Dissents Of The Day

Many readers are protesting along these lines:

Did you actually listen to the context of what they were discussing? If you don’t have the time to actually listen to a few minutes worth of what you’re passing on as “The Closed Mind of Neil DeGrasse Tyson“, then you probably don’t have the time think about the meaning of the word “meaning”.

Another goes after Damon Linker:

Rather than calling Linker’s hatchet-job a “must-read”, go and listen to what Neil DeGrasse Tyson actually said. Linker completely misrepresents him.

Yes, I did listen to the context and now I have listened to much more of it. Tyson reeks of scientism and rank condescension to philosophy and to philosophy’s role in humanity’s understanding of itself and the whole. The more I listened the more the philistinism deepened, the more the sophomoric cliches about philosophy proliferated – you “can’t cross a street”, for Pete’s sake, if you’re concerned with the ultimate questions! I’ve heard freshmen with sharper insights at 3am. Most troubling to me is the notion that all human thinking must somehow have some “productive” end or is worthless. One thing that distinguishes human beings from other animals is our self-consciousness, and all the questions that raises. But Tyson “doesn’t have time for that.” Another reader elaborates on the dissent:

I’ve listened to the clip, and I call bullshit on Linker’s hyperventilation over Tyson’s comments. Tyson was pretty clearly talking about the diminishing practical returns on philosophical debate, and he has a great goddamned point that many a liberal arts major should consider.

At what point does a person’s philosophizing cease to provide positive societal value, and become, in essence intellectual masturbation? At what point would society as a whole benefit from focusing more on the practicalities of modern science versus the arcane twaddle of modern philosophy? Tyson clearly believes that recent “discoveries” in philosophy are more masturbatory than helpful, and that we should focus our energies more productively.

Were his comments glib? Sure. (Although, Tyson and his fellow podcasters had just finished riffing on comparisons between Newton’s development of calculus and reality programming on TMZ, so the tongue-in-cheek nature of his comments is hardly out of line.) But that comment does not make Tyson “every bit as anti-intellectual as a corporate middle manager or used-car salesman.” It makes him a sarcastic SOB who thinks the world would have been better off if your six years of philosophy study at Whitman College had been spent studying electrical engineering at MIT. And its hard to argue that he is wrong.

Actually, it’s very easy to argue that he is wrong. If humanity had always had that perspective the very concepts of math and science would not exist. Another reader:

Tyson was referring to thinking big in the sophomoric, pseudo-intellectual way of someone taking their first philosophy class as an undergraduate. “What if we’re all brains in vats, man?” “What if I am all that exists?” “All of life is chemical reactions, so how do I know what is even real?”

These are all totally unanswerable questions that don’t lead anywhere. They don’t further knowledge in any meaningful sense. They just lead you into a cul de sac of admiring your own cleverness. It’s like the old bit from Gilbert and Sullivan: “If this young man expresses himself / In terms too deep for me, / Why, what a very singularly deep young man / This deep young man must be.”

Another who listened to the podcast:

It is my understanding that for philosophy to be effective, it needs to be rooted in logic. Which is why listeners need to start their assessment of Tyson’s point back to to at least 15:00, where Dr. Tyson states:

I don’t have a problem with these philosophical questions, just give me a way to test it. Math is about getting finite answers to infinite regressions. It it is measurable whether you like it or not. If you are distracted by your questions, you are being productive and not contributing to the real world.

As in, why is a pound a pound? What does the answer to that contribute to anything? Linker starts his rant on the Giordano Bruno overblown kerfuffle, to which I say, “What’s your point”? I find it laughable that Linker equates Tyson’s comments as derogatory to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Wittgenstein, as the latter references Aristotle in Cosmos as one of the great thinkers and that many of his ideas were proven once the logic and results of calculus was applied. In short, Damon Linker is quite thin-skinned.

I’d say my readers are. Look: I understand why DeGrasse Tyson is so popular (I’m not engaging in our long twilight struggle as to who will win the final battle for the most appearances on Colbert) and I’m a big believer in better and wider understanding of science. But when he responds to first order questions of meaning by demanding how he can test them, he is simply engaging in an irrelevance. The ways to test one school of thought is not the same as for another. Tyson is asserting that only science’s methods are valid as a search for truth. My view is that it is one way of seeking a particular truth – but that humanity, over the millennia, has developed others, just as relevant to the human condition, but with different forms of logic and understanding. In glibly dismissing any such claims, Tyson is, I believe, in this podcast, as Damon describes him.

Update from a reader:

I want to respond to your reader who claimed that “the world would have been better off if your six years of philosophy study at Whitman College had been spent studying electrical engineering at MIT.” I’m a senior web developer working on very large, complicated site builds. My undergrad degree focussed on oil painting, and my postgrad degree is an MFA in creative writing. A good friend of mine, one of the most talented network architects in the NY area (who is likely responsible for your NY readers being able to access your blog reliably), has an undergrad degree in philosophy and no formal training in his field. An informal poll of my colleagues reveals that almost none of them have an engineering or comp sci degree. As much as I appreciate your reader’s advice on our educational choices, I think we’re doing fine for ourselves. The dirty secret of engineering is that experience matters more than education, and knowing how to think and solve problems trumps all.