What is Naturalism?
Naturalism is a worldview, a philosophy -- a general understanding of reality and humanity's place within reality. Naturalism is usually defined most briefly as the philosophical conclusion that the only reality is nature, as gradually discovered by our intelligence using the tools of experience, reason, and science. There are numerous sophisticated varieties of naturalism that add details to this brief definition, and this website develops many of them. Welcome to a website about the reasons to be a naturalist, the varieties of philosophical naturalism, and the advantages and disadvantages of each variety. Other websites typically present one type of philosophical naturalism (such as reductive materialism or dual-aspect monism) as the exclusive or best version. Your webmaster, John Shook, is a professional philosopher and guide for an introductory tour of philosophical naturalism.
Naturalism emphasizes the progressive and expanding knowledge that observation and science provides. Science continually revises its understanding of physical reality. Today's scientists have new conceptions of energy and matter that most 19th century scientists would have found incomprehensible, and the next century's scientists will likely demand major revisions to today's best theorizing about what physical reality is like. Because science's best ideas about reality undergo improvement, naturalism is a philosophy that requires intellectual humility: while reality is physical and discoverable by science, naturalism cannot offer any final and perfect picture of exactly what this reality is like. Therefore, the primary task of philosophical naturalism is not to defend science's current best theories about reality -- science itself is responsible for reasonably justifying its own theories. Philosophical naturalism undertakes the responsibility for elaborating a comprehensive and coherent worldview based on experience, reason, and science, and for defending science's exclusive right to explore and theorize about all of reality, without any interference from tradition, superstition, mysticism, religious dogmatism, or priestly authority.
Science therefore has three close relationships with philosophy. First, when the various sciences question their ultimate principles and ponder how these principles can reasonably cohere together, science becomes philosophy and intellectuals undertaking these problems are both philosophers and scientists. For example, the founders of the many sciences are all counted as philosophers as well, and most of the leaders of great scientific revolutions are recognized as having made major philosophical contributions. Science occasionally is naturalistic philosophy. Second, when the sciences are under intellectual attack by jealous rivals offering non-natural hypotheses or unnatural modes of alleged knowledge, science turns to philosophy for reasoned arguments why non-natural hypotheses are irrational and unnecessary, and why allegedly unnatural knowledge is no sort of knowledge at all. Naturalistic philosophy explains, justifies, and improves scientific method. Third, when the sciences are under political attack by hostile forces wanting to obstruct scientific research or inhibit scientific teaching, science turns to philosophy for staunch defenses of intellectual freedom and democratic secularism. Naturalistic philosophy constructs and maintains a liberal political order protecting science.
Naturalism is a worldview that relies upon experience, reason, and science to develop its understanding of reality and humanity's place within reality. Human experience is the ultimate source and justification for all knowledge. Experience itself has accumulated in human memory and culture, gradually producing the methods of intelligence called reason and science. Scientific method is an extension of reason, so reason and science are not entirely different matters. However, it is useful to distinguish reason and science in this way: reason is a general term covering the proper use of the rules of logical inference, while scientific method applies the rules of logical inference to empirical evidence for drawing conclusions about reality. For example, if a naturalist refuses to be persuaded by a argument for the existence of God because that argument violates a rule of logical inference, this naturalist has used reason to reject the supernatural. Alternatively, if a naturalist refuses to believe that a supposed miraculous event shows that God exists because science instead shows that this event can be explained by natural causes, this naturalist has used science to reject the supernatural. You can visit this Wiki website and an atheist website about various arguments for God's existence.
Naturalism is sometimes defined in terms of what is not included in reality: no supernatural gods or unnatural powers; no spirits; no miracles; no revelations or intuitions from a transcendent source; and no master design or plan for nature. Naturalism is a worldview that therefore opposes most religions, since most religions require belief in the supernatural. Naturalism only needs to contradict religion about what sorts of realities exist. Naturalism's relationship with religion and spirituality is very complex, and goes far beyond a simplistic denial of religion. You can read "Atheism and Agnosticism".
Naturalism is often opposed by religions because religions typically claim that only they can understand and provide morality. Many naturalists have moral beliefs that agree with some religions, although naturalists deny that morality depends on the supernatural. Naturalists instead seek an understanding of morality and try to offer improvements to morality using experience, reason, and science. Naturalism is a worldview that accepts science's best understanding of human nature and our ability to form orderly and peaceful societies. Naturalism therefore has implications for politics as well as morality.
Naturalism has been opposed by rival philosophies since its earliest days, as well as by supernatural religions. Rival philosophies most effectively oppose naturalism by arguing that naturalism can only provide an incomplete and partial understanding of reality. Naturalism is based on experience, reason, and science. Therefore, rival philosophies, such as platonisms, transcendentalisms, supernaturalisms, dualisms, idealisms, and positivisms, offer their most effective criticisms of naturalism by arguing that naturalism cannot provide the best understanding of experience, reason, or science. If naturalism needs outside assistance with fully understanding its own foundations, then naturalism is evidently incomplete and false. The naturalist therefore argues that no non-natural assistance is needed.
Varieties of naturalism offer different ways of handling these potential problems for naturalism. For example, the type of naturalism known as Eliminative Materialism simply takes the position that mental experience requires no naturalistic explanation since those experiences actually do not exist. Other types of naturalism, including Pragmatic Naturalism, are designed to accommodate experience, normativity, and necessity. All naturalisms attempt to answer the third objection by defending science and its knowledge, but this defense can take a variety of forms, resulting in still more kinds of naturalisms. To learn about all the varieties of naturalism, you can proceed to "Naturalism and Science".
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles:
Wikipedia articles: Naturalism, Metaphysical naturalism
Ionian Enchantment: A Brief History of Scientific Naturalism
The Center for Inquiry's statement about its naturalistic worldview
Institute on Religion in an Age of Science
All material on this website is copyright 2006 and 2007 by John R. Shook