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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.