epistemic method – as a conclusion of philosophy. I think I meant to say not that philosophy isn’t reliable, but rather to focus on the fact that it doesn’t produce reliable /contents/, but rather pushes us in reliable /directions/ as match the questions. And then when we find the limits of that reliability, we turn back to philosophical questions to reliably undermine our supposed reliability. I rely on philosophy all the time, but not in the same way that I rely on my husband to bring home groceries, which is different from the way I rely on my muscle memory to get me through dance moves, which is different from the way I rely on parables and hymns to calm me when I feel anxious, and so on and so forth.

      So, while I agree that philosophy can produce reliable results of sorts, they’re not going to be the same kinds of results that science produces, nor will the be reliable in the same way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I wonder if physicists really dislike philosophy because physics and philosophy are competitors. Physics (unlike biology, chemistry, etc…) deals with the fundamental stuff of reality. In theory, all the other sciences boil down to that.

    Philosophy attempts to do this as well. Hence metaphysics, a term that may irritate physicists 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • guymax says:

      As usual I must disagree, but not disagreeably I hope. The study of the fundamental stuff or reality is metaphysics. Physics has no tools for studying it, and has carefully defined itself so that it excludes any such study. The phrase ‘fundamental physics’ is an oxymoron. It is not fundamental by definition. There will never be a fundamental physical that works, and I would happily bet my house on it. This is what is so blatantly ridiculous about the rejection of metaphysics by physicists, It leaves them with nothing worth saying about fundamental questions.

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      • I’ve heard metaphysics described in different ways, so it depends. If we take the hard-line of metaphysics as that which is beyond the reach of physics, then by definition we are always putting it outside the sight of science, and hence back at the margins (I wrote about that in another reply to my comment :)).

        The problem here is how can you arrive at a conclusion if you cannot test it? I see philosophy as useful as a way of dealing with practical human concerns, and to some extent, certain metaphysical views might be useful for their effect on how we view the world. But in terms of actually finding any “real” information, I’m not sure if there’s any value in it at all.

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        • guymax says:

          I explain this at length elsewhere BR, or explain my view. Metaphysics uses the dialectic to make decisions. No decision made by this method has ever been overturned by the natural sciences. There is no evidence that one ever will be. As for testing, metaphysics concludes that materialism is false. Are you suggesting that this result can be tested in physics? If so, then physics is the study of first principles. If not, then physics comes after metaphysics, is encompassed by it, and can never replace it.

          It is the untestability in physics of theories like materialism that make Tyson’s view so daft, and its wide adoption by physicists is a clear indication that they are often very poor philosophers. Most have no more right to an opinion than your average bricklayer.

          I have no time or sympathy for professional academics who let ideology get in the way of honest and clear thinking. I reserve my sympathies for the lay folk who make the mistake of believing their nonsense, which for many years included me. . .

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          • Thanks for the clarification! I think I can agree with much, if not most of what you wrote. I really need to be careful with how I use terms like “testability” (like what is being tested) and “first principles”, as whitefrozen pointed out.

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          • guymax says:

            No worries. To achieve rigour on these topics is almost impossible in my experience. You have to rely on a sympathetic audience, which is a rare thing in philosophy. I regularly see people contrasting the views of two philosophers as if we must choose between them, when they seem to me to agree about almost everything, but use quite different language and concepts. The problem is worse in religion.

            I once saw a desk-sign that read, “The trouble with communication is thinking that it’s happened”. Its one of the best aphorisms I’ve ever come across. As long as we know we’re bound to be misunderstanding each other there’s no problem. 🙂

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          • Thanks for throwing me a bone, lol! I dropped the ball by misusing “first principles” and I was sloppy enough that my comment didn’t even pass the sniff test. It’s all good 🙂

            I love that quote about communication! It’s so true.

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          • guymax says:

            Too outspoken again. My apologies to the moderators.

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    • whitefrozen says:

      Ha. Physics and philosophy are competitors. Good one. The conceptual confusion is strong with this one.

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      • Clarification: certain branches of philosophy are competing with physics — not in the sense that they can match physics’ success, but in the sense that they attempt to address first principles.

        This history of philosophy bears this out. Philosophers addressed a wide variety of scientific subjects, but as science made progress, it pushed philosophy further and further into the margins.

        The result is that there’s an intersection (in terms of interest) between philosophy and physics. This area is the margins where physics has not provided sufficient answers. If it does, then (that) philosophy will shrink even further into the margins.

