Neil DeGrasse Tyson has criticized philosophy quite a bit recently, and so has Lawrence Krauss, though Krauss apologized for some of his more egregious statements. Tyson, however, remains obdurately anti-philosophy, and that has angered Massimo Pigliucci. Over at his new website Scientia Salon, Pigliucci takes out after Tyson in a post called “Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy”. I think it’s a pretty good defense of the value of some philosophy, and includes stuff like the following (it takes the form of an open letter to Tyson):
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.
A common refrain I’ve heard from you (see direct quotes above) and others, is that scientific progress cannot be achieved by “mere armchair speculation.” And yet we give a whole category of Nobels to theoretical physicists, who use the deductive power of mathematics (yes, of course, informed by previously available empirical evidence) to do just that. Or — even better — take mathematics itself, a splendid example of how having one’s butt firmly planted on a chair (and nowhere near any laboratory) produces both interesting intellectual artifacts in their own right and an immense amount of very practical aid to science. No, I’m not saying that philosophy is just like mathematics or theoretical physics. I’m saying that one needs to do better than dismiss a field of inquiry on the grounds that it is not wedded to a laboratory setting, or that its practitioners like comfortable chairs.
I have to agree with Massimo here: it’s simply stupid to dismiss all philosophy as valueless. While I think that some of it is (the discussions of “the meaning of meaning”, for instance, leave me cold), philosophy has been of substantial value in areas like ethics. What is the Euthyphro argument, for instance, except philosophy? And that argument, often used by atheists, shows pretty definitively that morality cannot come directly from God. Further, Massimo notes that philosophy does progress in the sense that it explores conceptual space over time, and nowhere has it done this more effectively than ethics. The work of Peter Singer, for instance, builds on a lot of previous ethics, and has been valuable in helping us clarify how to deal with strangers, how to treat animals, and so on. Over time, fallacious arguments get weeded out, and philosophy helps collate our scattered ideas into coherence.
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. Massimo’s rebuke is kindly and not ascerbic, but Pigliucci reports that, in an email reply, Tyson simply won’t be budged. As Massimo noted:
As for a possible reply from Neil, I have, of course, invited him to submit one. Here is his reply, verbatim: “I generally reply to things if, and only if, they are writing about something that I judge to be untrue about me, or that they have misunderstood about what I have said. Neither is the case with you.”
That’s neither cool nor polite, Dr. Tyson, and it bespeaks an unwillingness to learn.
As a footnote, though, the strip SMBC took it upon itself to tease Massimo with this cartoon. I vaguely remember Massimo making the “same river” point, but I can’t recall where. Perhaps a reader can help.
Yes, that’s clearly Dr. Pigliucci, but the artist forgot the black diamond earring. . .