Feedback Friday: In Defense of Philosophy

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.


4 thoughts on “Feedback Friday: In Defense of Philosophy

  1. Hmm, well let me inaugurate your comments section in honor of your impending graduation. I, of course, am neither a scientist nor a philosopher, and I haven’t followed all of the accusations of “scienceism” (if I have the right term) which have been leveled at NdGT. In other words, I’m mainly picking on you.

    You are right that science and philosophy are closely related. One German word for the sciences as we understand them is “Naturphilosophie” fairly easily translated as “natural philosophy” a term by which science has been known in the past. And of course if you go back far enough in either discipline you will find thinkers who, in their efforts to understand the nature of themselves and the world around them chose explanations in both areas (Aristotle springs to mind). Much of this angle has been nicely covered, as you point out, by Massimo Pigliucci.

    I don’t, however, find your “uncanny valley” hypothesis to be very satisfying. I also don’t see this feud as having two equal sides as you imply above. Part of the problem coming from the science side of this argument (and I’m unfairly putting you on that side of the field of battle here, I know) comes from their self understanding as to their purpose and the value that purpose has to society writ large. I think many of those scientists who indulge in philosophy bashing are not afraid of the uncanny image they see in philosophy, they are rather blinded by their misunderstanding of the nature of their own field, particularly it’s history.

    This signs of these are in the language you use above: “progress” and “positivism.” Positivism, is of course also a school of philosophy, one associated particularly with Auguste Comte and the 19th century although it has its roots in the Enlightenment (as does much of modern science in a lot of ways). One of the commonalities of many if not all of the folks we tend to herd under the Enlightenment “umbrella” was a generalized confidence in the potential of mankind to improve. I’m wildly overstating things, but if we want to talk about the “modern age” in terms of science, we need to start with Newton and the work of others in the Age of Enlightenment and realize that it in this same era that progress itself becomes a concept of good. The idea that change is a good thing and, moreover that it is likely to result in something better is quite a recent phenomenon. It is firmly entrenched in the West by the middle of the 19th century. Of course, it coincides with the Industrial Revolution, Darwin, etc. it has made possible the veneration of scientists (at least in their own fevered imaginations) and the mistaken belief by many, scientists and non-scientists alike, in their own Right Way to the truth and their Importance and Value in society.

    Yes, what I’m saying is that this isn’t a philosophy or science problem, it is a history problem. 🙂

    But to return to where I at least see Tyson et al going wrong in their way of talking is that they privilege science because they see it delivering utility. They belief it is more important because it is more material, more practical, etc. they have bought the P.R. Of the all-knowing (white man) in the lab coat, and we in society at large have let them. This is not a Good Thing.

    Tyson and others get away with this because overall society is more interested in knowledge which create material (in all senses of that word) value. Hence the emphasis on STEM education, etc. (But this will lead me toward a different rant, and I have to collect my car from the oil-changing fairies…)
    Cheers, P-A MEM


    • The issue with thinking this is a mere superiority complex is the fact that there is something about philosophy that gets under the skin of scientists, more so than fields like history or English literature. I have never seen a well known scientist ranting about how useless the study of, say, 19th century German history, to pick a random example, but ranting about philosophy is somewhat de rigueur for modern scientists. I think that the superiority complex of many scientists does play a role, but I think the uncanny valley singles out philosophy to take special hatred.


  2. Excellent! I somehow had the feeling you would offer your own musings on the Neil Degrasse controversy.

    I, too, find Neil to be committing the common mistake among excellent scientists of dismissing philosophy as a now useless progenitor of science. Mr. Pigliucci’s article succinctly addressed the issue, but your mentioning of the Uncanny Valley effect was a new and interesting interpretation.

    I’m curious, have you read Karl Popper? His contributions tp the philosophy of science–specifically, falsification–is ample evidence for the contributions of philosophy towards science, imo.

    Liked by 1 person

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