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. Regardless of how one views the realism debate (discussed in the previous outline), naturalism shows a provocative, unifying way of viewing the projects of philosophy and science.

Here we also discuss additional meta-philosophical issues, other worldviews in constrast to naturalism, and the culture wars between worldviews.

This could have been called the outline of “Meta-philosophy.”


  1. What is naturalism?
    1. First pass
    2. Second pass
    3. History
  2. Unity of philosophy and science
    1. Continuity
    2. Consilience
    3. Progress
  3. Rejection of a priori metaphysics
    1. Early modern
    2. Analytic/continental divide
    3. Discussion
    4. Criticism
  4. Reductionism
    1. Introduction
    2. Criticism
  5. Natural kinds
    1. Introduction
    2. Discussion
    3. Criticism
  6. Physicalism
    1. Introduction
    2. Completeness thesis
    3. Uniformity of nature
    4. Criticism
  7. Rejection of the supernatural
    1. Introduction
    2. Miracles
    3. Criticism
  8. Scientism
    1. As a pejorative
    2. Honorific reinterpretation
    3. Naturalized metaphysics
    4. Other ways of knowing
  9. Moral naturalism
  10. Criticisms of naturalism
    1. Attacks
    2. Rebutals
    3. Counter rebutals
    4. Culture wars
  11. Other worldviews
  12. My thoughts
  13. Annotated bibliography
    1. Quine, W.V.O. (1969). Epistemology Naturalized.
    2. Quine, W.V.O. (1969). Natural Kinds.
    3. Bhaskar, R. (1979). The Possibility of Naturalism.
    4. Ross, D. et al. (2000). Dennett’s Philosophy: A Comprehensive Assessment.
    5. Maddy, P. (2007). Second Philosophy.
    6. Sellars, W. (1963). Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind.
    7. More articles to do
  14. Links and encyclopedia articles
    1. SEP
    2. IEP
    3. Wikipedia
    4. Others
    5. Videos
  15. References

What is naturalism?

First pass


The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. Under ‘things in the broadest possible sense’ I include such radically different items as not only ‘cabbages and kings,’ but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to ‘know one’s way around’ with respect to all these things…1

TODO: Manifest image and scientific image - Sellars

Figure 1: Comic by Abstruse Goose.

Maddy defines naturalism:

These days, as more and more philosophers count themselves as naturalists, the term has come to mark little more than a vague science-friendliness. To qualify as unnaturalistic, a contemporary thinker has to insist, for example, that epistemology is an a priori discipline with nothing to learn from empirical psychology or that metaphysical intuitions show quantum mechanics to be false.2

So our inquirer will continue her investigation of the world in her familiar ways, despite her encounter with Descartes and his meditator. She will ask traditionally philosophical questions about what there is and how we know it, just as they do, but she will take perception as a mostly reliable guide to the existence of medium-sized physical objects, she will consult her astronomical observations and theories to weigh the existence of black holes, and she will treat questions of knowledge as involving the relations between the world—as she understands it in her physics, chemistry, optics, geology, and so on—and human beings—as she understands them in her physiology, cognitive science, neuroscience, linguistics, and so on. While Descartes’s meditator begins by rejecting science and common sense in the hope of founding them more firmly by philosophical means, our inquirer proceeds scientifically and attempts to answer even philosophical questions by appeal to its resources. For Descartes’s meditator, philosophy comes first; for our inquirer, it comes second—hence ‘Second Philosophy’ as opposed to ‘First.’ Our Character now has a name: she is the Second Philosopher.3


Naturalism is an approach to philosophical problems that interprets them as tractable through the methods of the empirical sciences or at least, without a distinctively a priori project of theorizing.4

Naturalism could be defined as a support for philosophy that is filtered for plausibility given the information from science.5 See the Outline on the science method.

Maudlin gives clear naturalist attitude at the start of The Metaphysics within Physics:

[M]etaphysics, insofar as it is concerned with the natural world, can do no better than to reflect on physics. Physical theories provide us with the best handle we have on what there is, and the philosopher’s proper task is the interpretation and elucidation of those theories. In particular, when choosing the fundamental posits of one’s ontology, one must look to scientific practice rather than to philosophical prejudice.6


The term “naturalism” has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy. Its current usage derives from debates in America in the first half of the last century. The self-proclaimed “naturalists” from that period included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars. These philosophers aimed to ally philosophy more closely with science. They urged that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing “supernatural,” and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the “human spirit” (Krikorian 1944, Kim 2003).

