pERSPECTIVES ON NATURALISM
An Introductory Note
by V.V. Raman
The ancient Greek word for Nature was physis, which gave rise to the word physics. However, to Aristotle and others, nature did not connote what the word means to us (plants, trees, rivers, lakes, stars, etc.), but rather whatever has emerged and grown in the world. The term naturalism has a variety of connotations in various contexts. In the 19th century art, it generally meant concordance with Nature such as Nature seems to be, in contrast to imaginative and romantic elements in the created work. It is related to, but not the same as, realism and Verismus. In French literature, naturalism referred to the style which described in meticulous detail every scene and gesture and character, furnishing the description with an authenticity that was very much like the precise observational data of scientists (naturalists), recording especially the ugly, seamy and unpleasant realities of life rather than idealistic visions and soothing fantasies. The works of writers like Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola illustrate this framework most effectively. In this literary context the Greek word for naturalism became physiocracy, referring derogatorily to works like Zola’s Nana and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in which morally taboo and erotic material is explicitly presented to the reader.
In the context of philosophy, Naturalism is closely tied to the natural sciences which are based on the tenet that everything that can be known is ultimately connected to one facet or other of Nature. What this implies is that there is a natural cause for everything that we observe, that there are processes in nature (detected or as yet undetected) that give rise to phenomena in the world, that nothing happens at random at the whim of unseen principles, that all observed phenomena can be explained in terms of the laws of nature, and without invoking transcendental principles. Appealing to the scientific worldview, Naturalism is closely tied to what is known as pure materialism. Some critics have contended that Naturalism offers no ethical framework, nor any room for aesthetics, and much less a spiritual dimension to life. They hold that its primary merit lies in its fruitful successes in the domain of the sciences, but that it does not rest on unshakable philosophical grounding.
Needless to say, there have been a great many debates and controversies on the usefulness of pure Naturalism as an all-embracing philosophy. Poets and philosophers have reflected differently on nature, especially in relation to God. To William Cowper, “Nature is but a name for an effect whose cause is God.” But Robert Browning flatly said, “What I call God, fools call Nature.” Shakespeare wrote like a poet-scientist, “In nature’s infinite book of secrecy a little I can read.”
In the following anthology, ten thinkers from the IRAS family present their perspectives on Naturalism, some on its relationship to Religious Naturalism, which is an important dimension of IRAS. I would like to thank all of them for graciously responding to my invitation to write for this anthology.
Comments on their views may be posted in the IRASNET or IRASRN listserves.
Naturalism—Full-bodied and God-intoxicated
I call my view of nature and naturalism a “God-intoxicated” concept. My apologies to seventeenth century Baruch Spinoza, whose philosophy has been described this way (but this does not make me a “Spinozist”!). Some would call it “theistic naturalism,” but I don’t like that term, because historically “theism” has depicted a God who is remote and detached from nature—a view I reject. I believe that nature is God’s greatest work—at least the greatest that we know about.
I start with human nature. Nearly every aspect of human life is touched upon in a vast network of scientific research. These fields not only study how our bodies work and how their illnesses can be treated—they also describe and explain our emotions, our thought-processes, our moral life, our psychological processes, and even our spiritual dimension. The research in these areas goes a long way toward explaining human nature. Some people claim that these scientific explanations are all we need—a position that is often described as scientific naturalism or materialism or physicalism. Others consider such a position to be a reductionism that threatens our basic humanity; they believe that being human is much more than the sciences can know.
I hold to an expansive view of nature. We are fully natural, even in our mental and spiritual life. However, we often overlook how this scientific perspective also expands our idea of nature in amazing ways. The last century of scientific exploration has unfolded a picture of nature—human nature and the larger world—that is mind-bending and inexhaustibly rich. So much so that in spite of the steadily increasing knowledge we gain, it is clear that nature is more than we can comprehend. Nature is a realm of knowledge, control and mystery—all at the same time. This is true for scientists as well as for the rest of us. Mystery is not the same as ignorance; it is a matter of richness and texture. Our knowledge about nature continues to grow exponentially, but the more we know about nature, the greater the richness and the deeper the mystery become. This is especially true of our human nature. Paul Tillich was right when he said that each human being is marked by a mystery, depth, and greatness—and it is enhanced by science. I would amend that to say that mystery, depth, and greatness apply to all of nature.
