Does Science Over-reach?

24 July 2018

This week, we examine the question whether science overreaches. It our sixth and final episode on our series on Intellectual Humility.   

Science is typically not construed as a form of intellectual arrogance. Indeed, like faith, which we examined in an earlier episode, an argument can be made that science is a form of intellectual humility. After all, the scientific method is about making sure your beliefs are regulated by observations and experiments rather than by personal biases, subjective preferences, or mere stubborn pride. If science is understood in this way, it may sound odd to suggest that science sometimes overreaches. What would could such a thing even mean? Without science we’d be back on the Savannah hunting with stone axes.


But science has the tendency to believe that it is the measure of all things—of what is, that it is; and of what is not, that it is not. On this view, science belongs in every lane. But this is where the charge of arrogance starts to gain some bite. Science is not the measure of beauty. It is not the measure of meaning. Nor is it the measure of right and wrong. More generally, science may be the measure of what is. But is it really the measure of what ought to be? And if it tries to tell us not just what is, but what ought to be, isn’t it stepping out of its lane?


But I have to admit that the case for saying that this list of untouchables, as we might call them, falls entirely outside the domain of science is a little tougher than I have so far let on. Suppose, for example, that we ask whether these untouchable things are objective or subjective. The problem is that if we answer yes, that, say, beauty or right and wrong or meaning are objective, then it would seem to follow that science gets the last word on their existence or non-existence. After all, isn't it the job of science and science alone to discover and explain the objective features of the world? By objective features of the world, I mean all the stuff that’s out there, independent of our subjectivity. Think first of quarks, and gluons and all the less fundamental things like rocks and cells and animals that are built out of fundamental things. The point is that if beauty is real, then it’s got to fit into this pretty picture somehow. And if science were to discover that beauty isn’t, in the end, part of this picture, then we will just have to conclude that beauty isn’t real! And in that case, beauty would have to go the way of all the dead dogmas, superstitions, and fantasies that science has progressively forced us to jettison.


That gives a lot of power to science. And if this sounds a tad reductionistic, that’s because it is. It’s the very heart and soul of reductionism to insist that the only objectively real things are those things that are either themselves fundamental constituents of mind-independent reality or those additional things that have their being by way of arrangements and collections of more fundamental things.   


Reductionism is widely endorsed among many scientists and many philosophers—though hardly any literary types are reductionists. The former wear the word ‘reductionist’ as a badge of honor. The latter see it as more of swear word. But I should say that even some scientists and philosophers also reject reductionism. One kind of anti-reductionist (there are many) might insist that even if it turned out that beauty is not included in the final inventory of the objective features of the world, all that would show is that beauty is an ineffable property of human experience, beyond the reach of science. “You mean, like a figment of the imagination, perhaps?” the reductionist might arrogantly retort. "Not at all," the anti-reductionist will respond. She will insist that even if beauty is not “out there” somewhere, it might still be something real. "After all," she will say, "we are real. And if we’re real, then so are our many experiences. To deny that beauty is objectively real is not to deny that it is subjectively real."  


Of course, philosophers go back and forth about the meaning of ‘reality.’ And some reductionists will want to deny that so-called subjective reality is a genuine form of reality. After all figments of our imagination, to return to an earlier point, are real in this sense. Perhaps it’s only philosophers, however, who will care to debate the true meaning of the term ‘real.’ So, I will set that issue aside for now.


The deeper point that the anti-reductionist wants to make is that a subjective reality such as beauty (conceding, if only for the sake of the current argument, that there is no objective standard or basis of beauty) got its grip on the human mind long before we became so obsessed with science. And its hold on us will endure, she will say, even if we decide to give up on science. Not that she predicts that such a tragic outcome would ever happen. She just means to say that there’s more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in scientific textbooks. She also insists that science will never replace literature, for example. Literature does things that science can’t hope to accomplish! Science may explain the world. But literature narrates the world. Explanation is about cause and effect; narration is about experience, meaning, and value. Similarly, science will never replace morality, which also is not in the business of explaining the world, but the entirely distinct business of evaluating the world.


The reductionist is not quite ready to surrender, however. She will allow that the distinctions among explanation, evaluation, and narration are deep and vitally important. But she will also insist that there can be—indeed that there must be—a science of what we humans are doing when we explain, narrate, evaluate or simply experience the world. After all, she will say, we humans are parts of nature! We humans are made of matter and energy, not spook stuff. And as parts of nature, everything that we experience, value, create or experience must ultimately be rooted in our merely natural powers. Is it not the job, she will ask, to explain the workings of each and every natural power in the universe, including our human powers of explanation, narration and evaluation?


There is something right about this last thought. But is there or is there not a hint of arrogant scientism lurking in here? Scientism is the view that everything has to bow to Science, the Almighty Ruler! Scientism knows the fact of everything but the value of nothing! Science is good; scientism bad. Scientism is what science becomes when its transgresses its boundaries and engages in intellectual overreach.


