Neil deGrasse Tyson may be a gifted popularizer of science, but when it comes to humanistic learning more generally, he is a philistine. Some of us suspected this on the basis of the historically and theologically inept portrayal of Giordano Bruno in the opening episode of Tyson's reboot of Carl Sagan's Cosmos.
But now it's been definitively demonstrated by a recent interview in which Tyson sweepingly dismisses the entire history of philosophy. Actually, he doesn't just dismiss it. He goes much further — to argue that undergraduates should actively avoid studying philosophy at all. Because, apparently, asking too many questions "can really mess you up."
Yes, he really did say that. Go ahead, listen for yourself, beginning at 20:19 — and behold 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. He proudly proclaims his irritation with "asking deep questions" that lead to a "pointless delay in your progress" in tackling "this whole big world of unknowns out there." When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, "I'm moving on, I'm leaving you behind, and you can't even cross the street because you're distracted by deep questions you've asked of yourself. I don't have time for that."
"I don't have time for that."
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!
There are many ways to respond to this indictment. One is to make the case for progress in philosophical knowledge. This would show that Tyson is wrong because he fails to recognize the real advances that happen in the discipline of philosophy over time.
I'll leave this for others to do, since I don't buy such progress myself. I very seriously believe that Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Wittgenstein may have gotten just about everything right all those decades, centuries, and even millennia ago — and I know of no professional philosophers writing today who come anywhere close to rivaling the brilliance and depth of these thinkers.
Tyson is right about one thing: Philosophy is primarily about posing questions. But he's wrong to view such questioning as a pernicious waste of time. If Socrates is to be believed, it may actually be the best way of life for a human being — and quite possibly the only way to avoid the dogmatism to which all thinking is prone, and to which Tyson himself certainly has fallen prey.
Allow me to explain.
Philosophy arose in the West when a handful of ancient Greeks began to question the truth of received (dogmatic) explanations for various occurrences. Whereas it was commonly presumed that the gods were responsible for the weather, crop yields, and a city's success or failure on the battlefield, these early philosophers proposed, instead, that something called "nature," which operates according to regular and necessary laws, might be the true cause.
These early philosophers were forerunners of today's natural scientists, in other words, and one imagines that Tyson would treat them with the kind of condescending respect that scientists often reserve for their forerunners in the history of science. This is especially likely in the case of Democritus, who made an uncannily good guess when he proposed at some point late in the fifth century B.C. that all matter is composed of indivisible particles called "atoms."
Socrates appears to have been one of these natural philosophers in his youth. But at some point he became convinced that the anti-dogmatism of his fellow philosophers concealed an even deeper dogmatism. Like the poets, politicians, and craftsmen he regularly talked to on the streets of Athens, the natural philosophers were incapable of giving a coherent account of their own activity and why it was good. They couldn't explain the nature and origins of the concepts they presupposed in their own thinking. They couldn't consistently define what they meant by such fundamental ideas as truth, goodness, nobility, beauty, and justice. Neither could they consistently explain what they hoped for from the knowledge they so passionately pursued.
If the natural philosophers truly wished to liberate themselves from dogma in all of its forms and live lives of complete intellectual wakefulness and self-awareness, they would need to pose far more searching questions. They would need to begin reflecting on human nature as both a part of and distinct from the wider natural world. They would need to begin examining their own minds and motives, very much including their motives in taking up the pursuit of philosophical knowledge in the first place.
Philosophy rightly understood is the mind's rigorous, open-ended, radically undogmatic pursuit of this self-knowledge.
If what you crave is answers, the study of philosophy in this sense can be hugely frustrating and unsatisfying. But if you want to understand yourself as well as the world around you — including why you're so impatient for answers, and progress, in the first place — then there's nothing more thrilling and gratifying than training in philosophy and engaging with its tumultuous, indeterminate history.
Not that many young people today recognize its value. There are always an abundance of reasons to resist raising the peskiest, most difficult questions of oneself and the world. To that list, our time has added several more: technological distractions, economic imperatives, cultural prejudices, ideological commitments.
And now Neil deGrasse Tyson has added another — one specially aimed at persuading scientifically minded young people to reject self-examination and the self-knowledge that goes along with it.
He should be ashamed of himself.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Ted Cruz is the new Sarah Palin
- Watch out, China — America is working on dogfighting drones
- How liberals are unwittingly paving the way for the legalization of adult incest
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 10 things you need to know today: October 1, 2014
- The troubling persistence of eugenicist thought in modern America
- Why the Chinese military is only a paper dragon
- Why America won't have enough money to battle ISIS
- Bill O'Reilly and Stephen Colbert are accidentally having a serious debate on ISIS
Subscribe to the Week