Does Science Over-reach?

Sunday, April 4, 2021
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 22, 2018

What Is It

We've all heard the phrase, "You can't argue with science." Appealing to scientific fact as a way to settle a question makes sense given the amazing advancements science has brought us in understanding how the world works. But should we take the accomplishments of science as evidence for scientism—the view that science is the best and only way to acquire genuine knowledge? Does faith in science require that we disregard all non-scientific viewpoints? Are there important questions that science cannot answer? Josh and Ken collect their data with Massimo Pugliucci from the CUNY Graduate Center, editor of Science Unlimited?: The Challenges of Scientism.

Part of a six-part series on Intellectual Humility.

Listening Notes

Can science explain everything? Josh argues that science cannot measure beauty or significance or tell us what is right or wrong, while Ken holds that if those things are objective, we can be sure that a science to evaluate them can be developed. Ken asks: humans are products of the nature world, so can’t there be a “science of meaning-making”? Josh answers no, for science has its limitations. Even the best science, he says, cannot answer the questions that humans most care about.

The philosophers welcome Massimo Pigliucci, professor of philosophy at City University of New York and co-editor of Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism, to the show. Massimo explains how he became interested in philosophy of science, after studying and working as a biologist for 20 years. Ken asks Massimo to make several distinctions: between pseudoscience and science, and that which is in the business of scientific understanding and that which is not. Next, the philosophers discuss Wilfrid Sellars’ contrast between manifest and scientific images, and how the latter often does not help us to understand the former. Discussing various topics such as the biology of gender, reason’s place in science, and literature as delivery of phenomenological experience, the philosophers debate whether numbers and calculations can capture the human experience itself.

One caller offers that science is an ongoing process that has rigor to it, but is constantly self-correcting and evolving. Ken likes this idea, and the philosophers further discuss how scientific theories and philosophical accounts differ. Massimo suggests that scientific findings sometimes do not matter, taking the question of whether gender is biological or not as an example. Ken pushes back on this, and the philosophers conclude by emphasizing the importance of interdisciplinary conversations among philosophers and scientists alike.

Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 3:55) → Roving Philosophical Reporter Liza Veale endeavors to answer the question: is gender more than a social construct? She interviews philosopher Helen Longino and poet Andrea Gibson on their thoughts.

Sixty-Second Philosopher (seek to 46:45) → Ian Shoales discusses how pseudo-science seems to be rampant as ever in society today.



Josh Landy  
Are there questions that science is powerless to answer?

Ken Taylor  
Or is science the measure of all things?

Josh Landy  
Science may tell us what is. But can it tell us what ought to be?

Comments (18)

johnqeniac's picture


Sunday, July 22, 2018 -- 11:13 AM

you said, 'you have to

you said, 'you have to recognize the limits of science'. Since you are certain that science has limits (based on what evidence?) please state examples of phenomena which are intrinsically beyond the capacity of science to explain. And please give your evidence for that claim. Also, remember that the success of science is fundamentally measured by its power to predict outcomes based upon data and the models and equations developed to explain the measured data.

johnqeniac's picture


Sunday, July 22, 2018 -- 11:18 AM

remember that we should be

remember that we should be talking about the scientific method, not about scientists. both scientists and philosophers can be arrogant, misguided assholes because humans are all flawed, weak, and irrational. but the scientific method is designed to overcome (collectively and over time) precisely the pitifully foolish, limited, and irrational nature of weak-minded human beings. philosophy by its nature never makes progress. the scientific method realist in continuous expansion of knowledge and predictability. please address the real issue - not universal human weakness but the best methodology for understanding the nature of the world (of which, human minds are a part).

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, March 19, 2021 -- 9:12 AM

Science and not scientists is

Science and not scientists is a good point and perspective. Science itself can also make blunders though when the method is applied without morality. American eugenics is an infamous example. One that has spawned much suffering both here and abroad. It still does.

Humans may be weak-minded. Science is however a human activity and the two can't be separated.

johnqeniac's picture


Sunday, July 22, 2018 -- 11:34 AM

sam harris tried to outline a

sam harris tried to outline a framework for studying morality and values, which he called 'the moral landscape'.

it was ridiculed and dismissed pre-emptively and reflexively by lots of scientists and all philosophers, but without actually examining his argument.

please discuss harris' moral landscape framework.


greg slater

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, March 19, 2021 -- 9:03 AM

Harris staked an essay

Harris staked an essay contest to refute his moral landscape proposition in a thousand words or less. Sam is large on being brief. The reward was 2000 dollars to the winner (chosen by an impartial philosopher.) The real prize was 20000+ dollars if he was persuaded by this essay.