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        • whitefrozen says:

          Physics does not address first principles. That’s another conceptual confusion.

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        • guymax says:

          I wouldn’t want to completely disagree with any of that, BR, just quibble a bit.

          I would rather say that it is because philosophy addresses first principles that it does not need to compete with physics. Physics, by a definition laid down on the day that it swept all its foundational problems under the rug of metaphysics. Physics does not address first principles. It does not have a method for doing so. Metaphysics is a different discipline for precisely this reason. It would destroy physics as we know it were it to start addressing first principles. For a start, physicists would have to learn a lot of philosophy at last. .

          And surely, the further that physics pushes philosophy into the margins the better. The greater the focus the more likely is progress. The ideas that physics can push philosophy right off the edge is absurd. Physicists would have to become much better philosophers than any that I know of to stand any chance of doing that, and up to press no philosopher has ever succeeded.

          It’s all bluster. It seems that some physicist do not even understand the definition of their own discipline.

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    • It certainly irritates them to have what they’re doing be labeled as metaphysics.

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  5. whitefrozen says:

    ‘The question then arises: Should the repeated failures of metaphysics be ascribed to metaphysics itself, or to metaphysicians? It is a legitimate question, and one that can be answered in the light of philosophical experience. For indeed that experience itself exhibits a remarkable unity. If our previous analyses are correct, they all point to the same conclusion, that metaphysical adventures are doomed to fail when their authors substitute the fundamental concepts of any particular science for those of metaphysics. Theology, logic, physics, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, are fully competent to solve their own problems by their own methods; on the other hand, however, and this must be our fourth conclusion: as metaphysics aims at transcending all particular knowledge, no particular science is competent either to solve metaphysical problems, or to judge their metaphysical solutions.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience,’p. 249)

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    • guymax says:

      Thanks WF. Very good comment. I would only want to propose that the fundamental concepts of any particular science ARE metaphysical.concepts. Were they not, they would not be fundamental. So it would not really matter which science we steal our concepts from. .Or that would be another way of looking at it. The result would be the same. Only metaphysics deals with fundamental theories, and to do so one has to join in.

      I don’t understand why this is debated in academia. It is written into the definition of these areas of study in large bold print. The phrase ‘fundamental physics’ is a contradiction, and this can be formally proved in metaphysics. Is this why physicists are so reluctant to do any? Or have they studied it enough to have an informed opinion? To me this looks like a rhetorical question.

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      • whitefrozen says:

        I guess it depends a bit on what exactly one means by fundamental – fundamental in physics isn’t the same as fundamental in metaphysics.

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        • guymax says:

          Yes. Good point. There are always two ways of looking at things. That would another way of looking at it. Not that I’ve ever seen a physicist say that it’s a different use of the word.

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  6. Pingback: Philosopher Fridays: Russell | Soliloquies ~ writing about writing, reality, and the narrative human experience

  7. John the Revelator says:

    I’ve come to really enjoy your site, it’s overall informational! I don’t disagree with anything that was said. I believe everything has some value, even philosophy. I didn’t always think this, I’ve since rethought the subject from a different perspective. I will share two links. Keep up the great site…..http://www.asante.net/articles/26/afrocentricity/

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    • Thanks! On your first link, I think anyone who has looked into it has to realize that the insights of Thales and other presocratic philosophers is unlikely to have come from nowhere. They were almost certainly drawing from earlier work in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and possibly other sources. Unfortunately, the earliest that we have writings from are the Greeks, and the earlier material is lost.

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      • guymax says:

        As a matter of interest, would the Corpus Hermeticum be a relevant text? My history is a bit vague.

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        • Interesting. I don’t think I’ve heard of the Corpus Hermeticum before, but if this Wikipedia article is it, then I appears to be dated well within the Greek classical period. (300-100 BC)
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermetica

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          • guymax says:

            True enough. Whatever it expresses must go back a lot further, but as a text it does date quite late. Worth a read though, since one would think it must refer back at least a century or two. Btw. I posted some extracts a while back, (findable in my tag cloud.) Basically it expresses the same view as the Buddhist sutras and late Vedas, but there’s no way to know how far back in Egyptian society this view was circulating.

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          • What’s the URL to your blog? Your name doesn’t seem to link to it.

            Like

  8. Orwell says:

    Reblogged this on Why Philosophy Fails.

