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Naturalism is "the idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world; (occas.) the idea or belief that nothing exists beyond the natural world." 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.
"Naturalism can intuitively be separated into a [metaphysical] and a methodological component." Metaphysical here refers to the philosophical study of the nature of reality. 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.
In contrast, assuming naturalism in working methods, without necessarily considering naturalism as an absolute truth with philosophical entailments, is called methodological naturalism. The subject matter here is a philosophy of acquiring knowledge.
With the exception of pantheists—who believe that Nature and God are one and the same thing—theists challenge the idea that nature is all there is. They believe in one or more gods who created nature. Natural laws have a place in their theology; they describe the effects of so-called secondary causes, i.e., the causes found in the natural world. But natural laws do not define nor limit deities as primary causes.
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 ideas and assumptions of philosophical naturalism were first seen in the works of the Ionian pre-Socratic philosophers. One such was Thales, considered to be the father of science, as he was the first to give explanations of natural events without the use of supernatural causes. These early philosophers subscribed to principles of empirical investigation that strikingly anticipate naturalism.
- By the late Middle Ages the search for natural causes had come to typify the work of Christian natural philosophers. Although characteristically leaving the door open for the possibility of direct divine intervention, they frequently expressed contempt for soft-minded contemporaries who invoked miracles rather than searching for natural explanations. The University of Paris cleric Jean Buridan (a. 1295-ca. 1358), described as "perhaps the most brilliant arts master of the Middle Ages," contrasted the philosopher's search for "appropriate natural causes" with the common folk's habit of attributing unusual astronomical phenomena to the supernatural. In the fourteenth century the natural philosopher Nicole Oresme (ca. 1320–82), who went on to become a Roman Catholic bishop, admonished that, in discussing various marvels of nature, "there is no reason to take recourse to the heavens, the last refuge of the weak, or demons, or to our glorious God as if He would produce these effects directly, more so than those effects whose causes we believe are well known to us."
- Enthusiasm for the naturalistic study of nature picked up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as more and more Christians turned their attention to discovering the so-called secondary causes that God employed in operating the world. The Italian Catholic Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), one of the foremost promoters of the new philosophy, insisted that nature "never violates the terms of the laws imposed upon her."
During the Enlightenment, a number of philosophers including Francis Bacon and Voltaire outlined the philosophical justifications for removing appeal to supernatural forces from investigation of the natural world. Subsequent scientific revolutions would offer modes of explanation not inherently theistic for biology, geology, physics, and other natural sciences.
According to Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science, an advocacy group opposing creationism in public schools, the progressive adoption of methodological naturalism—and later of metaphysical naturalism—followed the advances of science and the increase of its explanatory power. These advances also caused the diffusion of positions associated with metaphysical naturalism, such as existentialism.
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." For them 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: "So understood, 'naturalism' is not a particularly informative term... 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'."
The term "methodological naturalism" for this approach is much more recent. 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." 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.
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.
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.
Methodological naturalism is concerned not with claims about what exists but with methods of learning what nature is. It is strictly the idea that all scientific endeavors—all hypotheses and events—are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. The genesis of nature, e.g., by an act of God, is not addressed. This second sense of naturalism seeks only 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 do in fact 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.
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 Phillip E. Johnson. Pennock's testimony as an expert witness 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":
- "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 self-imposed convention 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."
Robert T. Pennock
Robert T. Pennock contends 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, and "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, a scientist 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.
Alvin Plantinga is a Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, a Christian, and a well-known critic of naturalism. He argues, in his evolutionary argument against naturalism, that the probability that evolution has produced humans with reliable true beliefs, is low or inscrutable, unless their evolution 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. (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.
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"
What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing science in accord with methodological naturalism?...if you exclude the supernatural from science, then if the world or some phenomena within it are supernaturally caused — as most of the world's people believe — you won't be able to reach that truth scientifically. Observing methodological naturalism thus hamstrings science by precluding science from reaching what would be an enormously important truth about the world.
— Alvin Plantinga, Science & Theology News, "Whether ID is science isn't semantics"
W. V. Quine
W. V. Quine describes naturalism as the position that there is no higher tribunal for truth than natural science itself. 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.
A metaphysics that goes beyond the commitments of science is simply unsupported by the best available evidence.—Lynne Rudder Baker, Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective
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. 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.
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.
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.
- Oxford English Dictionary Online naturalism Subscription needed, possibly via a library.
- "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."
