Dear Dr. Tyson,
Like many philosophers, I was very disheartened by some of your recent remarks about the study of philosophy. I don’t think your views about the worth of philosophy are especially unusual, but since you are one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals, and a committed champion of inquiry, I hope I can persuade you to rethink things a bit. Because I don’t think valuing philosophical inquiry is at odds with valuing scientific inquiry. Firstly, the whole idea of even treating them as distinct from each other is a fairly recent shift. As an early modernist, the list of philosophers I study has pretty striking overlap with lists of early modern chemists, physicists, and biologists. That’s not to say I think we were wrong to start distinguishing between the two forms of inquiry; it is just to point out that figures like Newton and Leibniz, were scientists, mathematicians and philosophers. I would like to think that you and I should be, in some broad sense, partners against a rising tide of anti-intellectualism.
There’s a passage from John Stuart Mill that I love. In a work laying out his picture of the scientific method, and outlining the proper approach to inquiry, he starts with a discussion of language. And he feels the need to explain to the reader why he would begin that way. So he defends himself by saying this:
It is so much the established practice of writers on logic to commence their treatises by a few general observations (in most cases, it is true, rather meagre) on Terms and their varieties, that it will, perhaps, scarcely be required from me in merely following the common usage, to be as particular in assigning my reasons, as it is usually expected those who deviate from it.
The practice, indeed, is recommended by considerations far too obvious to require a formal justification. Logic is a portion of the Art of Thinking: Language is evidently, and by the admission of all philosophers, one of the principal instruments or helps of thought; and any imperfection in the instrument, or in the mode of employing it, is confessedly liable, still more than in almost any other art, to confuse and impede the process, and destroy all ground of confidence in the result. For a mind not previously versed in the meaning and right use of the various kinds of words, to attempt the study of methods of philosophizing, would be as if some one should attempt to become an astronomical observer, having never learned to adjust the focal distance of his optical instruments so as to see distinctly.
It is almost as if John Stuart Mill knew that I might one day try to defend the value of focused philosophical investigation of words to an astrophysicist. Just as an astronomer can be led into error by failing to appreciate the way their telescope works, inquirers in general, who think and reason through the medium of language, can be led into error by failing to appreciate the way that language works. Now, I am not saying that every philosophical question about the workings of language or the meaning of ‘meaning’ is going to clarify inquiry in the same way that understanding the theory of optics helps someone know what their telescope is actually telling them, but I hope you can appreciate why philosophers would think that there are cases where it can and does help clarify inquiry.
So that was my all-too-brief sketch of how philosophy can help with scientific inquiry. Of course, the far easier case to make for the value of philosophical inquiry is on the value side, rather than the inquiry side of the equation. You care about raising public consciousness about science. You believe that the developments of modern science have been a tremendous boon to humankind, and you think that the inquiry itself enriches those who engage in it. Here are some philosophical questions prompted by all that: What determines whether some activity improves or enriches you? What makes something a boon to humankind? Why should you (or anyone) care about one outcome over another? Or put more generally: which things in the world are fundamentally valuable, and worthy of pursuit?
The study of ethics or morality—inquiry into the nature of value—is a core area of philosophy, and has been since its inception. And while scientific discoveries can reveal to us things like, how to build bridges, the methods for transplanting organs, or the psychological mechanisms of human persuasion, a practicing scientist implicitly takes stands on the normative questions of which bridges are worth building, which patients ought to get the organs that are in short supply, or which means of persuasion are morally permissible to use when trying to convince people of important truths. I think these questions are worth asking, and I’m sure you do too. My point isn’t that philosophers have all the answers to these questions, and so you should go ask them. Rather, my point is that we’ve been asking these questions for a long time, and might have some insights on how you should go about trying to answer them.
As I said above, I’d love to talk more with you about the value of philosophical inquiry.
EDITED TO ADD:
The brief examples I offered in this letter only scrape the surface of the enormous range of topics and approaches that go on in philosophy. I didn’t mean to be providing a snapshot of the discipline, but just to point out a couple of aspects of philosophy that seemed especially relevant to Dr. Tyson’s remarks.
EDITED TO ADD:
Dr. Tyson has responded to this letter in the comments below, directing those of us interested in his views on philosophy to view this exchange.
101 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson”
Bravo, Lewis, well said!
Thanks for your interest in my utterances. My comments and views on Philosophy are best represented in this link:
..made in a more academic setting than my few sentences quipped in a comedic podcast on which you and other Philosophy defenders have based their entire blogs.
The 730,000 viewers of that clip apparently don’t include any of you.
-Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City
Wow. That really doesn’t make it better.
Your anxieties about post-modernism (?) are understandable. However, philosophy has value independent of science. Its worth isn’t measured by how well it serves the natural sciences. In fact, it’s pretty clear that philosophy has a more important role to play than science in human life.
For instance, asserting our mastery over the natural world, might not be the only good worth pursuing. The only way to measure that good relative to other goods is through philosophy.
I speak of the continued and emergent value of Philosophy in fields outside of the physical sciences in the clip I provided. Perhaps you missed it. -NDTyson
I’m not entirely convinced, after having watched the short clip you provided, that you’re saying a whole lot there that would be of great comfort to philosophers. You say that there’s certainly plenty for philosophers to do in the fields of ethical and political philosophy, and that philosophers of science used to do a lot of very interesting things, but that seems to be the extent of the comments you make on the subject. This sounds like you’re graciously conceding to philosophers their useless tinkering rather than speaking “of the continued and emergent value of Philosophy in fields outside of the physical sciences.”
Indeed, these comments seem very much in line with your comments on the Nerdist podcast, where you seem to judge the discipline of philosophy by the standards of the physical sciences. You suggest that you’re disappointed in the way that philosophers’ are using their brainpower because it doesn’t do what you’re doing, what you find most important, namely considering the frontier of the physical world.
For my part, I don’t think you need to be a cheerleader for philosophy — ethical, moral, political, whatever — but it was jarring to hear you say that we might judge philosophers to be wasting their time and talent by the pretty useless questions they’re asking … simply because those question seem not to be ones in which you’re interested.
I think you’re misreading his comments. NDT clearly states that there are perfectly practical areas of study for philosophy, just that the natural sciences are no longer one of them.
First off, thank you so much for taking the time to read my letter, and for responding to it. I appreciate that tremendously.
I had not previously seen the clip that you’ve linked, and I appreciate that a good portion of what I said in my letter is something you already openly acknowledged and affirmed in response to the question about philosophy in the video you linked.
I suspect we still have some substantive disagreements about whether philosophy of science has become, as you say in those remarks, “obsolete”. One of my colleagues encouraged me to include some reference to the fact that there are active projects in your own field which involve both scientists and philosophers (e.g. http://philocosmology.rutgers.edu/).
But I hope you can also appreciate why I might be moved to respond to quips you made in a comedy podcast. I love science, and so many of the ambassadors of science to the broader world feel comfortable derogating philosophical inquiry (for example, Feynman and Hawking). Your influence on people’s perception of which intellectual endeavors are worthwhile or not isn’t limited to remarks you make in a more academic setting, so I think it is natural for me to be disheartened by the picture of philosophy or the attitude towards its value embodied in those quips.
I think the part of your remarks that I reacted to most strongly was the claim that philosophers confusedly believe themselves to be asking deep questions about nature, but the scientist thinks that these questions are a waste of time or a pointless delay. Because for that to be right, it would have to be the case that there are no substantive questions about nature which cannot be resolved by application of the scientific method, or in other words, that the methods of empirical science are in a position to settle all substantive debates about nature. Even if that were true, that view itself isn’t something that can be settled by the methods of empirical science. And disputes among scientists about the proper interpretations of the models they accept seem to give us some reason to think there is a legitimate question to be investigated there.
At any rate, I apologize for misrepresenting your views about the nature of philosophy in my blog post above. Thank you again for taking the time to read my remarks.
