Neil deGrasse Tyson, Philosophy & Science

Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...

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In March of 2014 popular astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson did a Nerdist Podcast. This did not garner much attention until May when some philosophers realized that Tyson was rather critical and dismissive of philosophy. As might be imagined, there was a response from the defenders of philosophy. Some critics went so far as to accuse him of being a philistine.

Tyson presents a not uncommon view of contemporary philosophy, namely that “asking deep questions” can cause a “pointless delay in your progress” in engaging “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” To avoid such pointless delays, Tyson advises scientists to respond to such questioners by saying, “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.”

Since Tyson certainly seems to be a deep question sort of guy, it is tempting to consider that his remarks are not serious—that is, he is being sarcastic. Even if he is serious, it is also reasonable to consider that these remarks are off-the cuff and might not represent his considered view of philosophy in general.

It is also worth considering that the claims made are his considered and serious position. After all, the idea that a scientist would regard philosophy as useless (or worse) is quite consistent with my own experiences in academics. For example, the politically fueled rise of STEM and the decline of the humanities has caused some in STEM to regard this situation as confirmation of their superior status and on some occasions I have had to defuse conflicts instigated by STEM faculty making their views about the uselessness of non-STEM fields clear.

Whatever the case, the concern that the deep questioning of philosophy can cause pointless delays does actually have some merit and is well worth considering. After all, if philosophy is useless or even detrimental, then this would certainly be worth knowing.

The main bite of this criticism is that philosophical questioning is detrimental to progress: a scientist who gets caught in these deep questions, it seems, would be like a kayaker caught in a strong eddy: she would be spinning around and going nowhere rather than making progress. This concern does have significant practical merit. To use an analogy outside of science, consider a committee meeting aimed at determining the curriculum for state schools. This committee has an objective to achieve and asking questions is a reasonable way to begin. But imagine that people start raising deep questions about the meaning of terms such as “humanities” or “science” and become very interested in sorting out the semantics of various statements. This sort of sidetracking will result in a needlessly long meeting and little or no progress. After all, the goal is to determine the curriculum and deep questions will merely slow down progress towards this practical goal. Likewise, if a scientist is endeavoring to sort out the nature of the cosmos, deep questions can be a similar sort of trap: she will be asking ever deeper questions rather than gathering data and doing math to answer her less deep questions.

Philosophy, as Socrates showed by deploying his Socratic method, can endlessly generate deep questions. Questions such as “what is the nature of the universe?”, “what is time?”, “what is space?”, “what is good?” and so on. Also, as Socrates showed, for each answer given, philosophy can generate more questions. It is also often claimed that this shows that philosophy really has no answers since every alleged answer can be questioned or raises even more questions. Thus, philosophy seems to be rather bad for the scientist.

A key assumption seems to be that science is different from philosophy in at least one key way—while it raises questions, proper science focuses on questions that can be answered or, at the very least, gets down to the business of answering them and (eventually) abandons a question should it turn out to be a distracting deep question. Thus, science provides answers and makes progress. This, obviously enough, ties into another stock criticism of philosophy: philosophy makes no progress and is useless.

One rather obvious reason that philosophy is regarded as not making progress and as being useless is that when enough progress is made on a deep question, it is perceived as being a matter for science rather than philosophy. For example, ancient Greek philosophers, such as Democritus, speculated about the composition of the universe and its size (was it finite or infinite?) and these were considered deep philosophical questions. Even Newton considered himself a natural philosopher. He has, of course, been claimed by the scientist (many of whom conveniently overlook the role of God in his theories). These questions are now claimed by physicists, such as Tyson, who regard them as scientific rather than philosophical questions.

Thus, it is rather unfair to claim that philosophy does not solve problems or make progress—since when excellent progress is made, the discipline is labeled as science and no longer considered philosophy. However, the progress would have obviously been impossible without the deep questions that set people in search of answers and the work done by philosophers before the field was claimed as a science. To use an analogy, to claim that philosophy has made no progress or contributions would be on par with a student taking the work done by another, adding to it and then claiming the whole as his own work and deriding the other student as “useless.”

At this point, some might be willing to grudgingly concede that philosophy did make some valuable contributions (perhaps on par with how the workers who dragged the marble for Michelangelo’s David contributed) in the past, but philosophy is now an eddy rather than the current of progress.

Interestingly enough, philosophy has been here before—back in the days of Socrates the Sophists contended that philosophical speculation was valueless and that people should focus on getting things done—that is, achieving success. Fortunately for contemporary science, philosophy survived and philosophers kept asking those deep questions that seemed so valueless then.

While philosophy’s day might be done, it seems worth considering that some of the deep, distracting philosophical questions that are being asked are well worth pursuing—if only because they might lead to great things. Much as how Democritus’ deep questions led to the astrophysics that a fellow named Neil loves so much.


