On Neil deGrasse Tyson and philosophical philistinism

Neil deGrasse Tyson in Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey.A recent post on the internet has outed Neil deGrasse Tyson (or “NdGT,” as he’s been dubbed by the blogosphere) as a philistine in matters of philosophy. True enough: as charismatic as he is, and as beneficial as his public service has been in bringing the wonders of modern science to a big audience, he does appear to be one of those scientists who imperiously dismiss philosophy as a pointless endeavor without appearing to have any clear idea of what philosophy actually is.

(For background, the relevant discussion comes up between minutes 20 and 24 in the Nerdist interview between NdGT and Chris Hardwick. Now, in defense of the Nerdist, the interview is meant only as light entertainment, and it just happened to wander into a dead-end topic. Arguably, they aren’t talking as much about real philosophy as they are talking about pointless verbal activity. But it is also true that the distinction seems lost on all involved – and hence the fitting charge of philistinism.)

I heartily applaud NdGT’s general efforts at popularizing science. My family and I have watched the entire Cosmos series, and while I think the older series had the distinct advantage of Carl Sagan’s masterful prose, this newer series has its own kind of charm (and much better effects). I confess that early on I bristled at the show’s dumbed-down and misleading accounts of the history of science. (The Renaissance Mathematicus cheerfully dishes up the necessary criticisms and correctives on Giordano Bruno and on Robert Hooke.) But after some reflection I realized that the producers put these segments in simplistic cartoon form for good reason: namely, to advertise up front that they were providing only a cartoon version of history. And if the series’ objective is to get kids interested in science, then maybe it’s okay to sacrifice truth for the sake of a good story. So far as that goes, the scientific accounts they tell are also oversimplified, and that’s okay too. First get the kids interested, and let the details get sorted out later. As somebody once said, teaching is strategic lying. If you tell a full and accurate story up front, you’ll only have an audience that didn’t need to be reached in the first place.

So: good on you, NdGT (and producers of Cosmos), and I hope many kids feel wonder for nature as a result of your efforts. But one also wonders whether these laudable ends might be achieved without ignorantly dismissing other ways of understanding the fascinating and wonderful elements of human experience.

The imperious dismissal of philosophy is nothing new or rare, unfortunately. Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss are recent masters of the dubious genre, and Richard Feynman was nothing if not engagingly caustic on the subject, and there are probably billions and billions of others (more or less). But here I would drawn attention to some more surprising members of the philosophical philistines club: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Locke, and Rene Descartes. Each of these geniuses had distinctive visions of knowledge they wished to promote, and each had little or no interest in being fair to their philosophical predecessors or their recalcitrant contemporaries. Each casually dismissed their “enemies” with the accusation that they had been corrupted too deeply by stale philosophies to be able to see what was plainly evident to those with proper vision. We might rise to their defense by saying “Well, at least these philosophers actually knew what philosophy is – unlike those other philistines!” and the point is taken. Nevertheless, each of these men were in this respect careless scholars of the discipline. They were, in this specialized sense, philosophical philistines, and more than a little “damned proud” of it. Like the aforementioned scientists, they see philosophy – other people’s philosophy – only as obstacles to progress.

The defense of philosophical philistinism is that we don’t get an understanding of the truth by looking backward into history. (Unless we want historical truth, I guess.) Nor does the scientist or the philosophical genius make progress by looking sideways to contemporaries’ views. The operative advice is instead: damn the other views and sail onward! Ignore the cavils and accusations of not being fair, and let your results do the talking. Scores of well-considered philosophical objections were raised against Copernicus, Galileo, Boyle, Newton, Einstein, etc., but they are known only to the overly-curious today. The philosophers I listed earlier are regarded as some of the greatest minds ever, and studying their thought is a far more sizeable occupation than the study of well-placed historical objections to their thought. What this all suggests is that intellectual innovation requires oblivious, unfair dismissal of arguments to the contrary.

Okay; that last paragraph was meant as a spirited defense of philistinism in the context of genius. But of course I do not think that context extends to the whole domain of intellectual work. Geniuses henceforth have my permission to go ahead and concoct new theories without concerning themselves over reasoned philosophical objections (and I am sure they are relieved to hear this.) But there also needs to be a “clean up” crew: scholars who will patiently explore the arguments, objections, alternatives, counter-examples, and ideas never taken up. These scholars will not innovate (except in the sense of providing new and better understanding of what has already happened, or may be happening – which counts). But they will provide a more rounded and judicious understanding for the rest of us. They can provide the context and reflection that the genius cannot. The genius throws us new content, and the scholar fashions it over time into new understanding – which provides the new occasion for the next genius. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

We should recognize that knowledge is not merely a matter of discovering new facts and coming up with better theories. We also seek an understanding of these discoveries and inventions, and human understanding (for that’s the kind we are stuck with) requires more than the pure and unadorned truth. We need stories, variations in emphasis, nuance, contexts, and “what if?” scenarios. It also doesn’t hurt to speculate over meaning, significance, and possible ramifications. The difference between the naked truth and understanding is akin to the difference between Wikipedia – which, in science and math, is generally accurate to a tittle – and Britannica, which offers magisterial guidance, selection, and evaluation in explanations we can understand. If you want the up-to-date facts, there certainly is no beating Wikipedia. But if you seek understanding in a human format, particularly of historical development and philosophical significance, then those leather-bound volumes are a better place to start. This is not a contest, of course. We can have both, and we need both: the fast and shiny information, and the slow and rich understanding.

