Bill Nye the Philosophy Guy? A Call For Metaphilosophy

If you’re into philosophy or philosophy-esque topics, you may have seen Bill Nye’s recent videos on “Big Think”. Dan DeWitt’s recent blog post alerted me to a video (posted about a month ago) in which Nye seeks to answer the question “Does science have all the answers or should we do philosophy?” In the short video, Nye’s answer betrays a misunderstanding of what philosophy is and the types of questions philosophy seeks to answer. His examples and illustrations are but caricatures of philosophy as a discipline and actually hurt, rather than aid, his argument.  Olivia Goldhilll critiques Nye’s response over at Quartz in her post titled “Why are so many smart people such idiots about philosophy?” Goldhill provides a succinct response to every claim Nye makes in order to demonstrate that today’s intellectual superstars betray an inexplicable misconception of the very discipline that gave birth to modern science.

While it is understandable that the general public has misunderstandings of philosophy, it’s another matter when some of the public intellectuals of our time display the same misconceptions. Nye’s view of philosophy reflects that of other scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking and of the New Atheists: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. For these thinkers, only science provides the means by which we discover and know truth. That is, not only does science help us understand how the world works, it also informs us on ethical issues like abortion and explains why we exhibit empathy and love towards others (see Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape). In short, science is built upon fact, while philosophy focuses upon mere speculative questions that cannot be empirically verified. Science alone can discover truth.

How did we get here? Though philosophy and science were inseparable for many centuries, modern science has (to borrow a phrase from Sam Harris) “flown the perch” built by philosophy. The reasons for philosophy’s precipitous fall from “the mother of all disciplines” are varied and too many to summarize here; let it suffice that as modern science progressed and out knowledge of the world expanded, philosophy (and theology) began to be viewed as unnecessary, as relics of a time gone by, or as incapable of discovering truth. Instead, confidence in the scientific method and its track record led many to jettison philosophy in favor of science as the bar of truth.

Philosophy is not an innocent victim in this seismic paradigm shift. Some of philosophy’s heavy hitters have fed the growing ambivalence toward their own discipline. Nietzsche declared philosophy as faulty to its core; philosophers’ assertions are just “assumptions” and “virtuous noise.”[1] William James, the great pragmatist, favorably quotes the old proverb “Philosophy bakes no break” in Lecture I of Pragmatism. Bertrand Russell asserted that philosophy does not bring about definite knowledge; instead, the “residue of science” is left to philosophy.[2] Karl Popper relegated professional philosophy to “idealistic naval gazing.”[3] Finally, Richard Rorty claimed that we are no longer in an age where philosophy is a constructive discipline aimed at determining truth.[4] Though not all philosophers have had a skeptical or negative view toward philosophy, what is illustrated in this paragraph is the shift away from the classical view of philosophy that was prevalent for centuries.

Phil DefSo, is philosophy useless? Has its usefulness and value been exhausted, only to be studied as a relic of intellectual history? Well, ironically, these questions are actually philosophical in nature. So, to declare philosophy as “valueless” is to make a philosophical claim, which in turn requires—if one is to support their assertion—an investigation into the nature of philosophy (in order to declare it valueless). This investigation is itself…as you’ve probably guessed already…a philosophical endeavor.  Those like Nye cannot escape that which they have declared dead. As such, merely asserting that philosophy is no longer useful does not make it so. It is intellectual laziness to make such a careless claim without recourse to an investigation in, reflection upon, and support of this all-too-common view.

The question of whether philosophy is still valuable is a question asked by not only scientists, but by higher education institutions, politicians,[5] religious institutions, and other disciplines as well. Further, the question of philosophy’s value is one that has been visited quite often throughout the centuries. And despite the questioning, philosophy has remained engrained in the fabric of life.

The act of questioning something’s work seems on the face of it a way of putting it down or silencing it. On the contrary, though, questioning philosophy’s utility is actually a one worth asking. My studies have led me to believe that most people will acknowledge that philosophy has some value today. The issue tends to be not if it has value, but how it has value. That is, how does philosophy apply to today’s day and age? One is then led to ask: What questions does philosophy answer, and what issues does it investigate? In answering these questions, one can then answer the why question: why do we study philosophy?[6] In short, philosophy has focused upon—and continues to do so—the very nature of its enterprise. To do so is to participate in the philosophy of philosophy (known as metaphilosophy).

What we need, then, is not a haphazard dismissal of philosophy, but an investigation into the nature of philosophy. Such investigations have been done in the past by various thinkers, but today most people operate from an assumed understanding of philosophy as opposed to a well-formed and well-informed view of what philosophy is and its value to life (and all it entails) today.[7] If we are to accept the claim that philosophy is dead, then we can only do so after the philosophical investigation into that question, thereby breathing life back into a supposedly lifeless discipline.

I have already gone too long in this post, but allow me to wrap it up by extending a call to Christians to investigate the question of philosophy’s value. Christian thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Richard Swinburne, Eleonore Stump, Paul Moser, Paul Copan, and so many more have revived philosophy, particularly in Christian circles. While Analytic philosophers had once discarded philosophy of religion and metaphysical questions as unnecessary, these thinkers (among others) have demonstrated that not only are religious and metaphysical beliefs an integral and necessary aspect of life and study, they have established that philosophy can be a vibrant area of study and a valuable partner in the quest to understand the world in which we live.

One Christian who has done much in the area of Christian metaphilosophy is Paul K. Moser. Check out the online symposium that began with his article titled “Christ-Shaped Philosophy: Wisdom and Spirit United”; the symposium is housed at the website for the Evangelical Philosophical Society. The online symposium was begun in 2012 and flourished for about two years, but little has been done since. Further, little seemed was accomplished apart from academic wall-building between those of differing views regarding Moser’s claim. Moser’s work began a conversation that–in my opinion—should be continued if we as Christians are to develop a well-grounded understanding of the nature of philosophy and its value for the believer. Finally, Christian thinkers can also carry the torch into the broader intellectual arena, redeeming a discipline that was once known as “the handmaiden to theology.”


 

[1] This section is adapted from the first chapter of my dissertation, Toward a Baptist View of Metaphilosophy: An Analysis of E. Y. Mullins, John Newport, Richard Cunningham, and L. Russ Bush (2014). The quote is from Nietzshe, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers” I.5.

[2] Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 155; quoted in McDonald, Toward a Baptist View of Metaphilosophy, 31.

[3] Popper, “How I See Philosophy,” in The Owl of Minerva: Philosophers on Philosophy, 42; quoted in McDonald, Toward a Baptist View of Metaphilosophy, 34.

[4] Baldwin, Contemporary Philosophy, 272; referenced in McDonald, Toward a Baptist View of Philosophy, 36.

[5] One only has to recall Marco Rubio’s “We need more welders and less (sic) philosophers” quote in the early stages of his presidential campaign.

[6] A very helpful book that discusses these questions is the 2013 book titled An Introduction to Metaphilosophy by Overgaard, Gilbert, and Burwood. This book served as the impetus behind my dissertation and continuing studies.

[7] This view is affirmed in Overgaard, Gilbert, and Burwood, An Introduction to Metaphilosophy, 8.

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