Science, therefore, does not reduce our picture of who we are; rather, it expands it to the point of encompassing us in the richness and mystery of nature. Let me give an example. Cognitive neuroscience traces in detail the brain processes that correlate to such basics as our thinking about specific things (God, for example), our emotions, and our interactions with other people. The detail and complexity of our brain’s activity is awesome. This research forms the surface of the even more awesome work of our brains that science does not explain—how these brain processes bring forth a Beethoven symphony or a Bach chorale, a Shakespearean play or a poem by Emily Dickinson, Darwin’s theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity, the proposal of Jeffersonian democracy or the Gandhi/King practice of non-violence. In other words, the amazing scientific charting of our brain’s activities exists on the cusp of the richness and mystery of the human spirit. Brain scans do not translate easily into Beethoven’s Ninth or into a marine’s act of heroism in falling on an exploding grenade, thus saving the lives of his comrades, but nevertheless the achievements of human spirit are fully embedded in our biology—science intensifies our sense of this embeddedness. The more we know about it, the more we realize that we do not comprehend it—it is mystery. A Benedictine prayer expresses this—“gift us with true humility that, in knowing how frail and small we are, we may rejoice even more in the magnitude of your love and the wonders of our own giftedness.”
For Christians, this is a picture of how God has created us. The mystery is an invitation to explore what this tells us about God’s intentions for us and how this relates to our traditional beliefs, such as the image of God, sin, and grace.
To be a bit polemical, I contrast my view with Religious Naturalism, which is espoused by many of my friends. RN frequently substitutes nature for God. I believe, to the contrary, that nature exists on the surface of transcendence, on the cusp of the holy, if you will. Nature naturally (excuse the pun) opens up to the reality of God. A naturalism that resists this reality is truncated; it short-circuits our experience—including our scientific experience. I call my view a full-bodied view of nature and a full-bodied naturalism.
Varieties of Naturalism: Some Reflections
Here’s my perspective on naturalism, of which there are varieties. Metaphysical naturalism is basically the claim that the natural world is all that exists; there’s nothing non-natural or supernatural, however one defines it. (How one defines the supernatural is a matter of debate of course, (see Carrier Naturalism, for instance.) You could also call metaphysical naturalism ontological naturalism, since it's a claim about what sorts of things exist - an ontology.
Philosophical naturalism is the meta-philosophical stance that philosophy and science are non-compartmentalized collaborators in investigating reality, given that philosophy alone, done from the armchair without looking at the world empirically, doesn’t get us very far. Many philosophers these days are naturalists in this sense, although there’s lots of debate about the meaning and viability of philosophical naturalism. SeeKonrad Talmont-Kaminsky - Naturalism and Supernaturalism for a very good podcast on this, and for the philosophically inclined I recommend Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism, reviewed here and here, as well as De Caro and Macarthur's Naturalism in Question and their most recent book Naturalism and Normativity.
What’s sometimes called scientific naturalism refers, I’d say, to metaphysical naturalism, where the adjective “scientific” simply draws attention to the empirical, observational basis for the claim that nature is all there is. As a scientific naturalist, I take science as the most reliable means of justifying beliefs about what’s real, and given this commitment I see no evidence that anything beyond nature exists. Metaphysical naturalism thus becomes an empirical hypothesis about reality that could conceivably be shown wrong, so naturalists aren't being dogmatic about the claim that nature is all there is. About this see the blog post Is Scientific Inquiry Restricted to Nature (co-authored with Ursula Goodenough). In this context, and see also Close Encounters of the 4th Kind: Metaphysical Naturalism as an Empirically Plausible Conjecture.
There’s also methodological naturalism, which is a fancy, and to my way of thinking, misleading name for the scientific method. It's misleading because it suggests science presumes naturalism in its method or its domain of investigation, which it doesn’t, see True Science: Does it Presume Naturalism? and the blog I co-authored with Ursula mentioned above.
Finally, there’s worldview naturalism as advocated by the Center for Naturalism. Worldview naturalism builds upon and draws out the implications of scientific, metaphysical naturalism in order to address, in a coherent package, the full range of human concerns - cognitive, practical, psychological, ethical, and existential. SeeWorldview Naturalism: A Status Report and Systematizing Naturalism for summaries of worldview naturalism.
