Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Scientism

Hey. It’s Science.
The other day on Twitter, I saw somebody quote approvingly these words by Neil deGrasse Tyson:

The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

This received many favorites, re-tweets, and various (coarse) approbations. Evidently, this phrase produces a visceral glow in its fans, or perhaps the feeling of belonging to a group advanced beyond the benighted masses who, wallowing in their ignorance, dare to doubt Science.

Only here’s the thing. The phrase doesn’t mean anything. It’s emptier than our federal coffers. If you doubt this, try substituting other words for science:

The good thing about Philosophy is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

The good thing about History is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

The good thing about Economics is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

The good thing about Art is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

Each of these propositions are just as true as Tyson’s original; which is to say, each is as meaningless or as confused.

Has every theory promulgated by Science, which is to say, by individual or groups of scientists, been true? Obviously not. Therefore Science isn’t always true, and you’d best believe that. Has every theory put forth in Philosophy, History, etc. been true? Certainly not. Though some have. Is every painting or novel or poem been valuable? No. But some are. And so on.

“Oh, but Science is self-correcting. That’s why it’s true.”

Is it? If so, it is an admission that it has things to correct; which is to say, Science knows it is often in error, and therefore what it puts forth should not always be believed in toto because what it says might very well be false and in need of correction.

And then Philosophy, History, etc. are self-correcting, too, and we know this in the same way we know Science is self-correcting. That is, we have seen in these fields errors identified, new evidence augmenting the old, new (or rediscovered) theories supplanting old ones, and so forth, just as happens in Science.

Example? In History, take the absurd fiction that Giordano Bruno was murdered by the Church for holding forbidden Scientific views, which Tyson presented as truth (in cartoon form) on his Cosmos show. This tale has been (yet again) corrected, this time by our friend Mike Flynn (see Reply to Objection 6; and more in depth here) and also by our friend Thomas McDonald. Will Tyson recant?

“What I really meant was Science was truer than any of those other things.”

But truth is truth: epistemically, no truth can be higher than another; all truths share the same logical status. Ontologically, truths can be ranked, such as in a moral or ethical sense (it’s true you should not murder your neighbor, it’s truer you should not nuke a city for the fun of it). Sorting truth in that way thus admits Science is not the highest truth, because matters of ethics and morality belong to Philosophy, which is itself fed by History, Economics, and Art. Science can only say what is, Philosophy can say what you ought to do.

Damon Linker at The Week has noticed Tyson’s scientism, too:

[Tyson says] undergraduates should actively avoid studying philosophy at all. Because, apparently, asking too many questions “can really mess you up.”

…He proudly proclaims his irritation with “asking deep questions” that lead to a “pointless delay in your progress” in tackling “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

You need philosophy to lead an examined life, even in the presence of Science. It is easiest, and surely safest, to imbibe casually your morality from the culture, especially from what you see in social media. And majority rules is always the answer, isn’t it? Science can’t answer that question, so it really isn’t worth asking, let alone answering. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What is best in life? All have the same answer. Science!

Could Tyson’s next career be the replacement to the Scientific Ethicist.

Update To save me retyping it here, see the comment I made to George Wolfe about the so-called truth of the Scientific method. Welcome Hacker News folks. I hope you can agree that proving Tyson’s comment has little or no meaning is not an “attack” on Science. It is an attack on scientism, which is very different.

See also the comments from kikito, who offers a valid rebuttal on Linker’s story. Given his correction, I have modified my own uncharitable aspersion about Tyson at the end of the original piece (I suggested Tyson would agree with the penultimate paragraph).


  1. Noblesse Oblige

    I once had an extended email exchange with Neil on the matter of the Museum of Natural History’s flawed and alarmist display on the matter of global warming. I learned enough to grasp that here is yet another empty suit.

  2. George O'Har

    Tyson is pretty light in the shoes. I’m not going to say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but even in physics, there are heavyweights, and there are lightweights (just like the molecules they study). I am also reminded of Richard Lindzen’s comment about climate scientists all more or less being second-rated minds. Not every physicist is a Niels Bohr or E. Fermi.

    What Tyson said here about science is close to obscene in its stupidity. I haven’t watched the show, I refuse to watch the show. Even in its original form, with Carl Sagan, it let go with some real howlers. And Sagan could be a fool. But Tyson is worse: a true clown. Men who think like him can be regularly seen on Game of Thrones.

