Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

1-12-14-Neil-deGrasse-Tyson-inside-alternate-ftr by Massimo Pigliucci

It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson [1] has done it again: he has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise, and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so. But in his case the offense is particularly egregious, for two reasons: first, because he is a highly visible science communicator; second, because I told him not to, several times.

Let’s start with the latest episode, work our way back to a few others of the same kind (to establish that this is a pattern, not an unfortunate fluke), and then carefully tackle exactly where Neil and a number of his colleagues go wrong. But before any of that, let me try to halt the obvious objection to this entire essay…

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Beyond Borderlands and the Starry Messenger

Beyond Borderlands

So I have been thinking about being honest with myself about the relationship Beyond Borderlands is to have with my own blog here at the Starry Messenger, for sadly it seems that there is not enough of me to do justice (well, full-time justice) to both. When I started the Starry Messenger I wanted to post four updates every month, which was fine and feasible when I began, but *laughs* I suppose editing a journal and working on a dissertation, while still trying to find time to write creatively, has left me little energy for the blog.

I’m not saying this is the end, so much as a period of dormancy for the Starry Messenger. After all, everyone needs a place where they can represent no one but themselves now and then, and so I’m sure I’ll be back, albeit intermittently. Till then.

Cheers,

~Siderius

Fragment: Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death

[I]n Phantasms of the Living, Edmund Gurney, after subjecting the literature of witchcraft to a more careful analysis than any one till then had thought it worth while to apply, was able to show that practically all recorded first-hand depositions (made apart from torture) in the long story of witchcraft may quite possibly have been true, to the best belief of the deponents; true, that is to say, as representing the conviction of sane (though often hysterical) persons, who merely made the almost inevitable mistake of confusing self-suggested hallucinations with waking fact. Nay, even the insensible spots on the witches were no doubt really anaesthetic [sic] – involved a first discovery of a now familiar clinical symptom – the zones analgésiques of patients of Pitres, or Charcot. Witchcraft, in fact, was a gigantic, a cruel psychological and pathological experiment conduced by inquisitors upon hysteria; but it was conduced in the dark, and when the barbarous explanation dropped out of credence much of possible discovery was submerged as well.

Myers, Frederic W. H. 1907. Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co) 5.

Fragments: “The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism”

“Newton was by no means the only natural philosopher who had drawn upon magical traditions. Indeed, Newton’s own interest in various magical traditions can best be understood by locating it within a late-Renaissance movement to reform natural philosophy by paying closer attention to various magical or occult traditions.

Although it is now (at last) diminishing, there is still enormous resistance among the more positivist philosophers and historians of science to any suggestion that magic might have been instrumental in the emergence of modern science. It is remarkable, for example, that the authors of two recent books on the role of alchemy in the Scientific Revolution, one introductory and the other advanced, both felt the need to justify the claims they were making on behalf of alchemy because of its ‘associations with magic and the occult’. For the most part, the arguments against the possible influence of magic on science are presented a priori, while the historical evidence is simply ignored. So, magic is characterized as irrational and its influence upon a supremely rational pursuit like modern science is easily dismissed as inherently implausible. Similarly, magic is said to be concerned with the supernatural and therefore could only be antithetical to mankind’s heroic intellectual endeavour to explain phenomena in entirely naturalistic terms. What is particularly unfortunate about this approach is that, by dismissing magic at the outset, it fails to put any effort into understanding the nature and significance of magic in the pre-modern and early modern periods. But this ahistorical approach is intellectual chauvinism of the most arrogant kind, and the result is undoubtedly a diminishing of our understanding of the origins of modern science. To carry on in this vein is to repeat the errors of Sir David Brewster, Isaac Newton’s first biographer. Taking  the opportunity to scrutinize Newton’s manuscript remains, Brewster soon came across the huge mass of alchemical manuscripts. His appalled response is well known:

… we cannot understand how a mind of such power, and so nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world, could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry, and the annotator of a work, the obvious production of a fool and a knave.

When seen in the light of Brewster’s overwhelming admiration for Newton this is highly significant. An observer might have expected that Brewster would be led by his otherwise slavish veneration for his great forebear [sic] to conclude that, if Newton was so interested in alchemy, then there must have been something in it. But no, evidently Brewster’s conviction that alchemy was worthless rubbish outweighed even his awe of Newton’s genius.

It seems perfectly clear that something recognizably like modern science first emerged as a direct result of the absorption of various aspects of the magical tradition into traditional contemplative natural philosophy.”

Henry, John. 2012. “The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism and the Decline of Magic“ in Religion, Magic, and the Origins of Science in Early Modern England. (Surrey: Ashgate) 4-7.

Fragment: Primitive Culture, Spiritualism and “The Philosophy of Savages”

“The Received Spiritualistic theory belongs to the philosophy of savages. As to such matters as apparitions or possessions, this is obvious; and it holds in more extreme cases. Suppose a wild North American Indian looking on at a spirit-séance in London. As to the presence of disembodied spirits, manifesting themselves by raps, noises, voices, and other physical actions, the savage would be perfectly at home in the proceedings; for such things are part and parcel of his recognized system of Nature. The part of the affair really strange to him would be the introduction of such arts as spelling and writings, which do belong to a different state of civilization from his. The issue raised by the comparison of savage, barbaric, and civilized Spiritualism, is this: — Do the Red Indian medicine-man, the Tartar necromancer, the Highland ghost-seer, and the Boston medium, share the possession of belief and knowledge of the highest truth and import, which, nevertheless, the greatest intellectual movement of the last two centuries has simply thrown aside as worthless? Is what we are habitually boasting of, and calling new enlightenment, then, in fact, a decay of knowledge? If so, this is a truly remarkable case of degeneration; and the savages whom some Ethnographers look on as degenerate from a higher civilization, may turn on their accusers, and charge them with having fallen from the high level of savage knowledge.”