Naturalism as I View It
Tanya B. Avakian
The delicate nature of this query prompts a personal response in the form of this ‘open’ letter. After all, is it not the case that no matter what actually causes the experience of the sacred, the experience itself is not only of deep personal significance for the experiencer but also has a dimension to it that calls for it to be shared, thus going beyond the domain of privacy to an arena that is public? Had this not been the case, why would the ‘enlightened ones’ seek to spread to others the intimate message which is communicated/revealed especially to them and share their own sense of the sacred with such extraordinary zeal?
The experience of sacredness – whether interpreted in religious or in secular terms - is something that is not meant exclusively for private consumption. It is as though one is transported to a higher sphere of existence of which one is generally oblivious. However, in an inter-subjective context, it is possible to interpret this phenomenon as that which can be resonated with or can be seen as a report of an episode available for further examination.
To me, the sense of sacredness has more a character of something to be felt and recognized than to be precisely defined or categorized, at least not without some sort of metaphysical commitment. Those (they are by no means few in number) upon whom such an awareness dawns - I am inclined to believe – can never deny its occurrence even though it is difficult to express it in a transparent manner. Moreover, in hindsight and especially in a sceptical mood or while assuming a sophisticated analytical posture, they may begin to seriously ponder over whether that specific experience has been a case of immediate perception or whether it merely was a projection of their own imagination, whether something was actually ‘given’ or was it simply an unconscious ‘construal’ to meet some deep human need, a case of wishful thinking, generated by some form of indoctrination whose sources are forgotten? That being confronted with the sacred is something to which you cannot but pay homage is nevertheless undeniable.
If one has felt it, one is struck by its presence. It is evident that what evokes this sense of the sacred may be overtly associated with a wide range of phenomena. It may centre on an object that reminds one of unconditional love (as do the pair of glasses that belonged to my beloved late father) just as an idol evokes in a worshipper the feeling of, say, forgiveness or fearlessness. Sometimes I have sensed it intensely in the atmosphere of a specific edifice (where for generations people have assembled to pray such as the Notre-Dame, Paris), sometimes in a place (an awe-inspiring scenic landscape where the inanimate appears sacred, or while visiting a century-old site of pilgrimage emanating sacred vibes). To me, however, it has mostly been evident while in the company of a few rare persons (whose greatness borders on holiness). Also, I have sensed it while simply gazing at impersonal nature - a mountain range (like the Himalayas in Nepal), a river (like the Ganges in Varanasi), a tree (like the Bodhitree in Bodhgaya), where the symbols and the symbolised coincide in an inexplicable manner.
I have occasionally encountered an ambience of sacredness while reading dialogues that have messages for anyone who cares to listen attentively (as when the sage Yajnyavalkya speaks to his wife Maitreyi in the Upanisads or while reading the ‘Sermon of the Mount’ in the Bible). I have felt it while looking at certain sculptures (in Elephanta) and paintings (in Rome). I have felt it when listening to prayer songs (like the one I heard - without understanding a word of it - while accidentally strolling near a mosque in Hurghada). I have registered, quite unexpectedly, the sacred vibrations while visiting Assisi, Daksineswara and Fatehpur Sikri. I have shared the amazing sacred fervour as Pandits engaged in recapitulation of the core insights of the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, or when listening to the amazing stories of life-experiences of a Jaina Tirthankara and of a Jewish mystic.
I am pretty much convinced that there is a longing, a striving in all human beings to go beyond the state in which we are at present. This yearning to transcend the stage which has already been achieved makes the human situation one of perpetual struggle. To me, this is a ‘sacred’ propensity, a call to transform ourselves on an individual as well as collective plane. This is why even when a leader persuades a people to resolve a conflict-situation through the principle of non-violence, the movement acquires a sacred facet. In brief, to sense the sacred is to listen to the call to transform, no matter in which context.
To me, then, sacredness is associated with cognitive, conative and affective dimensions of human experience. Ineffable yet undeniable, this sense of the sacred – be it on an individual or on a collective front – seems to be present universally though not uniformly.
There is more to it, but for me even to divulge this much about ‘what I regard as sacred’, should be attributed to my acquaintance – since 1988 – with people who assemble at the IRAS.
My Perspective on Naturalism
J. Ash Bowie
Setting aside for the moment what you think is true, can you imagine a world that is entirely natural, where all events are natural events with fully natural causes? Can you imagine a cosmos that operates, without exception, according to mindless and purposeless rules, from elementary particles up to galaxy clusters and even beyond to a theoretical multiverse? Can you imagine a universe that does not include immaterial souls, angels, demons, or gods, with no heaven or hell or similar otherworldly realm? If you can imagine a universe like this, then you have imagined the philosophical worldview called metaphysical naturalism.
