Naturalism (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Naturalism arouses strong emotions. Some see it as a banner to follow, some as the enemy to fight. Theological or religious naturalism is even more controversial: Is it truly religious? And if so, is it still naturalism? However, naturalism is a clear and unified category until one begins to think and read about it. The entry will consider four contexts in which the term arises. Thereafter, some issues in and varieties of theological or religious naturalism will be considered.
Four contexts and contrasts
P. F. Strawson distinguishes in his Skepticism and Naturalism (1985) between "soft" and "hard" naturalism. Soft naturalism refers to what human beings ordinarily do and believe about, for example, colors, feelings, and moral judgments. When a painting is "naturalist," it is so in a soft sense. Hard naturalism refers to attempts to view human behavior in an objective light as events in nature. Strawson argues that these two ways of viewing the world are compatible, but if he has to choose, he opts for soft naturalism. Critics, however, argue that soft naturalism plays down insights about the structures of reality "behind" experience, and thus avoids genuine engagement with the sciences and secular thought. The remainder of this entry deals with forms of hard naturalism, as science not only extends but also corrects the soft natural understanding of reality.
Science is a human practice; its insights may be useful, but why might they be considered true? Cultures with particular social norms survived, but why would one call the intuitions and practices that have evolved good? Can one distinguish truth from mere beliefs, ethics from evolved morality? In this context naturalism stands in contrast to normative views of epistemic or moral values and procedures. Naturalists in this sense tend to deny that any demarcation between science and nonscientific activities, or between moral preferences and ethics, could be absolute. At the same time, however, such naturalists prefer science over pseudoscience and thus live by a distinction between what can be justified and what cannot. Naturalists who seek to ascribe normative standing to science and morality without introducing an absolute realm of values, truths, or procedures, may connect humble origins via a long trajectory across many thresholds to more lofty convictions that, in the end, need not be all too different from traditional ones on ethics and epistemology. For a naturalist, in the sense considered in this paragraph, the transition from description to prescription is never beyond modification, though hopefully approximating the true and good.
In anthropological reflections on the human person as one who acts, thinks, and experiences in this world, naturalism stands primarily in contrast to positions such as rationalism, which are not much interested in the way mental capacities are embodied. Naturalism invites the understanding of humans as materially constituted, owing their abilities to an evolutionary history of billions of years. Within the scientific community and within debates in the philosophy of mind, research projects such as embodied artificial intelligence and connectionism seem to indicate a shift away from the dualistic tendencies of rationalism. The challenge for the naturalist is similar to the one mentioned above: If human beings are nothing but messy natural processes, what can be said of the distinct character of consciousness, ideas, feelings, and the like?
A fourth context where naturalism arises is in contrast to supernaturalism, that is, in relation to theological and metaphysical reflections on transcendence and the ways in which transcendence might manifest itself in ordinary reality. In this context, some consider naturalism to be identical to atheism, but this need not be the case.
Naturalism and natural science
Naturalism often refers to a view of the world that follows the natural sciences as its main guide for understanding the world and human nature. Such a naturalism is not formally implied by the sciences because other logically coherent constructions may be possible, including less restrictive forms of naturalism, such as the one advocated by the Whiteheadian process philosopher David R. Griffin in his Religion and Scientific Naturalism (2000).
With respect to ontology, science-inspired naturalism holds that all objects, including human beings, consist of the stuff described by chemists in the periodic table of elements. This stuff is further understood to consist of elementary particles and forces, and beyond that is assumed to consist of quantum fields, superstrings, or whatever. Such a naturalist must grant that human knowledge has not reached rock bottom. Hence, naturalism cannot be articulated from a fundamental ontology upwards. Nor need it imply that all phenomena can be described in terms of physics and chemistry. A conceptual and explanatory nonreductionism may be possible, arguing that higher level properties and entities have their own causal efficacy, just as future entities will be real and causally efficacious even when they are produced by present ones.
With respect to history, naturalism understands living beings, including humans, as the current stage in a bundle of Darwinian evolutionary histories on the planet, which is itself a transient phenomenon in a universe that has been expanding for some fifteen billion years. These insights do not commit one to a particular view on processes near the "beginning of time," if there is one. It is with history as with ontology: Fundamental issues about the beginning of the universe and the nature of time, space, and substance need not be settled for the naturalist.