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  1. The extent to which philosophy, perhaps especially academic philosophy, is sidestepped, overtaken, undermined or ignored by science and scientists is a recurring theme on these pages. I chipped in some related thoughts to a recent thread to one of Mike’s articles []. There, I address an aspect of the point made above by Mike: “when enough progress is made on a deep question, it is perceived as being a matter for science rather than philosophy“.

    Yet another perspective is that the claim or appearance of ‘depth’ is often dispelled when a relevant scientific answer is forthcoming. Rainbows as such remain wonderful despite them being essentially trivial optical phenomena. But precisley how we perceive rainbows (i.e. colour) remains a ‘deep’ question. Alternatively, the depth can be revealed to be far greater, but found to lie in a different part of ‘the question’. In short, the lack of resolving power, of a method of resolving questions with the philosophical method, circumscribes its utility.

    I find support in an analysis of whether philosophy has made progress conducted by David Chalmers (related in his Philosopher Magazine interview with James Garvey: TPM 2014 – issue 64, page 64 .. what a pleasing symmetry!). There, the widespread lack of agreement amongst professional philosophers on a great variety and number of ‘deep’ questions is contrasted with the consensus/paradigm-shift mode that characterises science and its questions.

    Mike’s essay retains support for some utility in philosophy through its posing questions. I remain less convinced that either real questions, or answerable questions, much less any answers per se, lie there at all. However, like many other things in life, it can remain irresistably attractive! Why? Is that a question?

  2. The clearest indicator that he simply doesn’t understand what philosophy is all about is that he was lumping legitimate philosophical questions into the same category as things like the sound of one hand clapping. He was indeed listing legitimate philosophical questions in the mix, and he thought such questions were completely on par.

  3. Interestingly, philosophy has faced dismissal from philosophers: Kant famously argued against the sweeping rejection of metaphysics by some philosophers back in his day.

    But, behind all this does lie at least two rather legitimate and important questions: 1) which questions are worth asking? and 2) How far should an answer be pursued before it is time to move on?

  4. Mike LaBossiere,

    “For example, the politically fueled rise of STEM and the decline of the humanities has caused some in STEM to regard this situation as confirmation of their superior status”

    Oh, I remember when things were so different. When the humanities were so hoighty; noses in the air. They were academics, while the STEM people were “vocational”.

    “but philosophy is now an eddy rather than the current of progress.”

    No, it is currently a torrent – but university philosophy departments are not where it’s flowing. deGrasse Tyson, Krauss, Dawkins, are activist atheists. They are engaged in philosophy.

    It’s flourishing in the wild, but in captivity; it’s not doing so well. There, it’s something like morose pandas in a zoo. Who can’t raise the enthusiasm for anything more than chewing bamboo shoots.

  5. s. wallerstein


    Actually, since we’re reminiscing, these clowns remind me of the communists, who were so sure that they were the vanguard of history, that we (the ones who ask too many questions) were going to be left behind when they crossed not only streets without us, but also mountains and rivers.

    There is an incredible hubris about all these clowns.

  6. JMRC,

    Sure-there are folks in the humanities who look down on the sciences. That was wrong then-as is the reverse now.

    Addressing the existence or non-existence of God is certainly a potentially philosophical activity. But, there is a lot more to doing philosophy than pushing atheism. :)

    But, Tyson and the other folks you mentioned are academics-they are in the zoo with the rest of us academics. They just get to perform in the media circus.

  7. In my opinion philosophy is an innate propensity. We all have it in varying degrees of intensity. Children are extremely inquisitive, it is something of a defence mechanism, in respect of survival. Some are better at it than others and they call themselves first and foremost Philosophers. Everybody has opinions and beliefs and will respond to questions about god, the hereafter, is stealing good or bad, and so on. Philosophy is in fact embraced by what one would call call living. Professional philosophers may be due to their training, more adept at so called critical thinking, and communication, but they are far from fool-proof. I suggest that nobody of normal mental ability could really be described as Non-philosophically appraised, any more than they could be described as unable to run; we can all do it but vary in our ability that is all.
    The Philosopher C D Broad he suggested that a scientific view of philosophical exposition could well be expressed by saying “He tells us what everybody knows in language that nobody can understand” Not always the case but far more than a grain of truth in it I think. I have, done and still do, find myself trudging through a quagmire of words, which seem to overwhelm and practically eliminate the ideas which the writer wishes to convey.
    What Tyson does not realise is that the statements he makes are of a philosophical nature, He says
    “ 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.” Is he suggesting Astrophysics in itself is not a deep subject, does not demand deep thought? Philosophers interested in astrophysics will be concerned with what is the case, what might be the best explanation? I appreciate that many philosophical problems are eventually solved by science, but the philosophy does not end there most scientific discoveries have ramifications into other branches of philosophy e.g. how are we going to employ our new knowledge? A point which puts me off Tyson, are his performances in the media circus, as Mike calls it. This seems to suggest he is more concerned with self aggrandisement and arrogance than science.
    I think a University course on The Philosophy of Science would benefit Tyson and give him more respect and acknowledgement for the philosophical mind, and understand that the opinions and knowledge he has, are of a philosophical nature. Alternatively he could return to boxing (joke)

  8. s. wallerstein

    I’ve said this before, however….

