Neil DeGrasse Tyson woke up this morning and decided to reply to Lewis Powell, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Buffalo, who wrote a much-shared criticism of Tyson’s recent comments about the uselessness of philosophy.
Here’s Tyson’s reply:
Thanks for your interest in my utterances. My comments and views on Philosophy are best represented in this link:
..made in a more academic setting than my few sentences quipped in a comedic podcast on which you and other Philosophy defenders have based their entire blogs.
The 730,000 viewers of that clip apparently don’t include any of you.
-Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City
So go listen to the ten (or fewer) minutes of Tyson and Richard Dawkins that Tyson clips for us. He talks about philosophy of science — which he refers to as “obsolete” — and he says “I’m disappointed because tere’s a lot of brainpower there that might have otherwise contributed mightily [to the study of the natural world, to the physical sciences] but today simply does not.” He acknowledges that there are a bunch of other forms of philosophy beyond philosophy of science — that there’s plenty for the philosopher to do — but “the frontier of the physical sciences does not appear to be among them.”
This sounds like Tyson is graciously conceding to philosophers their useless tinkering rather than speaking “of the continued and emergent value of Philosophy in fields outside of the physical sciences” (which he says, in additional comments on Powell’s blog post, is what he’s doing).
In that way, these older comments seem very much in line with his more recent comments on the Nerdist podcast, where Tyson seems to judge the discipline of philosophy by the standards of the physical sciences. Here, he suggests that he’s disappointed in the way that philosophers’ are using their brainpower because it doesn’t do what he’s doing, what he finds most important, namely considering the frontier of the physical world.
So, again, watch the clip to which Tyson wants us to pay attention and then you can decide for yourself whether or not we who care about philosophical inquiry should concern ourselves about his (I think, very similar) comments on “a comedic podcast,” which it’s very likely an entirely different audience heard.
For my part, I don’t think Tyson needs to be a cheerleader for philosophy — ethical, moral, political, whatever — but it remains jarring to hear him say that we might judge philosophers to be wasting their time and talent by the pretty useless questions they’re asking … simply because those questions seem not to be ones in which Tyson is interested.