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. www.Naturalism.org 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: http://centerfornaturalism.blogspot.com/2008/11/worldview-naturalism-in-nutshell.html
“… 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.”
Last Saturday morning, July 3, Tom Clark spoke on the influence of ‘worldview naturalism’ in an online event via Nirmukta, www.nirmukta.com 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: www.pragmaticbuddhism.org
What is consciousness? – Naturalists believe consciousness in generated by brain activity, and that there is no consciousness that is separate from the body.
Nirmukta plans to initiate a regular discussion event in the near future as this was such a successful event.
For more information, visit www.nirmukta.com, as well as the Naturalism websites linked above.
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This is a copy in full of my Examiner.com Philadelphia Freethought Examiner column which can also be read at http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-44168-Philadelphia-Freethought-E...