Neil DeGrasse Tyson shares with Stephen Hawing a commitment to demonstrating that lots of schooling will never, by itself, equate to an education (a distinction I’ve explored in a variety of places.) For example, in a bromide from a few years back, Tyson not only dismissed philosophy as being of no value, but insisted that bright students should stay away from it as it is nothing more than a distraction.i Stephen Hawking, for his part, has maintained a long running snark-fest directed at philosophers, notable mainly in that Hawking’s petulance is only exceeded by his ignorance, and the indefensibility of his “arguments”. One must scare quote the word “arguments” in the preceding because neither Tyson nor Hawking have an actual argument, only ex cathedra pronouncements that are to be accepted without question, and in the complete absence of anything like logic, principles, evidence, or facts.Adding Machine

Thus, for example, Hawking vapidly legislates in his recent book, The Grand Design, that, “philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” What Hawking is, in fact, asserting here is that philosophy is only philosophy when it is doing physics. So when it fails to do physics (and actually does philosophy – a subject Hawking knows absolutely nothing about, and imagines himself virtuous for his willful lack of education) then this can only be because philosophy is dead. He declares (in Black Holes and Baby Universes), without a particle of evidence to support his claim that,

There is a subspecies called philosophers of science who ought to be better equipped. But many of them are failed physicists who found it too hard to invent new theories and so took to writing about the philosophy of physics instead. They are still arguing about the scientific theories of the early years of this century, like relativity and quantum mechanics.

and then goes on to pule that, “Maybe I’m being harsh on philosophers, but they have not been very kind to me.”ii This is the sort of childishness one might expect from a 3rd grader, not from a man who held the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge University. In its way, however, it is perfectly representative of an attitude that has consumed much of physics, in which any attempts to ask deeper questions about the issues of contemporary physics are met with the dismissive command to just, “shut up and calculate.”

Notice in the previous quote, Hawking’s glib derogation of philosophers for worrying about, “the scientific theories of the early years of this century, like relativity and quantum mechanics.” What Hawking fails to mention is that there are valid questions – raised even within the peer-reviewed scientific literature! – about these issues which dog scientists themselves. Yet Hawking is so out of touch with his own subject matter that such facts never enter into the limited confines of his own self-righteous awareness. Thus, the fact that there continue to be alternatives to the effectively empirically vacuous dominant view of gravitational cosmology doesn’t exist in Hawkings dogmatic view of things. Yet, as physicist Michael Disney has observed, the current standard model of gravitational cosmology (SMGC) has more free parameters than independent observations, meaning no matter what happens, that standard model will always be magically “confirmed.” But philosophers are fools for worrying about such irrelevant matters as empirical evidence and logical coherence.

Worse than this – much, much worse – is the status of quantum mechanics (“QM”). Only a small number of scientists have the settled stature such that they can afford to challenge the standard model of gravitational cosmology. But questions abound about QM, and the interpretation that is resolutely shoved down physicists’ throats, requiring that they ask no meaningful questions (which would be a matter of philosophy), and simply plug numbers into the formulae and report the answers – in other words, “shut up and calculate” – is itself a matter of considerable scientific concern.

This attitude, this “shut up and calculate” approach, where fundamental questions are ignored, and mechanical numbers are mechanically produced in order to be mechanically compared to mechanically determined observations is primarily an outgrowth of QM, precisely because it so resolutely defies any of the permitted forms of interpretation with in the established and accepted concept of nature operating within physical science today. However, we should not be as sanguine as the gatekeepers like Hawking and Tyson (one can add Lawrence Krauss and Brian Greene to this list) would have us be regarding gravitational cosmology, either. The dominance of geometrical metaphors interpreting the tensors in SMGC, (an outgrowth of Einstein’s GR) should not be confused with success, particularly given the extent to which that theory is insulated from empirical test (noted above); nor should it blind us to the fact that those metaphors are certainly not necessary, even given the accepted mathematics of SMGC.

So my speculation is this:

The more dogmatic the investment in an indefensible interpretation, the more direct and savage the attacks on those who explore and inquire into interpretations.

This ties back into Herstein’s First Law, as well as paralleling certain aspects of the Authoritarian mind, notably one’s I’ve not specifically blogged on, but which tie in with the prioritization of obedience over questioning. This requires a bit more explanation when talking about science. Scientists are taught to question, but the framing of those questions is within certain – sometimes narrowly defined – frames. The analogy here is with Thomas Kuhn’s distinction between “puzzle solving” (the normal pursuit of scientific inquiries) and “paradigm shifts” (the abnormal pursuits that come into play when those scientific frames break down.) The trouble is, that when the dominant scientific frame is entirely quarantined from the very possibility of empirical test (see Disney, above), then no breakdown of normal science is possible, regardless of how necessary and desperately needed it might be.

Given that so many of the gatekeepers have taken this stance, it is quite difficult for members of the younger generation of scientists, who will – despite their extensive introduction to the matters of their discipline – be better positioned to explore new and potentially fruitful fundamental ideas, to actually follow up such inquiries without seriously endangering their careers. So it comes back to established members of the scientific disciplines – people like Lee Smolin, Peter Woit, Paul Steinhardt, Michael Disney, and others – to challenge the gatekeepers at their own game, to challenge the lazy dogma of “shut up and calculate.”

And this, of course, is what philosophy does – or, at least, does when it is done well. Even when done well, philosophy can come off pretty flat-out butt-stupid, even to most other philosophers. Thus, David Lewis’ defense of the many-worlds thesis as being literally true mostly demonstrates what happens when really smart people go over the falls without even remembering to bring a barrel with them. Robert Nozick’s “defense” of individuals’ “right” to sell themselves into slavery was so self-contradictory that even he ultimately abandoned it. Philosophy – arguably more than most other disciplines – is always and everywhere dogged by Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap. In the case of philosophy, which requires serious and significant scholarship even to be done badly, I suspect that 99% is at the low end.

And this is why gatekeepers like Hawking and Tyson hate us: they want to do philosophy, but they are too lazy to even do philosophy badly, much less gain any idea of what philosophy done well looks like. So they damn with unparalleled fervor and sincerity all those who do it at all.

Because even bad philosophy refuses to just “shut up and calculate.”

iPerhaps Tyson has since backed down from this uninformed and insupportable position. For my purposes it doesn’t matter since (1) the attitude is common enough amongst gatekeepers like Tyson, and (2) Even IF he’s apologized for this piece of childish nonsense, however many times he’s apologized, he still hasn’t apologized enough.
iiStephen Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes (New York: Bantam Books, 1994), 42–43.