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

What is this?

Welcome to ROP!

This site is my working draft of notes from reading and 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 either.

I want to explore basic questions of what is knowledge and how we know anything. I want to ask to what degree we can expect science to accurately describe the world, and ultimately to highlight the importance of science in constructing a worldview.

These notes have a point of view, one that is sympathetic to a sense of real progress in science and philosophy in general. An important central set of ideas in these outlines is philosophical naturalism, which will be roughly defined below. But first…

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 that will be a key theme throughout these outlines. 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.

Figure 1: Quine meme by Daniel Estrada.

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.

Both proto-science and naturalism have roots in the Ionian Enlightenment.1 From there, naturalism 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, Isaac Newton, David Hume, Hans Reichenbach, Rudolf Carnap, W.V.O. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, 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 political divisions.

See Carl Sagan discussing Demon Haunted World with Charlie Rose, where he says:

We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blowup in our faces. I mean—who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it? …

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking—a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions—to interrogate those who tell us that something is true—to be skeptical of those in authority—then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.2

Why do many reasonable people doubt science?3 In these outlines, I want to arm us with some reasoned and thoughly referenced arguments so that when faced with epistemological cynicism like: “How do you separate fact and opinion?” – Rudy Giuliani,4 we’ll have something of substance to say.

On the other hand, in reviewing various arguments in the philosophy of science, we will see that it is far from trivial to say what knowledge and science are and what they are not. We are interested in good arguments, not dogmas.

Philosophy, at its Socratic best, is as much about listening as it is about forming arguments. These outlines will be as much about collecting criticisms of positions as they will be about any position itself.

Socrates: What if the person who has opinion but not knowledge is angry with us and disputes the truth of what we are saying? Is there some way to console him and persuade him gently, while hiding from him that he isn’t in his right mind?

Glaucon: There must be.

Socrates: Consider, then, what we’ll say to him. Won’t we question him like this? First, we’ll tell him that nobody begrudges him any knowledge he may have and that we’d be delighted to discover that he knows something.5

Who do I want to reach with this project?

The Vienna Circle aims at making contact with those similarly oriented and at influencing those who stand further off.6

This project may never be polished enough to be pedagogical. The primary purpose of these pages is to collect and organize references of what I’ve been personally studying. Please explore the references! By far, the most valuable thing to be done here, is to click through to the references sections of each page, comb through them, and to read any of them.

If you come along for any part of the ride and find any of this useful, that’s great. Please let me know by leaving a comment below or on twitter: @RyanDavidReece.

Who might find this interesting?

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.”


Achenbach, J. (2015). Why do many reasonable people doubt science? National Geographic. March 25, 2015.
Cooper, J. M. & Hutchinson, D. S. (1997). Plato: Complete works. Hackett Publishing.
Hahn, H., Neurath, O., & Carnap, R. (1973). The scientific conception of the world: The Vienna Circle. In M. Neurath & R. S. Cohen (Eds.), Empiricism and Sociology (pp. 298–318). Dordrecht: Reidel. (Originally published in German in 1929 as “Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung: Der Wiener Kreis“).
Leah, R. (2018). “How do you separate fact and opinion?” Rudy Giuliani mused. Then, Stephen Colbert offered an answer. Salon. May 8, 2018.
Prado, I. (2006). Ionian enchantment: A brief history of scientific 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.
Sagan, C. (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. London: Headline. (Originally published in 1995).

  1. Prado (2006) gives a nice introduction to the Ionian Enlightenment. Arguably proto-science appeared independently in some other cultures? If you are an expert in the origins of science, please contact me.↩︎

  2. Rose & Sagan (1996) and Sagan (1997).↩︎

  3. Achenbach (2015).↩︎

  4. Leah (2018).↩︎

  5. Plato, Republic V 476e, Cooper & Hutchinson (1997), p. 1103.↩︎

  6. Hahn, Neurath, & Carnap (1973).↩︎