Naturalism sees social and mental life as one of the fruits of the long evolutionary process. The "understanding" of science and philosophy is one facet of this, even when it reflects upon its own emergence. Naturalism holds that this is not a vicious circularity. Rather, science and other intellectual enterprises can be seen as building upon human capacities for dealing with their environment, improved piecemeal over many generations. Science is seen as a social phenomenon that is cognitively reliable, and increasingly so. Philip Kitcher argues well in The Advancement of Science (1993) that the human, historical, and social character of science need not undermine scientific credibility.
The difference between integrity and self-sufficiency
Explanations of facts always assume an explanatory framework of laws and earlier conditions. Conditions and laws can be explained on the basis of other such assumptions. The various sequences of explanations, if pursued persistently, converge via biology and chemistry on the desks of physicists and cosmologists. Their disciplines form a boundary of the natural sciences, where speculative questions with respect to a naturalist view of the world come most explicitly to the forefront. The questions left at the metaphorical "last desk" are questions about the world as a whole, its existence and structure, and not only questions about its beginning. The development of science may change the actual ultimate questions considered at any time. However, naturalism need not imply the dismissal of such limit questions as answerable or meaningless, nor need it imply one particular answer to such limit questions.
Given the lawful integrity of the world as disclosed by the sciences, one may distinguish four views of God's relation to natural reality and its regularities, two of which might be considered naturalistic. These two views are often conflated, to the disadvantage of the religious one. First, a theist might hold that God may act against the laws of nature. Whereas on the basis of natural processes one would expect a to happen, God makes b occur. Such a view of God's relation to the world has adverse consequences for one's esteem for God's creation (which includes the laws), since created reality is apparently of such a kind that God has to interfere against God's own creation. Second, some authors in the religion and science field argue that there is enough looseness (contingency) in the web God created in the first place to allow for particular divine actions, without going against any laws of nature. This looseness might perhaps be located in complex and chaotic systems or at the quantum level. The natural order could result in a number of different outcomes, say a, b, c, and d, and God makes it that c happens rather than a, b, or d. This view depends on contingency of an ontological kind in nature, whether at the quantum level or elsewhere.
Naturalism need not deny the existence of such contingency in nature; perhaps natural reality is hazy and underdetermined. However, naturalists would in general abstain from supplementing natural reality with supranatural determining factors. Chance is taken as chance and not as divine determination. Naturalism accepts that nature is, when one considers the level of causal interactions, complete, without theologically relevant holes. As created reality, the natural world has an integrity that need not be supplemented within its web of interactions. However, this integrity is not to be confused with self-sufficiency; it does not imply that natural reality owes its existence to itself or is self-explanatory. Thus, it is important to distinguish between naturalism as emphasizing the integrity of the natural world (the third view), and naturalism as claiming also the self-sufficiency of the natural world (the fourth view).
Arguments about the self-sufficiency of reality need to be different from arguments about explanations within reality. This difference is often neglected in atheistic arguments that appeal to science, such as Peter Atkins in The Creation (1981), in which he claims that science is about to explain everything. He traces back everything to a beginning of utmost simplicity, but he cannot do so without assuming real existence and a framework wherein certain rules and mathematics apply. A naturalist need not assume the self-sufficiency of the framework when seeing the framework itself as a whole that has integrity.
Transcendence: some naturalistic options
A naturalist who appreciates the integrity and lawfulness of reality can still conceive of a creator of this framework, the ground of its existence. This is best understood as a nontemporal notion. When God is not seen as one who interferes, the alternative is not to see God as the creator who started it all a long time ago but rather to think of God as the one who gives all moments and places of reality their existence and order. In such a way, one can combine a naturalist view of reality with theistic dualism, understanding the natural world as a whole as creation, dependent upon a transcendent creator. This might be articulated with the help of a distinction between primary and secondary causality, or between temporal processes in the world and timeless dependence of the temporally extended world on God. Such a view emphasizes, as do the monotheistic traditions, the distinction between God and everything that is not God.
The ontological dualism characteristic of such a naturalistic-theistic position is unattractive to many naturalists, who are concerned that any reference to a creator or ground introduces a supernaturalism that diminishes the integrity of the natural. Such naturalists might be attracted to a pantheist view, denying ontological duality of the natural and the divine; the natural is in some sense the divine. Traditional attributes of the divine, such as atemporality and omnipresence, can be associated with the laws of nature, which are upon this view not so much rooted in a transcendent source but immanent in natural reality. Reality may be causa sui in that quantum theories may allow a temporal universe to emerge, and at a smaller scale self-organization is characteristic of many processes. However, as in the preceding case, pantheistic answers are invoking further questions and objections, just as the theistic answer always allows for the further question about why such a god would exist.
