Bill Nye is not a professional scientist, but he does play one on TV. You could even consider Nye a method actor, given how seamlessly he can disappear into his “science guy” alter ego. He does it so well, in fact, that he has flawlessly picked up on a lesser known trait of contemporary professional scientists: A dismissal of philosophy.
Nye’s skill was on display recently. Nye took to YouTube to answer a question from a philosophy major, who asked for Nye’s opinion on the discipline and on the disparaging comments made about it by some of Nye’s colleagues. Nye initially responded by saying that his colleagues haven’t actually disparaged philosophy, before going on to, well, disparage it himself.
Nye’s response wasn’t particularly impressive, and others have detailed his answer’s incoherence and deficient understanding of the actual disciplines of philosophy. But Nye shouldn’t be singled out in this regard. He is really just the latest in a long and distinguished line of scientific commentators to display skepticism at philosophy’s worth.
As Nye’s questioner pointed out, Stephen Hawking, arguably the most famous scientist in the world, recently declared that philosophy was “dead” and that science had killed it. “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge,” Hawking declared, adding that science alone would “lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it.” Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the feverishly popular host of the recent Cosmos reboot, likewise has gone on the record about philosophy’s uselessness, labeling it an unnecessary “distraction” in the pursuit of knowledge. And of course, the anti-philosophy vanguard has been dutifully held for quite some time by biologists and New Atheist raconteurs Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne.
Why does Athens have such a long and distinguished list of adversaries? The men mentioned above are not, after all, obscure professors at research universities. Hawking, Tyson, Dawkins, and even Nye are celebrity scientists, whose influence is felt in pop culture well beyond the halls of academia. What could unite these cultural educators in a common cause of putting philosophy back in its place?
One answer is that the scientific disciplines, especially at elite levels, have been hijacked by a nefarious worldview called scientism. Scientism is not a scientific method or even a particular approach to doing scientific research. Instead, scientism is a belief that scientific categories, such as biochemistry and neuroscience, can fully explain all phenomenon in the universe. According to scientism there is no human or cosmological experience that isn’t ultimately knowable as a process that can be subjugated to scientific observation or hypothesis.
Over the last few decades there has been an explosion in popular and academic scientific literature that attempts to use cutting edge scientific discoveries to “map out” reality. Everything, from sex and education, to art and religion, has been examined in light of neuroscience research, cognitive theory, and evolutionary biology. This trend has trickled down from classrooms into living rooms over the last decade via TED Talks, popular sermon-like lectures that often pin their most crucial observations and arguments on contemporary social science and cognitive research.
Of course, most normal audiences don’t consciously cultivate antipathy towards philosophy through “I Love Science” memes or “How Stuff Works” videos. But the reality is that science now serves as a kind of absolute cultural currency, in much the same way that philosophy and religion had functioned for thousands of years. Even a mere mention of “science says” conveys a sense of authority, an authority reasonable people shouldn’t question. The prevalence of this attitude in Western society can make discerning healthy confidence in the scientific method from the neo-materialism of scientism difficult. But it’s a distinction that matters.
As Oxford professor Roger Scruton has explained, scientism is an attempt to describe transcendent realities with only material or biochemical language. Thus, rather than marveling at the sense of delight and joy that great art can evoke, scientism reduces the artistic experience to neurological factors, taking away the mystery and spirituality of our experience of beauty. Scientism, according to Scruton, is a “refusal to adopt the posture that is inherent in the human condition, in which we strive to see events from outside and as a whole, as they are in the eyes of God.”
Given scientism’s aims, it’s not difficult to see why philosophy would be considered “dead,” or an “unnecessary distraction.” If there is no reality outside the things that can be measured by science, then philosophy’s historic questions about meaning, time, knowledge, the good, and God are merely babble. But from the Scriptures, we know that there are indeed transcendent realities that cannot be seen or even fathomed by man’s material mind. Not only is this the way God has set up the world, it’s good news: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Christians can and will continue to discuss and disagree about scientific questions. This is right and healthy. But we ought not disagree about the importance of asking questions and seeking truth beyond what scientific research can give us. We worship, after all, one literally joined heaven and earth together in his own flesh. What God has joined together, therefore, let not scientism separate.