- Papineau, David "Naturalism", in "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy" Papineau used the term "ontological" instead of "metaphysical."
- Kurtz, Paul (Spring 1998). "Darwin Re-Crucified: Why Are So Many Afraid of Naturalism?". Free Inquiry 18 (2).
- 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."
- Jonathan Barnes's introduction to Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin)
- Ronald L. Numbers (2003). "Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs." In: When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, p. 267.
- Rouse Ball, W. W.  (2003) "Pierre Simon Laplace (1749–1827)", in A Short Account of the History of Mathematics, 4th ed., Dover, ISBN 0-486-20630-0
- Williams, Sally (July 4, 2007). "The God curriculum". London: The Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-12-26.
- Schafersman, Steven D. (1996). "Naturalism is Today An Essential Part of Science". Section "The Origin of Naturalism and Its Relation to Science". "Naturalism did not exist as a philosophy before the nineteenth century, but only as an occasionally adopted and non-rigorous method among natural philosophers. It is a unique philosophy in that it is not ancient or prior to science, and that it developed largely due to the influence of science."
- Schafersman, Steven D. (1996). "Naturalism is Today An Essential Part of Science". Section "The Origin of Naturalism and Its Relation to Science". "Naturalism is almost unique in that it would not exist as a philosophy without the prior existence of science. It shares this status, in my view, with the philosophy of existentialism."
- Papineau, David "Naturalism", in "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy"
- Nick Matzke: On the Origins of Methodological Naturalism. The Pandas Thumb (March 20, 2006)
- ASA March 2006 – Re: Methodological Naturalism
- Belief Net, "What do scientists say"
- Elaine Ecklund's book "Science versus Religion: What do scientists really think"
- Kitzmiller trial: testimony of Robert T. Pennock
- Kitzmiller v. Dover: Whether ID is Science
- 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.
- Robert T. Pennock, Supernaturalist Explanations and the Prospects for a Theistic Science or "How do you know it was the lettuce?"
- "Gifford Lecture Series - Warrant and Proper Function 1987-1988".
- 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."
- Plantinga, Alvin (1993). Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chap. 11. ISBN 0-19-507863-2.
- Beilby, J.K. (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.
- Plantinga, Alvin (March 7, 2006). "Whether ID is science isn't semantics". Science & Theology News. Archived from the original on September 27, 2006.
- Lynne Rudder (2013). Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective. Oxford University Press. p. 5. ISBN 0199914745.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Naturalized Epistemology
- Audi, Robert (1996). "Naturalism". In Borchert, Donald M. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Supplement. USA: Macmillan Reference. pp. 372–374.
- Danto, Arthur C. (1967). "Naturalism". In Edwords, Paul. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: The Macmillan Co. and The Free Press. pp. 448–450.
- Kurtz, Paul (1990). Philosophical Essays in Pragmatic Naturalism. Prometheus Books.
- Lacey, Alan R. (1995). "Naturalism". In Honderich, Ted. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press. pp. 604–606.
- Post, John F. (1995). "Naturalism". In Audi, Robert. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. pp. 517–518.
- Sagan, Carl (2002). Cosmos. Random House. ISBN 978-0-375-50832-5.
- Mario De Caro and David Macarthur (eds) Naturalism in Question. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004.
- Mario De Caro and David Macarthur (eds) Naturalism and Normativity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
- Friedrich Albert Lange, The History of Materialism, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co Ltd, 1925, ISBN 0-415-22525-6
- David Macarthur, "Quinean Naturalism in Question," Philo. vol 11, no. 1 (2008).
- Naturalist Newsletter
- Center for Naturalism
- Naturalism: The Naturalistic Worldview
- Naturalism David Papineau, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Brights Illuminating and elevating the naturalistic worldview
- Naturalism at PhilPapers
- Naturalism entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Naturalism at the Indiana Philosophy Ontology Project
- Naturalism entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Craig-Taylor Debate: Is The Basis Of Morality Natural Or Supernatural? William Lane Craig and Richard Taylor October 1993, Union College (Schenectady, New York)
- Naturalism Jon Jacobs, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- "Naturalism" article in The Catholic Encyclopedia
- Alvin Plantinga (1994). Naturalism Defeated. (pdf)
- A shorter version of C. S. Lewis' Dangerous Idea
- Philip Johnson's Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism from First Things
- Robert A. Delfino's (2007) Replacing Methodological Naturalism Metanexus Institute