  3. Sheri

    Really! You can’t nuke a city for the fun of it?

    Why do I always have visions of an “enlightened” group of people such as those now in North Korea following their supreme leader and wailing upon his death every time I hear from one of the arrogant clowns that people now consider scientists? Oh, wait, because it really, really looks like that? Who would have thought people could, in less than 100 years, go from independent, strong individuals to mindless idiots following sound bites on Twitter? I never realized we could devolve so quickly.

    Interestingly, if we did actually follow science, abortion would be murder, vaccines would be mandatory and not overridden by religion, GMOs would not be banned, the words “safe sex” would land you in jail for outright deception, there would be no marriage (let alone gay marriage), and people might actually check the math on some of the theories currently being floated around out there (just to make sure they understand it, of course, not to question it), etc. Tyson doesn’t want us to follow science, just follow what he says.

  4. The good thing about Scientism is that it’s false whether or not you believe in it.

  5. Sander van der Wal

    The problem with the Deep Questions is that you won’t get an answer during your stay in college. Reason being, people have been studying them for 2500 years, and there still isn’t an answer that satisfies most people most of the time.

    And given that U.S. students are piling up dept whily studying, you are better of graduating as fast as possible. If you are still interested in the Deep Questions, study them when there is no financial penalty studying them.

  6. Science does not provide us with truths. It does provide us with information.

  7. Gary

    There may be an exception to your take on Tyson’s proposition:

    The good thing about William M. Briggs’ (Statistician to the Stars) blog is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

    Tyson’s error is to think Science is Reality rather than a limited model of it.

  8. katzxy

    Growing up on the west side, the Planetarium was one of favorite places.
    I returned about 2 years ago, and was disappointed. The astronomy was gone. What was left was pandering to the audience telling us that we are advanced from primitive times and have conquered ignorance and superstition.

    It would have been nice if the show had contributed, even in a small way, to the conquest of ignorance. I guess paying something like $25 to see the show earned us all a gold star.

  9. “The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

    Science is a methodolgy, not a set of results. Had he said “The good thing about Science is that the observations its results are based on are true within the limits of both the measurement itself and measurement proceess whether you believe them or not” he’d have bewen closer to right.

  10. The astronomy was gone. What was left was pandering to the audience telling us that we are advanced from primitive times and have conquered ignorance and superstition.

    That, in an elegant nutshell, sums the whole of modern education from K thru EdD: Congratulation disguised as edification. For 25 bucks you think they could have given all of the attendees a trophy, don’t ya think?

  11. Doug M

    Science is the search for truth…not quite there.

    Science is the search for truth through a systematic application of observation, experimentation and collection of evidence.

  12. I will spring to Tyson’s defense in one and only one sense: modern college students, if they study philosophy at all, are likely to study Hegel, Marx, Freud and their evil deconstructionist spawn, not the Aristotelian and Thomistic physics and metaphysics that are, in fact, indispensable for the study of science. Instead, the confused mish-mash they almost certainly will receive will, like so much of modern education, inoculate them for life against any possible infection with real knowledge.

    Thus, we almost always read, especially among the well educated, that philosophy is just a big game with no claims on truth, that there are no valid philosophical conclusion one is honor-bound to acknowledge, it’s just a big waste of time – and they’re right, based on what they have been taught. And, unless one is particularly fortunate or diligent, one may never have that ‘aha!’ moment where it becomes clear that, for science to mean anything at all, Aristotle’s method and metaphysics must be true – and all that other crap must be false.

  13. Adam Margulies

    Some scholarly references on the trial and execution of Bruno:

    Gatti, Hilary (2002). Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science: Broken
    Lives and Organizational Power. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University
    Press. pp. 18-19. Retrieved 21 March 2014. “For Bruno was claiming for
    the philosopher a principle of free thought and inquiry which implied
    an entirely new concept of authority: that of the individual intellect
    in its serious and continuing pursuit of an autonomous inquiry… It is
    impossible to understand the issue involved and to evaluate justly the
    stand made by Bruno with his life without appreciating the question of
    free thought and liberty of expression. His insistence on placing this
    issue at the center of both his work and of his defense is why Bruno
    remains so much a figure of the modern world. If there is, as many have
    argued, an intrinsic link between science and liberty of inquiry, then
    Bruno was among those who guaranteed the future of the newly emerging
    sciences, as well as claiming in wider terms a general principle of free
    thought and expression.”