Thanks for the Rutgers link. I look forward to seeing if emergent collaborations such as that will have the influence and impact that natural philosophers have had on the progress of the physical sciences in centuries past. -NDTyson
p.s. Try not to confuse me with others, such as Hawking & Feynman who have, at various times, declared Philosophy dead.
While I know of no influence of philosophy on the science of physics, you should check out the effects of the philosophy of language on the science of linguistics. Most notably, check out J.L Austin’s How to Do Things With Words and the prominence of speech acts in the scientific field.
Never doubted that. Nor the influence of philosophy in countless other fields. I gave a fast list in the video clip that I provided. -NDT
As someone who has respected your work for a long time (and still does, of course!), it’s nice to see you participate in this conversation.
I thought I should mention another dimension in which philosophy (and the humanities) and science interact, viz., with respect to questions about the motivation and justification for science.
One of the more recent trends in philosophy of science is to join political and economic issues with traditional issues in philosophy of science. It is now beyond reproach to say that science is value-laden, at least in the sense that values play an important role in the selection of research projects, the apportioning of scientific funding, etc. (and this of course leaves me somewhat worried, since I believe that basic scientific research is incredibly important, and yet it is remarkably difficult to justify basic research to the public, compared to various applied sciences and technological development).
So I think philosophy has an important role to play in the posing, clarifying, and answering of questions about the value of scientific research. This can’t be accomplished solely by scientists, since (unfortunately) many people have an inherent distrust of science—people who might otherwise be amenable to a more humanistic approach.
I should also add (perhaps more to philosophers) that, in my experience working on the ethics of space exploration (see https://www.academia.edu/6376339/Philosophy_and_Space_Exploration_Bibliography for a list work on the issue), my perception is that the scientific community is incredibly supportive of philosophical (especially ethical and environmental) reflection on the space sciences, e.g., astrobiology (France’s National Centre for Space Studies, CNES, even has an ethicist on it’s staff!). I can only speculate on the ultimate reasons for this, but as a philosopher I have been welcomed and encouraged by the space science and space policy communities. These communities have, since the dawn of the space age, taken it upon themselves to address many of the ethical questions space exploration raises—for instance, do we have a duty to preserve any extraterrestrial microbial life we might discover while exploring the solar system?—which is just the kind of discussion that could most benefit from scientifically-informed philosophers.
While I appreciate your reply, it’s entirely unnecessary since it (falsely) presumes that I am broadly ignorant of how Philosophy infuses modern day civilization. Plenty of work for the philosopher out there. –Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City
Mr. Tyson, I have a hard time understanding how the two, science and philisophy do not mesh any longer? I’ve watch the link and I’ve seen the show you host cosmos: a spacetime odyssey and how the scientists would sit in there arm chair and come up with some powerfull ideas. And as I sit in my chair and watch you explain how the universe works and countless other explain theories and laws, an I can’t help but think that I am just sitting in my arm chair looking into the depths of space and understanding it at some levle. So my qustion is why can’t I sit in my arm arm chair look into the window of explorations with you and come up with sound hypothesis that coud be both philosophical and scintific?
Thanks for your time if you read this Mr.Tyson
Thanks for that question. My actual critique is a bit more formalized than your example implies. No doubt anybody can sit in a chair and philosophize about the cosmos, coming up with ideas that may or may not be correct. I have no problem there. What I reference is the formal training that goes into making a professional Philosopher — the undergraduate and graduate curricula that serve as the foundation of a Philosopher’s academic training. I don’t know of anyone who received that training in the 20th century that has contributed materially to the moving frontier of the physical sciences. In fact, the people who have made the most philosophical contributions over this period have been people formally trained as Physicists — in departments of Physics — served by Physics curricula. So I never meant to imply that philosophy has no role in science — they are joined at the hip. But if you want to philosophize about the physical sciences in the era of Modern Physics, where most discoveries do not derive from anybody’s common sense, then evidence suggests strongly that you will be best served earning advanced degrees in the sciences and not in philosophy itself. -Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City
I feel that philosophers no longer making a material contribution to the physical sciences is because what has always been in the realm of philosophy in decades past science took with it when it decided to part ways with it. For example, the idea that there can be a theory of everything is very philosophical. String theory would have been in the realm of philosophy instead of science centuries ago. The idea of black holes and dark matter would have been too. All of the different maths that scientists must use were also in the realm of philosophy. What do you think about this?
I also feel that the reason that philosophy doesn’t have laboratories is because philosophy applies to everything, not just to science. Science applies to very little when compared to philosophy, and that, to me, makes philosophy more superior. 😉
This is a reply to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comment that “What I reference is the formal training that goes into making a professional Philosopher — the undergraduate and graduate curricula that serve as the foundation of a Philosopher’s academic training. I don’t know of anyone who received that training in the 20th century that has contributed materially to the moving frontier of the physical sciences.”
Thank you for your comment and thank you for participating in this interesting exchange.
I agree with your point that that to contribute to modern physics these days surely requires very advanced training in physics.
What I do wonder about is what role, if any, that leaves for philosophical training to contribute to the advance of science. I read you as advocating a pessimistic answer to this question.
At this point I like to push back a little. Philosophers of physics these days do receive advanced training in physics — not typically a PhD, but significant training nonetheless. Do they make no contribution to physics?
I don’t know enough to say Yes or No to this question, but I want to suggest that contributions can be diffuse. Philosopher X may not publish in a physics journal, but his/her articles may be read by physicists with a philosophical bent, he/she may interact and/or correspond with physicists, etc. Might not some probing questions posed by philosopher X spur the thinking of some of these physicists? Might not X’s specialized skills in identifying conceptual confusion, in uncovering unjustified assumptions, in delineating fine-grained distinctions in thinking, etc. be of assistance to physicists in their exploration? If so, then science is made better on account of this philosophical scrutiny, in an indirect but still real way.
I genuinely do not know to what extent, if at all, this is so (I am political philosopher myself). It is possible my answers to the questions in the previous paragraph are NO. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some physicists would judge themselves to have benefited in their work from reading the writings of prominent philosophers of physics like Tim Maudlin and Larry Sklar or some of the work in the philosophy of cosmology referenced earlier by others in this thread (http://philocosmology.rutgers.edu/).
To dismiss this possibility of indirect benefit of philosophy, without digging into the evidence pro and con on this question, has a regrettable whiff of the armchair to my nose.
here’s a well-maintained list of philosophers of physics. many of these thinkers are doing interdisciplinary work in philosophy and physics.
why assume that philosophy relies solely upon common sense? why assume that philosophers with PhDs do not also have training in physics?
Dear Mr. Tyson,
Like others here, I am also grateful that you have taken the time to participate in this discussion. I am most intrigued by your recent comment about philosophical contributions made by physicsts in the 20th century. Could you mention some of the more important philosophical contributions you are talking about? What makes something a *philosophical* contribution, in your view?
Of course, professional philosophers sometimes disagree amongst themselves about what constitutes a significant philosophical contribution. One of the issues in the discipline is the variety of attitudes and expectations of philosophy itself. I am sure I am not the only one who would like to know your views on the topic. In fact, I imagine the main problem many philosophers have with your recent remarks is that you seem to be taking an authoritative attitude towards what counts as a meaningful or important philosophical contribution, when your formal training is not in philosophy at all. You are, in that sense, stepping on some academic toes. Perhaps feelings will be less hurt, toes less bruised, if you could explain to us just what sorts of philosophical contributions have been made by physicists–or, even better, what sorts of philosophical problems you think physicsts should be interested in.
P.S. In the link you provided, when you responded to a question about cutting funding for philosophy departments, you seem to basically be saying that philosophers are essentially “wanna-be physicists.” You then go on to say that there are plenty of other ways that philosophers can make contributions, but the characterization is still rather condescending. You’re clearly talking about philosopher in the last couple of centuries, and not throughout history. But I still wonder, which philosophers do you think were wanna-be physicists? Do you think they were misguided, focusing their attention on empirical questions when they should have been focusing instead on properly philosophical concerns?
