This past week, Bishop Robert Barron published a critique on a recent video posted by Bill Nye, known to us millennials as The Science Guy. In the video, Nye answers a question from a philosophy student (full disclosure: I have a degree in philosophy) who asks whether or not philosophy is still relevant. Nye answers in the negative, and while he provides one or two salient points (such as the fact a career in philosophy is not exactly lucrative, but most people going into it know that anyway), for the most part, he misses the point entirely; it’s quite clear that he is outside his field of expertise. While I think that Bishop Barron does take some of Nye’s examples too seriously, I whole-heartedly agree with the Bishop’s main point: Nye fails to realize that in order to truly flourish as a society, we need philosophy, and the other liberal arts, to teach us about beauty, truth, and the intrinsic value of the human person. As Bishop Barron points out:
The physical sciences can reveal the chemical composition of ink and paper, but they cannot, even in principle, tell us anything about the meaning of Moby Dick or The Wasteland. Biology might inform us regarding the process by which nerves stimulate muscles in order to produce human action, but it could never tell us anything about whether a human act is morally right or wrong. Optics might disclose how light and color are processed by the eye, but it cannot possibly tell us what makes the Sistine Chapel Ceiling beautiful. Speculative astrophysics might tell us truths about the unfolding of the universe from the singularity of the Big Bang, but it cannot say a word about why there is something rather than nothing or how contingent being relates to non-contingent being. How desperately sad if questions regarding truth, morality, beauty, and existence qua existence are dismissed as irrational or pre-scientific.
Science is, indeed, a critical and necessary part of our lives. Without science, we would still be in an age that equated astronomy with astrology and chemistry with alchemy. We cannot, however, throw out philosophy and the other liberal arts. As Bishop Barron points out later in the article, without these disciplines, we wouldn’t “know anything about how to live a decent life, how to differentiate between the sublime and the mundane, how to recognize God.” I have great respect for Bill Nye. He taught me a lot about investigative science when I was a kid, and now as CEOt of the Planetary Society, he has done a lot of good work to increase awareness of the need for planetary exploration. That said, he certainly does not understand philosophy or the value of the liberal arts.
While our lives would be dark and perhaps even more dangerous without science, so too would they be dreary, boring, and meaningless without philosophy, without literature, without a study of the human person in all its glory and brokenness, without a recognition of the good, true, and beautiful.
Science, specifically astronomy, pointed me in the direction of faith, but it could only go so far. In the end, it was these other disciplines, and most of all Divine Grace, that carried me the rest of the way. I suppose Bill Nye would see that as trite and perhaps a bit deluded. That’s OK.
Come to think of it, Grace carried me the entire way from the beginning, because it was probably by His grace that the first book I ever checked out from the library was a book on the solar system, initially piquing my interest in the larger universe. Then, years later, He would draw me closer to Him through the recognition of that same beauty I could see through the telescope was created by Goodness itself, with His Son by my side the whole time, waiting for me to open my heart to the promptings of the Spirit so that I might come to faith and trust in Him.