Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Massimo Pigliucci schools Neil deGrasse Tyson on the value of philosophy

Biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has called out astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson for his dismissal of the relevance of philosophy in his recent blog post Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy. Tyson of course is not alone - Dawkins, Krauss, and Hawkins have in the past questioned the value of philosophy, but with the reboot of Cosmos positioning him as one of America's public scientific intellectuals, his attacks on philosophy would carry with them some gravity.

Pigliucci arguably gets the better of Neil deGrasse Tyson - as he points out, the philosophy of science has been incredibly useful for science:
You and a number of your colleagues keep asking what philosophy (of science, in particular) has done for science, lately. There are two answers here: first, much philosophy of science is simply not concerned with advancing science, which means that it is a category mistake (a useful philosophical concept) to ask why it didn’t. The main objective of philosophy of science is to understand how science works and, when it fails to work (which it does, occasionally), why this was the case. It is epistemology applied to the scientific enterprise. And philosophy is not the only discipline that engages in studying the workings of science: so do history and sociology of science, and yet I never heard you dismiss those fields on the grounds that they haven’t discovered the Higgs boson. Second, I suggest you actually look up some technical papers in philosophy of science  to see how a number of philosophers, scientists and mathematicians actually do collaborate to elucidate the conceptual and theoretical aspects of research on everything from evolutionary theory and species concepts to interpretations of quantum mechanics and the structure of superstring theory. Those papers, I maintain, do constitute a positive contribution of philosophy to the progress of science — at least if by science you mean an enterprise deeply rooted in the articulation of theory and its relationship with empirical evidence.
Significantly, even Jerry Coyne agrees with some of Pigliuccis's criticisms:
Further, philosophy helps scientists be rigorous, for the discipline teaches the logical tools that can help clarify scientific thinking. I, for one, have benefitted from reading the lucubrations of Dan Dennett about consciousness and about evolution, even if I don’t always agree with him. So on this count I think Tyson needed to be schooled.
Full article is here.