The nerd world felt a slight disturbance in the force a few weeks back, when the hottest new science popularizer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, argued that philosophy yields little value compared to science. The widely quoted statement that drew ire from philosophical types was Tyson’s observation, in response to someone’s admission to having been a philosophy major: “That can really mess you up.”
Anyone who has ever endured a philosophy class recognizes the truth in this claim, but it became a convenient placeholder for Tyson’s more objectionable comments, which amounted to an assertion that philosophy is navel-gazing sophistry which does not contribute to “our understanding of the natural world.”
“Practical men,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” This is doubly true of practical scientists, like the amiable Dr. Tyson, who are enslaved not to economists but to philosophers, even as they pronounce themselves independent of philosophical drudgery.
The amateur philosopher imprisoning Tyson and many of his colleagues is a centuries-dead Frenchman named Laplace, astronomer and mathematician by trade, who in his Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (he was not privy to Tyson’s cautions against philosophizing) expounded a notion that grips most science popularizers today, and a good many social planners as well. It is the notion that if we could capture all the data in the universe, we could understand the past and the present, and predict the future with certainty.