Philosophy and Science

Within the past year, the famous scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson said of philosophers, “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.” This is just one of many things he’s said to attack the merit of contemporary philosophy. He believes philosophy once added to our understanding of the natural world, but it no longer does. I disagree.

First, Tyson assumes philosophers only ask questions. Philosophers are definitely concerned with the “big questions” of life: what is the meaning of life, does God exist, what is consciousness, do we have free will, etc. Philosophers will always be concerned with such questions. But philosophers do not only ask questions; we also answer them.  

Philosophy, in general, asks important questions and answers them with arguments. While the scientist uses her microscope, we use modus ponens. Scientists use observation; we use logic. We’re both trying to understand the nature of reality. We just use different tools.

Unfortunately, many philosophers seem to agree with Tyson: philosophy ends where science begins. Philosophy must die for science to live. We ask the questions, and science answers them. Bertrand Russell even seem to think this is what makes philosophy valuable—a gateway to science. It’s commonplace to hear philosophers say, “it all began with a philosopher looking up at the stars. When there were finally enough answers to the questions of the cosmos, we had astronomy,” and physics, psychology, cognitive science, sociology, biology, and so on. The idea is that philosophy sets the way for science. We do the necessary conceptual work so science can properly observe. And Tyson seems to think there is no more conceptual work to be done. So much the worse for philosophy.

But things are not so easy. On the one hand, scientists do not take all of what philosophers have done and then just build. Scientists notoriously conflate ideas, fail to make important distinctions, draw conclusions that simply do not follow from the data, and seem to utterly forget all the philosophy that came before them. For instance, social psychologists still insist there are but two moral theories: Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics. All of their experiments and conclusions are based upon this view. But there are so many more nuanced theories out there!

On the other hand, philosophy is not limited to the role of fodder for science.  We have our own goals, our own methods, our own conclusions. And many of us use observations in reaching those conclusions. The philosopher of language thinks quite a bit about how everyday people use words. That’s observation. We use observational facts as premises all the time. But that’s just it–we use empirical data to draw logical conclusions. We derive answers from data in a logical way. Scientists end with the observation. Philosophers go beyond what science can offer us. Instead, maybe we should think of science as fodder for philosophers.

What we need, I think, is a symbiosis. Science without philosophy is blind, and philosophy without science is contentless (a shoutout to McDowell for all those philosophers out there). When Tyson dismisses philosophy, he becomes blind to the concepts necessary to draw any kind of logical conclusion. When philosophers dismiss science, they have arguments with premises not anchored in reality. We need both.

Second, Tyson also assumes only one kind of productive contribution. From the outside, yes, it looks like philosophers do a lot of bickering amongst themselves, contributing nothing outside the ivory tower. One philosopher says reasons are this, and another says reasons are that, and there is no real conclusion.

But what do we mean by “contribution?” Surely it cannot simply mean “to the betterment of people’s lives.” I mean, Tyson is an astrophysicist. Does astrophysics make the individual’s life better? And do all astrophysicists agree with one another about everything? Certainly not. They also bicker. They bicker using a combination of mathematics and speculation. So, Tyson can’t have that idea of contribution in mind.

The philosopher and scientist have one thing in common: we’re good at ruling out possibilities. The philosopher is very good at drawing out inconsistencies. If believing A leads to a contradiction, then we ought to reject A. Astrophysicists do the same. So why is the physicist’s conclusion “well, it must not be A” any more of a contribution than the philosopher’s? Ruling out bad options is itself a kind of contribution. But a contribution to what?

We “move forward” by ruling out possibilities. Philosophers are very good at this. But we also move forward by getting clearer about what our concepts mean (even what the concept of ‘meaning’ means). What is this sense of ‘forward’? Tyson seems to think that getting clearer about our concepts is less important than understanding the natural world. Understanding the natural world is contribution; understanding concepts is not. But what’s the difference? Both contribute to understanding for the sake of understanding. We want to gain knowledge. Knowledge is important. Well then, presumably anything that contributes to knowledge is also important. If both understanding our concepts and understanding the world around us contributes to knowledge, then they both help us move forward.

So far we have two senses of ‘contribution’: ruling out alternate possibilities and adding to knowledge. But there is a third: bettering the lives of others. Philosophy does this, too. It’s crucially important that we understand the concept of personhood, for example. This understanding has real-world consequences: is an unborn fetus a person? The way you answer this question may bear on what you ought to do. As a society, we should have a clear understanding of what we mean by punishment, marriage, oppression, wellbeing, equality, rights, etc. Philosophers contribute to those discussions, which in turn contributes to the betterment of people’s lives. So while our questions may at times be distracting, our answers certainly contribute in many ways.

Do I think it’s important to answer, as Tyson jests, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” No. But it is revealing that this is how he sees philosophers. He sees us as waving our hands in the air to no avail. I see us as patting science on the back for providing us with food for thought.


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