Does Science Over-reach?

24 July 2018

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

科学通常不会被认为是一种知识分子的傲慢。Indeed, like faith, which we examinedin 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 whatis. But is it really the measure of whatoughtto 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?


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 isobjectivelyreal is not to deny that it issubjectivelyreal."

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.

反简化论者想要提出的更深层次的观点是,像美这样的主观现实(如果只是为了当前的论点,我们承认美不存在客观的标准或基础),早在我们对科学如此痴迷之前,就已经在人类思想中占据了主导地位。她会说,即使我们决定放弃科学,它对我们的影响也会持续下去。并不是说她预测这样的悲剧结局永远不会发生。她只是想说,天堂和地球上有比科学教科书梦想的更多的东西。例如,她还坚持认为科学永远不会取代文学。文学所做的事情是科学无法企及的!Science mayexplain他的整个世界。But literaturenarrates他的整个世界。解释是关于原因和结果;叙述是关于经验、意义和价值的。Similarly, science will never replace morality, which also is not in the business ofexplainingthe world, but the entirely distinct business ofevaluating他的整个世界。


最后这个想法有一点是对的。但这里面到底有没有一丝傲慢的科学主义潜伏呢?Scientism is the view that everything has to bow toScience, 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.

T他的回答不明显。即使是顽固的简化论者也应该承认科学有其局限性。至少,她应该承认,好的科学和坏的科学,伪科学和真正的科学是有区别的。但这并不是我们要讨论的重点。One who rejects scientism isn’tipso facto致力于纯粹的伪科学她的观点是,有许多问题,即使是最好的科学也不能指望回答——其中最主要的是关于意义和价值的问题。她坚持认为,这些问题根本就不是科学的首要任务。她愿意承认科学和伪科学之间是有区别的。但她也坚持认为,有许多研究领域与科学无关,因此科学没有必要介入。当它真的入侵时,它就变成了一种智力上的傲慢。

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.


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

2021年3月20日(周六)- 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.