“Getting to Naturalism the Long Way Around” by Christopher Stanley

With the new year, we are starting a new series called, “What Naturalism Means to Me”.  It is an opportunity for our readers, like you, to share what Naturalism means for you.  We are looking for essays between 1000-3000 words.  Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism[at]gmail[dot]com.

What “naturalism” means to me is kind of complicated.  Well, except that it’s not.  It’s actually very simple.  But its simplicity is deeply obfuscated by most of the ways that we think about things.  So much so that I often have a hard time thinking about it clearly myself.  So before I can meaningfully tell you what naturalism means to me, we’ll need to take a look at just what we mean by “nature” to begin with.

So.  “What is nature?”  It seems a simple enough question.  We look at the nearest forest or grassland and say “this”.  And if we’re inclined to analyze a little further, we might look back at the buildings and cars we came from and say “not that”.  Obvious, right?  Maybe not.

I wrestle with two major conundrums that arise when using that seemingly common-sense notion of nature.  The first is recognized somewhat commonly among environmentalists and pagans.  The second is far more esoteric, but also far more interesting.  But first things first.

The first trouble with the “this, not that” definition of nature is that it’s actually a very tidy encapsulation of our problematic relationship with the “natural” world.  Most folks in mainstream culture would say that the problem is that we’ve become disconnected from nature and that the natural world is disappearing.  But that’s not the case at all.  In a way, the real problem is exactly that we think that.

The problem is not that we are disconnected from nature.  The problem is that we believe that we are disconnected from nature.  We perceive ourselves as separate from it.  Typically, separate and above it.  But even for those who see us beside or even below it, most still experience humans and our creations as fundamentally separate from nature.  But we aren’t separate.  Indeed, it’s not even possible to be so.

There is no boundary where the “natural world” stops and human stuff begins.  Because to imagine such a boundary requires that one first imagine that humans aren’t part of nature.  But we arise from, are bound with, and return to this world just as much as any other creature.  We are just as natural as anything else.  Certainly, we have our distinctive qualities (for better and for worse).  But so does every other manner of being.  We can’t opt out of nature any more than we can opt out of physics.

So if we back away from “this, not that”, we find that the whole notion of a “natural world” doesn’t really make any sense.  That concept is only meaningful while we’re dividing things into nature and culture, civilization and wilderness.  If we stop superimposing fictional divisions, we’re left with simply… the world.  In its true wholeness, with us fully included, the world is simply what is.  Trees and buildings.  Animals and cars.  Mountains and humans.  It’s all the same world.

In the same sense, the “natural” world can’t be going away.  The world is every bit as much here as it ever was.  It’s only the aspects of the world we’re still willing to acknowledge as natural that we’re running out of.  We’re not experiencing a shortage of “natural resources”.  We’re experiencing a shortage of perceiving ourselves and our creations as natural.  Perhaps because if we allowed the reality to sink in, we’d be too horrified to continue…

Now that I’ve cosmologically reunited us with the home we never actually left, we come to the second problem with the “this, not that” idea of nature.  This one is much trickier.  This is also a problem of perception.  And like the first problem, it’s not so much a problem in how we perceive.  It’s a problem in how we believe that we perceive.  In short, the problem is that we believe that we experience the world.  At all.

More specifically, we believe that we experience the the world as it “really” is, independent of our perception of it.  That there is an objective reality “out there”.  And that the job of our mind is to take in information about this “real” world and create a subjective representation of it “in here”.  A personalized and imperfect representation to be sure, but one that is more or less accurate.  And that the more accurate our representation, the better we understand the real world.  Makes sense, right?  The trouble is that all of that is entirely wrong.

The best model of experience that I’ve found is called the Interface Theory of Perception.  It was developed by Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist with University of California.*  In his research, Hoffman discovered that evolution does not favor accuracy of perception.  Just as it does in everything else, evolution instead favors usefulness and efficiency.  He found that attempting to create an accurate simulation of our entire environment inside our mind would be hugely wasteful.  We’ve never needed a real understanding of what’s going on around us.  Which is why we don’t have one.

