Scientists Misunderstanding Badly

What do science folk like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Nye have in common other than being science folk? They are like the apparent majority of people online who talk dismissively about feminism while not knowing very much about it. While I’m guessing Tyson, Hawking, and Nye know little about feminism, as well, I’m concerned here with their ignorance and confusion regarding philosophy. In what follows, I will focus on Tyson. While the online community’s ignorance of feminism is deplorable and infuriating, not to mention dangerous, Tyson’s ignorance and disparaging of philosophy has an added element of the infuriating in that he should know better. Given what I take to be his interest in further popularizing science and scientific inquiry, he is well aware of the frustration of having masses of people misunderstand his discipline, and he should realize, too, that understanding the nature of a whole field of inquiry—such as science, such as philosophy—requires a good deal of time and effort.

            Perhaps the problem is that Tyson does not think that philosophy is a real field of inquiry. Consider this exchange as recorded by Massimo Pigliucci:

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:

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?

(another) interviewer: I think a healthy balance of both is good.

dGT: 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]

dGT: 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.

It’s interesting that Tyson thinks philosophy can “mess you up.” He means this, it seems, in the sense that it will leave you a pile of worthless, perpetual questioning that never makes any progress: “…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.” So, the standard of value that Tyson is operating with here concerns something’s/someone’s contribution to our understanding of the natural world. Already we might note that we could ask about what the contrasting “worlds” are. Which world is not the natural world? I take it he ultimately thinks there are no other worlds, which is, in part, why he thinks science is so important: it is the paradigm of inquiry into the nature of the (natural) world. And any attempt at inquiry that does not fit the paradigm of scientific inquiry is hopelessly lost. But how does Tyson know that? Is that paradigm capable, according to its own methods, of justifying itself as the sole arbiter of understanding? Please pause for a moment and note the nature of the last question. Is it a scientific question or a philosophical question? Both/neither?

I think it is further interesting that Tyson claims that philosophy can “mess you up,” since I originally came to philosophy because I was already “messed up.” My biography is not unique either: I came to philosophy after being raised nominally Christian and after coming to disbelieve in God’s existence. The implications were clear: no God = no soul. No soul = cessation of existence upon bodily death. As an undergrad, I discovered the existential philosophers in a psych survey class when we covered the existential psychologists. I was floored; here were people who were talking about what it means to be human, facing death, in a world without God. Philosophical inquiry into the nature of reality, life, death, well-being, the good life, value, and on and on, have saved me, sustained me in an often hostile and harsh world.

Importantly, what saved me was not having done some research and rumination, after which I felt I had figured things out. Rather, as is often noted, the deeper you go, the clearer it becomes how little we understand and what the implications of that are for how we should live (for example: with great humility!). Our understanding and claims to know are always tentative, and this includes the claims made by scientists. This is not because our scientific theories in broad outline are likely to turn out to be wrong—I’m thinking here, for example, of the theory of evolution (“theory” here, of course, doesn’t mean a “guess” or a “hunch,” but rather a ridiculously well-confirmed explanation). But even the most well-confirmed theories are subject to continual tweaking of the important details, a continual working out of connections with other fields of inquiry, and a continual working out of the place, role, and significance of theory in our lives. Notice, too, please, that these latter “tasks” are not ones that only (hard) scientists engage in.

It is not clear if Tyson’s focus on progress is isolated to science or if he thinks that human life in general centers around the idea of making progress. Regardless, we should ask: to what end progress? Does Tyson see progress in science, for example, as a means to better understanding the world or as a means to better technologies? Those are not mutually exclusive ends, of course. But take the idea of science as a means to better understanding the world. To what end that pursuit? Is understanding (wisdom?) intrinsically valuable or only instrumentally valuable? My impression from Tyson, from watching and listening to his passion for science, is that he finds the understanding that science seems to provide to be intrinsically valuable. How about those who have pursued science but not with the result of contributing to our understanding either directly, for example, Einstein, or indirectly, for example by putting forward an hypothesis that proved wrong, but was importantly wrong in that it helped to indicated a dead end? Rather, they simply practiced science but without success. Would Tyson think their lives of no value? I would imagine that he would say that their very pursuit of science was of value, regardless of its results in their particular cases. But does that value derive solely from the value that science has as a means to understanding the (natural) world or is the process of scientific inquiry valuable simply insofar as it is inquiry? Note, again, please, that this last question is itself a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Or so I’d argue.

