Neil Tyson v. Copernicus

Neil deGrasse Tyson, for those who do not know, is the host of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. He is also a very popular author and scientist. Oh, and the people of the internet love the guy.

Two Tyson posts have appeared repeatedly on my newsfeed on The Facebook recently. The first is a quote from Mr. Tyson:

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe it or not.”

This is a good soundbite, but what does it mean? At a glance, it seems to set science up as a foil to religion: unlike religion, science isn’t about belief, it is about fact. But no religion, to my knowledge, actually claims that the source of divinity is belief in divinity. Any god that gets his power from the belief of people isn’t much of a god. Any Muslim could say “the ascension of the Prophet is true whether you believe it or not.” Any Christian could say, “the divinity of Christ is true whether you believe it or not.” Neither of those claims is less (or more) compelling than Tyson’s because nobody says that belief creates truth.

Tyson’s real point is that belief (or, more properly, faith)  has nothing to do with science. That should be accurate. But truth doesn’t have anything to do with science either. Modern science is not the pursuit of truth, it is the pursuit of repeatable results. Science isn’t a belief system, it is a method. If repeatable results should lead to real truth there must be an intermediate step: philosophy.

Which brings me to the other Tyson post that has blown up on The Facebook. An author from The Week called Tyson a philistine because Tyson said in an interview that philosophical questions get in the way of scientific progress.

To some extent, Tyson is right. Questions about what “the meaning of meaning is” do not lead to scientific discovery. This is because scientific progress and philosophy have a very complex relationship. In terms of method and discovery, science does not require or even leave room for philosophical questions. If it is just about the experiment at hand, philosophy can only get in the way. But the big picture requires philosophy to understand what to make of new discoveries. And what the broader goal of the scientific project is. And even where the limits of scientific method lie.

Whether Tyson actually believes that science is actually opposed to religion or philosophy, I cannot say; all I have seen of his work is out-of-context quotations. But to those people who think that is what Tyson is teaching and that he is right, I advise a review of history:

Nicolas Copernicus, in the introduction to his treatise On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, quoted both the Psalmist and Plato in addition to Plutarch and Ptolemy. (He obviously had a thing for “P” names.) Tyson is an astrophysicist and would no doubt hold up Copernicus as one of the greatest fathers of astronomy. If not the greatest father of astronomy. But Copernicus was not single-minded in his pursuit of repeatable results. To be sure, one of his goals was the very practical aim of creating an accurate calender, but he also sought things that scientific method can not yield by itself: personal growth, appreciation of beauty, understanding of divinity. Science is a tool, not an end in itself. And it is certainly not a substitute for religion or philosophy.



Beer of the week: Tyskie Gronie – Copernicus is probably the best known Polish thinker. (Although Marie Curie is quite popular in these parts.) Tyskie is probably the best known Polish beer. This photo makes it look straw colored and hazy, but Tyskie Gronie is actually golden and perfectly clear. The beer is very carbonated and has a very faint aroma, with hints of grain and cider. The head is white and fluffy but fades quickly. The taste is fairly standard for a big brewery European lager. I would, and probably will, drink Tyskie again. But it is mostly just a session beer.

Reading of the week: On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres by Nicolas Copernicus – Copernicus probably had a number of reasons for including a philosophical and religious introduction to his revolutionary (sorry) treatise. Although I suspect that he really did believe what he wrote, it was probably also a sort of defense against censure by civil and religious authorities.

Question of the week: Why has the “natural philosopher” split into the “scientist” and the “philosopher”? Can’t a natural philosopher exist today?

I’ve written literally a hundred B & T blog posts.

The statement “I drank a hundred beers last night!” is hyperbole; a simple exaggeration. Hyperbole admits of degrees. “I drank fifteen beers,” or “I drank a hundred beers,” or “I drank a thousand beers,” can all mean the same thing: “I drank many beers.” The difference is simply the level of the hyperbole. It is clear that the more of an exaggeration there is, the stronger the impression the statement creates.

The level of exaggeration can be increased in other ways than simply increasing the number, however. One way to accomplish this is simply to assert that the number is not an exaggeration at all. What creates a stronger impression of drinking a lot of beers: asserting that I drank “a hundred beers”, or asserting that, “no, seriously, it was an entire hundred”? It is clear that an exaggeration that is presented as fact is a bigger exaggeration than one acknowledged to stretch the truth.

Although this is sure to ruffle the feathers of some uptight pedants, the natural conclusion of this analysis is that the use of the word “literally” within an exaggeration is not only perfectly acceptable, but actually creates a stronger impression. Compare:

“I drank a hundred beers last night!”
“I drank literally a hundred beers last night!”

The second of those two sentences presents a greater exaggeration because of the assertion that it is actually not an exaggeration at all; “I honestly did drink that many beers.”

Opponents to this use of “literally” complain that the word literally means “actually; in fact”. To use it hyperbolically doesn’t make sense because I did not actually drink a hundred beers. Well of course I didn’t actually drink a hundred beers. That is the very nature of an exaggeration. They might as well complain about the use of “a hundred”? Hundred has a fixed meaning of “100; one more than 99”. But there is no complaint that using “a hundred” to mean anything less than 99 doesn’t make sense; I did not drink a hundred beers. The people who object to using the word “literally” in hyperbole are either objecting to hyperbole on the whole or are being inconsistent. Either way, they are stifling creative expression.