    First, we have philosophers, professional trained philosophers like Mike and amateurs like myself, people who drift towards the philosophy section of the bookshop.

    Let’s say that philosophers are people who ask a lot of stupid or childish questions. Maybe from time to time they get someone to reflect on what a good life is, whether there are gods (or a God) or what a just society would be like. That’s plenty of justification as far as I see.

    Philosophers harm no one, bother no one, don’t pollute (qua philosophers), don’t contribute to global warming, don’t exploit anyone, don’t make loud noises, are not complicit in any wars or atrocities and since they ask too many childish questions, don’t fit into terrorist or extremist causes.

    Now you have some media science stars who get publicity bashing philosophers. One sad thing that I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that life is pretty much like the schoolyard: people who are not powerful and don’t hit back tend to get bullied.

    So the media science stars are the bullies. Philosophers spend a lot of time apologizing to them and trying to show that they are really “scientific”, but anyone who has ever faced a schoolyard bully knows that apologizing to a bully is useless and that the best strategy is to kick at the shins.

  9. John M (Juan J Miret)

    Mike; thank you for your articles I always enjoy them.

    I had a lot of thoughts after reading this article and the comment section. Before I share some, let me provide some background info. I am a trained scientist PhD in Biochemistry, currently doing cancer research, and I love philosophy. Unfortunately, I am not a trained philosopher; something I would like at some point to become.

    First thought I had was: this fight seems silly to me. If my history is correct, please correct me if necessary, science originated from philosophy. Science is based on empirical observations, which was develop a form of acquiring knowledge and truth by philosophers. Second I can not think about cause without thinking of Hume, and his thoughts are very helpful for a scientist trying to interpret scientific data.
    However, I can understand or imagine where Tyson is coming from. Let me give an example: “what is time”? From a philosophical point of view we can argue about both its existence and non-existence and both rationales will be valid and sound. However, the only empirical and scientific proof of its existence comes from science: the second law of thermodynamics. This law, which has not been disproven in any condition up to now, indicates the irreversibility of phenomena-our only proof of time existence. My point, empirical data allowed us to distinguish between two intellectually and probably sound, points of view
    Perhaps, this might be Tyson’s point: there might be not much actual progress after certain point without empirical evidence; thought alone might not be sufficient and delay our progress.

    I hope this helps; I love this web site.

  10. Juan J Miret,

    You are quite right-the sciences evolved out of philosophy. As I see it, when part of philosophy becomes “too big” it becomes its own distinct field. This also usually involves the field making progress, which is part of the growth. In part, philosophy is in the business of putting itself out of business: once all the questions have their own distinct fields, then that would be it for philosophy. This, most likely, will not happen.

    As you note, Tyson’s legitimate concern could be that ongoing philosophical questioning when we actually have the means to settle the question would be a waste of time. To use an analogy, if two people are arguing endlessly about how much beer is left in the fridge, that is wasting time-they can just go and look.

  11. s.wallerstein,

    Well, sometimes we do some useful stuff, like developing truth functional logic and the notion of justice. :)

    Sometimes we do bad stuff, like providing a philosophical underpinning for things like Nazi ideology.

    But, perhaps it balances out to “mostly harmless.”

  12. s. wallerstein


    That philosophy has to justify itself as “useful” is puritanism.

    The best things in life aren’t useful: music, sex, a cold beer on a hot day, poetry, an early morning walk (for you, a run), a great conversation with a good friend about, maybe, philosophical issues.

    Maybe for the Tysons of this world everything has to be useful in order to be justified. If that’s true, maybe first he’d have to sit down and think about what “useful” really means. That, by the way, is a philosophical question.

    There are lots of things in contemporary society which look “useful” because they keep the economic statistics on GNP growing, keep the stock market booming or make the banks and bankers richer, but really poison consumers (for example, junk food), pollute the environment (too many, too big cars) or exploit workers subjecting them to working conditions which should be considered human rights violations.

    So maybe if Mr. Tyson, who because of his prestige and media exposure carries a lot of weight in your society (unfortunately, much more than your excellent blog does), is so concerned about use value, he might direct his attacks not towards philosophy, which harms no one, but towards
    those social instances with negative utility.

    However, philosophy is an easy target and it’s fun to kick easy targets. It takes more courage to take on powerful institutions.

