AS36: Scientism, with Massimo Pigliucci, Part 2

In this episode we finish off the interview with the great Massimo Pigliucci. There’s much more back and forth in this part, which was a lot of fun for me. We discuss Sam Harris and how exactly we make moral decisions.

After that, I have a lot to say on the entire interview. I think Pigliucci goes a little too far in his criticism of Sam Harris and his potential scientism. Find out why!

Here’s a link for the paper on abortion Pigliucci referenced:,Fall02/thomson.htm

Pigliucci’s Twitter handle is @mpigliucci


7 thoughts on “AS36: Scientism, with Massimo Pigliucci, Part 2”

    1. Thank you so much! From your link though, “Where noun–pronoun disagreement can be avoided, avoid it. Where it can’t be avoided, resort to it cautiously because some people will doubt your literacy . . .”.
      I think it sounds really illiterate to use “they,” but maybe it’s worth it to rid the gender bias and be able to speak easily. I’d be fine if we just changed it all to “she.” I really don’t care and I don’t mind picking a convention and going with it to make it easier.
      Either way, thanks for saying so and I hope you enjoy the bonus content when you become a Patreon!

  1. I have noticed a trend among philosophers to act as if they are offended when scientists or theologians neither seek or accept philosophical commentary while they simultaneously condescend those who make social observations without the benefit of a philosophy degree. And in Massimo Pigliucci’s case, you need a doctorate.

  2. Massimo was my favorite guest you’ve had on the show so far.

    Honestly, I was looking forward to finding a point in Pigliucci’s arguments to disagree with, but no. That moment never came. I found it hard to disagree with anything he was saying, and like you pointed out, he was incredibly quick and had the perfect amount of examples & analogies to back up his arguments.

    I think you’re definitely onto something regarding the usefulness of philosophy, and I’d put it this way: philosophy is important, but ‘philosophers’ are, in my mind, less so. In the modern age, with so much information available to anyone, it’s certainly possible to BOTH be a great scientist/engineer, AND respect philosophy and apply philosophical ideas to your work. Yes, philosophy is important, but I don’t think it’s necessary that we have lots of people dedicating their lives to ONLY philosophy. Pigliucci himself is a perfect example of this. He’s into philosophy now, but he also was a practicing scientist.

    So, if there’s a “great mind” trying to decide what to do, I think that science or engineering is a good choice, but also everyone should study philosophy on their own time (if not at school). Having knowledge about both fields will give you a unique perspective on both. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with dedicated scientists or dedicated philosophers, but I think a scientist who applies philosophy is more ‘useful’ than a philosopher who only studies and writes about philosophy.

    1. I agree with a lot of the sentiment here, Hal. Good points. Were you not at all disturbed by the things I pointed out at the end of episode 36 though? For as much as a like and respect Massimo, I really think he’s misrepresenting Harris in a few ways. I’d be curious what you thought of that. Thanks for listening!

  3. Harris’ philosophical considerations around wellbeing, and particularly noting the work that had already been going on in the field, both in the ancient and recent past, are confined to the footnotes of the book – and not part of the main text.

    These points you cover explain clearly that Harris was aware of Aristotle’s earlier thinking on wellbeing, and as you described more closely related work by two modern philosophers. This does defeat Pigliucci’s claim that Harris was just rehashing some old philosophy and calling it his own – in fact he was aware of the other work and was trying to build on it.

    However, often when I read a book I will just read the main text and not big lists of notes which follow it, which some authors are inclined to use, as this does in some ways take a little away from the experience of the book and can be a little anti-climactic. It may be that Pigliucci did not read all the footnotes, and so did not uncover these explanations, or as you say it may be that he just misrepresents him. It’s also possible that some digital editions of the book may not include all the references and footnotes which are in the print version (I have certainly seen this happen before).

    The misrepresentation does seem unlikely to me, as the answers were so closely at hand. I would expect someone as careful as Pigliucci to not go to the trouble of making those points unless he genuinely thought they were valid, and couldn’t be so readily challenged just by reading elsewhere in the same book.

    Either way, the fact that Harris chose to not include these seemingly important philosophical considerations and explanations as part of the main text of The Moral Landscape is in itself quite revealing, and actually a bit problematic for Harris in my view, as they appear to be quite important aspects to omit.

    The original reason stated in the book for not leaning much on philosophy for support was that it was either too boring, too complicated to explain in a book of this type, or not appropriate for the target audience. However, based on some of the negative feedback to TML, I would suggest it actually may have turned out better for Harris if he would have embraced the discussion of philosophy a bit more inclusively in the main text rather than confining it to an “afterthought”. This could have potentially avoided what may just be, after all, a bit of a misunderstanding. So it may just boil down to a mistake in editing by Harris rather than an outright attack at the core of philosophy!

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