Neil deGrasse Tyson And The Perils Of Facile Reductionism

You know the shtick by now–or at least, twitterers and tweeters do. Every few weeks, Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of America’s most popular public ‘scientific’ intellectuals, decides that it is time to describe some social construct in scientific language to show how ‘arbitrary’ and ‘made-up’ it all is–compared to the sheer factitude, the amazing reality-grounded non-arbitrariness of scientific knowledge. Consider for instance, this latest gem, now predictably provoking ridicule from those who found its issuance predictable and tired:

Not that anybody’s asked, but New Years Day on the Gregorian Calendar is a cosmically arbitrary event, carrying no Astronomical significance at all.

A week earlier, Tyson had tweeted:

Merry Christmas to the world’s 2.5 billion Christians. And to the remaining 5 billion people, including Muslims Atheists Hindus Buddhists Animists & Jews, Happy Monday.

Tyson, I think, imagines that he is bringing science to the masses; that he is dispelling the ignorance cast by the veil of imprecise, arbitrary, subjective language that ‘ordinary folk’ use by directing their attention to scientific language, which when used, shows how ridiculous those ‘ordinary folk’ affectations are. Your birthday? Just a date. That date? A ‘cosmically arbitrary event.’ Your child’s laughter? Just sound waves colliding with your eardrum. That friendly smile beamed at you by your school mate? Just facial muscles being stretched. And so on. It’s really easy; almost mechanical. I could, if I wanted, set up a bot-run Neil deGrasse Tyson Parody account on Twitter, and just issue these every once in a while. Easy pickings.

Does Tyson imagine that he is engaging in some form ‘scientific communication’ here, bringing science to the masses? Does he imagined he is introducing greater precision and fidelity to truth in our everyday conversation and discourse, cleaning up the degraded Augean stables of internet chatter? He might think so, but what Tyson is actually engaged in is displaying the perils of facile reductionism and the scientism it invariably accompanies and embellishes; anything can be redescribed in scientific language but that does not mean such redescription is necessary or desirable or even moderately useful. All too often such redescription results in not talking about the ‘same thing’ any more. (All that great literature? Just ink on paper! You know, a chemical pigment on a piece of treated wood pulp.)

There are many ways of talking about the world; science is one of them. Science lets us do many things; other ways of talking about the world let us other do things. Scientific language is a tool; it lets us solve some problems really well; other languages–like those of poetry, psychology, literature, legal theory–help us solve others. The views they introduce of this world show us many things; different objects appear in different views depending on the language adopted. As a result, we are ‘multi-scopic’ creatures; at any time, we entertain multiple perspectives on this world and work with them, shifting between each as my wants and needs require. To figure out what clothes to wear today, I consulted the resources of meteorology; in order to get a fellow human being to come to my aid, I used elementary folk psychology, not neuroscience; to crack a joke and break the ice with co-workers, I relied on humor which deployed imaginary entities. Different tasks; different languages; different tools; it is the basis of the pragmatic attitude, which underwrites the science that Tyson claims to revere.

Tyson has famously dissed philosophy of science and just philosophy in general; his tweeting shows that he would greatly benefit from a philosophy class or two himself.

Richard Dawkins’ Inconsistent Reliance On Pragmatism

A very popular video on YouTube featuring Richard Dawkins is titled ‘Science Works, Bitches.’ It periodically makes the rounds on social media; as it does, Dawkins acolytes–in the video and on social media–applaud him as he ‘smacks down’ a questioner who inquires into the ‘justification’ for the scientific method. (A familiar enough question; for instance, science relies on induction, but the justification for induction is that it has worked in the past, which is itself an inductive argument, so how do you break out of this circle, without relying on some kind of ‘faith’?) Dawkins’ response is ‘It works, bitches!’ Science’s claim to rationality rests on its proven track record–going to the moon, curing disease etc.; this is an entirely pragmatic claim with which I’m in total agreement. The success of inductive claims is part of our understanding and definition of rationality; rationality does not exist independent of our practices; they define it.

Still, the provision of this answer also reveals Dawkins’ utter dishonesty when it comes to the matter of his sustained attacks on religion over the years. For the open-mindedness and the acknowledgment of the primacy of practice that is on display in this answer is nowhere visible in his attitude toward religion.

