A little too much question asking??

An excellent piece by Massimo Pigliucci saying why Neil deGrasse Tyson is wrong to say philosophy is timewasting bullshit that gets you hit by cars because you’re too busy asking yourself whether cars are real or not.

Neil made his latest disparaging remarks about philosophy as a guest on the Nerdist podcast [4], following a statement by one of the hosts, who said that he majored in philosophy. Neil’s comeback was: “That can really mess you up.” The host then added: “I always felt like maybe there was a little too much question asking in philosophy [of science]?” And here is the rest of the pertinent dialogue:

dGT: I agree.

interviewer: At a certain point it’s just futile.

dGT: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly. My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?

(another) interviewer: I think a healthy balance of both is good.

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.

Sigh. That really is…ungood. Childish.

Well, Neil, consider this your follow-up call, just as you requested. Not that you didn’t get several of those before. For instance, even fellow scientist and often philosophy-skeptic Jerry Coyne pointed out that you “blew it big time” [8] when you disinvited philosopher David Albert from an event you had organized at the American Museum of Natural History, and that originally included a discussion between Albert and physicist Lawrence Krauss (yet another frequent philosophy naysayer [9]). Moreover, when you so graciously came to the book launch for my Answers for Aristotle a couple of years ago, you spent most of the evening chatting with a number of graduate students from CUNY’s philosophy program, and they tried really hard to explain to you how philosophy works and why you had a number of misconceptions about it. To no avail, apparently.

So here we are again, time to set you straight once more. This, of course, is not just because I like you and because I think it is in general the right thing to do. It is mostly, frankly, because someone who regularly appears on The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, and has had the privilege of remaking Carl Sagan’s iconic Cosmos series — in short someone who is a public intellectual and advocate for science — really ought to do better than to take what amounts to anti-intellectual (and illiterate) positions about another field of scholarship. And I say this in all friendship, truly.

Quite so, about the positions. He has a big microphone; he should not use it to say ignorant and disparaging things about philosophy. We do not need less philosophy and philosophically-informed thinking in this country. No, that is not what we need.

Massimo then gives some bullet points by way of trying to clear things up for NdGT. A sample from one –

I suggest you actually look up some technical papers in philosophy of science [12] to see how a number of philosophers, scientists and mathematicians actually do collaborate to elucidate the conceptual and theoretical aspects of research on everything from evolutionary theory and species concepts to interpretations of quantum mechanics and the structure of superstring theory. Those papers, I maintain, do constitute a positive contribution of philosophy to the progress of science — at least if by science you mean an enterprise deeply rooted in the articulation of theory and its relationship with empirical evidence.

And then there’s the chair issue.

A common refrain I’ve heard from you (see direct quotes above) and others, is that scientific progress cannot be achieved by “mere armchair speculation.” And yet we give a whole category of Nobels to theoretical physicists, who use the deductive power of mathematics (yes, of course, informed by previously available empirical evidence) to do just that. Or — even better — take mathematics itself, a splendid example of how having one’s butt firmly planted on a chair (and nowhere near any laboratory) produces both interesting intellectual artifacts in their own right and an immense amount of very practical aid to science. No, I’m not saying that philosophy is just like mathematics or theoretical physics. I’m saying that one needs to do better than dismiss a field of inquiry on the grounds that it is not wedded to a laboratory setting, or that its practitioners like comfortable chairs.

Massimo showed the piece to NdGT, they had an email conversation about it, but no result. I find that disappointing.


  1. Al Dente says

    I can understand why Neil deG Tyson has problems with philosophy. When Alvin Plantinga uses an evolutionary strawman to argue against naturalism or when Richard Rorty disdains reality or when Jacques Derrida confuses dada for intellectual arguments then it’s easy to see why an intelligent, educated person might not hold philosophy in high regard.

  2. screechymonkey says

    Al Dente @2,

    Yeah, philosophy doesn’t seem to do a very good job of policing its own. When I’m told that Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig are such respected philosophers…. and yes, I’ve heard the explanation that philosophy of religion is a subfield that most philosophers have abandoned to the apologists, but that’s kind of my point.

