Neil DeGrasse Tyson is Wrong about Philosophy

by Benjamin Studebaker

I love Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s absolutely wonderful to have scientists as public intellectuals, making science more comprehensible to laypeople and raising its public profile. However, in a recent podcast, Tyson dismissed the intellectual value of philosophy. Given that I do quite a bit of that here, I feel a duty to stand up for myself and for those others who take an interest in political and moral philosophy. I wish to emphasize that I’m a great fan of much of Tyson’s work, and it pains me to have to write a piece like this about something he said, but it has to be done.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s fame really began to take off in 2011, when he gave us the “we’ve got a badass over here” meme:

Since then, Tyson’s star has only grown bigger and brighter. Almost 2 million people follow him on Twitter, and he’s recently been part of the wildly successful reboot of  Carl Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos. Here’s what Tyson said:

[philosophy] can really mess you up…I always felt like maybe there was a little too much question asking in 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?...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.

Tyson is not the only famous scientist to diminish the value of philosophy in recent years–Stephen Hawking famously declared that “philosophy is dead“.

The big mistake here is that Tyson believes that philosophers are attempting to answer the same kinds of questions scientists attempt to answer. He thinks they “believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature.” This blurs an essential elementary philosophical distinction between two kinds of questions:

  1. Descriptive questions–questions about what exists and how different existent things impact one another in the world.
  2. Normative questions–questions about what it would be good for us to do.

Science has tremendous ability to help us answer descriptive questions. It has zero ability to help us answer normative questions. Science can tell us what is happening and what physical laws and chemical properties are causing things to happen the way they are happening. It cannot tell us what we should do in response to those facts. Scientists can tell us that climate change is happening and they can tell us why it’s happening. They can even tell us what we would need to do to achieve various outcomes–they can tell us how much we’d need to cut emissions to influence the rate at which sea levels rise, and so on. All of this informs us about what’s possible, about what the effects of our policies will be, but it does not in any way inform us as to whether or not those effects are good or bad.

Science cannot tell us whether we should spend $1 billion on universal healthcare or universal education, given the choice. Science cannot tell us which countries should pay the cost of stopping climate change. It cannot tell us whether or not we ought to permit abortion, or gay marriage. Science can tell us the brute facts of what will happen as a result of these policies, but it cannot tell us how we ought to judge those facts. Science cannot assign values, it cannot evaluate the good.

From Plato on, philosophers have been trying to get a better handle on what it means to be good and to do good. The answer to this question has grave consequences. Depending on our understanding of the good, we will prefer entirely different kinds of societies, and the kind of society we create will tremendously affect people’s quality of life and, indeed, the amount of scientific research we do.

Scientists like Tyson and Hawking often make normative arguments in favor of increasing funding for NASA and science more generally. When asked to justify these arguments, Tyson and Hawking must inevitably engage in moral philosophy, making value judgments about the relative value of space and technology spending relative to say, social welfare programs, or the military, or tax cuts. Science can inform this argument. Tyson and Hawking can use science to help identify the likely results of technology spending. They can argue that this spending will allow us to deflect asteroids, or mine other planets, or stimulate economic growth, or any number of things. But these scientific arguments do not signify anything meaningful without a philosophical conception of the good. Without a conception of the good, we cannot judge the value of these benefits relative to the value of doing various other things with the money and resources.

These questions are not trivial. We are not asking “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” (in all my years of reading, writing, and thinking about theory, that question has never once come up in a serious way), we are asking “what is good for people?” One of the biggest gripes scientists often have with our society is the political system’s resistance to them. They complain that the political system has allowed for the election of science deniers to high office. Such people claim that climate change, evolution, the big bang, and other such things are not real or not relevant. But this descriptive difference misses the depths of what is truly a normative philosophical conflict.

Scientists and their opponents often have very different conceptions of the good. While many scientists have not studied moral theory and do not have explicit moral views, they tend to think about morality in the same empiricist way they think about the world around them. Just as scientists attempt to learn about the world by experience, by performing experiments and testing ideas in the world, they tend to conceptualize the good as the experience of happiness and the avoidance of suffering. Indeed, in a Reddit AMA from several years ago, Tyson made this very claim. He even recognized that it was philosophical:

I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And along the way, lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

Science skeptics fundamentally do not believe that you can learn meaningful things about the world through experience. They are often highly religious people who believe that the material world is but a small part of life. Many of these people believe in an afterlife, in an immaterial world of souls. These people are not particularly worried about things like climate change, often because they believe an interventionist god will not permit them to come to harm or because they believe that when they die they will go to a paradise that transcends the material realm. For these people, the good consists of abiding by whatever rules they believe their god or gods have set down for them. They believe that if they follow the rules, they will be rewarded, and if they do not follow the rules, they will be punished. For them, scientific claims about the descriptive world mean very little, because the descriptive world itself is but a test that they must pass.

When it comes to normative questions of what we should do and how we should live, both the scientists and the science skeptics are offering philosophical views. They both have conceptions of the good to offer. For a scientist like Tyson, it is abundantly clear that if we ignore climate change, we will suffer and that suffering will be bad. For the science skeptics, it is abundantly clear that if we ignore the will of the relevant god or gods, we will suffer eternally in the afterlife, and that suffering will be much worse. Many scientists don’t believe that the afterlife exists, and many of those that do believe in an afterlife think that god is a scientist and/or approves of the scientific worldview.

If scientists want to prevail, if they want to convince policymakers and citizens to enact pro-science policy, they need philosophers to argue for conceptions of the good that are congruent with their ends. They need people like me to make the  argument that the happiness and suffering we experience in life is meaningful and that states should act in the interests of relieving our miseries and enriching our joys. If smart people don’t go into this business, then who will defend a view of the good that scientists can identify with? Without political and moral theorists who believe that science contributes to the good, the field is given over to religious deontologists who deem science to be of little benefit. When these people take over the state, science flounders and the benefits of science and technology go unrealized.

It is true that some philosophers are not interested in moral and political questions and would prefer to make nihilist, subjectivist, and skeptical arguments that undermine truth claims wholesale, including both scientific descriptive claims and normative theories of the good. Tyson is right that these philosophers are not doing useful work, but these philosophers are not representative of the discipline as a whole, and no matter how many of them there are, there will always be a need for moral and political philosophy to help us distinguish good from bad. Getting a handle on the question of “what should we do?” is not “a pointless delay in our progress”, it is the primary form of human progress. Only when we have a decent notion of the good can we realize that doing science is part of that good. Indeed, Tyson cannot even know what progress is, much less that it is being delayed, without a philosophical conception of the good.

Or, to quote another scientist, Albert Einstein:

The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.