Dawkins is entirely correct in noting that science is superior to religion when it comes to the business of solving certain kinds of problems. You want to make things fly; you rely on science. You want to go to the moon; you rely on science. You want to cure cancer; you rely on science. Rely on religion for any of these things and you will fail miserably. But Dawkins will be simply unwilling to accept as an answer from a religious person that the justification for his or her faith is that ‘it works’ when it comes to providing a ‘solution’ for a ‘problem’ that is not of the kind specified above. At those moments, Dawkins will demand a kind of ‘rational’ answer that he is himself unwilling to–and indeed, cannot–provide for science.

Consider a religious person who when asked to ‘justify’ faith, responds ‘It works for me when it comes to achieving the end or the outcome of making me happy [or more contented, more accepting of my fate, reconciling myself to the death of loved ones or my own death; the list goes on.]’ Dawkins’ response to this would be that this is a pathetic delusional comfort, that this is based on fairy tales and poppycock. Here too, Dawkins would demand that the religious person accept scientific answers to these questions and scientific resolutions of these ‘problems.’ Here, Dawkins would be unable to accept the pragmatic nature of the religious person’s answer that faith ‘works’ for them. Here, Dawkins would demand a ‘justified, rational, grounded in evidence’ answer; that is, an imposition of standards that he is unwilling to place on the foundations of scientific reasoning.

As I noted above, pragmatism is the best justification for science and the scientific method; science works best to achieve particular ends. Dawkins is entirely right to note that religion cannot answer the kinds of questions or solve the kinds of problems science can; he should be prepared to admit the possibility that there are questions to which religion offers answers that ‘work’ for its adherents–in preference to other alternatives. Pragmatism demands we accept this answer too; you can’t lean on pragmatism to defend science, and then abandon it in your attacks on religion. That’s scientism. Which is a load of poppycock.

Philosophy, ‘Pseudo-Philosophy’, And Claiming To Be Philosophy

In his foreword to Jacques Bouveresse‘s Wittgenstein Reads Freud: The Myth of the Unconscious (Princeton University Press, 1996, New French Thought Series), Vincent Descombes writes:

[S]cience alone is opposed by a counterfeit called ‘pseudo-science.’ ‘Pseudo-philosophy’ does not seem to be a term we can use, much as we might be tempted to when dealing with what we think is bad philosophy. But philosophical speculation is such that everything that claims to be philosophy is philosophy. The price of this unlimited tolerance is that bad philosophy is as philosophical as good philosophy.

Descombes might be right that the term ‘pseudo-philosophy’ is not bandied about as much as ‘pseudo-science’ is, but there is certainly no shortage of attempts to characterize ‘what’ philosophy is, so that pretenders to the throne may be disabused of their pretensions. The pejorative description ‘that’s not really philosophy’, or ‘you aren’t doing philosophy’, and the skeptical question, ‘how is this philosophy’ are not unheard of; there is, supposedly, like science, a particular valorized method, a distinct ‘philosophical style’ of writing, analysis, and communication. The anxieties visible here are, I think, quite as acute as those visible in science’s defense of its domain.

But what is the nature of ‘philosophical speculation’? We know one part of the answer that is provided to us by those who man the ramparts: a concern with ‘getting things right’, ‘seeing how things hang together in the right way’, ‘seeking the truth’, ‘framing good arguments that bring us closer to the truth’, ‘asking the right questions’, and so on. But if Descombes is right, these are all too restrictive, for all claimants are granted access to this privileged space; the correct distinctions to be made are about the quality and nature of the philosophizing on display, and not about whether an act of thinking qualifies as philosophical in the first place.

Descombes’ catholic attitude is grounded in an acknowledgment of the inability of philosophizing to limit itself, for these boundary policing acts are grounded in philosophical maneuvers and that which requires such an engagement must be philosophical in some shape or form. The act of claiming to be–or not–philosophy is a philosophical claim, and must be dealt with as such. This is why philosophy remains indispensable to science, for instance, even when its practitioners reject philosophical influence or provenance.

More broadly, it would be surprising indeed if philosophy could so limit itself, if it could so easily set constraints on its ambitions and so clearly know what its possibilities are that it would ever possess the means to reject putative entrants to its domain. Such an activity would not be philosophy but some other, more specialized, and restricted activity, one which has, from the outset, set its sights much lower.

Note: Descombes goes on to say:

Wittgenstein might say that bad philosophy is even more philosophical than good: not more philosophical in the sense of more profound or more solid, but rather in the sense of of more representative of of the characteristic temptations of philosophy, such as wrongly generalizing from a privileged example, or confusing the particularities of a mode of expression with the higher laws of being.

