Naturalism (philosophy)

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In philosophy, naturalism is the "idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world." [1] Adherents of naturalism (i.e., naturalists) assert that natural laws are the rules that govern the structure and behavior of the natural universe, that the changing universe at every stage is a product of these laws. [2]


"Naturalism can intuitively be separated into an ontological and a methodological component," argues David Papineau. [3] "Ontological" refers to the philosophical study of the nature of being. Some philosophers equate naturalism with materialism. For example, philosopher Paul Kurtz argues that nature is best accounted for by reference to material principles. These principles include mass, energy, and other physical and chemical properties accepted by the scientific community. Further, this sense of naturalism holds that spirits, deities, and ghosts are not real and that there is no "purpose" in nature. Such an absolute belief in naturalism is commonly referred to as metaphysical naturalism . [4]

Assuming naturalism in working methods as the current paradigm, without the further consideration of naturalism as an absolute truth with philosophical entailment, is called methodological naturalism . [5] The subject matter here is a philosophy of acquiring knowledge based on an assumed paradigm.

With the exception of pantheists—who believe that Nature is identical with divinity while not recognizing a distinct personal anthropomorphic god—theists challenge the idea that nature contains all of reality. According to some theists, natural laws may be viewed as so-called secondary causes of God(s).

In the 20th century, Willard Van Orman Quine, George Santayana, and other philosophers argued that the success of naturalism in science meant that scientific methods should also be used in philosophy. Science and philosophy are said to form a continuum, according to this view.

Origins and history

The current usage of the term naturalism "derives from debates in America in the first half of the last century. The self-proclaimed 'naturalists' from that period included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars." [6]

Currently, metaphysical naturalism is more widely embraced than in previous centuries, especially but not exclusively in the natural sciences and the Anglo-American, analytic philosophical communities. While the vast majority of the population of the world remains firmly committed to non-naturalistic worldviews, prominent contemporary defenders of naturalism and/or naturalistic theses and doctrines today include J. J. C. Smart, David Malet Armstrong, David Papineau, Paul Kurtz, Brian Leiter, Daniel Dennett, Michael Devitt, Fred Dretske, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Mario Bunge, Jonathan Schaffer, Hilary Kornblith, Quentin Smith, Paul Draper and Michael Martin, among many other academic philosophers.[ citation needed ]

According to David Papineau, contemporary naturalism is a consequence of the build-up of scientific evidence during the twentieth century for the "causal closure of the physical", the doctrine that all physical effects can be accounted for by physical causes. [7]


The term "methodological naturalism" is much more recent though. According to Ronald Numbers, it was coined in 1983 by Paul de Vries, a Wheaton College philosopher. De Vries distinguished between what he called "methodological naturalism," a disciplinary method that says nothing about God's existence, and "metaphysical naturalism," which "denies the existence of a transcendent God." [8] The term "methodological naturalism" had been used in 1937 by Edgar S. Brightman in an article in The Philosophical Review as a contrast to "naturalism" in general, but there the idea was not really developed to its more recent distinctions. [9]


According to Steven Schafersman, naturalism is a philosophy that maintains that;

  1. "Nature encompasses all that exists throughout space and time;
  2. Nature (the universe or cosmos) consists only of natural elements, that is, of spatio-temporal physical substance—massenergy. Non-physical or quasi-physical substance, such as information, ideas, values, logic, mathematics, intellect, and other emergent phenomena, either supervene upon the physical or can be reduced to a physical account;
  3. Nature operates by the laws of physics and in principle, can be explained and understood by science and philosophy;
  4. The supernatural does not exist, i.e., only nature is real. Naturalism is therefore a metaphysical philosophy opposed primarily by supernaturalism". [10]

Or, as Carl Sagan succinctly put it: "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." [11]

In addition Arthur C. Danto states that Naturalism, in recent usage, is a species of philosophical monism according to which whatever exists or happens is natural in the sense of being susceptible to explanation through methods which, although paradigmatically exemplified in the natural sciences, are continuous from domain to domain of objects and events. Hence, naturalism is polemically defined as repudiating the view that there exists or could exist any entities which lie, in principle, beyond the scope of scientific explanation. [12] Arthur Newell Strhler states: "The naturalistic view is that the particular universe we observe came into existence and has operated through all time and in all its parts without the impetus or guidance of any supernatural agency.” [13]

