Q & A on Naturalism
A single world - Science
as basis - Sticking with science
soul, no free will - Morality intact - Self-control,
relations - Social policy - The significance of
There is a single, natural world or universe, in which we are
Q. What is naturalism, anyway? And keep it straightforward!
A. Ok, naturalism is simply the understanding that there exists
a single, natural, physical world or universe in which we are
completely included. There are not two different worlds, the supernatural
and natural. Since we are completely included in the natural world,
there’s nothing supernatural about us. For instance, we
don’t have immaterial souls that survive after death. We
are fully physical, material creatures, and everything we are
and do can be understood without supposing that we have souls,
spirits, or any other sort of immaterial supernatural stuff inside
us. Your thoughts, experiences, feelings, decisions, and behavior
are all things your brain and body does. How they do all this
is of course a very complicated story that’s still being
discovered by science, but naturalism says there’s nothing
non-physical involved. That the material world has produced creatures
that are conscious, can reason, feel emotions, and ask questions
is a pretty amazing fact. The “merely” physical isn’t
so mere after all. Naturalism re-enchants the physical world.
Science is the basis for naturalism.
Q. Ok, but how do you know there’s a single natural world,
and not two worlds, the natural and the supernatural?
A. Good question, glad you asked. It’s important to see
that naturalism depends on taking science as your way of knowing
about the world and what ultimately exists in it. Scientific explanations
tend to unify our view of what exists, since once something gets
understood scientifically, the connections between it and the
rest of what science understands are made clear. This is what
science does: to show the pattern of connections between different
things. These connections are sometimes literal physical connections,
such as how our bodies are put together, and sometimes they are
causal connections, such as how the wind causes a sailboat to
move. Either way, science inevitably unifies the constituents
of the world into a single whole, in which everything is either
closely or remotely connected to everything else. It doesn’t
and can’t show that there is a separate supernatural realm,
or some sort of supernatural stuff that is categorically different
from what’s in the physical, natural world. So, science
is the basis for naturalism. If you take science as your preferred
way of knowing about the world, you’ll be led to naturalism.
Sticking with science.
Q. But why should I take science as my preferred way of knowing
about the world? Why shouldn’t I use science for some things,
such as medicine, and faith for other things, such as life after
death and the question of who or what I really am?
A. Hmmmm, you ask some toughies. OK, there’s no necessary
reason you must take science as your preferred way of knowing
about the world, but still there are some very good reasons. When
we need to decide something of any importance, for instance how
to best treat a disease, we want the most reliable information
about what works. Now, it’s science that provides the most
reliable information about disease, since by and large the information
it gathers is confirmed by experiment and careful observation;
it’s not a matter of intuition, tradition, revelation or
authority, all of which can be unreliable. Science simply extends
the common sense idea that in order to get what we want, whether
its good health or a good meal, we have to know how things work.
And, (this is important!) common sense and science say that the
way things actually work, and what actually exists, are independent
of how we might like or hope things to be. Wishes and hopes are
one thing, the ways things are is another. So if you want to know
how things actually work and what actually exists, as opposed
to getting stuck in what might be wishful thinking or delusion,
you should be scientific and empirical. You should seek good,
objective evidence about what exists and how things work.
Now, naturalists stick with science in deciding all questions
about what ultimately exists; they don’t switch to faith
when it comes to the big questions such as the self, freedom,
death, consciousness, and the like. They take science seriously
in all aspects of our lives, including what we are made of, how
we think and feel and behave, and what happens at death. Why?
Because if science works well in deciding questions about medicine
and other important practical matters, why suppose it suddenly
stops working when considering these other equally important matters?
Why not seek the most reliable knowledge available, knowledge
that’s independent of wishful thinking, when deciding the
big questions about human nature, consciousness, freedom, and
the like? The reason some people switch to faith in these areas
is that they may not like the answers science provides, and they
find the answers of faith more reassuring. So, here’s the
question: do you want the empirical truth that’s backed
up by evidence, or do you want to be reassured? Nothing we can
say can force you to stick with science when the going gets tough,
but if you’re more interested in truth than reassurance,
then you might be, or become, a naturalist: someone who takes
science as their guide to the whole world, including us frail,
needy human beings.
We are fully physical creatures, without souls. Since we
are fully caused to be who we are and act as we do, we don’t
have contra-causal free will.
