Dear Neil deGrasse Tyson, don’t be foolish about philosophy


Sometimes extremely intelligent people say extremely foolish things. To equate philosophy as asking what sound one hand makes clapping is akin to equating evolution as just a theory. Both are cringeworthy to those who understand the subject matter.

For Tyson, absurd misrepresentation of philosophy is inexcusable, as he himself is a philosopher, and a damn good one at that. Science gives us verifiable evidence as to what is true in nature. Philosophy allows us to take that knowledge and apply it to our relationship with each other and the universe in a profound way.

“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Know thyself, an examined life, and the love of knowledge and wisdom are all attributed to philosophy. Without these three things, how many scientists would we have?

In a recent podcast, Tyson dismisses a Philosophy Major as something that can “mess you up”. This is because it involves asking too many questions, including definitions of definitions. From a practicality standpoint, Neil is right. If all we do is ask questions, and ask questions about questions, we’ll be trapped in never ending paralysis through analysis. But he’s missing the major contribution that philosophy has given us. The contribution that all science depends upon. The challenge of dogmatism. The remarkable notion that everything can be questioned, even that which is stated by a king or a cleric.

Once upon a time there was an ugly little stone cutter who challenged the wisdom of powerful men. His name was Socrates. He challenged the foundation of knowledge claiming to only know that he knew nothing. Why was this so revolutionary? For a long time progress was held in check by dogmatic beliefs about how the world worked, many involving supernatural explanations. How did we finally progress? The dogmatism needed to be shattered. When everyone is raised to believe in a certain way, challenging the status quo is never easy.

In the hordes of humans that simply accepted supernatural stories of why the sun rises and sets, there are some who resisted. Even to the point of making audacious proclamations that everything has a natural explanation. And who dared defy the gods? The philosophers did, even at the risk of their own lives.

This is not to say there isn’t philosophy in religion, but philosophy makes no claim of divine authority. It’s not about what god is stronger, it’s about what argument is stronger. And science is a tool and body of knowledge to be used in arguments about the natural world. A disciplined method of testing answers that can be addressed by experiment. Explanations that can withstand scrutiny move to the front of the line. Ideas that fail experiment are placed in a mass graveyard with the word “wrong” on their tombstone.

The Socratic Method used in conjunction with the Scientific Method is how we determine what is true in court rooms where lives are at stake. Critical cross examination combined with forensics. Unfortunately, even the best methods of determining guilt are not completely impervious to corruption or misrepresentation. Any method of seeking truth needs to be applied with honesty and integrity.

Shortly after dismissing the entire field of philosophy as asking questions that are not practical or useful (he doesn’t have time for that irrelevant meaning of life, morality and ethics stuff), Tyson gets into a far more important topic that deeply impacts our daily lives. “How does one die in a bottomless pit?” Tyson’s conclusion was dehydration which he estimates would cause death in 7 days. But that 7 days, which I question because I’ve heard 3, would be based on solid land. Are we to assume that a constant free fall wouldn’t change the variables?

In a continuous fall, what happens to the rate of moisture leaving the body? What happens to temperature, humidity and oxygen as one plummets deeper and deeper? Would the faller die of exposure or suffocation long before dehydration? What is the faller wearing, does that come into play? So if some poor bastard walking down the street falls into a bottomless pit, they’ll be thinking they have 7 days to live when that’s not very likely the case at all. And all this because the great Neil deGrasse Tyson got it wrong. And why? He didn’t ask enough questions.

Socrates would have ripped that whole 7 day assertion to shreds, and he knew nothing of science.

Science vs. philosophy rhetoric is misguided nonsense. Philosophy and science are the great tag team in the battle of reason over superstition. They are both to be cherished and celebrated.

“Knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

-James Kirk Wall

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250 Quotes to Strengthen our Minds

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