Why are so many smart people such idiots about philosophy?

He’s an expert on science—but not philosophy.
He’s an expert on science—but not philosophy.
Image: Reuters/ Andrew Kelly
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There’s no doubt that Bill Nye “the Science Guy” is extremely intelligent. But it seems that, when it comes to philosophy, he’s completely in the dark. The beloved American science educator and TV personality posted a video last week where he responded to a question from a philosophy undergrad about whether philosophy is a “meaningless topic.”

The video, which made the entire US philosophy community collectively choke on its morning espresso, is hard to watch, because most of Nye’s statements are wrong. Not just kinda wrong, but deeply, ludicrously wrong. He merges together questions of consciousness and reality as though they’re one and the same topic, and completely misconstrues Descartes’ argument “I think, therefore I am”—to mention just two of many examples.

And Nye—arguably America’s favorite “edutainer”—is not the only popular scientist saying “meh” to the entire centuries-old discipline. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has claimed philosophy is not “a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world”; while theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking declared that “philosophy is dead.”

It’s shocking that such brilliant scientists could be quite so ignorant, but unfortunately their views on philosophy are not uncommon. Unlike many other academic subjects (mathematics and history, for example), where non-experts have some vague sense of the field’s practices, there seems to be widespread confusion about what philosophy entails.

In Nye’s case, his misconceptions are too large and many to show why each and every one is flawed. But several of his comments in the video speak to broader confusions about philosophy. So let’s clear up some of those:

“It often gets back to this question: What is the nature of consciousness?”

Here is Nye’s full quote, on what he sees as philosophy’s main preoccupations:

“It often gets back to this question: What is the nature of consciousness? Can we know that we know? Are we aware that we’re aware? Are we not aware that we’re aware? Is reality real? Or is reality not real and we’re all living on a ping pong ball that’s part of a giant interplanetary ping pong game that we cannot sense? These are interesting questions.”

Nye’s remarks, which conflate ideas from completely different areas of philosophy, are a caricature of the common misconception that philosophy is about asking pointlessly “deep” questions, plucking an answer out of thin air, and then drinking some pinot noir and writing a florid essay.

But ping pong aside, these actually are interesting questions—and far from idle musing, the methods of analyzing such topics are incredibly, mind-achingly rigorous. Each of the questions Nye asks is the subject of extensive study, and philosophy, at its core, involves highly critical thinking.

Ned Hall, a professor and philosophy department chair at Harvard University, tells Quartz that a colleague describes philosophy as, “Thinking in slow motion.” It’s certainly thinking that cannot be dismissed with a raised eyebrow, à la Nye.

“The idea that reality is not real, that what you sense and feel is not authentic, is something I’m very skeptical of.”

Nye’s skepticism is an empty response to the question of whether we can trust our senses. “If you drop a hammer on your foot, is it real?” he asks. “Or is it just your imagination?” Then he goes on to suggest that the young philosophy student explore the question by dropping a hammer on his own foot. But such a painful experiment would not actually address the underlying question, and this approach—simply mocking the argument rather than addressing it—is so infamous that, as CUNY philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci points out on his blog, it has its own name: argumentum ad lapidem—”appeal to a stone.”

Nye’s confidence that what we sense and feel is “authentic” is particularly strange coming from a scientist, given that several advanced scientific discoveries do in fact contradict information we receive from our senses. Einstein discovered that there’s no such thing as absolute simultaneity, for example, while quantum physics shows that an object can be in two places at the same time. Several philosophers have long argued that our senses are not a reliable means of evaluating reality, and such scientific discoveries support the idea that we should treat sensory information with a little skepticism.

“Philosophy is important for a while…. But you can start arguing in a circle.”

Philosophy is important for more than just a while, and has serious, practical uses for all of society. There are countless examples of philosophy of mind theories’ relevance to neuroscientists, or cases where political philosophers have shaped politicians.

Historically, physics and mathematics have often overlapped with philosophy, and many great scientists engaged with philosophers to advance their own thinking. (Einstein’s work can be studied alongside that of Kant, for example.) The physicist behind the theory of relativity was also a philosopher of science and, as Hall points out, Einstein reconfigured our concepts of space and time—itself a philosophical undertaking.

Philosophers also address the assumptions that underly science. “There’s a huge element in science of relying on our capacity to reason,” says Hall. “The way that capacity gets deployed in scientific inquiry often involves unstated but fairly substantial assumptions about the simplicity and elegance of the natural world. Philosophers bring to the table an awareness of how rich the set of assumptions are.”

So, for example, in the video Nye mockingly expresses his confidence that the sun will come up tomorrow. Philosophers are confident of this too, but few feel certain that they can explain exactly what causes this daily phenomenon—or any event. The 18th century philosopher David Hume’s argument that we don’t have a reasonable understanding of causation at all, but only presume cause and effect when two things have been observed as conjoined in the past, is notoriously difficult to refute. The problem underlies much of physics and is hardly insignificant.

And then there’s the development of formal logic, which was devised by philosophers a little over 100 years ago and is the foundation of coding and computer science—in other words, the grounding for all modern technology.

“It doesn’t always give an answer that’s surprising.”

Anyone who believes this clearly hasn’t spent much time studying philosophy. Any far-out, mind-bending, LSD-induced epiphany that’s ever been had has already been ripped apart and taken even further in sober-looking philosophy books. This is a field where prominent figures have argued that God is constantly creating the entire world in every moment, and that failing to donate any superfluous wealth is morally equivalent to walking past a drowning child.

“Keep in mind, humans made up philosophy too.”

Here, Nye suggests philosophy is irrelevant because we’re incapable, as fallible beings, of uncovering the absolute truth. “You’re a human seeking the truth,” he says, “so there are going to be limits.”

Far from a rebuttal of philosophy, this is a component of the field. Many great thinkers recognize this limit on our search for meaning and have written a range of complex papers on the subject, its implications, and the sort of truth that can be uncovered within the constraints of humans’ tiny minds. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, might interest those who share Nye’s skepticism.

Philosophy is not for everyone, and many are perfectly happy to live their lives without trying to figure out what, exactly, Heidegger is saying. But for Nye to talk so condescendingly about the “cool questions” in philosophy suggests that he doesn’t know enough to dismiss it. Because philosophy is in fact incredibly useful for anyone interested in language, knowledge, morality—and science. And yeah, it is pretty cool.