This is where NdGT, in his role as popularizer, has let us down with his casual expression of philosophical philistinism. He is supposed to be a member of the clean up crew, at least in Cosmos and his public lectures and interviews, where he is not providing genius-caliber innovation. We can even forgive the sloppy history of his show, if it helps in fostering initial enthusiasm. But when those who aim to provide understanding fall into disciplinary philistinism, and exclude other scholarly disciplines, they are betraying their own cause, and they end up providing not understanding, but blinkered dogmatism.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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13 Responses to On Neil deGrasse Tyson and philosophical philistinism

  1. William says:

    Have you ever heard NdGT discuss his hero, Isaac Newton? If not, I do recommend it. If I can find a serviceable link in short order, I’ll add it on at the end. The point of relevance is that NdGT praises Newton with little reserve, until he begins discussion of Newton’s inability to discover the means by which the planets resist gravity’s relentless draw and retain their orbits in near perpetuity. Newton, NdGT recounts, found himself at a loss unable to think or reason past what was, in retrospect, a not too difficult physics. Newton’s intellect had reached its edge and Newton fell back on the “explanatory” power of god as an answer to the question of stable planetary orbits.

    Take note that NgDT is not – to my eye – asserting pragmatism as his authority. His point is that outcomes of rational thought – whether exercised as empirical experiment or thought experiment – are evidence points that inform the furthering of the inquiry. And that’s the where he, as I understand his views, finds the union between pre-Enlightenment natural philosophy and contemporary or post-Enlightenment) scientific inquiry.

    Here’s a video of NdGT talking about Newton and Intelligent Design.

    and here in a Hayden Planetarium blog post


  2. Huenemann says:

    Interesting! It seems to me, though, that he’s shaping his history to further a particular socio-political end (one which I happen to agree with, by the way: keep religion out of the science classroom!). At least in the planetarium post, he’s making it sound as if, in the minds of Newton et al., religion provided only a “god of the gaps” sort of function. But that’s certainly not uniformly true, especially in the case of Newton: his interest in God went way, WAY beyond his inability to account for gravitation. The “evidence points” view you present on his behalf is a respectable approach, and worth further examination. But it’s not how the historical scientists saw what they were doing (or at least not how all of them saw it). I’m a bit unclear about the “union” view you express at the end there – could you say more?


  3. Kleiner says:

    I think you are much too charitable here.
    I’ve also watched the cosmos series and have, on the whole, enjoyed it. I also applaud the efforts at popularizing science. But was the Bruno episode a harmless cartoon on history, meant to be obviously cartoonish? I highly doubt the latter point. And nor was the episode harmless. Let’s call it what it was – anti-religious and especially anti-Catholic propaganda. Watch it again and note the imagery (shadowy and evil Catholic bishops were hard to ignore). The ignorance about religion and history were frankly inexcusable. When other secularists are calling it out as embarrassingly bad, you know there are real problems. Why these popularizes of science feel the need to pair that popularization with shallow historical accounts of religion/science and the anti-religion angle is beyond me. I challenge NdGT to read something by a genuinely well rounded intellectual – like Pope Benedict, much less an Augustine or Aquinas – to see if his mockery of the religious point of view can survive. It won’t, such mockery is born of obvious ignorance.

    In addition, and at the risk of over-reading the interview on philosophy, NdGT is not – like Nz and others before – calling out and attacking (often unfairly) allegedly stale old philosophies. NdGT is dismissing the questions themselves. His attitude is “stop that and just do science”. I suppose you might attribute such an attitude to other great philosophers, and Nz is calling into question the whole mode of inquiry. But I’m sorry, though I rarely come to the defense of Descartes or Nz, it is an offense to put NdGT in the same discussion. Nz is arrogant and dismissive in a profound way. His barbs, especially against Christianity bit also against thinkers like Kant, demonstrate a very deep understanding, even when they are nasty. NdGT is just shallow and has plainly read little of what he disagrees with.