In that same link, you say that you are disappointed by the fact that so much brain power has been taken away from the physical sciences. The implication is that, even though you recognize that there is plenty of *philosophical* work to be done, you think the scientific work is more important. You would be happier if philosophers were trained in physics instead of philosophy. Pardon my speculation, but it seems you might be a little at odds with yourself. On the one hand, you want to applaud and embrace all of the important work philosophers do; on the other hand, you’d be happier if they weren’t doing it at all. Is that about right?
I think you’re right about the training issue. This echoes something I wrote, in the wake of the Krauss-Albert kerfuffle.
“Philosophy of science isn’t going to go away, and wouldn’t go away even if we went back to the model, prevalent prior to the second half of the twentieth century, in which it has no existence as a distinct subdiscipline of philosophy and is practiced primarily by scientists in their spare time. Most of the really revolutionary developments in physics were made by philosophically reflective physicists. But the deepest insights into the meaning of quantum mechanics have come from people primarily known as physicists. This is something we philosophers of physics should simply acknowledge, and take from it the lesson: what is needed is less attention to disciplinary boundaries, not a more sharply demarcated domain of our own where we rule as sovereigns”.
I never said Philosophy and science no longer mesh. I contend that the Physical Sciences are no longer guided or infused in any important way by the work of Philosophers. I further contend that this break began a the dawn of Modern Physics — specifically the birth of sense-violating Relativity, Quantum Physics, and Cosmology, all within 25 years of one another at the dawn of the 20th century. I even further contend that over this time, any thinking that could be called Philosophical, which proved to be of actual value to the Physicist or the Astronomer, was conducted by scientists themselves and not by academically trained Philosophers. Please tell this to others in the thread (apparently there’s more commenting than reading going on) so that they stop arguing points I’ve never made. -Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City
In the beginning Science and Philosophy went hand in hand. They asked variances of the same questions all humanity ponders. As the ripples in our evolution traveled, the one evolved into two. Science and Philosophy fragmented and diverged. I agree with you that the new factions resonate an evolved form of thinking. In the end we all ask the questions that the scientific method must answer. If they are not pondered, proven or disproved, and finally faced by the outcome, then philosophically or scientifically, all is lost. I was taught, “He who knows, need not prove himself. For those who seek recognition tends to close their minds, sharpen their tongues, and weave lies”.
Why are people trying to explain what Philosophy is to Neil? I am pretty sure he is familiar with it, and the history between science and philosophy. I mean, did anyone even watch The Poetry of Science? You shouldn’t have questions after you have, as he makes his opinion quite clear. And don’t forget, it’s his opinion, so telling him things he already knows isn’t going to make a difference. You can give your opinion, but you shouldn’t need anything else from Neil.
Also, did you notice that those philosophers on the list ‘jamesmatthiasdow’ provided had PhD’s in the field? Wouldn’t it make sense to attribute the findings of a physicist to his physics degree? After all, you don’t see philosophers without PhD’s making those contributions.
If i was a philosopher and an electrician, you wouldn’t thank my philosophy degree for fixing your switch board. Doesn’t matter what one I like more, I have to attribute the result to correct field.
I feel i should mention, i love philosophy and science, and wouldn’t want to loose either no matter the cost. I’m not having a go at philosophy (its great) or the people (everyone here seems really nice), just the reaction to Neil’s comments. It’s upsetting to see Neil come here to address the questions asked, only to repeat himself to the very people claiming to be a big asset to langue.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote: “I contend that the Physical Sciences are no longer guided or infused in any important way by the work of Philosophers. I further contend that this break began a the dawn of Modern Physics — specifically the birth of sense-violating Relativity, Quantum Physics, and Cosmology, all within 25 years of one another at the dawn of the 20th century. I even further contend that over this time, any thinking that could be called Philosophical, which proved to be of actual value to the Physicist or the Astronomer, was conducted by scientists themselves and not by academically trained Philosophers.”
Thank you for the clarification. This is a clear statement of your view.
It is possible that this rather sweeping claim of yours is true, but honestly, I’d be surprised if it is. No doubt philosophy no longer has, and never will have again, the role to play in physics that it had in previous centuries. I’d also agree that it would be preposterous to think that a philosopher could hope to provide a comprehensive inventory of what there is in the universe without a deep knowledge of contemporary physics. Philosophy has had to abandon that hope. (I’d also hasten to add, though, that the majority of philosophers these days would agree with you and me on this score. That is, most of us share your disdain of purely armchair ontology. Even those philosophers who see a role for a priori metaphysics overwhelmingly tend to view this as a supplement to empirical science rather than a replacement for it.)
But your claim goes far beyond those points of agreement, since you say that these days no thinking of actual value to physicists comes from academic trained philosophers.
I’m not a philosopher of physics myself, so I have only second-hand knowledge here, but at the link below, NYU philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin reports the existence of a group of professors working on questions regarding the foundations of physics; According to Maudlin, this group is roughly split 1/3 each between physicists, mathematicians, and philosophers. If academically trained philosophers genuinely have no insights to offer to scientists, it’d be odd for such a group to exist. I suppose it’s possible that the physicists and mathematicians merely tolerate the presence of the philosophers, much like how a group of cool kids might tolerate the presence of a younger sibling. But I rather doubt it.
Here is the relevant quotation from Maudlin:
“In my view, the greatest philosopher of physics in the first half of the 20th century was Einstein and in the second half was John Stewart Bell. So physicists who say that professional philosophers have not made the greatest contributions to foundations of physics are correct. But both Einstein and Bell had philosophical temperaments, and Einstein explicitly complained about physicists who had no grounding in philosophy. The community of people who work in foundations of physics is about evenly divided between members of philosophy departments, members of physics departments and members of math departments. Many of us on all sides are trying to open and broaden channels of communication across disciplinary boundaries.”
Note that Maudlin here agrees in part with Tyson, namely, with his claim that the most important recent philosophical work on physics has come from physicists themselves. My objection — and I presume Maudlin would similarly object — is to Tyson’s sweeping claim that any thinking of value to physicists has come exclusively from physicists, not philosophers.
You can think of the issue in terms of spectrum:
1. All important philosophical insights on physics (i.e. insights of “actual value to physicists,” to use Tyson’s phrase) have come from philosophers, none from physicists.
2. Most important philosophical insights on physics have come from philosophers; some but not most have come from physicists.
3. Most important philosophical insights on physics have come from physicists; some but not most have come from philosophers.
4. All important philosophical insights on physics have come from philosophers, none from philosophers.
Maudlin’s remarks suggest 3. Tyson’s remarks strongly suggest 4. In this comment I’m registering my skepticism regarding the truth of 4.
Also relevant to this issue are the claims of Cal Tech physicist Sean Carroll, who is known as a physicist who values interaction with philosophers. Here is a relevant quotation from him:
“Most physicists know very little about philosophy, which is hardly surprising; most experts in any one academic field don’t know very much about many other fields. This ignorance manifests itself in a couple of ways. First, a lot of scientists are quite comfortable with simplistic philosophy of science. This usually doesn’t matter, but there are cases where good philosophy has something to offer, and scientists rarely put in the work necessary to understand what that good philosophy has to say. Second, scientists tend to think of philosophy as a service discipline – what good does it do for my practice of science? The answer is almost always “no good at all,” which they then translate into thinking that philosophy has no real purpose. The truth is that almost all scientific work can proceed quite happily without philosophy – you can be very good at driving a car without knowing how an engine works. But when it’s important, philosophy very important indeed.”
The message I take away from Carroll is that philosophy has a modest but still important role to play in the progress of science. I would add, moreover, that even though the philosophy of science has this modest role to play in the progress of science, its worth does not stand or fall with this modest role, since it has other roles to play, e.g. in raising epistemological questions about the nature of scientific knowledge, achieving an historically informed understanding of scientific progress, etc. These “meta-level” questions are not really aimed at facilitating new scientific discoveries (this is how best to understand Carroll’s remark in the quotation above that philosophy of science “almost always” is of little help to the practicing scientist), but they are interesting and valuable questions nonetheless (as I am fairly sure Tyson would agree.)