Metaphysical naturalism is derived from the results of methodological naturalism, which describes the fundamental principles of scientific inquiry. It does not discount the existence of the supernatural a priori, but it doesexclude the supernatural as an explanatory principle simply because there appears to be no empirical access to it. This does not disprove supernaturalism, but the profound success of science without it justifies its ontological dismissal. Supernatural constructs have not once been necessary to explain a natural phenomenon, and there is no logical reason to think this will change going forward. It is from this rational proposition that metaphysical naturalism emerges.
Metaphysical naturalism basically makes a distinction between the natural and the supernatural and then concludes that all real things are natural things. Philosopher Paul Draper defines nature as "the spatiotemporal universe of physical entities together with any entities that are ontologically or causally reducible to those entities" (The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion). 'Physical entities' here refers to the stuff that makes up the universe, all the way down to fermions and bosons. Historian Richard Carrier offers a similar definition, saying that nature means our "non-sentient universe, with all its properties and behaviors. Basically we mean nothing more than space, time, material, and physical law" (Sense and Goodness Without God). Even if we were to discover new dimensions, materials, or laws—no matter how exotic or strange—metaphysical naturalism holds that they would also be mindless materials and processes that make up the natural cosmos. This is also not an a priori assumption, but a logical inference from available evidence.
The natural is contrasted with the supernatural. From a naturalist perspective, we can say that supernatural things were originally designed to offer explanations for natural phenomena and eventually became culturally embedded in the form of myth. As such, any definition can only be grounded in the stories and claims of humans. Given this, we can say that the supernatural is that which (a) has a fundamentally different ontological ground than the natural world, and (b) has the ability to interact with the natural world. In other words, the rules that govern natural things and supernatural things are both different and unrelated to each other and yet supernatural things can affect changes in the natural world. According to many claims, they can do so in ways that bypass our laws entirely (some call these miracles). Although supernatural things can affect our world, claims suggest that they are not affected in turn; the power to intercede is one-way. Metaphysical naturalism concludes that such things and events do not exist outside of human imagination.
My Perspective on Naturalism
Attempting to summarize my idea of Religious Naturalism in one page means I necessarily leave out material that I regard as important to RN. Nevertheless, here are some of the major points of it.
One of the most important points is that I do not accept any idea of a “supernatural” realm. However I regard nature as capable of all the creativity we have traditionally regarded as within god’s power. The hydrogen resulting from the Big Bang has become everything that now exists and there is no reason to think its creativity has been exhausted. It is reasonable to hypothesize that billions of years from now the cosmos will contain types of being and behavior that are as different from anything that exists now as the present cosmos is different from the period right after the Big Bang. The cosmos constantly acquires new characteristics that were not in any obvious sense present in the being from which the new characteristics emerged. The notion of a god serves no intellectual purpose at this time except as a type of explanation for what the cosmos has become. But if we really need an explanation for the creativity of the cosmos, we should also need an explanation for god. We accomplish nothing by seeking an explanation outside the ever evolving cosmos.
Traditionally the idea of god has served a variety of emotional functions. But traditionally that was because god was imagined as an anthropomorphic being—with intention, likes and dislikes, capable of caring and loving, etc. etc. We now realize that only a limited being can possess anthropomorphic characteristics. None of the anthropomorphic characteristics make sense when imagined as residing in an infinite being. A non-anthropomorphic god/cosmos can still serve emotional functions different from those of the traditional god, and that is a major part of why it makes sense to regard RN as a religion. The creativity of the cosmos/god provides good grounds for regarding nature/the cosmos as sacred. Traditionally god also provided grounds for values. At this time we can realize that values are human constructs. They need not be arbitrary human constructs. Indeed an excellent case can be made for saying the existence of humans as a species depends upon certain values. But we have no reason to think our values matter to the creative cosmos of which we are all actively evolving features.
Today that original hydrogen has become human, along with millions of other types of living beings.At this time on the Earth humans bring a wide variety of special capabilities to the creative process, enabling it to proceed in different ways than it could have without the human characteristics. We, along with everything else in the cosmos, are all integral features of a magnificent creative whole that constantly goes on creating ever new characteristics quite unlike anything that existed before. With humans the creative cosmos becomes capable of intentional creativity. Humans have the capacity to appreciate the beauty, complexity, and other wonderful characteristics of the cosmos and use that appreciation to attempt to bring about more beauty and complexity. Humans also have the capacity to use scientific understanding of how the cosmos works in order to value and preserve the beauty already here as well as to create ever more beauty and wonders.
