The primary problem with putting anyone on any kind of pedestal is that the positioning in the spotlight contains quite a bit of power, power that can be misused or abused. Anyone possessing the spokespersonship of a particular academic discipline, in promoting their discipline, as a rule, should never knock other disciplines. Rather unfortunately, Neil deGrasse Tyson occupies one such position as a science advisor to the government and a science popular, and he has also misused (abused?) his position by knocking another discipline, philosophy. During a podcast that featured his presence, he spoke condescendingly of philosophy, spoke of its uselessness, and pointed out that it can ‘mess you up,’ presumably, meaning to say that philosophy can adversely affect the general mode of one’s thinking. (For the complete podcast, click on this sentence.) The objective in this blog is to address some of what Tyson has said, and hence partly a work of philosophy apologetics to a certain extent, but I also want to besmudge his reputation a bit, as he is in serious need of deflating —and I think the reader will find that very little needs to be done to each either of these ends, just a bit of thought.
In the opening of the abovementioned podcast, one of the hosts says, “Philosophy was my major.” Niel deGrasse Tyson responds, “That can really mess you up.” One would hope that Tyson was kidding, but he goes on and on, talking about how unproductive and foolish philosophy is. It would be one thing for scientist —actually, he’s not a scientist, but I will get to that later— to say that he or she hasn’t time enough to enter into much philosophy, but that’s not the approach Tyson takes. He says, “My concern there is that the philosopher believes they are actually asking deep questions about Nature.” This is where my mind was blown, and it didn’t take long for Tyson to say something absurd. He probably just sweeps that whole “natural philosophy” period of science into the dusty closet of his mind, much preferring the whiggish historianship that scientists like so much: before the glorious coming of modern science, there was immature science, which gets the arbitrary title of “natural philosophy.” It wasn’t real philosophy, right? Well, in a time when Giovanni Batista Riccioli was claiming that dropping balls from higher and higher heights onto some pots and pans, making ever louder sounds, and trying to convince others that there was some natural systematic order to these matters, what was this kind of suggestion? It was philosophy. Why would doing something unnatural produce a truth about nature? Tyson can simply disrespect this kind of inquiry, but this is what brought about science, and it was the preliminary scientific steps —an intellectual creature that was both philosophy and science. Whatever. If Tyson wants to feign ignorance —or perhaps he is ignorant, plain and simple— about the heritage, origin, and foundation! of science, that’s on him, his reputation, and his educators’ collective reputation. What needs pointing out that, while priority of philosophy to science in its origin and heritage diachronic, philosophy as a foundation of science is synchronic. There is a reason why Daniel Dennett and Colin Allen, both philosophers who are science trained, run, operate, and oversee Tufts’ and Indiana University’s cognitive science programs: philosophy guides and structures a scientific discipline as its ground. In a certain respect, being ignorant of the philosophy of one’s special science amounts to not being truly acquainted with what is at stake in accepting any particular dogmatic point of the special science. Moreover, that’s why all of the great physicists have either been students of philosophy (e.g., Helmholtz studied Kant, Einstein studied Mach’s philosophy and was influence by the logical empiricists, Bridgman studied and was influenced by American pragmatists, and so on) or, even if eschewing philosophy explicitly (e.g., Feynman), that particular physicist was extremely philosophical (not in the professional sense), and was himself a philosopher.
