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.