A philosophy student asks Bill Nye what he thinks about other science popularizers, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking, dismissing philosophy as unimportant:
While Nye claims in his response that philosophy raises “cool questions,” he essentially dismisses it, and in a manner that betrays an ignorance of essential Western philosophy. A writer at Quark describes his statements as “ludicrously wrong” and explains why philosophy is, in fact, relevant not only to science but to our everyday lives.
What stood out to me in Nye’s dismissal of philosophy was his skepticism of the idea that “reality isn’t real or that what you sense and feel is not authentic.” Most of us do indeed go about our daily lives on the assumption that what we sense and feel is authentic, but that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the idea that it’s all an illusion. So, why does Nye dismiss it? Because he can drop a hammer on his foot and feel the sensation of pain.
I’m a little astonished that a Science Guy would use such an example to address one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy, given that it’s not only a logical fallacy, but demonstrably, scientifically flawed. Amputees experience a sensation known as phantom pain in limbs that no longer exist, and neurological experiments have been able to create the sensation of touch by directly stimulating the brain. The sensations exist in both cases, but are those experiences authentic? Not by Nye’s definition.
I’m also a little astonished that a Science Guy would ignore one of the most fundamental scientific arguments against the authenticity of experience, which is the Boltzmann Brain idea. The Boltzmann Brain idea is a version of the brain-in-a-vat argument that has been popularized by the Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, who makes frequent use of it in debates with atheists. The idea is that in the absence of a personal entity creating the universe, it’s statistically much more likely that atoms in the universe would spontaneously arrange themselves into brains that hallucinate having experiences than that these same atoms would spontaneously arrange themselves into the vast, complex, and ordered structure we observe in the universe. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, if we are merely Boltzmann Brains, then the sensations we think we’re experiencing are nothing more than the atoms in our brains, for physical or chemical reasons, arranging themselves in a certain way that give us as a by-product these sensations. The question of whether this is the case goes beyond a simple inability to disprove it; it’s much more likely to be true if the material universe is all that there is.
The only way you can be reasonably certain that you’re not just a brain in a vat is to assume that a personal entity — God — created the universe, an assumption I’m reasonably certain Nye, the avowed agnostic, rejects. Nye is therefore entirely unjustified in dismissing the idea that reality might not be real or that experiences may not be authentic. This is why philosophers have been discussing the nature of reality and experience for thousands of years. It’s also why science could only have arisen from the Christian worldview.
Now, here’s the punchline for the agnostic Science Guy who dismisses the importance of philosophy in favor of the “realism” of science. When you understand the big questions of philosophy sufficiently well, you understand why belief in God is necessary for science to even exist.