I think one important thing that someone as dogmatic as Tyson completely fails to realize, and which the scientistic idiocy of someone like Sam Harris exemplifies, is that areas of philosophical thought, such as ethics, is not a science, and such areas will never be a science. Damon Linker says, ‘And now Neil deGrasse Tyson has added another [reason to overlook or dismiss philosophy] —one specially aimed at persuading scientifically minded young people to reject self-examination and the self-knowledge that goes along with it.’ Sadly, scientism pushes a reductionistic weltanschauung that alienates humanity from itself, and, now, we have wannabe scientists, like Tyson, acting as a spokesperson for science, further facilitating this alienation. Linker’s remark is on the money. (His full article is here.) Please note here that I do not share Pigliucci’s assumption (his article is here), namely, that Tyson is thinking of philosophy of science: “the sound of one hand clapping” is as much a shot at eastern philosophy as it is the western philosophic tradition. The plain old fact of the matter is that Tyson is narrow-minded and doesn’t know the first thing about philosophy, let alone philosophy of science. Individuals who could make it as scientists in the world of research, and to whom Tyson could not hold an intellectual candle to, such as Peter Galison (Harvard University) and David Albert (Columbia University), genuinely understand the discipline and conceptual underpinnings of physics, which also happens to be why so much understanding has sprung forth from their researches. It should be a dictum over every physics department archway: “knowledge needs understanding.” The “knowhow” and “understanding” are not a single epistemic entity, though the unphilosophical may assume so, blissfully unaware that they are so assuming.
I would like to take this next bit of space to illustrate how ignorant Tyson is, and just how little he knows. As you read the following, do keep in mind that Tyson was trained in science, not the history of science, and, while some individuals studying science are keenly aware of the history of their subject, thanks to sedulous study in their free time, it should not be taken for granted that an engineer would be an expert or at all knowledgeable about the history of engineering, that any given painter would be expertly knowledgeable about the history of painting, let alone sculpture, or that someone trained in astrophysics would be expertly aware of his or her discipline’s history:
‘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.’
What I find absolutely astonishing is that, based on what Tyson just said, it is abundantly clear to someone who knows and who has studied the history and philosophy of science, particularly physics, such as myself, that he has not read ONE book on the history of quantum theory. NOT ONE! Had he read one book —for instance, Jim Baggot’s Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy, and the Meaning of Quantum Theory— he would know all sorts of stuff about how and why Schrӧdinger and Einstein were combatting with the Copenhagen Interpretation. Had Neil deGrasse Tyson only read Manjit Kumar’s Quantum: Bohr, Einstein, and the Great Debate of the Nature of Reality, he would be aware of the role that Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft played in Bohr, et al.’s development of said interpretation. 1920s? Philosophy was still playing a role in physics into the 1950’s! (Spoiler alert: it still does, especially at the cutting edge of science.) The simple fact of the matter, which somehow eludes Tyson’s enormous, arrogant head, is that, while particles supposedly pop out of a vacuum, interpretations do not. Whenever something entirely new happens in the laboratory, there is no dogmatic way within that particular special science to understand it. Tyson might similarly mock a question like, “what is life?” He might even utter one of his, now commonplace, idiotic statements, like “at some point, questions are no longer productive, they are distracting.” Yeah, right, until a life scientist encounters a tardigrade, which takes on all the characteristics of being alive when wet, yet dead while desiccated, only to come back to life when reintroduced to water. Idiot.
What I won’t do in this post is present a sustained, in-depth apology for philosophy against Tyson’s opinion of philosophy’s “uselessness.” (M. Anthony Mills does a fine job of that in his article.) I will say that, if posed the question, “what do you mean by stating that you “know” that quarks exist?,” he’ll probably set himself akimbo and say “I just know…blah, blah, blah… [insert something to the effect that science has all the answers here].” Ask him what the hell he means by the single word “progress,” and I can’t even project what his answer might be. Of course, he doesn’t know what he means by the word, because considering such a question would be “philosophical” and, by extension, “pointless.” Of course, if anyone says to me that they don’t know what they mean when they employ a word, I would conclude that they don’t know what they are talking about. As Mills points out, Lee Smolin doesn’t think physics has done much fundamental advancing in recent decades, but maybe we should ignore Smolin, in this case. Although, unlike Tyson, Smolin is a real scientist, which is neither here nor there being that he —dare I say it?!— studies philosophy (e.g., Leibniz), applies philosophy to physics (e.g., Time Reborn), and is in cahoots with one of those philosophical types (Roberto Mangabeira Unger)!
