Mike, Don’t Listen to Bill Nye About Philosophy

Bill Nye may be the science guy, but he ain't no philosophy fellow

Over the last several years we have seen a depressing list of prominent scientists or science popularizers (interestingly, almost exclusively physicists) who have made very public statements about the uselessness of philosophy, while clearly not knowing what on earth they are talking about.

(Here are some examples: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Lawrence Krauss again, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg.)

Now Bill Nye has, very unfortunately, joined what can only be characterized as a peculiar anti-intellectual fray. (And no, contra popular opinion, one can be an intellectual and yet behave in an anti-intellectual fashion in certain domains.)

Nye, of course, is popularly known as “the science guy,” because of a popular Disney/PBS children’s science show by the same name that ran between 1993 and 1998. He engages in “edutainment,” that is a mix of education and entertainment, of which we arguably need more in our society. His formal education in science consists of a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Cornell. As far as I know, he has no background in philosophy. (He also lives part time in Chelsea, Manhattan, around the corner from me. So if he wants to share a cup of coffee after reading this and chat about why he is so undeniably wrong on the issue, I’ll treat him.)

Nye has just published a video on the Big Think YouTube channel, part of a series called “Tuesdays with Bill.” He is answering a question from a fan: “Hey Bill Nye, ‘Does Science Have All the Answers or Should We Do Philosophy Too?'” Here is the video, below which I will add my minute-by-minute commentary (don’t worry, it’s only 3’41”).

0:06 – Mike, the fan, introduces himself as a philosophy major. He mentions that some scientists, like Hawking and Tyson, have “brushed off” philosophy as a meaningless topic, and he wonders what Nye’s opinion on the matter is.

0:23 – Nye says that this is a “great question.” He begins by saying that his friends — Tyson and Richard Dawkins — are not really blowing off philosophy (yes, they are), but are rather “concerned” that “it doesn’t always give an answer that’s surprising” and that it doesn’t always lead one to places that are inconsistent with commonsense.

This would probably be enough to show that Nye has no business answering Mike’s question. So philosophical zombies and modal realism — just to cite two much debated positions from philosophy of mind and metaphysics — are not surprising and don’t differ from commonsense? The philosophical literature is replete with surprising and entirely not at all commonsensical arguments and conclusions.

0:48 – Here comes the first turn into weirdness of the whole video: Nye says that the issue often gets back to the question of the nature of consciousness. “Can we know that we know?” “Are we aware that we are aware?” “Is reality real?” “Are we living on a giant ping-pong ball?”

What the devil is going on here? Nye is confusing a number of different questions. The issue of consciousness is one for philosophy of mind (and, of course, neuroscience). The question of the nature of reality, instead, pertains to metaphysics (and physics). And I have no idea what’s his beef with ping-pong, cosmic or not.

1:15 – After rather condescendingly acknowledging that these are interesting questions, Nye goes on to say that he is “very skeptical of [it].” That’s because, it turns out, Nye is a straightforward empiricist and realist about the physical world. Which is fine, but entirely misses the point of the above mentioned philosophical issues. It also, incidentally, is a position that is at the least in tension with advanced physics (the nature of the wave function is certainly not something that one can “touch, taste, smell” etc.), and even more with speculative scientific theorizing — such as the multiverse theory, or Max Tegmark’s “mathematical universe hypothesis.”

(I should add that my mention of a number of philosophical notions should not be construed as an endorsement, or rejection, of such notions. They are just examples to counter Nye’s naive understanding of philosophy.)

1:45 – “You can’t prove that the sun won’t come up tomorrow, not really … but I’m pretty confident it will happen.”

Yes, Bill, and so is every philosopher I’ve talked to. But does that mean you are aware of, and have a good response to, Hume’s problem of induction?

2:01 – So, Nye tells Mike, philosophy was important “for a while,” but then it started arguing in a circle, “I think therefore I am. What if you don’t think about it? You don’t exist anymore? You probably still exist.”

Holy crap! Remind me to invite Bill to teach my undergrads about Descartes! I’ve obviously done it really, really wrongly for years. This would be laughable if it were not coming from someone with a significant influence on public opinion, who feels free to dispense advise to young people about matters of which he manifestly knows nothing.

2:28 – “This gets into the old thing: if you drop a hammer on your foot, is it real or is it just your imagination? You can run tests a couple of times and I hope you come to agree that it is probably real.”

This, of course, is the same entirely irrelevant argument against idealism and radical skepticism famously made by Samuel Johnson to George Berkeley, when he said, while kicking a stone, “I refute you thus.” It is a fallacy so famous that it has its own name: argumentum ad lapidem. Bill could have looked it up on Wikipedia before embarrassing himself.

2:44 – Nye then tells Mike that it is important to “be aware” of philosophy (whatever that means), but immediately shifts to what I would call the capitalist argument: you know, you are spending a lot of money on college education, and “a philosophy degree may not lead you to a career path.”

This is demonstrably false, on the basis of readily available empirical evidence: studying philosophy makes one highly employable; it is a “very practical” major; it is a recommended career path by the Wall Street Journal; and by the New York Times; and by US News & World Report; and by The Guardian; studying philosophy is more useful (and far less expensive) than getting an MBA; and it will make you happy; it will also make you a better leader; and a better technologist; and it contributes to getting you high GRE and LSAT scores, which will get you into graduate or law school.

Good enough for you, Bill?

3:06 – Nye observes that humans invented science, language and philosophy too. Which apparently it is something to keep in mind when one goes to seek absolute truths. (Uhm, yeah, okay) Which, he continues, means there will be limits, and “there is also going to be things beyond which it doesn’t matter.”

I have no idea what that means, or what it has to do with the viability of a philosophy major, but — unperturbed — Nye concludes by returning to his drop-a-hammer-on-your-foot knock down argument and ends it there.

Yes, it is really that bad. I didn’t make up a single quote, nor did I take anything out of context. Check it out, the link to the video is above.

This is the sort of advice to a young student that a star of the edutainment industry is giving? I don’t know about you, but I found it neither educational nor entertaining.

Mike, listen to me, disregard Nye’s ramblings and make your assessment of whether philosophy is the field for you. Read the articles I linked to above, talk to your college advisor, do some soul searching in terms of what is important for you and what you are excited about it. Then go for it. If it turns out to be philosophy, welcome. If not, best luck with whatever endeavor you will be pursuing. I mean it.