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I'm inclined to agree with much of what you say here, but I don't think it's really to the point in the context of a discussion of Tyson's remarks; the fact is, there's lots of scientifically engaged philosophy going on right now (fair enough to want more of it, but it's at least the norm in phil physics and phil bio that specialists know a bunch of physics/bio), and Tyson showed no evidence of familiarity with its existence. The Krauss/Albert kerfuffle also makes this point. Albert is a paradigm case of somebody doing good, scientifically engaged philosophy, but that doesn't stop him from being derided by somebody like Krauss.

Ultimately, I suspect that even if as much philosophy were engaged with relevant science as you think it should be (and I agree that such engagement would be good), it wouldn't have any impact on the opinions of people like Tyson/Krauss. After all, there's no evidence I know of that Tyson/Krauss have any idea what goes on in philosophy departments, so I don't see why changing what goes on in philosophy departments would affect their views.

Justin Caouette

Nice post, Marcus. I have been considering blogging on this as well.

I agree with Daniel on all accounts.

Thankfully, most of the work from I've come across lately (esp. from up and coming philosophers) is very much scientifically engaged.

Also, I have heard many say that much of the empirically engaged philosophy is not "real philosophy". I get this sentiment more from senior philosophers and their students. Marcus, I'd be interested to know, re: your experience, if you find that those (not real philosophy comments) tend to come more from senior folks or do you get it from both angles?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Daniel: Thanks for your comment. You may be right that there's little we can do to get through to people like Tyson and Krauss, but as I'll explore in a subsequent post soon, I do think that some of what philosophers do -- specifically, speculating about the nature of mental states (disgust, boredom, etc.) and linguistic reference without engaging with the relevant science -- doesn't help our cause, and likely contributes to substantially to philosophers' reputation of being out of touch with empirical reality.

Hi Justin: Thanks for your comment, as well. Unfortunately, I've had a lot of *early-career* philosophers say these sorts of things to me. My feeling is that there's a real subtext behind such comments: namely, that empirically-based philosophy threatens livelihoods (viz. "I've been trained in a priori metaphysics, and I don't know much about science -- so empirically-based philosophy is bunk"). People haven't said these things to me explicitly, but I tend to get that feeling -- and indeed, it's a feeling pretty clearly contained in the comment I cited in the post:

"Engaging with the science is much easier said than done; it takes a lot of science education to be up to snuff, which takes a lot of time and effort.

As a result, incentive-structures come into play. For instance, why spend years making up for the physics education I never had in college if I can just hammer out a few articles on the (a priori) possibility of gunk (i.e., an atomless, infinitely divisible universe), and get a tenure-track job somewhere with AOS metaphysics?"


In support of Daniel's claim, here's part of my comment on the Scientia Salon post. (This part of the post is directed at Sara Mayhew who is neither a philosopher nor scientist and yet made some extremely uninformed claims about the discipline of philosophy.)

"There are many philosophers that are more constructive than what the naysayer may think. I am a PhD student at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy at LMU-Munich. The center has recently been established over the past few years, but it has already attracted much attention and has brought in two distinguished philosophers along with a significant number of assistant professors, post-docs, and visitors (junior and senior). The goal of the center is to tackle philosophical problems from mathematical and scientific approaches. Many here utilize probability/statistics, mathematical logic, and more recently computer simulations within their research. For information on what the researchers here are working on, go to http://www.mcmp.philosophie.uni-muenchen.de/index.html

Munich is not the only place engaging in mathematical and scientific approaches to philosophy. Other places like the ILLC at Amsterdam and departments at LSE, CMU, Pitt, Indiana, Cambridge, UC Irvine, Toronto engage in similar approaches. If one has a look at these places, then it will be clear to them that there are lots of philosophers who cross into other disciplines (often times working with researchers in scientific fields) to address philosophical problems."

Phil H

I'm not sure that engaging more closely with the physical sciences is going to be flattering for philosophy. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people on both sides still have the idea expressed by Spaulding in this talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6rhuvkQcsg, that science does small and philosophy does big. In reality, I think that's exactly backwards. Almost all of the biggest ideas (or elaborations on big ideas) that I can think of in the 20th century came out of science: relativity, genetics, quality of life measures, quantum reality, nature of time, nature of cognition, nature of language... I have no expectation at all that philosophy is going to tell me anything new about the nature of the self. I have great expectations that neuroscience will. And about colour and language. I have no faith in philosophy to say anything new about the nature of reality, but physics could easily do so.

There are exceptions, largely in the areas of politics and ethics (and Austin on language). Rawls leaps to mind. But in areas where science has a toehold, I think deGrasse Tyson is right that philosophy isn't providing the exciting new ideas. Philosophy might do some follow-up work when the next big scientific concept barrels through, but I can't see how it can play a leading role. And in fact, most of the things I've read by philosophers on the latest physics just seems embarrassing.

Surely philosophy could prosper better in other fields: politics, ethics, sociology. There will no doubt still be some work to do on the philosophy of science, but if you want philosophy to be important and prestigious work, I can't see that being a science adjunct is the way forward.

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