A few days back Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the most beloved science educator of our time, said some unfortunate things about philosophy. My first inclination was to try to see his point, since I’m a big fan, and also I’m not at all opposed to critiquing philosophy – especially academic philosophy. But, he wasn’t just critiquing the discipline as an institution, he was actively discouraging people doing philosophical activity. He’s not the first thinker to do this, but let’s be honest – Wittgenstein did it better.
Here’s what Tyson has to say on the matter, as analyzed by Damon Linker at The Week:
But now it’s been definitively demonstrated by a recent interview in which Tyson sweepingly dismisses the entire history of philosophy. Actually, he doesn’t just dismiss it. He goes much further — to argue that undergraduates should actively avoid studying philosophy at all. Because, apparently, asking too many questions “can really mess you up.”
Yes, he really did say that. Go ahead, listen for yourself, beginning at 20:19 — and behold the spectacle of an otherwise intelligent man and gifted teacher sounding every bit as anti-intellectual as a corporate middle manager or used-car salesman. He proudly proclaims his irritation with “asking deep questions” that lead to a “pointless delay in your progress” in tackling “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, “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.”
I get that it’s good to be pragmatic and look where you’re going. On the other hand, we wouldn’t have astronomy or astrophysics if there weren’t people with their heads in the clouds, too busy looking up at the stars to look where they were going.
Take, for example, Thales, a pre-Socratic philosopher who was bold enough to reject the practical mentality of his time and look for answers to what seemed like unsolvable questions without relying on mythology. He was an astronomer who could predict an eclipse, and who could explain the solstice. He was the first to look for naturalistic answers, to develop rational mathematics, and yes, to get so lost in the stars that – as the legend goes – he didn’t see where he was stepping, and fell into a well.
Thales, the Greek father of scientific thinking, and a lover of philosophical questions, was too distracted by deep questions he’d asked of himself to cross the street. Scientific thinking exists because Thales had time for that, just like calculus exists because Leibniz had time for that, and the theory of relativity exists because Einstein had time for that. Newton had time for fussing with the definitions of words like “force”, “motion”, and “velocity” even though his peers only wanted to know why the planets orbited in an ellipse. But you can’t get to the idea without clear definitions of words and symbols.
If you just plug away at science experiments without ever looking up to question your epistemological paradigm, you’ll make a great lab assistant, but you’ll never break out of the limitation of present day knowledge. The problem with Tyson’s comments is that he’s advocating a strategy of moving forward, but has no plan for what to do if he hits a wall. His complaint is that contemporary philosophers haven’t made any contributions to scientific findings, but in making that complaint, he doesn’t seem to realize what philosophy is for – it’s not for answers. It’s for questions.
As Bertrand Russell tells it, our view on what philosophy is supposed to contribute is skewed. Every question starts as a philosophical question, but as soon as we answer it, we develop a new discipline. Answering a philosophical question renders it no longer philosophical, as we’ve seen again and again. Mathematics began as a practice of philosophy, and as soon as it gained traction, it split off into its own discipline. The same happened to music theory, to natural science, to theoretical physics, to psychology, to anthropology, to aesthetics, and more. Each of these disciplines is based on a few starting assumptions that came out of playing with philosophical questions until the pieces fell into place. In times of transition, these disciplines often turn back to philosophical theory for a reassessment of those starting assumptions.
Philosophy remains as a repository for not yet answered questions, and as a place to generate new ones. Perhaps right now we’re in a period of rest, merely guarding metaphysical questions and serving as a landing point for people seeking to question paradigmatic assumptions, but I think that we’re nearing a shift back to needing philosophy to be productive. Science and religion are locked in untenable combat, politics are growing ever more intersectional, people are starting to question the nature of critical thinking in educational models, and quantum mechanics is begging for a radically new engagement with logic and reason. You heard it here first – the time of the metalogician is coming.
Maybe philosophy doesn’t need to be for everyone, but we need to let it be for someone. If we don’t have someone questioning our tacit assumptions about knowledge, reality, and humanity, we’re operating blind and have no recourse to break free of them if it turns out they’re boxing us in. In short, if we want to move forward (whatever that means), we need Thales to get lost in the stars.