Our actual needs are pretty simple.  We need things like food, mates, and safety.  And it turns out that we can get all those things very reliably without anything so cumbersome as “accuracy”.  Indeed, we can get all of those things far more effectively with an entirely different different approach to perception.  Hoffman calls it an “interface”.

He likens our perceptual interface to the interface we use on a computer.  We look at a screen and see text, icons, and so forth and we use the computer just fine.  But those things bear no resemblance whatsoever to the underlying reality of the computer.  An accurate perception of the computer involves flows of electrons and magnetized particles moving in incomprehensibly fast and tiny patterns.  But that inaccuracy doesn’t make the interface “wrong”.  It was never the purpose of the interface to be “right”.  Its purpose is to provide a means of usefully engaging something that is vastly beyond us.  So while it isn’t literally correct, to the extent that it fulfills its purpose we can call it meaningfully true.  It is true precisely because it isn’t accurate.

Humans experience the world in just the same way.  We experience trees and cars and buildings and mountains.  And all of those things are meaningfully true.  But none of them are literally correct.  The world as it genuinely is is vastly beyond us.  All we have is interface.  Our trees and buildings are much like icons on a screen.  They do not represent a literally accurate sense of the world.  Instead, they do something much better.  They make an otherwise impossibly large and complex world relatively easy to live in.

Though in a more organic context, “interface” is a limiting term.  Luckily, eighteenth-century philosophers unintentionally gave us a much better word: sentience.  In this context, sentience is the intertwined combination of our physical sensations and core emotions.  (As distinct from reason.  They made the distinction to poo-poo “irrational” sentience; turns out the joke’s on them.)  So we do not fundamentally approach nature in objective understanding.  We inhabit nature in sentient relationship.

We are small creatures in a big world.  We can only see human sights and we can only think human thoughts.  So when I ask myself “What is nature?”, I do not imagine that I am asking about the world in its wholeness.  I know that I am asking something more like “What is the nature of the relationship between humans and world?”.  And even then I know that the answers I find can’t be usefully measured by any notion of “accuracy”.  Because my answers aren’t about the world itself, they’re about our sentience within it.  So instead I search for what seems meaningfully true.

And just because we can’t possess some god-like understanding of the world in itself, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have firm ground to stand upon.  As a species, humans share one great sentience.  With few variations, we all share basically the same types of sensations and emotions.  And we all share exactly the same world that we are sentient within.  So there is one great, unifying truth available to us.  All humans have shared it for millions of years and continue to do so.  We’ve just gotten confused and sort of misplaced it for a while.

(For a truly revelatory exploration of the nature of our sentience, I urge you to read The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.  In all seriousness, I consider it to be the most important book in the English language.)

You can see the same sort of error of interpretation in both the idea of nature vs culture and the accuracy notion of perception.  Both of them place a fundamental division between humans and everything that isn’t human.  Both separate the world into us and not-us, making everything essentially unrelated.  Even dividing us within ourselves.  Subjects observing objects.  Minds inhabiting bodies.  People consuming resources.  This, not that.  All fictions.

So, after fifteen hundred words of tangent, what is naturalism to me?  Naturalism is a perspective that seeks to correct that error of interpretation.  It seeks to pull away the countless layers of separatist story we began cultivating some ten thousand years ago along with our first crops.  It seeks to restore a conscious experience of our sentient relationship with the world.  And in doing so, also return us to a lived awareness of the true beauty, mystery, and sacredness of the world that is our birthright.

But we’ve spent hundreds of generations hiding our sentience from ourselves, so recovering it is no small task.  It seems likely to me that genuine rediscovery will be an undertaking that also spans generations.  Even as I so carefully articulate these thoughts about it, I’m keenly aware that that is all they are: thoughts.  Ideas.  More story.  The true thing, the real thing, can’t be written down.  It can’t be spoken or thought.  It can only be experienced.  It can only be lived in sentient relationship.  It already is being lived in sentient relationship.  Always has been, always will be.  We just have to notice it again.