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  9. A balanced and reasonable assessment of the status of philosophy as a mode of intellectual inquiry. I take a more radical view in my book (link below), namely that the discourse of any purely theoretical discipline (such as philosophy) is semantically indeterminate, in the sense that there is considerable and irremediable uncertainty as to what (if anything) it means. Philosophy may still have value as a literary genre (where precise semantic determinacy is not generally required, allowing for a degree of subjectivity in interpretation); but that would not satisfy most analytic philosophers, who hold philosophy up (unrealistically) to the standards of linguistic precision found in the sciences.
    My book’s URL – http://whyphilosophyfails.com/

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    • Thanks. Your view reminds me of Alex Rosenberg’s, who views philosophy as essentially entertainment. (If I recall correctly, Rosenberg also consigns history and economics into this category.) Although I disagree with it, I can understand that view, but it involves giving up contemplation of too many subjects for me to buy into it, particularly when many of those subjects may someday become scientific ones.

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  10. Daedalus Lex says:

    I think you’re right that physicists are more likely than biologists and other scientists to view their relationship to philosophy as a turf war (the primary turf being “what is the nature of reality?”). Physicists are far more precise than philosophers at elucidating knowledge of the objective world. But the objective world is only one abstraction from lived reality. When it comes to the subjective aspect of lived reality and related values, philosophy has the edge. Every physicist should be able to appreciate, at a minimum, Plato and Hume and Kant, who consider the conditions within which physics and the study of the objective world have a value for those of us living concrete human lives. http://shakemyheadhollow.wordpress.com/2012/05/19/subjectivity-and-the-limits-of-science/

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Daedalus Lex says:

    Good point. The separation of subjective and objective is itself an abstraction — not a dualism that applies to the world “out there” but an analytical strategy that allows us to artificially isolate and study this or that aspect … and it’s a strategy deployed by physics as well as philosophy (although I’d say philosophers are more self-aware of this kind of prerequisite maneuvering that makes the study possible).

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Scarlet says:

    When Bill O’Reilly says “Christianity is a philosophy not a relgion’ I tend to agree with Tyson, these people must be stopped. But, some of my friends don’t share my love for science, they find it cold and difficult to comprehend, even slightly monstrous.
    I wonder if this isn’t more about ethics dressed differently? I can think of a few very good reasons not to back philosophy, the Pythagorean suppression of certain numbers, shapes and views that messed with their view of a perfect cosmos.
    There is a close tie between philosophy and belief, and here are dangerous waters, but, if we are to become truly enlightened beings then we should peruse paths that we find difficult not easy.

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    • I suspect any philosopher would agree with you on Bill O’Reilly’s idea of philosophy.

      I think few people would disagree that there’s bad philosophy out there. The problem is agreeing on which of it actually is bad. But dispensing with all of it means not thinking about anything we can’t amass evidence for, and that’s pretty restrictive. More restrictive than most scientists actually want to be.

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      • Scarlet says:

        I find his remarks on the topic strange, I’d have thought he’d be more open minded, given what people above have pointed out, and the blog, that without philosophy science would suffer, imagination and inspiration being important to assembling as well as conceiving of theories.

        I can see where say astrology vs astronomy are conflicts philosophy vs science, but like all absolutes I’m dubious about the worth of giving up on philosophy.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. John says:

    Philosophy is nothing more than the workings of Logic.
    Now for such a bloated, arrogant, head in the sand, pontificating oaf to want to dispense with it is just priceless. You mean, then he gets to to just spew out anything and everything and no one can call into question whether he is even making a lick of sense?…Nice

    As many atheist philosophers have pointed out..these guys present some of the worst arguments in the history of western thought. They must be contained by Logical formulation. I have never listened to a guy more in need of training in proper argumentation than this self proclaimed wizard. So to say he doesn’t need it just exposes just how deficient his reasoning is.

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    • I appreciate your comment, and passion. Tyson is definitely myopic to dismiss philosophy. His views on it are misguided, and it’s unfortunate that he seems unwilling to reconsider them.

      But it would be wrong to regard him as something other than a serious thinker. He knows his area of expertise (astrophysics) well. He just seems to have gaping blind spots outside of that area.

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    • guymax says:

      Well said John. The man is a fool and we are fools to be discussing him. It’s fun though.

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  14. There’s also the irony of Mr. Tyson throwing rocks at philosophy from within the glass house of science, or as we also call it, the natural philosophy called empiricism. This gets even more fun when you ask Mr. Tyson to analyze the (completely unprovable!) premises of empiricism.

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