“What Naturalism Means to Me” by DT Strain

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.

Naturalism is one of those words that wouldn’t need to exist if it were not for its opposite: supernaturalism. Originally, nature meant “the way something is” as in, “the nature of a cat” or “the nature of a car”. The natural sciences study “the way things are” or “the nature of existence”.

The natural universe is just as we see around us. It is, quite simply, what an animal or a child would assume by operating in their environment – without any ‘high-minded philosophy’. Looking closer, it appears to be a vast tapestry of matter and energy, moving and interacting through space and time.

This tapestry is an ever-changing, impermanent, and interdependent network which has at least two major traits worth noting here: monism and natural law. These two traits connect directly to the relevance of evidence and reason respectively, for those who would navigate within it.

Monism and Evidence

Without getting too technical, there are varieties of ‘monism’. But simply put, naturalists view the universe as one integrated whole. The parts of this network are interconnected and interdependent, with nothing ‘transcending’ or ‘super’ to nature that we can see. So, it’s not that things outside Nature aren’t possible – it’s just that we simply don’t base our perspectives, principles, or practices on them.

The reason why our use of evidence is derived from interdependence is because this creates a chain of consequences for every state of being or event in a system. In other words, if something is true, or an event happens, it leaves behind results of that happening or states which might be observed and traced back through this network to its cause. Anything outside this interconnected web in which we find ourselves would not leave evidence that we could reliably use to make statements about it. So, the reason we do not include such things in our views is not necessarily because reality is limited, but because we are limited.

Natural Law and Reason

Natural Law, or the laws of physics, are really quite an astounding thing to consider. Heraclitus spoke of the Logos – that is, the underlying rational order by which the universe operates, and he said Nature’s complex transformations were like a kindling in an ever-living divine fire. Some later thinkers would associate the rational operation of the universe with a reasoning mind like ours, which played into concepts of personified deities (eventually the Christians used ‘Logos’ to mean ‘the word of God’). But it is clear to us today that the universe does operate rationally, in that its motions can be examined, understood, and described in rational ways by reasoning minds.

Buddhist causality (see pratityasamutpada or dependent origination) also describes how events take place in the world because of prior causes. This may seem a rudimentary statement to us today, but in ancient times when so much was not understood about nature, this was an impressive and crucial achievement. People didn’t need to fear that a storm or illness was because they were displeasing the gods or spirits. Neither did people need to think that their lot was entirely up to chance.

The fact that things happen for a reason and because of causes means that we can work to understand those causes and take action to change them. Centuries before the beginning of the Enlightenment, these concepts would open the door to the use of reason to solve problems. This is why our use of reason derives from the fact that the universe operates in predictable, understandable ways.

When people talk about the supernatural, what they are proposing are other network which has some other kind of substance, causality, or rules. It is often described as being a superset within which nature is contained. Such a realm, by definition, would be a dualistic model where the causality links flowing between them would be cut off. This would mean such claims are inherently unapproachable or unverifiable by reason and evidence. We could never make a claims (for or against) such a thing while keeping strictly to a naturalistic approach to knowledge.

However, within these alleged models, there are said to be ways the supernatural realm can pierce into this one which, from the point of view of the natural universe, would create effects without (natural) causes. These are the visitations, revelations, miracles, etc. These claims are different from the basic claim of the mere existence of some kind of supernatural realm or phenomena. In this claim such intrusions should indeed leave natural evidence that can be investigated. Many people have rigorously investigated all manner of these kinds of claims for centuries and there has yet to be a single piece of evidence that meets scientific standards which shows any supernatural claim to be true.

When supernatualists say “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” they are absolutely correct in strict logical terms. There could always be some supernatural phenomena which doesn’t leave evidence or for which evidence simply hasn’t been found. While there are often claims that the supernatural can pierce into the natural realm, there doesn’t seem to be a reliably repeatable and testable means (even claimed) for the natural to pierce into the supernatural realm. This means that all such alleged miracles are spontaneous and unpredictable events of a kind that would be difficult to prove even were they purely natural happenings. For example, some entity offering a demonstration to one or a few people and then never heard from again.

Yet, the mere possibility of a thing does not make it rational to assume the actuality of a thing. There are many possible stories that can fit a few facts and many of them contradict one another. Therefore, naturalists choose to take the humble path and not make claims that cannot be backed by physical evidence. What’s more, Occam’s Razor demands that the explanation with the fewest assumptions are preferred, and this means that extraordinary claims (with many assumptions) require extraordinary evidence. While supernaturalists may quibble over the idea that no evidence exists for the supernatural, they certainly cannot claim that extraordinary evidence exists for it – otherwise there would be little debate. And, for a claim that questions the very foundations of reality and proposes whole new systems beyond the natural observable universe, extraordinary evidence is what should be required by any reasonable mind.

