A Guide to Naturalism
What follows is an attempt to boil down the elements of naturalism into a visible, coherent whole, moving from a short statement to a detailed FAQ. If you're wondering “Well, what is naturalism anyway, in ordinary language? What’s it all about?”, you might find here a reasonably straightforward answer. Feedback is most welcome, so if something isn’t clear, we very much encourage you to .
Statement on Naturalism - Three Words - Introducing Naturalism
First, here’s a thumbnail, “elevator speech” statement about naturalism:
- Statement On Naturalism -
Naturalism is the understanding that there is a single, natural world as shown by science, and that we are completely included in it. Naturalism holds that everything we are and do is connected to the rest of the world and derived from conditions that precede us and surround us. Each of us is an unfolding natural process, and every aspect of that process is caused, and is a cause itself. So we are fully caused creatures, and seeing just how we are caused gives us power and control, while encouraging compassion and humility. By understanding consciousness, choice, and even our highest capacities as materially based, naturalism re-enchants the physical world, allowing us to be at home in the universe. Naturalism shows our full connection to the world and others, it leads to an ethics of compassion, and it gives us far greater control over our circumstances.Next, here are three words that capture the essence of naturalism as it applies to our lives:
Connection - Compassion - Control
Connection: Everything we are and do is completely connected to the rest of the world. Our bodies and minds are shaped in their entirety by conditions that precede us and surround us. Each of us is an unfolding, natural process, and every aspect of that process is caused, and is a cause itself. We are therefore entirely at home in the physical universe.
Compassion: Seeing that we are fully caused creatures - not self-caused - we can no longer take or assign ultimate credit or blame for what we do. This leads to an ethics of compassion and understanding, both toward ourselves and others. We see that there but for circumstances go I. We would have been the homeless person in front of us, the convict, or the addict, had we been given their genetic and environmental lot in life.
Control: Understanding how we are caused to behave as we do gives us increased powers of prediction and control. Instead of supposing people can simply will themselves to be otherwise, we concentrate our energies on creating the conditions which promote constructive personal and social change. The ethics of compassion is matched by a practical efficacy based in scientific knowledge.
Now, here's a "trapped in the elevator" speech to give you a bit more detail:
- Introducing Naturalism -
Naturalism, in essence, is simply the idea that human beings are completely included in the natural world: there’s nothing supernatural about us. Naturalism is based on science as the best, most reliable means for discovering what exists. Science shows that each and every aspect of a human being comes from and is completely connected to the natural world, and is understandable in terms of those connections.
The naturalist view of ourselves is of course very different from traditional religious or supernatural understandings, and it has profound implications. We don’t have souls that continue after death. Instead, we are fully physical creatures, fully caused to be who we are. We don’t have free will in the sense of being able to choose or decide without being fully caused in our choices or decisions. Instead, as individuals we are part of the natural unfolding of the universe in all its amazing complexity.
By understanding ourselves as fully caused, and by seeing just how we are caused (by our genetic endowment, upbringing, and social environments), we dramatically enhance our powers of prediction and control, both in our personal lives and in the larger social arena. Naturalism focuses our attention on what works, increasing self-efficacy and encouraging science-based, progressive social policies in areas such as criminal justice, social inequality, behavioral health, and the environment. Also, since we see that we aren’t the ultimate originators of ourselves or our behavior, we can’t take ultimate credit or blame for what we do. This reduces unwarranted self-righteousness, moral superiority, pride, shame, and guilt. And since we see others as fully caused - for instance substance abusers, criminal offenders, the destitute and homeless - we become less blaming, less punitive and more compassionate and understanding. People don't create themselves, so responsibility for their character and behavior isn't ultimately theirs, but is distributed over the many factors that created them. And after all, were we given their environmental and genetic conditions, we would have become what they are, and acted just as they did: there but for circumstances go I. This insight provides the basis for a naturalistic ethics of empathy and compassion that guides personal behavior and grounds effective social policy.
As mentioned above, naturalism is premised on taking science as our way of knowing about the world, not tradition, intuition, sacred texts or pronouncements. By illuminating the causal connections between phenomena, science inevitably unifies what it discovers into a single, natural, multifaceted whole. If we take science seriously with regard to ourselves and our behavior, we are led to the conclusion that human beings are fully included in the natural world, and that we are completely physical creatures. More and more, biology and neuroscience show that the brain and body do everything that the soul was supposed to do. Even consciousness and our higher level capacities for rationality and choice are fully embodied, causal processes.
Some might conclude from this that naturalism reduces human beings to mere mechanisms, mere automatons, but this doesn’t follow. What follows is that the physical universe has produced, in us, marvelously complex and adaptive organisms, with the capacity for self-reflection, wonder, suffering, and joy. Far from mechanizing humanity, naturalism re-enchants the physical world by showing how consciousness and choice don’t involve supernatural processes. They are natural processes, understandable by science. Amazingly enough, physical existence produces all these intricate phenomena quite nicely on its own.
By acknowledging our origins in evolution, the naturalist perspective also enhances our feeling of kinship with the other species with which we share this planet, and our desire to sustain and nurture the planet itself. All sentient beings, including humanity, owe their existence to conditions that extend far beyond us in space and time. Seeing this, we find ourselves completely at home in the universe, full-fledged participants in the unfolding natural order.
Q & A on Naturalism
For those wanting an even more detailed picture, here's a FAQ presentation of what naturalism's all about. If you've read the sections above, this may seem a bit repetitious, but it does spell some things out, and gives a few examples to make things a bit more concrete.
History of Naturalism
For historical background on naturalism, please see Ionian Enchantment: A Brief History of Scientific Naturalism.
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