Neil deGrasse Tyson hates on philosophy, and that’s a shame

A common sentiment among scientists is that they find nothing useful in philosophy. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of those:

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…

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:

dGT: I agree.

interviewer: At a certain point it’s just futile.

dGT: 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?

Tyson has a bit of a point: the reason that science was initially called Natural Philosophy was because that was where it grew out of. Before we had the intellectual tools (ie empricisim) to perform what we consider “science”, humanity used a lot of logical reasoning to learn about the world. Because it was the best we had! And sure, there are many places that we no longer use philosophy to learn about the world because we’ve got a lot of data. But there’s a lot of other things where we don’t have enough data! And we have to use our reasoning to figure things out. That’s called philosophy.

I was a philosophy major as an undergrad and though much of what I did was not ‘useful’ per se, it was pivotal in teaching me how to think. Personally, I would encourage any scientist to read more philosophy to improve the clarity of their thinking.

3 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson hates on philosophy, and that’s a shame

  1. Romain Brette has an interesting take on physicists/scientists and philosophy here: The most relevant part of his post is this I think (context: Feynman’s assertion that philosophers are as useful to scientists as ornithologists are to birds):

    “Perhaps Feynman worked at a time when physics was dominated by firmly established paradigms. Einstein, on the other hand, developed his most influential theories at a time when the foundations of physics were disputed, and he was fully aware of the relevance of philosophy of science, and philosophy in general. Could he have developed the theory of relativity without questioning the philosophical prejudices about the nature of time? Here are a few quotes from Einstein that I took from a paper by Howard (‘Albert Einstein as a philosopher of science’):

    ‘It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher. Why then should it not be the right thing for the physicist to let the philosopher do the philosophizing? Such might indeed be the right thing to do at a time when the physicist believes he has at his disposal a rigid system of fundamental concepts and fundamental laws which are so well established that waves of doubt can’t reach them; but it cannot be right at a time when the very foundations of physics itself have become problematic as they are now. […] Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. Thus they come to be stamped as “necessities of thought,” “a priori givens,” etc. […] A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.'”

  2. Thanks for your interest in my views. But rather than react to flippant sentences uttered in a comedic podcast in a conversation with the host who is a jaded Philosophy major, my more fully expressed sentiments regarding philosophy are here, as 745,000 people have already seen. A view-count that, apparently, does not yet include you: -Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City.

    • Your sentiments about philosophy expressed in the video that you shared strike me as ill informed and ignorant of the role of philosophy in the search for truth. I have found that scientists tend to dismiss questions that science cannot touch as being “irrelevant” or “uninteresting”. It’s one thing to say that questions of meaning, free will, ontology, and knowledge are not in the realm of science, but it is shameful when popular scientists use their media platform to demean the pursuit of a philosophical exploration of these ideas and reduce philosophy to the study of “religion, politics, or ethics”, as if it has nothing else to contribute to our understanding of reality.

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