So understood, “naturalism” is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers. The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject “supernatural” entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the “human spirit.”7

Second pass

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/methodological naturalism - an epistemic respect for science and empiricism; 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. metaphysical/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.



Riepe on the characteristics of naturalism in Indian thought:

  1. The naturalist accepts sense experience as the most important avenue of knowledge.
  2. The naturalist believes that knowledge is not esoteric, innate, or intuitive (mystical).
  3. The naturalist believes that the external world, of which man is an integral part, is objective and hence not “his idea” but an existent apart from his, your, or anyone’s consciousness.
  4. The naturalist believes that the world minifests order and regularity and that, contrary to some opinion, this does not exclude human responsibility. This order cannot be changed merely by thought, magic, sacrifice, or prayer, but requires an actual manipulation of the external world in some physical way.
  5. The naturalist rejects supernatural teleology. The direction of the world is caused by the world itself.
  6. The naturalist is humanistic. Man is not simply a mirror of deity or the absolute but a biological existent whose goal it is to do what is proper to man. What is proper to man is discovered in a naturalistic context by the moral philosopher.11

Unity of philosophy and science


Descartes (often seen as anti-naturalist, explain, but he) wrote in 1644,

Philosophy as a whole is like a tree; of which the roots are Metaphysics, the trunk is Physics, and the branches emerging from this trunk are all the other branches of knowledge. These branches can be reduced to three principal ones, namely, Medicine, Mechanics, and Ethics.13


What unites the members of this group is not the maintenance of a philosophical “system,” but a community of working methods—an agreement to treat philosophical problems as scientific problems whose answers are capable of soliciting universal assent. Philosophical problems, in other words, do not differ in principle from problems of the positive sciences. The strength of this group lies in its common working program and not in a common doctrine—a program which distinguishes it from philosophical sects, and makes possible progress in research.14


In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs upon observations and inferences as impersonal, and as much divested of local and temperamental bias, as is possible for human beings. To have insisted upon the introduction of this virtue into philosophy, and to have invented a powerful method by which it can be rendered fruitful, are the chief merits of the philosophical school of which I am a member. The habit of careful veracity acquired in the practice of this philosophical method can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing, wherever it exists, a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding. In abandoning a part of its dogmatic pretensions, philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire a way of life.15


Philosophy in an important sense has no special subject-matter which stands to it as other subject-matters stand to other special disciplines. If philosophers did have such a special subject-matter, they could turn it over to a new group of specialists as they have turned other special subject-matters to non-philosophers over the past 2500 years, first with mathematics, more recently psychology and sociology, and, currently, certain aspects of theoretical linguistics. What is characteristic of philosophy is not a special subject-matter, but the aim of knowing one’s way around with respect to the subject-matters of all the special disciplines.17


Viena Circle manifesto:

The scientific world conception is characterised not so much by theses of its own, but rather by its basic attitude, its points of view and direction of research. The goal ahead is unified science. The endeavour is to link and harmonise the achievements of individual investigators in their various fields of science. From this aim follows the emphasis on collective efforts, and also the emphasis on what can be grasped intersubjectively; from this springs the search for a neutral system of formulae, for a symbolism freed from the slag of historical languages; and also the search for a total system of concepts.19


I believe that a philosophy is spineless without ontology, confused without semantics, acephalous without epistemology, deaf without ethics, paralytic without social philosophy, and obsolete without scientific support—and no philosophy at all with neither.20



If we allot to the individual in philosophical work as in the special sciences only a partial task, then we can look with more confidence into the future: in slow careful construction insight after insight will be won. Each collaborator contributes only what he can endorse and justify before the whole body of his co-workers. Thus stone will be carefully added to stone and a safe building will be erected at which each following generation can continue to work.23


Good philosophy is worth doing because it is a vantage point for the study of anything, whether concrete things or abstract ideas. Indeed, although it may not see the world, good philosophy helps looking at it—just as bad philosophy blocks the view of ideas and things, in denying that there are any, or in claiming that they can be understood without the help of either reason or experience.