Just a footnote that I can’t resist adding (though I probably should resist, since this post is overly long as it is!):
In the interview linked to above, Carroll reports that as a Harvard physics grad student he sat in on the philosophy classes of the political philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Of this he writes,
“Rawls in particular was a great person to talk to, although we almost never discussed philosophy because he had so many questions about physics and cosmology.”
The image of John Rawls busily quizzing Carroll about physics…. love it!
In many ways Karl Popper was to Einstein what T.H. Huxley tried to be to Darwin in the 19th century, and even being a philosopher without any significant formal degree in Theoretical Physics, he undoubtedly contributed to Physics. Not only through extensive debates with Schrödinger and others, but also proposing the so called “Popper’s Experiment” against the Copenhagen Interpretation. Popper isn’t an exception. Nowadays most philosophers are interested and study natural sciences and there a lot of examples of their contribution to the scientific endeavor. Thomas Nagel contributed to neuroscience and most cognitive scientists would agree that his “What is like to be bat?” is a seminal work to the scientific study of consciousness.
I wholeheartedly agree with you that the increasing formalization of Physics makes it progressively harder to understand without the necessary formal training, but even so, some of the most paradigm changing ideas to any given discipline came from thinkers that are not formally or primarily trained in it (in Philosophy this is quite clear). And there’s a plethora of reasons to this, specially in a quantity-oriented academic environment in which most people write about what is accepted because there’s an institutional barrier to contain most grad students and scientists (and philosophers!) who wants to dare or challenge positions that are mostly seen as unproblematic.
I don’t think that anyone here is proposing that a philosopher is capable of writing an innovative article about particle physics in the same way that a physicist does. However, a philosopher can write about epistemic ou metaphysical indeterminism, which is exactly what Einstein and Bohr argued over in the first half of the 20th century. A philosopher can write about particles and it’s consistency or inconsistency with a monist/materialist framework, he can also search for internal inconsistencies in theoretical frameworks, clarify concepts and so on. Taking this in consideration, I feel very comfortable to ask if you would agree to the following:
– Scientists have the training necessary to propose the experimental laws that coordinate observations.
– Philosophers and scientists are trained to use different instruments capable of analysing those laws and organizing them in theories, as well as presenting good critiques, problematizations and valuable insights to each other.
Besides these points, what do you think of Experimental Philosophy, professor Tyson? A lot of philosophers are tired of this armchair “methodology” and began to use the scientific method to explore and analyse philosophical questions. There are some that even call their metaphilosophy as “scientific synthetic philosophy”.
I hope that I managed to be clear in my argument. Sorry for my bad english, I’m brazilian and english is not my mothertongue. I’m a huge fan of yours.
Greetings from Brazil 🙂
NDT- You should set aside 2-3 hours per day to this argument at minimum. This would be much more consuming than climate change! But probably more productive. Eager to see the next Cosmos!
Hi Dr Tyson,
I wouldn’t let these things bother you. There is a lot more going on underneath the surface for these authors, your comments threaten the security their mindset. Where your comments accurately strike at the ethos of a culture born sloppy logical dispositions.
I think the point you were obviously making about philosophy is right on. A tool that can, if used properly, help people think.
But in practice philosophy feeds the inclination to justify and tendency for confirmation bias (it feeds those thing) the yummy skills of making sound arguments out of anything you could possibly want. Not arguments that will hold up for others, simply enough to really mess you up.
Essentially the path of least resistance becomes blinding yourself to the weakness of your own syllogism instead of the premise itself. This is not unlike a scientist missing some obvious flaw in his model and publishing his findings only to have it ripped apart in peer review. Philosophy has no such system because answers are not the purpose, questioning is and therein lies the crux of why you are right on.
It’s a tool and like all tools can and will be abused.
Keep up the good work and remember, popularity equals attack. It always has in history and it always will.
Geez, Mr. deGrasse Tyson, you’re bumming me out.
It’s especially saddening to me because I coincidentally found my way to a video of your comments on the underrepresentation of women and minorities. I was cheering! Then the very next day, I hear that you’ve disparaged us in philosophy. We are the very field that is the driving force behind educating people in how to think critically, as you demonstrated so awesomely in your comments about women.
Those of us who work in the abstract are attempting to increase the _capacity_ of the world’s pool of knowledge, as well as to give guidelines about the _purity_ of what has been poured into that pool or might be poured into it in the future. Philosophy alone can hope to make knowledge a natural kind, readily identifiable by its publicly observable properties. In this way, our philosophical pursuits are what ward against the dangerous condition of a world where people, religions and institutions claim to have it when they do not.
In other words, Neil, we give reasons to be reasonable. You and the producers of Cosmos have made some (brilliantly) strategic moves toward educating people about science. But the fact remains that all of the science you present to a young mind is easily defeated by ad hoc comments from a parent/pastor/authority figure.
Philosophy teaches that young person to recognize what ad hocing is in general. We don’t teach people _what_ to think, we teach them how to best decide what to think and believe. We protect the progress of humanity. You shouldn’t disparage us because you disparage your own efforts by doing so.
He’s not doing that.
Here let me speak to your wheelhouse:
this is from “JUMPING TO A CONCLUSION: FALLACIES AND STANDARDS OF PROOF”
Five errors that fit under the category of jumping to a conclusion are identified:
(1) arguing from premises that are insufficient as evidence to prove a conclusion
(2) fallacious argument from ignorance,
(3) arguing to a wrong conclusion,
(4) using defeasible reasoning without being open to exceptions, and
(5) overlooking/suppressing evidence. It is shown that jumping to a conclusion is best seen not as a fallacy itself, but as a more general category of faulty argumentation pattern underlying these errors and some related fallacies.
The problem here is that all you defensive philosophers are concluding that he doesn’t like philosophy from comments that do not mean that he doesn’t like philosophy.
Aren’t you philosophers? Aren’t you supposed to be trained to see the difference? I know that’s what they taught me when I was working on my masters in philosophy.
Has it occurred to you, Mr. Rake, that the error in reading comprehension might very well be your own?
I have only taken a few upper-division philosophy classes, so forgive me if my reasoning is terrible. I feel like Tyson is saying that if philosophy is to have a major contribution to natural science, they need to train philosophers in the natural sciences (which I assume they do, do they not? If not trained in doing experiments, then at least trained to understand the major theories and laws in the natural sciences…). But Tyson seems to think that very few academically trained philosophers of science are trained in the natural sciences and thus do not make a material contribution to the sciences. And to me, that seems to imply (though he doesn’t really say it) that philosophy is no longer good for the natural sciences…that they should just do other things. I know he doesn’t say that directly, but that implication, especially from what he said in that clip that he shared, irks me. I love the natural sciences! But I also love philosophy and many other areas of inquiry. And I got into philosophy with the attitude that philosophy contributes, or at least has the potential to contribute, something to all areas of inquiry.
I don’t really know what all that means, or how it is relevant to my comment. I don’t know what is my “wheelhouse”.
I do know that I felt disparaged by Dr. Tyson’s comments. Apparently so did a significant amount of others in my field. Perhaps we’re all too sensitive or unreasonably upset. That doesn’t seem very plausible, however, at least to me.
It seems more likely that Dr. Tyson made comments with which a significant amount of people from an established academic tradition took issue. That fact alone might cause a reflective person to pause and wonder.
I’m curious what you think of the anthology The Wave Function: Essays on the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics edited by Alyssa Ney and David Albert. A third of the authors have advanced degrees in physics (Albert has advanced degrees in physics and philosophy) and all of them have at least bachelor’s degrees in physics and philosophy. This seems to be work which is advancing the frontier of quantum mechanics, at least our metaphysical understanding of it. Is this not philosophy because it isn’t a purely armchair speculation about the cosmos but involves an interdisciplinary interaction with the science it’s investigating?