Fish on Eagleton on Religion

Stanley Fish reviews Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution in The New York Times and approvingly quotes him contra the excesses of Christopher Hitchens:

[T]he fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

This is a peculiar remark to make. Religion might not be in the business of offering explanations for natural phenomena now, but that is because it has, over an extended period, as a tactical and strategic move, ceded that explanatory function to science. Its history suggests that it has often seen itself in the business of offering explanations and indeed, comprehensive theories of the world that begin at its beginning and go on till its end. Hitchens’ remark is crude in suggesting the religious are only motivated by a desire to seek the kind of comforts made possible by technology but Eagleton’s suggestion that the description of religion is entirely misguided ignores the historical role that religion has played in the lives of its adherents in years gone by.

The same considerations apply to another one of Eagleton’s passages quoted by Fish:

[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

Again, one can provide metaphorical and non-realist readings of religion that do not see it as an explanatory theory but it is not clear such readings do full justice to the way that practitioners of religion see it, as a system which makes the world coherent. But systems which seek to provide such clarity are, contra Eagleton and Fish both, attempts to explain the world. If those systems are found wanting, it is because rival explanations for the same phenomena they claim to make comprehensible are found more satisfying, more able to do justice to the desiderata posed by the explanandum.

The move to cast religion as a non-explanation of anything is an interesting defensive move in light of the criticisms made of its extravagant ontological and ethical claims but it is not one that strikes me as likely to be successful. If religion did not seek to explain the incomprehensible then what comfort could it provide to the faithful? If you arrive at religion with a mystery and leave with one, then it hasn’t distinguished itself from the rest of this mysterious existence of ours.

Bohm and Schrödringer on the World, the Self, and Wholeness

Sans comment, two physicists of yesteryear on matters that might be considered philosophical.

First, David Bohm on ‘the world’:

[T]he world cannot be analyzed correctly into distinct parts; instead, it must be regarded as an indivisible unit in which separate parts appear as valid approximations only in the classical [i.e., Newtonian] limit….Thus, at the quantum level of accuracy, an object does not have any ‘intrinsic’ properties (for instance, wave and particle) belonging to itself alone; instead, it shares all its properties mutually and indivisibly with the systems with which it interacts. Moreover, because a given object, such as an electron, interacts at different times with different systems that bring out different potentialities, it undergoes…continual transformation between the various forms (for instance, wave or particle form) in which it can manifest itself.

Although such fluidity and dependence of form on the environment have not been found, before the advent of quantum theory, at the level of elementary particles in physics, they are not uncommon…in fields, such as biology, which deal with complex systems. Thus, under suitable environmental conditions, a bacterium can develop into a spore stage, which is completely different in structure, and vice versa.

Next, Erwin Schrödringer on the relationship between the world and the self:

It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings. But not in this sense–that you are a part, a piece, of an eternal, infinite being, as in Spinoza’s pantheism. For we should have the same baffling question: which part, which aspect are you? What, objectively, differentiates it from the others? No, but inconceivable it seems to ordinary reason, you–and all other conscious beings as such–are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense, the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance.


Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only one now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.

Note: Bohm quote from: David Bohm, Quantum Theory, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1958. pp. 161-62. Schrödringer quote from: Erwin Schrödringer, My View of the World, Cambridge University Press, 1964. pp. 21-22.

Adam Gopnik on the Scientist’s Lack of ‘Heroic Morals’

In an essay reviewing some contemporary historical work on Galileo, (‘Moon Man: What Galileo saw‘, The New Yorker, February 11, 2013), Adam Gopnik, noting Galileo’s less-than-heroic quasi-recantation before the Catholic Church, writes:

Could he, as Brecht might have wanted, have done otherwise, acted more heroically? Milton’s Galileo was a free man imprisoned by intolerance. What would Shakespeare’s Galileo have been, one wonders, had he ever written him? Well, in a sense, he had written him, as Falstaff, the man of appetite and wit who sees through the game of honor and fidelity. Galileo’s myth is not unlike the fat knight’s, the story of a medieval ethic of courage and honor supplanted by the modern one of cunning, wit, and self-knowledge. Martyrdom is the test of faith, but the test of truth is truth. Once the book was published, who cared what transparent lies you had to tell to save your life? The best reason we have to believe in miracles is the miracle that people are prepared to die for them. But the best reason that we have to believe in the moons of Jupiter is that no one has to be prepared to die for them in order for them to be real.