For my own part, I must admit that I am taken with Socrates’ claim in Plato’s Apology:

if I say…that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living – that you are still less likely to believe. (Trans. Benjamin Jowett)

It is of central importance that Socrates says that the greatest good is discussing questions of virtue (value) on a daily basis. He does not say that the greatest good is settling debates. I prefer an expanded and modified form of Socrates’ point. Namely, that living authentically means to earnestly pursue the question of what is of true value. Aside from the assumption that this very pursuit is what is of authentic value, this formulation, like Socrates’, does not presuppose any particular answer, and it opens up the possibility of living authentically (meaningfully) to everyone. In the present context, the important upshot is the recognition of the value of the activity, earnestly pursued, in itself. Is Socrates’ claim about what the greatest good is a scientifically treatable claim? Is mine about living authentically? If not, are the claims meaningless?

Let’s turn now to some of the claims about philosophy that Tyson makes in the above interview. He asks, “Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?” He doesn’t ask this sincerely, for he thinks it to be a clearly, obviously misguided question. But let’s take it seriously. Why does, for example, Hilary Putnam write an article called, “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’”? Why do philosophers ponder what meaning is? There are a number of reasons, but here is what I take to be a centrally important one, one that is relevant to the relationship between science and philosophy. Just as science has a demarcation problem, i.e., it is an important but not easily answered question what exactly makes something science and something else non-science, so does philosophy. What makes something philosophy and something else non-philosophy? But further, what is the nature of, and where is, the line between philosophy and science? One way of reading Kant is that he gave us a way of answering these questions (whether he saw it this way or not). That is, science makes claims that are contingently true, a posteriori (justified by experience), and synthetic (made true by how the world is/about the world), whereas philosophy makes claims that are necessarily true, a priori (justified by reason alone), and synthetic (made true by how the world is/about the world). It is the purported ability of philosophers to combine the a priori and the synthetic that allows them to “discover” truths about the world (and not simply concepts, for example) while sitting in the armchair.

However, this way of demarcating science and philosophy depends, in part, on the coherence of the a priori/a posteriori distinction and the analytic/synthetic distinction. The latter distinction depends in part on how language and meaning are supposed to function. Depending on how meaning works, what “meaning” means, we will either be able to make sense of that distinction or not. Whether we can or not, either has important implications for the nature and limits of philosophical inquiry. My impression is that a good many philosophers are not comfortable endorsing such a strong division between science and philosophy, the kind seemingly made possible by Kant’s distinctions. In short, inquiring into the meaning of “meaning” has direct implications for how we understand what we’re doing as philosophers and how philosophy and science are connected, if at all. Moreover, while Tyson does not think that pursuing the meaning of “meaning” is relevant to inquiry into the (natural) world, hopefully it is clearer now why he’s wrong. The nature of the relationship between language/concepts and reality, which is implicated by investigating the meaning of “meaning,” has implications for the way in which, if at all, philosophers are contributing to our understanding of the (natural) world. There are other important reasons for pursuing questions of meaning, whether the meaning of “meaning” or the meaning of “mind,” “knowledge,” “justice,” “agency,” etc. We’ll consider these a bit further below.