Q. Who or what are we, according to naturalism?
A. Science shows that we are organisms that evolved from other
creatures, that in turn evolved from yet other creatures, so that
we are connected to all life on the planet, and to the planet
itself. Since we are fully included in the natural world that
science studies, there isn’t anything non-physical about
us. Naturalism says we are completely physical, material creatures,
a complex, highly organized collection of atoms, molecules, cells,
neurons, muscles, bone, etc., produced by evolution. So we don’t
possess immaterial souls, or spirits, or any “mental” stuff
inside us that’s separate from our physical being. This
doesn’t mean that we don’t have minds, meaning all
the things the brain does when it thinks, feels, decides, plans,
and dreams. It means that the mind, and consciousness, is what
the brain does, and all of this (as strange as it might seem!)
is fully physical – that is, there is no soul or spirit
involved, even though it might feel that there is. Just how the
brain does all this is just beginning to be understood, and we
won’t know the full scientific story for many decades to
come, most likely. Because the brain is so complicated, and because
each of us has a unique biological make up and has grown up in
unique circumstances, each of us becomes a unique, different human
being, an individual. So being fully physical doesn’t mean
we lose our individuality.
Because we are fully physical, natural creatures, this means
that everything we are and everything we do is completely connected
to the rest of nature, which includes our culture and society.
We are products of our social and family environment and the genetics
given to us at birth. The way we develop from newborns into adults
is a process of cause and effect, and we can explain our character
and motives as results of that process, one that has made our
brains the way they are. Similarly, we can understand our feelings
and behavior as being fully caused by the brain and body. This
means that if we knew the whole causal story of ourselves, we
could discover all the causes going back in time of what we’re
doing at this very moment.
What’s special about this naturalistic view ourselves,
that’s quite different from the supernatural or common sense
view, is that we don’t have free will, defined as the power
to do something without yourself being fully caused to do it.
(Please note and remember this definition!) Now, many people think
they do have this power, but to have it, you’d have to be
disconnected from nature in some way, and naturalism says that
there is no way in which we are disconnected from nature: we are
completely included in the natural world. This means that everything
we are and do is caused, which means we don’t have free
will in the sense defined above, what we might call “contra-causal” free
will. We aren’t “first causes” and we don’t
cause ourselves - nothing in nature does this, so far as we know.
We are not "causally privileged" over the rest of nature,
that is, we don't get to cause without being fully caused ourselves.
To think that would be to hold a supernatural view of ourselves,
the opposite of naturalism. Another way of making this point is
that from a naturalistic perspective, all our thoughts, feelings,
experiences, and behavior happen without there being a non-physical “supervisor” in
charge, making them happen. You are your experiences and behavior,
not something extra that controls them. This doesn’t mean
you are “out of control,” however. Your behavior is,
most of the time, controlled by who and what you are: a particular
person, embodied in a physical organism, that’s been taught
to behave in socially acceptable ways. It also doesn’t mean
that you lose your own causal powers to influence things and make
things happen. All that stays intact under naturalism. What’s
changed is that you see where you and your powers come from.
We can be moral, ethical human beings without contra-causal free
Q. But doesn’t not having free will lead to all sorts of
problems? What about morality and ethics? How can we hold people
responsible without free will?
A. This takes a bit of explaining, so hang in there. Even though
we don’t have contra-causal free will (which is to say we
are fully caused creatures) it’s still true that we very
much want certain things to happen, and very much don’t
want other things to happen. We very much want to live, and don’t
want to die. We love our friends, children and our families (maybe
even some of our neighbors), and we want them and our communities
kept safe and secure. What this means is that even though we don’t
have free will, we are still very strongly motivated to want certain
outcomes in life, namely we want ourselves and our loved ones
to flourish. And this means that we still will want to make sure
that people, including ourselves, act in ways to ensure this flourishing,
which generally means behaving morally: not stealing, cheating,
lying, or murdering. So we don’t lose our moral compass
in accepting naturalism.
Now, since people are fully caused creatures, this means that
they can be caused to behave morally and ethically. And one of
the main ways we cause them to act ethically is by holding them
responsible and accountable. You say to them, “If you act
deliberately in such a way as to endanger my child, then we will
take steps to lock you up. If you hurt my child, I will hold you
responsible, so you better not.” People who are capable
of being warned in this fashion, who are capable of having their
behavior shaped by the prospect of being held responsible, are
moral agents. (That includes just about every sane, mentally competent
person over the age of 16 or so, although some kids grow up sooner
than others.) So we don’t need to be uncaused or have contra-causal
free will to be held responsible, or to be moral agents, or to
have morality. In fact, these things would be impossible if people
had the supernatural power to act independently of causes, since
they could just ignore the prospect of being held responsible
and do whatever they darn well pleased.
