In Defense of Philosophy

It was really disappointing to hear that one of my heroes, astrophysicist and famous science educator Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson bash philosophy. During an interview with Nerdist podcast (beginning at 20:19), one of the interviewers commented that there was too much questioning in philosophy. Dr. Tyson responded, “That can really mess you up”. He elaborates, “My concern there is that philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. To the scientist… its what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”.

The interviewer responded that learning both science and philosophy could be useful, “I think a healthy balance of both is good”. Dr. Tyson disagreed, “Well, I am still worried about a healthy balance.” He continues, “If you are distracted by your questions so you cannot move forward you are not a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world”.  Moreover, if someone feels inclined to think more philosophically, Dr. Tyson would respond, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by the deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

If I am understanding correctly, Dr. Tyson’s argument is that philosophy is a waste time because unlike science, philosophy spends too much time 1) asking deep questions about the world and 2) understanding the meaning of the words. To Dr. Tyson, what matters, is that, we actually answer questions about the world. Since science excels at this and philosophy does not; science is worth pursuing and philosophy is not.

To the query about philosophers asking deep questions, Mr. Damon Linker (a writer for The Week) does a fine job rebutting Dr. Tyson. The article is worth a full read.

But what Mr. Linker does not address is Dr. Tyson’s other criticism, that philosophy spends too much time on the meaning of words (also known as semantics). Dr. Tyson is right that philosophy spends a significant amount of time understanding the meaning of words. But that is not a bad thing. The point of that is to clarify our thoughts so we can better understand what we are talking about. This is not some trivial exercise. Being very clear about the words we use affects how we view and approach the world. For example, many economists equated economic growth with development. As a consequence, many governments and development institutions also prioritized growth as the end goal of development.

Appropriately enough though, it took an economist with serious philosophical training, Dr. Amartya Sen, to argue that definition is inadequate. To him, growth, although an important means to development, should not be its end goal because it does not necessarily meet other needs important for the well-being of the poor such as health and education.

One illustration that Dr. Sen uses to distinguish growth and development is comparing the life expectancy between African Americans and individuals in substantially poorer countries. He points out that “African Americans as a group have no higher-indeed have a lower-chance of reaching advance ages than do people born in the immensely poorer economies of China, the Indian state of Kerala, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, or Costa Rica”(Sen, 1999, p.21). Men in China and in Kerala decisively outlive African American men in terms of surviving old age groups. Even African American women end up having a survival pattern for higher ages similar to that of much poorer Chinese, and decidedly lower than the even poorer Indians in Kerala (Ibid, p.22). He then concludes that the causal influence go beyond income to include social arrangements and community relations such as medical coverage, public health care, school education, law and order, prevalence of violence, and so on (Ibid, p. 23)

Dr. Sen realized if development is about improving the lives of the poor, then we have to think hard about what kind of life are we trying to improve towards? In other words, what is the good life?  To him, the freedom to choose one’s own destiny or to live the life one values without harming other people’s freedoms is very important for a good life. Indeed, if one looks at history, it is not difficult to believe that a lot people strongly value their personal freedom.

This lead him to write Development As Freedom. In which he defines development as expanding people’s opportunities or capabilities to enjoy the life they value and poverty as the deprivation of those opportunities or capabilities. This definition is superior to the traditional definition, in the sense, that it incorporates other needs such as political and civil rights, health and education. Indeed, it is not difficult, to imagine that better political and civil rights, healthcare and educational opportunities would expand a person’s opportunities to live the life they value.

There were plenty of people who also criticized equating growth with development but what made Dr. Sen different from the rest, is that, he came up with a persuasive alternative. This is because he spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to understand the meaning of development and poverty and his philosophical training, no doubt, helped significantly.

It is precisely because individuals asked deep questions and thought clearly about the words that they use, did our understanding of ourselves and the world improved substantially. It is sad to hear famous scientists and science educators dismiss the discipline that gave us so much, let alone, science.

 

References

Sen, A.K. (1999). Development as Freedom. Alfred A. Knopf: New York

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “In Defense of Philosophy

  1. Fran Dura

    To comment on this I have to talk about general science first:

    The other day, I was discussing a presentation that was held at university regarding a mathematical problem within the solution of fluid structures in turbulences. While quite interesting on its own I thought that in the way that the research was pointed it was a good mathematical study but maybe not so good for us aerodynamicists. After a conversation with a colleague I realized that, even though it was not directly benefitial to us, it was beneficial in an indirect way in which it could lead to advances in other fields that in time would spread to our area of interest.

    This made me think back at all the apparent useless scientific investigations that to me seemed just plain courious but not helping the development of our technology (in any field). But this seemingly trivial investigations are in fact quite useful to build the foundations of future ground-breaking advances.

    Going back to philosophy, I think the same rules apply. A lot of the Questions might seem like they are taking us nowhere, but the study of philosophy leads to quite important questions to ask ourselves, and those questions are better answered with a better understanding of the field of study/questioning as a whole.

    After all this I have only said that those small questions are just as important just like in Physics, or medicine, or else.

    Philosophy is not a concrete science like aerodynamics, medicine, engineering, molecular engineering and all the rest. But that doesn’t make it less important. It will not tell you how to look at things or how to do certain tasks for more efficency/wealth/health, but it helps us understand the abstract part of our world and our society.

    Philosophy to me starts with the famous phrase ‘cogito ergo sum’. The conscience of our understanding is what makes us different to all the other animals, and this is found by the use of philosophy.

    So, to sum up, from a very scientific point of view I do think philosophy is important and even though an abstract science or a science in the ancient meaning of the word (knowledge), it should be treated at such.

    P.s.: I hope my poor redacting skill didn’t make this too difficult too read :)

  2. Thank you very much for the comment. I think your analogy with the mathematical presentation and how it may indirectly advance other fields was highly relevant and important. Yes, I agree philosophy is the same. To me, one of the most important things about philosophy is that forces us to examine the way we think. This matters because often our thinking can be confounded by our biases or dogmas and this can undermine our ability to think objectively. Of course, science is one of the fields were honesty, transparency, testability, verifiability, and peer-reviewed feedback make it one of the most, if not the most objective field. But there are some areas in science such as neuroscience, psychology, and biology, were it is not obvious, if we fully understand the meaning of the words we use or the questions we ask. For example, how do you define life? When you actually think about it. It is really difficult. Philosophy can help us realize the limitations of our thinking, the language we use and whether we are actually asking the right questions.

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