Individual humans are integral features of this creative cosmos existing for a short time with the illusion of separateness. Death is the end of the illusion of separateness. We can also learn to recognize ourselves as having this illusion before we die. That way we can realize we are parts of a being and a process much, much larger than anything we can imagine, and recognize ourselves as making our own special contributions to the sacred creativity of which we are integral parts.
What is Naturalism?
When one adds an “ism” to a word it implies to me a set of beliefs, and it also implies a set of persons holding those beliefs. Thus in this case the question “What is naturalism?” is a different question than “what is natural?,” though of course one would hope that an “ism” would have some relation to what it is an ism OF? That is certainly the case here.
Naturalism is for me and those I feel rapport with on the subject, a set of beliefs that hugely respect nature. That brings up the question of what nature is, but I won’t try to address THAT question in the one page allotted, except to say it is our complete environment, produced of course by the Big Bang, by evolution, and all that have followed. A naturalist thinks the environment thus produced is crucially important to all else that concerns us, and that understanding the dynamics of evolution is important to all life (especially human life) not only for medical reasons but for emotional and psychological and group processes as well.
The word “respect” above does not necessarily imply either a positive regard or a negative regard for nature. Naturalism usually stands in awe of nature, both loving it and fearing it and above all recognizing its power over our lives and in our lives. For this reason it is not sufficient for me to call myself simply a naturalist nor to say I adhere to naturalism. I need an adjective to modify my basic naturalism, and after considering many other almost-acceptable adjectives, the one that works best for me is “religious.” So I am a Religious Naturalist.
That means I not only respect nature but love it and affirm it overall, and want to conform myself to its requirements. And yes, the relationship is interactive, so that to a certain extent (though my judgment is that this is a relatively small extent and not necessarily desirable beyond that small extent), I want to control nature. I want to get rid of smallpox germs, minimize the impact of hurricanes, and so forth. As a “Religious” Naturalist I want to foster those interactions between me and nature, and between human society and nature, which bring about positive things for my species and its allies. But it seems to be the case, and it is certainly part of my Religious Naturalism, that one brings about what is best for oneself and ones species by looking out for almost all of nature (the“almost” is to account for Smallpox germs and so forth). The rich variety of nature has had a huge part in producing us, and it has a huge part in maintaining our health and the health of our planet. So protecting that environment and aiding its health is a big part of not only the “naturalism” part of the label I claim, but also part of the “religious” part of the label.
My Perspective on Naturalism
Naturalism in my current perspective on it denotes the conviction that for anything we experience there must be a natural explanation. This, obviously, means that there must be a unity of all that exist in time and space - thus unity of nature and unity of reality, which then, to my understanding, logically entails that the universe is a “cosmos” in the sense of the old Greek philosophers, a lawfully ordered and developing whole. Therefore the universe in principle must be intelligible to us, as we ourselves cannot be anything else than actualizations of these intricately interwoven cosmic laws. Our progressive understanding of the mysteries of the universe would then be tantamount to progressive understanding of the mysteries of ourselves and tantamount to the vision of a universe that progressively unravels its own mysteries. Which is mysterious enough to be completely incomprehensible in itself.
The naturalistic conviction is actually a double one: there must be an explanation for everything we experience and this explanation must refer to natural causes only. But what exactly is a natural explanation? To state that everything that happens, happens naturally makes distinct sense only when put in opposition to the claim that there exist also happenings so much beyond ordinary experience that natural explanations are not enough to account for them, or that already a lot or even all of our ordinary experiences do not have only natural causes but also supernatural ones. Left by itself, as a positive statement, Naturalism seems to be just a tautological statement, a proposition that has the status of a creed: there must be, by our definition, a natural explanation for everything, exactly because this everything is, again by definition, nature.
In common speech the statement “it happens naturally” often also means: “it happens by itself.” Naturalism understood this way would then be “By-itself-ism”, saying: There is no need for extra guidance from somewhere above or beyond the material word, beyond nature. The world is not pulled by a supernaturally fixed destiny ahead but is pushed forward by its own forces and laws which are enough to account for everything that happens.
