Mike, don’t listen to Bill Nye about philosophy

Bill NyeOver the last several years we have seen a depressing list of prominent scientists or science popularizers (interestingly, almost exclusively physicists) who have made very public statements about the uselessness of philosophy, while clearly not knowing what on earth they are talking about.

(Here are some examples: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Lawrence Krauss again, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg.)

Now Bill Nye has, very unfortunately, joined what can only be characterized as a peculiar anti-intellectual fray. (And no, contra popular opinion, one can be an intellectual and yet behave in an anti-intellectual fashion in certain domains.)

Nye, of course, is popularly known as “the science guy,” because of a popular Disney/PBS children’s science show by the same name that ran between 1993 and 1998. He engages in “edutainment,” that is a mix of education and entertainment, of which we arguably need more in our society. His formal education in science consists of a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Cornell. As far as I know, he has no background in philosophy. (He also lives part time in Chelsea, Manhattan, around the corner from me. So if he wants to share a cup of coffee after reading this and chat about why he is so undeniably wrong on the issue, I’ll treat him.)

Nye has just published a video on the Big Think YouTube channel, part of a series called “Tuesdays with Bill.” He is answering a question from a fan: “Hey Bill Nye, ‘Does Science Have All the Answers or Should We Do Philosophy Too?'” Here is the video, below which I will add my minute-by-minute commentary (don’t worry, it’s only 3’41”):

0:06 – Mike, the fan, introduces himself as a philosophy major. He mentions that some scientists, like Hawking and Tyson, have “brushed off” philosophy as a meaningless topic, and he wonders what Nye’s opinion on the matter is.

0:23 – Nye says that this is a “great question.” He begins by saying that his friends — Tyson and Richard Dawkins — are not really blowing off philosophy (yes, they are), but are rather “concerned” that “it doesn’t always give an answer that’s surprising” and that it doesn’t always lead one to places that are inconsistent with commonsense.

This would probably be enough to show that Nye has no business answering Mike’s question. So philosophical zombies and modal realism — just to cite two much debated positions from philosophy of mind and metaphysics — are not surprising and don’t differ from commonsense? The philosophical literature is replete with surprising and entirely not at all commonsensical arguments and conclusions.

0:48 – Here comes the first turn into weirdness of the whole video: Nye says that the issue often gets back to the question of the nature of consciousness. “Can we know that we know?” “Are we aware that we are aware?” “Is reality real?” “Are we living on a giant ping-pong ball?”

What the devil is going on here? Nye is confusing a number of different questions. The issue of consciousness is one for philosophy of mind (and, of course, neuroscience). The question of the nature of reality, instead, pertains to metaphysics (and physics). And I have no idea what’s his beef with ping-pong, cosmic or not.

1:15 – After rather condescendingly acknowledging that these are interesting questions, Nye goes on to say that he is “very skeptical of [it].” That’s because, it turns out, Nye is a straightforward empiricist and realist about the physical world. Which is fine, but entirely misses the point of the above mentioned philosophical issues. It also, incidentally, is a position that is at the least in tension with advanced physics (the nature of the wave function is certainly not something that one can “touch, taste, smell” etc.), and even more with speculative scientific theorizing — such as the multiverse theory, or Max Tegmark’s “mathematical universe hypothesis.”

(I should add that my mention of a number of philosophical notions should not be construed as an endorsement, or rejection, of such notions. They are just examples to counter Nye’s naive understanding of philosophy.)

1:45 – “You can’t prove that the sun won’t come up tomorrow, not really … but I’m pretty confident it will happen.”

Yes, Bill, and so is every philosopher I’ve talked to. But does that mean you are aware of, and have a good response to, Hume’s problem of induction?

2:01 – So, Nye tells Mike, philosophy was important “for a while,” but then it started arguing in a circle, “I think therefore I am. What if you don’t think about it? You don’t exist anymore? You probably still exist.”

