The HPedia: Naturalism

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Naturalism is a worldview with numerous technical definitions, each with their own virtues and difficulties.  One of the oldest definitions comes from Littré’s 1875 Dictionnaire de la langue française, which defined naturalism as:

“the system of those who find all primary causes in nature” (Furst and Skrine, 1971).

Variations on this definition continues to enjoy popularity today.  Concentrating on causes, it allows analysis to focus on how people explain events, which makes it more or less portable across historical eras.  Like most all definitions of naturalism, it does not escape the question of differing concepts of nature in different eras, much less the question of the so-called supernatural, which remains problematic in Pagan contexts today.

Other popular definitions obtain, such as these from Wikipedia:

  • 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

These two are clarified by William E. Kaufman, starting with methodological naturalism:

Naturalism may be defined as “the disposition to believe that any phenomenon can be explained by appeal to general laws confirmable either by observation or by inference from observation” (CRN 21). This does not mean that everything that happens in the universe is at present explainable. Rather, naturalism represents a methodological recommendation concerning the theory of knowledge. What it suggests is that the only instruments of knowledge we possess are reason and critically analyzed experience. Claims to knowledge based on a special faculty, such as mystical intuition, must therefore be recognized as assertions of faith which cannot be verified and can only be evaluated in terms of their consequences for human conduct. The reliance on reason and critically analyzed experience is thus the method of naturalism, its logic of inquiry.

Kaufman goes on to speak of metaphysical naturalism:

Naturalism as a theory of reality, however, can be problematic because of the ambiguity of the term “nature.” For most naturalists, nevertheless, it is safe to say that “nature” signifies the totality of reality — its substance, functioning and principles of operation, since what distinguishes naturalism from other metaphysical standpoints is its claim that there is nothing beyond nature.

HP adopts only methodological naturalism as an essential tenet; metaphysical naturalism is left up to the individual to accept or reject.  This is simply and purely a statement of what HP is, not a dogmatic proclamation of what is right or wrong for all people in the universe to believe.  Those who practice HP do not invoke supernatural causes; others are free to do as they see fit.  Invoking supernatural causes is neither condoned nor condemned; it just isn’t HP.

Metaphysical naturalism (also called philosophical or onotological naturalism) is left up to the individual to accept or reject.  Some may find it questionable to believe in the existence of the supernatural while denying it any causal influence, but that is for individuals to judge for themselves (those interested may see Barbara Forrest’s treatment of the methodological-philosophical naturalism debate).  The only naturalism required for a path to be considered HP is methodological naturalism.

In HP, naturalism refers to methodological naturalism, unless otherwise specified.

Note that the definitions above rely on definitions of nature and science, which are not uncontested.

See also “Nature”, “Supernatural”, and “Science.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

7 Comments on “The HPedia: Naturalism

  1. I like the way everything is written, and I especially like how you clarified your beliefs regarding methodological naturalism. Although, I would try not to mention Wikipedia. It may be a good go-to source, but it isn’t always reliable. Maybe it’s better to have a look at a book or two that deal with the subject and then write them as references.
    The word “Wikipedia” makes my hair stick on end…professional deformation I guess, sorry 🙂

  2. A couple of problems with metaphysical naturalism as stated here are 1) to deny nature with intentional realities must ultimately insist that human intentionality is an illusion. This may be true, but it is virtually impossible to make sense of the physics of human activity without reference to intentions. A game of football, for example, is filled with interesting physics, but to understand what is going on with all that physics you have to understand that there is an intention directing the activity, which has to do with the goal of winning. At the cosmological level, we simply do not know why there is a Universe, so we simply do not know if there is an intention behind the it. As a matter of faith, we may believe there isn’t, just as others believe there is. But the fact of the matter is that the why of the universe is just a mystery.

    2) Are there really no immaterial realities? What is an idea? Yes, ideas always come to us through a material medium, but in what way does it make sense to say that the idea can be reduced to the material medium that carries it. The idea I am writing here is in a digital medium. It might as well have been in a paper and ink medium. But does the choice of material medium change the idea?

    I see no reason to think that Nature does not include both intentional and immaterial realities. The human intellect is both intentional and ideational, but is still a part of Nature.

    I have no objection to methodological naturalism, as long as it is understood that science does not, and cannot provide answers to all questions. When methodological naturalism is married to positivism, it simply becomes a kind of intellectual fascism.

    • I think what the definition of metaphysical naturalism above is trying to get at, even if it doesn’t say it clearly enough, is that the immaterial or intentional realities cannot exist by themselves. The words you write may not be reduceable to the medium, but they still need a medium of some kind, whether its in language or in brain synapses. There are no immaterial or intentional realities that exist independent of physical substrate – that’s how I understand it, at least.

      • Yes, I would agree with the line “There are no immaterial or intentional realities that exist independent of physical substrate.” But I find that many who believe in naturalism or materialism interpret that as simply meaning there are no immaterial or intentional realities. The fact that ideas and indeed information of any kind always exists as part of a physical substrate does not mean that they ARE the physical substrate, or that they can be reduced to the physical substrate. And if the interactions of ideas cannot be reduced to the interactions of the physical substrate, then at the level of physics we simply do not know anything about the interactions of ideas. I find the implications of that rather mind boggling.

        Further, we don’t really know whether “information” in its most basic sense is a fundamental property of Nature or an emergent property of Nature.

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