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.
What is the nature of consciousness? Can we know that we know? Are we aware that we are aware? Are we not aware that we are aware?
The first question is actually meaningful. But Nye immediately demonstrates that he hasn’t the slightest clue what it means. “Can we know that we know?”, if it means anything, is about epistemology (theory of knowledge), not consciousness. “Are we aware that we are aware?” Yes. Yes we are. Because I am aware of my thoughts immediately, that is, without any intermediary. I can’t be mistaken about being aware of my thoughts, because the very act of being mistaken would involve a thought of which I am aware. This is Philosophy 101 – consciousness is data, not theory.
Is reality real or is reality not real and we are all living on a ping pong ball as part of a giant interplanetary ping pong game and we cannot sense it?
I suspect that part of the reason that philosophy can seem pointless is that some non-philosophers don’t understand the idea of a thought experiment. No, philosophers don’t sit around wondering whether we are really brains in vats or what the sound of one hand clapping is or imagining other fanciful scenarios to waste their time. (No one in the middle ages debated how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. That’s a joke from the 17th century.) Similarly, physicists aren’t obsessed with trains struck by lightning and unusual ways of killing cats. The point of the brains in vats thought experiment is to explore the relationship between our sensory experiences and extra-mental reality. If you want to explore this idea further, read Daniel Dennett’s marvellous essay “Where am I?“.
But the idea that reality is not real or what you sense and feel is not authentic is something I’m very skeptical of. I mean I think that your senses, the reality that you interact with with light, heat, sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing, absolutely hearing. These are real things.
In the development of a philosopher, learning that “assertion is not an argument” is a bit like learning to crawl. Nye isn’t quite there yet, and so can only … ahem … appeal to common sense. Nye’s position is known as “Philosophical realism”, and Nye would probably also affirm “Scientific realism”, which states that “we ought to believe in the unobservable entities posited by our most successful scientific theories.” The interested reader should start with Putnam’s “no miracles” argument, and work towards finding Nye on this diagram.
And to make a philosophical argument that they may not be real because you can’t prove – like for example you can’t prove that the sun will come up tomorrow. Not really, right. You can’t prove it until it happens. But I’m pretty confident it will happen. That’s part of my reality. The sun will come up tomorrow.
Nye confuses the problem of skepticism (are the objects of our sensory experience real?) with the problem of induction, which goes as follows. Consider the following argument. Will the Sun rise tomorrow? Probably yes, because it always has in our past experience. But why think the future will be like the past? Because in the past, the future has been like the past.
It shouldn’t take too much effort to convince yourself that this argument is circular: it should only convince us of the conclusion if we already know that the conclusion is true. This does not mean that philosophers sit around wondering whether the Sun will rise tomorrow, as if they’re just waiting for an engineer to burst in and announce “I’m pretty confident it will.” The point is that scientific induction cannot be justified in this way. If it can be justified, it must be on other grounds.
… you start arguing in a circle where I think therefore I am. What if you don’t think about it? Do you not exist anymore? You probably still exist even if you’re not thinking about existence.
If you write that in a Philosophy 101 essay, you will get zero marks. Your tutor will show your paper to as many colleagues as she can find, and they will all have a good laugh. (Yes, we do this in academia.)
Here is Descartes’ point. Can we build our knowledge on sure, certain foundations? Is there anything we know with certainty? The “brain in the vat” thought experiment shows that I could be mistaken about the existence of the objects that I perceive. But, says Descartes, I cannot be mistaken about the fact that I exist. If I doubt that I exist, then I must exist, because otherwise there wouldn’t be anyone to do the doubting. I think, therefore I am. Moreover, whatever else I am, I am a thinking kind of thing. On this foundation, Descartes attempts to build his world view.
It does not follow, and Descartes does not go on to suggest, that anything that is not thinking does not exist. This is a textbook logical fallacy called denying the antecedent. The following is not a valid argument:
If A then B
Therefore, not B.
Also, none of this has anything to do with “arguing in a circle”. Nye has completely missed Descartes’ point.
And so, you know, 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 that test, you know, a couple of times and I hope you come to agree that it’s probably real.
(There’s that common sense, again.) The whole point of the brain in a vat thought experiment is that it could feel real every time and yet not be real. You could be Neo in the Matrix. We cannot justify realism by continually dropping hammers on our feet and asserting realism again. So what now? Should we accept some beliefs as properly basic? Should we be idealists (in the philosophical sense) and believe that reality is fundamentally mental?
A philosophy degree may not lead you on a career path.
An astronomy degree might not either – I’m still finding that out. Neither might an interest in poetry, history, music, literature, archaeology, or a thousand other good things.
The unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates.
Humans discovered or invented the process of science.
Which is it!? We discovered Pluto and we invented cricket. Is science a process that actually gives us knowledge of the external world, or are we playing a game of our own invention?
To defend science, you have to think about science. And thinking about science is not doing science. It is doing philosophy. Nye says “it’s important I think for a lot of people to be aware of philosophy”. A great idea; he should try it sometime.