    Montano, Aniello (24 November 2007). Antonio Gargano, ed. Le
    deposizioni davanti al tribunale dell’Inquisizione. Napoli: La Citt`a del
    Sole. p. 71. “In Rome, Bruno was imprisoned for seven years and subjected
    to a difficult trial that analyzed, minutely, all his philosophical
    ideas. Bruno, who in Venice had been willing to recant some theses,
    become increasingly resolute and declared on 21 December 1599 that he
    ‘did not wish to repent of having too little to repent, and in fact
    did not know what to repent.’ Declared an unrepentant heretic and
    excommunicated, he was burned alive in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome on 17
    February 1600. On the stake, along with Bruno, burned the hopes of many,
    including philosophers and scientists of good faith like Galileo, who
    thought they could reconcile religious faith and scientific research,
    while belonging to an ecclesiastical organization declaring itself to
    be the custodian of absolute truth and maintaining a cultural militancy
    requiring continual commitment and suspicion.”

    Birx, James (11 November 1997). “Giordano Bruno”. Mobile Alabama
    Harbinger. Retrieved 28 April 2014. “To me, Bruno is the supreme martyr
    for both free thought and critical inquiry… Bruno’s critical writings,
    which pointed out the hypocrisy and bigotry within the Church, along
    with his tempestuous personality and undisciplined behavior, easily
    made him a victim of the religious and philosophical intolerance of
    the 16th century. Bruno was excommunicated by the Catholic, Lutheran
    and Calvinist Churches for his heretical beliefs. The Catholic hierarchy
    found him guilty of infidelity and many errors, as well as serious crimes
    of heresy… Bruno was burned to death at the stake for his pantheistic
    stance and cosmic perspective.”

  14. X

    You make a a new term, “Scientism”. Then, you assign it to Tyson. Then, you attack the term scientism. You point is false and easily debatable. I’ll let the freshman analyze your argument. As for me, I know you are easily very wrong.

  15. George Wolfe

    I think you guys are being fussy. Yes, no scientific model is ever really proven, just not yet shown to be wrong. Yes, Tyson was being sloppy. But he was trying, it seems to me, to make the point that an evidence and experimentally validated process, subjected to continual and open re-validation, works progressively closer to the “truth”, with occasional do overs due to paradigm shifts, regardless of individual scientists religious or philosophical belief systems. That’s a lot to say. I take Tyson’s comment to be sort of a saying: “a stick in time saves nine, “a penny saved is a penny earned”, etc. Saying are memorable.

    Or something like that. That’s an unpalatable version of

  16. George Wolfe

    I meant “stitch,” not “stick.” I don’t know what a stick in time saves.

  17. Briggs


    Well if it’s “false and easily debatable”, then please to show us where. If you can.


    But that point about evidence and whatnot applies to the other fields, too, as I showed. There is nothing special about Science in that regard, though it is a popular thing to claim. Philosophy differs in that experiments aren’t run; neither in History are they. In Science they are, and, of course, and which nobody denies, it produces some nice results. But not always. So “Science” cannot always be true.

    It’s method also cannot be true: no method can be true. It can be more or less useful, and Science is surely useful and even necessary. But then so are Philosophy, History, and so forth useful and necessary. You cannot even get to Science without Philosophy. If you think not, then try talking about Science without using any math. So Tyson was on that meaning, too.

    No: I think he was just trying catch phrases that sounded cute and required no thought.

    Finally, what about all those points Linker made?

  18. “X” for the unknown, hey? Well, as a physicist I’d say that Briggs’ notion on the limits of science and the falsity of scientism are closer to the truth than Tyson, who is not a practicing scientist–papers submitted? Papers reviewed? Grants obtained? (other than from the global warming teat?)
    And for Hans E–Your comment can not be proven. If the one true religion is true, when will you find out?

  19. The original “Science is truth” quote was originally framed in contrast with religion (which requires you to believe in it to be “true”). In that context, it makes total sense. The quote however has a “nice ring” to it, so people leave the context out.

