It sounds a lot like two hands clapping, but quieter, because you can only do it by slapping your thumb against a couple of your other fingers and not to hard. This, of course, leaves open another important philosophical question. Is a thumb a finger?
A while back my friend Massimo Pigliucci took Neil deGrasse Tyson to task for, among other things, equating philosophy with asking the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That was a dig, of course, made in the context of suggesting that philosophy had no real utility, and that the real thinking was all about science, not philosophy. This seems to be a difficulty NdGT has, this thing with philosophy. I believe that when Neil was a child, in the crib, a philosopher came along and scared him. He does not remember this event, but ever since then, he’s had this idea that philosophy is a bad thing, a worthless enterprise. (Until recently, anyway, see below.)
And that would be of little consequence were it not for the fact that approximately 23.41% of people who are not scientists (or philosophers) who also love science believe whatever Neil deGrasse Tyson says. Much of what he says is, of course, wonderful and insightful and even inspiring. But, he is not always correct, and he is sometimes abysmally wrong. For example, when he says that GMO agriculture is exactly the same as traditional agriculture because we’ve been manipulating genes for thousand of years, he belies a misunderstanding of genes, plants, history, and GMO technology. We have been manipulating traits for thousands of years, not genes, and GMO technology allows us to move genes between organisms that we can not interbreed in the agricultural setting, thus providing potential opportunities heretofore unimagined. Equating GMO technology to prior traditional agriculture, in asking what can come of it, is like equating space travel to horse and buggy travel. Yes, there is a link, no, they are not the same.
By the way, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is not a question of philosophy. It is a Kōan. A Kōan is a question or statement posed as part of Zen practice designed to challenge a student or to represent a salient belief. Many are references to well known stories. Collectively they form the basis for meditation. They may be other things. I’m not an expert on that. What they are not, however, is philosophy.
A Zen Kōan is a touchstone to Zen thought and belief. A philosophical question is one engendering enquiry about meaning, value, knowledge, reality, etc. but typically one that is not subject to direct scientific interrogation.
It is quite possible for a question or subject to shift between the scientific and philosophical realm (though not always retaining relevance). For example, the question “what am I really seeing when I look at something” was addressed by early philosophers such as Plato, and later became a matter of scientific inquiry. The founder of Anthropology, Franz Boas started out as a physical scientist looking into an aspect of this question (with sea water) but there were all these interesting Indians around and he shifted focus. Eventually physicists got on to explaining what happens when light illuminates something and we see it. Recently, I asked some physicists about the difference between light bouncing, reflecting, off a mirror like surface vs. any other sort of object, and I’m pretty sure we ran into the philosophical realm when the question came up, “is a photon that reflects the same photon after reflection?” It turns out that physicists can’t agree and/or don’t know, and then they seem to get a little embarrassed, then they claim it is a philosophical question. Probably not a very interesting one.
Philosophers may ask about meaning. A behavioral neurobiologist may also explore meaning, and actually pin down what meaning is physically without having a clue what meaning actually means. Meanwhile, a semiotician may come to understand meaning as a process and even a non-physical entity that can be measured and described, which makes that meaning not very philosophical because it is being directly observed scientifically, but a semiotician is a kind of philosopher, usually, and they don’t give up on their subject matters so easily. The field of “linguistics” sits astride philosophy and science in such as way that we, fortunately, don’t have to ask if a given question is philosophical or scientific so often. One might ask if the determination of a question being philosophical vs. scientific is itself a philosophical or scientific question. I’m pretty sure, though, if you do that, you’ve got a Zen Kōan on your hands!
Anyway, this topic got Mike Haubrich and me thinking, a while back, that it would be a good idea to scientifically address philosophy, or get into some of the philosophy of science, to amplify Massimo Pigliucci’s comment born of his critique of NdGT:
I hope you can see, dear Neil, that it isn’t just that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but also that there is more active, vigorous, interesting, and intellectually respectable philosophy to be explored than you and some of your colleagues have been able to dream of so far. Please, keep that in mind the next time someone asks you about it. Or ask them to give me a call.
To which Neil replied:
“I generally reply to things if, and only if, they are writing about something that I judge to be untrue about me, or that they have misunderstood about what I have said. Neither is the case with you.”
How very Zen of everybody.
Anyway, we address and update the question of science and philosophy, and what they may mean to each other, by interviewing philosopher Dan Fincke on Ikonokast. Dan is well known to many of the readers of this blog as an outspoken and active member of the Atheist community, with ties to the science and skeptics community. This is one of those interviews where I ask about three questions and the interviewee gives us a lot of great stuff, well sorted out and well said. You will not want to miss this interview. Check it out!