Assumptions needed for science from naturalism

According to Kuhn, all science is based on an approved agenda of unprovable assumptions about the character of the universe, rather than merely on empirical facts. These assumptions—a paradigm—comprise a collection of beliefs, values and techniques that are held by a given scientific community, which legitimize their systems and set the limitations to their investigation. [14] Alfred North Whitehead wrote, "All science must start with some assumptions as to the ultimate analysis of the facts with which it deals. These assumptions are justified partly by their adherence to the types of occurrence of which we are directly conscious, and partly by their success in representing the observed facts with a certain generality, devoid of ad hoc suppositions." [15] Priddy notes that all scientific study inescapably builds on at least some essential assumptions that are untested by scientific processes. [16] For naturalists, nature is the only reality. There is no such thing as 'supernatural'. The scientific method is to be used to investigate all reality, including the human spirit: "The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily... reject 'supernatural' entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the 'human spirit'." [17]

Naturalism is the implicit philosophy of working scientists, that the following basic assumptions are needed to justify the scientific method: [18]

  1. that there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers. [18] [19] "The basis for rationality is acceptance of an external objective reality." [20] "Objective reality is clearly an essential thing if we are to develop a meaningful perspective of the world. Nevertheless its very existence is assumed." [21] Our belief that objective reality exist is an assumption that it arises from a real world outside of ourselves. As infants we made this assumption unconsciously. People are happy to make this assumption that adds meaning to our sensations and feelings, than live with solipsism." [22] Without this assumption, there would be only the thoughts and images in our own mind (which would be the only existing mind) and there would be no need of science, or anything else." [23]
  2. that this objective reality is governed by natural laws; [18] [19] "Science, at least today, assumes that the universe obeys to knoweable principles that don't depend on time or place, nor on subjective parameters such as what we think, know or how we behave." [20] Hugh Gauch argues that science presupposes that "the physical world is orderly and comprehensible." [24]
  3. that reality can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation. [18] [19] Stanley Sobottka said, "The assumption of external reality is necessary for science to function and to flourish. For the most part, science is the discovering and explaining of the external world." [23] "Science attempts to produce knowledge that is as universal and objective as possible within the realm of human understanding." [20]
  4. that Nature has uniformity of laws and most if not all things in nature must have at least a natural cause. [19] Biologist Stephen Jay Gould referred to these two closely related propositions as the constancy of nature's laws and the operation of known processes. [25] Simpson agrees that the axiom of uniformity of law, an unprovable postulate, is necessary in order for scientists to extrapolate inductive inference into the unobservable past in order to meaningfully study it. [26]
  5. that experimental procedures will be done satisfactorily without any deliberate or unintentional mistakes that will influence the results. [19]
  6. that experimenters won't be significantly biased by their presumptions. [19]
  7. that random sampling is representative of the entire population. [19] A simple random sample (SRS) is the most basic probabilistic option used for creating a sample from a population. The benefit of SRS is that the investigator is guaranteed to choose a sample that represents the population that ensures statistically valid conclusions. [27]

Metaphysical naturalism

Metaphysical naturalism, also called "ontological naturalism" and "philosophical naturalism", is a philosophical worldview and belief system that holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences, i.e., those required to understand our physical environment by mathematical modeling. Methodological naturalism, on the other hand, refers exclusively to the methodology of science, for which metaphysical naturalism provides only one possible ontological foundation.[ citation needed ]

Metaphysical naturalism holds that all properties related to consciousness and the mind are reducible to, or supervene upon, nature. Broadly, the corresponding theological perspective is religious naturalism or spiritual naturalism. More specifically, metaphysical naturalism rejects the supernatural concepts and explanations that are part of many religions.[ citation needed ]

