NDT and Philosophy

My friend Dave recently posted this article about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent (and perhaps frequent) jibes at the field of Philosophy.

I will start this commentary by saying that I’m pretty much in agreement with Dave on most of his thoughts. I’m less outraged than Dave, as I don’t think NDT has Philosophy on his hit list. I think Neil has made remarks, based on his personal opinion, that are off target, and I also think in this particular podcast he was trying to be conversational and funny with the host. Still, he seems to be on-record as standing by his comments.

It’s a bummer when someone you like says something dumb. Like when you meet someone, or see an old friend, and everything is going fine and the conversation is going well, then he or she says something about “the damn[insert minority name here].” Yeah, I do think NDT’s comments about Philosophy are dumb and take a very narrow view of Philosophy. On a personal level I give him a pass because I think is excellent work in science education outweighs one opinion I think is dumb.

When I first heard about this topic months ago, I found it kind of hard to believe that someone of Tyson’s stature and leanings would think that Philosophy is useless. But in retrospect, it isn’t that hard to believe. I think quite  a few famous scientists over the years have expressed similar opinions. They seem to view Philosophy as the predecessor of Science — something that Science has replaced.

Reading NDT’s remarks, his biggest problem with Philosophy seems to be the tendency for it to go into bottomless pits of questions within questions, endless linguistic analysis, etc. Frankly, this is kind of true. That does happen, and I think even philosophers sometimes get frustrated with that (I am guessing — I am not a philosopher). He seems to feel that really smart people should not go into Philosophy as major field of study and/or profession because it is unproductive.

Well, there are plenty of counterarguments that can be made to NDT’s remarks. Here are some. And here are even more. And here’s my favorite! I’m not going to even try to compete with these guys. I have my own argument though, and it goes like this…

Generally, the study of Philosophy can have the effect of making people less stupid.

Yes, that’s a block quote. I quoted myself.

Having gone to a Baptist university (Baylor), I think I’ve seen philosophy from a different vantage point than NDT. Sure, I only took one Philosophy class — the first one — but what I saw was a bunch of very intellectually sheltered young people, most from a very rigid religious belief system, challenged to consider other ways of thinking. Challenged to examine not only their own beliefs, but WHY and HOW they held those beliefs. Challenged to a level of introspection few of them had ever approached, and certainly were never encouraged to approach.

How many introductory Science classes can make the same claim? None that I have ever been involved in. I would hazard a guess that only a tiny fraction of science classes challenge anyone to consider their own thought process or beliefs.

One might think that at a place like Baylor the Philosophy classes would be bullshit — stacked with professors seeking only to further indoctrinate Baptist kids. But that wasn’t the case. The department was full of real philosophers, doing the real thing, and hammering at those kids’ brains with mind-opening questions.

That’s a pretty extreme example. Most universities aren’t Baptist, but I would guess that most young students (and older ones) are just as cemented in their beliefs as those Baptist kids. Philosophy can help to jackhammer that cement.

Sure, there are people who take Philosophy classes and even major in Philosophy that remain rigid a-holes, who act unethically, who are completely unaffected by the teaching. But overall, I think a good Philosophy class is good for the human mind.

One other thing. Most of these discussions seem to look only at the value of Philosophy to the scientific endeavor. By that I mean “what progress in Physics has been made by Philosophy”. Philosophy is a LOT more than that. It is Ethics. It is Logic. It is Epistemology. Now, science is surely delving into these realms, and has some interesting things to say about them. But really, I don’t think is has contributed much to Ethics, which is only perhaps the most important area of human thought.

And yes, I still love the new Cosmos and I still like NDT. I just think he needs to pull his head out of his ass on this issue.

One thought on “NDT and Philosophy

  1. David Rush

    I really dug NDT when he started showing up on the Daly show and elsewhere. He just seemed so enthused about science, it made me want to be excited with him. So maybe I set up an impossible standard for him to live up to. In his podcast preaching he managed to push my buttons by taking up some of my personal pet peeves.

    It was the “pointless delay in your progress” that really got me going. I guess for some people progress is an obvious wonderful thing. But which progress is he talking about? Of course it was an offhand comment but he throws it out like everybody had a clear well developed plan for their life and so naturally we want to progress as fast as you can.

    Or maybe I over react because I am just too sensitive that I am approaching 60 and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I’ve made no progress at all!


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