Understanding Naturalism (review)

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 27, 2010 in Reviews,Worldview Naturalism

Understanding Naturalism is Jack Ritchie’s introduction to philosophical naturalism. Ritchie opens by noting:

Rationalism, empiricism, structuralism, scepticism, existentialism, pragmatism… Philosophers like to talk of their great and dead predecessors in terms of -isms… But if you were to ask a contemporary philosopher in the English-speaking world… to classify her philosophical position, I would wager that the most common answer would be “I’m a naturalist.”1

Thus, anyone who wants to understand contemporary philosophy ought to take some time to understand naturalism.

The book opens by explaining naturalism’s most famous motto: “There is no first philosophy.” Ritchie surveys the history of attempts at first philosophy, from Descartes to Kant to Carnap, and why they failed. He then explains Quine’s naturalism as the rejection of first philosophy. In Quine’s words:

Neurath has likened science to a boat which, if we are to rebuild it, we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it…2

The naturalistic philosopher begins his reasoning within the inherited world theory as a going concern. He tentatively believes all of it, but believes also that some unidentified portions are wrong. He tries to improve, clarify, and understand the system from within. He is a busy sailor adrift on Neurath’s boat.”3

The naturalist, then, does not start from a certain foundation or method and build up his knowledge from there. Rather, the naturalist finds himself already afloat in knowledge. Much of it, he knows, will turn out to be wrong. But the best he can do is test and revise using the best methods currently available to him – namely, those of science.

After an introduction to Quine’s naturalized epistemology, Ritchie considers reliabilism:

What is important about knowing, according to reliabilists, is not in fact that I can offer an explicit justification for my beliefs but rather that the process by which I acquired my belief is a reliable one, where by reliable we just mean that it is more likely to produce true beliefs than false beliefs.4

If knowledge is a matter of reliability, this may be easier for naturalists to handle than the normative notion of “justification.” But of course there are many problems with reliabilism.

Ritchie next covers naturalistic philosophy of science:

Naturalists are impressed by science; science is to be a model for philosophy. An important question for a naturalist is to ask what is distinctive about science. If we know that, we can begin to make some sense of the task of making philosophy more scientific.5

Of course, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was seen as a threat to naturalists’ respect for science, and also to their quest to discover “the” scientific method after which philosophy could be modelled. Ritchie surveys the defenses of science given by Chalmers and Laudan, and also the counter-attack made by Worrall. He also covers the realism-antirealism debate, and Arthur’s Fine’s third option, the “natural ontological attitude.”

Next, Ritchie explores another way of coming at naturalism: through ontology. Some naturalists begin not with a particular epistemology (a respect for science and a rejection of first philosophy), but instead with a metaphysical doctrine: that only the physical world exists. This is physicalism. But what is physicalism, and why endorse it? Ritchie surveys the arguments in a compact and accessible way, bringing into his discussion as always the very latest developments from the past decade.

The book also includes a highly abstract chapter about naturalists’ accounts of truth and meaning, and closes with a useful summary, from which I shall quote:

There is great diversity among naturalists, but some common ground too. All naturalisms begin with an admiring attitude toward science and its achievements. [And although] Descartes, Kant, and Carnap shared the same admiration of science… the difference is that whereas Descartes, Kant and Carnap all called for a new philosophy to ground the sciences, naturalists reverse the order of explanation. Naturalists take the view that we should start with our well-developed science and build our philosophy from there.

[But of course] philosophical naturalism must… show minimally that it is a consistent position… Naturalists must show that their position is a principled one, which does not arbitrarily reject other philosophical approaches or exclude important questions.

…Scepticism asks us to consider the possibility that we might be dreaming. The problem of induction asks us to consider the possibility that the future might be very different from the past. Grue predicates and ring inferences… suggest the possibility that we may be misclassifying the things in our world. Naturalism doesn’t offer any direct answers to these challenges. It just brushes them off. Advocates of first philosophy might… think that is unprincipled.