  13. Mike, I love your essays, but I think you went way too soft on this one. I think philosophers have a huge role to play in the practice of science. Scientists that think otherwise may need a reality check, and philosophers who doubt this point need to find some self-respect.

    Many of these mainstream scientists talk as if the ‘data’ they collect were capable of speaking for itself… as if it were self-evident. But I think the evidence is always going to be construed through the lens of some theory (rationally constructed or assumptive), which will serve as the framework that ultimately justifies our methods of collecting data and our particular interpretation of evidence. It doesn’t matter how anxious or eager you are to ‘cross the street’ … if we never stop to do some serious questioning of our theoretical assumptions, it could ironically lead us down a dead-end or perhaps even dangerous path (if there are sociocultural implications). There is nothing ‘progressive’ about this approach.

    There are all kinds of examples of ‘science’ that is arguably made worse by the absence of philosophy. Just think about hard-lined science advocates like Sam Harris, who claim that an objective science can answer moral questions, or those who want to declare that free-will does not exist (because an empirical science cannot find it), or that consciousness is reducible to brain-states (without considering the philosophical problems with this stance). Its not that these questions cannot be approached scientifically, but if we do not pause long enough to get a serious handle on our theoretical assumptions (and possible errors), in my mind it is more likely to produce junk-science. :neutral:

  14. If philosophy is a discipline, where is the discipline? The line needs to be drawn between philosophers and riddlers. Riddlers ask, Do we exist? Philosophers ask, How have we achieved the certainty we exist? Philosophers realize we have achieved some certainties and seek to explain these certainties.

    Don’t many academics start their thinking with undefined terms and unfounded assumptions? Don’t they then go into circumlocutions and obfuscations until every unsuspecting reader has had his rational faculties paralyzed?

    The number one philosophical problem facing this country probably is finding an ideological counterweight to religious terrorism that would inhibit terrorists from recruiting and indoctrinating new terrorists. But are any academics attempting to solve this urgent problem? Do any of them even know they should be trying to solve this problem? I do not think academics care about the discipline of philosophy. Furthermore, I do not think academics have any idea what their professional deformations are. I hope they will soon be able take to heart their own directive: Know Thyself! Think it over like a real philosopher.

  15. I would’ve loved to take a few courses in Philosophy while in college, but now I’m more of an amateur who likes to read Philosophy.
    I’m an Engineer by profession, and I think, one alternative title of ‘Engineering’ would be ‘Applied Science’.

    To use Neil’s own terminology, Philosophy is like the gas clouds that comprise nebulae.
    Star formations occur in this cloud, similar to how Scientists hit upon a theory that can be confirmed with evidence. That’s Science.
    Planets and moons form from the star’s accretion disk, they ultimately use the star light to harbor life and its dwellings. That’s Technology.

    To say that Philosophy hinders science is severely underrating it’s significance. It’s the raw material that gives rise to separate ‘fields’.

    Now if I go on the same lines as Neil, the issue with Science is that it works on the principle of division. Everything can be broken down into smaller, more analyzable components, and then, hopefully, we’ll be able to understand more about the ‘Cosmos’.
    This analysis comes at a price. Using the analogy above, fields in science are like star systems; spread apart, drifting in space.
    The only field that envelopes them all is Philosophy. Only philosophy can allow Psycholanalysis to be applied to Capitalism, or Theology be applied to Psychology. It binds them all.
    ‘One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
    one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.’

  16. Re:-ericd777 

    “How have we achieved the certainty we exist? Philosophers realize we have achieved some certainties and seek to explain these certainties.“

    Bertrand Russell published a book in 1912 “The Problems of Philosophy” which is still readily available. His opening words in the book are “Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it” He described this as one of the most difficult questions that can be asked. It is my opinion that whilst we may reach what appears to be the borderlines of certainty it would be both un philosophical and unscientific to declare any state of affairs with which we engage as certain; although we can at times proceed with some safety, assuming that certainty prevails. Rather than certainty I think what confronts us in philosophy and science is what are currently the best explanations. Somewhat paradoxically it seems to me that the only certainty is that nothing is for certain. Is there really anything in the world that one would be prepared to stake one’s life on that it is certain? I can think of nothing, and even with that I am not certain.

  17. s. wallerstein

    Russell’s little book, the Problems of Philosophy, is excellent and available free online here:

  18. Mike LaBossiere,

    “Sure-there are folks in the humanities who look down on the sciences. That was wrong then-as is the reverse now.”

    It’s funny; they always say that, when the boot changes foot in the ass kicking competition. Mike, take it like a man.

    You know, the world of science is nowhere near as pure as they let on.

    “Addressing the existence or non-existence of God is certainly a potentially philosophical activity.”