* http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/interface.pdf

It’s worth noting that Hoffman comes from a very “scientism” perspective and interprets his research through that lens.  I find that his results completely upend the whole notion of empiricism, and takes down scientism right along with it.  So my interpretation of his work varies somewhat from his own.

About the Author

Possessed of unusual stimuli, Christopher’s life has been rather more interesting than he might have preferred.  But the drive to understand his experience fueled a thirty-year journey that led him a merry chase down many a rabbit hole.  At last finding himself to have always been home, he now nests in the Southern Appalachians and contemplates curiosities he found along the way.

6 Comments on ““Getting to Naturalism the Long Way Around” by Christopher Stanley

  1. Excellent expose of what Daniel Quinn calls the old story. The only mistake I see is the characterization of wilderness vs civilization as a fictional division. Both are parts of nature and there is no sharp edge between the two. No place is purely wilderness or purely civilization. Never-the-less, it is still a useful distinction just as land and sea are a useful distinction.

    • If we got into my deeper philosophy, I’d have a lot to say about how civilization doesn’t actually exist at all. It’s a sort of collective hallucination. Just a story that we’ve told each other and inscribed upon our artifacts so loudly and so long that we’ve forgotten that it’s a story. But that would be a much, much longer essay. 🙂

  2. So if I understand you correctly, you mean to say that there is an objective reality, but that our human perceptions of it are inherently flawed, and that therefore the only kind of true experience is subjective, or sentience.

    If so, our naturalisms are strikingly different! While I acknowledge that human perception is incomplete and subject to error, my naturalism is rooted in the idea that my sensory perceptions of the world and objective methods, such as the scientific method, are generally reliable.

    How would you define wisdom in your approach?

    The goal of my naturalistic pagan practice is to harmonize my sentience or subjective experience with objective reality and reason. For me, wisdom is living in harmony with reality.

    I’m already loving this community writing prompt! Big thanks to the editors.

    • I mean to say that notions like objective and subjective aren’t meaningful concepts. There is a “really real” world that we all live in, but what it is “in itself” is permanent mystery to us. We can’t comprehend it any more than an electron can comprehend the cosmos.

      So I’m proposing that we remove concepts like accurate or flawed from the picture entirely. Instead, truth is found in the commonality of our core sentience as a species. A sentience that is intrinsically relational with everything that is non-human.

      For me, wisdom is found in searching for what is shared. Take any proposed idea. If I could speak to a stone, a bird, or the wind, could I readily imagine them understanding it? If not, it’s most likely just a story that only exists in the human mind. Which is to say that it doesn’t really exist at all.

      But if I can easily imagine all of the more-than-human world understanding it, then the story might be true.

  3. I’ve been reading some essays by Rupert Spira on nonduality and the “consciousness-only model,” and I’ve been wondering how this squares with my naturalistic worldview. Your essays seems to suggest some points of intersection. Not to say that y’all agree with one another! But you’ve given me plenty to think about, and one more nudge to pick up Abram next. So, many thanks.

  4. Christopher, thank you. I like your reminder that at our primary level we live beneath our language and perceptions in a flow of raw sentience in which everything, even this computer, belongs to nature. Still, I’m reluctant to minimize the value of any language that can help us talk to each other about at least some important topics. “Naturalism” has labeled cultural shifts over the last two centuries towards realism and away from fantasy in not only the arts but also religion. And “nature” is a multifaceted word—with meanings that include essential qualities (human nature), birth and creation (Mother Nature), the world outside civilization (back to nature) and more. But words are no more consistent or effective than our use of them. And if, as you say, the true thing can’t be thought, spoken, or written, we can appreciate for their own sake the words that do enable us to think and talk to each other.

    Brock Haussamen

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