We cannot know that all the claims of supernaturalists are false, but we don’t need to know that to be naturalists. What we do know, as certainly as any human can know something, is that the claims are not rational to make.

Fortunately, a purely naturalistic worldview need not be nihilistic or meaningless. We have found ourselves in a vast and amazing cosmos full of more wonders than we can hope to fully access in our lifetimes. We have incredible tools of understanding and appreciation for these wonders. And, most of all, we have one another – the possibility of loving our fellow human beings and meeting the challenge to help make the world a better place. We are the meaning-makers and, as Carl Sagan said, a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Those who are also Spiritual Naturalists look to practices which cultivate within themselves qualities which aim to expand their awareness beyond small egotistical concerns, toward this kind of larger cosmic perspective. We take on awareness of the limitations and imperfections of knowledge as a spiritual practice of humility in making claims. We choose to focus instead on compassion, kindness, mindfulness, and understanding for all. And, to the degree we do this, we find the sting of mortality less and less potent; in its place: greater joy and peace.

With love and thanks,

Daniel Strain
Executive Director
The Spiritual Naturalist Society

About the Author

DT Strain is a Humanist Minister, certified by the American Humanist Association (AHA) and a Spiritual Naturalist. He is the founder and director of the Spiritual Naturalist Society.

Rev. Strain speaks and writes on a wide variety of philosophic concepts and participates in several organizations. His “Humanist Contemplative” group and concept has since helped inspire a similar group at Harvard University. He is former president of the Humanists of Houston (HOH), and has served as vice-chair on the Executive Council of AHA’s Chapter Assembly, on the Education Committee of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center, and as a member of the Stoic Council at New Stoa.

His writing appears in the Houston Chronicle and has been published in magazines, newsletters, and in the AHA national publication “Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism”. He has been a guest speaker on the Philosophy of Religion panel discussion at San Jacinto College, and has appeared on the Houston PBS television program, The Connection, discussing religious belief and non-belief. DT Strain is an enthusiast of Stoicism, Buddhism, and other ancient philosophies; seeking to supplement modern scientific and humanistic values with these practices. His essays and blog can be found at www.HumanistContemplative.org.

See DT Strain’s Posts



6 Comments on ““What Naturalism Means to Me” by DT Strain

  1. Daniel, I reject your claim that, “We could never make a claims (for or against) such a thing [as the supernatural] while keeping strictly to a naturalistic approach to knowledge.” I think you mistake methodological naturalism for philosophical naturalism, sometimes also called metaphysical naturalism. As professor Kai Nielson states, “Naturalism denies that there are any spiritual or supernatural realities” (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion 1997, 402). This is a claim “against” the supernatural. In fact, according to Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, “the rejection of theism” is what “unites naturalists of whatever sort, strict or broad” (Naturalism 2008, 8). It is methodological naturalism, used by scientists, that brackets the supernatural claims and doesn’t deal with them. This is not what philosophers mean when they say they are naturalists. As Sean Carroll explains, naturalism holds that “there is only one world, the natural world…. There is no separate realm of the supernatural, spiritual, or divine….” (The Big Picture 2016, 11).

    Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines naturalism as, “the belief that the natural world, as explained by scientific laws, is all that exists and that there is no supernatural or spiritual creation, control, or significance.” My own definition is, “Naturalism is the conclusion, based on the evidence, that the natural world is a closed system and that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws.” You will notice I don’t explicitly say there is no supernatural, but that follows from “the natural world is a closed system.” In fact, I think the one thing all naturalists can agree on is that naturalism negates the supernatural. The opposite of naturalism is supernaturalism, and to accept naturalism is to reject supernaturalism.

    Other naturalists agree with me. As Mario Bunge states, “Naturalism is the view that the universe and nature are the same, so that there is nothing supernatural” (The Future of Naturalism 2009, 43). John R. Shook and Paul Kurtz states, ontological naturalism asserts “that only the world of nature is real and that supernatural entities do not exist…” (The Future of Naturalism 2009, 8). Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro states, “Naturalism – very roughly – may be defined as the philosophy that everything that exists is part of nature and that there is no reality beyond or outside of nature” (Naturalism 2008, 6). Thomas W. Clark states, “naturalism…holds that there is a single, natural, physical world in which we are completely included. There isn’t a separate supernatural or immaterial realm and there’s nothing supernatural or immaterial about us” (Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses 2007, 1).

