A Discussion with Bill Nye

by Paul So

After having been resurrected from the dead by Athena and brought up to speed on thousands of years worth of philosophy, science, and culture, Socrates has been touring the globe, confronting philosophical fools, fakes, and frauds.  Today, he finds himself with science popularizer, Bill Nye, live on Big Think’s YouTube channel.  The topic is Nye’s recent comments, regarding the value of philosophy.

Announcer: Welcome to a live discussion, sponsored by Big Think! Today’s topic is the value of philosophy, and our participants are two well-known figures, representing radically different positions on the subject. To my right is Socrates, teacher of Plato, and best known for his lead roles in The Republic, Phaedo, Gorgias and – my personal favorite – Parmenides

Socrates:  [Interrupting]  Wait a minute!  I lost that one.

Announcer: [Ignoring him]  Socrates will be arguing that philosophy is one of our most valuable subjects.  And on my left is Bill Nye, best known for his popular TV show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and host of the Big Think program, Tuesdays with Bill.  His view is that philosophy’s value is dubious at best.  Please welcome our guests! 

The audience erupts with loud applause.

Bill Nye:  I hate to begin this discussion on a sour note, but I have to protest.  [Gestures at Socrates]  I mean, Socrates?  Really?

Socrates:  Is there a problem?

Bill Nye:  I’d say there is. You want us to believe that you’re the Socrates … from Ancient Greece.  That you’ve been resurrected by “the Gods.”  That you spent all this time in “Elysium,” from Greek mythology.  These are some pretty extraordinary claims, for which you’d better have some extraordinary evidence, or else I’m calling you out as a nutjob.

Socrates: Unfortunately, I can’t give you any “extraordinary evidence.” It would be nice to have the priestess of Delphi here to vouch for me, but unfortunately, she’s … well … dead.  [Shrugs]

Bill Nye: It wouldn’t matter anyway, because testimonies are not necessarily reliable evidence  and especially not testimonies from [shudders] priestesses.

Socrates:  This discussion isn’t about me.  It’s about the value of philosophy and what you’ve been saying about it. And you do have an impressive resume. I’m learning all sorts of things about mass media, global warming, evolution, and other stuff from your very educational and entertaining show.

Bill Nye: Oh … well, thank you.

Socrates: So, since I can’t provide you with the “extraordinary evidence” you want, let’s just assume that I’m Socrates for the sake of the discussion.

Bill Nye: Okay, I’ll play along.

Socrates:  On a recent episode of Tuesdays with Bill, you told a viewer, Mike, that philosophy is essentially worthless.

Bill: I didn’t say that exactly

Socrates: Well, it is quite clearly implied by what you said. You suggested that philosophy no longer has any value, because it argues in circles.

Bill: It’s true that I think philosophy no longer has any value.  I don’t know about the circles thing.

Socrates:  So, why don’t you think philosophy has value?

Bill: Because ever since the Scientific Revolution, science has completely outclassed philosophy. It’s helping us answer all of these important questions about the origins of the universe, the stars and planets and life itself, while philosophers are stuck on questions like “Are we living on a giant ping-pong ball?” and  “Can we know that we know?”  Stuff like that.

Socrates: Wait … what? A giant ping-pong ball?

Bill: Didn’t some philosopher ask whether we live on a giant ping-pong ball?  Like, in some fraternity beer-pong game?

Socrates:  What you’re thinking of is the “Brain-in-a-Vat” thought experiment.

Bill: Whatever. Philosophers are stuck on these sorts of ridiculous questions. Now, I admit, science can’t answer them either, but why should it want to?

Socrates: Are these questions a representative sample of all philosophical questions?

Bill: Well…

Socrates: As a scientist [looks hard at him] — or at least, someone who aspires to be one – surely, you agree that we need sufficient evidence to support the conclusion.  I mean, you were the one complaining, before, about my lack of evidence.

Bill: Er … yes.

Socrates: But the questions you just gave us are far too few to represent all philosophical questions.

Bill: True.

Socrates: Then I assume you have more evidence. What is it?