If good philosophy is both valuable and currently in short supply, then it should be reconstructed. Which materials and tools should be used to rebuild philosophy? I suggest that the materials—the substance—are provided by science and technology, as well as by the history of philosophy; and the tools—the form—by logic and mathematics. This is, at least, the kind of philosophy I care for: one capable of tackling interesting philosophical questions in the light of the best available factual knowledge, and with the help of precision tools forged by formal science.24

See also:

Rejection of a priori metaphysics

Early modern

Kant in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics:

My object is to persuade all those who think Metaphysics worth studying, that it is absolutely necessary to pause a moment, and, neglecting all that has been done, to propose first the preliminary question, ‘Whether such a thing as metaphysics be at all possible?’

If it be a science, how comes it that it cannot, like other sciences, obtain universal and permanent recognition? If not, how can it maintain its pretensions, and keep the human mind in suspense with hopes, never ceasing, yet never fulfilled? Whether then we demonstrate our knowledge or our ignorance in this field, we must come once for all to a definite conclusion respecting the nature of this so-called science, which cannot possibly remain on its present footing. It seems almost ridiculous, while every other science is continually advancing, that in this, which pretends to be Wisdom incarnate, for whose oracle every one inquires, we should constantly move round the same spot, without gaining a single step. And so its followers having melted away, we do not find men confident of their ability to shine in other sciences venturing their reputation here, where everybody, however ignorant in other matters, may deliver a final verdict, as in this domain there is as yet no standard weight and measure to distinguish sound knowledge from shallow talk.25

Analytic/continental divide

Cassirer-Heidegger debate

See also:


TODO: While promoting the careful gathering of empirical information, naturalism is not against (largely non-empirical) rational pursuits like mathematics. Indeed some naturalist may even see logic and mathematics as scientific pursuits of a priori truths.

TODO: Naturalism shares much in common with schools of thought surrounding positivism, through its respect for science and skepticism of a priori metaphysics, but naturalism is a more general distinction, being a more much longer thread throughout the history of philosophy and science.

Figure 2: A version of the “distracted boyfriend meme” maligning a priori metaphysics.

Quine in “Natural kinds”:

At this point let me say that I shall not be impressed by protests that I am using inductive generalizations, Darwin’s and others, to justify induction, and thus reasoning in a circle. The reason I shall not be impressed by this is that my position is a naturalistic one; I see philosophy not as an a priori propaedeutic or groundwork for science, but as continuous with science. I see philosophy and science as in the same boat—a boat which, to revert to Neurath’s figure as I so often do, we can rebuild only at sea while staying afloat in it. There is no external vantage point, no first philosophy. All scientific findings, all scientific conjectures that are at present plausible, are therefore in my view as welcome for use in philosophy as elsewhere.32

More Quine:

I also expressed, at the beginning, my unswerving belief in external things—people, nerve endings, sticks, stones. This I reaffirm. I believe also, if less affirmly, in atoms and electrons, and in classes. Now how is all this robust realism to be reconciled with the barren scene that I have just been depicting? The answer is naturalism: the recognition that it is within science itself, and not some prior philosophy, that reality is properly to be identified and described.33

Opening lines to ETMG:

This is a polemical book. One of its main contentions is that contemporary analytic metaphysics, a professional activity engaged in by some extremely intelligent and morally serious people, fails to qualify as part of the enlightened pursuit of objective truth, and should be discontinued.34

See also:





If controversies were to arise, there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two accountants. For it would suffice to take their pencils in their hands, and say to each other: Calculemus—Let us calculate.35

Figure 3: The scale of the universe mapped to the branches of science and the hierarchy of science. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia, 2013).


Every statement about complexes can be analysed into a statement about their constituent parts, and into those propositions which completely describe the complexes.36

Figure 4: Reductionism (, 2014).



There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.47

Natural kinds


Part of metaphysical naturalism.

Figure 5: How naturalist climb the ladder to realism (, 2015).

Ladyman & Ross:

According to the account we will give, science tells us many surprising things, but it does not impugn the everyday status of objects like tables and baseballs. These are, we will argue, aspects of the world with sufficient cohesion at our scale that a group of cognitive systems with practically motivated interest in tracking them would sort them into types for book-keeping purposes.52

See also:



See also:



Completeness thesis

See also:

Uniformity of nature

Figure 6: All matter is the same, Geraldine Cox (2011)

See also:


Rejection of the supernatural


Jenkins says naturalism is

the view that a broadly scientific world-view is correct, and there exists nothing supernatural or otherwise spooky.67

See also:


See also:



As a pejorative


Mere experience is no more a substitute for thinking than reading is. Pure empiricism is related to thinking as eating is to digestion and assimilation. When empiricism boasts that it alone has, through its discoveries, advanced human knowledge, it is as if the mouth should boast that it alone keeps the body alive.72

Honorific reinterpretation

Naturalized metaphysics

Other ways of knowing


Especially within the academy, but also and inevitably to some extent outside of it, the idea that there are “many equally valid ways of knowing the world,” with science being just one of them, has taken very deep root. In vast stretches of the humanities and social sciences, this sort of “postmodernist relativism” about knowledge has achieved the status of orthodoxy. I shall call it (as neutrally as possible) the doctrine of

Equal Validity:
There are many radically different, yet “equally valid” ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them.83


In our present circumstances the impression arises that, outside the hard sciences, just about anything goes, and that the humanities have neither a method nor a received body of knowledge, it being up to the professor to decide what to teach in his class.84

Art critics have a discipline, and it is one that involves reasoning and judgment. It is not a science, and what it describes forms no part of the physical world, which does not contain Olympia or anything else that you see in Manet’s painting. Yet someone who thought that art criticism is therefore deficient, and ought to be replaced by the study of pigments, is surely missing the point. There are forms of human understanding that can be neither reduced to science nor enhanced by it.85

See also:

Moral naturalism


See the Outline on ethics.

Criticisms of naturalism


See also:


Counter rebutals

Dang & Bright:

Fortunately, these norms of assertion don’t constrain science. We rightly tolerate the fact that it is, essentially, what you could politely call guesswork. Researchers must constantly be open to nature surprising them, and spread out over conceptual space, exploring whatever may be found. The trouble is that the general social esteem in which people hold science makes it natural for them to make an unhelpful assumption. That if scientific claims differ from the sort of claims each of us make every day, it is because the scientific ones have a better standing—better checked, have more evidence behind them, carry greater weight than our everyday assertions.112

Culture wars

Other worldviews

See also:

My thoughts

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Annotated bibliography

Quine, W.V.O. (1969). Epistemology Naturalized.

  • TODO

My thoughts

  • TODO

Quine, W.V.O. (1969). Natural Kinds.

  • TODO

My thoughts

  • TODO

Bhaskar, R. (1979). The Possibility of Naturalism.

1. Section

  • TODO

My thoughts

  • TODO

Ross, D. et al. (2000). Dennett’s Philosophy: A Comprehensive Assessment.

1. Section

  • TODO

My thoughts

  • TODO

Maddy, P. (2007). Second Philosophy.

1. Section

  • TODO

My thoughts

  • TODO

Sellars, W. (1963). Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind.

  • Sellars (1963)

My thoughts

  • TODO.

  • Putnam (2016).







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  1. Sellars (1963), p. 1.↩︎

  2. Maddy (2007), p. 1.↩︎

  3. Maddy (2007), p. 18–19.↩︎

  4. Jacobs (2002).↩︎

  5. Ladyman, Ross, Spurrett, & Collier (2007), p. TODO (find error correcting filters).↩︎

  6. Maudlin (2007), p. 1.↩︎

  7. Papineau (2007).↩︎

  8. Jenkins (2016).↩︎

  9. Prasetya (2021).↩︎

  10. McEvilley (2002), p. 325–333.↩︎

  11. Riepe (1961), p. TODO.↩︎

  12. Costa (2012).↩︎

  13. Descartes (1982), p. xxiv.↩︎

  14. Reichenbach (1936), p. 142.↩︎

  15. Russell (2003), p. TODO.↩︎

  16. Lugg (2006).↩︎

  17. Sellars (1963), p. 2.↩︎

  18. Wilson (1998).↩︎

  19. Hahn, Neurath, & Carnap (1973), §2.↩︎

  20. Bunge (2010), p. xi.↩︎

  21. Bunge (2012).↩︎

  22. Priest (2020).↩︎

  23. Carnap (2003), p. xvii.↩︎

  24. Bunge (2001), p. 10.↩︎

  25. Kant (1912), p. 2–3.↩︎

  26. Parekh (2006).↩︎

  27. Heidegger (1929).↩︎

  28. Carnap (1959).↩︎

  29. Friedman (2000).↩︎

  30. Friedman (2002).↩︎

  31. Gabriel (2003).↩︎

  32. Quine (1969), p. TODO.↩︎

  33. Quine (1981b), p. 21 (emphasis added). A similar quote can be found in Quine (1981a), p. 474.↩︎

  34. Ladyman et al. (2007), p. i.↩︎

  35. Leibniz has similar quotes in several works. This quote is taken from a translation of his first book, Dissertatio de arte combinatoria, written in 1666 (Leibniz, 1989, p. 73). TODO: Actually, I haven’t found this yet. See also Leibniz (1951), p. 51. Supposedly it is also in Russell’s A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz.↩︎

  36. Wittgenstein (1961), line 2.0201.↩︎

  37. Carnap (1934).↩︎

  38. Nagel (1961).↩︎

  39. Nagel (2008).↩︎

  40. Bunge (1991).↩︎

  41. Morris (2019).↩︎

  42. Ney (2018).↩︎

  43. Ney (2021).↩︎

  44. Rosaler (2019).↩︎

  45. Schweber (1993).↩︎

  46. Laughlin & Pines (2000).↩︎

  47. Wittgenstein (1961), 6.522.↩︎

  48. Silvers (1997).↩︎

  49. Quine (1969), pp. 26–68.↩︎

  50. Quine (1969), pp. 114–138.↩︎

  51. Ross, Ladyman, & Kincaid (2013).↩︎

  52. Ladyman et al. (2007), p. 5.↩︎

  53. Berenstain (2014).↩︎

  54. Bird & Tobin (2015).↩︎

  55. Bird (2018).↩︎

  56. Tahko (2022).↩︎

  57. Azzouni (2000).↩︎

  58. Hennig (2015).↩︎

  59. Haslanger (2012).↩︎

  60. Ruja (1957).↩︎

  61. Spurrett (1999).↩︎

  62. Spurrett & Papineau (1999).↩︎

  63. Ney (2021).↩︎

  64. Ladyman et al. (2007), p. 37.↩︎

  65. Blackmore (1996).↩︎

  66. Blackmore (1997).↩︎

  67. Jenkins (2014).↩︎

  68. Lewis (1947).↩︎

  69. Aaronson (2001).↩︎

  70. Koons (2000).↩︎

  71. Paul (2012).↩︎

  72. Schopenhauer (2014), On thinking for yourself, section 7.↩︎

  73. Sorell (1991).↩︎

  74. Boudry & Pigliucci (2018).↩︎

  75. Rosenberg (2011a).↩︎

  76. Lawhead (2016).↩︎

  77. Ney (2019).↩︎

  78. Bennett (2015).↩︎

  79. Bunge (1971).↩︎

  80. Ross et al. (2013).↩︎

  81. Feigl (1958).↩︎

  82. Scruton (2015).↩︎

  83. Boghossian (2006), p. 2.↩︎

  84. Scruton (2015), p. 132-3.↩︎

  85. Scruton (2015), p. 140-1.↩︎

  86. Prescod-Weinstein (2017).↩︎

  87. Poskett (2022).↩︎

  88. Cañizares-Esguerra (2022).↩︎

  89. Garfield & Van Norden (2016).↩︎

  90. Van Norden (2017).↩︎

  91. Winburn & Clemmons (2021).↩︎

  92. Ladyman et al. (2007).↩︎

  93. Rosenberg (2011b).↩︎

  94. Boghossian (2006).↩︎

  95. Hicks (2011).↩︎

  96. Sartwell (2015).↩︎

  97. Pluckrose (2016).↩︎

  98. Pluckrose (2017).↩︎

  99. Sokal (1996a), Sokal (1996b), Sokal & Bricmont (1998).↩︎

  100. Weinberg (1996).↩︎

  101. Siegel (2016).↩︎

  102. Pomerantsev (2016).↩︎

  103. Heer (2017).↩︎

  104. Cadwalladr (2017).↩︎

  105. Williams (2017).↩︎

  106. Leah (2018).↩︎

  107. Perrin (2017).↩︎

  108. McManus (2020).↩︎

  109. Konnikova (2012).↩︎

  110. Thomas (2015).↩︎

  111. McCrea (2019).↩︎

  112. Dang & Bright (2021).↩︎

  113. Snow (1959).↩︎