    Furthermore, according to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The self-proclaimed “naturalists” from that period included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars. These philosophers aimed to ally philosophy more closely with science. They urged that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing “supernatural”, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality…. The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject “supernatural” entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the “human spirit.” It appears that my position is the majority position.

    • Hi Jay! Thanks for the comments 🙂

      “You will notice I don’t explicitly say there is no supernatural…”

      Why do you not explicitly say it? Seems we are the same there.

      “…to accept naturalism is to reject supernaturalism.”

      True. Supernaturalism is not the belief that the supernatural is possible – it is the belief that the supernatural exists. As such, I easily and firmly reject supernaturalism.

      If someone admitting that there could in principle be phenomena which are outside of Nature and undetectable means they are not a naturalist, then Richard Dawkins is not a naturalist. Indeed almost any of the prominent atheists would not be naturalists, and that seems a bizarre conclusion.

      Admitting something is possible in principle does not mean one gives it such serious consideration that they base elements of their life upon it. I do not know there isn’t an assassin waiting in my attic until I go to sleep, but I will do so tonight without checking my attic because I have no reason to act as though something is true without evidence. This is why we can say with confidence that traditional theists are wrong – they are wrong to hold an irrational belief (whether or not they turned out correct by mere happenstance).

      While philosophers vary in the details of their naturalistic approaches, I find the scientific approach to be suitable for personal living as well. Extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence are simply ignored. No reason to make extraordinary claims to the contrary.

      Or, to put it in Huxley’s terms, statements that cannot be proved or disproved empirically in principle are not true or false, they are simply nonsensical statements.


  2. Don’t confuse claims of what is possible for claims about what is probably true in the real world. A belief that is rejected in action is being treated, thereby, as false. A claim that can’t be lived fails the pragmatic test of truth, and thereby is false. Something can be possible and still be probably false. The truthfulness of a claim is based on evidence not on its possibility. Just about anything is possible, but I am not going to waste my time looking for pink unicorns.

    • “Don’t confuse claims of what is possible for claims about what is probably true in the real world.”

      I don’t recall writing that the supernatural was “probably true” or that we should waste time looking for it. The emphasis of my article is that the supernatural may be true in principle (as it is by definition un-falsifiable. That’s part of why it’s unscientific), but we have no reason to suspect it and no reason to pay any attention to it in our life or practice.

      “Just about anything is possible, but I am not going to waste my time looking for pink unicorns.”

      Your sentence here is about the best summary of the article I can imagine Jay.

      This is why I stated in the article:
      “There could always be some supernatural phenomena which doesn’t leave evidence or for which evidence simply hasn’t been found… Yet, the mere possibility of a thing does not make it rational to assume the actuality of a thing.”


      “Occam’s Razor demands that the explanation with the fewest assumptions are preferred…”

      That means we prefer the naturalist position as the default assumption.

      Again you have paraphrased my thesis perfectly, and then proposed that we disagree or that you reject it. Perhaps there is a particular line in the article that you’re reading in some way I hadn’t intended? I am not always perfect at communicating so I would be happy to clarify or correct any such lines if you’d like to quote them specifically. Thanks much friend 🙂

      • You misunderstood me when I wrote, “Don’t confuse claims of what is possible [the supernatural] for claims about what is probably true in the real world.” The possible and the probable are not on equal footing.

        The supernatural is as improbable as pink elephants. Now it is possible that pink elephants exist, but we just haven’t seen any yet. It is also possible that pink elephants exist on another planet is another galaxy. But we have no reason to believe that pink elephants exist. But what would you think about a zoologists who, whenever he talks about elephants, he keeps bringing up the idea of the possible existence of pink elephants. It would seem strange, wouldn’t it. You would think he is taking the idea of pink elephants too serious.

        You said, “The emphasis of my article is that the supernatural may be true in principle….” Yes, and pink elephants may be true in principle. So may the Loch Ness Monster, UFO’s, the Matrix, or that you are just a brain in a vat. At least we have pictures of the Loch Ness Monster and UFO’s.

        “There could always be some supernatural phenomena which doesn’t leave evidence or for which evidence simply hasn’t been found.” But why bring this up? To use Carl Sagan’s example, there could always be an invisible dragon in my garage which doesn’t leave evidence or for which evidence simply hasn’t been found. “Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless,” Carl Sagan rightly concludes.

        It is possible that your position has changed since out last exchange on my website. Please understand that I am reading this in the context of the whole of our exchanges.

        • Hi Jay 🙂

          My views on all of this have not changed for several years now. I and Carl Sagan both conclude precisely the same. Perhaps you may have a problem with Sagan bringing up invisible elephants? In this article I, like him, go on to conclude that such claims have no evidence and are irrational (and therefore, as he put it worthless).

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