Philosophy, Science, and Big Questions

Philosopher and scientist Massimo Pigliucci of Scientia Salon takes Neil DeGrasse Tyson to task for deriding the value of modern philosophy to science, and for suggesting that philosophy has contributed nothing to natural science since the 1920s.

I disagree with Tyson on many things, but I must agree with him here: the academic direction philosophy today does not meaningfully answer questions about the natural world. Yet perhaps unlike Tyson, I continue to believe that philosophy – of which faith could be considered a subset – remains relevant in the scientific world, and the philosophical questions posed by advances in science are ill-addressed by science itself.

The scientific method is a magnificent tool for describing what, how, where and when, for example, but it comes up short as a source for ethics, morality, or the meaning of life. Science can show us how we can clone a human, but it ill-equipped to tell us whether we should or not; science can build a bomb, but it cannot tell us where and whether to use it; and science can explain the nutritional value of a calf, but it cannot help us decide whether or not it is right to eat veal.

It disappoints me that someone as intelligent as Tyson – or Stephen Hawking, for that matter – cannot see that science and philosophy are complimentary pursuits that each address their own realms. There are questions that science cannot answer, and there are questions that philosophy cannot answer. That modern philosophy has become dominated by intellectual auto-eroticists does not lessen the value of philosophy as a human pursuit: it merely suggests that philosophy took a wrong turn at some point, and needs to back up a bit and start again.

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