    It also doesn’t help that most philosophers I’ve encountered are absolutely terrible writers, employing a pretentious, long-winded style that seems designed to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

  3. Tim Harris says

    ‘pretentious, long-winded’ – try Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Voltaire Diderot, Hume, Marx, Wittgenstein, Russell, Ayer, Popper, Oakeshott, Berlin and many others. Pigliucci himself seems not unclear. Why not make the effort to find out about philosophers instead of reciting dull, lazy litanies of dislikes?

  4. Tim Harris says

    Oh, yes, and Philip Kitcher might not be unworthy of notice by the philosophobes…

  5. doubtthat says

    I know a lot of philosophers. I don’t know a single one who holds Craig in high regard. The fact that Craig is even considered a philosopher leads me to believe that part of the problem is the historical relationship between religious studies and philosophy. “Glib apologetics” is certainly a category of thought and writing that has been closely identified with philosophy since at least Aquinas.

    There’s also the analytic-contentnal divide. “Badly written poetry as deep thought” is another category of philosophy that rightfully has a bad reputation among scientists. Anchoring philosophers with that type of voluminous babble to condemn the profession is no different that attacking Evolutionary Theory by reference to Social Darwinism.

    Having read Tyson and Krauss’ complaints, I have to agree with Pigliucci. They are not considered complaints. They’re just ignorant bias. It’s distressing because neither of those folks would tolerate that kind of sloppy, ill-considered thought in their own profession. They whine about semantic debates, but then observe the embarrassing slop of argument Krauss produces because he’s never considered the meaning of the words he uses:


    Krauss’ entire complaint about philosophy seems to depend on his, er, unique definition of the word “science,” which evidently means “everything good.” He’s outclassed and incoherent and it’s entirely based on his belief that he has nothing to learn from other disciplines.

    I’m sure they’ve encountered a lot of “philosophers” who were actually religious apologists. I’m sure they had lots of annoying debates in undergrad, but as Ophelia said, it’s hard to look at society — at our political discourse, at our approach to solving social problems…etc. — and come to the conclusion that our failures are the result of too much rigorous thinking.

  6. latsot says

    This is all nonsense. Clearly it’s *science* that’s timewasting bullshit that gets you hit by cars. Science never built any bridges. Scientists like to tell us what sort of bridges are possible but don’t tell us how to go about picking or making materials; how to refine a theoretical design into a practical one; work out how a design could actually be constructed; create a schedule to bring the materials and artisans to the right place at the right time; to remember that it’s also important that the bridge looks good, fits with its surroundings, is affordable, acceptable to the people living nearby, crosses the right fucking river and uses the available funding in a sympathetic way.

    *Clearly* it’s engineers who ought to be listened to. Scientists go on about relativity, but it’s engineers who build satellites.

    Have I made my point yet?

  7. screechymonkey says

    Tim Harris @4,

    Since the whole conversation has been about the contributions of modern philosophy, I’m not sure why some of the names on your list (Locke, Hobbes, Marx et al) would be relevant examples. I agree that those writers are, by and large, more interesting.

    And yes, I consider Pigliucci a rather condescending and tedious writer, who never uses one paragraph when he could use three.

    But thanks for assuming that I haven’t made any effort. Because obviously anyone who doesn’t share your taste in reading material must be lazy and a “philosophobe.”

  8. anbheal says

    I’m a fan of NdGT, AND recondite philosophical pensees. I think Pigliucci might be shoehorning NdGT’s comments into a prima facie assumption of dismissiveness, whereas if you don’t assume it from the outset, the NdGT comments strike me as relatively benign. NdGT clearly acknowledges that science is political, classist, value-laden, that most of the research money comes from elites to serve the interests of elites, and that we may well not be asking the scientific questions a different type of society would ask. And I think he makes a valid point that ever since the Copenhagen Interpretation, physics has left the world of Aristotelian & Kantian & Hegelian reasoning behind, and is now thoroughly immersed in probabilistic chicanery that isn’t necessarily furthered by philosophical insights.

    But yes, he DOES seem quite defensive in those horselesstelegraph exchanges, and a good old-fashioned “sorry kids, I spoke rashly, and didn’t mean to disrespect a wonderful discipline” might have worked out better for everyone involved.


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