Pigliucci vs Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson said some critical stuff about philosophy on a podcast and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci decided to criticise Tyson’s remarks. I think some philosophy is good but the vast bulk is trash, and Pigliucci’s article is an example of such trash. In the first paragraph we get an example of what is wrong with the article:

But in his case the offense is particularly egregious, for two reasons: first, because he is a highly visible science communicator, and second, because I told him not to, several times.

Pigliucci told him not to say bad stuff about philosophy. So what? Why should the fact that you in particular gave him an order mean he should follow that order? This isn’t an argument, but Pigliucci posts it as if it is an argument. Also, he told Tyson to “respect my philosophah!” several times and it didn’t work but he didn’t figure out that just telling him to shut up was a crap argument. Witness Pigliucci’s awesome philosophical talent!

He quotes Tyson making a number of criticisms of philosophy, most of which are correct criticisms of philosophy as practised by acadamic philosophers. A few of the highlights:

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?”

 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. 

This is essentialism, which was refuted by Karl Popper, but the vast bulk of philosophers don’t seem to have noticed. I don’t think Tysoon understands this very well but he is right to point out that it’s a bad idea. Tyson makes another point:

And when you do that, don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this.

Pigliucci made an argument from authority at the start of the article, but Tyson doesn’t fall into this trap. He doesn’t think students should accept stuff just because philosophy professors tell them to accept it.

Pigliucci quotes more stuff by Tyson:

Up until early 20th century philosophers had material contributions to make to the physical sciences. Pretty much after quantum mechanics, remember the philosopher is the would be scientist but without a laboratory, right? And so what happens is, the 1920s come in, we learn about the expanding universe in the same decade as we learn about quantum physics, each of which falls so far out of what you can deduce from your armchair that the whole community of philosophers that previously had added materially to the thinking of the physical scientists was rendered essentially obsolete, and that point, and I have yet to see a contribution — this will get me in trouble with all manner of philosophers — but call me later and correct me if you think I’ve missed somebody here.

The main role philosophers have played in the history of quantum mechanics is destructive. Neils Bohr interpreted Kant as saying that classical physics was some sort of necessary condition for knowledge and so quantum physics sometimes doesn’t apply, hence the Copenhagen interpretation. Who solved the problem of understanding quantum mechanics properly? The lion’s share of the credit has to go to Hugh Everett, who was a physicist not a philosopher. David Deutsch has elaborated a lot on Everett but he too is a physicist by training not a philosopher. Some philosophers have produced glosses on Everett, such as David Wallace. So Tyson is basically right about this issue.

Then we come to Pigliucci’s apology for philosophy:

You and a number of your colleagues keep asking what philosophy (of science in particular) has done for science lately. There are two answers here: First, much philosophy of science is simply not concerned with advancing science, which means that it is a category mistake (a useful philosophical concept [11]) to ask why it didn’t. The main objective of philosophy of science is to understand how science works and, when it fails to work (which it does occasionally), why this was the case. It is epistemology applied to the scientific enterprise.

The vast bulk of philosophers of science have rejected good epistemology. Karl Popper solved many problems in epistemology and philosophy of science and philosophers have been ignoring or misrepresenting his position. As an example of this I offer you Pigliucci himself. Two years ago I noticed that Pigliucci had posted a video in which he misrepresented Karl Popper. I pointed out his mistake in a video that I posted as a reply to the video containing the misrepresentation, providing detailed descriptions of Popper’s position and the places in his work where he answered all of the objections Pigliucci had in his video. Since I tried to post my video as a reply, Pigliucci is aware of its existence as he would have been notified of it. He hasn’t refuted my points, he hasn’t taken his mistaken video down.

What Tyson has said about philosophy is largely an accurate description of academic philosophers. I am not surprised that Pigliucci has not maged to change his mind about philosophy. There is good philosophy of science, from people like Popper and David Deutsch, who I think Tyson should read.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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