Tyson has no time for people who ask questions that serve no purpose or have no real value

Neil deGrasse TysonNeil deGrasse Tyson has been popping up in many opinion pieces and segments lately. The most prominent mentions of him are among creationists that are upset with Tyson’s reboot of the “Cosmos” series, in which Tyson has taken personal liberties to attack the religious dogmas of those who attack him. While Tyson has mainly been attacked for his anti-creationist stance, recently a second and much more obscure debate opened up with Tyson involved.

Tyson is now the center of a small “controversy” involving the age-old misnomer of science vs. philosophy. He was invited on a radio show, where the topic of philosophy was brought up. Tyson essentially made the argument that certain types of theoretical questioning can be detrimental and “hold you back.” Many saw this as a revival of science battling against philosophy, and that Neil deGrasse Tyson was espousing anti-philosophy viewpoints.

The comments Tyson made, in fact, don’t seem very controversial to me. In fact I agree with some of what he said, just not in the context some think. For one, no I don’t think Neil deGrasse Tyson was intentionally trying to denigrate the idea of philosophic thought. Personally I think many intellectual types got a little too hasty in attacking Tyson for something that is really not that controversial.

Many of Tyson’s detractors in this regard claim that he was attacking philosophy as a whole, without really understanding the differentiations Tyson was making in his wording. Tyson described certain methods of questioning, disguised as true philosophic questions, that in fact are rather pointless and do not get to the roots of the human spirit or progress human knowledge in any way.

What Tyson was attacking was not the true notions of philosophy, but rather what we would consider pseudo-philosophy. For example, a true question of philosophy “what is the difference between a good man and a good citizen?” A pseudo question would range in the nature of, “what is the flavor of seven?” Or questions such as “what is the meaning of meaning”, in the end, advance us nowhere in intellectual discourse. That is what Tyson was referring to.

When Tyson remarked “I don’t have time for that”, he wasn’t referring to the idea of asking deep inner questions. Rather, he was referring to questions that ultimately are pointless and serve no use in helping humanity advance itself.

While Tyson admitted that he is not a huge follower of philosophy, he never claimed that the entire field was a “waste of time”, as many critics claim. What Tyson claims is a waste of time are cycles of pointless questions that have no real purpose except to perpetuate itself without any answer or unlocking of deep inner self-knowledge. Questions should not merely be posed simply for the sake of asking a question.

Critics will say, “well Tyson is more concerned about answers, without realizing the point of philosophy is the questions.” This is true to a degree. Philosophy is more focused on its questions than it is on potential answers, while empirical science is more focused on finding answers. Yet, we have to understand that Tyson works in a field that does not spare itself time for unneeded questions. Yes, he is more concerned about the answers, but his field demands that. Tyson never wanted to say that philosophic ideals are wastes of time. What is wasting time are people who take themselves too seriously while asking questions that serve no purpose or value.

The Philosophy of Neil deGrasse Tyson is pretty simple. Knowledge is the end of all human endeavors. There is nothing wrong with asking deep questions, only if there is a reasonable purpose to them. When asking what makes a person “good”, and the definitions of such, we are asking serious questions that invite healthy discovery. When someone asks, “what is a person”, essentially they are just raising semantic questions that are more focused on definitions than challenging human ideas. Science and philosophy are not in conflict. Questions are useful in what they add to the human discussion, not in what they distract from.


  1. You may just have a poor way of communicating your points and opinions here, but your statements seemingly show you as both arrogant and [somewhat] ignorant despite a doctorate in one of the fields under discussion. It also seems clear, in my observance, that you would rather wrangle than theorize.

    • I was not aware of how responses are posted in sequence here. I had clicked on “Reply” to respond to Rusty Inman’s assertations.

  2. I imagine Tyson would be miffed by questions such as: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”? Come to think of it I would be likewise.

    • Well if we could quantify and observe said angels, then at least it’d have an answer at least. Of course we can’t quantify or observe angels (or prove their existence) so it’s an unanswerable question. Of course I’d think that angels would be roughly the size of a proton, so someone do the math on how many protons can fit on the surface area of the head of a pin 🙂

  3. As one who holds a dual doctorate in Theology/Philosophy, I find myself just a bit bewildered by your seemingly contrived bifurcation of science and philosophy. And more than just a bit bewildered by your subjective—and, simplistic—determinations of what makes for purposeful philosophical inquiry and what, well, does not.