    Damon Linker’s article spends its first paragraph calling Tyson “historically inept” based on an article which is wrong – Cosmos did mention that Giordano Bruno was not a scientist. I don’t know why people keep repeating otherwise. It’s said clearly and directly in the show.

    The rest of the article is a diatribe based in a 1-minute section of a podcast.

    “A major in Philosophy can really mess you up” is clearly said jokingly (it’s told to one of the podcast’s shows, in reference to his studies).

    The rest is not a criticism to “Philosophy in general”. The literal words are: It’s “The philosopher believes that he’s asking deep questions about nature, and to the scientist, it’s ‘what are you doing? why are you concerned with the meaning of meaning?'”.

    It was a response to a comment by the show’s host, who we can safely assume is on “Philosophy’s side” (that’s what he studied, after all), which mentions that “some people like to think too much” about “the meaning of the meaning of the meaning”.

    We all know those guys. That’s not all philosophers, only a very particular subset. Neil was just acknowledging that those individuals do exist, and how they look to him, as a scientist, when they try to “deeply think” about nature.

    Yet Damon’s article doesn’t mention any of this at all – it takes one phrase from one famous person out of context, uses one badly-researched reference to give a semblance of credibility, and then it runs wild.

    I can only conclude that the whole article is a link-bait, pure and simple.

    I just hope you are not trying to do the same, and this one is an honest mistake.

  20. Briggs


    Even and especially if Tyson’s quote was framed in contrast to religion, it is still just as confused and false. Do read the links to the Bruno story, given above. The reason people keep mentioning it is fully articulated, especially in the McDonald link.

    I accept your revisions to Linker’s story. However, the deep, which is to say foundational, questions about nature cannot come from Science but must come from Philosophy. That meaning of the universe, or even why there is a universe, is something Science can never answer. For that, and for much else, metaphysics is needed.

  21. Phorien

    The logically flawed arguments presented throughout your post in complacent misrepresentation for clickbait is scarcely worth the trouble of responding to, however if an analysis of your wanton arguments influences even a single young person who happens upon this post towards a path of more critical thinking, it is worth it.

    Substituting various humanities studies for Science in a straw-man effort to destructure Tyson’s statement is akin to saying:

    A banana is yellow
    An apple is yellow

    An apple is not yellow so a banana is not yellow!

    Let’s try this again:

    The good thing about Gravity is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

    The good thing about Math is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

    The good thing about The Second Law of Thermodynamics is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

  22. Briggs

    Phorien—or were you “X” before?

    Every time somebody says they can refute something easily, and then don’t do so, we are justified in thinking they cannot.

    Gravity is not Science, but part of Science, so that example is flawed—and even meaningless unless everybody has the same exact idea of what you mean by it. A theory of gravity or its ontological existence? People dispute the former but not the latter. However, Tyson did not say Gravity is true. He said Science was. Math is better. But even here bad proofs occasionally slip by. And so on.

    But, as I point out repeatedly, and is anyway very well known, every theory put forth in the name of Science is not true. Therefore, as I showed, Tyson’s statement does not work.

  23. Brandon Gates

    Briggs: “Well if it’s ‘false and easily debatable’, then please to show us where. If you can.”

    It is easily debatable, but as far as I can tell from what I have seen, rarely understood, and even more rarely accepted. Scientists and Theists alike frequently use the exact same construction. To wit:

    “The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” — Neil deGrasse

    “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience. Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.” — Pope Francis

    I may have read it somewhere, but one thing I constantly tell myself is: “Until I admit that I know nothing, I will never learn anything.”

    Proof is, and always must be, left as an exercise for the one who seeks it.

  24. Phorien, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is not true in the sense that 2+2=4 is true. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, like all physical laws is true to the extent that it is verified by measurements, and is part of a general science construct (Imre Lakatos’ web of hypotheses and verification). I suggest you might be enlightened by reading Fr. Stanley Jaki’s collection of essays, “The Limits of a Limitless Science”.

  25. Phorien (or is it “X”?) and of course the Second Law of Thermodynamics is true only under a limited set of circumstances, depending on whether one uses the inequality or the equality form.
    The trouble with people who pontificate about science, like Tyson, is that they know very little of the history or philosophy or the practical usage of science.