So let's look closer at what means “by itself”. There are a lot of things we know from experience that do never happen “just by themselves”, but nevertheless are notimpossible. Stones, for example, never just start to fly “by themselves”, but they undoubtedly can fly for a little while when given an energetic input by something else. So we can very easily watch a stone fly, we just have to throw it. As we are undoubtedly also a phenomenon of nature, flying stones are still a phenomenon “happening by itself”. The secret obviously lies in the “mechanism” behind the observed phenomenon. The Greek term “mechané” means also “guile” or “artifice”, and the immediate feeling after having found out and understood the mechanism behind a stunning natural phenomenon is still much the same as after having found out the “trick” of how a magician creates a phenomenon that seems to violate everyday experience, making the seemingly impossible possible.
Nature seen this way resembles in many ways such a magician, an incessantly exercising artist in the art of climbing the steep slopes of Mount Possible. However, instead of a Mount Possible there is now a strangely mystical Mount Improbable sitting in the center of Naturalism. How this has happened is a long and intricate story within the history of scientific ideas and concepts. And I am still trying to understand more of it.
My Perspective on naturalism
While my working assumptions could be described as naturalistic, I do not self-identify as a religious naturalist because:
My changing perspective could be roughly summarized in terms of questions such as:
There is a technical need to be careful when seeking dependable knowledge amid obscure data. There is a moral need to be careful when risking harm by spreading coercive but doubtful claims. Do those needs to be careful get negated by promised rewards for unquestioning belief? How much do the values of being careful and believing undermine each other? Is there a resulting divergence that polarizes society? Can we usefully negotiate "burdens of carefulness" in dealing with coercive claims?
Expanding scientific knowledge seems to illustrate the genius of a god that can invent a universe like ours. Expanding technological knowledge seems to illustrate the ineptitude of a god that would communicate with humans using feeble signals through noisy channels with insecure authentication. Can a unified model of god survive such increasingly divergent views?
How rare is it for people to persuade others of the correctness of their supernatural claims in terms of their personal enlightenment experience? Why is it so rare?
Does atheism (including naturalism?) effectively support coercive religion by legitimizing dogmatism and diverting public dialogue away from the socially important issues of coercion? A claim that non-belief will be severely punished could be met with a counterclaim that promoting such a claim is irresponsible and immoral. How do the claim and counterclaim compare on a moral scale?
Might religious communication be improved by distinguishing more clearly between efforts to impart knowledge and efforts to impart faith?
How do we manage agendas to deal adequately with seemingly outrageous claims?
To what extent can we make collective judgments that significant religious leaders avoid clarity to keep their followers ignorant?
To what extent do people crave knowledge -- or at least illusions of knowledge?
My Perspective on Naturalism
Loyal Rue says –“Naturalism is, roughly speaking, the view that the order of nature is all that exists. If something is real, it is natural, and if something is natural it is real.”
That pretty much says it. It only leaves knowing what "exists" and "real" mean. One can always make defining an infinite progression but I will stop here. I will modify Loyal‟s statement a little bit – naturalism is the belief/philosophical paradigm that nature is all that exists. If something exists, it is real and natural. Anything natural is real and exists. All that exists is measurable or detectable by some means. Its being can be substantiated. Nature is not only what we can experience but there is also good solid evidence of it. There is nothing outside this existence. If something does not exist, well, it doesn’t exist, period.
I must include “belief/philosophical paradigm” in order to better nail it down as to what it is. I like the word “paradigm” better than other words (worldview, outlook, perspective) and likewise with belief rather than “view” although “religious paradigm” works and so does “rational paradigm” with philosophical standing in here. Paradigm also implies that science is involved. The scientific method has been the best way to investigate reality and the human experience. There is no need for non-natural hypotheses to explain nature as nature self- defines via our efforts to do so. Nature does not violate its innate laws which are binding on all that is. Nature may violate human reasoning, because human reasoning it not absolute and never will be.
Is the Higgs particle natural? Is it real? Does it exist? As of now, the answer is no. It has not as yet been detected by some means (very shortly, perhaps). It has merely been theorized, conjectured. Is God real and existent? No, by the same rational. But if God is re-defined as all that exists and only that which exists, then God is real and natural. If God is non-natural, S/he does not exist, period.
