What’s the Philosophy of America’s Favorite Astrophysicist, @neiltyson?

Neil deGrasse Tyson recently gave a lecture at my university, and my girlfriend and I, being fans of his and of astronomy, decided to attend. Tyson’s lecture, which was livetweeted at #NDTPurdue, was focused on recent discoveries and events in astrophysics. It was informative and entertaining, as you might imagine if you have ever heard Tyson speak.

In my most recent reading, writing, and listening, I have become interested in philosophy of science. With apologies to my philosophy friends for any inaccuracies I may make in representing various philosophical viewpoints, I would like to try to determine exactly where Tyson is on the spectrum of the philosophy of science. There were a few clues from the lecture that I have been analyzing to try to narrow down Tyson’s view of science. Here they are, relatively verbatim, and in no particular order.

(1) “The cool thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe it or not.”

(2) In response to a question about a first-cause and belief in a causal universe: “I don’t BELIEVE anything.”

(3) Also in relation to this question, Tyson expressed his right to suspend judgment on the idea that the universe was entirely causal.

I will start with the first statement. (1) is a particularly revealing statement because Tyson uses the word “true,” which means we can start by determining what definition of “truth” he is working with. For a brief overview, you can check out Wikipedia. Tyson seems to be working with a Correspondence Theory of truth. His statement implies an objective reality from which “truth” comes from. If Tyson makes a statement about stars, and in reality stars are, in fact, the way that Tyson describes them, then his statement CORRESPONDS to the actual state of affairs with regards to stars. However, in (1), Tyson imagines a detractor of science who utters a statement that does not correspond to the objective reality (that “science” discovers–more on that later). The detractor’s statement is false because it does not correspond to the state of affairs.

So what does this mean? From a qualitative research perspective, it has ruled out about three quarters of the possible philosophies available. But Tyson is a quantitative researcher (and, interestingly, made no claims about social science at all–just the liberal arts in general), so (1) does not reveal much. The two dominant (from my understanding) philosophies in quantitative research are logical positivism and postpositivism. The Correspondence theory is more or less consistent with both, but it favors the logical positivists because it implies certainty, and logical positivists claim some level of certainty in their statements about reality.

Statement (2) was striking for its linguistic implications. Using intonation and vowel lengthening, Tyson put special emphasis on the word “believe.” The non-emphasized declarative version likely would have a tonal peak at “anything” (don’t quote me on that; I didn’t run it through PRAAT). The emphasis on “believe” makes it likely that Tyson was implying that he “knows” things, and that he only accepts things that can be “known.” This ups the score for logical positivism; the postpositivists do not believe in such certainty–only that truth can be approximated.

Statement (3) was a little trickier because it seems like Tyson is backing down from his certainty. He is denying certain knowledge about the causality of the universe (which, incidentally, puts him in the company of Hume–suggesting that skepticism and science are tied somehow despite Hume’s criticism of induction upon which much of science is based). To be consistent, Tyson must be saying that there are things about which he has certain knowledge and things about which he does not have certain knowledge. Since he only accepts things that are true, it would follow that he either thinks causality is false or (and this is the real answer) there is not sufficient evidence to determine the truth of a causal universe. This puts him possibly more in line with the postpositivsts, I should think. Based on my understanding of some positivists, like Wittgenstein, things we cannot determine through observation are unscientific and meaningless. Causality, though, is something Tyson (challenging Hume) says he simply does not have enough EVIDENCE for. Evidence, therefore, seems to be a foundation for Tyson. Yet the causality question is more of an open question than a meaningless one. This makes it seem like Tyson oscillates between logical positivism and postpositivism.

Let’s set this up as a thought experiment. Tyson’s lecture is my dataset. My null hypothesis is that most quantitative scientists are positivists. My alternative hypothesis is that he is NOT a positivist (which would sort of imply he’s postpositivist–there aren’t a lot of other areas to go). If I ran Tyson’s lecture through my magical experiment machine with a p<.05, I would not be able to reject the null. I would have to say that I do not have enough evidence to claim Neil deGrasse Tyson is anything other than a logical positivist. His level of certainty about objective reality and an implied foundation of observational evidence make it pretty difficult to reject the null here.

But as a particularly logical Vulcan once said, "There are always possibilities."

And, if by some strange fate, Dr. Tyson reads this, I would simply ask if you could clarify your philosophical position.


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