Philosophers Are Not Useless: Challenging Neil deGrasse Tyson

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The controversial Nerdist podcast of Neil deGrasse Tyson interview:

Interviewer: My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?

(Another) interviewer: I think a healthy balance of both is good.

1st Interviewer: Well, I’m still worried even about a healthy balance. Yeah, 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. And so the scientist knows when the question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress.

[interviewer imitates the clapping of one hand]

Interviewer: How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas.  Scientist says look, we have all this world of unknown out there [but doesn’t let him/herself get caught up in the unknown, instead the scientist says moves on from it]. But, philosophers can’t even cross the street because they are too distracted by the deep questions [about the unknown].

I get told 50 times a day that I am ‘too deep’. I’m told that I ‘have a theory for everything’. I don’t know what hurts more, that I’m made to feel as if my thinking has limits- that there could ever be too much thinking on my part– or that i’m being mentally policed. Philosophers are people who ask the questions that everybody else is too uncomfortable to think of, let aloneask about. Questioning is the root of all thinking and so philisosphers are just people who are un-afraid to imagine of significant questions that others might have overlooked.

It’s truly a sad shame that in our society thinking deeply has become stigmatised and considered to be a “distraction” or even worse, seen an indication of depression of ’emo-ness’. Philosophy is not a product of thought. Thought is a product of thought, and philosophy is simply a way of thinking. All growth occurs through some level of discomfort and philosophy (which is literally the Greek for ‘love of wisdom’) is no different. People cannot handle the truth, so accepting the big truths of life is difficult for people. They tend to cover up this vulnerability with humour, or wilful ignorance or even worse: acting oblivious. But, if there’s one thing we all know: it’s that we don’t really know shit.

Nobody really knows why we are here. So any attempts at the ‘why’ questions are paramount. Philosophy is like the base of a cake. Without the base, everything else crumbles down.

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How can you enjoy the cake without knowing the importance of its base? Without recognising that the entire dessert does not even exist without the base? Before I start driving you crazy with cake metaphors, let me get back to the real issue. Life is definitely not cake. But, my point is that the scientist will look at the cake and see a sum of parts. A philosopher will see the parts of a sum. That is the real different between the two worlds. And that is what Dr. Tyson missed. We cannot live without philosophy because not everything can be understood in relation to its whole- sometimes parts need individual attention and the hardcore scientists don’t get to that.

Scientists aren’t wondering whether or not the cake exists or not, whether the cake can prove itself. Scientists simply view the cake as thing that can further the purpose of science. A philosopher might ask about what the cake means to different people, how it contains itself or if the taste of the cake affecst the perception of the cake. Does that mean that a philosopher is not worth as much as a physicist, for example? Absolutely not. What Dr. Tyson is forgetting is that science is inseparable from philosophy. All scientific theories originated from an idea, a curious thought that was ignited by some philosophical wondering. Hell, I bet even Dr. Tyson was even a bit of a philosopher before he became a big-time celebrity figure.

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I’ve lived my whole life with people telling me that my questions are too much for them. It hurts. Who gave Dr. Tyson the authority to audit my questions? What Dr. Tyson is doing when he attempts to diminish philosophy is creating hierarchy of importance for the sciences. This is incorrect. Why can I not concern myself with the meaning of meaning? Why is existentialism any less as important as physics? Doesn’t the meaning of life not take precedence over the measurements of a nebula? And whose to say these two questions cannot co-exist together?  In what way is an existential question distracting me from crossing the road? Perhaps if I was reading philosophy while crossing the road.. that would be the only real distraction

“My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think… and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre,

Dr. Tyson forgets that science too was once natural philosophy. He declares that he would “rather to stick a conversation of ideas”. So what is philosophy? Do theoretical assumptions not underly ideas, Mr Tyson?

It’s easy to poke fun at philosophers. Thinkers are easy targets because you can just accuse them of ‘being stuck in a haze’, or of daydreaming too much and not acting enough. But, what is life without the freedom of thought.. If I cannot even think on my own terms,.. what is the point of my living? I want to ask questions about the meaning of meaning without being made to feel like I am lowering my intelligence to do so.

Perhaps if Dr. Tyson weren’t so distracted by his glittering new-found popularity, he could cross the road over to Sense Street and see that philosophers are not useless people. In fact, philosophers are imperative to our growth as a humanity. I have learnt more about the meaning of life from philosophy than I have by any book about how to ionise hydrogen to create low-level radiation.

Philosophy has never distracted me. In fact, it has focused me. It has increased my scope. Philosophy gives me the freedom to venture into the unknown, to battle with the dark murkiness. It helps me understand my being. It has allowed me to distinguish between mind and matter. It gave me the knowledge I needed to become a truly conscious individual. I cannot imagine myself without philosophy, and why would I even want to? I want to understand why I am here, how I exist and how I can be, and philosophy is really the only way I can even begin to do any of these things..

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