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.


Zvi Biener said...

First of all, kudos on the blog, Greg.

Second, I'd like to take issue with an historical matter regarding
Newton's Rules of Philosophizing. The Rules, I believe, are one of the
clearest cut examples of the unity of science and philosophy in the
seventeenth century. Putting matters of terminology aside of the
moment, let's focus on the use to which Newton puts them. The Rules
are offered at the beginning of Book III of the Principia---the
one entitled ``The System of World''---in order to ground the
demonstration and confirmation of the law of universal
gravitation. If this use is any indication of their character, then
their character is very clearly ``scientific": they are relevant
to the Principia insofar as they help establish the claim
that every piece of matter attracts every other piece according to a
well-defined mathematical law. That their character also seems
``philosophical'' to us---because they pertain to what
makes a good explanation, what abductive claims we are licensed to
make given certain sets of evidence, etc.---seems to me proof that a clear
division of ``scientific'' and ``philosophical'' matters was not in
play in Newton's mind when he wrote them.

And on terminological matters. The Principia, as its full name
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica attests, was, and
was intended to be understood as, a treatise in natural philosophy. Of
course, the meaning and extension of ``natural philosophy'' differed
subtly from thinker to thinker at the time, but it certainly did
include what we today consider ``science''. ``Scientia'', on the other
hand, meant roughly what today we mean by ``knowledge'': a body of
claims that passes some particular epistemological muster (e.g., it is
certain, evident, has some degree of probability, true, etc.). Neither
term was exclusive of the other.

That said, I think you are on to something very right. I also think
that Newton's work inspired the separation of science and philosophy,
but in roundabout ways. It may have been Newton's continuous
disavowals of revealing the cause or essence of universal gravitation.
It may have been that the mathematical character of his published work
did not resemble the character of the leading philosophical works of
his time. It may have been that philosophical disputes between his
followers and the variety of anti-Newtonians drew sharp and stable
battle-lines. Or, most likely, is was a combination of these and other

Zvi Biener said...

And on a non-historical note:

It seems to me that your example can be tweaked in two ways, both that lead to a more acceptably ``naturalistic'' outcome. First, instead of getting a team of interdisciplinary scientists together and asking them to answer philosophical questions, we can let them carry on with their business and determine, like philosophical anthropologists, how in fact they grapple with problems like ``What does it mean to say that x `causes' y?''. My hunch is that they have some implicit answers. Admittedly, this will be hard to do for questions like "Is the meaning of a sentence identical with its truth-condition?", but that leads to the second tweak to your example.

Instead of asking "Is the meaning of a sentence identical with its truth-condition?", we can ask other philosophical questions (e.g., ``What does it mean to say that x `causes' y?'') that are much closer to scientists' hearts. In order to show continuity with science, we just need to show that there are some philosophical question that scientists answer in the course of their scientific investigations. Overall, philosophy may be continuous with science even if parts of the former are quite distant from parts of the latter.

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.

Hao Tang said...

Greg and Zvi: Greetings from Berlin! I thought it not a bad use of the brief quiet that the baby is

now granting me to join in the chat and make the dialogue a trilogue. It's said that family members grow more and more like each other. I've found this true. So some of what I say below may well sound like the screams of a baby (a perfectly non-rational being, I testify).

1. Let me pause over Greg's defining job description of the naturalist for a moment. ("For any

question, approach and answer that question the way a scientist would approach and answer that


1.a. How can such a naturalist then justify his existence as a non-scientist? After all, he is

supposed to be a philosopher, not another scientist (or his question-collecting secretary).

1.b. It seems to me what the slogan really expresses is scientism, not necessarily naturlism. (More on

this below.)

1.c. The word "science", as Zvi pointed out, has the broad meaning of "(systematic) knowledge" in many

non-English languages. E.g., the German word for "science", "Wissenschaft", can mean many things. I've

had a chance to be impressed by the dignity (measured by name-length) of such Wissenschaften as

"Religionswissenschaft" (Religious Studies), "Sprachwissenschaft" (Linguistics),

"Literaturwissenschaft" (Literary Criticism), "Rechtswissenschaft" (Jurisprudence),

"Geschichtswissenschaft" (History), etc.. An assistant professor of philosophy working under a full

professor is called his "wissenschafterliche Mitarbeiterin" (scientific co-worker).

It seems to me advisable to keep in mind that it is only a peculiar linguistic fact about English that

"science" means only "(modern) natural science", paradigmatically physics. [I use the word "science" in its English sense throughout.] This fact, I think, plays a rather insidious role in the supposition that nature and the object of (natural) science are the same thing, a supposition that constricts our views about what naturalism can mean. But not all things natural are the proper objects of the natural

sciences as we have them now. An important example is language, which (I would insist) is a natural

phenomenon (indeed we call, e.g., English a "natural language"). But of course Sprachwissenschaft is

not (called) a Naturwissenschaft. Relatedly, the human species is also a natural phenomenon, whose

mental life (including its higher reaches: the practice of philosophy, of science, of art, of

morality, etc.) is just as well a part of its natural history as eating, drinking, sleeping, etc.. But

this mental life (sometimes characterized as "second nature", sometimes as "inner nature") is clearly not the proper object of natural science (which deals with "first nature" or "outer nature").

So I would urge that the philosophical consideration of naturalism be done at a remove from that of

science (especially when it is done in English). Not of course that science is irrelevant, but that

the frequent identification of nature and the object of natural science is only a result of a

particular historical process (i.e. the rise and now dominance of modern natural science). Its

acceptance is not rationally mandatory (in part because the philosopher of science does not have to

turn his respect for scientists into worship).