    There’s much more to it than that. It’s not simply the argument over the validity or invalidity of a superstition.

    “But, there is a lot more to doing philosophy than pushing atheism. :)”

    You know, some people believe that all philosophy is, is the pushing of atheism. I think you may have a pastor Niemöller moment coming to you…..First they came for the scientists, etc, etc.

    Mike, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news first. Warner Brothers, the home of Bugs Bunny and Loony Tunes, have just made a movie with a philosophy professor teaching in a southern college as it’s subject. Not often Hollywood makes movies about philosophy professors – I’m sure you’re excited. The bad news….it’s a southern Christian perspective on philosophy professors. There is more bad news, but you’ll really have to watch it (as I have) to find out.

    God’s not Dead.'s_Not_Dead_(film)

    A plucky young Christian freshman, Josh Wheaton, enrols in a philosophy class, taught by a decadent and corrupt philosophy professor (is there any other kind). The sleazy professor declares he will not even teach any philosophy, but will give all his students a passing grade for one assignment. Which is to submit a paper – an actual piece of paper – simply stating, God is dead. Quicker than a cock can crow, the students are denying the lord, scribbling down their submissions, so they can get out of there. All except for young Josh, who resists. And a battle between good and evil ensues.

    Evil triumphs.

    Willie Jess Robertson, of Duck Dynasty makes a cameo appearance as himself. And this illustrates fundamental problems with the doctrine the film intends to corrupt young minds with. Willie is challenged by a left-wing journalist over cruelty to ducks. Willie responds with some incoherent mumble concerning ducks, his wife, and Jesus. Ba-doom. In the next scene the journalist is diagnosed as terminally ill from cancer. Though not stated explicitly, the obvious theological message being if you mess with the Teabilly Taliban God will strike you down with disease…Is everyone who is suffering, suffering because they have offended the lord?….It’s not a good doctrine…

    “But, Tyson and the other folks you mentioned are academics-they are in the zoo with the rest of us academics. They just get to perform in the media circus.”

    That deserves a substantial response, but I am drained due to my recent exposure to Christian cinema.

  19. @Brad Peters

    I agree with you that scientists need theories to interpret their data, but ‘questioning theoretical assumptions’ can also be done empirically without the help of the ‘deep questions’ such as ‘does free-will exists’. From what I’ve read, scientists typically don’t work on very general problems directly but instead often choose to narrow their focus and solve specific instances of a general problem. This approach has worked pretty well, and it seems that most breakthroughs in science come about this way.

    I also agree with you that the example problems in your third paragraph can be approached scientifically, but before conducting a research we need to have some sense of direction. The assumption that consciousness, or at least part of it, can be reduced to brain states, for instance, is a necessary justification for many research projects in neuroscience. This is not a metaphysical claim, but rather an empirical hypothesis. We need empirical data to evaluate theoretical assumptions, but without prior research, which require making assumptions, we can’t have reliable scientific data. The result may well be junk science, the very nature of research is that the outcome is uncertain, but it is better than no science. And if we find out why it’s junk science, we have already made some progress, at the very least we have a better idea of what we don’t know.

  20. JMRC,

    As a student and as a professor, I have consistently defended the sciences against misguided criticism-be it from those overly enchanted with the humanities or theology. I certainly expect the same courtesy from my colleagues in the sciences. Naturally, I have no objections against nonsense being exposed as such-be it in philosophy, science or anything else.

    If you go through my writings, you won’t find me bashing the sciences or scientists. While I can be critical, I certainly expect the same in return.

  21. Proton,

    Great analogy!

  22. Brad Peters,

    You make excellent points.

    As you note in your examples, the assumption of philosophical materialism and a devotion to strict empiricism can lead to the sort of dogmatism that people like Harris criticize when it is religious in nature.

    While there is a time to stop cutting bait and fish, it is worth asking if we are fishing in the right hole. That is, while we should certainly set out to get answers, we should not stop asking basic questions just because we think it is time to get busy.

  23. s.wallestein,

    True. As I tell my students, to decide to defend philosophy in terms of its being useful in a narrowly defined sense is, in some ways, to concede a degree to defeat. However, even under that definition philosophy still turns out to be useful.

    You do raise an interesting point about the role of status. In the United States, Tyson is the super-star of science: he makes the rounds of the talk shows and now has his own series, Cosmos. In contrast, philosophy is low-status in the United States, though philosophers sometimes get invited to talk on Nation Public Radio. This is not to say that science has great status here: our sports stars, actors and people-famous-for-sex-tapes have far greater status. Because of this, I think it is rather important for people in the sciences and humanities to not turn on each other-we have the common enemies of ignorance and irrationality that should be the focus of our efforts.

  24. s. wallerstein


    No one dumps on and despises another with the fervor and cruelty that one low status group dumps on and despises another. In this case, certain scientists on philosophers.

