this is old, but here is the full article: https://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2014/05/22/why_does_neil_degrasse_tyson_hate_philosophy.html

How would you respond to someone who says philosophy is "distracting"? How do you explain philosophy to people who have very little understanding of why philosophy is important? ..How would I explain philosophy to someone who does not know any philosophy?

My gut reaction is to tell people (who find philosophy distracting) that philosophy is the study of unanswered questions, and also much of the importance of studying philosophy stems from understanding misleading/problematic arguments so we will not be mislead. ..Is this wrong? How would you respond?

  • 3
    Your linked article already links Pigliucci's response, with Tyson's reply, where he specifies that what he said applies only to philosophy of "physical science", and Pigliucci's re-response. "What would you do?" is not the type of question that SE is for.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 10:55
  • Tyson seems to have drilled into a raw nerve here. A buffoon? Shill? Less grasp of philosophy than a child? Criticize him if you want, but can we leave the insults out? Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 17:46
  • Sooner or later in Philosophy, the “given” is put into question. This makes some people very uncomfortable. They prefer something entirely “positive”.
    – Gordon
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 23:16
  • They are not distracted by it, they are disturbed by it.
    – Gordon
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 23:39
  • 1
    In 50 years Dr. Tyson will no longer be a distraction. Philosophy will still be. Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 7:06

3 Answers 3


It seems fair to say that recent popular backlash against public science and information literacy in some countries shows the problem with allowing Science to dismiss its philosophy as unimportant.

Whatever we might want to say about the value of scientists determining the scope of their own fields of study and having the philosophical autonomy to decide on their priorities, there is a real need to ensure that the wider engaged community are brought along with them; and if everyone that could do Philosophy is instead focused on their narrow work in their respective specialisms, there's nobody left to do that (beyond, possibly, marketers and PR offices).

However, it also shows that Philosophers have done a very poor job of advancing and advocating their field. A country with an effectively practising philosophical education would not be facing calls to dismiss all experts from fields of public policy or voting for reality TV show characters.

Public calls to dismiss practised philosophy as a distraction may well fuel indignation on the part of philosophers, but if philosophy is supposed to draw out some wider social value in academic practice, then how did it get this bad?

There are probably two strands of important lessons to take out of this. The first is that Philosophy does have a job to do. The second is that it probably hasn't been doing it very well, and should be taking that problem of competence seriously.

  • You can listen to some very good interviews of Edward Teller on YouTube. I can tell he had some understanding of philosophy, BUT we can also find an older interview of de Broglie. De Broglie had a much better and deeper understanding of philosophy, and so did the later Heisenberg. But try finding this today. Zilch.
    – Gordon
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 23:21
  • So when large swathes of scientists declare that philosophy as it exists today is of negative benefit, the problem is obviously with the scientists. Sure.
    – puppetsock
    Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 20:53
  • @puppetsock. I don't think the sarcasm is warranted given the past. The problem with Logical Positivism was with the scientists. The people most on their side eventually came to the same conclusion. Why should it be different this time? Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 14:21

Honestly, I'd tell deGrasse Tyson what I always tell people who are a bit too devout when it comes to science: science is great, but it is not competent to answer most of the questions we deem important in life. Science is epitstêmê and technê (knowledge and craft); it tells us 'what' and 'how'. But science has next to nothing to say about ethics, aesthetics, human praxis, or any other value judgement.

  • 'Science' can show us what an atom is, and how to make an atom split. But it cannot tell us whether we should build a nuclear bomb, or who (if anyone) we should drop it on.
  • 'Science' created the internet, but it can't tell us anything about software piracy, trolls, memes, idiotic presidential tweets, or revenge porn.

Consider the case of Climate Science. If we ignore the people who deny the science outright, and generally accept the view that anthropogenic climate change is a real and potent effect, what of it? All we know from the science is that human beings are altering the global environment, and that this will have some significant effects on the world. Science doesn't tell us whether these effects are 'good' or 'bad'. Science doesn't have an opinion about flooding, increased storm activity, desertification, etc; these are merely projected 'facts' about the world. We have to sit down and make moral, aesthetic, and practical decisions about whether we are content with these changes — an intrinsically philosophical discussion — and once we've made our decisions, then we can turn back to science to see what it can do to help us achieve our goals.

