The one thing Neil deGrasse Tyson got wrong

Neil deGrasse Tyson has taken viewers on a remarkable journey. There's just one big thing he gets wrong

Published June 7, 2014 2:45PM (EDT)

Neil deGrasse Tyson                                    (AP/Richard Shotwell)
Neil deGrasse Tyson (AP/Richard Shotwell)

If Nietzsche had had a Facebook account, his relationship status would have been set to “It’s complicated" -- not because of any intrigue in his romantic life, but rather on account of his intellectual relationship with the person and ideas of Socrates. To Nietzsche, Socrates may have been the one to plant the rationalistic seed that saved human life from eventual destruction; but, ironically, he may also have obstructed the equally important project of flourishing in life.

The Socratic man of today is part of this same tension: Knowledge may demolish ignorance, but explanation explodes mystery -- and science is seen as the despoiler of significance.

The Socratic man has come to believe that to distinguish true knowledge from surface appearance and error is still the worthiest goal of human life, with the implication that only because existence is comprehensible is it justified. Perhaps there is no one more stereotypical of this attitude, and more visible, than astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who in a recent episode of the Nerdist podcast indulged his habit of making disparaging remarks about the discipline of philosophy, claiming that it no longer has anything to contribute to our understanding of the natural world.

Tyson and others like him readily admit that the philosopher used to be the person of knowledge -- but insists that the “true” person of knowledge is now unequivocally identified with the scientist. Whatever the merits of this switcheroo, it’s worth noting the difference between the philosophizing of Socrates and his “Socratism.” The former is to the latter as the virtues of science are to “scientism.” The virtues of science include such things as the aforementioned discrimination between appearance and reality, as well as the expansion of our awareness of the phenomena of the world -- both of which are necessary but not sufficient for human flourishing. But modern scientism is the conviction that science really is the only worthwhile human endeavor.

Think of it this way: Philosophizing is all about properly framing the problems we want to solve, and then asking rigorous questions about them, looking at them from as many different angles as possible, leaving no stone unturned in the process; whereas Socratism is more like a dogma, when all those once-fluid philosophical values ironically congeal into a closed-minded credo. Scientism is basically an inordinate belief in the ability of the methods of science to definitively describe all of reality, and also that any questions that can’t be answered by science simply aren’t worth asking.

It’s also worth noting the difference between a full conception of philosophy and the caricature of it that Tyson has in mind. When Tyson, in the Nerdist podcast, laments the fact that philosophy seems to be overly concerned with deep questions, he cites the old Zen koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

This reductio ad absurdum of the spirit of philosophy may be the root of his own ignorance of the importance of the discipline, as well as his open hostility toward it. (None of this is even to mention that he’s confusing Western philosophy with an Eastern spiritual practice.) But the perspectivism and nuance of full-strength philosophy provide the catalyst that can transmute the lead of knowledge into the gold of flourishing.

In his 1872 book "The Birth of Tragedy," Nietzsche famously claimed that it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence is justified. He argued that the art of Greek tragedy proves that human beings can still affirm life as beautiful, joyful and good, in spite of a tremendous amount of turmoil, absurdity and suffering. It was through such an imaginative engagement -- a “participation mystique” -- that Greek citizens could regain and retain contact with the seemingly inexhaustible power and fecundity of nature, despite the fact that the sense of alienation from it had grown large even in their time. And it was this connection that became the remedy for their ambivalence toward life, that simultaneous attraction and repulsion to its great and terrible aspects -- leading to the beauty of the Classical Period of Greek culture. In other words, Nietzsche’s goal was to show how the Greeks solved the problem of flourishing in life philosophically, something science can’t do on its own, even though it’s a significant contributor to solving the problem.

Interestingly, 16 years after the publication of "The Birth of Tragedy," Nietzsche added a preface wherein he clarified that the book dealt with “the problem of science itself, science considered for the first time as problematic, as questionable.” This problem has only grown more contentious. Philosophers and others within the humanities, religious believers of all stripes, and even many pro-science secularists all decry the scientistic sentiment I described above. Today’s Socratic men are unnecessarily inhibiting the resolution of our own ambivalence toward life, an ambivalence that is arguably greater than among the ancient Greeks, now that our science has tweaked out the last prismatic threads of Keats’s rainbow.