Human thought is a natural process. It starts with awareness and via analysis, evaluation, judgment and decision arrives at a decision and some kind of behavioral response. Some day we may understand the biology and physics of it. The process is natural and so too are the consequences produced by it. That makes a thought about the non-natural, a natural event. That however does nothing to make the non-natural real, or does it? Belief in non-natural realms/entities can cause observable things to happen! Interesting, but not surprising, as the human mind is real and so too its concepts of God. The term “Religious” Naturalism expands the framework of naturalism to include a human subjective element/appreciation. Naturalism alone is not a sufficient belief for mankind without a qualifying antecedent such as “Religious” to supply some desirable quantities. As far as we known, the natural arena minus human consciousness has no purpose, no morality, social rules or concept of feelings. There is no innate regard for the things humans need and cherish such as directionality, rightfulness, rules of engagement, love and reverence for being. Religious is a better qualifier than “spiritual” as it stresses a broader extension of the paradigm. Humanity is a social construct and thus needs a social underpinning.
my Perspective on Naturalism
I have always been a naturalist. My human neuroscience research presumes human minds are produced by the activity of billions and billions of simple machinelike neurons. Thus when I read Tom Clark's book Encountering Naturalism and his website Naturalism.org, I'm able to agree with almost every word. I strongly believe that Nature's basic laws: the Standard Model plus General Relativity (google for details), are able to explain all happenings in our world from the Big Bang to the creativity of Shakespeare and Einstein. I see no fundamental gaps in going from the quarks and gluons of the Standard Model through nuclear physics, atomic physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, anthropology, economics, etc. Although we are far from understanding how mammalian brains operate, great progress has been made on simpler brains, giving us confidence that some day we will understand the human brain. This is not to say that we will ever be able to make accurate predictions when things get complicated. Initial conditions aren't known accurately enough and our computers aren't fast enough. Google informs us that even the simple three body problem with gravity is insoluble.
So far it sounds like I'm a mainstream naturalist. I even signed the RN Minimal statement. However, I deviate from vanilla Naturalism in two ways: one that is more restrictive and one that is more accepting. On the restrictive side I am one of the most hard-nosed naturalists you will ever meet. I argue with believers in phenomena like precognition that violate my beloved presently known laws of nature (Standard Model plus General Relativity). Although I maintain this hard-nosed attitude I no longer have it as a litmus test for being a Naturalist. I welcome all self-defined religious naturalists into the big tent where we will discuss these issues.
The rest of my essay concerns my deviation from vanilla Naturalism in my embracing of God, and what sounds like (but isn't) a belief in the supernatural. Part of my motivation is because I think Tom Clark's approach is politically dangerous for our present era. On p. 63 of his otherwise excellent book Clark says: "When understood as the conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism, the culture wars are perhaps best epitomized by the debate over teaching evolution in public schools. Those sympathetic to creationism and intelligent design sometimes claim that because science doesn't consider supernatural causes when explaining evolution it therefore promotes naturalism. Scientists and science teachers reply that, sorry, the scientific method of explanation necessarily rules out the supernatural." Sadly, in many parts of the United States blunt honesty about ruling out the supernatural can have drastic consequences not only for US politics but also for science education. I worry that many parents tell their children not to believe their science teachers. Why push so many citizens to the religious right when their needs are better served by the religious left?
In addition to the political argument, I love poetic God language. I'm not alone. I love my rabbi's definition of God as the force in the universe for healing of the spirit and for transformation. Many other examples of Naturalist-compatible God language are discussed in the brief UU pamphlet on this topic. One of the strongest reasons why I like to use God language is at the bottom of p. 171 of Loyal Rue's awesomely wonderful book Religion is Not About God. In that section on Judaism, by inventing "God as person" the writers of the Hebrew bible captured all the neural mechanisms humans have in responding to human faces and human emotions. As Rue notes, it was a stroke of genius. Finally, Jerome Stone's Religious Naturalism Today p. 6 gives many examples of God language Naturalists who reject supernaturalism.
There is much more that can be said regarding Naturalism about how the duality of quantum mechanics shows that what we consider to be reality is closer to metaphor. There is also much to say about how the "I-Thou" realm of religion complements the "I-It" realm of science. That discussion will wait for another occasion.
In summary I'm in love with the sacred depths of the laws of nature. Maxwell's beautiful laws of electricity/magnetism and photons make my spine tingle and my hair stand on end (even literally when I go to the Exploratorium and get zapped by a Van de Graaff generator).