  4. Huenemann says:

    I do agree with you that (at least) the producers of Cosmos are out to confront American religious fundamentalism, and they in part used the Bruno story to further that cause (beating up on religious intolerance in general). The moral of the cartoon seems to be “In the past, intolerant religious men have persecuted free thinkers,” and that’s certainly true enough. I also agree that NdGT’s philistinism about philosophy is about the least interesting brand of such philistinism that can be conceived!


  5. So this is a blog, based on a blog, based on several sentences I uttered in a comedic podcast.

    If anyone is interested, as 730,000 viewers have already been, I offer a fuller look at my views of philosophy here: http://bit.ly/1ouBEJA

    In any case, it’s always good to talk Philosophy. So I applaud the blog, even if, in this case, the premise is under-informed.

    -Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City


  6. Huenemann says:

    Well, now; how cool is that? Thanks for the comment, sir, and for the video link. I’ll take you up on the “correct me if I’m wrong” part. There’s in fact a pretty robust literature of philosophy and modern physics. Here are three recent books regarding philosophy of quantum mechanics:

    David Albert, Quantum mechanics and experience
    Tim Maudlin, Quantum Non-locality and relativity
    The Wave Function (collection of essays, edited by Alyssa Ney and David Albert)

    Dawkins is right that the line between physicist and philosopher gets blurred in these works – but then again, that’s sort of what you liked about the relation between philosophy and science in the days before QM!

    Thanks again for the visit.


  7. Jake Mabey says:

    In my view, one of the greatest values of philosophy is awareness of the assumptions one is making in any argument. This has wide applicability and spans the spectrum from ethics to science. As one who has a bachelors in Psychology (admittedly not a “hard science”), we were constantly drilled on looking for confounding variables, hidden assumptions, etc, but it seems that this practice is only encouraged to a point.

    The philosophy of science, in part, deals with an examination of the basic premises of science and yet it is often dismissed by scientists themselves because (as Tyson’s comments on the video posted seem to suggest) this exercise of thought can’t further in scientific discover itself. It seems that Philosophy is being valued from perspective of utility only, and not even that, utility towards the pushing of some further boundary. However, just as scientists talk about confidence levels in the studies they conduct, I think that an understanding of the philosophy of science can provide a sort of meta-confidence level where at least one is aware of the assumptions and premises that science operates upon so that they can at least intelligently accept these assumptions/premises.

    In addition, both philosophy and psychology can provide profound insight into thinking error (biases, like the confirmation bias in taught about in psychology, and fallacies taught about in philosophy, such as the ubiquitous but ever-so-tricky to spot “begging the question”). Ironically, in Dawkin’s comments he seems incapable of understanding why people previous to Darwin couldn’t figure out evolution from their armchair. It’s just so bloody obvious, right? Well, not when you don’t realize that your assumptions (like the creation story) might be inaccurate, which is exactly what we’re talking about here- a firm understanding of the assumptions and premises of that one builds their scientific theories upon.


  8. Jake Mabey says:

    (On a slightly different topic, I’m a part of a book club and I’d love to introduce my book club friends to the philosophy of science. I’d be very appreciative to Dr. Hueneman and Dr. Kleiner for any introductory resources on the subject (We stray from a strict definition of book club, so websites or even videos/documentaries would be great fantastic)).


  9. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for the comments, Jake. (By the way, fwiw, in book 2 chapter 8 of his Physics, Aristotle offers a perfect sketch of evolution by natural selection. He then rejects it, for reasons that I find difficult to discern.) Sadly, I know of no really great books on philosophy of science – all sorts of solid textbooks, but nothing very engaging to read. But two books that are fun to read, and in the ballpark, are Timothy Ferris’s “Coming of Age in the Milky Way” and John Casti’s “Paradigms Lost.” I also think Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” is full of interesting speculations about science. All of these are fun, and not very technical or sophisticated.


  10. Huenemann says:

    Also: “The End of Time” by Julian Barbour – really mind bending stuff about QM and the reality of time!


  11. Charlie’s critique of NGdT strikes me as a very reasonable. Having listened to the further remarks he recommmends as explaining more fully his views on philosophy, it seems to me that much of the problem is due to the fact that heNGdTuses words very carelessly in the original scandal-provoking video. Specifically, he says “philosophy” when he means something like “philosophical attempt to deduce a priori (from an armchair) important truths about the nature of physical reality.” In the fuller remarks, he allows that there’s plenty of work for philosophers to do in other branches of philosophy. In actual act, the majority of philosophers today, I imagine, do indeed leave physics to the physicists for the most part. They carry on reflecting on all sorts of matters–normative, cultural, anthropological, psychological, aesthetic, political, historical…..And in doing so they perform one of philosophy’s time-honoured functions: they offer one valuable avenue through which we become critical and self-aware as a culture.


  12. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for the comment, Emrys! I do think you are right that there is an ambiguity about the term “philosophy” – sort of similar to the ambiguity around “semantics”, as when people say, “That’s just semantics!”


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