Bill: Well, there’s a promising career path for those who study science, which is not true of those who get degrees in philosophy. That’s the main reason for my assertion that philosophy lacks value.  It’s a one-way ticket to the unemployment line.

Socrates:  What do you mean by ‘value’?

Bill: I mean practical value.

Socrates: And by ‘practical value’, do you mean anything that leads to tangible benefits — money, a career, technological innovations, and the like?

Bill: To name a few, yes.

Socrates: Does the study of science have practical value?

Bill: Of course! Answering scientific questions has done so much for us!  Engineering, medicine, earth science … we have  jobs, innovations … grants … and it’s all because science is answering the important questions!

Socrates: Wonderful! But what about other kinds of important questions? For example, is aborting a fetus morally permissible?  Is terrorism always unjustified? What makes a society just? Aren’t these practical questions, and isn’t it important that we answer them?

Bill: Yes.

Socrates: Are they scientific questions?

Bill: Well, of course.

Socrates: Can we test whether something is morally impermissible, without knowing what moral permissibility is? Can we test whether a society is just, without understanding what justice is?

Bill: This is all very interesting Socrates, but what’s your point?

Socrates: Scientific questions are ones for which the answers can be found by way of the scientific method, right?

Bill: Yes, but…

Socrates: And the scientific method includes criteria like testability and falsifiability, correct?

Bill: Yes.

Socrates: Are the kinds of answers we might give to the moral and political questions I asked testable and falsifiable?  In the way, say, that a theory of motion is testable and falsifiable?

Bill: Well, to be honest, I don’t know.

Socrates: So they might not be scientific questions.

Bill: Well, maybe not.

Socrates: What kinds of questions are they, then?

Bill: Uh…

Socrates: Aren’t they philosophical questions?

Bill: [Gives a nervous laugh and points at Socrates]  Ha!  I see what you’re doing there. It’s … uh … clever.  But, yes, I agree.  They are philosophical questions.

Socrates: So there are at least some philosophical questions, the answering of which has practical value.

Bill: Yes.

Socrates: Here’s another practical question: What’s the good life?

Bill: Oh, that has to be a scientific question.

Socrates: Why?

Bill: Well, we can gather representative samples of people who are reportedly happy and find really strong correlations between their happiness and other factors. We can control for confounding variables, and once we do that, we should have the answer just like that.  [Snaps his fingers, which oddly, makes no sound.]

Socrates: Yes, but does the good life consist solely of happiness?

Bill: Well, of course it does.  What else could it be?

Socrates:  Consider a serial killer, for whom filleting random strangers with a boning knife is his primary source of happiness.  Do you think he’s living the good life?

Bill: [Looking somewhat deflated]  Oh.

Socrates: So the good life can’t consist merely of happiness?

Bill: I guess not.

Socrates: So, what does it consist of?

Bill: Ah…

Socrates: Do you think this might also be a philosophical question?

Bill: [Becoming impatient.]  Well … maybe. But that’s just one among a very small number of philosophical questions that are practical. Most philosophical questions are just pointless things like “how many angels can fit on the tip of the pin.” In the end, we should just opt for the kind of knowledge based on experience and observation. Beyond that, we can’t know anything.

Socrates: But how does that demonstrate that philosophy lacks value?

Bill: Because it focuses on questions the answers for which cannot be tested.

Socrates: You said that we should just stick to whatever we can know. But what can we know?

Bill: We can know things that we observe and experience.

Socrates: Do we only know things that we observe and experience? I can’t observe the future, but I can make predictions about the future based on past regularities.

Bill: True…

Socrates: Also, how do you know that we can only know something from observation and experience?

Bill: Ah … through observation and experience?

Socrates: [Drily]  Isn’t that rather … circular?

Bill: You see!  This is exactly the problem. We can’t answer these kinds of stupid questions. We should just accept some things and move on.

Socrates:  I’m trying to show you that you’re making a philosophical claim about knowledge. You said we should accept some things and move on. But that’s another philosophical claim. And whenever you make a philosophical claim, in support of something you think is valuable, you’re tacitly conceding that there’s value in philosophy. It’s like politics. Everyone says they hate it. But everyone also talks quite a lot about it. And by doing so, they imply that politics is important.

