Invitation

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

What is this?

This site is my working draft of notes from thinking about philosophy. While the scope of this project is ambitiously large, clearly it cannot pretend to represent all of philosophy by any stretch. This is a meandering of one person through his own thoughts on philosophy, a meandering that is primarily western and focused on empiricism, although not entirely.

I want to explore to what degree we can expect science to accurately describe the world, and ultimately to highlight the importance of science in constructing a worldview. An important set of ideas in these outlines is associated with naturalism, which will be roughly defined bellow.

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:

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 into what science is, what understanding it brings, and what its implications are.

What is naturalism?

Naturalism is a unifying view of philosophy and science. It is an attitude about how philosophy should be done (a meta-philosophy) and about how philosophy relates to science. Naturalists see philosophy and science to have a common territory of concerns; philosophy is continuous with 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 there is, it better be informed by and consistent with science. It often involves a skepticism of a priori metaphysics (statements about what there is that come prior to empirical information), 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. There is one (natural) world. 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.

Naturalism has its roots in the Ionian Enlightenment.1 From there, it has lasted in various forms to bloom through the scientific revolution. In many philosophical movements and counter-movements, elements of naturalism have evolved and been refined. Heroes for naturalism include Thales, Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Newton, Hume, Reichenbach, Sellars, Quine, and many others.

Why should I care?

We live in a time where science has clear leverage on shaping our future. Science enables the technologies that drive our economies. Within science, we hold opportunities to create new ways of living, to cure diseases, to re-engineer the world and ourselves…

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.

TODO: pick-up writing here.

Who do I want to reach with this argument?

I hope that is enough of an invitation to catch your interest. In the next section, we will survey the history of science and examine what can be said of the “scientific method.”

References

Achenbach, J. (2015). Why do many reasonable people doubt science? National Geographic. March 25, 2015. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2015/03/science-doubters-climate-change-vaccinations-gmos

Leah, R. (2018). “How do you separate fact and opinion?” Rudy Giuliani mused. Then, Stephen Colbert offered an answer. Salon. May 8, 2018. https://www.salon.com/2018/05/08/how-do-you-separate-fact-and-opinion-rudy-giuliani-mused-then-stephen-colbert-offered-an-answer

Prado, I. (2006). Ionian Enchantment: A Brief History of Scientific Naturalism. http://www.naturalism.org/worldview-naturalism/history-of-naturalism

Rose, C. & Sagan, C. (1996). Carl Sagan discusses Demon Haunted World with Charlie Rose. The Charlie Rose Show. TV show that aired May 27, 1996. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8HEwO-2L4w


  1. Prado (2006).

  2. Rose & Sagan (1996).

  3. Achenbach (2015).

  4. Leah (2018).