Note: Some of the objection to using “literally” in this way is simply reactionary. Some people have taken to using that word as a filler. These people just throw the word into their speech in the way that others throw in “like” or “uh”, without adding any meaning to their sentences. This is clearly a waste of a good word and is worth opposing. But when the word “literally” is used with purpose to create a stronger impression, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that.


Beer of the Week: Big Flats 1901 – As far as I can tell, Big Flats is the house brand for Walgreens pharmacy. The “Light” version is literally the cheapest beer in Chicago, at two and a half dollars per six-pack (before taxes.) At such a low price, there will always be a market for this stuff. In addition to being cheep, a large scale taste test determined that Big Flats tastes better than Budweiser. Faint praise, to be sure, but regular Bud drinkers might consider making the switch for the taste if not for the savings. The first glass I had shocked me because I’d never before had a beer that tasted so much of corn. It was like a tortilla in a glass. It lacked anything by way of a hops presence to balance the cheap grain flavor, so all that remained in the aftertaste was that somewhat insipid corn taste. The tortilla flavor inspired me to pour my second Big Flats 1901 the same way I would pour a cheap Mexican beer. With a pinch of salt and a lime wedge, this beer actually becomes a reasonable choice, especially on a warm day. The lime dominates the flavor and I’d be very surprised if most people could tell this beer apart from a Corona served the same way. It really isn’t bad with lime and salt, but limes are expensive; it’s probably smarter to just pay more for a better beer.

Reading of the Week: Proslogium by St. Anselm of Canterbury – If we accept Anselm’s definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” we are led to the conclusion that God must exist. A greatest conceivable being that is not real is not as great as a greatest conceivable being that is real. Therefore, the God that is not believed in is not actually a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, which goes against the postulated definition. This is very similar to my argument for the use of the word “literally” in exaggeration: an exaggeration that is asserted to be the truth is a greater exaggeration than one that is acknowledged to be a false statement of fact. (This also serves as a great illustration of the fact that in a debate, one ought never concede the other side’s first point.)

Question of the Week: I think that in terms of exaggerated quantities, I have shown that “literally” can reasonably be used as an intensifier. Does the argument extend to other forms of figurative speech? (Eg. “This is literally the biggest beer there has ever been,” or “I drank so much beer that I might literally explode.”) I suspect that the answer is yes.

The Cloudy Medium

As I mentioned before, I am something of a linguistic anarchist. The English language does not have rules in the way that geometry or French does; there are only stylistic choices. Don’t misunderstand me, some choices make the speaker sound uneducated or even stupid. I positively bristle at people saying “Bill and I” when they mean “Bill and me”. But I suspect that the source of this problem is actually pedantic and ill-informed educators who brow-beat children for ever saying “Bill and me”, even when that is the more appropriate expression.

But English is not unique in this regard. Even languages that have strict rules are still subject to different interpretations because all language is equivocal. In The Federalist No. 37, James Madison wrote that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas.” Even if English is more unique than other languages, questions of style are found in every one.

Did you notice my use of “more unique”? Did you scoff at my word choice? I picked that word because it is a pet of pedants. Time and again pedants point out that the word “unique” means “one of a kind”, so it cannot admit of degrees. Either something is unique or not; there is no more or less uniqueness. I contend, however, that the word unique is just as equivocal as any other word and that it may very well admit of degrees.

Take, for example, a six-pack of beer. For the sake of convenience, we will imagine 8 ounce cans of Coors Light. (Such a thing exists, I’m told.) There are no visible markings to tell one from the other. It would be absolutely reasonable to say that not one of these beers is unique. They are not one of a kind; each is just like the others. They are probably even just like thousands or tens of thousands or more. Each beer is not unique.

That is, until we look closer. In 8 ounces of water, there about 7.5×10^24 molecules. That number is mind-bendingly large. Of course, there is no mechanism capable of measuring water to the molecule, so any measure of 8 ounces is bound to vary in total molecules. The odds of any two of our hypothetical beers having exactly the same number of molecules is practically zero. Furthermore, beer is not pure water (mercifully.) Beer also contains alcohol, dissolved carbon-dioxide, yeast, unfermented sugars, minerals, and so forth. Each beer is certain to have slightly different amounts of each of these. Even if the difference is immeasurable with common tools, we know that such variation must exist. Oh, and the cans themselves are different. Sure, they all look the same, but there is no way that the aluminium is totally free from impurities. Each can surely has slight, even unobservable differences. When viewed this way, each beer is unique.

So each beer is not unique and each beer is unique. We haven’t violated the law of non-contradiction, the word unique is simply equivocal. The fact is that we do not always mean the same thing when we say that something is unique. As a result, we totally understand the idea that something can be more or less unique. If we swap one of our hypothetical Silver Bullets with a can of Miller Lite, it makes perfect sense to us to say that the Miller is very unique with respect to the others cans. We could also say that because most people couldn’t tell a Miller Lite from a Coors light if it were not for the branding, the Miller Lite is not unique among the 5 Coors Light cans. It’s all about perspective.