    In fact, the classic model of a bully is a low-status kid who in order to prove his “worth/manhood” to the high-status kids (who, having proved their status, can afford to be chivalrous) bullies the kids who are even more vulnerable and low-status than he is.

    I agree with you that the outsiders of this world, if they have a common cause, should unite, having nothing to lose but their chains (as the book says), but that rarely occurs.

    Nevertheless, it is commendable that you persist in your efforts to forge alliances with other outsider groups, in this case, with the sciences.

  25. Kevin Henderson

    Scientists do philosophy all the time and are, in most cases, unaware that they adopt practices which they may condemn.

    Good philosophy today, like this blog, is usually about questions ‘at the bottom’ rather than ‘deep questions’. For example, how do we attach safety-working document to an experiment that has never been done before? The scientst considers risks based on biological and social and economoic levels most of which are intimately tied to ethics. In general, selecting engineering controls and setting regulations for technologies will always be partially philosophical. We, scientists, do not have the answers for many things that are done in science, and science is not, at least now, the practice we follow in order to answer such questions. Selecting managment principles for natural resources is informed by science, but is still guided by philosophy.

  26. Mike LaBossiere,

    “As a student and as a professor, I have consistently defended the sciences against misguided criticism-be it from those overly enchanted with the humanities or theology. I certainly expect the same courtesy from my colleagues in the sciences.”

    And I’m sorry I don’t have the link for you, but in a questions and answers section of a talk that’s on Dawkins’ Youtube channel, Kruass gives a pretty good defence for the humanities. Saying humanities classes should be mandated for science and engineering students. Of course he also wants science mandated for humanities students too. Once upon a time, what was considered a classical education would have encompassed the sciences.

    I would also say Neil deGrasse Tyson’s statement has specific contexta. One context, is that in science, asking the wrong questions has often led to a paralysis. The universe was not designed with anthropocentric reasoning in mind.

    At a certain point anthropocentric questions become meaningless, and you can apply this as much to theology as science. People ask the question, ‘what is the meaning of life?’. It’s a question that physicists would be asked, because people believe they’re so intelligent they’d have the answer – the physicists get annoyed. Take a theologian (one who is a believer, as many are not), ask them the meaning of life, and they’ll say it has something to do with God. Ask them the meaning of God, and they’ll probably give you an answer, but if you keep pushing them on it they’ll get as annoyed as the physicist.

    In maths Bertrand Russell attempted to give it a self-consistent basis. He failed, not for want of trying. Because 1 = 1 and 0 = 0, but only because we say so. It nearly drove him mad.

  27. s.wallerstein,

    I’d rather work with someone than spend my time battling them. Unless they are evil-then I would totally fight them. :)

  28. JMRC,

    Fortunately, my university requires students to take two science classes and two humanities classes as part of the general education requirements. While more would be better, people have a hard enough time getting done in 4-6 years already.

    Sure-there is a point at which questions just waste time and there are questions that do not fit a person’s field. As you note, physics will not tell us about meaning, just like computer science will not tell us how long to cook pancakes.

  29. Re:-Mike LaBossiere May 19

    “Fortunately, my university requires students to take two science classes and two humanities classes as part of the general education requirements. While more would be better, people have a hard enough time getting done in 4-6 years already.”

    Many years ago I was a student of the Open University in England. I have lost touch with their regulations and rules which exist currently, but in those days before specialising, it was necessary to do two foundation courses each of which lasted for one year. I chose Humanities first year, and Science in the second year. Both of these courses were magnificent and opened my eyes to exactly what there was in the world what could be understood and learnt. The Open University in those days was, and I am sure still is, what we would understand today. as the opposite of an “easy option”. Papers had to be in on time, the workload was demanding and heavy. Summer schools were also a requirement and were always held at a conventional university so one got around quite a lot meeting other people and other lecturers. So far as I remember we would go to a conventional lecture at a convenient venue once a week. Nearly everybody I met include myself were fiting all this around a private working life. To complete the full degree course could take on an average six years. Although some bright sparks managed it in less.
    My purpose in writing this is to explain how I eventually saw that there were confirmed connections between the humanities and science and to study one without reference to the other could well result in a lack of general understanding of humanity and the world. I’m not suggesting that one should become a Jack of all trades but the extension of one’s knowledge outside one’s discipline I think is necessary for a better understanding of the world at large. What I learnt in those first two years with the open University opened my mind and much of the subject matter I learnt remains with me. The module on philosophy which I studied in the first year, in which I came top of the module, confirmed my suspicions that there was more in the world, more than I had theretofore dreamed of.
    I continued my studies with the Open University for two further years doing the Biological basis of Behaviour and Psychology. That done I was exhausted particularly as my job was making heavy demands on me. So I ditched the OU with reluctance and some years later found some success at a conventional university, full-time, studying philosophy which I soon realised my studies with the OU many years before formed a good foundation. I had already been taught to think, research, question, and realise that things are often not, completely what they seem.
    In my opinion Mike’s University is doing it the right way.