Holy crap! Remind me to invite Bill to teach my undergrads about Descartes! I’ve obviously done it really, really wrongly for years. This would be laughable if it were not coming from someone with a significant influence on public opinion, who feels free to dispense advise to young people about matters of which he manifestly knows nothing.

2:28 – “This gets into the old thing: if you drop a hammer on your foot, is it real or is it just your imagination? You can run tests a couple of times and I hope you come to agree that it is probably real.”

This, of course, is the same entirely irrelevant argument against idealism and radical skepticism famously made by Samuel Johnson to George Berkeley, when he said, while kicking a stone, “I refute you thus.” It is a fallacy so famous that it has its own name: argumentum ad lapidem. Bill could have looked it up on Wikipedia before embarrassing himself.

2:44 – Nye then tells Mike that it is important to “be aware” of philosophy (whatever that means), but immediately shifts to what I would call the capitalist argument: you know, you are spending a lot of money on college education, and “a philosophy degree may not lead you to a career path.”

This is demonstrably false, on the basis of readily available empirical evidence: studying philosophy makes one highly employable; it is a “very practical” major; it is a recommended career path by the Wall Street Journal; and by the New York Times; and by US News & World Report; and by The Guardian; studying philosophy is more useful (and far less expensive) than getting an MBA; and it will make you happy; it will also make you a better leader; and a better technologist; and it contributes to getting you high GRE and LSAT scores, which will get you into graduate or law school.

Good enough for you, Bill?

3:06 – Nye observes that humans invented science, language and philosophy too. Which apparently it is something to keep in mind when one goes to seek absolute truths. (Uhm, yeah, okay) Which, he continues, means there will be limits, and “there is also going to be things beyond which it doesn’t matter.”

I have no idea what that means, or what it has to do with the viability of a philosophy major, but — unperturbed — Nye concludes by returning to his drop-a-hammer-on-your-foot knock down argument and ends it there.

Yes, it is really that bad. I didn’t make up a single quote, nor did I take anything out of context. Check it out, the link to the video is above.

This is the sort of advice to a young student that a star of the edutainment industry is giving? I don’t know about you, but I found it neither educational nor entertaining.

Mike, listen to me, disregard Nye’s ramblings and make your assessment of whether philosophy is the field for you. Read the articles I linked to above, talk to your college advisor, do some soul searching in terms of what is important for you and what you are excited about it. Then go for it. If it turns out to be philosophy, welcome. If not, best luck with whatever endeavor you will be pursuing. I mean it.


111 thoughts on “Mike, don’t listen to Bill Nye about philosophy

  1. Synred,

    The happy medium is also a flatline.


    I’m not trying to be rude. The problem is the better you get, the tougher the competition and the higher the expectations. Where does philosophy go from here.


  2. Massimo,

    ” Only reasoning and “recycling” of points.’

    Admit guilt.

    I’m not sure how to respond to the position that I don’t look at things differently, at least without going back through quite a bit I’ve already said.

    Just as a very quick comment, my argument about time as emergent from activity, with potential coalescing into actual, then receding into residual(future to past), rather than a foundational vector from past events to future ones, is NOT how physics currently treats it.

    The basis of “spacetime” is treating scalar measures of duration(from one event to the next, i.e., past to future), as co-equal with measures of distance(not even space as volume). Such that, among many other issues, asymmetry only emerges with entropy, rather than as an essential fact of the inertia of what is being measured(earth turns only one direction), my interpretation is decidedly different.

    Then getting into temperature as a similarly basic effect of activity(frequency and amplitude)……..

    Tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns, versus block time.

    The past as effect of what occurs in the present, as events have to occur, in order to be determined, versus determinism, where the laws of nature grind on inexorably…..

    If there are any of these points you cannot understand or agree with, just specify where the logic seems unclear or mistaken and I will try to elaborate.


  3. Michael,

    One way I would put it is that life is like riding a bicycle. Keep moving, or you fall over.


    Would the converse be the ideal is absolute and bad is subjective?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds not a unreasonable opposite. The ideas is the good and evil are not symmetric opposites.