All that said, I don’t use the word unique with comparatives. I prefer the common understanding that the word does not admit of degrees. That doesn’t mean that the use of comparative uniqueness is wrong, only that I think that it sounds bad. It is a question of style, and saying “very unique” is the linguistic equivalent of wearing socks with sandals; one person may find it comfortable, but others may be justified in assuming that he is an idiot.


Beer of the Week: Whitewater Wheat IPA – For a long time, I avoided beers in the Samuel Adams line. The Boston Beer Company makes so many different beers (over a hundred according to BeerAdvocate) that I’ve always thought they spread themselves a bit too thin. I like trying new things, but sometimes it is best to just focus on what you are good at. However, when I reviewed their flagship beer I was reminded of how they got so big in the first place, so I’ve decided to try some of Sam Adams’ more experimental stuff. This beer is a wheat IPA, a style that I’ve never been impressed with. It is cloudy and light with a foamy head, like a wheat beer ought to be, but has an aroma of piney hops. It is actually pretty refreshing despite being quite flavorful. The hops and traditional wheat beer spices leave a pleasant lingering tingle on the back of the tongue. This isn’t my new favorite, but it is promising enough that I’ll keep trying different Sam Adams beers.

Reading for the Week: The Federalist No. 37 (Excerpt) – Madison, recognizing that language is necessarily equivocal and imperfect, wrote that “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Samuel Adams may have been an Antifederalist, but his cloudy beer nicely reflects that cloudy nature of human language.

Question for the week: Do you have an English language “rule” that you would like to defend? Or a common (mis)usage that you’d like to rail against? Feel free to comment.

Philosophers in the Rain

In his Notes on Democracy, H. L. Mencken applies his outrageous wit to the idea that gentlemen ought to go into politics to drive out the mountebanks (and for good measure, he describes the 19th Amendment prohibition on alcohol as a barrier to good men ever being elected):

Thus the ideal of democracy is reached at last: it has become a psychic impossibility for a gentleman to hold office under the Federal Union, save by a combination of miracles that must tax the resourcefulness even of God. The fact has been rammed home by a constitutional amendment: every office-holder, when he takes oath to support the Constitution, must swear on his honour that, summoned to the death-bed of his grandmother, he will not take the old lady a bottle of wine. He may say so and do it, which makes him a liar, or he may say so and not do it, which makes him a pig. But despite that grim dilemma there are still idealists, chiefly professional Liberals, who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics—that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me, is quite as absurd as all the other sure cures that Liberals advocate. When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdyhouses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would leap out of the windows, or they would cease to virgins.

Read it again; I’ll wait.

His acerbic, cynical, and supremely clever writing will never get old. Unfortunately, it is really easy to let his delivery overshadow the message. There is much more to Mencken’s writing than bons mots. It is, I think, no coincidence that this quotation comes from a section of the book entitled Utopia. That word, naturally, has entered the English language by way of Thomas More’s philosophical fiction of the same name. In Utopia, the main character, Raphael Hythloday, expresses an opinion very similar to Mencken’s (although his presentation is not quite as humorous):

[A philosopher who joins the advisers to the king] will find no occasions of doing any good—the ill company will sooner corrupt him than be the better for him; or if, notwithstanding all their ill company, he still remains steady and innocent, yet their follies and knavery will be imputed to him; and, by mixing counsels with them, he must bear his share of all the blame that belongs wholly to others.

Raphael does not give up on the philosopher having a positive effect on politics, however. He claims that many philosophers have done their part to improve governance by writing books, “if those that are in power would but hearken to their good advice.” It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see More winking very emphatically at any ruler who happens to pick up Utopia.

To my knowledge, Mencken never made any similar statement. But if he didn’t believe something along those lines, why did he write on politics at all?


Beer of the Week: Long Trail IPA – The India Pale Ale was invented to survive the long sea voyage from Great Britain to India. Extra alcohol and extra hops both acted to preserve the beer on its voyage. Raphael was a few centuries too early (and a fictional character,) but he surely would have appreciated having a supply of IPA for his long journey two the distant island of Utopia. And this Vermontonian IPA is a really tasty example of the style. It is unfiltered, just as the original India Pale Ales would have been. The aroma is dominated by floral hops. The flavor has hints of citrus and even a bit of caramel malt can be tasted through the hops. Many American brewers get overexcited about making their IPAs as bitter and hoppy as possible, but Long Trail has crafted a beer with a very good balance of flavors.

Reading for the Week: Utopia by Thomas More – Before the quotation above, Raphael Hythloday presents just how ridiculous he would seem in the court of the king of France. Where other advisers would advocate war, deceit, conquest, and financial trickery, he would advise peace, reform, and justice. And he’d be laughed out of the capital.

Question for the Week: Would it make any difference if, rather than being an adviser to the king of France, Raphael spoke of being a member of the American president’s cabinet?