  26. One more general comment… The trouble with people like Tyson (and some of the commentators to this post) who pontificate about science is that they know very little about (1) the history of science, (2) the philosophy of science, (3) the practical workings of science–they haven’t published, reviewed, or played the grantmanship game. With respect to the last, how many working scientists would not bend his principles for a $500,000 grant, I wonder (and call to mind the famous anecdote about Bernard Shaw’s offer of $2 to Ellen Terry to sleep with him for the night…you know the punch line!).

  27. George Wolfe

    William, re scientific “truth,” I guess I was sloppy too. I don’t know how to name the kind of knowledge produced by science. It’s not truth, of course. You’ve shown that a model of some kind behaves in such a way that it corresponds to the behavior of some thing/stuff/system according to measurements you are capable of measuring. What can you say about what you’ve learned besides the obvious? Oddly, a recent link in ycombinator to an article in Aeon Magazine called “The logic of Buddhist philosophy” ( relevant. Speaking as a (zen) Buddhist I approve of this article.

    It’s hard to know what conclusions to make regarding Tyson’s comments about philosophy. It’s disappointing, and wrong, and even stupid, but the bigger problem is that makes him a poor and misleading spokesman for Science. That’s not the way we (spoken as an ex-scientist) think.

    I don’t agree with the comment that the good thing about Art / Economics/ History / Philosophy is that they are right whether or not you believe in it. Those assertions miss the valid component of Tyson’s assertion. Art is not about “right” – it’s “not even wrong” to talk about it in this way. Same is true about philosophy, but at least there it’s possible to agree than a particular argument is logical. Historical explanations can be made on the basis of correct facts as opposed to incorrect facts, but all historians can do is make a plausible argument. Might be right – who knows? We don’t even know why current events happen. The world is a complex system – we can barely model the weather, much less the world. Finally, anyone who knows even a little about economics knows that it mostly doesn’t even try to be right. Economists develop “normative” models that they believe must be how economics works.

    Science produces knowledge which is, once it’s settled, *is* true whether you believe it or not. People are not rehashing conclusions about the idea of an atom as being composed of protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons.

    I hope this last paragraph doesn’t seem harsh.

  28. George Wolfe

    One further comment about history. People can be wrong about historical facts, but that’s not History, in my opinion. The History part of history is the weaving the facts of history into a explanation about the subsequent unfolding of events, based on the intangible aspects of the historical time and place, like culture, law, the influence of leaders, economics, etc. It’s impossible to establish that one particular explanation is “right.”

  29. cohenite

    Someone should ask Dyson about the placebo effect.

  30. Olav

    “Art is not about ‘right’ – it’s ‘not even wrong’ to talk about it in this way. Same is true about philosophy, but at least there it’s possible to agree than a particular argument is logical.”

    I’m not going to comment on art, since I know little about it. But I have studied philosophy for quite a number of years, and I don’t know where you get the idea that philosophical ideas cannot be right or wrong. That’s certainly not how most philosophers see it. Here is one philosophical question that has been studied a lot over the past 50 years: what is the correct theory of meaning? Presumably there is a right or wrong answer to this question, regardless of whether anyone knows the answer (there is *some* explanation for how people manage to understand one another!). Moreover, philosophers have arguably made a lot of progress on the question — there are several very sophisticated models of the semantics of natural languages (e.g. Montague Semantics).

    Another thing some philosophers have devoted a lot of time on in the past several decades is exploring what norms there may be for rational behavior by modeling rational agents as having probability distributions that they update over time (e.g. in a Bayesian way). No doubt these models are incomplete and incorrect idealizations, but this research has arguably furthered philosophers’ understanding of rational and evidential norms. Philosophers are “closer to the truth” on these issues now compared to, say, 40 years ago.

  31. DAV

    Interesting site change. The henpecked star on the top doesn’t look too happy.

  32. Briggs


    Wait for tomorrow to comment, please. Thanks!

  33. Jim Zuccaro

    I think that there is a slight, unintended, irony in this post. Figurative irony. It is this:

    The oldest version of that joke that I know of is the story George Gamov told about Niels Bohr. Bohr, the story goes, had a horse shoe over the door of his country cottage in Tisvilde. When he was asked how he, a scientist, could believe in superstition, he said; “I certainly don’t believe in this superstition. But, you know, they say that it brings good even if you don’t believe in it.”