I share your antipathy to such empty speculation, but it just isn’t the case that most philosophers of science are engaged in such an endeavor; they are not just “would-be scientists without a laboratory.” The anthology I cited (along with the hundreds of articles and books on the philosophy of science which can be found on philpapers.org) are a testament to that fact.
I’d really like to see Neil answer this question, too many people are trying to argue about the overall value of philosophy, which Neil clearly accepts. The fundamental point of contention here is about the contribution of philosophers of science to knowledge of the natural world.
When studying quantum mechanics I got the impression that it was a field where contributions came from philosophers, mathematicians and physicists, all working on the same sorts of problems but from different approaches. David Albert is a perfect example of this, a very knowledgeable thinker.
Likewise in the multi disciplinary field of cognitive science, a lot of the theorising done by philosophers is helping to advance our understanding of that little slice of the natural world, cognition.
i have a question i dont know where to ask so i am asking it here mr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Does it mean that, the light emitted by Alpha Centauri ( closest star to earth) today will reach us 4.2 years later. So when we look into the sky r we seeing the light emitted years ago? So if a planet crosses a star today, do we see it years later? Are we looking into the past of the universe?
please kindly replay at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m not NDGT, but I will respond anyway. There are some further complexities (“now” is not as simple as it seems) but basically, yes, the lag between when light left a star and when we see it means that we are looking at past events.
Here is a resource you might like to read: http://hubblesite.org/hubble_discoveries/dark_energy/de-out_in_space_back_in_time.php
I applaud your dedication to responding to what everyone here has to say. However, it may be more effective to succinctly describe your position than to address each individual’s contentions.
Hoping to clarify to others, to summarize my understanding of what you have to say:
Philosophy is the primordial ooze and birthing ground of subjects of inquiry. Science has been born, and is now independent of philosophy because it has defined its own means of self-governance.
I hope I don’t misunderstand your perspective. To elaborate my understanding, it may be reasonable to propose economics as an analogy–a study born of philosophy, now independent.
This isn’t a new paradigm, and it’s almost certainly not one deserving of so much argument.
How sad… Modern scientists have grown so arrogant so as to believe that they are based on… nothing but observation. They have forgotten that science is based on axioms/ principlies which are based on… nothing. Or wait a minute! They are based on something! It is called Philosophy! Take a look at the planets. Are they pulled by gravity? Are they following the curved spacetime? Are they being pulled by invisibile strings? Make your choice… And then tell me it is based on observation only!
Do you have a link to the remarks deGrasse Tyson made about philosophy?
Anonymous, it’s well into the podcast here, at 20:20. http://www.nerdist.com/pepisode/nerdist-podcast-neil-degrasse-tyson-returns-again/
You alluded to it, but the obvious response to Tyson’s point is the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence – where you have one person arguing for the paradigm that all science was done within for the next 200 years and the other arguing, but lacking the empirical evidence due to the constraints of technology at the time to support, for the paradigm that would eventually be next. The lines between philosophy and science in that debate aren’t even clear, but, to the extent that there are clear lines, it seems that philosophy was the victor (granted, a weird definition of victory) in that instance.
Gosh, that sounds really interesting. I own the Leibniz – Clarke correspondence but I haven’t read it yet. I’m assuming you mean that Clarke was arguing for the Newtonian picture, which would be dominant for the next 200 years, and Leibniz was arguing for what would eventually be a component of the theory of relativity?
Thank you for this, Lewis Powell. I was unaware of Dr. Tyson’s recent comments until I learned of your post. Now that I’ve listened to the interview in which he made these remarks, I’m terribly disappointed by his words. Philosophers and physicists share an interest in arguing for the value of discovery, for ethical attention to climate change, and for the importance of empirically informed thought. To hear him suggest that philosophy doesn’t offer these arguments is baffling. I thought philosophers and scientists were obvious allies. We should be allies. I really do not understand why he said what he said.
Sam Harris argues that the questions of what we “ought” to do in life are in fact questions science can answer, and they don’t need to be separated from scientific inquiry.
Science can give answers, but 1) they’re generally not very good ones, and (more importantly) 2) they’re not even remotely well thought out.
Giving “answers” to questions about what we “ought” to do is small change–two year olds can do it. It’s the quality of the answer that counts.
This is a ludicrous claim. I assume by “answers” you are referring specifically to answers about what we ought to do — because to claim that any answers science gives are not very good is… well, ludicrous.
But even still, your tone and manner reek of defensiveness and it’s unbecoming of a philosopher. I assume you are well-versed in all of science and its scientists’ attempts at answering such questions? I mean, since you know that they are generally not very good and are not even remotely well though out.
I can understand being sore over Tyson’s comments, but lashing out at an enormous body of people and their work is both childish and wrong.
Of course the “answers” being referred to are answers to questions about what one ought to do. The context should make that clear. Of course I can’t claim to have examined carefully every single scientist’s attempt to tackle issues about what we ought to do.
But I have seen quite a few and I stand by the claim that by and large their attempts to do so are often oblivious to tough normative issues or simply beg a variety of questions about how to address those issues.
There is nothing childish or wrong about pointing that out.
By quality do you mean accuracy, veracity or what? Relativity is not well thought out? Methinks your answer is simple hyperbole.
I think you put the quotation marks in the wrong place. What you mean to say is “Sam Harris “argues” that the questions of what we ought to do in life are in fact questions science can answer.”
First, for Anonymous, here’s the conversation: http://www.nerdist.com/pepisode/nerdist-podcast-neil-degrasse-tyson-returns-again/
From 20:20 – 22:07 Tyson says: “”My concern there is that the philosophers believe they are asking deep questions about nature, and to the scientist, it’s, “what are you doing? Why are you wasting your time? Why are you concerning yourself about the meaning of meaning?”… If you are distracted by your questions so that you cannot 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 your progress… Then it becomes how do you define clapping and all of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definitions of words and I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that, and you don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this, but the scientist says, “Look, I’ve got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street, because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions that you’ve asked of yourself, I don’t have time for that.”
I think Tyson was right on.
If I am trying to find the Higgs boson or have been hired to build a bridge, the questions “What determines whether some activity improves or enriches you? What makes something a boon to humankind? Why should you (or anyone) care about one outcome over another? Or put more generally: which things in the world are fundamentally valuable, and worthy of pursuit?” is not my concern. I’m going to move forward designing the bridge or moving to Europe to work at CERN. Not that your questions are unimportant, it’s only that they are largely irrelevant since they have already been answered by the political process which is mediated much more by political and religious ideology than by philosophy. I understand why philosophers resent being brushed aside as irrelevant but that’s the result of philosophy being unable to draw conclusive, provable answers to those questions.
Let me offer two examples of the sort of “meaning of meaning” and “one hand clapping” questions Tyson mentioned. First, when Lawrence Krauss wrote the book “A Universe from Nothing” he was assailed by theologians and philosophers for allegedly mis-defining “nothing.” (His response was that theologians are experts at nothing.) Their objections have done nothing to inhibit further cosmological research. Secondly, we have the “philosophy of mind” which asks questions with no relevance to anyone other than philosophers. People somehow manage to continue thinking, planning and running the world without ever giving a moment’s thought to whether we are Monists or Dualists.
Let’s see what happens if we simply change your example:
“If I am trying to build an atom bomb, the questions “What determines whether some activity improves or enriches you? What makes something a boon to humankind? Why should you (or anyone) care about one outcome over another? Or put more generally: which things in the world are fundamentally valuable, and worthy of pursuit?” is not my concern. I’m going to move forward designing the atom bomb. Not that your questions are unimportant, it’s only that they are largely irrelevant since they have already been answered by the political process which is mediated much more by political and religious ideology than by philosophy.”
Really? You think these concerns are unimportant and scientists should simply accept what the political process dictates?
Couchloc, The Manhattan project was triggered by a letter from Einstein to Roosevelt warning him about the power of a nuclear bomb. As much as Einstein opposed war, his misgivings meant nothing once Roosevelt realized that Hitler and Stalin would both be trying to develop their own bomb and at least Hitler would not hesitate to use it. Einstein later told Linus Pauling “I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification—the danger that the Germans would make them …”
So yes, really, scientists’ opinions don’t account for much in the political world as current public disbelief in global climate change and even evolution show today.