  30. s. wallerstein

    Don Bird:

    I agree with you that compulsory science and humanities courses are a good idea.

    I had to take both and while I don’t recall anything that I learned in my science courses, being obliged to study the history of music (something I never would have studied by choice) was the beginning of a lifelong passion for classical music, a genre of music that I had never paid any attention to previously. What’s more, my compulsory studies of the history of art taught me enough to keep up my side of the conversation during a lifetime of museum dates.

  31. Much of this commentary on higher education relates to how students (and academics!) can be encouraged to think and to be educated in thinking per se. I guess this is one area of expertise that philosophy seeks to claim as its own central territory?

    However, as I remarked in the first comment on this post, I’m dubious about such claims. There, I challenged the widespread (see above) assertion that significant (‘deep’, ‘profound’) questions truly emerge from philosophy. I also challenged whether any answers to such questions reliably emerge either. Mike deploys an argument that is mentioned in David Chalmer’s TPM interview [cited by me above]: the assertion is that when certain question sets become tractable, new disciplines ‘spin-out’ from philosophy. This is epitomised in the commonplace view that the Enlightenment was, at its core, a philosophical advance that led to the spin-out of the natural sciences – science was ‘liberated’ by the new philosophy. As argued elsewhere, that assertion is open to challenge [see e.g.

    So much for the questions, how about the thinking? Well, here I am also sceptical that the philosophers have unique tools, or key tools, or even efficient tools of thought (see again the Chalmers interview for some evidence). The contrast at issue here is with the application of the scientific method (incidentally, not very well described by much of what appears in this thread). The process of structured observation undertaken as a challenge to hypothesis, the accumulation of observations in the context of a pre declared theoretical frame, in short what is captured by Popper’s phrase ‘conjecture and refutation’: these are the cornerstones of the scientific method. The ‘thinking’ aspects of this process, pre and post observation and experiment, are inexorably constrained by the rules of logic (‘that’s us!’, I hear the philosophers shout), and thence to mathematics, including statistics (‘that used to be us!’). The special feature of the scientific method, what sets it apart from the philosophical, is that it constrains thinking to what is testable, even if only as ‘thought experiments’. ‘Idle speculation’ (hardly a fair description of philosophising, surely!?) remain terrific fun and hugely attractive for many people, but in truth it is entertainment. So, like music and the visual and performing arts, it is a richly engaging – entertaining – one aspect of humanity. But in much of what is discussed by contributors this thread, greater claims are being made for philosophy than that. Does philosophy deliver? Just as with theology, I think all of history tells us ‘no’. Is science merely ‘philosophy with pragmatic teeth’? I think not. For me, science is the quintessence of ‘what works’. And that covers, or is capable of covering, a spectrum from sociology and psychology through medicine to quantum- and astrophysics and mathematics herself.

    So, I’m arguing that ‘thinking’ is best informed by studying, understanding and, ideally, practicing the scientific method in all its richness. I will agree that undergraduate science courses often fail to deliver enough that is explicit about the principles of the scientific method. The defensive argument would be that ‘first, one has to have something to think about’. Science could and should do better, much better, than current ‘public engagement’ efforts seem to offer.

    For me, studying philosophy sits close to studying Latin. You have the choice of addressing the questions (for Latin, the languages), themselves, so why engage with anything else? Is it the attraction of entertainment? And I am not denigrating the virtues and values of entertainment here; a rich, profound and fulfilling activity for sure. But, for me the case is not made that philosophy delivers questions or answers. There’s much more required of a question than constructing a grammatically correct phrase ending with a question mark. The ‘why’ questions are just so seductive. Ultimately, science consistently delivers questions, answers and, thereby, robust insights into reality. All these elements have the great virtue of being ‘observer independent’ – you don’t have to have belief, conviction or faith; the lights, the rockets and the anaesthetics work. But yes, science also delivers entertainment.

  32. Re:-S Wallerstein.

    Like you I also had to study music as part of the humanities foundation course. Whilst I did not dislike classical music I was more attracted to the popular music of the day. The course taught me the history of music how it was written by whom and for what purpose. The fundamentals of each instrument was explained together with how they all went to make up an orchestra and how the scores were written. We also had the opportunity to sit in with a classical orchestra with one instrumentalist of our choice, whose job was so far as the music permitted, to quietly explain to us what was happening and why, and what to look out for as the music developed. In accordance with the score which I was encouraged to follow on the basis of the limited knowledge I had that time acquired. This was a fascinating experience to sit within a live orchestra, a rare experience, which I’ve never forgotten; I sat with a violinist and rapidly discovered my ignorance of fine music which thereafter I endeavoured to turn into knowledge.
    Similarly the History of Art also taught me enough to appreciate and to be inquisitive in this discipline.