Next, consider Tyson’s claim, “And so the scientist knows when the question ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ is a pointless delay in our progress.” Philosophy covers a lot of ground, including religion. And so, it’s quite possible that one would study Buddhism in a philosophy class, and, hence, it’s possible that one would come across the line, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” in a philosophy class. But it is not, itself, a philosophical question. It is a Zen koan. In Zen Buddhism generally (for there are important differences between Rinzai and Soto Zen), one of the reasons we suffer as we do is because of our attachments to our views, to our concepts and conceptions of things. In Rinzai Zen, one method to achieve the soteriological ends of Zen practice, i.e., enlightenment, the ultimate letting go (first and foremost of ego), is to meditate on a koan, a line or a short dialogue that defies a straightforward rational solution or response. The goal is to achieve kensho or a flash of insight into one’s true nature and the nature of reality. The point is that the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” does not invite an answer in the way that, “Is mind-body dualism true?” or even “How can we reconcile relativity with quantum phenomena?” do. Insofar as one can speak of progress at all in regard to a koan, it is personal progress toward enlightenment. In the Soto Zen tradition begun in Japan by the 13th century monk Dōgen, even this notion of progress is challenged, since part of what it means to realize enlightenment is to realize that there is an important sense in which there is nothing or nowhere to progress to. But that is another story.

Next, consider Tyson’s claim, “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.” Given where “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is home, i.e., Zen Buddhism and not philosophy more directly, there is no need to inquire about the meaning of “clapping,” at least not in the sense that a philosopher might ask, “What do we mean by ‘mind’?” So, let’s focus on the latter kind of question. Tyson seems to think that by asking it, we are avoiding talking about ideas. This is funny, in part, because when asking about the meaning of “meaning” one answer that philosophers, e.g., John Locke, have given is that words mean or refer to ideas, and that is how they are meaningful. I don’t think that view of meaning is right, but still, on one possible reading of “meaning” we are already in the realm of ideas. But even if Locke’s philosophy of language is problematic, we can still wonder what exactly it is that we’re talking about when we’re talking about ideas. Imagine, for example, that Tyson says, “Let’s talk about the idea of energy.” Which idea is that? In other words, what does Tyson MEAN by “energy”? In one sense, if Tyson’s being a physicist isn’t enough of a clue, one might wonder whether he means the idea of energy as what Red Bull is supposed to help you with or whether he means kinetic energy? Let’s say he says he means the idea of kinetic energy. Are we done talking about meaning? Can we move on to discussing the idea or the thing itself? Well, the idea of kinetic energy, what we mean by “kinetic energy,” is itself something that has changed. According to Putnam

…the interesting thing is that Einstein was to revise…principles that had traditionally been regarded as definitional in character. In particular Einstein, as we all know, changed the definition of ‘kinetic energy’. That is to say, he replaced the law ‘e = ½ mv2’ by a more complicated law. (Putnam 1975, Mind, Language, and Reality: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2., 44.)

This example is interesting because 1) it concerns science, and 2) it illustrates that when we are talking about the meaning of something we are not talking about something that is fixed or easy to come by. Further, as is hopefully clearer, there is not some real distinction being made when Tyson avers that we should discuss ideas, not meanings.

As a further illustration in regard to the importance of meanings, consider the question, “What is the mind?” Is this a scientific or a philosophical question? I’d argue both. However, if the scientist sets out to answer it experimentally, then she must make assumptions about what the mind is, i.e., what we mean by “mind.” Does “mind” mean that which thinks? That which is conscious? That which…? Is the mind even a “thing” that could be located in a particular place, either because it is not material (cf. Descartes) or because what we mean by “mind” is rather a cluster of “things” held together by “family resemblance.” If you uncritically assume that the mind is just the brain, then your investigation will be misguided from the beginning if that is not even something that the mind could be.

Much more could be said here, both about Tyson’s ignorance and confusion, but also about the nature of philosophy and it’s relationship to science. In closing, let us note that part of the problem may be that Tyson, et al., do not realize that there is not one thing that is philosophy. “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question, just as is the question, “What is science?” How best should we answer those questions? How best should we answer any question? Those, too, are philosophical questions. Note, too, that science itself is not a single, well-defined entity (How differently do biologists, chemists, astronomers, and physicists operate? Not to mention the differences between “hard” and “soft” sciences, and what about mathematics as a science?) Moreover, Tyson, et. al., do not seem to realize that in doing science, in reasoning about an observed phenomenon, in thinking about its significance for what is already “known,” in reasoning out an hypothesis, etc., one both does philosophy and makes philosophical assumptions, ones that may or not be sound. In the end, philosophers, like everyone, need scientists/science; but scientists, too, like everyone, need philosophers/philosophy.

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