What does naturalism mean to you?

Thing on Thursday #3

Akk!  Sheesh.  This Thing on Thursday has become a Thing on Friday.  Sorry for the delay.  Work obligations got the better of me.  But better late than never.  Join us for this week’s belated council.

One of the top values from last week’s poll was naturalism.  But naturalism has many meanings. Wikipedia lists some fourteen disambiguations for the word.

Of those fourteen, two of the most relevant are quoted as follows:

  • Methodological naturalism, naturalism that holds that science is to be done without reference to supernatural causes; also refers to a methodological assumption in the philosophy of religion that observable events are fully explainable by natural causes without reference to the supernatural
  • Metaphysical naturalism, a form of naturalism that holds that the cosmos consists only of objects studied by the natural sciences, and does not include any immaterial or intentional realities

Which one do you mean when you say naturalism is important for us?  Do you mean it’s important as a method of discovering our world?  Or do you mean that nothing else exists besides observable nature?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W.G. CollingwoodThis post is part of a series of councils on matters vital to the future.  The name represents both the generic term for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.

Each week until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday will explore a new controversy.  Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better.  Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word.  We value all constructive opinions.

There are only a few rules:

  • be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
  • be respectful – no rants or flames

Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.  This will also greatly shape the vision that unfolds in our upcoming ebook Our Ancient Future: Visions of Humanistic Paganism.

So please make your voice heard in the comments!

28 Comments on “What does naturalism mean to you?

  1. If I had to choose one, it would be Methodological Naturalism. But couldn’t really be bothered to go to specifics as I see Naturalism as enough to discern that there is no supernatural elements in this path, and that Nature has a prominent place in it.

    • >I see Naturalism as enough to discern that there is no supernatural elements in this path, and that Nature has a prominent place in it.

      Fair enough. For my part, I go to specifics partly because naturalism can mean different things to different people. Some would place things that appear blatantly supernatural to others wholly in the realm of the natural.

      I’m gonna pick on Pagans here only because I know them best, but other traditions make some convoluted arguments too. Many Pagans claim their literal gods and magic function within the realm of nature, i.e. they are not supernatural. Some of the supporting arguments: 1) the gods are considered to emerge from nature, not stand outside it, so they cannot be super-natural; 2) gods and magic are an undiscovered science that will eventually be proven by quantum physics or other leading-edge research (so the argument goes), so they are natural. This starts to make what might be considered supernatural in any other tradition look natural.

      That’s why I see the specific meaning of naturalism as important.

  2. I picked neither, because neither of these two definitions seems quite right. Most people who hold one of these views also hold the other, as in “Only materialistic objects/energy can and do exist (metaphysical naturalism) and therefore only theories which posit materialistic causes are acceptable/valid (methodological naturalism)”. This approach to naturalism treats naturalism like a “faith” statement, as an a prior belief system to which all observations must be made to conform.

    My own style of naturalism is much more agnostic. To me naturalism is a position which places value and emphasis on this world and therefore seeks to the best of our ability to understand the true nature of our world. Supernatural/paranormal claims are alternative hypotheses which should be evaluated and judged using the same principles of science.

    • Interesting. My personal opinion is described almost perfectly by your second paragraph, and I do describe myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. Doesn’t your last sentence imply methodological naturalism, though? How can any hypothesis be evaluated scientifically using evidence that is beyond observable nature, i.e. supernatural?

  3. I also voted neither. I actually have no objection to the definition of methodological naturalism as written, but I have a very strong objection to the notion that scientific method, even in principle, is capable or knowing or explaining everything in the world. Science, for instance, has been no less successful than metaphysics or religion in finding a definition of truth that is worthy of universal assent.

    As to the second definition, it seems rather absurd to me. The theories of science and indeed the idea of naturalism itself are immaterial entities. A person might object that the ideas exist in words or other symbols and these are material, but this is incorrect. The ideas do not exist in the words, they only exist in minds (should all intelligent life disappear, all ideas will disappear also, though the libraries go on existing). As to intentionally, it is certainly a part of reality. Science is an intentional activity. My writing this post is an intentional activity. Human intentionality is an emergent property of the biosphere.

