Neil de Grasse Tyson’s most recent book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry has been on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-five weeks.
You might think this achievement means there is something new or exciting about the book, but there isn’t, really. What there is is Neil de Grasse Tyson, a widely adored man. And there are eleven chapters of astrophysics watered down enough the likes of my cat could enjoy them. But other than that there’s not much to the book that would scream bestseller–except perhaps the grandiose philosophizing Tyson does in the opening and concluding chapters.
Tyson’s book has got a pattern to it that philosophers of science long ago identified as a thing. Philosopher of science Martin Eger calls this pattern the “P-S-P sandwich.” In this sandwich, the first chapter of the book is a philosophical prelude. Then follows the scientific meat of the book, which most people don’t care that much about. Finally comes the concluding chapter in which the author an impassioned speech about what it all means. It’s a philosophy-science-philosophy sandwich.
Tyson’s book follows Eger’s P-S-P model to a T. in the final chapter, which he indicatively calls “Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective,” Tyson relates to us some seriously grand ideas; for example, that the Earth is precious, that we should aspire to transcend our basic needs, and that we need to feel kinship with all other life forms. In the last sentences of the book he warns that if we stop expanding scientific knowledge, we will morally regress and experience “the last gasp of human enlightenment.”
Tyson is not alone in his gradiose theorizing. The P-S-P sandwich is ubiquitous in popular science writing. It has in fact been around for as long as the genre has. As a case in point, E. O. Wilson’s On Human Nature, which first came out in 1978, is a book about genetics, but it concludes with a discussion about universal rights. Physicist Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time concludes with the assertion that through science we will “know the mind of God” and as such receive deep metaphysical and religious meaning from astrophysics. Physicist Steven Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory famously makes the same kind of grand philosophical claim but isn’t quite so optimistic: he argues for the nihilistic perspective that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
Humanities scholars are by and large unimpressed by these philosophical romps. They do not express their outrage specifically at the P-S-P format. But they lament—and rightly so—the increasingly ubiquitous hubris that makes scientists think they are qualified to talk authoritatively about anything outside their specific field, and most egregiously on philosophical turf: questions of morality, value, purpose, and meaning.
For instance, professor of philosophy and law Susan Haack wrote in Free Inquiry last month that “the rising tide of scientistic philosophy not only threatens to leave the very science to which it appeals adrift with no rational anchoring; it also spells a shipwreck for philosophy itself.” Austin L. Hughes, a scientist sympathetic to the philosophical cause, writes that “all too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.” In essence, humanities scholars (and particularly the philosophers, with the help of sparse allies) are saying hey, you’re trying to do our job and butchering it. Stop.
They’re right: the scientists don’t know what they’re doing. But here’s the thing: philosophers haven’t done this job in several decades. So far as major philosophical movements that deal with the meaning of human life are concerned, the last one (existentialism) died out with Simone de Beauvoir in 1986.
There are two main branches of philosophy today, and they both by and large refuse to engage questions of truth and meaning. One of them, the Analytic branch–which is the larger of the two and which comprises the vast majority of philosophy departments in the United States–stays as far away from feeling as absolutely possible. It maintains a narrow focus on minute manipulations of language and logic. These philosophers work very hard at developing logical clarity in arguments and thoughts, and steer far away from any kind of normative claims.
The other branch of philosophy that’s holding any ground in the West today is Continentalism. Continentalism is popular primarily in continental Europe. This branch of philosophy is more friendly to the human side of philosophy. But it has given up on truth altogether, claiming positionality and relativism. Continental philosophers distrust science as well as any kind of overarching, generalizing, or abstracting theories. They do not make truth claims, though they often tell stories about the way people make truth claims.
The absence of truth claims in both Analytic and Continental philosophy has meant that philosophers in general refuse as a matter of principle to hypothesize about the Big Questions in literally any way. Go to almost any philosophy department of some repute in the West today and tell them you want to figure out the meaning of life, and you’ll almost certainly be pointed to the door and hear muffled snickers on your way out.
When I was four years old I began having panic attacks about dying. Every night, like clockwork, I’d think about non-being and sob fretfully into my pillow, curl my hands into fits in my bedsheets, or even rocket up out of bed and pace around my room like a caged animal. My mother told me that if I wanted to figure out what happens when you die, I should be a philosopher.