Even if we go back and include the science-deniers, we have to recognize that these people deny science because it's easier to deny science than to engage the philosophical debates that science forces on us. We can't look at these people and say: "Science is right and you're stupid, so shut up already." We have to find a way to engage them — again, an intrinsically philosophical act — and bring them into the discussion we need to have. There is no way to avoid that moral-evaluative stage by clinging to science, because science doesn't have a moral-evaluative aspect.

The problem with deGrasse Tyson's attitude towards philosophy is that it is ultimately science-defeating. When we try to ascribe moral/aesthetic values to science we end up making such values arbitrary, because anyone who disagrees with our position attacks the science and ignores the philosophy. We never get to have the philosophical discussions we need, because the conversation degrades into a heated tiff about 'truth' and 'method' (shoutout to Gadamer, there) that avoids the actual construction and rationalization of values. Without philosophy, we might as well just hit each other over the head with sticks until the whole world is reduced to a bloody mess.


A few recent Catholic philosophers/theologians, including Peter Kreeft and Robert Barron, have frequently written about this very topic - if you are interested in a well informed counter argument, I would encourage you to check their work out on this.

The approach they take is to start by showing that not all knowledge is scientific in nature. In many of their works, they point out that the scientific method itself is usually taken as an axiom without it being proven (there's no way to put the scientific method to the test that doesn't involve using the scientific method, which means you'd start off by assuming the scientific method...). Other areas of knowledge which are not scientific (but not false in themselves) I've also seen sited are questions of aesthetics (what makes something beautiful), love, history (there is no way to experiment with history), and the cause of the Big Bang (for which we have no scientific data to say anything one way or the other). If there is non-scientific knowledge, then we need philosophy to figure out how to handle these questions.

My gut reaction is to tell people (who find philosophy distracting) that philosophy is the study of unanswered questions,

There are certainly unanswered questions in science that are being studied!

Kreeft has written (I can't remember the source off the top of my head), that the difference between science and philosophy is more about method: Science uses the Scientific Method, philosophy uses a Philosophical Method. They both use reason, they both use "experiments" (philosophy uses thought experiments), and they both have evidence, but these things look different in the two different fields. They tend to also answer different questions.

and also much of the importance of studying philosophy stems from understanding misleading/problematic arguments so we will not be mislead. ..Is this wrong? How would you respond?

That is one area of philosophy - rhetoric and logic. There are other areas too, that ask questions that are not scientific in nature: ethics (how should we act?), metaphysics (do things exist that are non-material, like justice and beauty, or are those things made up?), epistemology (how do we know things?) being just a few.

It's also worth mentioning that while there is a lot of disagreement about what's true in philosophy, disagreement in science is never used to discredit the whole field, even when disagreements stay open for decades.

  • I would strongly urge caution for any reader considering taking this line. Asserting a strict dividing line between science and philosophy is to some degree to accept Tyson's suggestion, but more worryingly implies philosophy has the potential to ground and validate explicitly anti-scientistic world views (a serious active problem in the global community). If this was to be a position taken by academic philosophical scholarship, I would agree with Tyson that there is nothing left of value in it, and I would be in David Hume's good philosophical company.
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 14:18
  • I would agree that taking a strict dividing line is problematic (and anyone who's familiar with the work of Kreeft or Barron would know that they don't take that approach). To address your other point, it is the case that Philosophy grounds science - science can answer things with the Scientific Method, but it is not equipped to answer certain other epistemological questions. Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 3:34
  • To address your final point: most writers in the circles I cited distinguish between scientistic ("science is the only form of knowledge") and scientific ("we use science when we can"). If you meant "validate explicitly anti-scientific," yes, that could be a problem, but people doing lazy philosophy and applying an idea improperly is not a reason to not explore the truth of it. If you really meant it's being used to "validate anti-scientistic" (i.e., validate thinking that there are other forms of knowledge beyond science), then that's kind of the point. Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 3:38
  • James, I mean by anti-scientistic the (actively observed) polar reverse of scientistic - that science is false, not just an inappropriate tool. And of course truth is plural, so the question of whether to explore the truth of something is not just a question of whether truth can be found in it. Exploring truths can be doing philosophical work on behalf of harmful political forces - the "Manhattan project" of validating the philosophy of theistic nationalism may be a legitimate study in some times, but is certainly not welcome right now, and I am unremittingly opposed to such a project.
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 10:24

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