  33. s. wallerstein

    Don Bird,

    If a good teacher, such as your music teacher, is able to reach a bright mind, like yours, they can open universes of inquiry.

    At times that good teacher is not formally employed as such but someone one runs into through life’s accidents.

    So, Mike, don’t let my at times cynical reflections on human nature spoil your teaching vocation because I’m sure that you’re reaching more young minds than you imagine.

  34. Philosophy and science should not be at war, they should complement each other. Other than repressive societies people cannot be prevented from thinking about life and expressing a world view. Science through observation, inference, and calculation studies the world of phenomena. Philosophy questions what is noumenal as well. What is noumenal could be defined as all that is beyond the range of our five senses, that science may now or in the future access with the right instrumentation.

    A virtue of philosophy is that it is good for deprogramming the mind, which is why a repressive society would not be in favor of it. To study philosophy from its beginnings to the present day is to follow the history of human thought and the changes it brought about in various cultures.

    Tyson is enamored of the fact that we came from stardust; his branch of physics deals with mass and form. Other branches of physics deal with the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of energy and light and their relationship to each other and mass; so the range of thought in these specialties could be considered broader, and deeper. He appears to contradict himself having said, “Engaging the whole big world of unknowns out there could be defined as knowing how to think rather than merely knowing what to think, and “In the end it is the people who are curious who change the world.” In these two statements he gives a good description of a philosophical approach to life.

    The best and nicest definition of a philosopher is: ‘a person whose philosophical perspective makes it possible to meet trouble calmly.’

  35. DrCaffeine,

    Even if all other branches of philosophy are set aside, ethics still seems to be a worthy subject. While scientists can lay down the theory that allows engineers to build an impressive weapon (like nuclear weapons), there is still the matter of the ethics of said weapon-and science, as science, does not cover this. While scientists can lay down the theory that might allow engineers to develop interstellar flight or cybernetic bodies, these fields do not address the matters of value connected to these advances. “Can we become cybermen?” is a question that scientists and engineers can answer. “Should we become cybermen?” is a philosophical question.

    Now, it might be contended that ethics has been assimilated by other fields (like business, medicine, law, etc.) and even ethics is no longer part of philosophy. It might also be contended that ethics is nonsense, albeit philosophical nonsense. There are also other alternatives as well.

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  37. Mike,

    Yes, I agree with your mention of ethics (for example). It’s clear, to me anyway, that big-P Philosophy can provide a formal space where thinking is made explicit. In that important sense, it can continue to offer a recognised locus within which the notions that abound in society at large can be worked through. This is one reason why I believe professional philosophy needs to look to itself in ways that seem not so prevalent. If it spends much of its time and intellectual energy in futile navel-gazing it will find it is ever more comprehensively ignored in public discourse.

    Your mention of the ethics of weapons research and development risks revealing such futility. It approaches arrogance to imply that the scientists (yes and the politicians and business-folk) do not engage with the ethical issues implicit in their work. If their ethical conclusions have philosophical flaws, these should be addressed head-on. But the lack of traction of the philosophical method that I discussed is revealed in the multiplicity of ethical stances within philosophy itself. So this is no advert for the trade; broadly accepted answers are not available there. This is what David Chalmers’ interview revealed (as I mentioned above). Unlike science, there is no concensus or, apparently, any means of achieving one.

    I’m just a punter who dips in and observes. If it’s not obvious to me, and like-minded souls such as deGrasse Tyson might be, that Philosophy is addressing the right questons nor addressing them with effective techniques, then professional philosophy is at risk of losing that locus. The columns you write are attractive precisely because you do address questions that might well trigger contemplation in anybody – not just the philosphical pros. But the question I was addressing was about method as well as topic. So, for ethics, perhaps the greatest service that professional philosophy can offer society is to reveal where the messiness of ‘opinion’ can be clearly distinguished from flawed logic, unrecognised paradox, a priori assumption and so forth. This might well seem too pedestrian to jobbing philosophers – but what else can they offer? Otherwise, we have poetry, drama and the novel if we’re interested in kicking words about in a fascinating way. Is it all merely ‘opinion’? If Philosophy has insufficient bite, quite rightly it will starve; evolution works that way!

  38. A well known Professional philosopher whom I will not name here, once said to us during a lecture. “A philosopher should be expert in his own speciality and well read in other disciplines.”no easy task I fancy, but hopefully it should lead to addressing all problems with appropriate, relevant, and effective techniques.

  39. Scienec may be about coming up with the answers, but its philosophy that clarifies the nature of the question and its context.

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