So the scientist can shrug at the torturer and say, Any way you want me to tell it, I will. You’ve got the waterboard. The stars are still there. It may be no accident that so many of the great scientists really have followed Galileo, in ducking and avoiding the consequences of what they discovered. In the roster of genius, evasion of worldly responsibility seems practically a fixed theme. Newton escaped the world through nuttiness, Darwin through elaborate evasive courtesies and by farming out the politics to Huxley. Heisenberg’s uncertainty was political—he did nuclear-fission research for Hitler—as well as quantum-mechanical. Science demands heroic minds, but not heroic morals. It’s one of the things that make it move.

Gopnik’s conclusion is a curious one: he seems to have made an excessively reductive statement about science and the scientist, and he does so by ensnaring the scientist in a net that brings in a bigger catch. For the distance of the scientist from his work, its import and its consequences, is equally that of the artist from this creations. I do not think it a coincidence that Gopnik refers to ‘genius’ as broadly as he does. For after all, ‘evasion of worldly responsibility’ is often claimed as a ‘fixed theme’ for the artist as well: the work stands on its own, it needs no moral justification, it need not take a moral stance and so on. Perhaps this is the viewpoint of the aesthete alone, but it is one often associated with the artist’s place in the world and his supposed moral responsibilities. The claim that Gopnik makes about the scientist, in attempting to portray him as amoral adventurer, is a narrowly restricted one: the ability of the scientist to manipulate, intervene, poke and prod at the world makes him into an actor too, one that might be required to act in conformance with moral codes, ones which might be internalized by the scientist. Human creativity always requires little more than ‘heroic minds’; the ‘heroic morals’ always come much, much later, determined by a nexus of needs and interests, historically situated.

Gopnik relies too, on a non-socially-situated view of science: its truths endure, independent of man’s activities. But again, he does not believe this himself, for as he notes, Galileo gets to stop caring about his ‘transparent lies’ only after his book was published. Not before. Perhaps the scientist needs to do more to have his ‘truths’ accepted and recognized. They get to endure once his ‘community’ says they do.

Note: H/T to Corey Robin who excerpted the Gopnik quote above on his Facebook page.

David Runciman is a Little Confused About the Power of Confusion

In reviewing Ferdinand Mount‘s The New Few, or a Very British Oligarchy: Power and Inequality in Britain Now (‘Confusion is Power‘, London Review of Books, Volume 34, Number 11, 7 June 2012), David Runciman writes:

James Burnham, author of the The Managerial Revolution (1941) envisaged a post-democratic order in which power was concentrated in the hands of an elite managerial class, who controlled the global forces of production. Burnham supposed that the members of this elite would be made up of scientists and engineers, because knowledge was power. ‘Finance-executives’, as he called them would be reduced to the level of servants of this new breed of supermen. But in fact it’s the finance executives who have come to rule the roost, and it’s often the scientists and engineers who are forced to do their bidding. That’s because knowledge is not always power. Sometimes confusion is power as well. The finance executives don’t really know what they are doing, as we have discovered in the last few years. But they have created a world that no one else understands either, which gives them all the freedom they need. [links added]

Runciman is a little confused here. He is right, of course, that scientists and engineers are, today, at the beck and call of the suits. But he is wrong about why. If confusion is power and a more important and significant kind of power than knowledge, then scientists and engineers would still sit at the top of the pile. The confusion they can create via the technical obfuscation that is theirs to summon up and dispense is immense. Beyond the barest details very little is known of the computing devices and the mathematical sciences that so animate, regulate and populate our modern world; there is ample opportunity here for the deployment of confusion. But the technical wizardry of the scientist and the engineer is always trumped by the knowledge of the suit. It is the right kind of knowledge, that of: how power works, how to delude and beguile, how to manipulate, how to accrue power and hold on to it.

If a finance executive does not know what he is doing it is because he is dealing with the products of scientists i.e., the quants–financial engineers perhaps–who have devised the terribly complicated financial instruments that Runciman has in mind. The financial executive has ‘created a world that no one else understands’ via these technical aids. But it is what he does with the power granted him by those aids that shows how he is in possession of an even more significant knowledge.

For contrary to Runciman’s assertion, knowledge still remains power. It is not confusion that trumps power; it is that one kind of knowledge can trump another, that the kind of knowledge needed to rule the world is not just technical or scientific; it is the knowledge of what makes human beings susceptible to the right of kind of inducement. It is the knowledge of human weaknesses and greed, so that the ersatz, tinsel, fragile world of the financier, his artful promises and the visions he peddles of the soft life can come to seem so alluring to those that fall for it.

This is why the suit will trump the scientist and the engineer.