    My definition of naturalism is simply that there are no causes in the world totally void of physicality. Though I believe that such things as ideas and values are non-physical, they can never exist apart from some form of physical medium. The same idea might exist in digital code, words, sound waves, or some neurological coding. The idea is something more than each and every such physical medium; it cannot be reduced to the physical medium, but it also cannot exist for even an instance apart from some physical medium. It is only through the physical medium that ideas can act as causes in the world.

    I intentionally titled my new blog on Naturalistic Spirituality “The Golden Hive of the Invisible,” to highlight that spirituality transmutes the pollen of the visible into the honey of the invisible, i.e. ideas, dreams, values, the very experience of being.


    • I agree that scientific method is incapable of knowing or explaining everything in the world. There are some things that are just not conducive to experimentation, falsifiable hypotheses, etc. For those things, in what sense can we know them? For me, what is not verifiable by scientific method goes in the “unknown” category. It is a place of mystery and intuition, of possibility and potential, but not of knowledge.

      I also agree that the second one, metaphysical naturalism, is not tenable. To me, the statement that the physical observable universe is all there is unfounded. You can’t prove something doesn’t exist. It can always exist but beyond current means of detection. So, I actually see a conflict between the two definitions. The second is unsupported by the scientific method of the first.

      I see methodological naturalism as a practice, and metaphysical naturalism as a dogma. Am I way off? Anyone disagree?

      • Hmm. I feel way out of my depth here, but nonetheless I’ll venture that metaphysical naturalism need not be dogmatic. Sure, it looks that way in this brief definition, but it’s easy for me to imagine a slightly more nuanced approach that’s essentially the same thing. Ideas and so forth can still be accounted for via supervenience. I think the notion of supervenience gets at what Thomas means by “no causes… totally void of physicality.” And I gather supervenience is compatible with metaphysical naturalism.

        • Thanks for introducing the concept of supervenience. That may be quite useful. I gather that the wikipedia definition of metaphysical naturalism is not phrased as carefully as it could be.

      • Brandon, you write: “For those things, in what sense can we know them? For me, what is not verifiable by scientific method goes in the “unknown” category. It is a place of mystery and intuition, of possibility and potential, but not of knowledge.”

        There was a very interesting exchange on the blogs of the New York Times recently about this idea of knowledge. A writer, in support of naturalism, made the claim that literary criticism, amongst other things, did not qualify as knowledge. Another writer, took this to task by describing just how much knowing is to be found in a book like “Don Quixote.”

        To me, knowledge constitutes whatever a person wants to know. If a person wants to know what “Hamlet” is all about, they can gain a great deal of knowledge about this from reading literary criticism. Such works can increase our understanding, though they never constitute the final word. But then a scientific theory seldom constitutes the final word either. There is not only the chance, but the probability, that in the future someone will find a more comprehensive understanding of any theory.


        • Very true. I wish there was a good term to denote these different kinds of knowing, which are not without a lot of overlap but can involve very different conditions, factors, and avenues to discovery of knowledge.

        • I think the terms that have been used for centuries are fine, i.e. physical science, life science, social science, humanities (and all its subdivisions), etc. The key is to use the right method for the question posed. Literary criticism would be a lousy method for studying cell metabolism, but molecular biology is a lousy method for the question of what Shakespeare is attempting to say in Hamlet. Metaphysics is a lousy method for studying questions that can be addressed empirically, but is the best method available for studying certain kinds of questions that cannot be so addressed.

          The positivist tried to dictate for us what is to be considered sensible questions and true knowledge — but really, they were imposing as a principle what was really a mere prejudice. And that is exactly the what makes religion and ideology so troublesome: claiming as principle what is only prejudice.

          There are some who treat naturalism as a form of ideology or even worse as a form of dogma. Perhaps this is a knee jerk reaction to the ideology and dogma of religion. Naturalism should serve as an inoculation to ideology and dogmatism, not become one (which is a bad metaphor, because an inoculation usually is of weakened for of the disease, but it’s Monday morning and that’s the best I can do).


