Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Value of Philosophy

It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson has done it again: He has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so. But in his case the offense is particularly egregious.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY: More than three decades after Carl Sagan's groundbreaking and iconic series, 'Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,' it's time once again to set sail for the stars. Host and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson sets off on the Ship of the Imagination to discover Earth's Cosmic Address and its coordinates in space and time in the 'Standing Up in the Milky Way' Series Premiere episode of COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY airing Sunday, March 9, 2014 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY: More than three decades after Carl Sagan's groundbreaking and iconic series, 'Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,' it's time once again to set sail for the stars. Host and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson sets off on the Ship of the Imagination to discover Earth's Cosmic Address and its coordinates in space and time in the 'Standing Up in the Milky Way' Series Premiere episode of COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY airing Sunday, March 9, 2014 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)

It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson [1] has done it again: He has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so. But in his case the offense is particularly egregious, for two reasons: first, because he is a highly visible science communicator, and second, because I told him not to, several times.

Let's start with the latest episode, work our way back to a few others of the same kind (to establish that this is a pattern, not an unfortunate fluke), and then carefully tackle exactly where Neil and a number of his colleagues go wrong. But before any of that, let me try to halt the obvious objection to this entire essay in its tracks: No, this isn't about defending "my" turf, for the simple reason that both philosophy and science are my turf [2]. I have practiced both disciplines as a scholar/researcher, I have taught introductory and graduate-level classes in both fields, and I have written books about them both. So, while what follows inevitably will unfold as a defense of philosophy (yet again! [3]), it is a principled defense, not a petty one, and it most certainly doesn't come from any kind of science envy.

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:

Tyson: I agree.

Interviewer: At a certain point it's just futile.

Tyson: 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.

Tyson: 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.]

Tyson: 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. The scientist says, "Look, I got all this world of unknown out there. I'm moving on. I'm leaving you behind. You can't even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you've asked yourself. I don't have the time for that."

[Note to the reader: I, like Neil, live and work in Manhattan, and I can assure you that I am quite adept at crossing the perilous streets of the metropolis.]

Interviewer: I also felt that it was a fat load of crap, as one could define what "crap" is and the essential qualities that make up crap: how you grade a philosophy paper? [5] [This interviewer is not one to put too fine a point on things, apparently.]

Tyson: [Laughs.] Of course, I think we all agree you turned out OK.

Interviewer: Philosophy was a good major for comedy, I think, because it does get you to ask a lot of ridiculous questions about things.

Tyson: No, you need people to laugh at your ridiculous questions.

Interviewer: It's a bottomless pit. It just becomes nihilism.

Tyson: Nihilism is a kind of philosophy.

The latter was pretty much the only correct observation about philosophy in the whole dialogue, as far as I can tell.

As I mentioned above, this isn't the first time Neil has said things like this. For instance, during the Q-and-A with the audience following one of his many (and highly enjoyable) public appearances [6], he was asked by a spectator, "Would you rather die now or live forever?" Neil's somewhat condescending reply was, "I never believe that the options available to a creative person are ever limited by the choices offered by a philosopher." That may be a very sophistic way of just not answering the question.

There is more: During a public conversation between Neil and Richard Dawkins (another frequent offender), an audience member asked Neil a question about philosophy of science and Stephen Hawking's declaration that philosophy is dead [7]. Here is Neil's reply, in full:

Up until early 20th century philosophers had material contributions to make to the physical sciences. Pretty much after quantum mechanics, remember the philosopher is the would be scientist but without a laboratory, right? And so what happens is, the 1920s come in, we learn about the expanding universe in the same decade as we learn about quantum physics, each of which falls so far out of what you can deduce from your armchair that the whole community of philosophers that previously had added materially to the thinking of the physical scientists was rendered essentially obsolete, and that point, and I have yet to see a contribution -- this will get me in trouble with all manner of philosophers -- but call me later and correct me if you think I've missed somebody here. But, philosophy has basically parted ways from the frontier of the physical sciences, when there was a day when they were one and the same. Isaac Newton was a natural philosopher, the word physicist didn't even exist in any important way back then. So, I'm disappointed because there is a lot of brainpower there, that might have otherwise contributed mightily, but today simply does not. It's not that there can't be other philosophical subjects, there is religious philosophy, and ethical philosophy, and political philosophy, plenty of stuff for the philosophers to do, but the frontier of the physical sciences does not appear to be among them.

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 frequent 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 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. Of course, this is not just because I like you and because I think it is, in general, the right thing to do. Frankly, it is mostly 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.

Since I'm sure this sort of accident will happen again in the future (whether at your hand or someone else's), I figured I'd present my case as I would in a classroom, as a series of bullet points to keep handy anytime someone asks you again to comment about philosophy. So here we go.

Contra popular perception, philosophy makes progress, though it does so in a different sense from progress in science. You can think of philosophy as an exploration of conceptual, as opposed to empirical, space, concerning all sorts of questions ranging from ethics to politics, from epistemology to the nature of science. Imagine a highly dimensional landscape of ways of thinking about a given question (such as "Do scientific theories describe the world as it is, or should we think of them rather as simply being empirically adequate?" [10]). The philosopher explores that landscape by constructing arguments, entertaining counterarguments, and either discarding or refining a certain view. The process does not usually lead to one final answer (though it does eliminate a number of bad ones), because conceptual space is much broader than its empirical counterpart, which means that there may be more than one good way of looking at a particular question (but, again, also a number of bad ways). Progress, then, consists in identifying and "climbing" these peaks in "C" space. If you'd like, I'll send you the draft of a book I'm finishing for Chicago Press that expands on this way of looking at philosophy, provides a number of specific examples, and compares and differentiates progress in philosophy from progress in a number of allied disciplines, including science, mathematics and logic.