2. About the (dis)continuity between philosophy and science.

2.a. Grossly oversimplifying, one can say that philosophy is more about the conceptual while science

about the empirical. One can then argue for (deep) continuity by taking a shortcut to Kant (again very

roughly): The conceptual is emtpy without the empirical, the empirical blind without the conceptual.

Hardly anything is purely empirical or purely conceptual. They are almost always mixed and not neatly

factorizable. I think one doesn't have to subscribe to all of Kant to hold this. (I for one don't buy

his doctrines of space and time and of the synthetic a priori nature of Newtonian physics, even though

these are wonderful and profound doctrines.)

2.b. Whether science and philosophy are continuous is a question that scientists (qua scientists) are

not fit to pronounced upon [Don't get me wrong: I'm not putting scientists down], unless one has

already determined that philosophy is just a branch of science. Scientists as such are competent in

science, not in what lies outside it. So their opinion that the two are discontinuous should not be

taken seriously as a piece of philosophy, but as material for philosophical reflection.

2.c. A word against Greg's saying that part of the appeal of naturalism is that it accords science its

due epistemic privilege. Now if naturalism is characterized by the slogan above, then it seems to

really mean scientism (1.b). But then it has of course no bite to say that it is an appeal of scientism that it favors science. (Is it an appeal of Bushism that it favors Bush?)

More generally, it seems to me that the fact science is often said to enjoy great epistemic privilege

itself reflects a non-scientific (not "unscientific") valuation of a certain type of knowledge, i.e.

natural scientific knowledge. (One important source of this valuation: Natural science is essential for modern technology, which in turn drives modern economies (as well as militaries). Terribly important things.) For science of course enjoys no epistemic privilege when "epistemic" means

"concerning knowledge (in general)" and the knowledge area in question is, e.g., history or law or

one's own self. If the word "epistemic" has indeed undergone this sort of change (i.e. to "concerning

natural-scientific knowledge"), as I think it often does, then the fact that science enjoys epistemic

privilege is rather tautological.

But perhaps I have screamed at you for no reason, Greg. (As I said, my baby often screams for no reason.)

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.

Hao Tang said...

Thanks for the prompt response, Greg. As you can see, in my previous post I was really attacking scientism rather than (all possible forms of) naturalism. As I said, I myself regard things like language and thought to be something natural (don't ask me to spell that out here). My general objection to your start-post is that your slogan-characterization of naturalism weds it too closely to natural science. But naturlism can be other things. I think this objection still stands whether you are a naturalist or not.

Some equally quick responses to your comments.

(2b). I agree with what you say, except I don't quite see the analogy. (I take it that the (dis)continuity question lies outside of natural science, the area of competence of a scientist.)

(2c). You said: "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 ...".

Now the sense of "scientific" here is important. If it just means "natural-scientific", then naturalism becomes scientism, which I disfavor and you seem to as well.

But if "scientifc" means "wissenschaftlich" in the broad sense, then philosophy need not borrow its epistemic weight from natural science.

Another way of putting the point is this. If "science" means "Wissenschaft" or sysematic knowledge, then your first quoted sentence sounds right but the second a bit vacuous (since it becomes "systematic knowledge is a kind of paradigmatic knowledge").

To say "Natural science is a kind of paradigmatic knowledge" is not vacuous (and something I can sympathize with), but then (taking your two sentences together) you're forced to choose between scientism and equivocation on "science".

Now I must go to feed the little irrational stone.

gyb said...

Haho Greg, greetings from Hungary!

I would just add one small comment about whether scientist view science and PoS continuous. In many cases I think the problem is that scientist don't read PoS, or just stop at Kuhn. But when they do, it can actually affect the way how they present their material. One good example can be Taylor's book on Classical Mechanics (this is a fairly new book for graduate students in physics and I'm quite sure that it will become the standard upper-undergrad/grad book across the US in a few years), where I bumped into philosophy of science two or three times when e.g. he wanted to define acceleration in a Newtonian framework. He defined it the way he did explicitly on a basis of an analysis of philosophers of science, to avoid some circularities which were present in usual formulations. (And we shall not forget guys like Rob.)

ps.: I've tried to access the site several times, this is the first occasion that I could reach it.. am I too far away? I love the blow, btw!

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.

Kenny said...

Greetings from Australia (though I'm only here for a month or so)! I'll have to check out this blog much more in future, especially as I get into questions more connected to general philosophy of science in my thoughts about mathematics.

I see you've changed your original point some, but in addressing that first question, I think that the test mentioned isn't entirely fair. We're trying to let the scientists decide who exactly count as scientists, which is of course a circular problem. And if we put them to the same test, I think that psychology, economics, and sociology would all fail the same test that you suggest philosophy would fail (assuming we get an interdisciplinary group of core scientists of some sort or other). Maybe even linguistics would fail, and I see some commenters here seem themselves to also suggest that linguistics is not a science. At any rate, it seems to me that philosophers want their project to be continuous with science in the same way that psychology, economics, linguistics, etc are continuous with (if not part of) science. Whether it is or isn't science isn't necessarily the relevant question. After all, the same question can be asked of mathematics.

And as someone else mentioned, answering this particular question of what counts as science is in general outside the area of competence of most scientists, I would imagine. If you got a bunch of chemists and biologists together and asked them whether certain questions about the fundamental structure of space and time are amenable to scientific study, they may well beg ignorance. These questions may be the ones that have been addressed quite adequately by physicists (and some philosophers) or the ones that have been addressed somewhat less adequately by philosophers (and some physicists).

Of course, the questions about whether there are properties in addition to objects, and whether there are composite objects as well as their parts, do intuitively seem to have a non-scientific component to them. And I suppose this is the question you really want to ask. But I think that if ontologists manage to give somewhat satisfactory answers to them using the methods of the sciences, then I think this is how the question will be settled. Not by asking scientists of any sort whether it counts as science.