  34. Jim Zuccaro

    [ above ] “…. it brings good luck, even if you don’t believe in it.”

    sorry, dumb omission

  35. Gary

    I get the message “Error establishing a database connection” when I click the Comments link or the post title in the new layout. Except on this post, for some odd reason. More pre-release testing should have been done.

  36. Sheri

    Joseph: Authoritarian philosophers pretty much hold the #1 place for annoying! Very good link—especially that last line!

  37. Mike Ozanne

    ell what I think Mr Tyson meant is that there are aspects of nature which we have come to understand through the process of the scientific method. Well enough to in fact to have “physical laws” written about them, sufficiently repeatable and well known to allow us to construct bridges and ships and aircraft etc. And that these aspects will function in a predictable way irrespective of an individuals opinion about those aspects of nature. No amount of personal conviction regarding the ability to levitate, or Wile. E. Coyote arm flapping will prevent a person stepping out of a 10 storey window on Earth accelerating at 9.8 ms-1 on a vector towards the centre of the planet.

    Of course it might have been simpler if he had said so…

    Now in addition to it’s “physical laws” science also has its theories and hypotheses which are less well developed. As those working in the requisite fields have yet to agree the details of the most valid and useful of these, then at this point the statement “Science is true whether you believe it or not” would be a bit more contentious.

    In addition the word “believe” is somewhat loaded. I happen to “believe” in evolution. By which I mean that I accept it as the most plausible explanation of speciation. Doesn’t mean that I’m blind to a certain vagueness of detail, or the issues related to experimental verification of a process with such long timescales. Or the contradictions between different interpretations of how it works. Nor indeed the irksome existence of “Evolutionary Psychologists” , other than to note that no “Intelligent Designer” would ever have included them. I’m not so sure for example that a devout Catholic who believes the Host becomes the actual flesh of Jesus is making such a conditional statement.

  38. Mike Ozanne

    “The good thing about The Second Law of Thermodynamics is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

    Always loved my physics tutors summary of the laws of thermodynamics.

    You are playing
    You can’t win
    You can’t break even
    You can’t quit the game.

  39. Dean

    I’m sorry, but this post is ridiculous and exactly why scientists (like me) seem to be turning away from philosophy. I did an MA in philosophy and loved it. I thought every child in the UK should be taught it, alongside maths and English. But these days, it strikes me as an exercise in nitpicking. I’m coming to the view that philosophy is becoming more and more irrelevant (albeit asymptotically, because I think all humans in pursuit of discovery need some philosophy!).
    I imagine everyone knows what Tyson meant. I imagine we also all know that a longer and more precise sentence wouldn’t be as catchy as a short one. Come down from your ivory towers and find out how the rest of the world should communicate complex concepts to the public! Sometimes short sentences that capture the meaning of a longer one is best!

  40. Dean

    That is, I think we would all agree that the best way to communicate science to the general public is through the use of short, memorable sentences rather than paragraphs of text.

  41. Dean

    …rather than paragraphs of text with lots of footnotes and caveats!

  42. Andreas Agas


    Interesting to find you here 😉 . I think your comment about “History” has far greater application than just “History” and stands as the keystone to this entire discussion. You wrote above,

    “The History part of history is the weaving the facts of history into a explanation about the subsequent unfolding of events,…”

    I’ll make the case that all intellectual progress, whether in the Arts, Liberal Arts, Science, Politics, Philosophy, or any combination of these follows and can only follow from something close to your idea.

    It all rests on “explanation”. David Deutsch makes this case in a brilliant book (by my estimation), “The Beginning of Infinity”. The NY Times wrote:

    “…Deutsch argues that explanations have a fundamental place in the universe—and that improving them is the basic regulating principle of all successful human endeavor…”

    Empirical observation does nothing without being bracketed by conjecture and explanation. No fundamental difference exists between any human endeavor.

    Humans have all sorts of explanations. Some good, some bad. No one really wants a bad explanation.