    Your dismissive take on several philosophical issues—most obviously, “What is a person?” but also including “What is the meaning of meaning?” (a better way to ask it would be “What do we mean when we talk about meaning?”)—not only denigrates several thousand years of rather profound thought and thoughtfulness but renders it to the level of navel-gazing.

    Furthermore, let me assure you that philosophy is as concerned with answering questions as it is with devising them, though the fact that philosophy takes the development of questions as seriously as it does answering them digs a grave for your thesis that academic philosophy can be, at times, a “distraction.”

    Let me assure you that there is as much pseudo-scientific inquiry to critique as there is pseudo-philosophy.

    That said…

    I am unaware of any anti-science movement in the philosophical world, and I am relatively in touch with the latter. And, quite frankly, I am unaware of any real anti-philosophical bias in the scientific world—if anything, reading the work of and conversing with scientific researchers over the past many years has convinced me that many/most of them are asking far more philosophical questions—questions, in particular, that pertain to “meaning” and “ethics”—about their work than might have once been the case.

    Historically, the two disciplines have been inextricably bound together and, rather than being in any way mutually exclusive, are more likely to be found in a complementary relationship. Again, historically, each has enriched the other and would be the lesser apart from it. For example, one questions how enriching or contributive any scientific investigation/discovery would be were its “meaning”—which is as philosophical as scientific—not articulated/elucidated.

    Hence, even if the question is as, uh, trite as “What is a person?” or “What do we mean when we talk about meaning?”, it breathes a bit of life into what would otherwise be a right sterile lab. Indeed, how does a scientific discovery “advance” human progress apart from our understanding the philosophical “meaning” of it?

    Finally, in the service of full disclosure, let me say that I don’t have any problems with Tyson and consider him a rather eloquent and learned spokesman for his field.

    • Let me start by saying that you seem to be mimicking some of Tyson’s critics, by essentially missing the point of what I wrote.

      As someone with a dual degree, you should be aware of the fact that there are such things as pointless questions. I never made the claim that I can pick and choose what questions are appropriate or not. Ridiculous questions are self evident for the most part. Asking a question for the sake of it does not mean you are provoking deep thought. That was my point, not to define what constitutes philosophy.

      Also, you clearly haven’t hung around too many biology majors in school. General attitudes toward philosophy is not so hot. Does that mean there is a fundamental conflict, as you claimed I implied, no. It means there are splits in attitudes toward empiric science and non-empiric studies such as philosophy.

      Finally, I was never dismissive of real philosophy. Asking “what is a person” is just a semantic question that gets more to redefining a word than it gets to the human soul. It’s a circular question that advances nothing but more circular questions. That is what I critiqued, not philosophy in general.

      There are such things as useless questions. That’s my point. Your projection does not serve your intellect well in this case.

      • Actually, I never wrote that you were “dismissive of real philosophy.” It was my opinion that you had a “dismissive take on several philosophical issues” that, in fact, have been the focus of philosophers and critical thinkers since people who lived in caves began drawing images on their walls.

        And, of course, subjectivity does kind of get in the way when one uses phrases like “real philosophy” (what distinguishes “real philosophy” from, uh, “not real philosophy?”) and, once again, dismisses a fundamental question of human meaning as “a circular question”—a better way of expressing it would be to say it represents “a circular argument”—though it isn’t and doesn’t.

        My “projection does not serve [my] intellect?” Please.

        I “clearly haven’t hung around too many biology majors in school?” Please.

        And how does one limit those engaged in scientific research to, well, “biology majors?” Having taught for a right fair number of years, you might be surprised by just how many, uh, “biology majors” I have “been around.” And students—such as my son—who concentrated on a wide array of other fields of scientific inquiry.

        That dual doctorate was earned—albeit 35 years ago—at a major research university and in an interdisciplinary doctoral program inclusive of four students; one whose concentrations were in the humanities (theology/philosophy), one whose concentrations were in law, one whose concentrations were in medical research (the ethical dimensions of) and one whose concentrations were in biochemical engineering.

        Let me close by saying that sometimes readers “miss the point” of what a writer is saying not because their reading & comprehension is deficient but because the writer has perhaps not thought through the implications of how he/she articulated his/her point.

        Or, let me close by again saying that I don’t have any problems with Tyson and consider him a rather eloquent and learned spokesman for his field.

        • I never claimed you had a problem with Tyson. You seem to have a problem with me. Your implications are that somehow I was dismissive of “certain philosophic issues”, when in fact I never explicitly referred to any aspect of philosophy to criticize. If you can’t explain the difference between what makes real philosophic thought, and incoherence, then I question the university you attained your degree.