Tyson may not be familiar with him, but Nietzsche oft remarked that the ad hominem is a legitimate form of argument, and deductive logic dismisses it because it lacks the necessity and formal rigor that symbolic logic desires, yet it is admissible in court (e.g., employment as a prostitute is admissible on grounds that it helps a jury develop a character profile, furthering the jury’s ability to judge the validity of a testimony). Likewise, I would like to consider some things about Tyson to further my readership’s ability to judge the intellectual merit and judgment of Neil deGrasse Tyson, things that I think are glaring, yet have seemingly gone unnoticed. I have already made ample notification of his complete lack of knowledge about developmental physics (e.g., the construction of quantum theory’s standard interpretation) and the history of physics, but what about Tyson’s pedigree as a scientist? His esteem, one would think, stems from his expertise as a scientist. One of the things I noticed in looking at his CV is how wildly unaccomplished he is as a scientist, considering how far he has made it, one would think, on the grounds of a reputation within science. I mean, he’s the director of the Hayden Planetarium! How in the world did he achieve that, if not by way of a reputation as a scientist? Well, if you look to his CV (found by clicking here), take particular note of his solitary pair of publications as the lead author. Two publications? Not only that, but anyone accustomed to the kind of work a graduate student tends to publish would find these publications to be painfully pedestrian —forcing myself to read them had me at the brink of losing my will to live. Not only that, but it is very likely that these papers would have been products from studies started as a dissertating grad student. If so, then he didn’t have one original research idea after that? Is that really the case? It seems so, and while he is listed among the numerous authors on a couple of papers, what many people, not acclimated to science, don’t realize is that getting a name on a paper with deluge already on it is not all that hard: if you have a wrench and help construct the apparatus, have an apparatus borrowed by the team, or do something as simple as edit a program used for the data analysis —not writing the program, just debugging it!—, you will more than likely get your name on the paper, especially if you are liked or pushy. No wonder Tyson has an issue with people asking questions, he’s got question envy, it seem, as he can’t even muster original research questions to guide inquiry. The dearth of publications really stimulates the mind to question how it was that Tyson has climbed to fame. Objectively speaking, it wasn’t abecedarian scientific resume, so what was it?
I can supply some speculation on this topic, based on what I know about Tyson. For instance, I can extrapolate that, based on grants awarded to him and his writings, pseudo-fictional works (e.g., Death by Black Hole) and excessively creative non-fiction-probably-on-the-verge-of-complete-fiction, it is fairly reasonable to suppose he’s good when working in the capacity of an official: while his dry-mouth-begetting pseudo-fiction might make anyone with literary taste suicidal, one can see how incredibly flamboyant it would be for the forum of grant writing. Additionally, his rare ability among PhDs in science to construct a sentence that is more complex than a high-schooler merely adds to credentials. Finally on this point, his ability to present facts in a lifeless manner, once again evinced by his popular writings, suggests it likely that his success has largely originated in his being scientifically literate, being capable of constructing flamboyant grant proposals. In addition to this variety of acumen, also consider his presence: an African American male (EEO win), with a booming voice, tall, dark, handsome (the Warren G. Harding Effect is always a win!), and he’s got a natural stage presence —he’s probably a hell of a bedtime story teller (maybe not The Little Prince…it’s definitely too philosophical, and may incur l’enfant terrible ire, replete with kicks and screams), in addition to having presented one of my favorite Teaching Company lecture series.
What I hope this little ad hominem excursion suggests is that Neil deGrasse Tyson is much more likely to have hit it big for reasons other than his academic prowess. His curriculum vitae certainly doesn’t indicate that he ever earned a tenure-track positions, and his publication record is very, very badly wanting. Given all of this, as well as his obvious status as an intellectual gnome —coupled with his ineffectual writing style that is as dynamic as a lawn gnome—, nothing he says, beyond the dogmatism of the science classroom, should hold much weight with anyone. When it comes to intellectual matters as rigid as the information contained in a textbook, trust whatever Tyson says; however, in intellectual matters beyond that, where someone hasn’t already fed him the right answer, don’t pay much attention, because we see his track record as a scientist and self-guided inquirer: he can’t learn much on his own, and —oh, yeah!— he hates questions, anyways.