        • >Naturalism should serve as an inoculation to ideology and dogmatism, not become one

          Hear, hear. That’s why I favor naturalism as a method rather than as a metaphysics.

        • *long whistle* Very excellent points good sir. This leaves me much to think about. Thank you for sharing this fascinating insight on ‘knowing’ and approaches to knowing. I also agree to your statement of Naturalism being a way to avoid and dismantle ideology and dogmatism.

    • Good point what you say about intentionality. I’m really not sure what the wikipedia definition means by no “intentional realities.” I can only figure that it might mean some kind of free will which is not related to material causes or causes without a material correlate. Likewise, no “immaterial realities” might mean something which has no material correlate. Your definition of naturalism brings that into much clearer light.

      P.S. Looking forward to the new blog!

  4. I think you are right. The statement “Supernatural/paranormal claims are alternative hypotheses which should be evaluated and judged using the same principles of science.” is a statement of methodological naturalism, but it is a different sort from what you defined (“naturalism that holds that science is to be done without reference to supernatural causes”) because in my view a hypothesis may included supernatural causes.

    Regarding your question “How can any hypothesis be evaluated scientifically using evidence that is beyond observable nature, i.e. supernatural?”, it is not the evidence that is supernatural (unobservable), but the explanation of the evidence. A good example of a scientific approach to the study of the supernatural is the work of Jim B. Tucker as presented in his book “Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives.”

    • Read your article, and all I could think was, “why bother with deities anyway?” I just see no attraction to it myself. Not only deities but magic and ghosts etc. too. *shrugs* I get enough from just learning about and experiencing Nature without any of this added stuff.

      I did like your article and how you presented yourself though.

      • Especially the frontier of science part. On how there are people suggesting that it is on the brink of being known to science, then they should go out and do it. Otherwise the point is nullified.

      • >“why bother with deities anyway?” I just see no attraction to it myself.

        Rua, have you read any of these authors: Ursula Goodenough, Chet Raymo, Jerome Stone, Loyal Rue, or Michael Hogue? These are all folks who are constellating a kind of spiritual naturalism that doesn’t bother with god-talk or mythology, but affirms that “nature is enough” to fulfill all our spiritual needs. That sounds right up your alley.

  5. I chose Methodological Naturalism because it best defines my personal approach. However, I’m more on the atheistic side than agnostic, which is why it fits me so well. I could see where it might not be right for everyone’s viewpoint.

    Here’s my personal input on why:

    If something unknown, or seemingly “supernatural” happens, and the scientific method cannot possibly apply, my approach is to note it and move on. Personally, I feel like if I began dwelling on such an event it could amplify and distort what may have/have not actually have deeper meaning beyond my own inner conscious/subconscious. This opens the flood gates for finding meanings in external occurrences that aren’t logical. If I began to do this, I would be moving away from a naturalistic world-view and into something entirely different. (I want to emphasize “external” here. Looking internally is a very natural type of observance and doesn’t apply to discussions pertaining to the supernatural for me.)

    I do acknowledge that there are “unknowns” which are not approachable with the scientific method, but that doesn’t affect my approach to my spirituality. When looking at the definition for methodological naturalism, we see the use of the word “observable”. Most seemingly supernatural occurrences aren’t observable in my experience of discussing such events with others. Often times, I just give a good “huh” and move on. Not that I ignore anything that fails to fit into a scientific explanation, or even entirely disbelieve them. I just find there to be risk in exploring and striving for meaning/explanations that may or may not be there. I guess it’s also a possibility that there simply haven’t been enough “unknowns” in my life to necessitate a different approach – but regardless, that’s how I see it.

    Again, this is just my view – I like all the well thought out comments I’ve seen. There are some great ideas flowing around here!

    …boy, that ended up being longer than I intended.

    • Wanted to add… I don’t agree with metaphysical naturalism because I do think there is more to it than “… this reality we can see, touch and measure”. Although, the “more to it” I mention is still natural. Sheesh, this is a lot to think about.

    • Your explanation is precisely how I feel on the matter. Being more atheistic than agnostic as well.

  6. Pingback: What transcends you? « Humanistic Paganism

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