I scurried over the library and basically never left. Every Saturday for the next twelve years I was there at 9:00 a.m., eagerly anticipating the discovery of some high quality answers. But I was dumbstruck, literally. I did not understand what I found. I mean, I knew that my library’s resources were slim, but there wasn’t anything remotely recent in the philosophy section that talked about how I might make sense of the world in a meaningful fashion. The best I could find was a dusty copy of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics tucked behind the copy machines. Even as a kid, I knew Aristotle had a lot to offer, but he just wasn’t able to grip me with the intensity and modern day relevance I craved. I wanted an answer, or depth, or something to feed my soul in a way I could understand. I carefully deposited the Ethics in the library’s “return” box and wandered despondently back into the shelves.
It didn’t take me very long to figure out where the emotionally charged stuff was: in science. I picked up Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, and my world exploded with solace and wonder and meaning. Einstein talked about the cosmos, order, chance, and beauty. E. O. Wilson opined about the relevance of nature to the spiritual wellbeing of humanity. Carl Sagan assured me that the universe was a marvelous and stunning phenomenon of which I could feel lucky to be a part. These books didn’t promise me a scientifically-coherent way to believe in life after death or a personal God–things I honestly would have quite liked–but they did give me a sense that what we were up to on Earth mattered. It mattered in a way that was both smart and beautiful–even divine. I fell instantly in love with science and the scientists who gave me this feeling. I bought shirts with Einstein’s face on them. I donned a pair of Carhartt’s and spent my college years traipsing across landscapes and studying the bacteria that live in extreme conditions. After college I got a tattoo of the little dipper across my collar bone.
After now having spent years studying the intersections between religion and science in the Religion and Science cohort at the University of Oxford, I understand that I was not alone in my yearning. Humans are, in the words of theologian Alister McGrath, “meaning junkies.” We appear to not be able to help ourselves. We just can’t get enough of meaning. We want to know who we are, where we come from, where we are going, and everything in between. We want to make sense of things, and for the sense we find to feel good. University College London sociologist Lois Lee has studied “existential cultures” outside of traditional religious frameworks. She has interviewed people at every place on the spectrum between deeply religious and fiercely atheistic. And she has found that all kinds of people hunger for ways to experience meaning, if in an enormous variety of ways. People absolutely must make sense of and find meaning in things (even if it is often not a conscious or intentional process). We will do so with whatever tools we can find.
This is the story of how pop science stole the philosopher’s job. Philosophers backed out. They refused to talk about topics of actual relevance to human life, such as meaning and value and love and loss. And they steadfastly refused to do it in public, instead preferring to work to impress one another. I am not saying that this is altogether a bad thing, nor that this is an ignoble profession. Philosophers do seek to say things that matter. They just are in a tough spot, because they have to publish a lot of articles to keep their jobs, and they are most effective when the articles are impressive to or persuasive within their circle of peers. So they stay narrowly within certain confines, and they rarely interface with the public.
The public is left with a religion that seems altogether too unrealistic or draconian on one hand (whether it actually is is a question for another time), and a science that offers grandiose statements of meaning and significance on the other. To me, the answer was obvious. I chose science. And I chose it ardently–I might even say that I chose it religiously. I was not alone in this. Sam Harris’s Waking Up was a New York Times bestseller, and it is a book explicitly about how science can serve as a basis for spirituality. There is no doubt that science has become a potent force in the philosophical and spiritual landscape of the West.
Is this to our detriment? Yes. It’s not a problem that science has become an important part of discourse about meaning, spirituality, and the like. But it is a problem that our primary sources of deep, reflective meaning these days are people who have no training in–and indeed, often have outright disdain for–the humanities.
Of course, it is not the scientists’s fault that philosophers stepped out of relevance. But it would behoove them to be more careful, and it would behoove the philosophers to step up their game. The majority of philosophers object vociferously when we do this with science, even if it’s all we’ve got. They object to Tyson and they object to the quality of philosophy being produced by scientists such as Tyson. Yet they refuse to do much other than complain about it in op-eds. If philosophy does not find a way to meet the public with its thirst for depth and answers, it will continue its already depressing fade into obsolescence.