Naturalism and the Interpretation of Theories
Sklar (Lawrence)
Source: Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 75, No. 2 (Nov., 2001), pp. 43-58
Paper - Abstract

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Introductory Section (Excerpted)

  1. Naturalism means many different things to many different people. The variety of it that I am concerned with here goes something like this: "It is an illegitimate pretension of philosophy that it can present 'orders' to science." Metaphysicians think that they can tell science what the limits are of acceptable ontologies. Epistemologists believe that they can provide science with the appropriate rules for accepting and rejecting hypotheses. And philosophers of language claim to tell the scientists what the bounds of meaningful discourse are and how the scientist's concepts accrue their meanings. But insofar as these philosophers pretend to base their own assertions on reasoning that is itself outside the bounds of science and that is prior to science, they live a life of illusion. There simply is not and cannot be a "first philosophy" that can find its grounds outside the conclusions of the best available science and that can dictate to the sciences from a higher standpoint.
  2. To believe in first philosophy, it is claimed, is not only to fall into illusion. It is to maintain a position that throws roadblocks into the path of progressive science. Time and time again, it is said, we see the pretensions of philosophy being used to impede the advance of science.
  3. [ … snip, examples …]
  4. Others would probably claim that philosophical a priorism in the guise of claims to demonstrate the universality of causation1 (Leibniz on sufficient reason, Kant on universal causation)2 stood in the way of many who ought to have immediately and enthusiastically welcomed quantum mechanics, even if that theory seemed to reject such universal causation3. Indeed, even the great Einstein, it is argued, may have suffered from the perils to taking first philosophy too seriously.
  5. Within philosophy attacks on first philosophy are often taken up by philosophers who can broadly be labeled "empiricists." It was, after all, Hume who first starts telling us about the "sophistry and illusion" that traditional metaphysics amounts to, but who, at the same time, espouses so many of the typical empiricist themes: immediate contents of sensation, the accrual of meaning by ostensive definition, generalization from experience by induction alone, the rejection of intelligibility to that which refers to what allegedly outruns the possibility of epistemic access, and so on.
  6. But the naturalists I am concerned with are adamant that empiricism itself is just one more example of first philosophy run riot. Like any other first philosophy it establishes its theses on grounds that do not really advert to any contents of the best available scientific description of the world. And like any other first philosophy it is just as subject to claims of total illegitimacy. (Do we commit the Enquiry to the flames? It certainly doesn't look like a logic text, or a treatise on inductive science. Can we really climb Wittgensteinian ladders that actually don't exist?)
  7. Worse yet, empiricism commits the same heinous crime of which the other first philosophies are convicted. It stands in the way of scientific progress.
  8. [ … snip, examples …]
  9. If all first philosophy, empiricism included, is not only of dubious legitimacy but also bears the strong potential of standing in the way of scientific progress when taken seriously, why not do without it entirely? One way to de-fang its pretensions might be to reduce its claims to a "manner of speaking" or a "conventionally adopted framework." Then one could still talk in a philosophical vein, but would have to always keep in mind that any of the alternative ways of talking would function equally well. But even that approach has been subject to claims that it has its own a priorism, at least to the extent that it thinks it can distinguish the merely conventional ways of talking from the contentful assertions internal to science itself.
  10. Why not, instead, just eschew anything like first philosophy altogether. "Let science be science." And insofar as there are terms such as 'metaphysics,' 'epistemology,' or 'philosophy of language,' let them be nothing but, at best, honorifics applied to particularly large, deep or especially interesting bodies of the conclusions of science itself. Insofar as we can ask philosophical questions at all, their answers are to be sought in what our best available science tells us about the nature of the world. And if we feel that science could never answer some philosophical question or other, we ought to reflect on what is either on our part an antecedent limitation upon our conception about what science might be, or a failure on our part to really have in mind a question whose import we truly understand.
  11. If it is issues of epistemology or of philosophy of language that we have in mind, then, presumably, many of the "mental," or psychological, or social or linguistic sciences would be needed to properly deal with the questions asked. But what if our questions are questions of metaphysics? Well, insofar as things like the mind-body problem are metaphysical, presumably there too everything the neurologist and psychologist could tell us about "mind" would be relevant to answering the questions. But if the metaphysical questions are questions about the fundamental stuff of the world, including the world of the non-mental, then surely physics, indeed foundational physics, is the place to look for the scientific answers to the questions. Indeed, one prominent line has it that even if it is such questions as the existence of abstract objects - universals4 or sets or numbers - that is in metaphysical question, the answers are to be found in foundational physics. What exists is what foundational physics says exists or what foundational physics presupposes as existing (modulo such emergent things as minds).
Introductory Paragraph, Section 2
    There could be a host of reasons for challenging this "naturalistic" proposal. But there is only one such objection that I will be concerned with here. We are to take as that which exists that which our fundamental physical theories tell us exists, or, perhaps, that whose existence these theories must presuppose in order to be true. But does a fundamental theory ever really tell us what exists - according to its own lights? The problem I am concerned with here is this: All of the fundamental physical theories I know about are subject to multiple interpretations. And what there is in the world according to one of these interpretations is very often not what there is in the world according to some other of these interpretations.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
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