Edward Burnett Tylor (1871). Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, Vol 1. p. 141.

Fragment: More Philology of the Future

Thoughts such as this, I suspect, can help explain why I’ve moved increasingly from Nietzsche to occult studies. Not that Nietzsche was an occultist (he was quite disappointed by the one seance he did attend), but his emphasis on traditions, mysteries, symbols myth and the force of will can certainly lend itself to a intriguing reinterpretation of thought at the fringes of society.

“If on one level, then, the Dionysian is a thoroughly modern myth, on another level the Dionysian is a symbol for the ineradicable need for myths in modernity. Nietzsche thus uses the Dionysian to expose, in a rhetorical rather than declarative way, the most transparent and therefore most invisible myth of all: the myth of mythlessness that prevails in the modern world, its presumed ‘timeliness.” Philology as a discipline is what helps to sustain this myth and the modern needs for myth in the contemporary present. That those needs are said by Nietzsche to be consistent with religious needs that develop in antiquity is only a sign of the deeply rooted nature of the phenomenon described and of its seeming ineradicability.

Traditional philology is the agency that helps to sustain the mythical shape of the present, in part by alienating myth as an object of dispassionate study. It is one of the forms that forgetfulness assumes. Exposing this condition is the work of a critical philology. And because there is no philology that does not stand in the shadow of its own history, philology for Nietzsche must become a self-reflexive, self-critical, and often paradoxical undertaking.”

Porter, James. 2002. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Standford University Press, 224.

Fragment: Academic Charisma

“The traditional exam had been heroic oral theater, analogized by jurists to the three trials of a crowned athlete in Roman law. That heroic theater, colored by metaphors of blood and ordeal, seems to have hurt few. The modern exam has become a mundane, meritocratic exam associated with sweat and labor, but it can make one nearly ‘sick to death.’ In extreme forms, such as at Victorian Cambridge, such exams can recur to motifs of heroism. But the first generations that endured the Prussian Abitur and the modern Oxbridge exams described the process as torture. As survivors and administrators of such exams, we should not discount the reality of mental torture in modern practices. Torture acts to break spirits and wills. Following chapters investigate more closely the rehabilitation of some of the tortured.”

Clark, William. 2006. Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 139-40.

Fragment: Guard Your Daughters!

“It gives me great pain to tell you I believe he is a thoroughly unreliable witness. (laughter). I do not for one moment dispute his honesty of intention, but I say he is not fit to give evidence on this occasion. A question of evidence requires examination. A man should be thoroughly unprejudiced. I am afraid my friend does not come up to that standard. (laughter) Some years ago I was a witness of some of these performances. I knew one of the media, and it so happens everyone of these persons referred to have been females. (Laughter.) I say that these young girls—Professor Barrett’s young girls—my friend’s young girls—and these other young girls-I say they are not proper persons on whom to base great superstructures such as these. (Laughter and hisses.) May I mention another thing? Did anyone ever investigate hysteria- I speak to fathers and mother’s brothers and sisters. (Laughter.) I may say, as another fact, I am the parent of fourteen children—(roars of laughter)—and I say it is a most dangerous thing to bring these mesmeric experiences into a region like that, and I had to guard with great jealousy and great care my own daughters, or they would have been media.”

Rev. Dr. McIlwaine, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of science, 1876.

Fragment: The Philology of the Future

I have never been convinced that Nietzsche heralded, as Heidegger claimed, “the death of metaphysics”, but instead thought that he demonstrated, indeed, its very inevitability. Yet a student today could be excused for thinking that that word “metaphysics” was some kind of vile academic invective.  In Porter I recently found a reassurance that I am not alone in this suspicion:

Nietzsche cannot be assumed to have passed from a philosophical naivete (as if in a “precritical” period) to some emancipated, free-spirited thinking that definitively outgrew the theoretical problems (and not just the philological materials) that he had encountered early on. I doubt that Nietzsche believed in grand emancipatory possibilities at any point in his career. His readings of the Presocratics (Heraclitus, Parmenides, or Democritus) put this beyond doubt for the early period: what these reflections show is something about the inescapably, not just of the category of the subject, but of its idealism– which is always bound up, for Nietzsche, with the subject’s infinite capacity for delusion. What we learn is that Nietzsche’s inquiries into ancient philosophy do not reveal a premetaphysical thinking that points to a region beyond metaphysics, as is frequently held. On the contrary, Nietzsche’s early writings reveal the inescapability of metaphysical thinking. [...] But as Nietzsche says quite plainly in both phases, early and late, ‘It is absolutely impossible for the subject to want [and hence, to be able] to see and known something beyond itself: knowledge and being are the most contradictory spheres there are.’ The ‘subjective concept’ is ‘eternal’: we can never accede to a region ‘beyond the wall of relations’ by which we are conditioned, for beyond these lies merely ‘a mythical primordial ground of things’”.

Porter, James. 2002. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Standford University Press, 21.