Friday, May 9, 2014

A Horrible Message to Send to Young Scientists

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."

Damon Linker calls Tyson a philistine and weighs in on importance of philosophy:

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.

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.

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