More generally, naturalists stand accused of having an unprincipled bias in favour of science, and correspondingly a failure to recognize the important of non-scientific knowledge or enquiry…

I think there are good naturalist answers to both challenges. Naturalism from Quine onwards do not lightly brush off first philosophical problems. Rather they do two things. First, they point to the failure of all philosophy to answer these questions. Secondly, from the naturalist perspective there is a perfectly good and productive way to reconstrue these questions. They are questions that, when we think them through clearly, are best answered by our current science.

…Naturalism seems like an attractive view in epistemology and metaphysics precisely because science has been so much better than philosophy at the business of describing how the world is and uncovering methods for doing this. Science, as we have seen, has often undermined the epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions of past philosophers. Why not then hand over to science those traditional philosophical problems about method, knowledge, and the nature of the world? Embracing naturalism in this way does not mean that we are forced to be interested in science to the exclusion of all other things. Rather, it is to acknowledge that the interests of science and traditional philosophy intersect in certain areas and that in those areas where they do, science has been much more productive and fruitful than philosophy.

Ritchie’s book is wonderfully compact, clear, and contemporary. I highly recommend it to anyone with a bit of philosophical training who wants to understand naturalism as it has developed in analytic philosophy since Quine.

  1. Understanding Naturalism, p. 1. []
  2. Quine, Word and Object, p. 3. []
  3. Quine, “Five Milestones of Empiricism” in Theories and Things. []
  4. Understanding Naturalism, p. 55. []
  5. Ibid, p. 74. []

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark August 27, 2010 at 5:30 am

Are you sure this book isn’t called “Supervenienc?”


lukeprog August 27, 2010 at 7:55 am


Yeah, the cover is confusing. :)


Bill Maher August 27, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Nicholas Everitt’s Intro to Epistemology is the best intro on the subject ever written. It covers: what epistemology is, warranted beliefs, Gettier’s problem, the “reliable method” account, the “casual” account, & Nozick’s “tracking” account (responses to Gettier), Foundationalism, Coherantism, Quine’s epistemology, Rorty’epistemology and it has reviews at the end of each section. It is amazing.



cl August 27, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Nice, informative article.


Kip August 27, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Luke — have you ever written anything about analytic vs. synthetic knowledge? I’m wondering if there really is such a thing as “analytic knowledge” at all, really.


lukeprog August 27, 2010 at 4:08 pm


I have not.


Glenn Beck Doesn't Represent My August 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm

The best criticism I have read of Naturalism is found in CS Lewis’s book Miracles. I recommend this to theists and atheists alike.

By the way, isn’t “natural selection” an oxymoron? After all, to “select” something, there must first be someone or something doing the selecting. The idea of an automated selection process that spontaneously initiates, executes, and sustains itself (from NOTHING no less) is so absurd it doesn’t even warrant serious debate.

If you truly believe the “natural selection” LIE (a lie perpetrated by the “free” thinkers whose pride prevents them from SEEING this life is strictly about redemption and reconciliation) then I urge you to go try this experiment:

Buy a fish tank. Place in it all the material that was known to be on earth at the time of the big bang. All that sludge. Now walk away from it. Never touch it again. Re-check it in 80 years from now. Re-check it in a MILLION years m now for all I care! Let us know when, from your sludge, a “naturally-selected” human being emerges.

I will not hold my breath.


Kaelik August 28, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Glenn Beck is too sane for you?


Kip August 29, 2010 at 3:37 am

The stupid… it burns.


Mike Young August 29, 2010 at 11:44 am

Quines argument against the analytic synthetic distinction collapses from logical inconsistency, and so does his radical empiricism.


Kaelik August 29, 2010 at 6:22 pm


For people who don’t own the book, could you perhaps present his argument for analytic and synthetic distinction and show how it is inconsistent?


wissam October 25, 2010 at 8:53 am


I know this out of place, but I couldn’t find the ontological arguments thread. This is the newest ontological argument by Maydole.


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