To reject philosophy is to embrace the Matrix
I had considered titling this post “Philosophy slams Neil deGrasse Tyson,” but then I reconsidered. In case you haven’t heard, Tyson recently outed himself as a philistine. Or at least that’s how author and journalist Damon Linker characterizes it in an article titled, appropriately enough, “Why Neil deGrasse Tyson Is a Philistine.” In the words of the article’s teaser, “The popular television host says he has no time for deep, philosophical questions. That’s a horrible message to send to young scientists.”
What Linker is referring to is Tyson’s recent appearance as a guest on the popular Nerdist podcast. Beginning at about 20 minutes into the hour-long program, the conversation between Tyson and his multiple interviewers turns to the subject of philosophy, and Tyson speaks up to talk down the entire field. In fact, he takes pains to specify and clarify that he personally has absolutely no use for philosophy, which he views as a worthless distraction from other activities with real value.
Yes, it all sounds like it must be overstated in the retelling — but in point of fact, it’s not. Have a listen for yourself by clicking the link above, or else read his words here in this transcript of the program’s relevant portion. The comments from Tyson and his interviewers come right after they have been discussing the standardization of weights and measures. Note especially how Tyson not only dismisses philosophy but pointedly refuses to allow that there might be even a shred of validity or value in it.
Interviewer: Philosophy was my major.
Tyson: That can really mess you up.
Interviewer: It really does mess you up. It’s when it starts crossing over with math and science, and you have to solve an argument using p’s and q’s and whatnot, and the philosophy of science and math says, “Why is a yard a yard?” and “What makes this, this?” I always felt like maybe there was a little too much question-asking in philosophy.
Tyson: I agree.
Interviewer: Because at a certain point it’s just futile, you know, like “Why is a table a table?” and so on.
Tyson: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly. My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, “What are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”
Another interviewer: I think a healthy balance of both is good.
Tyson: Well, I’m still worried even about a healthy balance. Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress. . . . How do you define “clapping”? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that, don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says, “Look, I got all this world of unknown out there. I’m moving on. I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that.”
Interviewer: I also felt that it was a fat load of crap, as one could define what “crap” is and the essential qualities that make up crap: how you grade a philosophy paper?
Tyson: [Laughs.] Of course, I think we all agree you turned out okay.
Interviewer: Philosophy was a good major for comedy, I think, because it does get you to ask a lot of ridiculous questions about things.
Tyson: No, you need people to laugh at your ridiculous questions.
Interviewer: Ultimately, if you ask a lot of questions, it just becomes a bottomless pit.
Another interviewer: It just becomes nihilism.
Tyson: Nihilism is a kind of philosophy.
Linker’s comments express my own thoughts about all of this quite perfectly, so I’ll borrow them:
Yes, he really did say that. . . . [B]ehold the spectacle of an otherwise intelligent man and gifted teacher sounding every bit as anti-intellectual as a corporate middle manager or used-car salesman. . . . With these words, Tyson shows he’s very much a 21st-century American, living in a perpetual state of irritated impatience and anxious agitation. Don’t waste your time with philosophy! (And, one presumes, literature, history, the arts, or religion.) Only science will get you where you want to go! It gets results! Go for it! Hurry up! Don’t be left behind! Progress awaits!
Tyson’s words have also drawn a response from his friend Massimo Pigliucci, who, speaking as someone who is both a biologist and a philosopher, seeks to remind Tyson that science actually arose out of philosophy, and that philosophy actually deals with real things and makes “progress” of a sort.
“The worst thing we can do is to refuse to recognize and acknowledge that we are in fact involved in this inescapable act of metaphysical choosing. An entire way of seeing and being in the world hangs in the balance.”
But the best response I’ve yet seen comes from someone who doesn’t even mention Tyson, and who probably wasn’t even thinking about him when he wrote a beautiful defense of philosophy’s value in just a thousand word. In “In Defense of Armchairs,” published yesterday at 3 Quarks Daily, philosopher Charlie Huenemann meditates on the longstanding metaphorical and adjectival use of the word “armchair” as a kind ideological shorthand for denigrating and dismissing someone’s expressed thoughts as stuffy, purely academic, and divorced from the real world. Think, for example, of the disparaging retroactive references to the so-called “armchair anthropology” practiced by the nineteenth-century founders of the field such as Edward B. Tylor and James George Frazer. “Generally,” Huenemann writes,
in any conflict between long-held, seemingly obvious beliefs and new research challenging those beliefs, defenders of the old beliefs will find themselves charged with sitting in armchairs. . . . An armchair represents both laziness and privilege, a luxurious class of opinion-mongers who simply will not bother themselves with actual empirical research — the original La-Z-Boys, as they might be called.