My View of Naturalism
Confession: After reading the reflections of my Irasian fellows, I find myself groping toward phrases likesensual empiricism, imaginative pragmatism, and mystical realism. Such terms seem necessary to define my personal and perhaps ineffable brand of naturalism – something sufficiently multidimensional to satisfy the longings of a scientific mind, a hedonistic body, and an idealistic soul.
But whatever it is, it was forged long ago, imprinted while riding the magenta sunset wind at atop my favorite Douglas fir, reveling in vital resonance with the rhythms and harmonies of nature, alone yet ecstatically connected to All That Is. To experience the rapturous beauty and infinite mystery of nature, gave the most meaningful grounding to the concept of God. After that, no church could ever convince me that any aspect of nature was fallen, that any Divine Creator could have so bungled the job.
I suppose my naturalism is a catalytic mix of physicalism and idealism that puts consciousness - and indeed emotion – at the center of the spiritual experience. In that way I am akin to a naïve realist, trusting that all the evidence we need can be found through our sensory equipment. But I define “nature” not only by what I see with any outward, objective focus, but in terms of an inner subjective dimension as well. An inner realm, one with more far-ranging expanses into which consciousness can ebb and flow as it does in dreams, without the customary waking focus in time and space, or even identity; a realm with its own inner sensory qualia.
In humans this is the unconscious intuitive realm, and it subserves ideas like the Jungian collective unconscious, or even to the Platonic realm of ideal forms. But it is also fully physically embodied, perhaps a Bohmian sort of implicate order percolating within an infinite multiverse at our quantum core. But for me, it symbolizes nature’s patterned in-forming processes, and perhaps harbors the mystery of physical information itself – the difference that makes a difference. Yet its functional meaning is prelinguistic, rooted in the binary properties of matter in motion: up/down spin, positive/negative charge, electromagnetic attraction/repulsion, and positive and negative feedback. Indeed, in my metaphysic, the concept of feedback is primary, giving rise to binary computations, a self-organizing computational code tantamount of the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang – one that living systems harnessed early on in the first crude forms of sentience. This is the physical substrate from whence emerges the binary code within human emotion, vitally informing all evaluative perceptions and thoughts. So mine is a process theology with a relational metaphysics, yielding a pantheistic lens on life.
To be clear, there is nothing supernatural about my position, as nature in my lexicon encompasses All That Is, All That Was, and All That Ever Might Be, including what Stuart Kauffman proposes as “res potentia” that holds its own ontological validity. But I find the anthropomorphism and neurocentricity of traditional scientific paradigms as limiting as the religious doctrines that sully the creation or abdicate responsibility for our place within it. So my approach also engenders the humility and courage to transcend the boundaries of our objective awareness and traditional belief structures to encompass the infinite mystery of creativity itself, the potentially boundless adjacent possibilities that may lie within and beyond, betwixt and between the imaginal and the manifest. This view honors the idea of Indra’s web, yet it is also captured by the mathematically relational patterns of matter in motion exhibited by self-organizing systems with network nodes and nested fractal structures – wherein parts and wholes ever shift, flow, and feed back within one another and binary computational patterns emerge. Yet the ever-shifting fractal boundary between inner and outer dimensions, between self, not-self, and not-yet-self, is also the space where an organism meets, enacts and cocreates its environment – whether it be with branes (membranes) or brains. It is the physical source of our biological memory systems, our genetic and epigenetic and regulatory mechanisms, and the excitable cells and nerve nets and that give rise to sensory motor control, foster compatible free will, and primary instinctive ways of knowing – the feeling of what is happening to the self in time and space.
As such, my naturalism honors the late, great, Gordon Kaufman’s methodological prescriptions, wherein experience itself is central to theological musings. Indeed, such a metaphysical expanse is required in order to explain the rich variety of subjective perceptions, emotional resonances, and spiritual sojourns that I have personally experienced. They are also necessary for honoring such scientific mysteries as creative genius, child prodigies, autistic savants, multiple personal disorder, and even schizophrenia – not to mention the mysteries of time, space, and consciousness themselves.
Yet there is also no room in this picture for the time-honored dichotomy between good and evil, or the traditional divides between mind and body, and there is no us- against-them-competitive mentality. There is only a divine unity of infinite diversity, a sacred self-organizing sonata on the ground of Being and Becoming, wherein each component “self” in the creative process has its own unique potential value to make manifest via the divine dance that is life.
Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science