          The article made pretty clear that the criticism was laid upon pointless questions disguised as philosophy. Much like Tyson’s critics, you are stretching to find an argument when there is none. Never once did I dismiss or denigrate any field of philosophy. Please point out what field of philosophy I dismissed, sentence, paragraph? You are grasping at straws for an argument that has no substance. If the article confused you that much, then perhaps you need to go back to school.

          Clearly you don’t grasp the concept of “examples” in writing short articles. The biology major retort is just a slim usage example. Science is of course not limited to biology majors, and I am very surprised I should have to admit such to someone who has gone to a major university over 35 years ago. That is such an obvious statement that it shouldn’t even be given a reply. I could have taken the entire comment to list the fields of science, and to explain why I shouldn’t is rather indicative of the criticism I was laying in the first place.

          Once again, the point of the article was that pointless questions do not make one a philosopher. I can ask, “What is reality?”, “Why are we here?”, “Why is there a sky rather than something else?”, “What is the color of jealousy?” You can ask these questions, but does that make the question fruitful or somehow expand one’s reasoning. Maybe, maybe not. It certainly does not always qualify for meaningful discussion, especially if there is no apparent solution to said questions. If you ask a question that only perpetuates itself, then what exactly does the question serve?

          Again, questions pertaining to “What makes one a human”, are semantic that get to what defines a word rather than any deep philosophic expression. Humans are Homo Sapiens, a biological classification and definition. A dog cannot be a human, a bird cannot be a human. You can argue intelligence, whether they have emotions like us, but you can’t make a philosophic argument that “anything can be human”, which is one possible tract of said question. Asking such an incoherent question does not make one a philosopher.

          Philosophy, much like science, is a quest of knowledge. Questions pertaining to ethics, morality, and political systems are questions that fuel our lives and the lives of future generations. There are reasonable, and thoughtful questions we can ask ourselves within philosophic fields. Yet, as Tyson stated, I don’t have time for questions that pose as deep thought but have no real substance to them, or rather delve into rhetorical definition changing that does not advance our quest for self-knowledge.

          If you believe that what defines an important question is left to individuals to decide, then so be it. My stance is that there are such things as dumb questions, and that merely asking a question does not grant the question deep meaning. That is what Tyson criticized, and the article made pretty clear of my support for that position.

          • Once you left open to question a question that has occupied philosophical, theological, anthropological, sociological and psychological thought since the evolution of the cerebral cortex—“What is reality?”—I realized we are operating on two different planes.

            And relegating the investigation of “What makes one human” to the realm of incoherence doesn’t make me confident of either your intuitive capacities or your appreciation of curiosity.

            I think I’ll pass on any comment beyond that. Perhaps I need to, uh, “go back to school.” Or, at least, let my colleagues at my graduate alma mater know that the towers weren’t as tall as we perhaps thought they were. Of course, that would bring to the fore the issue of objective and subjective reality and, given that the value of such an inquiry is apparently questionable, perhaps I’ll find another metaphor to use when I talk to them.

            • Whether you realize it or not, you are making better examples of my criticisms than I ever could. You clearly have no grasp of example usage. I am not asking the question, “what is reality”, that is what pseudo-philosophers ask. I’m glad at least you consider that question ridiculous. What makes one human is a pretty easy question, and more or less you are stretching a question of biology into a deeper issue than its needs to be. You can ask the more clear, “What makes a human good or bad?” A human is a homo sapien, and asking “What makes something human” is a dictionary research tool. Trying to ask “what is a human” or “makes something human” is a matter of definition in taxonomy. Asking “what is good” or “what is bad” and then asking “what makes something good or bad” is a much better usage of what would understand as philosophy. That gets to the heart of what most philosophers would be interested in. A vague and unclear question will always have vague answers.

              If you are that perplexed by the premise of the article, then there is not much more I can explain that I haven’t already. A thinking person shouldn’t waste his/her time on questions that have no use, rather than questions that actually get to the heart of what we have to deal with in the world. The article made a clear point, which you chose to dig an argument out of that honestly made no sense to me. If you disagree with the opinion that some questions are not worth the time, than that is your right. However, to try and pry some notion of me dismissing philosophy is just a bridge too far. For someone as educated as you are, I should not have to elaborate over and over again the same point that I made in the article to begin with. We can agree to disagree if you don’t like the opinion, but otherwise its just hubris.

  4. What the man was saying, I believe, was stop waisting time and energy obfuscating issues that form the basis of the biological and earth sciences.
    As a matter of fact, I see this argument as an example of just that tactic.

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