No, it’s not a group of people just hanging around at beaches and swimming pools naked. That’s naturism. Naturalism is a bit less fun than that.

Not naturalism. This is naturism.
Original image by Pedro Márquez from Pixabay

Naturalism is a philosophical view that only natural forces and laws are the totality of existence; there is nothing beyond the laws of nature—even something so complicated as a multiverse or beings that would be more intelligent than humans are nothing more than a product of natural laws. Nature contains all of reality.

“the doctrine that scientific laws are adequate to account for all phenomena”
– “Naturalism.” 2019. Merriam-Webster.com. https://www.merriam-webster.com (20. October 2019.)

But, wait. It’s not that simple. Yes, I know. Sometimes in philosophy and discourse about religion, nothing is simple. And sure enough, naturalism is also more complicated than its dictionary definition. In philosophy, there are different kinds of naturalism and then there’s also what most people think when they hear ‘naturalism’. We’ll attempt to touch upon these.

When you see scientists in a debate or interview talking about naturalism, they will mostly talk about Methodological Naturalism.

Methodological Naturalism

Simply put, we can see methodological naturalism as a minimum position in naturalism. Methodological naturalism does not offer any ultimate explanation or truth statement. It is instead a position that is required for the proper functioning of science. It states that we should look for natural causes and explanations for everything and behave as if there’s nothing else—nothing outside of nature.

Science assumes that we can discover everything about reality.
Image by Konstantin Kolosov from Pixabay

Science needs to assume that we exist in objective reality and that we can discover everything about it by using the scientific method.

What is important to stress is this ‘AS IF‘. Methodological naturalism does not claim that there IS nothing outside of nature—it is a principle required for humans to do science. It is a principle that states if something is not yet explained, we should assume these things:

  • There are explanations
  • These explanations can be reached by using the scientific method
  • Do not go to the supernatural for explanations as it prevents you from further looking at the natural world.
  • The supernatural is not science and cannot be tested by science.

Methodological naturalism tells us that science needs to stick with the natural and assume that there are natural solutions—science is limited to the natural because when it thinks about the supernatural it is not science anymore. If something does not appear to respect the laws of nature, humans have discovered so far, it would be supernatural. So, when faced with a problem, scientists will assume that it has a natural solution, otherwise, science could not apply its methods—science does not apply to the supernatural.

What we should emphasize is that this naturalism does not reject the supernatural. And it does not accept it. It says nothing about it philosophically. In practice, it simply says that we should consider that everything has a natural answer and look for it.

This makes it possible for scientists to still accept the possibility of the supernatural. Their science requires them only to practice methodological naturalism in their work but still believe in God, to believe that there are also things that are outside of nature and inaccessible to science.

Philosophical naturalism

You might also read or hear the terms ‘Metaphysical naturalism’ or ‘Ontological naturalism’. These are all essentially the same. It’s just that different authors use different words for the same thing. However, you might call it, it’s a stronger position in naturalism.

There is nothing but the natural, argues Philosophical Naturalism.
Image by TanteTati from Pixabay

This is much closer to what the dictionaries tell us—that naturalism is a worldview that nature contains all reality—it rejects that something may be outside of nature—nature is all there is. So, if a worldview says that nature is all reality that means it also contains the idea that there isn’t anything supernatural.

We could sum the philosophical naturalism as:

There is nothing but nature, natural laws, and principles. Things that are not yet explained will have a natural explanation.

Philosophical naturalism expands methodological naturalism—scientists should behave as if there’s nothing supernatural AND there isn’t. So, philosophical naturalism contains the truth-claim methodological naturalism lacks. By doing this, it explicitly denies that some things are outside science—because science deals with the natural and there isn’t anything that isn’t natural, nothing is outside the domain of science.

Despite all this, philosophical naturalism is not relevant to science. Science can operate normally with no such truth claims. Science studies the natural—it makes no truth-claim that the natural is all there is. Because of this, we call the stronger position philosophical, metaphysical or ontological naturalism. It is philosophical because it entails a position which should be philosophically defended—the claim that nature is all there is.

Philosophical naturalism starts from methodological naturalism, bases its position upon it and argues for the future from this position as well—it speculates that data will become available. For example, we may not currently know what is consciousness but as science has discovered many things and had amazing success in opening our eyes to the way the natural world operates, it stands to reason that the problem of consciousness is not outside the reach of science as well and in time this will be explained.

Conclusions

Science must operate from something. That something is methodological naturalism which assumes that reality is natural and governed by natural laws and that we can discover those laws using science. However, it does not exclude the possibility of the supernatural. The supernatural may exist—neither methodological naturalism nor science denies it – but it is of no concern because by definition science operates upon the natural. Science assumes that everything about our reality can be discovered.

There are people who take a stronger view – metaphysical or philosophical naturalism. It takes the extra step of making a true claim about reality. That truth claim is: nothing supernatural exists. The total reality is natural and can be observed or experimented upon by science. There is nothing outside nature. As a result, this worldview contains the notion that supernatural explanations from religions are wrong.

Further reading

  1. Naturalism – Wikipedia
  2. Metaphysical naturalism – Wikipedia
  3. Philosophical naturalism – RationalWiki
  4. Naturalism – Britannica

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