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Naturalized Philosophy of Science


Naturalization in the philosophy of science is related to projects for naturalization in other areas of philosophy, including ethics, the philosophy of language and mind, and, especially, epistemology. So there are some general features of naturalism shared by these different philosophical projects. Still, in each of these areas the impulse to naturalization has had different motivations and a distinctive history. Projects for naturalizing the philosophy of science were advanced independently within the Vienna Circle by Otto Neurath and in the United States by John Dewey from roughly 1925 to 1945. A decade later a philosopher of science, Ernest Nagel, familiar with both Neurath and Dewey, defended a general philosophical naturalism in his presidential address to the American Philosophical Association. And in 1969 Willard Van Orman Quine published his influential article "Epistemology Naturalized." Nevertheless, interest in naturalization in the philosophy of science dates only from the 1980s. Three influences stand out. First, a growing dissatisfaction with logical empiricism and, more generally, with any philosophy of science conceived of as the logical or conceptual analysis of scientific and methodological concepts. Second, this dissatisfaction was in part sparked by a growing interest in the history of science, particularly as employed in Thomas S. Kuhn's 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Finally, beginning in the 1970s there was a challenge from a newly militant sociology of science claiming to provide the whole story of how science works.

In thinking about science, it is usual to distinguish between the process of doing science, scientific practice, and the product of that process, usually understood as scientific knowledge. The project of naturalization applies to both processes and products. The naturalist project for examining knowledge in various special fields rejects claims to special forms of logical and philosophical analysis, preferring to employ fundamentally the same tools used by the relevant scientists themselves. But philosophers may ask different questions than those that typically concern working scientists. For example, a philosopher of science may ask how the concept of causality in quantum mechanics differs from that in classical mechanics, or how the theories and methods of classical genetics differ from those of molecular genetics. The answers will be framed in terms that can be understood by both scientists and educated laypersons. No peculiarly philosophical concepts are required. This entry will focus on the naturalizing project for understanding the process of science, including methods for certifying particular knowledge claims.

Basic Features of Naturalized Philosophy of Science

In advancing a naturalized philosophy of science, one immediately rules out any philosophy of science invoking supernatural factors, which, however, occurs only in limited contexts. More generally, a naturalized philosophy of science rules out appeal to a priori principles, including the results of logical or conceptual analysis. Positively, a naturalized philosophy of science restricts its resources to those provided by the sciences themselves. So a naturalized philosophy of science becomes a kind of theoretical science of science. Even this minimal general characterization of naturalized philosophy of science raises several problems.

First, how could one justify ruling out the imposition of a priori principles, or even appeals to the supernatural, in the philosophy of science? This would seem itself to require an a priori argument, thus violating naturalism's own prohibition against the use of a priori principles. Second, given that the content of the sciences is continually changing, how can one specify just what counts as a resource for a naturalized philosophy of science? More simply, what counts as natural in either the philosophy of science or in the sciences themselves?

Both of these problems presume that naturalism is a thesis, indeed, a metaphysical thesis. Both problems vanish if, rather, naturalism is taken primarily as a methodological stance, a determination to employ only well-established scientific findings and methods, whatever they might be. Methodological naturalism, unlike metaphysical naturalism, can be defended simply in terms of past successes, first in physics and chemistry, but also especially in biology. Evolutionary theory and modern molecular genetics have pretty much demystified the phenomena of life. This provides a scientific reason for expecting that mental phenomena and even consciousness will some day be similarly demystified. Of course, this appeal to past scientific success to justify methodological naturalism strikes most nonnaturalistic philosophers of science as circular or regressive.

Naturalism and Normativity

The most common objection to the whole project of naturalized philosophy of science is that, based only on scientific findings, it can at most describe actual scientific practice; it cannot provide a normative basis for distinguishing good science from pseudoscience. Naturalism, it is often argued, leads straight to relativism. Naturalists point out that this objection assumes that there exists an extrascientific criterion for demarcating good science from pseudoscience. They argue, naturalistically, that the failure to find an agreed on criterion is good evidence that no such criterion exists. Still, it is a fact that scientists and others claim to distinguish good science from pretenders to that status. Naturalists need an account of the bases for such judgments.

The usual naturalist account is that the norms operative in science are all conditional norms of the general form: If the goal is G, use method M. The justification for such norms is itself empirical, consisting of evidence that employing M is a relatively reliable means of obtaining G. This reply itself raises several problems. One is the specification of the goal, or goals, of scientific inquiry. A second problem is the threatened regress of methods, since taking the determination of whether M is a reliable means to G as itself a goal of inquiry seems to require another method of inquiry whose reliability itself must be investigated.

Realism versus Empiricism

Both naturalists and nonnaturalists argue that there is a single overarching goal to scientific inquiry throughout the history of modern science. Some make similar claims for scientific method. Proposed general goals include knowledge and truth, while proposed methods include "making use of evidence." These goals and methods are, however, so general as to be nearly vacuous. Surely one must ask: Knowledge (or truths) about what? What kind of evidence? How is evidence to be used?

Historians of science and historically oriented philosophers of science have identified at least two divergent general goals that have been pursued, often explicitly, by scientists since the seventeenth century. One is broadly empiricist while the other is broadly realist. Isaac Newton's professed refusal to "feign hypotheses" and injunctions only to make inductions from the phenomena are identified with empiricism. The nineteenth-century invocation of an aether to support electromagnetic radiation was an example of scientific realism. The later nineteenth-century debate between supporters of thermodynamics and supporters of statistical mechanics is seen as a dispute between empiricists and realists regarding the existence of atoms. In the twentieth century the weirdness of quantum physics (relative to classical physics) invited empiricist responses while molecular biology seemed uninhibitedly realist. Although most naturalists tended to argue for either an exclusively empiricist or realist understanding of science, the proper naturalist response seemed to reject the demand for a single goal for all of science as objectionably essentialist and to accept the historical diversity of goals as a natural part of science as a whole. Both empiricists and realists can be said to be seeking knowledge of the natural world rather than, say, spiritual enlightenment.

Returning to the threatened regress of methods, one question is whether or not avoiding an unacceptable relativism requires a method that can be justified a priori. Naturalists again argue that the failure of philosophers of science to agree on any such method is good evidence that no such method exists. More positively, it can be argued that the general pattern of inductive reasoning is fundamentally the same for higher-level claims about the effectiveness of various methods to deliver correct judgments at the object level as it is for object-level empirical claims themselves. There need be no regress of fundamentally different methods.

Nevertheless, naturalists tend to agree that, whatever the details of various methods for certifying scientific claims, there are no methods that can be employed without assuming that some empirical conditions obtain. There are no foundational methods any more than there are foundational empirical truths that can be known with certainty. To the extent that naturalists think this stance requires philosophical justification, that justification is usually sought in an appeal to some form of pragmatism.

Naturalism and Pragmatism

It is no accident that prominent naturalists of earlier generations embraced pragmatism. Naturalism needs a philosophical orientation that makes sense of its rejection of a priori metaphysical and epistemological principles. Pragmatism provides that orientation. The relevant pragmatist doctrine begins with the rejection of any view of knowledge that requires either deduction from a priori truths or induction from incorrigible sense experience. The positive doctrine is that one always begins from the current state of what is taken to be known. From that point, anything can be questioned and subjected to experimental tests, provided that there is some basis for doubt. But not everything can be questioned at once. Universal Cartesian doubt is ruled out. Thus, in place of a foundationist picture of knowledge of either rationalist or empiricist persuasion, one has claims to knowledge regulated by a method of motivated doubt and empirical investigation. It is this general method, not any particular claims, that matters for science.

A pragmatist orientation also fits well with a typical naturalist appeal to the evolutionary history of humans as providing an understanding of the origins of human knowledge. Evolutionary survival requires early humans to have had a serviceable understanding of the world around them, including other humans. Survival did not require having beliefs that one would now regard as true. Rather, it only required beliefs that made it possible to perform appropriate actions at appropriate times. Later, humans could develop methods for questioning and improving earlier beliefs apart from their immediate application to particular courses of action.

Some naturalist philosophers of science argue that the development of modern science itself follows an evolutionary pattern and maybe even involves evolutionary-like mechanisms. Others disagree. This dispute takes place within a naturalistic framework and the answer does follow from that framework alone. It remains an empirical question within a naturalistic approach to the philosophy of science.

Resources for a Naturalistic Philosophy of Science

The purest statement of the logical empiricist approach to the philosophy of science was that the philosophy of science is the study of the logic of the language of science. This stance automatically put the focus of the philosophical study of science on the products of scientific activity rather than on the process of doing science. The naturalist project for the philosophy of science places greater emphasis on the practice of science. A programmatic formulation would be that a naturalized philosophy of science focuses on scientists as embodied agents practicing in a particular scientific culture. The question is what broadly scientific resources are to be employed in this study. Here, there is a diversity of opinion among those pursuing a naturalist program.

Following Kuhn and others, many philosophers of science study the activity of science using primarily historical concepts and methods. Sociologists of science, including historical sociologists partly inspired by Kuhn, invoke primarily historical and sociological categories, but differ among themselves as to which historical and sociological categories to employ. They mostly agree, however, on the desirability of there being a single unified sociological account. Some philosophers of science and cognitive scientists pursue the study of scientific practice as primarily a cognitive activity, borrowing concepts and methods from the cognitive sciences. A few philosophers and economists employ concepts from economics in their studies of science practice. Finally, feminist philosophers of science, for whom the idea of scientists as embodied and socially embedded is central, introduce concepts from feminist theory into the naturalized study of science.

Here again, the proper naturalistic response to this plurality of approaches would seem not to insist on a single unified approach, but to embrace a diversity of complementary approaches as appropriate for understanding a complex phenomenon such as science.

See also Confirmation Theory; Ethics, History of; Moore, George Edward; Naturalized Epistemology.


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Ronald N. Giere (2005)

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