One thousand words aren't going to do it, and it's funny that Sam responded in 4314 words, minus 141 of which are the contest winners quoted back.

Harris's moral landscape is utilitarian and physical. He admits to no external reality besides that which his brain provides him.

Hmm... what could possibly go wrong here?

First off, not much really, except a monumental lack of humility. Second, our senses are imperfect and our analytic capabilities are subordinate to the proprioceptive purposes from which they come. Lastly, emergence and categorical errors leave holes in the moral landscape any ax murderer could fall through.

All three of these points are captured in this youtube. My son was a Columbine shooter. This is my story | Sue Klebold - .

What if science proved that kids were better off with corporal punishment? Would that make it OK?

There are other questions here but I don't aspire to 1000 words much less 4000. I think that is enough. The fact that Sam Harris decided to have kids is probably enough for him. Some people can lose that opportunity as well, given our former president's comments about his daughter's hotness and his pathological narcissism.

Humility is a opportunity sometimes squandered.

This is enough to start this discussion on Harris' moral landscape. I'm not done with it, though.

Philosophy seems easy. Many choices are made for us (in fact, all choices are made for us if you take Harris' view on free will - which I am reluctant to take - but do.) Philosophy isn't straightforward, however. It takes years of reading, thinking, talking, and writing to get it done. Previously only privileged men and Diogenes had that opportunity. I'm going to be interested to see if Harris qualifies his game more in the years to come. The moral landscape has a topology we haven't even begun to explore or fathom.

johnqeniac's picture


Sunday, July 22, 2018 -- 11:41 AM

It is not clear that science

It is not clear that science can or cannot ever have a theory of moral value, or explain emergent phenomena, but we can say definitively that philosophy never can give a definitive theory.
so, we can give an endless list of the accomplishments of science in explaining the world, but can you give a single example of a definitive accomplishment of philosophy or religion in explaining the nature of the world? I don't think so. philosophy and religion are always reacting to the latest discoveries from science and desperately re-working their doctrines to keep up with science.
can it possibly be you and Pigliucci fail to recognize this?
- Greg Slater

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, March 17, 2021 -- 8:58 PM



You can't be serious as to not live by even one learning taken from religion or philosophy in your life?

How about - Do to others what you want them to do to you.
Do you queue at the grocery store or take cuts or barge ahead of others?
What does it mean to live a good life?

So many things are given to us. Philosophy is one. It sounds to me like yours is intense. What is it?

The philosophy of science is not testable.

One example - Golden rule is the classic. Do unto other others as you would have them do unto you.

johnqeniac's picture


Sunday, July 22, 2018 -- 11:48 AM

Pigliucci, without apparently

Pigliucci, without apparently realizing it, just made the case that philosophy (at best) is like mathematics in that you can have any number of mathematical theorems derived from certain postulates, but which say nothing predictable about the world, only that they have self-consistency (though, see godel, of course).

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, March 19, 2021 -- 7:35 AM



I don't think Massimo would disagree with this. Sam Harris may think this a flaw. It is a feature.

One of the best things about Philosophy, and I am far from done with it, is that it is never done. That is the one ground on which both Philosophy and Science sit. Remember, philosophy is where science started.

That is true of these posts and this site and books in general. Philosophy yields to science because it is science in a sense. It is the science of what is not yet known. If math and philosophy are worthy of comparison - the golden rule may be a comparative string theory.

I'm sorry not to have listened to this show in 2018. Your views have changed I'm sure. Harris' have not so much which is a sign. I've been reading his work on moral landscapes. Let me respond there. I don't really care too much for Sam Harris because he is never wrong apparently. He doesn't share that with Science. Science always starts from ignorance. It progresses through failure not to knowledge but rather back to ignorance. Some might say QED is knowledge but there is still unknown. In fact greater questions from that unknown. String theory or loop quantum gravity definitely will not offer finer truth or even address emergent questions of biology in the long run.