Methodological naturalism

Methodological naturalism concerns itself with methods of learning what nature is. These methods are useful in the evaluation of claims about existence and knowledge and in identifying causal mechanisms responsible for the emergence of physical phenomena. It attempts to explain and test scientific endeavors, hypotheses, and events with reference to natural causes and events. This second sense of the term "naturalism" seeks to provide a framework within which to conduct the scientific study of the laws of nature. Methodological naturalism is a way of acquiring knowledge. It is a distinct system of thought concerned with a cognitive approach to reality, and is thus a philosophy of knowledge. Studies by sociologist Elaine Ecklund suggest that religious scientists in practice apply methodological naturalism. They report that their religious beliefs affect the way they think about the implications - often moral - of their work, but not the way they practice science. [28]

In a series of articles and books from 1996 onward, Robert T. Pennock wrote using the term "methodological naturalism" to clarify that the scientific method confines itself to natural explanations without assuming the existence or non-existence of the supernatural, and is not based on dogmatic metaphysical naturalism (as claimed by creationists and proponents of intelligent design, in particular by Phillip E. Johnson). Pennock's testimony as an expert witness [29] at the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial was cited by the Judge in his Memorandum Opinion concluding that "Methodological naturalism is a 'ground rule' of science today": [30]

Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.... While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science." Methodological naturalism is thus "a paradigm of science." It is a "ground rule" that "requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify. [31]


Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Notre Dame, and a Christian, has become a well-known critic of naturalism. [32] [ not in citation given ] He suggests, in his evolutionary argument against naturalism, that the probability that evolution has produced humans with reliable true beliefs, is low or inscrutable, unless the evolution of humans was guided (for example, by God). According to David Kahan of the University of Glasgow, in order to understand how beliefs are warranted, a justification must be found in the context of supernatural theism, as in Plantinga's epistemology. [33] [34] [35] (See also supernormal stimuli).

Plantinga argues that together, naturalism and evolution provide an insurmountable "defeater for the belief that our cognitive faculties are reliable", i.e., a skeptical argument along the lines of Descartes' evil demon or brain in a vat. [36]

Take philosophical naturalism to be the belief that there aren't any supernatural entities - no such person as God, for example, but also no other supernatural entities, and nothing at all like God. My claim was that naturalism and contemporary evolutionary theory are at serious odds with one another - and this despite the fact that the latter is ordinarily thought to be one of the main pillars supporting the edifice of the former. (Of course I am not attacking the theory of evolution, or anything in that neighborhood; I am instead attacking the conjunction of naturalism with the view that human beings have evolved in that way. I see no similar problems with the conjunction of theism and the idea that human beings have evolved in the way contemporary evolutionary science suggests.) More particularly, I argued that the conjunction of naturalism with the belief that we human beings have evolved in conformity with current evolutionary doctrine... is in a certain interesting way self-defeating or self-referentially incoherent.

Alvin Plantinga, Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, "Introduction" [36]

Robert T. Pennock

Robert T. Pennock contends [37] that as supernatural agents and powers "are above and beyond the natural world and its agents and powers" and "are not constrained by natural laws", only logical impossibilities constrain what a supernatural agent could not do. He states: "If we could apply natural knowledge to understand supernatural powers, then, by definition, they would not be supernatural". As the supernatural is necessarily a mystery to us, it can provide no grounds on which to judge scientific models. "Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables.... But by definition we have no control over supernatural entities or forces." Science does not deal with meanings; the closed system of scientific reasoning cannot be used to define itself. Allowing science to appeal to untestable supernatural powers would make the scientist's task meaningless, undermine the discipline that allows science to make progress, and "would be as profoundly unsatisfying as the ancient Greek playwright's reliance upon the deus ex machina to extract his hero from a difficult predicament."

Naturalism of this sort says nothing about the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural, which by this definition is beyond natural testing. As a practical consideration, the rejection of supernatural explanations would merely be pragmatic, thus it would nonetheless be possible, for an ontological supernaturalist to espouse and practice methodological naturalism. For example, scientists may believe in God while practicing methodological naturalism in their scientific work. This position does not preclude knowledge that is somehow connected to the supernatural. Generally however, anything that can be scientifically examined and explained would not be supernatural, simply by definition.