Another popular myth is that philosophy keeps dwelling on the same questions, the implication being that, again, it doesn't settle anything and consequently cannot move on to something else. But if "the same questions" are defined broadly enough, we can raise the very same criticism about science itself. I mean, your own profession of cosmology has been dwelling on "the same question" (the origin and evolution of the universe) since the pre-Socratic atomists (philosophers, by the way). And my discipline of biology has been concerned with the nature of adaptation since Aristotle's (another philosopher!) articulation of his four fundamental causes. I'm not being flippant here, truly. Of course there are plenty of more specific sub-questions in cosmology (or evolutionary biology), some of which have indeed been settled, and of course we have made tremendous progress on the broader picture as well (usually by settling some of the sub-questions). But the same -- at a different scale and within a different time frame -- can be said of philosophy, or mathematics, or logic.

You and a number of your colleagues keep asking what philosophy (of science in particular) has done for science lately. There are two answers here: First, much philosophy of science is simply not concerned with advancing science, which means that it is a category mistake (a useful philosophical concept [11]) to ask why it didn't. The main objective of philosophy of science is to understand how science works and, when it fails to work (which it does occasionally), why this was the case. It is epistemology applied to the scientific enterprise. And philosophy is not the only discipline that engages in studying the workings of science. So do history and sociology of science, and yet I never heard you dismiss those fields on the grounds that they haven't discovered the Higgs boson. Second, I suggest that 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.

A common refrain I've heard from you (see direct quotations 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.

Finally, Neil, please have some respect for your mother. I don't mean your biological one (though that too, of course!); I am referring to the intellectual mother of all science -- that is, philosophy. As you yourself seem to have a dim perception of (see your example of Newton), one of the roles of philosophy over the past two and half millennia has been to prepare the ground for the birth and eventual intellectual independence of a number of scientific disciplines. But contra what you seem to think, this hasn't stopped with the scientific revolution, or with the advent of quantum mechanics. Physics became independent with Galileo and Newton (so much so that the latter actually inspired David Hume and Immanuel Kant to do something akin to natural philosophizing in ethics and metaphysics); biology awaited Darwin (whose mentor, William Whewell, was a prominent philosopher and the guy who coined the term "scientist," in analogy to "artist," of all things); psychology spun out of its philosophical cocoon thanks to William James, as recently (by the standards of the history of philosophy) as the late 19th century; linguistics followed through a few decades later (ask Chomsky); and cognitive science is still deeply entwined with philosophy of mind (see any book by Daniel Dennett). Do you see a pattern of, ahem, progress there? And the story doesn't end with the newly gained independence of a given field of empirical research. As soon as physics, biology, psychology, linguistics and cognitive science came into their own, philosophers turned to the analysis (and sometimes even criticism) of those same fields seen from the outside, hence the astounding growth during the last century of so-called "philosophies of": of physics (and, more specifically, even of quantum physics), of biology (particularly of evolutionary biology), of psychology, of language, and of mind.

I hope you can see, dear Neil, that it isn't just that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but also that there is more active, vigorous, interesting, and intellectually respectable philosophy to be explored than you and some of your colleagues have been able to dream of so far. Please, keep that in mind the next time someone asks you about it. Or ask them to give me a call.

Postscript: I sent a preview of this essay to Neil, and a frank, civil email exchange has followed it over the past few days. However, I'm afraid neither one of us has really conceded an inch to the other's position. We'll see if we can do better in person over a couple of drinks.

As for a possible reply from Neil, I have, of course, invited him to submit one. Here is his reply, verbatim:

I generally reply to things if, and only if, they are writing about something that I judge to be untrue about me, or that they have misunderstood about what I have said. Neither is the case with you.

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).


[1] Whom I interviewed twice for the Rationally Speaking podcast, once on the value of space exploration, the second time on the meaning of atheism.

[2] For a rundown of my dual academic career, go to

[3] See the wonderful book by one of Scientia Salon's contributors, Rebecca Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away.

[4] The relevant bits start at 20 minutes and 19 seconds into the show.

[5] Speaking of philosophy and crap, please do yourself a favor and read the wonderful On Bullshit, by (philosopher) Harry G. Frankfurt.

[6] Here is the clip.

[7] Starts at 1 hour, 2 minutes and 46 seconds or thereabouts.

[8] Jerry Coyne on Neil deGrasse Tyson.

[9] On Krauss, also a Rationally Speaking podcast guest, see two essays I wrote for the Rationally Speaking blog.

[10] This is known as the realism-antirealism debate in philosophy of science. A good introduction can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[11] On the idea of category mistakes.

[12] Excellent sources include the journals Philosophy of Science, published by Chicago Press, and The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, published by Oxford. I'm willing to bet one of your favorite drinks, hot chocolate with double whipped cream, that you've never actually perused either one of them. If I win, you buy me a dirty martini.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot