Naturalism and the alleged continuity between philosophy and science

There are probably as many varieties of naturalism as there are naturalists. Either despite or because of this variety, many philosophers today are naturalists (though noteworthy dissent also exists). Philosophers of science, in particular, seem to be uncompromising naturalists. Here is one slogan that I think does a decent job of expressing the basic naturalistic position in a minimal enough form that most naturalists would accept it:
For any question, approach and answer that question the way a scientist would approach and answer that question (leaving the particulars open at this level of abstraction).
In other words, philosophers should defer to scientists on both questions of both method and factual content.

Another tenet of many modern naturalisms is "science is continuous with philosophy," a phrase which traces back to Quine. There is certainly something right about this notion, for we can point to current thinkers whose work does not fall neatly into science or philosophy: the late, great Rob Clifton is a paradigmatic example, as well as many other technical philosophers of physics working today. There are similar cases in other sciences too: should Sober and Wilson's Unto Others be classed as biology or philosophy?

However, it seems to me that "Science is continuous with philosophy" is also in some tension with the original naturalist slogan. If you asked an interdisciplinary team of scientists to answer the questions:
"Am I a brain in a vat (or being deceived by an evil demon, etc.)?"
"Is knowledge justified true belief?"
"Is the meaning of a sentence identical with its truth-condition?"
"Is the fundamental aim of science truth or empirical adequacy?"
they would (I think) say that such questions are not scientifically tractable -- in such cases, the 'scientific approach' (whatever exactly that might be) cannot answer that question. I think this would be the scientists' answer on the grounds that none of these questions -- or the vast majority of the others that appear in The Journal of Philosophy, Nous, The Philosophical Review, etc. -- are ever addressed in Science, Nature or other leading scientific journals.

In short: scientists do not view science and philosophy as continuous (even though there are borderline cases in technical philosophy of the special sciences), so a philosopher who views them as continuous is not fulfilling the naturalist's commitment to defer to the sciences. (Though the first stirrings of this discontinuity were felt earlier in the 17th C., I would guess that it becomes explicit with Newton and his rules of philosophizing.) So what is a philosopher (who is not Rob Clifton) to do? I think part of the appeal of naturalism is that science is seen as epistemically privileged, and if we can lump philosophy in with science, then that epistemic privilege and prestige will rub off on philosophy. I think the moral to be drawn from the discontinuity is just that philosophy lacks science's epistemological privilege -- and that is a conclusion a naturalistically-inclined philosopher might happily accept anyway.


Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Thanks for posting, Zvi.

My throwing out Newton's name like that was too careless and quick. You are of course right about the terminological and contentual matters -- Howard Stein taught me this as an undergraduate. What I had in mind by gesturing at Newton was more the latter part of what you said. (Isn't that convenient? The proper interpretation of my claim is the one that makes it come out true.) I mentioned Newton because I had just read Ernan McMullen saying somthing that sounded right to me:
"Newton's work more than that of any other was responsible for the separation into two distinct fields of what had, until Galileo initiated the process of separation, been one. But he himself was both philosopher and scientist, in terms of that later distinction." (Original here)
I think Newton's work may have led to the science/ philosophy split in a more direct way than you suggest: basically, real science (the epistemologically proceeds via the method of induction, and (what we now call) philosophy proceeds via the method of hypothesis. Of course, much science did and still does proceed by the method of hypothesis. But (see my immediately previous post), when modern scientists proceed via the method of hypothesis, that hypothesis does not enjoy the epistemic privilege associated with science until there is more than one independent source of evidence for that hypothesis (something like a consilience of inductions). In short: once Newton gave us the distinction between the methods of induction and hypothesis, the conceptual tools were in place to separate empirical science from speculative philosophy. (Though as you and McMullin say, Newton was not the one to carry this to its completion.)

Now, please skewer me for factual inaccuracies, and drastically oversimplifying a complex historical phenomenon.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

And I'll add just a quick word about your second comment, Zvi.

You are certainly right to say that scientific activity can be studied in an empirical anthropological/ sociological way. And some people associated with philosophy depts. are doing exactly that: Karola Stotz and Paul Griffiths' Representing Genes Project springs to mind as a clear example.

However, work like this is not the standard fare of philosophy of science (or Philosophy of Science). More importantly, I don't think this is what many philosophers mean when they say "philosophy is continuous with science." Rather, they are thinking of (e.g.) Putnam's argument that special relativity shows the impossibility of becoming, or the more speculative interpretations of quantum mechanics (e.g. "many worlds"), or more recently, John Earman's claim that we should take the constained Hamiltonian formulation of general relativity seriously, and thereby accept that there is no real change in the universe.

So I agree that, for those philosophers who are doing empirical anthropology/ sociology, there is a real sense in which their work is continuous with (social) science. But that leaves untouched the many other philosophers who are attempting to go (in Redhead's phrase) "from physics to metaphysics," or from biology and/ or psychology to epistemology and/or ethics, and so on. The latter is the alleged continuity that I'm not convinced exists.

(p.s.-- Someone might ask me: "If these latter projects are not continuous with science, then what is their relation to science?" My knee-jerk answer: they are consistent with science, but not continuous with it; however, I'm not really sure about that answer.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Hello Hao -- thanks for making the blog international, and for writing a post of Teutonic proportions.

I am sympathetic to much of what you said -- you may have noticed that, in the original post, I never said "I am a naturalist." I think naturalism, as a philosophical position, has several appealing features; one of its instrumental virtues (in my eyes) is that it can convert extremely ill-posed questions of "traditional philosophy" (don't ask me to characterize that!) into slightly less ill-posed questions. Put somewhat metaphorically, it provides a research program or (dare I say it?) paradigm within which philosophers can work. I am not an unequivocal naturalist because I am not always sure that these particular less ill-posed questions are the ones philosophers should be asking and attempting to answer.

That said, I just wanted to make two quick comments. First, on 2b, I do think that a scientist is entitled to pronounce on what kinds of questions (her particular) science can and can't answer. Example: Suppose there's some technologically complex piece of equipment whose functions and capacities I do not fully understand. Shouldn't I ask someone who uses one every day what this gadget can and can't do? (Concrete example: I still don't know exactly what a Blackberry is; I know it's some sort of phone plus extras. Shouldn't I ask someone who uses one all the time whether (e.g.) I can publish changes to my website from a Blackberry?) And this example seems to me analgous to the case of the boundaries of science.

Second, on 2c: I need to clarify what I wrote. The appeal of naturalism I had in mind is that philosophy is granted greater epistemic weight or force by being (in some sense) scientific. Science is a kind of paradigmatic knowledge, and if philosophy is continuous with science, then philosophy is just as justified as science is. I did not mean the patently circular view that science is justified by being scientific. (The naturalist has no interest in justifying science -- "there is no first (=superscientific) philosophy" is another naturalist slogan.)

I thought I could be more brief -- oh well. I hope all is well in Berlin, and that the little stone is enjoying an irrational existence.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

This probably violates blog etiquette, but I'm known to be an ill-mannered boor, so I'm doing it anyway. I was talking to Feisal today in the office about this post, and I wanted to write up a very rough version of one thing he said, so that in case I ever think about this idea again in the future, I'll have a record of Feisal's idea. I hope he does not mind -- he said that he had not posted it himself simply because he was too busy with his own work.

He had lots of ideas, but the one that really struck me was the following. I should not claim to be arguing against "Science is continuous with philosophy" but rather against something narrower, e.g. "Science is continuous with (current, analytic) metaphysics." (That is actually a bit too narrow.) The point is that the fundamental target of my post is someone who thinks metaphysics (as currently practiced in the Anglophone world) is part of science, just located in a different place on Quine's web of belief than math and physics.