Bill: Now you’re comparing philosophy to politics. Great!

Socrates: But Bill, you’re doing politics too.

Bill: What do you mean?

Socrates: You fight against global warming denialists, right?

Bill: Uh…yeah…I guess.

Socrates: Likewise, you’re doing philosophy when you make philosophical claims.

Bill: [Mournfully] There’s no escape, is there?

Socrates: I’m afraid not. Speaking of which, you should know that you actually are a brain, trapped in a vat.

Bill: Come again?

Socrates:  Descartes’ Malicious Demon – with the full consent and support of Hilary Putnam — removed your brain while you were sleeping, and placed it in a vat. You see, Putnam died recently, and in his will, he left his vat for the purpose of trapping people who say particularly stupid things about philosophy.  The Malicious Demon is his executor.  Well, MD decided that your recent statements about philosophy are some of the stupidest he’s heard in quite a while, so he put your brain in the vat.

Bill: So…if this isn’t real, where are you?

Socrates: Me?  I’m chilling with MD.   I might even do a dialogue with him, after we’re done.

Bill:  I don’t believe you! You’re completely insane!  Give me evidence, dammit!

Socrates: What good would it do you?  Any evidence I could provide would just be part of the simulation.

The scene fades out and then, slowly, back in.  Socrates is in a dark, featureless room, with the Malicious Demon.  They are sitting next to the vat containing Bill Nye’s brain.   

MD: I know this is real!

Socrates: But how do you know? Isn’t it possible that there is a super Malicious Demon who causes you to think that you are causing someone else to hallucinate?

MD: Mmrgghh!  It’s possible  … but just barely.

Socrates: I’m afraid that even a bare possibility is enough cast doubt on your situation.

MD:  You know what?  Shut up, or I’ll place your brain in Putnam’s spare vat.  [Points at Socrates triumphantly]  Didn’t know there was a second one, did you?  You’ll think you’re drinking hemlock for eternity!

Socrates:  [Gestures in surrender]  Okay, okay … I give up.  Let’s play a game instead.

MD: What game?

Socrates: This great game I just heard about, called “beer pong.”  We can play it with Bill Nye’s vat, if we fill it with beer first.  I’m sure he won’t mind.

MD: [Shrugs]:  Why not?

The Malicious Demon and Socrates play beer several rounds of beer pong, every one of which Socrates loses.

Categories: Essay, Essays

10 Comments »

  1. My response here is similar to what I felt toward the previous dialogue – only more so, because the first 2 thirds here are more on target, better stated, than in the first. The first 2/3rds is both amusing and yet raises the important questions here. Then the final third goes off on a tangent recurring to Cartesian questions that really don’t quite connect anymore. The value to it is to raise the evident similarities between Cartesian illusion dilemmas and brain-in-a-vat dilemmas; but there is a long tradition of debunking such thought experiments as epistemological dead-ends. So I wish the ‘interview’ could have been wrapped up more satisfactorily.

    Otherwise, amusing and incisive.

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  2. I should note that the Malicious Demon/ Brain in the Vat dilemma is in fact quite ancient, and its resolutions are plain. It is sometimes known as the ‘butterfly dilemma’ (‘Am I a man dreaming I’m a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?’) Among ancient Hindu philosophers, it was the prince/princess problem:

    … so, a prince met Krishna by the lake-shore, and asked, “how can i be both a man and yet also a manifestation of the godhead?” Krishna grabbed him and tossed him into the lake. He thought he was being rescued, but instead he found himself being born – but now as a princess. This princess matured, married, brought forth children of her own. But her husband perished in a war, and, in despair, she threw herself into a lake and drowned –

    – only to be pulled from the lake by Krishna as the prince again. Krishna smiled and said: “Who’s asking the question?”

    We are whoever we are, when we are it. The agnostic’s answer was framed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The rest is silence.”

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  3. EJ: I think that there is a certain formula, here, that is being carried over from the first. In both, the final portion morphs into a zany, almost slapstick “punishment” of the relevant offender, in some manner redolent of a philosophical issue, problem, trope, etc. I admit to finding both versions amusing — and fair game, given the egregiousness of the characters on display and their absurd public statements about philosophy.

