In the 2017 book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s project is to explain large-scale physics concepts to a general public. On page forty-five, Tyson derives a strange conclusion from a series of statements. We will take a look at the statements later, but the conclusion is as follows: After the laws of physics, everything else is opinion. This mistake happens again and again in science, yet even in 2018 sects of scientists seemingly assert it on the daily, repeating it like some sort of spiritual mantra. After reading such a profoundly false statement, the only interesting reflection presented to one’s thoughts comes in the form of the following question: How on earth does a Ph.D (doctor of philosophy) recipient come to embrace such a ridiculous p
Often the most direct path to answering a question like this is to examine the reasons given in defense. From what has Tyson derived this proposition? The following are the assumptions that motivate the proposition that everything but the laws of physics is opinion. Tyson writes:
To the scientist, the universality of physical laws makes the cosmos a marvelously simple place. By comparison, human nature—the psychologist’s domain—is infinitely more daunting. In America, local schools boards vote on subjects to be taught in the classroom. In some cases, votes are cast according to the whims of cultural, political, or religious tides. Around the world, varying belief systems lead to political differences that are not always resolved peacefully. The power and beauty of physical laws is that they apply everywhere, whether you choose to believe in them.
In other words, after the laws of physics, everything else is opinion [Tyson 45].
Most philosophically trained individuals immediately notice that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. There is much in this argument I could talk about, but I want to simplify the discussion by assuming all of the material in the argument adequately supports the subconclusion: physical laws apply everywhere whether you choose to believe in them. Call this proposition P.
Now what I like about P is that it is extremely uncontroversial. In fact, I would have no problem with the argument if he simply ended on this subconclusion. The question is, how do we infer from P the following proposition: after the laws of physics, everything else is opinion? Call this proposition Q. By merely admitting that the laws of physics are entirely true, it seems we have no motivation to believe they are the only truths.
Thankfully the methods of inference used in physics, and indeed scientific induction as a whole, are not the same methods used to infer Tyson’s conclusion from the support he has offered. If they were, science would be in a great deal of trouble!
But this brings me to the my second point. It pains me to use this tired platitude, but apparently it bears repeating. If proposition Q is evaluated under its own principle, we must ask ourselves if proposition Q is a law of physics. Is proposition Q a physical law? Nothing about “after the laws of physics, everything else is opinion” seems to indicate it is itself a physical law. In fact, it includes the term opinion, which Tyson denies as having anything to do with physical laws. By its own principle, then, it must be an opinion that everything but the laws of physics are opinion!
Finally, I will briefly address the absurd narrowness of proposition Q. It would be one thing if Tyson claimed that everything but the findings of science were opinion, but merely the laws of physics? Scientists and philosophers of science have had a very difficult time reducing all scientific theories and observations to the laws of physics. How would one, for example, reduce the mechanisms inherent in the theory of evolution to the laws of physics? We are not sure this is possible, yet surely Tyson believes Darwinian evolution is not merely opinion-laden.
But this point raises a further problem: even if the mechanisms of evolutionary biology are reducible to the laws of physics, then it stands to reason that human nature, which is presumably a result of the mechanisms of evolutionary biology, is also reducible to physics! Thus, I could conclude that human nature, which includes culture, society, religion, psychology, and many other features of humanity, are in fact reducible to physical, unchanging processes—physical laws.
I will close by briefly mentioning obvious other types of non-opinion based truths that are not even dependent on any scientific law. “I am feeling pain” is a claim that is based on subjective mental states, yet it is true! Feeling pain does not depend on my belief that it is true and the physical processes which cause pain are not sufficient for the qualitative feeling of pain. Mathematical truths like three is less than four are not in any way verifiable by science. Necessary linguistic truths such as “all bachelors are male” are true regardless of the laws of physics. Some ethical propositions like it is wrong to put out a cigarette in a baby’s eye likely of truth values unrelated to science. The list could go on.
Tyson is not the only one to blame. The editors at Norton also need to be held accountable for allowing a publication which makes such a ridiculous claim. Given the target consumer of this book, the scientifically under-educated, it is not wise to include passages that contain such logically unfounded statements. I fully accept the subconclusion that the laws of physics are true everywhere, whether or not you choose to believe in them. There is no need to fallaciously jump from the truth of physical laws, to banishing all else to the realm of opinion.
Curtis J Howd
Comments by Golemon:
The worst thing about Tyson’s conclusion above is not just it’s individual badness, but its broader ubiquity and banality. This attitude has only become stronger with the surge of “New Atheists” such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Tyson, and others. They all push against a Creationist God that has been replaced by science, but they think other theses unrelated to this narrow field similarly to be left behind. Other religious views, metaphysics, and apparently even chemistry are now just unfounded opinions according to Tyson.
This position can be broadly described as scientism. As Curtis pointed out for this strong case, it is self-defeating. To me, the question isn’t whether it is correct or not, but why it continues to gather converts. It seems to me that scientism gains converts the way fundamentalist Christianity does: appeal to tribalism. It is clear that neither of these groups is really interested in dialogue, but rather in silliness like ridicule. There is enough blame to go around, but I think at least some of it can often be placed on their heritage: the very same tribalistic attitudes that they think they are finally free of.
Don’t get me wrong, these folks are very good in their respective scientific fields. Their appeals and claims outside of it, however, are predictably bad. It’s unfortunate their massive platform is misused at the same scale.