Dr. Tyson and Philosophy – Slightly updated

Disclaimer: I am no philosopher. I have never even had a course on the topic, I know next to nothing about it.  What I know about it is that philosophy is the original science, period.

Dr. Tyson and Philosophy

A minor storm rattled the cosmos recently and there is no sign that it is winding down.  Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson is under fire for his remarks in “The Nerdist Podcast” disparaging philosophy.  Among other things, he was quoted as saying that he “… does not have time for deep, philosophical questions”. Apparently this is well-documented so it was not taken out of context.  Moreover, he seems to stand by his remarks.

Several writers / scientists / philosophers (and some of them all three) have written critiques with various degrees of vehemence in strong opposition to Tyson’s remarks, and I have to say that I agree with all of them.

Along the way, he’s been called a Philistine (anti-intellectual), he has also been called a bully and I suspect that he has been called some other, less civilized things (I do not agree with the name-calling though).  Here’s some of the relevant links:

http://www.nerdist.com/pepisode/nerdist-podcast-neil-degrasse-tyson-returns-again/

http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=7936

http://www.newappsblog.com/2014/05/neil-degrasse-tyson-against-die-aufkl%C3%A4rung.html

http://theweek.com/article/index/261042/why-neil-degrasse-tyson-is-a-philistine

Probably the most complete, analytical and on point analysis of Dr. Tyson’s statements (and very respectful too) came from Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, who has doctorates in both science and philosophy.  I should trust that he knows what he is talking about, but I do not have to.  Judge for yourself.

Here’s Pigliucci’s post:

http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy/

In a separate episode, there was an incident where Tyson apparently uninvited (with no clear reasons) a philosopher scheduled to appear in some kind of panel, so this does not seem to be Dr. Tyson’s first offense to philosophy.

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/neil-degrasse-tyson-blows-it-big-time/

Most of the criticisms against Tyson center on the fact that his comments send an anti-intellectual message.  Impressionable young minds may be led astray and even away from true science, no question about it.  Tyson is not the first physic… er, person trained in physics (you see, he does not seem to be a practicing scientist) who had disparaged philosophy, but he is without a doubt the one with the highest profile and I humbly join the chorus of voices that say to him: “Sir, you are wrong!”

An integral part of a person’s scientific calling is to ponder the “Big Questions” (BQ).  There are discipline-specific BQs as well as the **really** BQ that apply to the universe as a whole.  Due to the nature of these, it is unlikely that a person can dedicate her/his scientific life to explore just that, but each of these questions provide a guiding light that give meaning and direction to a particular area of knowledge and they must not be dismissed.  Moreover, these are the questions that attract people to the sciences in the first place; they are the essential link that joins knowledge with wonder.  Even better, you do not need special training to ponder them.  Science belongs to every one of us mainly because we all (well, most of us apparently) ask ourselves these Big Questions.  It is simply human nature.

Heck, an academic doctorate (the highest degree awarded by any university) is called the PhD which stands for “Doctorate in Philosophy”!

This issue is particularly ironic to me given that Tyson is trained in astrophysics; sizewise, the BQs associated with astrophysics are *****really***** BQs!  It is also particularly ironic that many of the BQs in the area that he was trained on have no immediate practical application to our daily lives.  For example, it is incredibly interesting, awe-inspiring and mind-boggling that our own galaxy, the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy are on a collision course (I actually learned about it watching the new Cosmos series)…

Please don’t go prepper just yet; this will happen about 4 billion years from now, give or take.

Thus, this fact is absolutely no relevant to our lives, maybe not even the life of our own species, yet it does not diminish one bit its… oh well, awesomeness.

If it is true that Tyson feels that does not “…have time for deep, philosophical questions”, I say why of course, it is no wonder, as he is basically an administrator of a distinguished institution (a very good and noble thing), and an entertainer/science popularizer (I have said before that he is a very good one too).

But I really think if you are not willing to set aside even a little space of your mind for BQs, do not call yourself a scientist.

So there.

philosophical_questions

 

Credit: departments.columbian.gwu.edu/philosophy/about/questions

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13 thoughts on “Dr. Tyson and Philosophy – Slightly updated

  1. Pingback: Who am I, exactly? Who are you, exactly? | Baldscientist

  2. Pingback: In praise of invertebrate brains | Baldscientist

  3. Pingback: Tyson is no Sagan, and neither was an Einstein | Baldscientist

  4. When applied properly philosophy can help properly define a problem. All too often though it is used to complicate a problem to the point of making it unsolvable. I’ve read a lot of philosophy and theology as a layman for 20 years. It helped me see some things differently. But it has not helped me solve a single problem. The big questions it tries to address remain unanswered after thousands of years of asking.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to be grouped with Tyson who I think is a complete ass wipe. But I do think philosophers should own up to the fact that they are generally just spinning their wheels .

  5. (just my opinion) To the best of my knowledge, astrophysicists and astronomers become interested in the BQs for some simple reasons. One of them is that the study of astronomy is said to be a humbling experience. Most of the observations and measurements that astronomers make are confirmed over long (very long) periods of time. Funding for projects is almost non-existent in some cases. It is a definite character-building experience. Perhaps it is ‘the gift that astronomers bestow upon a curious public’ to ponder the big questions without a lot of philosophical training. In my opinion, many don’t come off sounding as if their answers to the BQs are overly wrought or contrived. They have that connection to the ‘average joe’ because the nature of their work.

    (Pardon if I have gone on and spoke more than I should have.)

  6. I believe this lack of interest in thinking about these philosophical questions is a symptom of the decline of the scholar and the rise of the hyper-focused technician.

  7. I’m sure that most people with even tiny bit of curiosity do give at least brief thought to all or most of these question, and Tyson is not an exception. We probably all have opinions on all these questions already. But wouldn’t he, as a scientist. leave the deep pondering on the questions that are outside the area of his interest and expertise to those who are better qualified to ponder them?

    • Sorry for taking this long to answer… The thing is that he is no mere thinker, he is a VERY high profile thinker who stated for all intent and purposes the he does not have time to think about arguably important questions. To try to appear “hip” or “cool” is a disservice to true scientific endeavor…

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