    Deutsch makes the case that good explanations are hard to vary. The myth of Persephone provided an explanation of the seasons, but it only explained things if one didn’t know about a southern hemisphere. One could add a southern hemisphere sister to Persephone to the myth and thereby account of different seasons in different parts of the world, but this stands as a kind of after the fact curve fitting, which does nothing to add to the power of an explanation or to creating a predictive model.

    When we developed a good explanation, that the earth orbited the sun and the earth rotated on an axis tilted off of perpendicular to the plane of its orbit, we have a very good explanation of variation of seasons and temperature. An explanation, hard to vary, with true predictive power.

    Deutsch makes a powerful case that this applies to all of human progress. Religions typically supply explanations easily varied. One god, two gods, lots of gods. A profit here a messiah there. One can continually vary many of the parts of religious explanation. This said, religion and philosophy may have done much to influence real advances in things like political philosophy. Deutsch makes the case that Rome had no good way to replace Julius Caesar, so Brutus et al fell upon violence. We do a bit better now. We have developed explanations of the organization of human society that serve as models for less disruptive transitions of power. Certainly not perfect, we need yet better explanations, but we have some progress.

    Deutsch also makes the case that we will always face problems, but the power of conjecture and explanation provide the essential means of solving them. The “Infinity” in his title refers to his conjecture that they provide an infinite capacity for people (intelligences, human or not) to solve problems and progress in every field of endeavor.

  43. Briggs


    You of course realize that your series of comments are completely self-refuting, yes?

  44. I think Tyson can be cut some slack on the Cosmos show, because he’s going up against religious fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism in the US, so he can simplify matters or exaggerate the powers of science to attract people to a more skeptical way of thinking.

    Still, I agree that he throws the baby out with the bath water when it comes to his view of philosophy. I wrote an article on my blog you might be interested in, called “Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Scientism and the Scapegoating of Philosophy.”

  45. Perhaps the scientific method approaches object truth, whereas the religious method approaches subjective truth.

  46. If you understand the nature of unanswerable questions you don’t have to waste your life in fruitless reasoning loops.

    “When we reflect on anything for long enough, we’re likely to end up with what we sometimes call basic questions — ones we can see no way at all to answer. For we have no perfect way to answer even this question: How can one tell when a question has been properly answered?

    What caused the universe, and why? How can you tell which beliefs are true? What is the purpose of life? How can you tell what is good?

    These questions seem different on the surface, but all of them share one quality that makes them impossible to answer: all of them are circular! You can never find a final cause, since you must always ask one question more: What caused that cause? You can never find any ultimate goal, since you’re always obliged to ask, Then what purpose does that serve? Whenever you find out why something is good — or is true — you still have to ask what makes that reason good and true. No matter what you discover, at every step, these kinds of questions will always remain, because you have to challenge every answer with, Why should I accept that answer? Such circularities can only waste our time by forcing us to repeat, over and over and over again, What good is Good? and, What god made God?

    When children keep on asking, Why? we adults learn to deal with this by simply saying, Just because! This may seem obstinate, but it’s also a form of self-control. What stops adults from dwelling on such questions endlessly? The answer is that every culture finds special ways to deal with these questions. One way is to brand them with shame and taboo; another way is to cloak them in awe or mystery; both methods make those questions undiscussable. Consensus is the simplest way — as with those social styles and trends wherein we each accept as true whatever all the others do. I think I once heard W. H. Auden say, We are all here on earth to help others. What I can’t figure out is what the others are here for.

    All human cultures evolve institutions of law, religion, and philosophy, and these institutions both adopt specific answers to circular questions and establish authority-schemes to indoctrinate people with those beliefs. One might complain that such establishments substitute dogma for reason and truth. But in exchange, they spare whole populations from wasting time in fruitless reason loops. Minds can lead more productive lives when working on problems that can be solved.

    But when thinking keeps returning to its source, it doesn’t always mean something’s wrong. For circular thinking can lead to growth when it results, at each return, in deeper and more powerful ideas. Then, because we can communicate, such systems of ideas may even find the means to cross the boundaries of selfish selves — and thus take root in other minds. This way, a language, science, or philosophy can transcend the limitation of each single mind’s mortality. Now, we cannot know that any individual is destined for some paradise. Yet certain religions are oddly right; they manage to achieve their goal of offering an afterlife — if only to their own strange souls.

    Marvin Minsky Society of Mind

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