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  4. I would not agree that the resolution to any skeptical argument is “plain.” Certain people find certain strategies compelling, but that hardly can be generalized and it would be a mistake to thereby describe these skeptical challenges as “solved.” I mean, I am quite amenable to the treatment of skepticism in Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty,” but I would never describe him as having “solved” it.

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  5. The problem of proof is not just one of doubt – it is also one of feasibility. Scientists make the most progress when they can remove complexity and personality from the systems they study. In a social context of self-seeking actors, behaviors keep on changing. We never know how people will respond when we adopt a set of behaviors, or whether their response will be consistent over time. That means that ethics (behavioral prescriptions) are vulnerable to corruption, and we are forced into the ambiguous and conditional morality offered by those such as Lao-Tze, Buddha and Jesus.

    Ultimately, the only response to the brain-in-the-vat dilemma was the one made in Matrix: Revolutions in the final battle between Neo and Smith. In response to Smith’s challenge “Why do you persist, Mr Anderson?”, Neo responds “Because I choose to.” That choice is immensely efficacious because it enables collaborative personalities to organize to accomplish shared goals, in no small part because they recognize and discard the claims of self-seeking.

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  6. Well, I should not have used the word ‘debunked,’ since that’s not really how we find our way out of the Demon dilemma. The real question comes down to the source or ground of our trust in our experience. But rephrasing the dilemma in those terms seems more productive than circling around the given thought experiments indefinitely.

    As to the formula for these dialogues, I recognize it and what it accomplishes. I just think the humor integrated with the reasoning in the main text makes the point well, but the slapstick retributive finale just doesn’t work for me. But this could be solely a matter of taste.

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  7. I guess how much the latter sort of thing works depends to a great degree on just how much one wants to kick such people, when they spout this nonsense. In my case, the desire is very high, so I find the abusive and somewhat silly finales satisfying. 😉

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  8. Hi BrianBalke,

    You said,

    “Ultimately, the only response to the brain-in-the-vat dilemma was the one made in Matrix: Revolutions in the final battle between Neo and Smith. In response to Smith’s challenge “Why do you persist, Mr Anderson?”, Neo responds “Because I choose to.” That choice is immensely efficacious because it enables collaborative personalities to organize to accomplish shared goals, in no small part because they recognize and discard the claims of self-seeking.”

    I think you may be misunderstanding the brain in the vat dilemma, but perhaps I’ve just misunderstood you? The problem isn’t supposed to cause us to question why we act at all, which seems to be what you think it does, given that you say the “way out” of the brain in the vat is to simply “choose” to keep acting (persisting, in your words). Rather, it is set up to question our standards of justification of belief.

    For example, on one account, someone is never justified in believing something unless they have ruled out all possible defeaters (like the possibility that they are a brain in a vat), however unlikely they may be. Other accounts, though, like the dogmatist account (espoused by G.E moore and Jim Pryor), hold that we are immediately justified in believing such and such (at least for perceptual beliefs), and only lose justification once we become aware of defeaters. On the dogmatist view, then, we don’t have to rule out defeaters in order to have justification, we simply have justification, and then lose it once defeaters show themselves to be likely in a given scenario. The brain in the vat thought experiment is posed to, basically, question justification, not to question why we act at all.

    But at any rate the whole brain in the vat thing is pretty tangential to the substance of the actual dialogue. On *that* part, I enjoyed it very much! Thanks Paul!

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  9. Paul, I loved your essay. Unlike EJ, I think your ending was spot on. This is a standard literary device, to end on an absurd, contrasting or counterintuitive note that introduces an element of surprise, humour and insight. Did it succeed? Yes, I think so, but clearly I bring different expectations to the table than does EJ. It is a contrapuntal moment that brings home the deep, questioning nature of philosophy where nothing is out of bounds. The habit of questioning is the most important habit of the philosopher while the habit of observation is the most important habit of the scientist. Science deals with matters that can be established by observation while philosophy deals with issues that can be clarified by questioning.

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  10. Bill: May I propose that the first step to better mental health challenges be more pharmaceutical research.

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