W. V. O. Quine

W. V. O. Quine describes naturalism as the position that there is no higher tribunal for truth than natural science itself. In his view, there is no better method than the scientific method for judging the claims of science, and there is neither any need nor any place for a "first philosophy", such as (abstract) metaphysics or epistemology, that could stand behind and justify science or the scientific method.

Therefore, philosophy should feel free to make use of the findings of scientists in its own pursuit, while also feeling free to offer criticism when those claims are ungrounded, confused, or inconsistent. In Quine's view, philosophy is "continuous with" science and both are empirical. [38] Naturalism is not a dogmatic belief that the modern view of science is entirely correct. Instead, it simply holds that science is the best way to explore the processes of the universe and that those processes are what modern science is striving to understand. However, this Quinean Replacement Naturalism finds relatively few supporters among philosophers. [39]

Karl Popper

Karl Popper equated naturalism with inductive theory of science. He rejected it based on his general critique of induction (see problem of induction), yet acknowledged its utility as means for inventing conjectures.

A naturalistic methodology (sometimes called an "inductive theory of science") has its value, no doubt.... I reject the naturalistic view: It is uncritical. Its upholders fail to notice that whenever they believe to have discovered a fact, they have only proposed a convention. Hence the convention is liable to turn into a dogma. This criticism of the naturalistic view applies not only to its criterion of meaning, but also to its idea of science, and consequently to its idea of empirical method.

Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery , (Routledge, 2002), pp. 52–53, ISBN   0-415-27844-9.

Popper instead proposed that science should adopt a methodology based on falsifiability for demarcation, because no number of experiments can ever prove a theory, but a single experiment can contradict one. Popper holds that scientific theories are characterized by falsifiability.

