Neil deGrasse Tyson is a philistine

Those that have watched the redone television series “Cosmos” featuring uber self-promoter errr scientist extraordinaire Neil deGrasse Tyson are sure to have noticed that while Tyson knows his science, his knowledge of the history of ideas, philosophy, and theology are rather lacking.  Well now we know why the series has featured such a pathetic grasp of the history and relationship between religion and science.  Turns out Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks philosophy is a waste of time.  If you listen to the interview linked in the article below, he shows himself to be deeply misinformed about what philosophy is really about.  He plays on cartoonish stereotypes, nothing more.  He thinks it is all just a lot of ridiculous and pointless questions.  Intro to philosophy students know better than he does (and are capable of making better arguments than Tyson, Dawkins, and Hawking).  Tyson’s attitude is basically: Shut up with that crap and let me do my science (as if his scientific knowledge is immune to legitimate philosophical investigation). 

I don’t blame him for his ignorance.  I know a little something about philosophy but I don’t know much at all about physics.  But there is one difference that is crucial:  He dumps on what he does not understand, I do not.  Many of the most religious philosophers in history, including contemporaries like Saint John Paul II or Pope Benedict, have a deep and abiding value for scientific inquiry.  Why can’t these popular scientists return the favor?  (I am thinking of Dawkins, Tyson, Hawking, and others).  Of course, they are not just doing science but instead are making sweeping metaphysical claims.  That my Intro students are capable of clearer thinking on those fronts does not seem to bother them a bit from pretending that their expertise in their particular field of empirical science makes them experts on metaphysics.  To be clear – I am perfectly fine with them making metaphysical claims.  Just admit your ignorance when you are, in fact, ignorant.  I happily do so when the conversation turns to quarks.

Alas, to admit such ignorance and to allow for non-scientific inquiry (including inquiry into the validity of scientific reasoning) would force Tyson to admit that his “objectivity” is not quite what he thinks it is and that his chosen field is not the master science of everything.  That is, apparently, just too much to ask.  In addition, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s high horse is so tall that if he climbed off it, the fall would be fatal.  It is probably safer for him to stay up there; we’ll just have to endure him.

Here is the article, “Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is a Philistine.”

About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
This entry was posted in Catholic thought/religion/culture, Philosophy, Polis (politics, culture). Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Neil deGrasse Tyson is a philistine

  1. Al says:

    It wasn’t so long ago that I was sucked into this sort of rhetoric. One danger is that popularizing leads to wonky propositions to remove entire philosophy departments. Also, young people like myself, being overcome by a wave of geek/nerd culture, get in the cheerful mood that philosophy is dead and comic books are in. Naive progress rules, so a chipper and upbeat attitude blends with supposedly deep questions that, when genuine, as they used to be, carry the danger of contemplation and seriousness – even solitariness and reflection.

    Oh no! Wouldn’t want that! People would stop buying cheesy books, and watching Cosmos. This is what Tyson really means by “Philosophy, it’ll mess you up.” The idiots in this podcast, over lattes, worry that contemplation outside of science leads to nihilism. I wonder what they think about the pitfalls of progress in history, or if they read about the world wars occasionally. “I don’t have time for that,” says Tyson.

    Our generation may look back and say the same, and groan with embarrassment while standing, say, on Mars, hands in space-pockets, victorious but a little confused and still with no sense of home – and human nature has somehow followed us all the way there.

    The geek/nerd culture itself would benefit by stepping back and reconsidering celebrated stories and mythologies. They mince words about intrusions into the lab made by questioning humanists, rather than wondering what Hell would emerge without those intrusions – even and especially for their own culture.

    Actually, this podcast’s website (and a thousand, thousand others like it) has nothing to do with science at all. The bloated majority of our pop geek culture is a theme-park of comic books, comedians, tee shirts, computer games. All inspired by history, literature and philosophy. Science plays the simple role of intellectual guardian in case any bothersome questions happen to be raised which threaten that squishy sense of self-empowerment and domination accompanying the virtual hero.

    The geek culture itself – to whom Tyson sells himself in drag – owes its substance to philosophy, not science. Who built the Death Star? An engineer? These recent books about the ‘poetry of science’ try to render actual poetry obsolete; the opposite is not true. Tyson needs to read his stuff before talking about it.

    Too busy! As Tyson himself put it,

    “My view is that if your philosophy is not unsettled daily then you are blind to all the universe has to offer.” – Nov. 13, 2011.

  2. Ted Walsh says:

    This so offended me I had to google it just to see if he had responded to criticism yet. I’m sure he will give some BS explanation. Ditto to the above comment. Who do you think wrote about the drive of humanity to create structures and alliances, leading ultimately to a war to end all wars, resulting in the creation of united world governing body. And that the only impediments to peace at that point would be an unbalanced international financial system and large standing armies. Kant was showing us a viable way to world peace, through the UN and deescalation of conflicts, 400 years ago.

    You’re right NGT! Let’s just ignore philosophy!

  3. Huenemann says:

    I agree with you about the hubris of philistine scientists – and once took the occasion of writing about it here –
    – and am sorry to see NdGT among their number. To be fair, though, the interviewer sort of leads him into the territory of the ridiculous (people wondering why a yard is a yard, etc). They end up talking not about philosophy, but about silly verbal disputes. Not that they seem aware of any difference. I guess that’s what makes them philistines!

  4. cfreynolds says:

    Reblogged this on angrenzend and commented:
    Some very conservative behavior from some folks in science whose fields have benefited from the opposite. Everybody (Hawking, NdGT, Dawkins, Hitchens) with an ounce of understanding (omit Hitchens; scarcely any understanding there) angrily rattling their swords and disagreeing before they understand anything.

    It’d be cool to find a scientist who’s willing to take Derrida seriously, but alas, impossible: these guys don’t even take Descartes seriously.

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