Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dear Bill Nye the Science Guy, You don't understand philosophy.

Bill is a great guy, but severely mistaken about philosophy.

Dear Bill,

On one of your Big Think posts, you answered a question by a person called Mike about your thoughts concerning philosophy. Before I get to that, however, I want to say I am a big fan of your work. In my opinion, your ceaseless effort to make the world more scientifically literate, your environmental outreach, and tenure as the CEO of the Planetary Society are very admirable. I also love the respect and patience you show children (there is a reason why Bill Nye the Science Guy is still shown in schools) and think its awesome that you are willing to change your mind about GMO's. In my opinion, it takes a lot of chutzpah to admit when you are wrong. Given that you have the courage to reconsider your views, I decided to write you this letter. It contains commentary of your video and explains why I, a fellow skeptic, am troubled by your positions.

It is unfortunate that a really smart guy like you has, at least in my opinion, a profoundly uneducated view of philosophy. Given the nature of your thoughts on the subject, I would wager that you never took Philosophy 101 or have even read a beginners book like Philosophy: a Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig. It is not surprising that you have never studied philosophy. Many STEM programs, such as the one I am currently enrolled in, do not include philosophy courses as part of their track. I would not take offense to this lack of knowledge (there is nothing wrong with having different interests and priorities) if you had not made a video criticizing a field of study that you know close to nothing about. As a fellow skeptic, I think that it is very important to admit when we do not know something. In my opinion, you should have answered Mike's question with the following statement:

Thanks for the question. Unfortunately, I cannot provide an honest answer because I have never studied philosophy in any real depth. As an engineer, I was not required to take philosophy courses in college and have never been compelled to investigate it on my own. While many other people find value in studying it, I prefer to focus my time and effort on issues concerning environmentalism, sustainable energy, and bringing science to the masses.

This would have been a much more admirable answer. Unfortunately, however, this is not what happened.

Your lack of knowledge concerning philosophy became apparent as soon as you stated that you believe the conclusions of philosophers are unsurprising and abide by "common sense":

I’m not sure that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins, two guys I’m very well acquainted with have declared philosophy as irrelevant and blowing it off in you term. I think that they’re just concerned that it doesn’t always give an answer that’s surprising. It doesn’t always lead you someplace that is inconsistent with common sense.

If you don't think philosophy (at least sometimes) leads us to conclusions that are counter to common sense, then you have literally never studied the history of philosophy. Since European philosophy began 2,600 years ago with Thales of Miletus (624-546 BC), it has made plenty of daring conclusions based on reason and evidence. Thales himself, for example, concluded that everything is made of water. In the Middle Ages, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) put forth a logical argument that attempts to prove the existence of God by definition. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1697 AD), in his tome Leviathan, provided reasons for why we should enter into a social contract with a sovereign and cede to it all power (barring it does not kill us). Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900 AD) famously (or infamously) argued that we need to cast off our traditional herd morality and live our lives as though they are a work of art. Recently, Peter Singer (b. 1946) argued that, if you are willing to ruin your jeans by saving a drowning child, then you should be willing to donate the cost of a pair of jeans to save children in the third world. These two deeds, Singer argues, are not fundamentally different.

Most ironically, many of the people who historians of science consider to be the founders of modern science were philosophers who saw themselves as putting fourth a new theory of epistemology (a theory of knowledge) that addressed the questions posed by the classical philosophers. Like Thales, they were trying to find out what the cosmos is made of and which principles govern it. The foundations of science were by no means obvious and it took a great deal of effort to found the scientific academies of Europe and win over the patronage of the aristocrats. Galileo Galilei (1534-1642 AD), for example, had to convince the Medici family of Florence that studying theoretical balls rolling down a friction-less incline tells you something about the actual world. It also took the persuasive writing talents of philosophers like Francis Bacon (1561-1626 AD) who argued in favor of the new scientific methods in print, to win the day.

And it gets back – it often, often gets back to this question. What is the nature of consciousness? Can we know that we know? Are we aware that we are aware? Are we not aware that we are aware? Is reality real or is reality not real and we are all living on a ping pong ball as part of a giant interplanetary ping pong game and we cannot sense it. These are interesting questions.

