Refuting The Futile And Frenzied Fracas Over Philosophy And Physics

I am old enough to remember when Bill Cosby was actually funny. I mean back in the pre-Dr.-Cliff-Huxtable days when he was a rising young stand-up comic just beginning to appear on, e.g., the Tonight show. One of my favorite Cosby one-man / stand-up skits, in fact, was his impression of being an undergraduate in college, and guessing other students’ major fields by their personal idiosyncrasies and mannerisms. Says Cosby, you could always distinguish philosophy majors as the people who went around campus gazing dreamily up into the sky, oblivious to their surroundings, and muttering “Why is there air?” (Legend has it that one of the founders of Western philosophy, Thales of Miletus in the 6th century BCE, fell into a well because he did something much like that.) This story is funny when (the old, “pre-roofie”) Bill Cosby told it as a joke. It is much less funny when highly educated people like Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are reputed to seriously entertain the same stereotype. But I suspect that the controversy their remarks about philosophy have recently evoked results much more from poor reading on others’ part than from poor thinking on theirs, because the rebuttals of their arguments are just too obvious for people of such attainments to have overlooked.

Tyson’s part of the latest kerfuffle originates from the Huffington Post publicizing some remarks about philosophy – in particular, the philosophy of science – Tyson made in a recent Nerdist podcast, quoted in the HuffPo, wherein Tyson demurred from remarks by one of the interviewers in support of the study of philosophy, which Tyson asserts, justifiably enough, does not discover any new knowledge about the world. This description is what touched off the controversy.

The reason I say the controversy about Tyson’s comments about philosophy has been blown grossly out of proportion is for two reasons. First of all, Tyson’s remarks about philosophy concern the value of philosophical speculation as part of the pursuit of science – in this case, physics and presumably astrophysics (Tyson’s own field) – by professional scientists. Tyson is warning practicing scientists, and, for that matter, practicing philosophers, endeavoring to make substantive contributions to science, to not get lost in their own underwear by obsessing about questions like "What is the meaning of meaning?" -- Tyson's equivalent of “Why is there air?” The second reason the controversy has assumed such unjustifiably exaggerated proportions is because, in other contexts, in contexts outside of empirical “hard” science, Tyson cheerfully asserts that, yes, philosophy obviously has substantive contributions to make. In a conversation with Richard Dawkins, also cited in the HuffPo story, Tyson said (boldface added):

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.

I would differ from Tyson somewhat on even this narrower point:  the real “action” in the philosophy of science these days is, and has been for some time, the so-called “measurement problem” in quantum theory, and related issues pertaining to quantum entanglement, Bell’s Theorem, and the EPR paradox. Be that as it may, the scope of Tyson’s comments on philosophy do not amount, as many commentators and critics have inferred, in a wholesale repudiation of philosophy tout court as a discipline, but only in questioning the extent to which philosophy has anything of substance to say in terms of empirical results, now that philosophy and the empirical sciences have gone their separate ways since Newton. (The last citadel of "natural philosophy" was Darwin, which "officially" fell in 1859, when the first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species was published.) The reaction of the philosophy community contra Tyson is greatly exaggerated.

(In "The Philosophy of Neil DeGrasse Tyson," Julian Drury has written a very temperate, clear-eyed argument supporting this conclusion in a May, 2014, story in Progressive Spring.)

Similar remarks apply to Bill Nye’s contribution to the controversy.  Judging by the similarly exaggerated vehemence of the reaction, one imagines Bill Cosby’s “Why is there air?” joke being nailed to a cathedral door and precipitating a second Protestant Reformation. Speaking of the Reformation, an April, 2017, Quartz story contains an account of an apparent Damascene conversion of Bill Nye vis a vis the discipline of philosophy.

Shortly after reading my article, Nye began discussing philosophy with his friend David Kyle Johnson, a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania. Nye listened to Johnson’s lectures on The Big Questions of Philosophy and read his works. “I read his book so many times, it fell apart,” Nye said. “I had to get another copy.” The science guy said he learned the importance of major philosophical figures. “People allude to Socrates and Plato and Aristotle all the time, and I think many of us who make those references don’t have a solid grounding,” he said. “It’s good to know the history of philosophy.”