The answer is not obvious. Even the diehard reductionist should acknowledge that science has it limits. At the very least, she should acknowledge that there is a difference between good science and bad science, between pseudoscience and genuine science. But that is not quite the point we are after here. One who rejects scientism isn’t ipso facto committed to mere pseudoscience. Her point is rather that there many questions that even the best science cannot hope to answer—questions of meaning and value chief among them. Those questions, she insists, are simply not the business of science in the first place. She is willing to grant that there is a difference between science and pseudoscience. But she also insists that there many domains of inquiry that are not in the business of science in which science therefore has no business intruding. And when it does intrude it has become a form of intellectual arrogance.  


Personally, I find the task of drawing sharp boundaries between genuine science, pseudoscience, and that which is not in the business of science exceedingly difficult. But I certainly think it's a thing worth trying to do. We could definitely use your help, however. So, take a stab at it. Join the conversation. Let’s see what we can come up with together.

Comments (5)

MJA's picture


Wednesday, July 25, 2018 -- 6:17 AM

If science is the measure of

If science is the measure of everything, "the Almighty Ruler!", then do tell us science, what is the measure of everything? Thanks, =

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, July 30, 2018 -- 11:41 AM

Has SSD Chemical missed the

Has SSD Chemical missed the point of this blog? Or do companies look for free advertising wherever it might be found? More and more, un- or dis-associated material is appearing in the PT discussion and we ought to be annoyed by such unsolicited trespassing. It is nearly equivalent to the spam many of us receive through our email accounts. Your filter sometimes makes comments difficult to post, yet these advertisements (IF that is what they are) appear to be unregulated. Why?

Complete Fabrication Studios's picture

Complete Fabric...

Wednesday, August 1, 2018 -- 9:28 PM

I agree that defining the

I agree that defining the boundaries of science is both difficult and worthy, but don't understand the concept of the "business" of science. If science strays into a realm where no quantifiable conditions are available for study, its position is no different than that of a poet who wanders into a physics discussion: the country cousin who is politely tolerated, but delicately ignored. There's no sin in being misinformed, and it's the poet's business to rhapsodize about the atom if she so chooses. Your compelling argument finally reveals its base motivation -- to stir the philosophical pot -- when it jumps the shark in paragraph 9, leaping from a cogent discussion of the boundaries of scientific inquiry straight into the jaws of a, er...straw shark? "Arrogant scientism" is a pretty anti-reductionist way of putting it! No, no, it's not "Almighty Ruler", just "Inappropriate Guest" at worst. Opinions are just like King James bibles: everybody has one, and everybody is entitled to use theirs any way they see fit! Everything is -- and is not -- the business of science. Science is the "girl who can't say no" to inquiry, eternally questioning even her own right to question herself...just like poets do.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, March 20, 2021 -- 12:42 PM

Humanity is dependent on

Humanity is dependent on science at this point. Without the Haber-Bosch process to fixate nitrogen, we wouldn't be able to feed ourselves. With this process alone, science has perhaps over-reached by allowing human populations to grow unchecked.

I know this isn't what is being discussed, but when human activities like this become so vital, they tend to over-reach. Agriculture would be a similar type of behavior.

This podcast, however, is talking about scope. Greg, who commented in the 2018 show notes (linked below) in real time, has asked some excellent questions. I'm no Sam Harris fan, but I intend to delve into that to answer Greg's request to discuss Harris' moral landscape framework. It is interesting if categorically faulty.

The fact that people can be so taken in by Harris (and the concept that Ken mentions above - that Science can explain all things) is science over-reach to an extreme. With science comes a commitment to reading the textbooks, papers and doing the work. Belief in science without learning has serious founding issues. Science and math are not fundamentally sound in a Godelian sense. The rewards come from understanding and building on the work of others. Insert shoulders of giants here. Blind faith in science is going to get us in profound and deep problematic if not fatal space. It already has. Let's call that over-reach if that will help.

These are heady times for science. SARS2, genomics, CRISPR Cas9 ... so many wondrous learnings are coming. I'm hoping we don't lose our humanity pushing on at Elon speeds with Zuckerberg's ethics. That also would be over-reach.

Good show. I wasn't happy with the lack of response to some of the callers. Current pre-recorded methods are integrating listener feedbacks into discussion flow. Please don't ignore odd questions... that is where the beauty lies.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, April 2, 2021 -- 1:44 PM

As to the questions and their

As to the questions and their answers: 1. No., 2. No. 3. Probably. Science is not the end, nor the objective of knowledge. It is one algorithim, among many others at our disposal. Your show on algorithms should illustrate these contingencies. This is not rocket science. Or physics. Or anything else requiring advanced mathematics, and so on. TS is quite right in his assessment of overpopulation. But, that said, science does not care about the ethics or morality of overpopulation. Those are, as Gould claimed, non-overlapping magisteria. Not a. concern of science. Look. Like it or no, science keeps us going. Without it, we would be toast. Or, maybe better, ice cubes???... we do need to try harder, think better, etc.