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Sunday, March 06, 2016

Why are so many smart people such idiots about philosophy?

Follow onTwitter as @OliviaGoldhill
"There’s no doubt that Bill Nye “the Science Guy” is extremely intelligent. But it seems that, when it comes to philosophy, he’s completely in the dark." reports Olivia Goldhill, Weekend writer.
He's an expert on science—but not philosophy.
(Reuters/ Andrew Kelly)

The beloved American science educator and TV personality posted a video last week where he responded to a question from a philosophy undergrad about whether philosophy is a “meaningless topic.”

The video, which made the entire US philosophy community collectively choke on its morning espresso, is hard to watch, because most of Nye’s statements are wrong. Not just kinda wrong, but deeply, ludicrously wrong. He merges together questions of consciousness and reality as though they’re one and the same topic, and completely misconstrues Descartes’ argument “I think, therefore I am”—to mention just two of many examples.

Watch the Video - YouTube

And Nye—arguably America’s favorite “edutainer”—is not the only popular scientist saying “meh” to the entire centuries-old discipline. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has claimed philosophy is not “a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world”; while theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking declared that “philosophy is dead.”

It’s shocking that such brilliant scientists could be quite so ignorant, but unfortunately their views on philosophy are not uncommon. Unlike many other academic subjects (mathematics and history, for example), where non-experts have some vague sense of the field’s practices, there seems to be widespread confusion about what philosophy entails.

In Nye’s case, his misconceptions are too large and many to show why each and every one is flawed. But several of his comments in the video speak to broader confusions about philosophy. So let’s clear up some of those:

“It often gets back to this question: What is the nature of consciousness?”

Here is Nye’s full quote, on what he sees as philosophy’s main preoccupations:
“It often gets back to this question: What is the nature of consciousness? Can we know that we know? Are we aware that we’re aware? Are we not aware that we’re aware? Is reality real? Or is reality not real and we’re all living on a ping pong ball that’s part of a giant interplanetary ping pong game that we cannot sense? These are interesting questions.”
Nye’s remarks, which conflate ideas from completely different areas of philosophy, are a caricature based on the common misconception that philosophy is about asking pointlessly “deep” questions, plucking an answer out of thin air, and then drinking some pinot noir and writing a florid essay.

But ping pong inside, these actually are interesting questions—and far from idle musing, the methods of analyzing such topics are incredibly, mind-achingly rigorous. Each of the questions Nye asks is the subject of extensive study, and philosophy, at its core, involves highly critical thinking.

Ned Hall, a professor and philosophy department chair at Harvard University, quoted a colleague who describes philosophy as, “Thinking in slow motion.” It’s thinking that cannot be dismissed with a raised eyebrow, à la Nye.

“The idea that reality is not real, that what you sense and feel is not authentic, is something I’m very skeptical of.”

Nye’s skepticism is an empty response to the question of whether we can trust our senses. “If you drop a hammer on your foot, is it real?” he asks. “Or is it just your imagination?” Then he goes on to suggest that the young philosophy student explore the question by dropping a hammer on his own foot. But such a painful experiment would not actually address the underlying question, and this approach—simply mocking the argument rather than addressing it—is so infamous that, as CUNY philosophy professor Kaikhosrov Irani points out on his blog, it has its own name: argumentum ad lapidem—”appeal to a stone.”

Nye’s confidence that what we sense and feel is “authentic” is particularly strange coming from a scientist, given that several advanced scientific discoveries do in fact contradict information we receive from our senses. Einstein discovered that there’s no such thing as absolute simultaneity, for example, while quantum physics shows that an object can be in two places at the same time. Several philosophers have long argued that our senses are not a reliable means of evaluating reality, and such scientific discoveries support the idea that we should treat sensory information with a little skepticism.

Source: Quartz and Big Think Channel (YouTube)

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John Laskaris said...

Philosophy is definetely more esoteric than some people want it to be. And some don't even recognize it when it is not so easily quantifiable!

Helge Scherlund said...

I appreciate your comment, John.