“If I am trying to find the Higgs boson [as opposed to doing Malaria research] or have been hired to build a bridge” [that was part of a corrupt land deal] etc etc. Science is amoral by definition. That’s its strength and its weakness
“So yes, really, scientists’ opinions don’t account for much in the political world ”
Have a graph
You just proved Tyson’s point couchloc. You’re bringing some sort of moral judgement into the questions and you’re just bumbling and stumbling over all the possible outcomes. That’s not science.
Nobody is saying those concerns are unimportant, or that scientists should simply accept the outcome of the political process. (Well, besides you I suppose)
Science doesn’t have any morals. It’s the people who work in science who put any sort of morals to it.
If the goal is to build an atom bomb, then science ONLY cares about building an atom bomb. It does not care if building the atom bomb is a boon to humankind or how an atom bomb could be used. Those are totally separate topics, which is what Tyson, and Tom Riddering are saying.
If you’re trying to research a cure for malaria, there are many philosophical questions you can ask yourself, but many of those questions will be a waste of time if your end goal is actually to develop a cure. If you spend 10 years developing a cure but 8 of those were spent wondering how a cure would be a boon to humanity. Then through “sciences” eyes you wasted 8 years and only 2 years were needed to create the cure.
The pre-eminent emergent science and industry of our time may be Artificial Intelligence. To suggest that “philosophy of mind”, and more importantly, ethics, have nothing to do with such inquiries and technology is baffling in the extreme.
You appear to be coming from an extremely materialistic worldview, where you associate hard science and industry with making widgets and building bridges and so forth. The world has already left you behind. Do you have any idea how much larger the video game industry is than the construction and home building industry?
Philosophy is to the world of pure information, what engineering was to the world of pure material construction. If that doesn’t give you a clue as to the relevance of such endeavors, then I’d suggest you should broaden your thinking.
Connor, until recently my son was a programmer for Real Network in the game section. I’ll have to ask him how many philosophers they hire compared to programmers. I suspect that teaching philosophy is about the only job a degree in philosophy will get you.
Artificial Intelligence will proceed as fast as people who think they can make a profit from it will invest in it, philosophical objections notwithstanding. Philosophy is largely a matter of competing opinions so anyone seeking to make a buck from AI will have an easy time finding a philosopher to rationalize and justify anything s/he wants to do. Especially since no philosopher can prove their opinion to be true the way scientists can.
With all due respect, your responses are making it quite clear that you are rather in the dark about many aspects of contemporary philosophy. Rather than drawing conclusions based on your caricature or straw-man of what it is philosophers do (and the nature of their typical employment status), I’d suggest that you do a little homework and educate yourself on the issue.
Thank you for your analysis and advice, Bill. I’ll give it all the attention an ad hominem argument deserves.
Unfortunately you don’t know the definition of ad hominem. Also http://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2014/april/april28_awodeygrant.html
Unfortunately for the issues discussed at the link, I don’t think of the analysis of formal systems as such as philosophy any more than computer science or mathematics are philosophy.
I think you might be confused about what ‘ad hominem’ means. I made an observation and a suggestion, not an argument, and neither was in any way an attack on your character. I do hope that you agree that before one takes a strong stance in a discussion, one ought to have at least basic competence with the actual subject matter.
Regardless, I wish you the best.
If a straw poll is the test, I’m going to ask my local philosophy department how many computer scientists v physicists v biologists v engineers v philosophers they hire. I suspect the answer will be that almost all of their hires are philosophers. I’ll conclude that computer science, physics, biology and engineering are irrelevant.
If the argument amounts to “physics is the best way to do physics, biology is the best way to do biology, science is the best way to do science, and philosophy is not the best way to do science” then I suppose that’s trivially true. And that seems to be Tyson’s point, from what I gather scanning the transcript.
So then the question is going to be something like “should we be doing philosophy, rather than physics, biology, science, engineering?”
The assumption seems to be that what we should be doing is discovering Higgs bosons and the like, but I’ll leave it to your computer scientist or physicist to “prove their opinion to be true” on that point the way philosophers can’t.
(Maybe, as you hint above, generating profit is the right goal to have, in which case we should all be prostitutes, mercenaries or bookies.)
“Philosophy is to the world of pure information what engineering..”
That would be mathematics, not philosophy. As to AI, an “intelligent” inorganic machine would need to be programmed with the conflict between calculation and ongoing processes of conditioned response, and I’m really not sure we want neurotic supercomputers. We’re bad enough as it is.
Tom, your two examples at the end are actually pretty good examples where philosophy is important, and where scientists can go wrong by ignoring, or not being well versed in, the relevant philosophical work that’s been done.
In the Lawrence Krauss case – if all Krauss did was describe current cosmology, then philosophers would have had no problem. But he went beyond that – he proclaimed that he’d finally answered the philosophical “why is there something rather than nothing” question. And in doing so, he went beyond the science, and engaged in some shoddy philosophical reasoning. And he was rightly called out on that. David Albert (a philosopher who also has a PhD in physics) was spot on here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html?_r=0
As for philosophy of mind – hoo boy. It’s hard to even know where to begin. Yes, of course, we can still think and plan and engage in mental activity without answering questions about dualism or the nature of consciousness (just as we can do these things without understanding any psychology or neuroscience). But if you want to start to even try to explain the origin and nature of consciousness, then you need to understand the relevant science, and you also need to be aware of the philosophical pitfalls. There are a lot of examples of otherwise brilliant scientists engaging in almost comically misguided efforts to research consciousness because they simply don’t understand the philosophical assumptions they’re smuggling in. Even Krauss acknowledges the importance of philosophy to studying the mind (even as he denies its relevance to physics, alas). I’d recommend this panel discussion with him, Dennett, and Pigliucci: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tH3AnYyAI8
There are plenty of other examples of scientists saying ridiculous things (see the free will debate for another prime example) simply because they’re above engaging with the philosophical work that’s been done. And of course, there are plenty of examples of philosophers saying silly things because they’re above studying the details of the relevant science. The hubris on both sides (exemplified in Tyson’s comments) is often pretty appalling. There’s valuable work to done in many areas, and there’s a lot we can all learn if we’d just be a little humbler and try to pay attention to what experts in other fields are doing.
Well said, Chaospet. If Tom is defending the simple claim that scientists cannot focus on philosophical questions while doing research, clearly that’s true. But Tyson was clearly suggesting that philosophical questioning is useless, in the sense that none of the questions ever get answered. That is a caricature of philosophy. Of course we answer the questions; but as good fallibilists, we look attentively search out flaws or weaknesses in those answers and, yes, we almost always find some. Scientists sometimes have to ‘think outside the box’, even to solve practical problems. Thinking outside the box is questioning assumptions implicitly being made, which can often be the source of the problem.
Historically, and perhaps even personally for many researchers, scientific questioning began as philosophical questioning. Tyson didn’t appreciate that fact. This is what makes what he said pernicious to the spirit of science itself.
Forget theologians. David Albert (philosopher *and* physicist) rightly assailed Krauss for not understanding at all what anyone who has asked the question for thousands of years has meant by “nothing.” A less misleading title would have been “A Universe from Something,” which doesn’t sound quite so groundbreaking…
As for your attempted criticism of philosophy of mind: it proves too much, to say the least. People somehow manage to use language without knowing whether or not there are linguistic universals; people somehow manage to cook without knowing chemical laws; people somehow manage to procreate without knowing the composition of the human genome. Need I go on?
“…I don’t think valuing philosophical inquiry is at odds with valuing scientific inquiry. Firstly, the whole idea of even treating them as distinct from each other is a fairly recent shift.”
The same is true for atheism, at least in respectable circles.