While it is true that many philosophers are interested in consciousness (so are many scientists for that matter), the rest of these questions are straw men of what philosophers address that make philosophy look like it has no ramifications for the real world. In addition to consciousness, some of the major questions that philosophy addresses are: Is there a god? What constitutes a sound or cogent argument? Do we have free-will? How should we organize our society? How do we justify our beliefs? How should we live our lives? What is the world made of? Is it ethical to eat meat? In what way do mathematical entities (numbers, shapes) exist? The answers to these have major consequences for how we live our lives and organize our society. For example, if there is no free-will, then how can we have a punishment-based criminal system? It doesn't seem right to punish people if they did not freely choose their actions.

Some philosophers have indeed discussed what it would be like if we were in a simulation (this thought experiment allows us to think about how we justify our beliefs. It is is seldom taken as something that is actually happening. Nick Bostrom, however, has interesting things to say about it), I have never heard the ping pong example before.

These are interesting questions. But the idea that reality is not real or what you sense and feel is not authentic is something I’m very skeptical of. I mean I think that your senses, the reality that you interact with with light, heat, sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing, absolutely hearing. These are real things.

Again, this is a strawman. Very few contemporary philosophers would say that the senses don't play a role in what we know. There is a strong tradition stemming from ancient Greece that takes our senses as the foundations of knowledge. This was most notably exemplified by the great Aristotle (384-322 BC). In fact, the most dominant school of philosophy in the English speaking world from the 17th century to the mid 20th century was empiricism (if you are curious, now naturalism is the perennial philosophy).

This school of thought contained John Locke (1602-1734 AD), Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753 AD), David Hume (1711-1776 AD), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 AD), and the Logical Empiricists (flourished 1920's-post WWII). Although these thinkers differed greatly, they took the view that our senses are the only way we may get data and anything that goes beyond them is somehow (depending on the thinker) dubious. The Logical Empiricists, for example, held the radical view that the things beyond our senses are, at best, "useful fictions" used to predict patterns or, at worst, literally meaningless. The positivists used this view to dismiss things like morality, particles, and other things that are beyond the senses.

Another concern I have about your idea that the senses should be taken as real is that you may be going too far. There is no denying that we need our senses to get around, but there is a great deal of psychological research that has shown we have many cognitive biases and heuristics that lead us to have very distorted pictures of the world around us. Scientific skeptics like Benjamin Radford (b. 1970) have shown that otherwise rational people are deceived into believing that they saw things like bigfoot and the chupacabre. We also fall for magic tricks like Penn and Teller shooting each other in the face and catching the bullets in their mouths. The urban legends painstakingly chronicled by Jan Harold Brunwand (b. 1933) provide overwhelming evidence that our senses (even those of smart people) can be easily fooled.

And to make a philosophical argument that they may not be real because you can’t prove – like for example you can’t prove that the sun will come up tomorrow. Not really, right. You can’t prove it until it happens. But I’m pretty confident it will happen. That’s part of my reality. The sun will come up tomorrow.

What you are referencing here is David Hume's famous problem of induction. This conundrum that Hume articulated asks how we can justify inductive logic (scientific theories, probability statements, and everyday statements about what is probably going to happen). If we say that, as you do, we are confident that the Sun will come up tomorrow because it always has, then we are using an inductive claim to justify inductive claims. In other words, we have begged the question. What Hume was pointing out, however, is that inductive reasoning has no foundation. Not, as you suggest, that the Sun won't come up or that we should abandon inductive reasoning. Hume thought that we could navigate the world around us according to inductive reasoning (we don't have a choice) and that we should use our background knowledge to judge eyewitness testimony. This is certainly the case, Hume argued, when such testimony is used to support claims about miracles.  

And so philosophy is important for a while but it’s also I get were Neil and Richard might be coming from but where you start arguing in a circle where I think therefore I am. What if you don’t think about it? Do you not exist anymore? You probably still exist even if you’re not thinking about existence.

