What is philosophy of science?

Philosophy of science may sound like a rather dry and esoteric topic, but its concerns have implications as radical as delineating how we arrive at knowledge and how much if anything can be known about reality. These issues are part of broader divisions in philosophy: epistemology (how do we know?) and metaphysics (what exists?), respectively.

Philosophy of science asks:

In our modern information age, the evident power of science to elevate our awareness and bring us new technological capabilities underscores the relevance of philosophical investigations of what science is, what understanding it brings, and what its implications are.

What is naturalism?

Naturalism is an attitude about how philosophy should be done (a meta-philosophy) and about how philosophy relates to science. A very diverse set of thinkers are often characterized as naturalists or aligned with naturalism, at the expense of much clarity in the term, but naturalism generally consists of varying degrees of either or both:

  1. epistemological naturalism - an epistemic respect for science; a methodological commitment to the scientific method of justifying empirical claims as a route to knowledge, if not the chief or perhaps (with a sufficiently broad definition) the only route to knowledge. Science should be guiding in what we claim to know.
  2. ontological naturalism - has a variety of claims and interpretations, but they center on the premise that if we have any claim to what is, it better be informed by and consistent with science. It often involves a skepticism of a priori metaphysics, and sometimes has further qualified ontological commitments to the products of science, which concerns the debate of scientific realism. Another claim associated with ontological naturalism and closely related to epistemological naturalism is a rejection of ontologies to which we do not have demonstrable access i.e. supernatural entities, which can be seen as a claim to a type of monism as opposed to dualism about ontology. At the least, it is a claim that science should be guiding in what we claim there is.

At its simplest, perhaps naturalism can be summarized as a rejection of a priori speculation and a support for a science-first philosophy, a kind of refined and qualified empiricism. Roughly, naturalism is an endorsement that science should bootstrap philosophy. It does not mean that science comes prior to the philosophy of the scientific method itself, but once science is actively producing knowledge, naturalism says that the way we should think about the world and the new questions we ask about it should be informed by science.


Why should I care?


We live in a time where science has clear leverage on shaping our future, while at the same time, basic disagreements about the nature of science and its implications for a worldview are central to many of our cultural and politcal divisions.

Who do I want to reach with this argument?

A place to start in the discussion of philosophy of science and naturalism

Encyclopedia review articles:

Some articles bookending the realism debate:

Review article on the philosophy of math:

Books on naturalized metaphysics:


Achenbach, J. (2015). Why do many reasonable people doubt science? National Geographic. March 25, 2015.

Carnap, R. (1950). Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology. Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 4, 20–40.

Frigg, R., & Votsis, I. (2011). Everything you always wanted to know about structural realism but were afraid to ask. Euro Jnl Phil Sci.

Ladyman, J., Ross, D., Spurrett, D., & Collier, J. (2007). Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalised. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rosenberg, A. (2011). Why I am a naturalist. New York Times. September 17, 2011.

Ross, D., Ladyman, J., & Kincaid, H. (2013). Scientific Metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sartwell, C. (2015). Philosophy returns to the real world. New York Times. April 13, 2015.

Snapper, E. (1979). The three crises in mathematics: Logicism, intuitionism and formalism. Mathematics Magazine, 52, 207–216.

  1. Achenbach (2015).