Philosophers are upset mostly because they want to link themselves to science, therefore as somehow ahead of the other humanities. That hierarchy is key to your self-definition. I doubt most novelists care that Tyson’s a vulgarian; they expect nothing less. Most historians would shrug. Humanism is irony, and there’s not much evidence of that in philosophy departments. The idea of irony is not the practice of it. Evidence of practice, my words drip with it.
Sam Harris ignores history and defends fascism, so his arguments are worthless.
“Philosophers are upset mostly because they want to link themselves to science”
…Um, no, we’re upset because are already linked to it in many ways and in many areas. And also because if Tyson had made remarks implying the uselessness of literature or history, that would prove to be equally ignorant.
Philosophers claim links to science but then so do theologians. And of course those are the two groups that rank the Greek philosophers above the Greek playwrights. But Plato and Aristophanes both wrote dialogues. Philosophers condescend to the rest of the humanities as scientists condescend to philosophers. But you rank below economists as purveyors of pseudoscience. Quine:
“he supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science. ”
What would Harry Frankfurt say?
As for formal systems: mathematics is amoral and the schmuck I linked to is working for the DoD.
You are totally lost here. Have you ever even read Plato? Why don’t you go read The Symposium and tell me if it’s condescending towards Aristophanes (if you can think critically). Or read The Republic and tell me if it doesn’t borrow elements from theater. Plato does not give himself away easily.
Funny how most philosophers here are not arguing for a hierarchy, people like you and NDT do. What novelists or historians would say is completely irrelevant to any point here.
[…] UPDATE (5/9/14): Lewis Powell (Buffalo) responds to Tyson. […]
Why does it have to be one or the other. Everyone in these comments seems to be saying that one is more important than the other. ‘wasting time on philosophy when you should be doing science’… it’s bizarre. are you all really incapable of wondering philosophically about the scientific/logical task you are performing without having to stop and do these two activities separately?
There are a lot of scientific and philosophical endeavors that are not worth most people getting too involved in on a day to day basis.
Philosophers take things to their extremes and end up with an intangible product of thought or some ‘ism’ or another… scientist take things to their extremes. people see no value in what it is they have done because it is not immediately apparent – however human beings strive to ask questions, we always have done. Can a scientist ‘prove’ conclusively that these things are statistically important than taking all theoretical mathematics or theoretical physics to its furthest logical conclusion… what would the variables of such a data set be, how would you even begin to measure it…
Philosophy gave birth to deductive reasoning, science gave weight to it.
Morality is relative and as such can be ignored? there’s no point having a personal moral compass because politics and religion will dictate morality to you – go and fuck yourself if you think that. My moral compass says i can kill your children for thinking that. Sure it’s illegal – my moral compass also tells me not to care. How’s that for the nature of my existence not being important? Or instead of considering the emotional ramifications of what i would be doing by killing your children, should i think only of what a science has to say…?
I’m just lost by the idea that one should be held above the other. Pluralism doesn’t have to apply purely to religion within society – there are many ways to skin a cat.
Thanks for bringing these comments to us – I would have otherwise probably never found them. I now wonder the attitude of Mr. Tyson towards Art. Anyone have links to his position on this?
On a side note: Did the “hosts” just sumarise that philosophy = nihilism? How old are these people?
[…] be sure you haven’t missed Lewis Powell‘s excellent open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, in response to some silly remarks about the value of philosophy (h/t Branden Fitelson on […]
I think you all jumped to the wrong conclusion from this (admittedly I only read the transcript). The way I interptreted what Tyson said that if we are answering questions about the natural world then we need to answer those questions and not get distracted by the meaning of the words that are used to communicate the question at hand.
In all the philosophy classes I have taken there were more arguments/discussions about the “ideal” of some idea than actually getting any decisions made. A one paragraph statement would be dissected and torn apart so that the resulting paper would be ten pages and the original idea was lost.
If you want to make progress in figuring stuff out then you need to move beyond the definition of the object and on to what it does and how it interacts.
Morals are another story and are highly subjective. What one society thinks is important is nonsense to another. So adding morals a scientific discussion is adding a level of uncertainty to a discipline that is supposed to be about certainties.
Speaking as a layman (I hope I do not unintentionally offend anyone) I would like to know what has philosophy contributed in the last 100 years? My own field Computer Science was a major contributor to the creation of the Internet and makes significant contributions in other realms such as Medical Research, physical engineering, astrophysics et al. My father’s profession plumbing, has not changed much. It has made advances unbeknownst to the outsiders. But still pulls it own weight as indoor plumbing and sewage systems are very important for health and safety for the the general public. As much as I can gather philosophy’s main contribution these days is the study of ethics. Maybe there are other things being studied that are essential to the well being of our planet?
Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” published in Mind (1950) a philosophy journal.
Kurt Godel, incompleteness theorems (1931), from mathematics and philosophy.
Peter Singer, Animal LIberation (1975), launched the animal rights movement.
John Raws, A Theory of Justice (1971), developed modern liberal theory.
Bertrand Russell, nobel prize 1950, humanitarian and other writings on logic.
Jean Paul Sarte, nobel prize, existentialism enriched the lives of millions
John Dewey, founding member ACLU
Daniel Dennett, NYT best selling author on atheism/religion in society.
Amartya Sen, economist and philosopher, nobel prize (1998)
Mathematics and social science, history, literature and theater. Somehow philosophy is seen to cover all of them, as if it were more important than any of them. That arrogance originates in the pretensions of theology.
Rawls is worthless for actual politics; it’s liberal theory for liberal theory’s sake, “philosophy for philosophy’s sake” like Clement Greenberg’s favored art. Singer coined the phrase “animal liberation” following all the other phrases of the era. And he didn’t found a movement. His arch formalism is wooden and kind of creepy. His argument with the members of “Not Dead Yet” is interesting to watch. And Dennett is an ass. I get a kick out of Skinner’s definition of cognitive science as “the creation science of psychology.”
Philosophy should be limited to “philosophies of” as useful ancillaries of the fields they serve. To state “I am a philosopher” is meaningless. It covers everything and nothing, the theory of the trinity, and computational linguistics.
Hot air is a universal.
If hot air is universal, then Seth Edenbaum (and NDT) is certainly no exception here. Philosophy is concerned with what are the larger issues, so yes, obviously it does tend to cover all areas. Perhaps you can give an example of a philosopher that thinks philosophy is more important than all the rest of the humanities, or a philosopher that thinks literature and art are useless, but I can’t think of any.
The work of scientists is important to philosophers, but science itself does not resolve these issues. It may displace metaphysical theories, but it does not provide answers. Philosophy does. You can have general theories in philosophy, and answers. Is slavery immoral? We know that. It’s a moral truth. If scientists don’t want to involve themselves in philosophy or the humanities, that’s their problem, we will just have bad science.
You can find a philosophical precedent for most scientific discoveries, like when Richard Dawkins mistakenly says no thinker had ever thought of evolution before and gets put down on the spot. He probably thinks scientists were the first to think of matter in terms of atoms, but most fully educated people know the origin of the word atom. This ignorance probably comes from making sharp distinctions between science and philosophy where there aren’t any.
Philosophy is an essential tool for understanding. There is no way around it. If someone calls themselves a philosopher, there’s no reason to suspect they are interested in “everything”, most are investigating a specific set of issues. We all pursue the things that excite us, and scientists are no different. I suppose you are one of those people that really believes there is such a thing as “analytic” and “continental” philosophy, and that the lines are very clear.
You also fail to provide an explanation as to why philosophy should be so narrow that one can only be either a philosopher of physics, philosopher of metaphysics, etc. You can call Neil Degrasse Tyson a scientist or an astrophysicist, both are correct. Calling him a scientist doesn’t automatically mean he is well versed in all scientific fields or has the same grasp on linguistics as a linguist.
Your dismissal of Rawls, Skinner, Dennett and Singer involves no actual argument. So rather it is Seth Edenbaum who can be easily dismissed (as a troll).
“History is bunk” Alex Rosenberg. Descartes said pretty much the same thing; Socrates etc.; the notion of “parasitism” and “serious” language.
