Why Alex Rosenberg — and a Number of Other Philosophers — Are Wrong Just about Everything

A Commentary on Scientistic Reductionism


  • Massimo Pigliucci City College of New York




Scientism, Neurobiology, Determinism, Reductionism


There is a pernicious tendency these days among some philosophers to engage in a “nothing but” attitude about important questions. According to this attitude, consciousness, volition, reason, and morality are “illusions,” “nothing but” the epiphenomena of specific neural processes. Alex Rosenberg is a particularly good (though by no means the only) illustration of this problem, which is why his work is presented and analyzed in some detail in this contribution. The general attitude displayed by Rosenberg et al. falls squarely under the rubric of “scientism,” the notion that science (however vaguely and very broadly defined) is the only reliable source of knowledge and understanding, and that all other disciplines (especially the humanistic ones) ought to bow to its dictates. The results are, predictably, incoherent and pernicious, as it is illustrated here via a number of examples.

Author Biography

Massimo Pigliucci, City College of New York

Prof. Pigliucci has a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at City College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, the relationship between science and philosophy, and the nature of pseudoscience.

Prof. Pigliucci has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science "for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack."

In the area of public outreach, Prof. Pigliucci has published in national magazines such as Philosophy Now and The Philosopher's Magazine among others. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Contributing Editor to Skeptical Inquirer. Pigliucci edits the Scientia Salon web magazine, and co-hosts the Rationally Speaking podcast.

Prof. Pigliucci has published over 135 technical papers in science and philosophy. He is also the author or editor of 10 technical and public outreach books, most recently of Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (University of Chicago Press), co-edited with Maarten Boudry. Other books include Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life (Basic Books) and Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press).

More information can be found at platofootnote.org


Boudry, M. And Pigliucci, M. (eds.) 2018. Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Chen, A. 2018. “A Philosopher Explains How Our Addiction to Stories Keeps Us From Understanding History.” The Verge, 5 October. https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/5/17940650/how-history-gets-things-wrong-alex-rosenberg-interview-neuroscience-stories (last accessed 20 June 2019).

Fenton, A. A. 2015. “Coordinating with the ‘Inner GPS.’” Hippocampus 25(6):763–769. https://doi.org/10.1002/hipo.22451

Fischer, J.M., R. Kane, D. Pereboom, and M. Vargas. 2009. Four Views on Free Will. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell.

Gregory, J. 2005. Fred Hoyle’s Universe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harris, S. 2010. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York and London: Free Press.

Laland, K. N. 2017. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Libet, B. 1999. “Do We Have Free Will?” Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(8-9):47-57.

Pigliucci, M. 2011. “Science and the Is/Ought Problem.” eSkeptic, 2 February. https://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/11-02-02/ (last accessed 20 June 2019).

Pigliucci, M. 2014. “Mind Uploading: A Philosophical Counter-analysis.” In Intelligence Unbound: The Future of Uploaded and Machine Minds, ed. R. Blackford and D. Broderick, 119-130. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118736302.ch7

Pigliucci. M. 2018. “Is There a Will to Meaning?” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1432(1): 63-65. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13877

Prabhakaran, V., B. Rypma, and J. D. E. Gabrielli. 2001. “Neural Substrates of Mathematical Reasoning: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study of Neocortical Activation During Performance of the Necessary Arithmetic Operations Test.” Neuropsychology 15(1):115-127. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0894-4105.15.1.115

Rosenberg, A. 2011. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co.

Rosenberg, A. 2018a How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Rosenberg, A. 2018b. “Is Neuroscience a Bigger Threat Than Artificial Intelligence?” 3:AM Magazine, 2 November. https://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/is-neuroscience-a-bigger-threat-than-artificial-intelligence/ (last accessed 20 June 2019).

Satel, S., and S. O. Lilienfeld. 2013. Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. New York: Basic Books.

Stuttard, D. 2018. Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Terao, A., K. R. Koedinger, M.-H. Sohn, L. Qin, J. R. Anderson, and C. S. Carter. 2004. “An fMRI Study of the Interplay of Symbolic and Visuo-spatial Systems in Mathematical Reasoning.” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society 26(26):1327-1332. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3c71w0r8



How to Cite

Pigliucci, M. (2020). Why Alex Rosenberg — and a Number of Other Philosophers — Are Wrong Just about Everything: A Commentary on Scientistic Reductionism. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 5(1-2), 197–204. https://doi.org/10.1558/jch.39457