I considered putting this more tactfully, but decided against it.
In an age when a number of prominent scientists have said profoundly idiotic things about philosophy, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” has produced the Gettysburg address of philosophical ignorance. It would be hard to write a parody that compressed more stupidity and shallowness into 4 minutes.
I’m no philosopher, but even I can see that almost every sentence is a complete misrepresentation of what philosophy is and what philosophers do. As a scientist, I find Nye’s comments – and those of some of his idols – deeply embarrassing. If you are a philosopher, please don’t judge all scientists by these philistines. (Nye, if it helps, is an engineer by training).
Let’s watch the trainwreck; all quotes are from Nye.
I’m not sure that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins [actually, the questioner asked about Stephen Hawking], two guys I’m very well acquainted with, have declared philosophy to be irrelevant and are ‘blowing it off’.
Tyson said that philosophy can “mess you up” and thinks that “there is no such thing as consciousness” is a live option for explaining the nature of consciousness. (His history isn’t much better). Dawkins, who had no problem critiquing Aquinas for a few, fact-free pages in TGD (no, Aquinas did not assume that “There must have been a time when no physical things existed”), admitted 4 years later that he didn’t know what the word “epistemic” means. Stephen Hawking announced that “philosophy is dead” at the beginning of a book, before spending a few tens of pages doing some philosophy himself. Lawrence Krauss complained about “moronic philosophers” who criticised his book, before exhibiting a wide range of elementary fallacies in a debate with a philosopher.
Not all scientists are antagonistic to philosophy. George Ellis has written intelligently on the philosophy of cosmology and on philosophy more broadly, and I’m expecting good things from Sean Carroll‘s forthcoming book. There seems to be a very strong correlation among scientists between knowledge of philosophy and respect for philosophy.
I think that they’re just concerned that it doesn’t always give an answer that’s surprising. It doesn’t always lead you someplace that is inconsistent with common sense.
This is a common and worrying trope among popularisers – you’re not really doing science unless you’re contradicting what people naturally or normally believe. Rubbish. This idea has no place whatsoever in the actual practice of science. Imagine one astrophysicist criticising another’s model of the Sun on the grounds that it predicts that the sun is very bright and “that’s consistent with common sense”. This only feeds into the stereotype that science is incomprehensible, wacky, contradictory, likely to change and – obviously – opposed to common sense. (See Ben Goldacre on this point.) Yes, sometimes science is surprising. But sometimes it isn’t. And sometimes complete nonsense is surprising, too. (more…)
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