Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Philosophy

Neil deGrasse Tyson has again offended professional philosophers, and I again have something to say to him about it.

Dear Mr. Tyson,
Like others here, I am also grateful that you have taken the time to participate in this discussion. I am most intrigued by your recent comment about philosophical contributions made by physicsts in the 20th century. Could you mention some of the more important philosophical contributions you are talking about? What makes something a *philosophical* contribution, in your view?
Of course, professional philosophers sometimes disagree amongst themselves about what constitutes a significant philosophical contribution. One of the issues in the discipline is the variety of attitudes and expectations of philosophy itself. I am sure I am not the only one who would like to know your views on the topic. In fact, I imagine the main problem many philosophers have with your recent remarks is that you seem to be taking an authoritative attitude towards what counts as a meaningful or important philosophical contribution, when your formal training is not in philosophy at all. You are, in that sense, stepping on some academic toes. Perhaps feelings will be less hurt, toes less bruised, if you could explain to us just what sorts of philosophical contributions have been made by physicists–or, even better, what sorts of philosophical problems you think physicsts should be interested in.
Jason Streitfeld
P.S. In the link you provided, when you responded to a question about cutting funding for philosophy departments, you seem to basically be saying that philosophers are essentially “wanna-be physicists.” You then go on to say that there are plenty of other ways that philosophers can make contributions, but the characterization is still rather condescending. You’re clearly talking about philosopher in the last couple of centuries, and not throughout history. But I still wonder, which philosophers do you think were wanna-be physicists? Do you think they were misguided, focusing their attention on empirical questions when they should have been focusing instead on properly philosophical concerns?
In that same link, you say that you are disappointed by the fact that so much brain power has been taken away from the physical sciences. The implication is that, even though you recognize that there is plenty of *philosophical* work to be done, you think the scientific work is more important. You would be happier if philosophers were trained in physics instead of philosophy. Pardon my speculation, but it seems you might be a little at odds with yourself. On the one hand, you want to applaud and embrace all of the important work philosophers do; on the other hand, you’d be happier if they weren’t doing it at all. Is that about right?