And by the way, even if not having free will did cause problems,
that wouldn’t change the fact that we don’t have free
will. In other words, just because you may not like the consequences
of something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. According
to naturalism, truth is independent of our desires. Fortunately,
however, not having free will doesn’t have any bad consequences,
in fact it has some rather good consequences and implications,
as we’ll see below.
Naturalism gives us self-control and leads to self-acceptance.
Q. What are the personal implications and
consequences of naturalism? What’s in it for me?
A. There are several rather important personal implications of
naturalism that make it a useful world view. First, by seeing
that you are indeed caused to be who you are and a fully physical
creature, you discover yourself fully connected to nature and
to the physical and social world around you. You discover yourself
to be completely at home in the universe, on the planet, and in
your community. This is the basis for a naturalistic spirituality,
an approach to your ultimate personal concerns that celebrates
the grandeur of the cosmos and the beauty and wonder of nature.
Second, naturalism shows that since you didn’t create yourself,
you can’t take ultimate credit for who you are in the way
traditional supernatural views of the self make possible (only
supernatural souls get to take ultimate credit). You, a natural
creature, have to give “credit” for your successes
and good deeds to all those conditions - people, places, things,
and genetics - that made you a good person. There are no longer
grounds for feeling morally superior, prideful, self-important,
arrogant, or for holding any other ego-laden attitude or belief
about yourself. Just be grateful for your good fortune.
Third, and for the same reasons, you can’t take ultimate
blame for being nasty, selfish, lazy, fearful, shy, or for any
other personal defect. Those characteristics too are fully caused
and owe their existence to a host of environmental and perhaps
genetic conditions (So go ahead and blame your parents a little.
OK, stop. They had their antecedents too, right?) Seeing that
you don’t have contra-causal free will reduces unnecessary
and counter-productive guilt and shame aimed at the self, permitting
more productive efforts to change. Remember, seeing that being
nasty or selfish are fully caused doesn’t mean you shouldn't
want to stop being nasty or selfish. We don’t lose our moral
compass in accepting naturalism.
Fourth, here’s what in it for you, although as you see,
the “you” has changed quite a bit. By understanding
that you are caused and just how you are caused to be and to act,
you gain control and power over yourself. Instead of supposing
you can just will yourself to be other than you are (stronger,
smarter, more altruistic), you understand that self-change is
a matter of particular conditions. Create the conditions first,
and then the change will follow. Even the desire to change has
its causes in conditions, so if you want to want to change, we
can arrange for that as well. Of course it’s not always
easy to discover what the right conditions are and how to create
them, but it’s a better bet than counting on willpower.
By giving up the freely willing soul, you discover your real source
of power : understanding your causality, through and through.
Naturalism can help improve interpersonal relationships.
Q. What are the implications of naturalism for my attitudes toward
others and my relationships with them?
A. Many of the implications of naturalism that apply to yourself
(see above) apply to others, and for the same reasons. Knowing
that they are fully caused to be as they are, and couldn’t
have done otherwise in the circumstances they were in, you’re
going to be much less likely to assign them ultimate credit and
blame. This means you’re less likely to hold onto feelings
of resentment, anger, and contempt should they behave badly. Not
that you won’t still feel such things, of course, since
we have the capacity for anger and resentment for good evolutionary
reasons: to get those who treat us poorly to shape up! But, instead
of hanging on to these feelings, it will be easier to let them
go in the light of the causal story of those who mistreat us.
They are not the ultimate source of behavior, so to concentrate
blame solely on them is counterproductive since it ignores all
the factors which contributed to the offense. And had you been
in their genetic and environmental shoes, you would have done
exactly the same thing. These science-based insights should help
temper feelings of anger or moral superiority, even though it
doesn’t alter the judgment that they should have acted better.
It will be easier to forgive, even though they may have wronged
All this means that your interpersonal relations might improve,
since you won’t be holding onto grudges for as long, or
wasting so much time resenting someone, or plotting to get even.
Petty arguments, should they even get that far, will remain just
that, petty, without getting out of control. You’ll be able
to grin and bear someone’s foibles, and give them polite
feedback instead of shunning or swearing at them. You won’t
of course become a saint, but your attitudes and behavior towards
others might change in a more compassionate, understanding direction
once you fully take in the fact that they, like yourself, are
fully a product of the natural unfolding of circumstances, not
first causes that are simply choosing to be nasty, lazy, or self-centered.
