On “The One Thing Neil deGrasse Tyson got wrong”

Steve Neumann wrote a provocative piece in the June 7, 2010 issue of Salon magazine entitled: “The one thing Neil deGrasse Tyson got wrong.” Neumann argues that Tyson’s and many other scientists have “come to believe that to distinguish true knowledge from surface appearance and error is still the worthiest goal of human life, with the implication that only because existence is comprehensible is it justified.” Neumann identifies this attitude with scientism which he says “is the conviction that science really is the only worthwhile human endeavor.”This attitude naturally leads to a denigration of other disciplines, as Tyson’s persistent attacks on philosophy reveal.

Neumann argues that Tyson’s attacks on philosophy are misguided and that “the perspectivism and nuance of full-strength philosophy provide the catalyst that can transmute the lead of knowledge into the gold of flourishing.” In other words knowledge is one thing but living well is quite another. We have all known individuals who possess storehouses of knowledge but do not flourish, and we have known simple people who have good lives.  Neumann grants that science contributes mightily to human flourishing but that it can’t solve the problem on its own. 

What we find when we philosophize is that we are by nature ambivalent toward life. We recognize its beauty and joy while at the same time its tragedy and absurdity. But we must resolve this problem aesthetically and philosophically, science plays a subordinate role here. Consider, says Neumann, how we should feel about the vastness of the universe. Should we feel small or large? Now some feel small, some large, and some small and large at the same time. But how we feel is a philosophical response—it’s an aesthetic view of reality that does not derive from the facts alone. The facts alone do not furnish or rescind meaning.

So the human being herself brings to existence her own meaning and her own feeling; the artist in her brings life to existence—and thereby brings existence to life …

… the aesthetic impulse engenders that synthesis of reason and emotion that enables us to muster the will to transcend the reality of those bitter [natural] truths. The individual who wants to resolve her ambivalence toward life must be equal parts scientist, philosopher and poet, cultivating a wholehearted, meditative disposition within herself.

And what is needed in the public sphere is what Nietzsche called an “artistic Socrates,” someone in whom aesthetic feeling combined with the virtues of science “can reshape the disgust at the thought of the horrific or absurd aspects of life into notions with which it is possible to live.” Only this fusion of reason and imagination can reconcile our intellectual and emotional lives, giving us both claritas and gravitas – understanding and profundity.

I think Neumann is right that we begin with the facts as best science can determine them and then philosophize about their meaning. Thus we must be scientist, philosopher, and poet to give meaning to the endless vastness which surrounds us and to the infinite loneliness which penetrates within. We can still affirm life; we can imagine Sisyphus happy; we can release our imprisoned artist. In fact we must if we are to give life meaning. As it turns out, philosophy, poetry and art are still needed.

Still the starting point of our reflections must be the world revealed to us by modern science–as science is the only cognitive authority in the world today. And in the far future, if we augment our intelligence and learn infinitely more about reality, we may even come to know scientifically how to live best and whether meaning in life is possible. By then philosophical reflection may well be an anachronism.2

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1. I think this definition of scientism is too strong and makes a straw man of Tyson’s position. A better definition is “scientism is a term used to refer to belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.” [Sorell, Thomas. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science, (New York: Rutledge, 1994, pp. 1ff.)]

 2. For a contradictory view by a philosopher/scientist see: http://scientiasalon.org/

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2 thoughts on “On “The One Thing Neil deGrasse Tyson got wrong”

  1. “We begin with the facts as best science can determine them and then invoke philosophical reflection to make sense out of our findings.”

    Which method should one use to make sense of the findings? let me suggest that the only method that can yield useful results is the scientific method. Philosophical reflection, provided it does not use tea leaves or appeals to emotions, but instead uses data and hypothesis and testing… is the scientific method.

    But of course historians, critical literary studies, doctors, welders, architects, teacher, etc, make use of the scientific version whenever they are properly analyzing problems they are facing to try and come up with rational approaches.

    The same goes in personal relationships, or to the extent they are dysfunctional, not.

  2. Mr. Stiller:

    I’ve updated the last few paragraphs of my post to take into account and somewhat reply to your perceptive comments. I think the key is that I now say that philosophizing tries to determine what the facts mean for an individual rather than “make sense out of [their] findings. Whether philosophy is reducible to science has been a hot philosophical topic for a good part of the 20th century and Quine and others think the reduction can take place. I myself am sympathetic to this approach and have often told my students that all philosophical problems are ultimately scientific problems. This piece convinced me that the reduction is not quite complete, since questions of meaning and value are, for the moment, not completely answered by science. Hence a “philosophy of the gaps” like a “god of the gaps” is still somewhat possible.

    So for the moment science couldn’t resolve the meaning question for me, although I think it is the only candidate for doing the job.

    For another more sophisticated view from a philosopher and scientist on the topic see this. http://scientiasalon.org/

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