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A Friendly Open Letter to Bill Nye (about Philosophy)

Why Bill and I should both work to promote science and philosphy

Dear Bill Nye

Recently, in a “Big Think” segment, you were asked your opinion of philosophy. As you might recall, your response was less than generous. Of course, this isn't the first time I've heard criticisms of philosophy from well-respected scientists and science communicators like yourself. But as a philosophy professor, it pains me awfully every time I see and hear such things—and for some reason, this time I felt obligated to respond.

Now let me be clear. I have nothing but respect for your work bringing scientific knowledge to the general population. In fact, I celebrate it! I hope one day my two-year-old falls in love with your work. Indeed, I love science and am well versed in it; you'd be hard pressed to find a more dedicated advocate. I teach a course on scientific reasoning for our physics department; I give lectures on how to recognize medical pseudoscience for our sports medicine department. I emphasize heavily the scientific method in my logic and critical thinking classes. I have lectures on General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics in “Exploring Metaphysics” (one of my courses for The Great Courses). In my academic work, I bring scientific reasoning to bear on as many philosophical questions as I can. I believe that, as a philosopher, it is my duty to champion science.

In other words Bill, we are on the same side. So, I often ask myself, shouldn't we be working together towards the same goals? Why doesn't Bill love philosophy like I do? 

To be fair, it may be because there are philosophy professors who choose to focus too much in their classes on questions that may not seem practically productive in any real sense. (I apologize, on behalf of philosophers, if this happened to you.) Many spend far too much time on questions raised by Descartes' “dream problem” or Hume’s “problem of induction.” (Can we be certain that we aren’t dreaming or that the sun will rise tomorrow?) As you point out, these are interesting questions. [1] As I point out (in my classes), they aren’t necessarily pointless; they help reveal something about the nature of knowledge: it doesn’t require certainty. (After all, even though we can’t be certain the world is real, we still know that it you rightly pointed out.) But regardless, such questions are not what philosophy is about. At best, they are a starting point.

A good philosophy class will apply such lessons; since knowledge doesn’t require certainty, a wealth of knowledge is possible—like the knowledge we gain through the scientific method. A good philosophy class will also go on to ask questions about things science cannot completely answer: ethics, virtue, politics, etc.[2] It will also go on to make clear how the work of philosophers has influenced the world. The work of John Locke, for example, inspired the founding fathers in their formation of the U.S. Constitution. The work of J.S. Mill informed Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves. 

Most importantly, however, a good philosophy class should make clear what philosophy is and what it isn’t. It’s not about opinions. There really are right and wrong answers. It’s not about asking unanswerable questions. Indeed, philosophers have answered a great number of questions. It’s just that when they did, the discovery was so important that it ended up spawning its own discipline.

For example, many of the founders of mathematicians (e.g., Pythagoras, Pascal, Descartes, Leibniz, Laplace) were philosophers. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was a Philosopher. Computing (and computer science) was made possible by discoveries in logic (a fundamental branch of philosophy) in the 1900s. Most academic disciplines trace back to Plato or Aristotle. There is a reason that the highest educated in just about any field receives the title “Ph.D.” The “Ph” stands for "philosophy."

In fact, science itself was made possible by philosophical discoveries regarding the nature of logic and reasoning and how to reliably test hypotheses—discoveries made by philosophers like Bacon and Descartes.[3] Indeed, science was first called “natural philosophy.”

Which brings to my main point Bill—a point I think you'll find somewhat amusing. You are doing philosophy! “Philosophy” just means “love of wisdom.” The philosopher seeks wisdom and knowledge about everything and brings every useful tool to bear in their quest. When you do science, you are simply engaged in philosophical reasoning about the natural world; specifically, you are applying what philosophers have learned about what it takes for a belief to be justified.[4] When you investigate a pseudoscience, you are engaging in philosophy—a kind of applied epistemology—where you apply criteria identified by philosophers (scope, simplicity, fruitfulness) to compare hypotheses.

So Bill, I want to offer you a friendly challenge to update your understanding of what philosophy is. If you’d like, I’d love to help. To start, I could send you a copy of my Great Courses course “The Big Questions of Philosophy” which not only addresses what philosophy is, and applies the scientific method everywhere it’s applicable, but talks about a great many questions that are both interesting and of practical significance. I think you will be delighted to see how much philosophy and science have in common—and indeed, that science really is applied philosophy. I know that you are open to revising your beliefs when the evidence is presented. I’m hoping you are willing to change your mind about philosophy as well. It’s not speculation about useless unanswerable questions. It’s what lies at the heart everyone who seeks knowledge—including the scientist.[5]

Copyright 2016, David Kyle Johnson

[1] To be fair to Descartes, he proposed “The Dream Problem” as a way to try to find a solid foundation on which he could base his scientific reasoning.

[2] Science certainly can be very relevant to such issues. A politician ignorant of science is a dangerous thing. I’m merely pointing out that science cannot settle such matters—that there are non-scientific assumptions and arguments that apply to such topics.

[3] To boot, the scientific method wasn’t even fully understood until philosophers like Popper and Kuhn described it; and their descriptions of scientific reasoning allowed it to be applied far wider than it had been. In my opinion, it is because of their work that we can now identify science from pseudoscience with such precision.  

[4] Double blinded experiments, for example, are designed to guard against cognitive biases and fallacious reasoning identified by philosophers. There are different methods for testing hypotheses and which one is best is sometimes a matter of philosophical dispute.

[5] A special thanks to Chris Brown (from Meet the Skeptics) for helpful suggestions in revising this letter.