“That Can Really Mess You Up”

That’s Neil deGrasse Tyson on majoring in philosophy. Chris Hardwick, over at Nerdist, interviews the famed astrophysicist and host of Cosmos, and one of the topics is philosophy (starting at 20:19). deGrasse Tyson thinks there is too much questioning in philosophy. Still, he has one question for philosophers: “Why are you wasting your time?” Sigh. There’s no one like Neil deGrasse Tyson to demonstrate that philosophy needs its own Neil deGrasse Tyson.

UPDATE (5/9/14): Lewis Powell (Buffalo) responds to Tyson, and Tyson responds in the comments thread to Powell and others.


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  1. 3

    Perhaps he’ll soon weigh in on the drug cocktail used in lethal injection: “Leave it to us scientists, people, we can easily discover the best drugs to kill people quickly.” Oddly enough, as russell noted, they go on to speak reverently about questioning and deGrasse quotes Rilke “try to love the questions” (but only applying it to natural science), not realizing that their dissing of philosophy is also a dissing poetry, prose, etc. Here is the entire Rilke quote, which is actually about philosophical reflection as meaningful even when not about data/empirical observation: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet…or was it to a Young Scientist?

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  2. 4

    People like Tyson tend to associate philosophy almost exclusively with narrow issues in metaphysics and/or philosophy of language, as that discussion amply demonstrates. In other words, facts about philosophy are the one subset of natural facts to which this sort of pop-scientist is almost always selectively insensitive.

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    • 5

      Clearly Tyson knows very little about philosophy, and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And unfortunately, Hardwick’s education in the field seems to have been rather lacking. I want to like Tyson, but the sort of arrogance on display there makes it hard, especially since, presumably, he knows he doesn’t know much about philosophy.

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    • 7

      Hearing some of my philosophical colleagues demand to be not too interdisciplinary, but address the real philosophical issues discussed by the majority of philosophers in this country – i.e., trolleys, Gettier, neo-…ism -, I can well understand such negative comments and a certain frustration because many people still believe that philosophy should make contributions of a broader sort and be connected to all disciplines. Maybe that overtaxes philosophy, and real philosophers might be happy to become comparable to scholars who resolve a long-standing problem about Assyrian grammar or a conjecture in number theory.

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  3. 10
    Johann Klaassen

    NdGT seems to believe that we’d all like him more if only we reviewed what he said in 2010 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RExQFZzHXQ&t=62m47s

    In it, he says that philosophers, those “would-be scientists but without a laboratory”, were “rendered obsolete” — with respect to the physical sciences, at least — by the scientific discoveries of the early 20th century (particularly quantum mechanics and “the expanding universe”). “Philosophy has parted ways with the frontier of the physical sciences”, a fact by which he is “disappointed” … since “there’s a lot of brainpower there that might have otherwise contributed mightily”. Ethics is fine, he says, and political philosophy is cool, but it’s not science. Dawkins then admits to liking the work of some of our friends who work in the philosophy of science … but who he says are really scientists, not philosophers.

    My takeaway is something like this: Tyson (and Dawkins) seem to think that to the extent that philosophers have anything to say about the sciences, they’re actually scientists. To the extent, then, that philosophers think that we have anything to say about the way the world is — traditional philosophical domains like metaphysics and epistemology — we’re pretending to science from our armchairs, and should either get into a laboratory and do some “real science” or turn to ethics or political philosophy.

    I don’t think this is much of an improvement over the views presented in the more recent comments. Then again, my philosophical work has been almost exclusively in ethics and social / political philosophy, so …

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