A third option is an agnostic stance. Milton Munitz defends in his Cosmic Understanding (1986) that any actual theory of the universe is conceptually bounded; there might be a dimension of reality "beyond" any such account, but it could not be expressed adequately in language. "We shall be driven, consequently, and at the end, to silence, although the 'talk' on the way, if at all helpful, will have had its value in making the silence a pregnant one, and indeed an occasion for having an over-ridingly important type of human experience" (p. 231). Similarly, in his In Face of Mystery (1993), the theologian Gordon Kaufman points out various problems with the dualistic language of theism, as if we on this side of the great divide can know that which is on the other side; our knowledge of the world in which we live "always shades off into ultimate mystery, into an ultimate unknowing" (p. 326). Emphasizing "mystery," not-knowing is a safe strategy. However, it does not offer much guidance as to particular choices to be made in life; the notion of mystery is more epistemic than axiological or ontological.
These different theological viewshe theist, the pantheist, and the mysterianistre all generally compatible with a science-inspired naturalist understanding of reality. The way they are articulated and defended may be influenced by current scientific theories, but variants of these positions can be formulated again and again.
A different naturalistic challenge: religion as a phenomenon
Science-inspired naturalism is a challenge for religion since it presents a view of the world that differs from traditional religious images. This leads in religion and science to conflicts between science and religiously motivated beliefs, such as creationism. However, a naturalist view also considers religions as phenomena within reality. Thus, they can be studied just like other human practices. The neurosciences may inform us of aspects of our constitution that give rise to our "inner life." And in an evolutionary perspective most naturalists would explain the emergence of religions functionally along lines similar to explanations for political institutions, languages, and other social phenomena: Religions arose because they contributed to the inclusive fitness of individuals or communities in which they arose and which in turn were shaped by them. An alternative could be that religions arose as a side effect with the emergence of some other trait, such as the rise of consciousness. Thus, naturalists might see religions with their myths and rituals as valuable means of dealing with the challenges of life. However, a contested issue then becomes whether we should take the vehicles (the rituals, myths, narratives, conceptualities, etc) seriously as cognitive claims, or whether those who want to take the cognitive claims seriously should reject the functional naturalistic approach.
Religious naturalism as thick naturalism
Religious naturalism might be understood as a "thick" naturalism, with idiosyncratic elements that allow for a decent amount of coping with the vicissitudes of life, with stories that support values and motivate humans. The notion "thick" is appropriated here from a distinction made by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz between thin and thick descriptions of a culture. Whereas the one offers a fairly abstract and general (thin) description, the other concentrates on the multitude of habits, beliefs, skills, narratives, and the like, which make for a more tightly woven whole.
For the history of religious naturalism one might refer to philosophers, scientists, and theologians of various backgrounds, including Henry Nelson Wieman, George Santayana, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, Ralph Burhoe, Mordecai Kaplan, and Jack J. Cohen, and to some extent even Alfred North Whitehead and William James (there is a huge overlap between religious naturalism and American pragmatism). Beyond the last century and a half, one may go back further in time and claim to be heirs of Spinoza as well as of other pantheistic scientists. Claiming these as ancestors is to some extent appropriation out of context, but that is precisely the intellectually ambivalent practice that strengthens identity. These "ancestors" were all perceived as somewhat heretical in their times, while standing in close contact with, if not being part of, the scientific communityrecisely the mix that may fit contemporary religious naturalism.
Like any subculture, religious naturalism is not uniform. To the contrary, as in any living community there have arisen dialects, with different speakers giving their own interpretations to the words. There are Christian and humanist dialects of religious naturalism, as well as biological, psychological, and physicalist ones, all of which reflect upbringing, training, and heritage, as well as needs and situations. Some dialects are dialects of another tradition as well, just as the local dialect near the border of the Netherlands is considered by some to be a dialect of Dutch, whereas others treat it as a dialect of German. Thus, liberal or revisionist forms of theology may be read as forms of Christianity, as well as of religious naturalism. There is a wide range of personal styles, from the sober, minimalist, and analytical (e.g., Jerome Stone, Charley Hardwick) to the evocative (e.g., Ursula Goodenough). Religious naturalism has become an umbrella that covers a variety of dialects, of which some are revisionary articulations of existing traditions, whereas others may be more purely naturalistic religions indebted almost exclusively to the sciences. There are family resemblances, with affinities and disagreements, but not unity.
See also SUPERNATURALISM
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WILLEM B. DREES