Tyson and philosophy


Neil deGrasse Tyson is a science TV star. He is very popular but perhaps not with philosophers because he often shows his low regard for their subject. He has raised a lot of ire by advising bright students to go into science rather than philosophy. He just seems to lack respect for philosophy.

Philosophers answer that he is being anti-intellectual, even philistine, but I have to say that apart from philosophy and religion, he is not critical of the arts and humanities. He does not seem anti-intellectual just anti-philosophical. I suspect that a lot of scientists would not quite agree with Tyson but come very close to it. They are just not as out-spoken.

The problem seems to be different views of what is a big, deep or important question and what is to be done with such questions. Science, philosophy and religion all deal in ‘big questions’ and their questions overlap. Each has its own criteria for what an answer would look like. They are bound to disagree often. To many, the solution is to cut up the inquiry with boundaries, but science in particular never stays within its boundaries if it sees a method to tackle a question. Thus it always seems to be muscling in on other subject’s territory and ignoring their ‘knowledge’.

Massimo Pigliucci, who claims to be his friend, has written an article (here), Neil Tyson And The Value Of Philosophy. In it Pigliucci gives a philosopher’s answers to Tyson. He is also a biologist and so his remarks are more nuanced than some. He claims not to be upset by Tyson’s amount of air time. This is obviously not true of some of Tyson’s critics.

Tyson like many people is frustrated and annoyed by semantic discussions and points out that in philosophy discussions seems to end up being about words and not ideas or actual things. It seems to me that this is one of the things that prompts some people to lean towards science and others towards philosophy. Pigliucci describes it differently but it amounts to the same division. He has philosophy as being a conceptual exploration as opposed to science as being a empirical one. Exactly – and another way of saying that is that philosophy is about verbal concepts and science is about the physical world.

Pigliucci says both science and philosophy are dwelling on the same questions. That may be, but the nature of acceptable answers is so different that the questions are actually not the same. Tyson is frustrated with the lack of pursuit of a question caused by the distractions of all the philosophical baggage that a question has accumulated. He just wants to leave the philosophy to the side and get on with solving the question.

Tyson has said that philosophy is not helpful or useful to science. Pigliucci disagrees and his main argument is that science is the child of philosophy. True, but children leave home and do not always end up the way their parents had hoped. I have noted recently that many philosophers are annoyed that neuroscience has not followed their lead in many ways. Too bad.

This brings us to the final point. Tyson says that philosophy cannot help with the frontiers of physical sciences (like quantum mechanics) because there is a limit to what can be done thinking in an armchair. We have to agree with that: quantum mechanics would not/ could not be developed without experimentation. Pigliucci seems to have only a weak answer – some good things can be just thought up.

Personnally, I think you can be interested in philosophy or not (I am moderately interested), but philosophy does not have much to do with science or how science should be done.


6 thoughts on “Tyson and philosophy

  1. Quentin

    I think this is a false dilemma. You can’t do experimental work without conceptual work. Same questions, different aspects. There is no need to cut boundaries and no reason to disagree either, and nothing is useless. (And conceptual work is *not* mere semantic.)

    It’s only (some) scientists who talk as if science and philosophy were in competition , but I can’t think of any serious philosophical work which pretends to refute any scientific result.

    Scientists are not bound to disagree with philosophers either (at least no more than philosophers disagree with each others) unless they are irrational, which I doubt.

    So the only problem between science and philosophy is purely sociological.

    What can be really annoying from a philosopher’s perspective is that:
    – some scientists denigrate philosophy but don’t really know what professional philosophers are doing (they are not splitting hair).
    – some scientists are doing philosophy (conceptual thinking) in public, generally when addressing a wider audience, which is great, but they ignore it themselves , they are not trained to do it and keep on reinventing the wheel or getting into confusion.
    – sometimes those are the same persons!

    I know that most scientists who work with philosophers on their subject area do apreciate its value and importance, and that’s what really matters. The problem is the impact of some famous scientists on the public, who denigrate a whole rich academic discipline they don’t seem to know, which I find irresponsible.

    I read this blog regularly. You say you are moderately interested in philosophy, but it seems to me that most of your articles have strong philosophical aspects (especially in epistemology, and, of course, philosophy of mind).

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      Thank you for the comment. I will get back to a reply or maybe another posting on the subject after thinking over your remarks. Thanks again.

  2. Shahab

    Thanks for this interesting post.
    Can you mention some references on the debates between neuroacientists and philosophers of science?
    I have recently become very interested in studying the scientific methods used by neuroscientists, and how much they align with different methods discussed by philosophers, such as Popper and Carnup. However, I am not aware of previous studies or discussions around this topic.
    I personally believe that neuroscience is still mainly following the inductivism as the scientific method, and therefore, theoretical models and their evolutionary growth and importance are neglected by the scientists. I think this is a domain that neuroscientists should not underestimate the importance of philosophers’ jobs.

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      Thank you for your comment. I do not think there is much difference between the scientific methods of neuroscience and those of biology in general. I think most scientists give lip-service to philosophical ideas of how science progresses but do not actually allow them to interfer with what appears to be the next obvious thing to do. In that sense they tend to be more Baysian than followers of Popper. In effect – ‘science is what science does’ and what make an idea/result/model acceptable is that it convinces a consensus of scientists. What convinces has never been formally stated to everyones satisfaction by scientists or philosophers.

    2. Quentin

      By experience I would say many scientists are “inductivist” in that they’ve heard of Popper, but rarely of more recent accounts of scientific practice (e.g Kuhn’s critics of Popper or model theoretic views).

      I don’t know how much scientist’s knowledge of epistemology influence their own practice.
      However you seem to assume that epistemology should be normative rather than descriptive, which is very debatable. In particular model- theoretic accounts (theories as classes of models) were defended on the ground that they better fit scientific practice (particularly in physics, maybe less in biology), while previous views were too abstract and idealised. They were not defended as what scientists should do.
      My own view is that epistemology is not normative, but that it is of interest when it comes to interpreting scientific results and theories, how they fit in the big picture and what they tell us about reality.

      Concerning neurology I am not a specialist of the field but to the contrary, I thought many scientists had proposed models of consciousness (e.g. Dehaene’s global workspace, or Edelman & Tononi) rather than more or less isolated theoretical hypothesis as Popper would have it, which seem to fit the model theoretic account (on a large construal of “model” at least).


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