Monday, May 19, 2014

Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the Philosophers

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, dubbed "Science's Televangelist" by Rod Dreher, made some rather disparaging remarks about philosophy in a podcast exchange last week [transcript available here]. Responding to the host's admission that he majored in philosophy, NdGT quipped, "that can really mess you up". The host added, "I always felt like maybe there was a little too much question asking in philosophy [of science]?" -- prompting a wave of ridicule from Tyson:
dGT: Well, I’m still worried even about a healthy balance. Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t 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 our progress.

[insert predictable joke by one interviewer, imitating the clapping of one hand]

dGT: How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that.

interviewer [not one to put too fine a point on things, apparently]: I also felt that it was a fat load of crap, as one could define what crap is and the essential qualities that make up crap: how you grade a philosophy paper?

dGT [laughing]: Of course I think we all agree you turned out okay.

interviewer: Philosophy was a good Major for comedy, I think, because it does get you to ask a lot of ridiculous questions about things.

dGT: No, you need people to laugh at your ridiculous questions.

What is striking to the observant reader is how, in adopting a pragmatic stance towards the value of philosophy, which Tyson seemingly views as beneficial chiefly in relation to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, Tyson himself is adopting a philosophical position. Tyson can only denigrate philosophy by committing himself to a specific philosophical viewpoint, and what seems to be an incredibly myopic one at that.

A roundup of responses:

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy, by Massimo Piglucci, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College. Piglucci's blog
  • Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is a philistine, by Damon Linker. The Week 05/06/14:
    ... behold the spectacle of an otherwise intelligent man and gifted teacher sounding every bit as anti-intellectual as a corporate middle manager or used-car salesman. He proudly proclaims his irritation with "asking deep questions" that lead to a "pointless delay in your progress" in tackling "this whole big world of unknowns out there." When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, "I'm moving on, I'm leaving you behind, and you can't even cross the street because you're distracted by deep questions you've asked of yourself. I don't have time for that."

    "I don't have time for that."

    With these words, Tyson shows he's very much a 21st-century American, living in a perpetual state of irritated impatience and anxious agitation. Don't waste your time with philosophy! (And, one presumes, literature, history, the arts, or religion.) Only science will get you where you want to go! It gets results! Go for it! Hurry up! Don't be left behind! Progress awaits!

  • An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, by Lewis Powell (Professor of Philosophy, University of Buffalo):
    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.
    NDGT deigns to reply in the author's combox, leading to an extended discussion.

  • No, Neil deGrasse Tyson Does Not Hate Philosophy, He Just Doesn’t Get Why It’s Relevant, by Gina O'Neill Santiago. Thoughts on Liberty

  • Neil de Grasse's Scientism, by William M. Briggs:
    The other day on Twitter, I saw somebody quote approvingly these words by Neil deGrasse Tyson: "The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it."

    This received many favorites, re-tweets, and various (coarse) approbations. Evidently, this phrase produces a visceral glow in its fans, or perhaps the feeling of belonging to a group advanced beyond the benighted masses who, wallowing in their ignorance, dare to doubt Science.

    Only here’s the thing. The phrase doesn’t mean anything. It’s emptier than our federal coffers. ...

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