It’s important to emphasize that taking the naturalistic
perspective on others does not mean that you become non-judgmental
or passive in the face of abuse. Standards of right and wrong
still apply to ourselves and others and it’s important to
enforce them unequivocally. But naturalism – the appreciation
of causality – does mean that we don’t get to revel
in punishment or revenge (and we won’t want to as much),
we only do what’s necessary to protect ourselves and prevent
Finally, and this is very important, naturalism permits us to
be wiser in setting up conditions in which we behave well toward
each other in the first place. After all, since actions always
result from causes, we can learn to control those causes to our
benefit, and the benefit of others we interact with. If you have
a relationship that’s troubled, look at the situation carefully
instead of simply blaming your partner, child, co-worker, or friend.
If someone’s behaving badly, there’s a reason, a cause,
and that’s what has to be addressed. Again, this doesn’t
mean that anger and discipline are never appropriate, but that
they should be used judiciously and compassionately, if at all
Naturalism provides the basis for progressive social policies.
Q. What are the social implications of naturalism?
A. The same set of attitudes that naturalism inspires about yourself
and your immediate community extends outward to strangers and
society at large. This has an immediate, powerful effect on beliefs
about social policy. For instance, seeing that criminals are fully
caused to be as they are, it will much more difficult to support
draconian punishments such as the death penalty and harsh prison
conditions, both of which are justified by supposing that criminals
are self-made and therefore deserving of suffering. Similarly,
we can no longer suppose that the poor are poor because of a moral
failure of will, or that the rich become rich by virtue of a self-created
drive to succeed. Social status and success are fully caused outcomes
of concrete sets of conditions, not a reflection of contra-causal
free will which some choose to exercise and others don’t.
Likewise, we can see behavioral disorders such as addiction, obesity,
and mental illness as completely determined by the complex interaction
of a person’s genetics and environment. This helps to undercut
the moral stigma often associated with such conditions. After
all, you would have suffered the same fate had you been dealt
that genetic and environmental hand.
The upshot is that the naturalistic appreciation of causality
works to engender a compassionate and effective understanding
of such things as crime, social inequality, and behavioral disorders.
This understanding supports progressive policies that seek primarily
to prevent, not punish, dysfunctional behavior, and that work
to lessen the gross social inequalities that now characterize
our society, not increase them. Looking at causes instead of blaming
individuals lays the groundwork for effective interventions, and
as we become less interested in blame and recrimination, we’ll
be more likely to support such interventions.
Another important consequence of naturalism for social policy
is that we are more likely to use science, not ideology, as the
basis for action. Since we take science seriously, we will pay
more attention to well researched facts about the impact of policies.
What exactly are the causes of crime, of poverty, of global warming,
of international conflict, and how do current policies take these
causes into account, if at all?
Finally, in the educational arena, we will want to support the
public understanding of science and critical thinking, since both
of these are essential for appreciating causality in our lives.
The empirical and skeptical habits of mind – seeking evidence
for beliefs and subjecting them to critical scrutiny – are
very much to be encouraged. To the extent to which we can get
people to question non-evidence based beliefs, we can help reduce
ideological conflict and replace it with a shared commitment to
science and empiricism. People will always disagree about means
and ends, but such disagreements can be minimized if parties agree
to evaluate the real world consequences of policy options in the
light of science.
Naturalism entails a profound shift in our self-understanding,
which in turn has deep implications for both the person and society.
Q. Summing up, what’s the significance of naturalism?
A. The bottom-line significance of naturalism lies in its profound
redefinition of who we are, and the consequences of that redefinition
for ourselves personally and for society at large. We are no longer
souls that happen to have bodies; we are, instead, fully physical
creatures whose brains do everything that the soul was supposed
to do. In declaring our complete causal connection to the natural
world, naturalism shows us to be at home in the cosmos. We are
what the universe is doing here and now, and we can trace our
lineage back through the eons to the Big Bang. Seeing our natural
nature and origins, and understanding that persons and society
are unfolding causal processes, traditional beliefs about credit
and blame and success and failure are called into question, and
we become more compassionate. We become more effective as well,
since instead of supposing individuals are the ultimate source
of behavior, we take into account the actual causes of their character
and actions, whether good or bad, in our interpersonal relations
and in social policy.
Naturalism has the potential, therefore, to revolutionize our
relationship to ourselves, to others, to society and to the planet.
A deep appreciation of natural causality 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. Such
is the significance of naturalism, should we come to realize our
inherent unity with the natural order.
Back to A Guide to Naturalism
Back to top