Naturalism, another philosophy to consider

Are you a Naturalist? If you believe that existence encompasses everything, that there’s nothing supernatural, that our best knowledge is gleaned from scientific effort, then you very well may be a naturalist! The word derives from ‘nature’ and the definition is simple – “nature is all there is, and all basic truths are truths of nature”.

Naturalism is often misunderstood and misrepresented. From the silly erroneous assumption – “You mean you’re a nudist?” to the egregious “You have no morality!” it seems many folks prefer to decide for themselves what Naturalism is, rather than spend a bit of time exploring this wonderful philosophy, which goes back millennia.

There are both epistemological and metaphysical aspects of the Naturalist outlook. The Greek philosopher Thales was the first known to seek explanations of natural events without resorting to supernatural causes. Thales, often called the father of science, sought knowledge via scientific endeavor, experimentation and evaluation/observation.

That’s the bottom line even today – the Naturalist believes that all answers are available ‘within nature’.

There are some wonderful Naturalism organizations. and the Center for Naturalism have extensive information about the philosophy. You’ll find many scholarly articles in encyclopedias or philosophy compendia purporting to explain Naturalism – most of them put me to sleep – completely missing the feeling of joy which a naturalist experiences. I particularly like the description by Tom Clark on the Center for Naturalism’s blog:

“… naturalism as a metaphysical thesis is driven by a desire for a clear, reliable account of reality and how it works, a desire that generates an unflinching commitment to objectivity and explanatory transparency. Supernaturalism, on the other hand, thrives on non-scientific, non-empirical justifications for beliefs that allow us to project our hopes and fears onto the world, the opposite of objectivity. As naturalists, we might not always like what science reveals about ourselves or our situation, but that’s the psychological price of being what we might call cognitively responsible, of assuming our maturity as a species capable of representing reality.

To be a thorough-going naturalist is to accept yourself as an entirely natural phenomenon. Just as science shows no evidence for a supernatural god “up there”, there’s no evidence for an immaterial soul or mental agent “in here”, supervising the body and brain. So naturalism involves a good deal more than atheism or skepticism – it’s the recognition that we are full-fledged participants in the natural order and as such we play by nature’s rules. We aren’t exempt from the various law-like regularities science discovers at the physical, chemical, biological, psychological and behavioral levels. The naturalistic understanding and acceptance of our fully caused, interdependent nature is directly at odds with the widespread belief (even among many freethinkers) that human beings have supernatural, contra-causal free will, and so are in but not fully of this world.

The naturalist understands not only that we are not exceptions to natural laws, but that we don’t need to be in order to secure any central value (freedom, human rights, morality, moral responsibility) or capacity (reason, empathy, ingenuity, originality). We can positively affirm and celebrate the fact that nature is enough. Indeed, the realization that we are fully natural creatures has profoundly positive effects, increasing our sense of connection to the world and others, fostering tolerance, compassion and humility, and giving us greater control over our circumstances. This realization supports a progressive and effective engagement with the human condition in all its dimensions. So we can justly call it worldview naturalism: an overarching cognitive, ethical and existential framework that serves the same function as supernatural worldviews, but without trafficking in illusions. By staying true to science, our most reliable means of representing reality, naturalists find themselves at home in the cosmos, astonished at the sheer scope and complexity of the natural world, and grateful for the chance to participate in the grand project of nature coming to know herself.”

Beautifully put.

Last Saturday morning, July 3, Tom Clark spoke on the influence of ‘worldview naturalism’ in an online event via Nirmukta, which is an organization to promote Indian Freethought.

I attended and was delighted with the discussion, which was quite lively once some technical glitches were ironed out. Excellent questions were asked, and superb answers were given. Participants were able to join the discussion via a chat window as we listened to the moderator, Ajita Kamal, and Tom Clark. (We are awaiting notice of whether the discussion was recorded or not. If so, I will post links here.)

Among the topics discussed – (with a brief indication of the answer)What is Free will and does it exist? A-No, it doesn’t exist – free will is a religious concept, not scientific; however, the deterministic response is so complex, it can appear that free will exists.

How does determinism affect our ability to go through the process of decision making? A – We still need to engage in this process to arrive at a decision as the process itself is part of the necessary path involved.

Does a Naturalist perspective change how we approach the justice system, in particular, regarding punishment vs rehabilitation? A- Ideally, it would, however retribution seems to be an inherent human drive, so it’s not likely that it will ever completely replace retributive punishment.

What is the naturalist position on animal rights and the prevention of needless animal suffering? Again ideally, the naturalist is opposed to creating suffering in any being. However, in today’s society, that’s impossible, so one must weigh the pros and cons on an individual case basis.

How do Naturalism and secular Buddhism compare in outlook? A- They are very similar in respect for life. Of course, they are dissimilar when referring to any Buddhist-supernatural belief. Recommended site:

What is consciousness? – Naturalists believe consciousness in generated by brain activity, and that there is no consciousness that is separate from the body.

The discussion was attended by a small group of folks from around the world. India, of course, was represented, as well as Indians living in the US, Several US states, Canada and Australia.

Nirmukta plans to initiate a regular discussion event in the near future as this was such a successful event.

For more information, visit, as well as the Naturalism websites linked above.

All images linked to source

This is a copy in full of my Philadelphia Freethought Examiner column which can also be read at

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Comment by Earther on July 9, 2010 at 1:18pm
Help me understand why I don't feel the need to give another ism to atheism. I don't mean to be blunt but If I like plants and animals and strive to keep it alive, do I need another title. Why is it necessary?
Comment by Carol Everhart Roper on July 9, 2010 at 1:02pm
Hello all.

Fred, no I didn't travel anywhere with Tom Clark; I've never met him in person! I would love to have made such a trip, though!

Yes, determinism is indeed a huge part of Naturalism as I understand it. We don't believe that such a thing as contra-causal free will exists - contra-causal in the sense that would mean we have the ability to make decisions which are truly undetermined.

Earther - I am completely unbothered by the word atheist. Note that the part of the blog which has the gray line down the side is a quote from Tom Clark's essay. No doubt he can better comment on what he meant than I, but what I felt he means is that atheism is literally 'without god' but doesn't imply any further philosophy to be inherent within it. Naturalism is an extension of atheism - or perhaps better said, atheism is a logical extrapolation from within naturalism. So I do NOT think that atheism and naturalism are interchangeable even though they both encompass a lot of similar territory. It's like atheism is a generic category - eg: A Shoe. Naturalism is an enhanced description of exactly what the shoe is like, style, color, and any other nuances which apply.
Comment by Richard Healy on July 8, 2010 at 4:55pm
I always enjoyed this essay on Naturalism, as it appeared in 50 voice of Disbelief: why we are atheists.

Too good to be true, too obscure to explain: the cognitive shortcom...
Comment by Earther on July 8, 2010 at 2:43pm
Carol I read about half of your blog and wonder if you think that the word atheist bothers you in its reputation. The reason I wonder is because I don't really see a difference in its meaning. Atheism I don't believe is to provoke any other preference in life except that it is a person who does not believe in a god, supernatural or of its like. Personally I love nature and science when it doesn't cause me pain :) I also look for reason in nature and logic and not in the supernatural explanations. It seems though describing something under the term Naturalism is somewhat redundant except for to show some color in your hopes or feelings of who you are. What do you think?

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