But Tyson’s own “cosmic perspective” is an instructive example both of the kind of ambivalence toward existence we still experience today, as well as the difference between philosophizing and Socratism, between philosophy and scientism. When the Hayden Planetarium first exhibited a space show called “Passport to the Universe” in 2000, Tyson received a letter from a psychology professor who expressed “the most dramatic feeling of smallness” upon attending a presentation of it. Tyson’s response to this professor is telling. On the one hand, Tyson attempts to refute his correspondent by saying he himself feels enlarged by the knowledge of the vastness of the cosmos. But on the other hand he also acknowledges the smallness of humanity by way of a personal anecdote: He says he first felt this humility when he learned in biology class that “more bacteria live and work in one centimeter of my colon than the number of people who have ever existed in the world.”

It’s true that some people feel diminished by the cosmic perspective, while others feel enlarged and ennobled by it. But could one also feel both at the same time; and if so, how does one deal with that dissonance? The answer actually lies with Tyson’s own assessment of the situation: He isn’t practicing science when he argues for the cosmic perspective, he’s practicing philosophy -- and, in particular, he’s appealing to an aesthetic view of existence. On the one hand, he wants to claim that knowledge redeems the absurdity of life for him, but it’s his aesthetic impulse that inspires him to wax poetic. He attempts to reconcile his conflicted feelings about his place in the universe by virtue of his increased understanding of it. But Tyson knows, or at least intuits, that most people can’t really cope with the “bare facts” of the cosmos -- hence the much anticipated revival of programs like Carl Sagan’s cherished "Cosmos" TV series.

But there must be more than just surface flourishes, more than just vivid scenes narrated by a honeyed voice -- there must be an aesthetic orientation to life that translates or interprets the facts of existence in such a way that the individual can incorporate them, because even a fully explained and therefore comprehensible existence contains no inherent meaning -- and, just as important, no human feeling.

Here’s why. Let’s say you’re like me and you love birds, and you always have, ever since you can remember. So when you see a rare bird, like an Osprey, you don’t just see an animal of a certain size, with a certain plumage, engaging in certain behaviors -- all the things that science can tell you about it. You have a feeling of excitement. The shape of its wings in flight and the colors and patterns of its plumage please you. The fact that it hovers hundreds of feet above a lake before diving and submerging to catch a fish in its deadly talons puts you in a state of awe. The Osprey means something to you, you value it, you are moved to protect it. You even try to imagine what it’s like to be it. So the human being herself brings to existence her own meaning and her own feeling; the artist in her brings life to existence -- and thereby brings existence to life.

The late poet Denise Levertov once said that it is only when the bitter truths of nature, and of our human nature, are mediated through the artistic imagination that our conscience and resolve can be activated. In other words, the aesthetic impulse engenders that synthesis of reason and emotion that enables us to muster the will to transcend the reality of those bitter truths. The individual who wants to resolve her ambivalence toward life must be equal parts scientist, philosopher and poet, cultivating a wholehearted, meditative disposition within herself.

And what is needed in the public sphere is what Nietzsche called an “artistic Socrates,” someone in whom aesthetic feeling combined with the virtues of science “can reshape the disgust at the thought of the horrific or absurd aspects of life into notions with which it is possible to live.” Only this fusion of reason and imagination can reconcile our intellectual and emotional lives, giving us both claritas and gravitas -- understanding and profundity.

We need Socratic men and women today as adept at communicating the virtues of the aesthetic imagination as they are the powers of reason, being ultimately inspired to do the same as Socrates while he was awaiting his execution -- and practice poetry.

By Steve Neumann

MORE FROM Steve Neumann

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cosmos Editor's Picks Neil Degrasse Tyson Nietzsche Philosophy Science