See also


  1. Oxford English Dictionary Online naturalism
  2. "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Naturalism". 21 November 2009. Retrieved 6 March 2012. Naturalism is not so much a special system as a point of view or tendency common to a number of philosophical and religious systems; not so much a well-defined set of positive and negative doctrines as an attitude or spirit pervading and influencing many doctrines. As the name implies, this tendency consists essentially in looking upon nature as the one original and fundamental source of all that exists, and in attempting to explain everything in terms of nature. Either the limits of nature are also the limits of existing reality, or at least the first cause, if its existence is found necessary, has nothing to do with the working of natural agencies. All events, therefore, find their adequate explanation within nature itself. But, as the terms nature and natural are themselves used in more than one sense, the term naturalism is also far from having one fixed meaning.
  3. Papineau, David (22 February 2007). "Naturalism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  4. Kurtz, Paul (Spring 1998). "Darwin Re-Crucified: Why Are So Many Afraid of Naturalism?". Free Inquiry . 18 (2).
  5. Schafersman, Steven D. (1996). "Naturalism is Today An Essential Part of Science". Methodological naturalism is the adoption or assumption of naturalism in scientific belief and practice without really believing in naturalism.
  6. Papineau, David "Naturalism", in "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy"
  7. David Papineau, "The Rise of Physicalism" in Physicalism and its Discontents, Cambridge (2011). URL:
  8. Nick Matzke: On the Origins of Methodological Naturalism. The Pandas Thumb (March 20, 2006)
  9. "ASA March 2006 – Re: Methodological Naturalism".
  10. Schafersman 1996.
  11. Sagan, Carl (2002). Cosmos. Random House. ISBN   9780375508325.
  12. Danto, Arthur C. "Naturalism". The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Editor Stone 2008 , p. 2 "Personally, I place great emphasis on the phrase "in principle", since there are many things that science does not now explain. And perhaps we need some natural piety concerning the ontological limit question as to why there is anything at all. But the idea that naturalism is a polemical notion is important".
  13. Strahler 1992 , p. 3
  14. Boldman, Lee (2007). "Chapter 6, The Privileged Status of Science" (PDF).
  15. Whitehead 1997, p. 135.
  16. Priddy, Robert (1998). "Chapter Five, Scientific Objectivity in Question". Science Limited.
  17. Papineau, David "Naturalism", in "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy"
  18. 1 2 3 4 Heilbron 2003, p. vii.
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Chen 2009, pp. 1-2.
  20. 1 2 3 Durak 2008.
  21. Vaccaro, Joan. "Reality" . Retrieved 22 December 2017.
  22. Vaccaro, Joan. "Objectiveism" . Retrieved 22 December 2017. Objective reality exists beyond or outside our self. Any belief that it arises from a real world outside us is actually an assumption. It seems more beneficial to assume that an objective reality exists than to live with solipsism, and so people are quite happy to make this assumption. In fact we made this assumption unconsciously when we began to learn about the world as infants. The world outside ourselves appears to respond in ways which are consistent with it being real. The assumption of objectivism is essential if we are to attach the contemporary meanings to our sensations and feelings and make more sense of them.
  23. 1 2 Sobottka 2005, p. 11.
  24. Gauch 2002 , p. 154, "Expressed as a single grand statement, science presupposes that the physical world is orderly and comprehensible. The most obvious components of this comprehensive presupposition are that the physical world exists and that our sense perceptions are generally reliable."
  25. Gould 1987 , p. 120, "You cannot go to a rocky outcrop and observe either the constancy of nature's laws or the working of known processes. It works the other way around." You first assume these propositions and "then you go to the outcrop of rock."
  26. Simpson 1963 , pp. 24–48, "Uniformity is an unprovable postulate justified, or indeed required, on two grounds. First, nothing in our incomplete but extensive knowledge of history disagrees with it. Second, only with this postulate is a rational interpretation of history possible and we are justified in seeking—as scientists we must seek—such a rational interpretation."
  27. "Simple Random Sampling". A simple random sample (SRS) is the most basic probabilistic option used for creating a sample from a population. Each SRS is made of individuals drawn from a larger population, completely at random. As a result, said individuals have an equal chance of being selected throughout the sampling process. The benefit of SRS is that as a result, the investigator is guaranteed to choose a sample which is representative of the population, which ensures statistically valid conclusions.
  28. Ecklund, Elaine Howard (2010). Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0195392982.
  29. "Kitzmiller v. Dover: Day 3, AM: Robert Pennock (continued)".
  30. Kitzmiller v. Dover: Whether ID is Science
  31. Judge John E. Jones, III Decision of the Court Expert witnesses were John F. Haught, Robert T. Pennock, and Kenneth R. Miller. Links in the original to specific testimony records have been deleted here.
  32. Beilby, J.K. (2002). Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. G - Reference, Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Series. Cornell University Press. p. ix. ISBN   9780801487637. LCCN   2001006111.
  33. "Gifford Lecture Series - Warrant and Proper Function 1987-1988".
  34. Plantinga, Alvin (11 April 2010). "Evolution, Shibboleths, and Philosophers — Letters to the Editor". The Chronicle of Higher Education. ...I do indeed think that evolution functions as a contemporary shibboleth by which to distinguish the ignorant fundamentalist goats from the informed and scientifically literate sheep.

    According to Richard Dawkins, 'It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).' Daniel Dennett goes Dawkins one (or two) further: 'Anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant—inexcusably ignorant.' You wake up in the middle of the night; you think, can that whole Darwinian story really be true? Wham! You are inexcusably ignorant.

    I do think that evolution has become a modern idol of the tribe. But of course it doesn't even begin to follow that I think the scientific theory of evolution is false. And I don't.
  35. Plantinga, Alvin (1993). Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chap. 11. ISBN   0-19-507863-2.
  36. 1 2 Beilby, J.K., ed. (2002). "Introduction by Alvin Plantinga". Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Reference, Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Series. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp.  1–2, 10. ISBN   978-0-8014-8763-7. LCCN   2001006111.
  37. Robert T. Pennock, Supernaturalist Explanations and the Prospects for a Theistic Science or "How do you know it was the lettuce?"
  38. Lynne Rudder (2013). Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective. Oxford University Press. p. 5. ISBN   0199914745.
  39. Feldman, Richard (2012). "Naturalized Epistemology". In Zalta, Edward N. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 ed.). Retrieved 2014-06-04. Quinean Replacement Naturalism finds relatively few supporters.



Further reading