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: