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.

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

  1. michaelfugate

    Much of the problem is hubris. How many people do you know who say I could do that – without training – whether it is art, teaching, politics, law, etc? Why would someone like Ben Carson think he was qualified to be POTUS? Thinking is hard, that’s why so few of us want to do it.

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  2. synred

    I’m reading dinosaurs too. I was writing a comment when some glitch dumped it. I’ll resend it in a bit.

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  3. synred

    I’m reading ‘Dark Matter and Dinosaurs’ as part of the Martin Perl book club. Martin started this to discuss science and technology books years ago and some his SLAC colleagues and other friends have kept it going after he died this past year.

    I have found a number of problems with the book, e.g., it states that most matter in universe is currently neutral while it’s mostly ionized due to re-ionization by star light. As far as I can see none of these problems impact her central thesis (which I’m just getting to now). The book needed a good, scientifically literate editor.
    Most annoying are the many bad analogies, but these are ubiquitous in popular science.

    I’ve been writing notes about the book as I go along, but they’re too incoherent to post. I may write a ‘review’ when I finish it, like I did for Tegmark’s “Our Mathematical Universe.”

    I am interested in knowing where you are finding the examples of scientism. I’ll add them to my notes.

    I’m quite enjoying the book despite the problems.

    -Arthur

    Liked by 1 person

  4. synred

    Physicist certainly suffer from Hubris.

    One experiment I worked on, CELLO at DESY, nearly failed because we didn’t listen to our cryogenics engineer.

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  5. synred

    Thanks. That review is very interesting. Apparently a lot of the Geology and paleontology is wrong our outdated.

    This has more effect on her thesis.

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  6. synred

    Philosophy, to a scientist at least, concerns questions we expect we will never reliably answer. Technology sometimes lags behind, but we’d like to believe that at least in principle scientific proposals will be verified or ruled out.

    Randall, Lisa (2015-10-27). Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (p. 27). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

    Yeah, that looks like scientism or something like it to me. We are, of course, answering some questions now that philosophers asked before they could be answered. And some gave incorrect answers, but if you never ask, you’ll never learn. At least she says ‘we expect’ leaving room to be wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Philosopher Eric

    I’ve been thinking more about this “What’s philosophy for?” question, and it seems to me that pretty much anything we do can be placed on a graph from “enriching in itself” (x-axis), to “useful for other reasons” (y-axis). I personally would place physics well into the positive category in both respects (+X, +Y). (Nevertheless perhaps most modern physics is done merely for the “enrichment side” (+X) given that few practical implications seem to remain.) Doing your taxes might be an example of something which is less than enriching (-X), but practically useful (+Y). Pure art might illustrate something which can be quite enriching (+X), but less than useful (-Y). We presumably don’t bother ourselves much with things which are neither enriching nor useful (-X, -Y).

    Philosophy can obviously be very enriching in itself (+X), though shouldn’t assend the y-axis very far without accepted answers regarding various associated questions. As for psychiatry, this science has surely been enriching for many (+X), and especially given the pay! Nevertheless patient assessment and advice in the field has been so famously suspect, that today this practice has been sidelined — now they essentially look for the right drugs for a given person’s mental issues. I’m sure that modern cognitive science can be quite enriching (+X), but without the acceptance of even rough consciousness models from which to work, there really shouldn’t be much potential for y-axis assent.

    Some may take what I’ve said here as criticism against “their team,” and so react defensively. Fortunately over at the EA, David Ottlinger recently had some great things to say about censorship (found here: http://theelectricagora.com/2016/02/26/what-ails-our-discourse/). Instead of standard defense, I’d love for others to view my message as reason to be hopeful. After all these still non practical fields, which nevertheless seem to ask various practical questions, should have tremendous untapped potential! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to witness them finally achieve such practicality, or even help them become so? This is what motivates me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Philip Thrift

    The engineers of the next-generation internet-of-things, self-driving cars, robots, and so forth are likely to derive more influence from philosophy than biology.

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  9. Daniel Kaufman

    Philosopher Eric: Not everyone shares this love for practicality. Indeed, it is precisely their lack of a “use” that is one of the things that makes fine arts so special. I pursue the practical things in my life, so that I am then able to enjoy the non-practical. The life of work supports the life of leisure.

    Philosophy’s problems, today, are largely disciplinary problems — it finds it harder and harder to maintain its place in the academy. This is largely due to the academy having taken on a much more “practical” / use-focused mission, over the last thirty years or so. Philosophy has tried to jump on this train and proclaim its usefulness — in the sense typically meant — but has largely failed, in my view, because the argument is pretty weak. But then, everyone knows my feelings on this subject, as I both published a substantial essay on it *and* done a dialogue with Massimo on it as well.

    http://theelectricagora.com/2015/10/19/on-some-common-rationales-for-liberal-education-and-why-they-arent-very-good/

    http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/32900

    Far from being “defensive,” disagreement with your views on this may simply stem from differences in basic values, over which dispute is largely impossible.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. synred

    “More influence from philosophy than biology” seems wrong

    Genetic engineering?
    Brain simulation?
    Artificial intelligence? Neural nets?

    Even in mechanical design biology can be inspired by biology.

    Not to mention there are a lot more biologist than philosophers…

    Which is not to say philosophical issues to arise in engineering.

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  11. brodix

    Massimo,

    This is just an observation, but it continues my train of thought, so hopefully doesn’t come across as agenda.

    The basic process of increasing knowledge is to gather as much data and information as possible and then extract from it some general thesis, insight, narrative, framework structure, etc, to tie it all together and give a sense of focus and connectivity to make sense of it, whether one is designing a course, writing a book, building a case, what have you. Expand and consolidate.

    So why wouldn’t it make sense for philosophy, at this point in time, to go back through all the fields it has spawned, from physics to sociology and everything in between, that have grown from its methods of inquiry and gather up as much information and insight as possible, to see if there isn’t any framework or general principles tying them together.

    Maybe it is just the subjective views of individuals and communities wandering the surface of this planet, but even there, there might be some hard, but useful truths humanity could use and might be willing to consider, when the current bubble of illusions bursts, as our promises of obligations of financial responsibility keep turning up increasingly hollow and leveraged to the max.

    People might well seem blind now to anything they don’t wish to hear, but it does seem likely that in the not too distant future, those hands over the eyes and ears are not going to save us.

    What does philosophy have to offer otherwise?

    No risk, no reward.

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  12. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix wrote:

    What does philosophy have to offer otherwise?

    ——————————————————————————–

    A set of critical and analytical tools and a very broad perspective.

    I view that as quite important. Much more important than finding “general principles” that are supposed to “tie it all together.”

    Liked by 3 people

  13. synred

    It might be worth noting that most physicist are not motivated by usefulness.

    However, we are lucky that what we do for ‘fun’ often turns out to be useful. That helps with the funding for expensive toys.

    In particle physics funding has dropped since congress discovered we’re not going to build another bomb. However, we (Tim Berners) invented the web (for our own purposes though).

    Robert Wilson on hearing about money for what became Fermilab:

    SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

    DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.

    SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?

    DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.

    SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?

    DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

    It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.

    SENATOR PASTORE. Don’t be sorry for it.

    DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

    SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

    DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

    In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending

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  14. synred

    I don’t dispute that engineers need philosophy only that it will influence them more. Qualitatively, you might argue that will or should be more important.

    I’m reminded of a ‘philosophical’ argument I had with my father who was an engineer. On occasion he would say

    “The trouble with Hitler was he thought the end justified the means”

    Being an engineer he thought building the autobahn was the end. Of course, he had it quite backwards, building the autobahn was the means.

    I finally convinced of this a few years ago.

    He could have used a little training in philosophy.

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  15. synred

    I think Robots or more generally machine intelligence is a lot further away than the hype would have us believe.

    There has been a lot of progress. Big Blue beating grand masters is impressive. But it method is quite different from a grand master … basically a brute force deep search with a clever weighting scheme. The real intelligence is still the programmers and the chess players who developed what is still just an algorithm.

    A rumba does not qualify as intelligent though cats love or hate ’em. It takes more work to get a house ready for a rumba than to just vacuum it yourself. And who knows where it would hide your slippers.

    The LIsa shrink simulation can pass the Turing test for some people. The version we used to play (on teletypes!) ! on shift at CLEO experiment could be easily found out; if you just answered NO or YES all the time it would go into a loop. I presume modern versions would have a little randomness generated to avoid that.

    Lisa says more about psychiatry than it does about intelligence.

    As a hardcore ‘materialist’ (whatever material is) I do think that artificial intelligence is possible. It’s not too soon to address the ethical and other philosophical issues. Science fiction has been doing that for some time (e.g., Robby the robot in ‘Forbidden Planet’ – a movie that raises a lot of philosophical issues). I would guess there’s plenty of older philosophical discussion too.

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  16. Tudor Eynon

    Labnut, Nanocyberorgasm, Philosopher Eric, Brodix, synred,

    Part of the point Massimo is making, to re-express it somewhat, is that Bill Nye is doing Philosophy without knowing it and hence not doing it well? I think Massimo thinks Philosophy is inescapable and inevitably guides, either badly or well, Scientific thought. Institutional and disciplinary aspects are somewhat secondary as is Nye’s own “interesting but useless” spin on Philosophy.
    I don’t know if Massimo would concur or if I am over-stretching his point?

    I will be provocative, extend the point and say that Bill’s over-casual approach to Philosophy, tellingly and ironically, seduces him into carelessly endorsing some very contentious Science among his vague premises.

    Bill Nye, contradicting his overt argument, states at least one clearly philosophical conclusion. That is the idea that knowledge has limits in principle. Really he is, flat out, doing Philosophy and refuting himself? So the discussion is at an end in the way it would be if I claimed here that “I am not writing English”?
    I think Massimo follows Bill’s overt claim too much at this point, understandably maybe, during what is really a “Gish Gallop” on Bill’s part?

    But Bill Nye, in making or supporting this claim about the limits to knowledge, casually and in passing almost, adds the assumption that Language, along with ‘Science’, is ‘invented’.

    The assumption is false but ironically in line with the Common-Sense Bill derides elsewhere. Language according to modern Linguistic Science is essentially a Biological phenomenon not an invented or ‘learnt’ one. Again a 3000 year debate within Philosophy underlies this point; now decided, arguably and partially at least, in favor of one side as the inquiry merges into ‘Science’.

    The point, far from being trivial, has huge ramifications in public policy, medicine, pedagogy, AI research, voice-recognition engineering and elsewhere.

    It isn’t clear anyway how the assumption that language is invented and ‘learnt’ helps Bill’s Philosophical thesis. Presumably ‘given’ or innate things have limitations too, clearer ones maybe?

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  17. brodix

    Dan,

    Yes, but what is being built with those tools?

    Simply dissecting every and anything into ever smaller pieces doesn’t seem like an end with much purpose.

    All I’m asking is whether there is any consideration of how to put something together.

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  18. synred

    It seems to me that philosophy is much more heterogeneous than, say physics.

    Physics is has a much narrower perspective which makes in easier to define. There are disputes, of course, but much common ground.

    There seems to be almost an many philosophies as philosophers (maybe more :)).
    The rules for resolving disputes are muddy; you can’t just defer to experiment and observation though mostly the illogical can be excluded (though my impression is that even that has been disputed).

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  19. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix:

    Yes, but what is being built with those tools?

    ———————————————————–

    Nothing. They are critical/analytical tools. The knowledge builders are in the empirical disciplines and mathematics.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. brodix

    Synred,

    Very much so, but are these factors simply to be consigned to the category of “politics,” or are they themselves a deeper issue of examination.

    Yes, all the other fields do have various straightforward agendas, reconciling GR and QM, filling out the periodic table, reconciling evolutionary and developmental biology, explaining consciousness.

    Philosophy, as Dan says, simply provides the intellectual tools of inquiry and analysis.

    My “point” is just that problem that Nye seems to be hung up on, it doesn’t then continue on to try to organize and structure the information being acquired and produced, so it seems “pointless.”

    The fact though, is that knowledge is very much the entire cycle of discovery, analysis and ordering. Then it starts over again and those prior conclusions stand, fall, or become incorporated into something larger.

    So if philosophy is anything more than a tool cabinet, then it would need to make that step from analysis to ordering.

    The problem there is politics. It would have to go into those various fiefdoms, open their books and see if there are broader patterns. Not only in the way things work, but are there similar stumbling blocks, are there points of conflict that other fields have encountered and resolved, are there epistemic issues, where different approaches and languages create conflicts, etc.

    If philosophy cannot make this step, because it is just too tough, which it probably is, then people like Nye, who only see philosophers working in their shop, turning out curious doodads, will continue to dismiss it as inconsequential.

    That’s just the way life works. What you did in the past is lost to most people. They only care about what you do now.

    So people turn to religion, because they came up with a few conclusions very early on and have stuck to them, through hell and high water.

    Life is not fair. Why?

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  21. brodix

    Dan,

    Given these tools were developed a fairly long time ago, why does philosophy still exist as a separate field? Wouldn’t the logical solution be a gravestone. Here lays Philosophy. Parent, grand parent and great grand parent of all fields of study.

    How does it stay current? Simply to sharpen and maintain the tools?

    We have Analytic and Continental philosophy. Just like we have QM and GR. Just like developmental and evolutionary biology.

    Maybe some new tools need to be constructed, given the number of insoluble dichotomies that seem to turn up.

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  22. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix: Many of the tools are quite new. Wittgenstein introduced entirely new tools; Ordinary Language philosophy; Kripke showed how to use modality to revitalize metaphysics; Quine, Goodman, Davidson.

    Lots and lots of new tools.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. brodix

    Dan,

    Lol. Many of which involve cycling back and extracting new perspectives from older theories, but I get ridiculed for arguing thermodynamic feedback loops are every bit as important as linear evolution. Even in actual, basic physics, which philosophy necessarily models.

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  24. SocraticGadfly

    Actually, Brodix, that’s where I disagree with Massimo myself, even after he modified the blog’s subtitle to add the word “Western.”

    Really, from Hume on, IMO, a lot of philosophy is stuff that wasn’t in Plato’s playbook, at least not fully. Modal logic is one example. Plato’s comments about written vs. spoken language aside, linguistic philosophy is another.

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  25. Massimo Post author

    Brodix,

    I honestly don’t get you. You have been engaging in philosophizing ever since you started commenting on this blog, and Scientia before that. And yet I didn’t see single new empirical observation or experiment proposed by you to support your points. Only reasoning and “recycling” of points. So by your own standards…

    Liked by 1 person

  26. synred

    Why? Why not?

    The travails of us academic types is hardly the biggest injustices in the world. Philosophy and Physics will likely muddle through.

    I don’t think the religious remember it’s past; usually the ‘history’ of their own beliefs is not accurate. They are clinging to BS out of some more current fear; likely a fear that has always scared us — like death — but also just change.

    And the fundies no longer seem to know what side of their bread is buttered on. At least William Jennngs Bryan knew J. P. Morgan was not his friend.

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