Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the usefulness (or not) of philosophy

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the latest scientist to ruffle the feathers of philosophers, in telling them that their discipline is pointless. He’s partly right, but also wrong – and perhaps wrong to say so.

abou-tyson2Neil deGrasse Tyson has provoked some debate on the value of philosophy and its role in relation to science, following comments that he made on the Nerdist podcast in March this year. He’s not the first scientist to question the value of philosophy, and the most recent high-profile case was Lawrence Krauss, who (in a 2012 interview) said:

Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.

In short, he’s saying that the space remaining in which philosophy might make an important contribution to physics shrinks all the time. I agree with that, but Krauss also said things like “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym'” – which I find somewhat less agreeable.

As I’ve been remarking to friends for a number of years now, teaching some philosophy was making me feel like a priest who had lost his faith, but nevertheless continued thumping the pulpit every Sunday. Some questions – around personal identity, for example, and parts of some fields, like morality, are to my mind justifiably only of value to philosophers in those fields, and have little application or attraction outside of them. And, I’d perhaps not even want to teach them in undergraduate curricula, because perhaps there are topics that should die a quiet death.

But even if this is true, there’s always still value in flexing the mental muscles – in using the history of ideas to understand how they evolved, and how they might have gone wrong. Second, the methods of analytic enquiry that underpin much philosophy are good training for any sort of reasoning – and hopefully, most of our activity relies on reasoning. Being able to spot basic errors in logic, or to understand how evidence supports (or doesn’t) a conclusion are simple virtues, but nevertheless essential to any intellectual pursuit – and they are philosophical virtues, even if they are applied in a great variety of contexts.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s (DGT) view is similar to that of Krauss, in that DGT says (from Massimo Pigliucci’s transcription of the Nerdist podcast):

It’s not that there can’t be other philosophical subjects, there is religious philosophy, and ethical philosophy, and political philosophy, plenty of stuff for the philosophers to do, but the frontier of the physical sciences does not appear to be among them.

As long as we stay in our corners, then, we’re mostly harmless. Pigliucci does a good job of explaining why DGT is wrong, and Mike LaBossiere does a good job of explaining why DGT is nevertheless asking a legitimate, and serious, question. Put those two views together, and you end up with something like what I’d like to say about it.

First, as I say above, there is plenty of philosophy that seems self-indulgent and largely pointless, with university departments and journals engaging in the task of feathering the nest of a bird that should have long gone extinct. But despite that – not only because of the general skills underlying philosophical activity, but also because philosophy can bear significant fruit – we shouldn’t write it off in general, not even at the “frontier of the physical sciences”.

Hypothesis formation could be considered a philosophical activity, for example, and one that is clearly relevant to the physical sciences. The thought experiments that drive the “actual” experiments can be less or more imaginative, and developed by less or more rigorous thought processes. The reflections on empirical data already gathered can be informed by a wide-set of considerations, held together in a mental map constructed in a disciplined fashion, with awareness of the sorts of errors philosophy of science has uncovered in the past.

Yes, a cosmologist like Krauss or an astrophysicist like DGT might find that those skills come naturally to them. But those who are offended by prominent scientists dismissing the value of philosophy might be thinking more of the 13 year-old, or the 1st-year university student, hoping to one day become a prominent scientist – perhaps hosting their own show popularising science, as DGT is with the Cosmos remake.

That 13 year-old or 1st-year student would – I think, at least – have a better chance of finding, one day, that those skills come naturally to them if they’ve been taught those skills, as philosophy has done for so long. And, they’re perhaps less likely to think those skills worth learning if their heros tell them that philosophy is pointless.

  • Stephen Embleton

    Well put Jacques.
    Isn’t the person who says “what if?”, the philosopher; and the one who says “let’s find out”, the scientist? The one hands the baton to the other in a dual relationship of enquiring minds with the possibility of unlocking the secrets of the universe. Sometimes these can be the same person. Does DGT want everyone to stop thinking? It is the thinking that sparks the flame to discovery. Philosophy is the theory until it is proven or disproven.

  • Leon Retief

    Well written and I
    agree with most of what you say. Philosophy is a superb tool for teaching
    critical thinking although philosophers do not have copyright on it of course. Far
    too few science courses include modules on philosophy. OTOH I am reminded of
    what Steven Weinberg said: that science would be just the same today even if
    there had never been such an animal as a philosopher of science. I rather doubt
    if any scientist ever said to him/herself: well, philosophers of science say
    this and that, therefore I must approach my research in such and such a manner.

  • Marco Fasondini

    Here’s what Bertrand Russell has to say about the topic: