Some FAQ's about Naturalistic Epistemology and Philosophy of Science

Why is naturalistic epistemology relevant to current debates in philosophy of science?

Many contemporary defenses of a realist understanding of scientific theories rely on an appeal to the view that scientific knowledge includes knowledge of methods by which to acquire scientific knowledge. This is the heart of the current philosophical movement towards naturalistic epistemology, the view that epistemological questions, which are questions about the justification of scientific knowledge claims, are themselves "scientific questions" to be adjudicated by the methods of science. As it is often expressed, epistemology is "continuous with" the sciences.

Why is this view controversial?

The view that methodology was a priori, i.e. established by purely logical considerations, was typical of most classical epistemology before the twentieth century. There were two reasons for this: a) methodology is generally seen as normative, i.e. as stipulating what an ideal cognitive subject ought to do to acquire "scientific knowledge." Empirical investigations might very well reveal the actual methods employed by those cognitive subjects called "scientists," but it could never justify claiming that those are the methods which one ought to follow. The classical British empiricist tradition epitomized by David Hume has always presumed that it is impossible to derive an "ought" from an "is"; the attempt to do so has been called the "naturalistic fallacy" (G.E.Moore).  b) Methodology basically stipulates what counts as scientific knowledge. To appeal therefore to scientific knowledge to justify employment of a scientific methodology would be question begging as that very methodology had been presupposed to obtain the scientific knowledge to which the justificatory appeal in question is made.

How does the naturalistic epistemologist maintain that proper epistemological methodology is an empirical question?

Against the a priori view of epistemology, the naturalistic epistemologist maintains that scientific theory informs methodological practice. Thus scientific belief and epistemic methodology are in a "dialectical interaction" insofar as one holds certain scientific beliefs about the world, one is led to adopt certain methods as reliable methods for choice of what scientific beliefs to accept. Insofar as the adoption of such methods leads to ther revision of scientific belief, the new beliefs will lead us to revise or adopt new methods, which in turn will lead to new beliefs about the world in a continuous "feedback loop."

How is this relevant to epistemological realism?

Many, but not all, philosophers who defend naturalistic epistemology are realists. A naturalistic epistemologist holds in effect that whether or not the typical realist goals of "approximating the truth about the world" and "discovering the unobservable processes that cause observable phenomena" are attainable by any scientific method is itself a scientific question to be answered by empirical investigation. Some anti-realists who advocate naturalistic epistemology, like Laudan, hold that this investigation reveals that typical realist goals are not in fact attainable in the practice of science and thus the realist misconstrues the aim of science. Some realists reject the route of naturalistic epistemology, because of the objections mentioned above. Nevertheless there is a considerable overlap in the class of naturalistic epistemologists and scientific realists. Realists insist on explaining phenomena, and the phenomenon to which they call attention is the fact that the methods currently employed by science have yielded a high degree of success in explaining phenomena. Insofar as the methods we adopt are thoroughly a consequence of the theories we believe, the only way to explain the success of these methods, so such realists maintain, is to assume that they are based on theories which are at least approximately true. If this explanation of the success of scientific methodology is to be accepted, then the dialectical interaction between acceptable scientific, belief and choice of the methodology we ought to adopt. is explained as progress towards ever greater degrees of approximate truth, as a process of convergence, perhaps asymptotically, on the truth about the way the world actually is.

How can realists who admit that "the world" is largely constituted by our theories still retain the view of scientific progress as increasing the degree of truth over the change of theories?

The view that "the world" is a construction of our scientific beliefs (the view of "constructivism")  is an inescapable message of the "new wave" philosophies of science associated with Kuhn and the aftermath of his work. The thesis of semantic incommensurability or radical meaning variance implies that truth is necessarily lost as a goal of science because successive theories are literally about "different worlds" so they cannot be seen as getting closer and closer to the truth about the one and only "real world." Therefore realists must defend the view that theoretical terms can have references which stay fixed over the change of theory. For this reason the proper definition of a theoretical term is not a convention arbitrarily stipulated by the theory, but rather a matter for empirical research. In other words we find out what it means to be an "electron" not by adopting a theory which stipulates (by convention) what electrons are, but rather by adopting a theory which enables us to deduce predictions which are in conformity with what the empirical evidence reveals about what electrons are. We find out how to best define "electrons" by the empirical methods of science. When the advance of theoretical belief leads us to alter our beliefs about electrons, we are not now referring to a totally new kind of entity defined by the new theory, but rather the same entity about which before we were rather ignorant, but about which we now are justified in claiming to know more.

How can one determine it is the same entity to which we are referring?

The naturalist-realist who takes the route described above will likely advance some form of a "causal theory of reference" to keep the reference fixed to the same entity over the change of theory. Roughly such theories say we determine what "electron" refers to not by the theories we accept, but because there exists a causal relation between the circumstances in which we are justified in saying that an electron has been "observed" or"detected" and certain experimental phenomena. These phenomena remain fixed over the change of theories, such that a scientist who holds a successor theory will stand in the same relation to such phenomena as did one who held the predecessor theory.

What are the problems with this line of argument?

It may be the case that there is a considerable consensus following the path outlined above, but there are also many dissenters. Skeptics are likely to point to problems with causal theories of reference and what may seem undesirable metaphysical consequences of them. Also there is at present nothing like any formal theory of "approximate truth" although it seems an intuitively plausible notion. Another criticism challenges the central claim that the methods of science are, in actual historical fact, reliable. Others challenge the claim that methodology derived from such naturalistic considerations can possibly be normative. And typically anti-realists will deny that there is any question of "explaining" phenomena at all, so they are not likely to be impressed by the claim that we need to explain the alleged phenomenon of the success of scientific knowledge. Even if they grant that this alleged phenomenon occurs, they will endeavor to"explain" it by appeal to purely pragmatic considerations which have nothing to do with the "truth," in a correspondence sense, of the theories on which such methods are based.