Metaphysics, gut-feelings, theology, and New Age goobleygook fall extremely short in explaining how the universe works. Their lack of empirical and intellectual rigor is already spoken for. Science does not have all the answers—yet—but it has been making progress.
I am not going to jump on the bandwagon of slamming Neil deGrasse Tyson for his recent, “science-chauvinist” jab at philosophy. I think that he was actually dissing philosophy of science, not philosophy as a whole (read all of this). But I do get a whiff of “asking-deep-questions-is-a-fruitless-pursuit.” So I would like to say to Dr. deGrasse Tyson: Philosophy is more relevant than you think. And relevant in one, big way.
The good old “is-ought” distinction. It is the bugbear of ethicists, moralists, and especially moral philosophers. It primarily maps the logical gulf between facts about the world (the way things are) and value-laden statements (how things ought to be). At least, that’s the gist of it.
I will spare you the academese-philosophy lecture. The point I want to make is that science and its buddies in the STEM acronym are apt at explaining how the universe works. The sciences supply the “is.” And the bounty of STEM is unmatched: Higgs-Boson, glowing nail-polish, cracking the genetic code, and—*crosses fingers*—space elevators.
But (here is perhaps the most banal of all perennial questions): what is worth pursuing in life? I want the “greatest good of all.“ But science does not tell me how to get it…or what it is…or if there is such a thing. What are the “oughts”? No philosopher has given us the answer. But philosophers have broached the topic and asked the questions, whereas science is hopelessly trapped in merely describing the world around it (and very slowly, at that).
Dr. deGrasse Tyson believes that we ought to double NASA’s budget because of its multifarious potential benefits for the economy and society. This is a policy issue. Policy issues and debates are, at their core, not-so-overt, philosophical disputes about common goods, the role of the state, obligations, etc. (that might just be my philosophy-chauvinism talking).
There are certain questions that scientists have not been able to answer; it is one thing to explain the mechanisms of life and quite another to prescribe what ought to guide it. I suppose you can live happily-ever-after without giving a damn about the “greatest good” or about the implications of runaway trolleys. But, as I pointed out in the previous paragraph, public policy debates hinge on moral-philosophical issues (I suppose you can be content and carefree without giving a darn about public policy either).
Also, there is nothing insignificant or fruitless to asking the deep questions about science or the implications of scientific breakthroughs. We are still asking “what does it mean to be human?” A question that has echoed through the ages. And perhaps more relevant than ever…since, you know, the prospect of A.I. rendering us obsolete is so damn palpable. Watson beat us on Jeopardy. Next thing: monotheistic robots that bleed(just kidding!).
Asking philosophical questions about science seems to be deGrasse Tyson’s beef with philosophers. Philosophers can ask their foundational questions about the scientific method or the implications of breakthroughs, without getting in the scientists’ way. Ponder the deep questions. But don’t be these guys (a cheap shot at postmodernism, ftw!).
The meaning of life, public policy, and “what does it mean to be human?”—just three among many reasons why philosophy is relevant, Dr. deGrasse Tyson.