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 be
Statement on Naturalism - Three
Words - Introducing Naturalism
First, here’s a thumbnail, “elevator speech” statement
- 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
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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