Hey masses! Sadly, no one sent me ANYTHING at all this week *single tear*. Luckily, I did run across a slightly old but still interesting internet fiasco that I want to comment on. One of my favorite science popularizers, Neil deGrasse Tyson, has decided he doesn’t like philosophy.
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?”
-Neil deGrasse Tyson on The Nerdist Podcast, 3/7/14
I know, I know. This was over two months ago. Old news. Massimo Pigliucci has already argued him to death in a beautiful Huffington Post article However, I feel comfortable still writing about this because philosophy-bashing has been in the vogue for years. Take this example from one of my all-time favorite books, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!
In the early fifties I suffered temporarily from a disease of middle age: I used to give philosophical talks about science—how science satisfies curiosity, how it gives you a new world view, how it gives man the ability to do things, how it gives him power.
-Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!
Why do prominent scientists seem to enjoy beating up philosophy? I’m going to for a minute assume a premise that I personally believe to be false—that philosophy is in fact worthless to the pursuit of science and is a “disease of middle age”. Even then, why are you picking on philosophy? There are myriad other fields, such as history, theology, and dance, that you could make the same argument for being useless. Why does philosophy, and especially philosophy of science, draw the short straw of hatred?
I think the phenomenon is related to a theory in psychology and robotics called the uncanny valley, which states that objects that are mostly like humans but ever so slightly off cause a revulsion response. To give an example, think of a child’s doll. It is human enough that we can clearly identify it as a representation of a person, but no one would ever mistake it for a person. The doll is to the left of the uncanny valley, dissimilar enough to be accepted. In contrast, think of Tom Hanks’ character in The Polar Express. Anyone who, like me, saw this movies as a child will know that he is ABSOLUTELY UTTERLY FREAKING TERRIFYING.
Tom Hanks fell into the uncanny valley, and no amount of sounding like Woody Pride (that’s his full name, look it up) could save him from that severely creepy feeling that something is ever so slightly off.
This, I think, is what scientists tend to see when they look at philosophy—something that looks a bit like science, talks a bit like science, but is different from science. Both are trying to understand the universe. Both want to understand the underlying reasons for and nature of our reality. However, there is an important way in which they are different. Science seeks to make predictions and is only concerned with what could plausibly be observed, while philosophy is based much more on argument. The goal of science is to predict the future, and thus understand the present. The goal of philosophy is to understand the nature of the present through logic and argument. These goals are similar, often overlapping, but are not the same.
But why do we need philosophy? Science has been wonderfully effective at progressing society, as evidenced by me, wearing corrective glasses, typing this essay a computer to be uploaded on the internet. If science has achieved results, can’t we just focus on science? Albert Einstein, possibly the greatest scientist of the 20th century, had some thoughts on that
Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such an 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. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors.
-Albert Einstein, Nachruf auf Ernst Mach
Philosophy questions science, argues with the premises of objective reality, debates positivism, and pushes science forward. The word philosophy is Greek for “love of knowledge”, and science comes from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”. Science and philosophy aren’t bitter rivals, they’re lovers. Sometimes the quarrel, sometimes they hate each other, sometimes they think the other is an idiot. But at the end of the day, they need each other. Philosophy needs science to give her new ideas to study, and science needs philosophy to keep her on her toes. So, whether you’re a philosopher, scientist, or neither, let’s bury the hatchet and keep wondering infinitely about the infinite wonder that is life.