The deGrasse Tyson Philosophy vs. Science Debate: The Authority of Science, Instrumentalism and Technology

Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson made some comments questioning the value of philosophy. Massimo Pigliucci who writes on the blog Scientia Salon has addressed his comments directly in a recent article, but the whole debate on the value of philosophy as opposed to the value of science raises some interesting questions and concerns that I would like to consider.

Often, critics of philosophy, condemn philosophy as a useless practise because it does not seem to lead to any tangible benefit for society. This was not deGrasse Tyson’s exact criticism, but this critique is so prevalent within society that it has become a banal commonplace that philosophy is a useless endeavour that does not benefit mankind in any way. Interestingly, this is the same critique that Francis Bacon made of the Scholastics within the New Organon, and the critique that Marx makes of previous philosophers within the Theses on Feuerbach; apparently the philosophers will never learn to just get in line already and devote themselves to improving the world. However the fact that this critique of philosophy is prevalent reveals that the popular conception of value within postindustrial societies is one that is fundamentally instrumental. Or to put this more clearly, it is a conception of value that sees something valuable if it can help us efficiently pursue desirable ends. This instrumental conception of value is theoretically problematic, as it cannot explain some of the most basic experience of value that appear within everyday life. Furthermore, the prevalence of this conception of value is problematic as it reinforces the idea that science’s authority derives from its ability to contribute to the development of technology. Consequently, this conception of value distorts our understanding of authority of science itself.

Our everyday experience of value attests to the fact that activities can be valuable for instrumental reasons, but it also attests to the fact that activities can be intrinsic valuable (be valuable on their own account). For example, even though it is true that we might say that a dishwasher is only valuable because it allows us spending less time washing dishes, and consequently only valuable for instrumental reasons, it does not make sense to say that friendship is valuable only for instrumental reasons. Friendships might be valuable because they open doors for people, but the main value of friendships seems to be an intrinsic one as opposed to an instrumental one, as what we value about friendship is not some end-state that friendship produces, but rather the fact that we are in a position of sharing our lives with another being who we respect or admire. The value of such a state cannot be made sense of from an instrumental perspective, so from a purely theoretical angle it seems that a purely instrumental conception of value is fairly implausible, as it is not able to adequately explain the everyday experience we have of value.

The prevalence of a purely instrumental conception of value which not only condemns philosophy, but also the arts, is not only problematic because it does not stand up to criticism at a theoretical level, rather it has a pernicious influence on the way that people understand the authority of science. People tend to see science as an authority within postindustrial societies and associate science with the development of technology. As a result of this people tend to think that what gives science its claim to authority is that science has lead to the development of extensive technology and technological systems. This is quite clearly not a logical deduction, but if you ask non-scientists why we should listen to science they will ordinarily point to its ability to produce various forms of technology and technological solutions. The awe that surrounds science has less to do with the fact that people find that science explains the world, and more to do with the fact that people think that science has led to the great technological progress that society has experienced. Furthermore, a purely instrumental conception of value reinforces the idea that science’s claim to authority derives from its ability to facilitate technological progress, as a purely instrumental conception of value can only see value in the ability of science to contribute to the production of particular ends like technology, not in the ability of science to develop theories that adequately explain the world. Consequently, the prevalence of a purely instrumental conception of value reinforces the idea that science gets its authority because of its ability to facilitate technological progress.

The notion that science gets its authority from the production of technological progress is deeply troubling because this neglects the fact that science ought to have authority in society, over mere conjecture, not simply because it makes our lives more convenient, but because science give us reasonably reliable way to understand the physical world. Science is not only a machine from which great technological gifts are bestowed upon the faithful, rather it represents the human attempt to understand. Consequently, while a purely instrumental conception of value seems to justify the value of science while rejecting the value of philosophy and the arts, in so doing it encourages the vulgarization of the value of science within the public, as science begins to be seen as an assembly-line for society rather than as a spirited attempt to understand the world. Interestingly enough then a conception of value that can recognize the intrinsic value of truth is better placed to provide the public with a proper appreciation of the authority of science than a purely instrumental conception of value, as the former conception of value can recognize that science has its authority because it provides s with a reasonably reliable way to understand the physical world. In this way it seems that in order to truly appreciate the value of science we must move past thinking of value in purely instrumental terms.

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3 thoughts on “The deGrasse Tyson Philosophy vs. Science Debate: The Authority of Science, Instrumentalism and Technology

  1. Another exceptional entry, I admire your resolve to approach a debate from a neglected perspective.

    In reading this essay, I had the thought that you are quite right that the accolades for science and the dismissal of philosophy are wrapped up in a sort of equivocation of ‘science’ and ‘technology’. In addition to your point that we value science for its association with causing technological developments, I think our fetishistic consumption of technology reveals a common appreciation for the value of technology itself (which might be misguided, such that I’m not claiming that technological improvements are intrinsically good, that would be conceptually incoherent, but rather that we mistake the instrumental good of such improvements for intrinsic value — why else do people buy the newest iphone when there are barely any real differences between it and the last model?) which transfers value, by association, to science. In other words, I think we value technology (in a consumerist fashion) in such a way that we think that projects that are improved and benefitted by technological developments are just more modern, exciting and relevant to our world then projects that are not benefitted by technological improvements. Science is benefitted from advances in technology, but philosophy itself is never benefitted by advances in technology (save for perhaps philosophy of mind, but even then the direct benefit is to scientific researches that philosophers then attempt to theorize from). In this way, philosophy is taken to be irrelevant because modern advances are irrelevant to philosophy. So our consumerist mindset causes us both to value science for the technological advances is produces, and to value science because it itself is benefitted by technology.

    • Sorry for taking so long to reply. I have been very busy over this past week.

      I think you are right that we tend to value technology intrinsically and as a result of this we see projects like science that are benefitted by technological develops as more relevant to our world than projects like philosophy that are not benefitted by technological developments. That said, I think that what partially underlies the way we value technological developments is a certain way of thinking about life that sees life as a process of accumulation. This outlook has different variants. Some stress that the purpose of life is to accumulate things, but others see life’s purpose as the accumulation of experiences. In the former case it is obvious why this would lead to a strong appreciation for technology in a consumerist fashion, but in the latter case we are drawn to deeply value technological progress because it provides us with access to a set of new and therefore exciting experiences. I find these “accumulationist” views deeply problematic, but they do seem to be central to the way people talk and act in Canada and the United States, and likely other parts of the developed world.

      Thanks for posting. I appreciate your insightful comments.

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