As Huenemann rightly points out, the people who are most often associated with this type of condemnation are philosophers, since “those who argue from the armchairs are arguing from broad, philosophical perspectives.” I think here, for example, of Andrew Ferguson’s article “The Heretic,” published last year at The Weekly Standard and focusing on the ruckus in the intellectual establishment over the publication of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos with its materialism-challenging thesis. At one point Ferguson describes a moment from a 2012 meeting of scientists and philosophers titled “Moving Naturalism Forward” in which the armchair accusation was brought out by Daniel Dennett: “A video of the workshop shows Dennett complaining that a few — but only a few! — contemporary philosophers have stubbornly refused to incorporate the naturalistic conclusions of science into their philosophizing, continuing to play around with outmoded ideas like morality and sometimes even the soul. ‘I am just appalled to see how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang,’ he said, dropping his hands on the table. ‘They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything — it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.'”
But back to Huenemann: having noted the particular susceptibility of philosophy and philosophers to this charge, he goes on to offer an eloquent and pithy defense of pure speculation of the armchair variety. And I, for one, think his words lucidly call out the fundamental flaw in Tyson’s position:
An armchair is a place of frictionless speculation. In an armchair we can ask What would I see if I rode upon a beam of light? and What if species aren’t fixed? We can also ask Why do people follow laws even when the cops aren’t around? and What is it about opera that makes it seem so much more meaningful than barbershop quartets? We can ask what it is that makes mathematics true, and whether there are any cases when providing the greatest happiness for the greatest number turns out not to be the right thing to do. Empirical information is required in all these cases, but what is even more important is our ability to speculate and conjecture, to imagine and project. If we don’t discover any new answers, we at least begin to see our old presuppositions for what they are.
Armchair speculation can also help us see what our theories entail. Is our mental life purely a matter of what the brain does? If so, then could I read your mind if I studied your brain? Are human actions as fully determined as any nonhuman event? If so, then on what basis would we call any of our actions “free”? If we list the physical causes leading up to an event, do we thereby explain the event? Or in some cases — think now of historical or cultural developments — does explanation require something more than a listing of causes? Again, it would be silly to think that all the information relevant to these questions can be reached from an armchair, but it is impossible to try to tackle them without some good old-fashioned armchair speculation. Answering questions is sometimes just as much about how we think about things as it is about those things themselves.
To say the same thing, or largely the same thing, a bit differently, and to hit at the primary aspect of Tyson’s obtuse dismissal of philosophy that strikes me as most glaringly short-sighted: there is simply no such thing as having no philosophy or refusing to philosophize. There is just philosophy that’s consciously engaged and philosophy that is unconsciously and implicitly followed. The former involves careful reflection, deep thought, and the artful interpretation of experience and data. It also involves careful consideration of and reflection upon the very principles and assumptions by which we do all of this reflecting, thinking, and interpreting. If we don’t practice all of this consciously, then we automatically fall into the second type of philosophizing, the unconscious, unacknowledged, implicit kind that makes us puppets of our own unacknowledged biases and predilections. And this just leads to business as usual and the unconsidered propagation of unconscious assumptions. Tyson can talk all he wants about being “a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world,” but if he refuses to pause (and discourages others from pausing) to inquire into what he means with terms like “the natural world,” “productive,” and “understanding,” and if he refuses to dig under the surface of language, thought, and culture to uncover the multitude of assumptions that precede and are embedded in these terms and their linkage into the assertions he is making about who we are, what the world is, and what, if anything, we ought to be doing and not doing in and with this experience of life and consciousness — if he refuses to do this, and if he convinces other not to do it, and if this stands for something like mainstream intellectual opinion and public intellectual activity, then something is terribly amiss and we’ve reached some sort of cultural dead end.
In The Passion of the Western Mind Richard Tarnas wrote, “The fund of data available to the human mind is of such intrinsic complexity and diversity that it provides plausible support for many different conceptions of the ultimate nature of reality. . . . Evidence can be adduced and interpreted to corroborate a virtually limitless array of worldviews. . . . Because the human understanding is not unequivocally compelled by the evidence to adopt one metaphysical position over another, an irreducible element of human choice supervenes.” The worst thing we can do is to refuse to recognize and acknowledge that we are in fact involved in this inescapable act of metaphysical choosing. An entire way of seeing and being in the world hangs in the balance. To reject philosophy is to ignore this choice, to opt for the unexamined life, and to embrace our enslavement to the Matrix.
ADDENDUM, June 11, 2014: Regarding the rhetorical and ideological use of the “armchair” epithet, there’s a wonderful passage in the conclusion of Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible where, in what I suspect is a deliberately ironic act of inversion, Jeff takes the word and significantly repurposes its application. This comes in the midst of his discussion of the importance of reclaiming and re-acknowledging the reality of anomalous and paranormal experiences in the context of religious studies. Jeff writes:
Why continue to tolerate a kind of armchair skepticism that has everything to do with scientistic propaganda and nothing at all to do with honest, rigorously open-minded collection, classification, and theory building, that is, with real science and real humanistic inquiry? True enough, anomalies may be just anomalies — meaningless glitches to the statistical field of possibility. But anomalies may also be the signals of the impossible, that is, signs of the end of one paradigm and the beginning of another.
“Armchair skepticism” — take that, Daniel Dennett. Genuine and important philosophical thinking that actually applies to reality (and even questions what we mean by the word) — take that, Neil deGrasse Tyson.