This is a profound misunderstanding of what Rene Descartes (1596-1650 AD) said and what he was trying to do with his famous cogito ergo sum argument. Descartes (and before him, St. Augustine, who made a very similar argument to refute radical skepticism) was demonstrating that our existence is the one thing we cannot doubt. This is because doubting requires use to think about if we exist. If we can think, however, then we exist exist by definition (we cannot have a thought if there is no us to think). Therefore, we exist. This in no way means that if you are not thinking about existing, then you don't exist (Descartes never said that). If you are thinking about anything at all, then you obviously exist.
And so, you know, this gets into the old thing if you drop a hammer on your foot is it real or is it just your imagination? You can run that test, you know, a couple of times and I hope you come to agree that it’s probably real. It’s a cool question.

The humorous part about your objection is that it is the same as the one made to Bishop Berkeley by the intellectual Samuel Johnson (1709-1784 AD). Berkeley argued in favor of a radical epistemology which states that our perceptions (our sense data) is all we can access. He then went on to eloquently argue that there is no such thing as matter and the sense data itself is controlled and caused by God. This was done to undermine what Berkeley thought was the creeping materialism caused by Newton's mechanical philosophy. Johnson famously tried to refute this idealism by kicking a rock. He proclaimed "I refute it thus!" The problem with this (or a hammer hitting your toe) is all you have is the sensation and this in no way defeats Berkeley's view. While I do not think the Bishop succeeded (few people do), it is funny that your counterargument is one that has been historically ridiculed for its failure.

It’s important I think for a lot of people to be aware of philosophy but just keep in mind if you’re spending all this money on college this also may be where Neil and Richard are coming from. A philosophy degree may not lead you to on a career path. It might but it may not.

This pragmatic objection is interesting for a few reasons.

For starters, many colleges spend virtually nothing on the liberal arts. Visit any medium sized university in the USA and, chances are, these departments are small and poorly funded. To me, this is unfortunate. As someone seeking a mechanical engineering degree (which is quite challenging. Hopefully, I can get through it), I get almost no exposure to topics like environmental or applied ethics. This is unfortunate because the students that are in my classes are going to build nuclear reactors, dispose of toxic waste, and build high tech weaponry. If anyone needs to think hard about these topics, it is the next generation of engineers, doctors (who, I have been informed, get more ethics training than engineers), biologists, chemists, and physicists.

Second, it simply isn't true that philosophy degrees lead to a doomed future. A philosophy degree makes one a killing machine at formal logic, debating ideas, digging arcane details out of texts, and conducting meaty research. All of these skills give philosophy students a big advantage if they want to pursue a career in law and, at least a proficient philosophy student, should blow the LSAT out of the water. When Marco Rubio made a similar argument when he was running for president, Thinkprogess and many other organizations pointed out that philosophy undergrads actually make really solid money. Being able to think out the box and research is a good job skill and liberals arts majors (including philosophers) can be found even in tech strongholds like Silicon Valley.

Finally, so what? If you found numerous people with bachelors degrees in biology who have little to no job opportunities, then would you object to studying biology? Of course not. Biology is worth studying because of its profound implications and because it is exceedingly interesting. This is true regardless of job prospects.

And keep in mind humans made up philosophy too. Humans discovered or invented the process of science. Humans invented language. Humans invented philosophy. So keep that in mind that when you go to seek an absolute truth you’re a human seeking the truth. So there’s going to be limits. But there’s also going to be things beyond which it doesn’t matter. Drop a hammer on your foot and see if you don’t notice it.

No one would doubt that human beings are the ones doing philosophy. In fact, this is why it is so necessary. Philosophy teaches us how to think carefully and avoid making sloppy arguments. This would not be needed if humans were not so fallible. One final point I want to make is that there is an underlying inconsistency of your entire exercise because, as it has been pointed out by SkepticallyPwnd, you do philosophy. For anyone who thinks about the world around them in an organized and logical manner, this is unavoidable. Philosophy is simply the art of thinking clearly about things like the questions mentioned above.

When you, for example, define your terms and use logic to arrive at the conclusion that we need to preserve our environment (which you do quite well), you are doing philosophy. This is important to recognize because, if we are not careful, we can sneak unjustified philosophical baggage that has not been critically examined into our arguments. As Dan Dennett once said, "there is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination."

I hope you found this commentary to be constructive and not pedantic. If you read this and feel that I incorrectly stated your views or was not abiding by the principle of charity in my commentary, then please respond. I am always willing to revise my own positions.

yours truly,


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