    That good is different from individual to individual — whatever you find fulfilling –, but evil — sickness, pain, death — is absolute, i.e., the same for everyone.


  5. While doing some background on Plato’s Theaetetus recently I came across the fact that Wittgenstein admired the work and said that Plato was wrestling with some of the same problems that he was.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Synred,

    My point is that good and bad are the basic biological binary of beneficial and detrimental, like the intellectual yes and no and the mechanical on and off.

    What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken.

    So rather than good and bad being a cosmic duel between the forces of righteousness and evil, they are the basic building block of conscious decision making.

    You were relating the basic of the good to the extreme of the evil, so I was reversing it to the extreme of the ideal to the basic of the bad.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I realize this thread is about to close, so if anyone wants to question or even castigate me on the point I raised about time, my email is brodix at earthlink dot net.


  8. Synred,

    There are degrees of bad that are not completely fatal.
    Then again the most basic good is to survive.


    I do distinguish western philosophy as more linear, object oriented and focused on distinctions, while eastern is more contextual, circular and focused on connections.

    Part of my agenda has been a synthesis.

    Remember in the early Scientia days, when you called me a new ager and I agreed, in that new age has a large component of westerners looking for meaning in eastern philosophies.


  9. Synred,

    “The fear of death is a pretense of wisdom and false wisdom at that. For who knows what men in their fear believe to be the greatest evil, may not in fact be the greatest good ”

    Trial of Socrates by Plato.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. brodix,

    you are becoming compulsive and keep going off topic. Please reign it in a bit and give a chance to others to discuss the actual topic of the thread, which in this case was the attitude of certain scientists and science popularizers about philosophy. Nothing whatsoever to do with the nature of space-time or the polarity of good and evil, as far as I can tell. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Massimo,

    Sorry. Middle of the night and wasn’t sleeping. Figured you were in an earlier time zone and might cut the thread earlier than usual.


  12. It seems that Nye’s, and Hawking’s or DeGrasse Tyson’s, message has not reached the scientific community yet.

    After all, the research group “epistemology of the LHC” just recently posted a 11 jobs for people who will investigate “a broad variety of themes centring on the experimental and theoretical research at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN from an interdisciplinary perspective that involves problems and methods from philosophy, history, and science studies”.

    In their eyes, this must be a waste of time and money?

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Palesemente ignoranti. Figli di un’educazione grossolana e parziale. Chissà come mai non si è mai visto alcun fisico italiano negare l’importanza della filosofia e delle arti… Solo anglosassoni. Anche Dawkins, per quanto estremamente competente nel suo settore, farebbe bene a stare zitto quando si tratta di esprimere opinioni sulla metafisica, sulla storia dell’arte e sulle letterature. E magari farsi un corso express, di quelli da liceo classico per dire.

    Purtroppo anche la finanza è piena di beceri individui che peccano di hubris e si sentono in grado di sminuire la filosofia. Mi sono laureata in filosofia e non posso descrivere la crociata ideologica che sto combattendo quando mi capitano i traders ad intervistarmi! Ad ogni modo, quando trovo di fronte una persona talmente ignorante da negare il valore di una tale scienza, almeno so di non voler lavorare con quella persona.

    Un saluto

    Liked by 1 person

  14. blatantly ignorant . Children of an education gross and partial . I wonder why you have never seen any physical Italian deny the importance of philosophy and the arts … Only Anglo-Saxons . Even Dawkins , as very competent in his field , would do well to shut up when it comes to expressing opinions on metaphysics , on art history and literature . And maybe take an express course , those from high school to say .

    Unfortunately, the finance is full of vulgar people who sin of hubris , and feel able to belittle philosophy . I majored in philosophy and I can not describe the ideological crusade that when I ‘m fighting captain traders to interview me ! However , when I faced a so ignorant as to deny the value of such a science , at least I know I do not want to work with that person .

    A greeting


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