I think Pigliucci knows he is on unstable ground.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, July 23, 2018 -- 10:57 AM

I did not read the previous

I did not read the previous comments on this post. I shall try to keep my own brief. Firstly, I do not know that science has a lock on acquisition of genuine knowledge. There are many facts which are obtainable, without resorting to scientific method and inquiry. Those who are anti-science may argue the over-reach viewpoint. They may be doing so, however, based on some system of ethical or moral belief, arguably unrelated to a scientific approach. As a practical matter, any notion of curtailing science is passe in a modern world. There is too little to gain; too much to lose...

MJA's picture


Tuesday, July 24, 2018 -- 5:16 AM

I hope science One day finds

I hope science One day finds wisdom too. =

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, March 2, 2021 -- 6:35 AM

Looked back at what I wrote

Looked back at what I wrote in 2018. Thought about the original question on overreach. Inasmuch as a lot has happened, I wonder if that question was the wrong one. Should it rather be asked: Is overreach by science beneficial of harmful, or do the benefits outweigh the harm? I guess, technically, those are two questions?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, March 17, 2021 -- 8:21 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 above 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 like Greg and others can be so taken in by Harris 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

Saturday, March 20, 2021 -- 5:10 AM


Found your comments helpful. I think your assessment regarding dependence is especially spot on.
We find utility where we may, and create it when we must.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, March 28, 2021 -- 2:19 PM

Did not find a post where

Did not find a post where this comment might fit. Inasmuch as Harris' name arose here, thought it the best venue. In his recent podcast. Sam talks about some confusions. The post parodies, or appears to do so, John Searle, by presenting a sketch of his face in a cloud...the picture coming from the cover of one of Searle's books.I said I found the representation offensive. Doesn't matter much, I
suppose.. But, I find it offensive. And, my opinion is unnoticed. Others, with whom I have disagreed, are fair enough. This is comforting. I guess my best point is: John Searle has/had a successful life as a philosopher. If Harris, or anyone else, seeks to discredit him, this must be due to their own insecurity or wish to advance their own agenda. IMHO, There it is, then. This is not simply a matter of philosophy. IT asks questions. Then, it does not like the answers. Argues with itself. Drags down its own. Crabs, in a bucket...Is that all we've got?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, March 30, 2021 -- 10:52 AM



This is not a pipe.

I don't think Sam Harris is referencing Searle at all there ( .) That is a stock photo listed by Getty Images (?- it might be open licensed) used in a Scientific American article in 2018 ( ) and possibly as early as 2000 as cover art for a Turkish novel 'Hacivat Seni Cagiriyor' by Bahri Vardarlilar. ( .) At least that is what my Tin Eye sees.

I am an armchair everything, but my critique is that it references 'The Son of Man' by Rene Magritte, which is also what Searle used (it's another painting of Magritte's called The Great War based on this one - there were by this name two, of a man and the other a woman) in the cover of his book 'Mind - A Brief Introduction' which was part of a series, I have to mention, edited by PT's own John Perry!

It's a stretch to think that Harris is referencing this book here. The podcast is about meditation. Harris feels that people don't understand him - kind of like 'This is not an apple' perhaps. I think that people understand Sam Harris all too well, however.

The son of man is also the inspiration for the Beatles Apple records and Apple computers - but stories are just that.

On the other hand, Searle is no paragon or proxy for philosophy and can be roundly critiqued and made fun of ( .) That is true for all philosophers. We need to separate the ideas from the brains, bodies, and moral detritus that life leaves in our wake.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, April 19, 2021 -- 5:21 AM

Well-stated. And no, Searle

Well-stated. And no, Searle is not the end-all of philosophy. His approach to thinking is novel but not genius. I like his style because it is, more or less, 'take it or leave it'. Sure, we disagree on his importance. That's how people are. So,keep up the good work. And, I'll do the best I can.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, April 19, 2021 -- 11:27 AM

This is generous Harold.

This is generous Harold.

Searle is super important if only for the Chinese Room... and there is much more.
What he did was unforgivable and puts a strain on his legacy.

He certainly treated women better than Kant ever did.

Einstein wasn't the best person in his first marriage either.
The more I look to genius the less I appreciate it. We are all human.

Thanks for this and your attention here in PT. I appreciate your thoughts and contributions and read every post.
That one can do that here is a luxury.

I look forward to the Davidson show where we can get at it.