In fact -- and to continue the analogy -- while he still has no patience with certain philosophical speculations, like the conjecture that the entire Universe might be contained in some great cosmic Video Game, Nye has apparently become, not just a convert to philosophy as a discipline, but also something of an evangelist.

Ultimately, Nye is now convinced that philosophy is a pure form of critical thinking and would like “everybody in the world” to have a philosophical outlook. His Netflix show, Bill Nye Saves the World, will focus on issues such as climate change and alternative medicine. Nye believes a philosophical approach to studying the facts should convince everyone of the scientific validity of climate change and the falsity of alternative medicine.

In any case, for purely logical reasons, if no other, it should be evident from a moment's thought that, not only is philosophy a legitimate learned discipline -- in fact, a Wissenschaft in the German sense, not of "science" as the word is often translated, but in the authentic German sense of "a body of disciplined knowledge and inquiry" (e.g. art history is also a Wissenschaft) -- but even the attempt to debunk philosophy is logically incoherent. To debunk philosophy, you first have to settle on certain criteria of meaning and coherence. You then have to sift through various texts and statements made my philosophers over the centuries and validate them against those discursive criteria. (Oh ... I am getting ahead of myself:  before you do that, you have to first test the criteria "internally" for logical and conceptual coherence.) Finally, you have to formulate your judgment -- debunked or not debunked -- depending on whether philosophy passed or failed all those debunking tests. But in formulating the criteria, validating them, and comparing philosophical discourse, you are -- though it be in spite of yourself -- doing philosophy. Bottom line:  attempts to debunk philosophy end up debunking themselves.  Schemes to debunk philosophy are just examples of Stanley Fish's "self-consuming artifacts".

 

Nor is the "progress" criterion any more meaningful. Philosophers who wrong-headedly misinterpret Tyson's critique as applicable to all philosophy take Tyson to task for assessing the value of philosophy by how much "progress" philosophy has made over the last 2500 years, i.e., since arising on the Ionian coast around 600 BCE. In several places, Tyson does use  the "p-word". But what Tyson really means, if you read his statements with due care, is that philosophers have made no progress in ascertaining empirical data since, say, the days of Isaac Newton in the late 17th century. But this just amounts to saying that philosophers have not become scientists ... which at least flirts with tautology. Besides, if "progress" is your criterion, then how much "progress" has been made in music from, say, the time of Palestrina and Josquin DePres to, say, Haydn? Has there been any "progress" from Botticelli to Boudin? If the answer is "No," then ... well ... music and painting bite the dust along with philosophy, if "progress" is the yardstick. But then, how much "progress" has there been in defining "progress"? Which is much like asking "Why is there air?"

Finally, there is the "death and disaster" criterion. There was a recent AirAsia flight from Perth, Australia, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where engine damage caused the plane to vibrate in mid-air, as one passenger said, like a badly loaded washing machine on "spin" cycle -- so badly that the pilot asked passengers to "pray". During times of such stress -- when you think your plane could crash, when you think your child might have leukemia, etc. -- everyone becomes an armchair-avocational theologian / philosopher, philosopher debunkers and debunking be damned. Scant point in asking if a given activity is "valid" or "legitimate" or not if the activity is inevitable, anyway. The amygdala takes over and the prefrontal cortex can just shut the hell up!

Oh by the way ... one possible way to address Cosby's "Why is there air?" question is to cite the anthropic principle:  if air did not exist, we would not be around to ask "Why is there air?". Intelligent anaerobic bacteria, maybe, but not us.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Neil Degrasse Tyson ... Bruce Press ... CC by SA 3.0
Bill Nye ... Peter and Joyce Grace ... CC by SA 2.0
Ptolemaic model ... J. Van Loon, 1660 ... Public domain
"The School of Athens" ... Raphael ... Public domain
Treatise on Natural Sciences, Philosophy, and Mathematics ... Author unknown, 1300 ... Public domain

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