“Is slavery immoral? We know that. It’s a moral truth.” No. It’s a social truth, and one I accept. You insist on making technical mechanisms with illusory gears
And you misunderstood. I agree with Skinner. I laugh because he put it well. Neurath’s boat doesn’t work for the study of consciousness, of experience as experience. See my comment on AI somewhere above.
Marxist philosophy had a rather significant impact on the 20th century. And I feel confident to point out that “significant impact” is a bit of an understatement.
In reply to suited:
Well, your own field of computer science might not exist were it not for the work of logicians.
Philosophers have also had a hand in developing game theory, which has myriad applications in the social and biological sciences.
When genuine AI is developed and we have robots capable of using language, I will be surprised if philosophers of language had no hand in that progress. And to the extent that cognitive science is involved, recall that in a number of ways cognitive science was hived off of philosophy in the 20th century.
There is also a decent chance that 100 years from now people will look back and see that the increased attention to questions of justice that began in the second half of the 20th century actually helped people to think more clearly about questions of justice, and helped influence policy and law for the better.
And then there must be countless cases where clear thinking and critical probing by philosophers brought clarity to some questions outside of philosophy. (For just one example, see the work of political scientist Barry Weingast and legal scholar Gillian Hadfield’s work on law and punishment, which leans heavily on the work of legal philosophers like Joseph Raz and HLA Hart: http://works.bepress.com/ghadfield/42/).
Oh, and the study of philosophy has helped countless laypeople enrich their lives via self-reflection. As I tell my philosophy students: Everyone is a philosopher, since every person with an ounce of humanity in him or her is moved to wonder whether there is a god, a soul, an objective right and wrong, a sure path to knowledge, etc. So the question is not whether to do philosophy; everyone does it already. The question is whether to do philosophy well or do philosophy poorly. The experience and insight of philosophers over the last two and a half thousand years can help us to do philosophy well.
I very much agree that philosophy is important. The very freedom that scientists enjoy to explore the universe today, depends on a little philosophical tenet called “the Theory of Natural Rights.”
John Locke was a philosopher, after all. We essentially have philosophy to thank for ending the reign of dogmatic religion.
Locke’s theory of natural rights was based on religion (they come from God).
Where are the natural rights of man mentioned in the Bible?
People may have said “endowed by our Creator,” but there’s no real religious basis for a concept of “rights” in Judeo-Christian religion. It was only from a long progression after Thomas Aquinas brought Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemological methods back into the West (as a serious cultural force) that universal, natural rights became a part of the language of philosophers.
The revival of Aristotelian fundamentals led to respect for the mind of the individual (Renaissance), and this converged with the secular British legal tradition that granted rights to noblemen against the king. (The British, more than other nationalities, had a secular outlook on government, in which their king was NOT the absolute, undisputed representative of God on Earth in bodily matters.)
I have a blog post that discusses the issue of rights in relation to religion: Ayn Rand’s Philosophy vs. Abortion Bans: Why a Fetus Doesn’t Have Rights.
I think the problem here is this. Philosophers like science, and want philosophers and scientists to be on the same team. What tyson said seemed to cut against that. “I thought we were friends!”
The claim that philosophers haven’t contributed significantly to physics in the last century is interesting. I’m not versed enough in the area to say, but that’s the impression of some (at least one) physicists. I see no reason philosophers couldn’t contribute to physics. Perhaps we need better cross-disciplinary communication. An interdisciplinary science-philosophy conference could be really beneficial, I think.
There are people like tyson trying to educate the public about the value of science. Maybe the public needs to be educated on the value of philsophy.
I am far more troubled by what appears to be a dismissal of the value of what professional philosophers do as educators than the value of what they do as researchers. What I found most biting in the comments being discussed is the (admittedly offhand) remark about philosophical training at the undergraduate level being at best of little to no value, and at worst a distraction from genuinely valuable academic pursuits (and so perhaps even harmful).
I am a huge fan of NDT as both a scientist and public intellectual, and so I am hoping that these comments are just that – offhand remarks that NDT does not in fact endorse. So, if Dr. Tyson is still following the thread, I would like to give him the opportunity to respond to this particular concern directly. Is my interpretation of this portion of your comments uncharitable? Do you take the work of professional philosophers as educators to be valuable, and the pursuit of philosophy valuable to young academics at the undergraduate level? Surely there is room for reasonable disagreement about the value of particular research programs across different academic disciplines, but to dismiss the pedagogical value of an entire disciple strikes me as deeply troubling. And so, I hope that if you can set the record straight about how we should interpret your comments most charitably and in the context of your more considered views about the value of philosophy more broadly this would be a particularly helpful clarification to make explicit. I, for one, would very much like my current interpretation to be wrong, but am sure you can understand why the specific comments about the value of what philosophers do as educators might be received in the bristling fashion with which it has been thus far.
See What is Philosophy of Science Good For? by Massimo Pigliucci in Philosophy Now.
Also his Science needs philosophy on the Rationalist Association website.
[…] responding to some criticism his comments provoked (he’s responding here to this very polite letter from a philosopher […]
Holy jumping to conclusions batman.
Can none of you “philosophers” actually think for yourselves?
He never said what you are defending against. EVER!
Isn’t separating the minutia of data to thresh off false data from actual data in your wheelhouse?
I am seriously saddened by your lack of real education.
This ad hominem line against those clarifying Tyson’s comments on the role of philosophy in science has long since overstayed its welcome.
A cursory review of the comments made since Tyson’s responses clearly reveals that the contributors _are_, in your terms, “separating the minutiae” from the substance. What you seem to misunderstand is that Tyson’s comments contain implications about the value of philosophy, and those implications can be interpreted in many ways. Far from attacking straw-men, these efforts at clarification address ambiguities that Tyson’s comments contain, whether he is (or you are) aware of them or not.
Also, practice your English. Your petulance will at least read better.
Sure, physics has lost a lot of good minds to philosophy over the last half century – but only a fraction of what it has lost to Wall Street over the same period. Perhaps the former contributes nothing to society. The latter contributes less.
[…] 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 […]
[…] 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 […]
While it may not be advisable to choose philosophy as a career, I am of the opinion that any part of one’s education that encourages deep critical thinking (philosophy) can be beneficial to any career path and to humanity as a whole. A few classes in the humanities may be deeply enriching to one’s perspective on nearly every subject.
One could, and, as a thought exercise should, replace “philosophy” with “theology” throughout this essay, and, with few changes, the defense of philosophy and the reasons why science supposedly – stemmed from it; needs it; and, is complementary to it – would be familiar to anyone who has been exhausted in futile debates with Sophisticated Theologians[tm]. From “Newton was a ____ too” to NOMA, it’s the same tired stuff.
I am neither a scientist nor a philosopher, I don’t even have an academic degree. Yet even a layperson like myself can sense the mighty struggle philosophers make to find relevance and progress in their work, contrasted with the ease by which scientists (and, yes, historians and sociologists) do so.
What I hear few if any philosophers engaging in, in response to an overwhelming sentiment, not by the “ignorant masses” like me, but from informed and educated men and women of enormous accomplishment – is any self-reflection, any pondering whether philosophy has, in fact, either lost its way, or failed so utterly to communicate its way outside its discipline that, when challenged, it can’t come up with reasoning any different than the average religious apologist.
One of the things that makes science so magnificently successful is its self-correcting mechanism, its reliance on empiricism as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Philosophers on the defense these days seem unified in one thing, at least to this non-credentialed but nonetheless enthusiastic student – their rejection of the very methods that have made science work.
You say you can “sense,” but you seem only to be imagining. Why do so many people so ignorant of the discipline believe they can speak so authoritatively about it?
[…] Los comentarios en el blog post de Lewis Powell en Mayo 8 de 2014 que además son una contestación al podcast: https://horselesstelegraph.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/an-open-letter-to-neil-degrasse-tyson/ […]
An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson | The Horseless Telegraph
[…] deGrasse Tyson recently made a stir in the philosophy community by disparaging the entire field as asking pseudoquestions. Essentially, […]