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Naturalism (philosophy)

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Naturalism is any of several philosophical stances, typically those descended from materialism and pragmatism, that do not distinguish the supernatural from nature. Naturalism does not necessarily claim that phenomena or hypotheses commonly labeled as supernatural do not exist or are wrong, but insists that all phenomena and hypotheses can be studied by the same methods and therefore anything considered supernatural is either nonexistent, unknowable, or not inherently different from natural phenomena or hypotheses.

Any method of inquiry or investigation or any procedure for gaining knowledge that limits itself to natural, physical, and material approaches and explanations can be described as naturalistic.

Distinctions are sometimes made between two approaches, the first being methodological naturalism or scientific naturalism, and the second ontological naturalism or metaphysical naturalism. The first approach underlies the application of the scientific method in science, which makes the methodological assumption that observable events in nature are explained only by natural causes, without assuming the existence or non-existence of the supernatural, and hence does not accept supernatural explanations for such events. The second approach refers to the metaphysical belief that the natural world (including the universe) is all that exists, and therefore nothing supernatural exists. According to Ronald Numbers, the term "methodological naturalism" was coined by Paul de Vries, a Wheaton College philosopher.[1]

This distinction between approaches to the philosophy of naturalism is particularly made by those supporting science and evolution in the creation-evolution controversy. Some proponents of Creationism or intelligent design refer to methodological naturalism as scientific materialism or as methodological materialism which they conflate with metaphysical naturalism, in contrast to their preferred approach of a revived natural philosophy which welcomes supernatural explanations for natural phenomena.

This article will focus primarily on methodological naturalism. A separate article more thoroughly addresses metaphysical naturalism.

Methodological naturalism versus ontological naturalismEdit

There is a distinct difference between an ontological approach to naturalism and a methodological assumption of naturalism. Ontology is a matter of whether something exists, while methodology relates to the accepted practical procedures used in science.

Ontological naturalism is often called "metaphysical naturalism," the view that the supernatural does not exist, which entails strong atheism.

In contrast, methodological naturalism is the more limited view that the supernatural can't be used in scientific methods, or shouldn't be. Many philosophers of science consider that a basic requirement of scientific investigation is that it must be empirically testable, which effectively limits it to studying and explaining the natural world. Naturalism of this sort says nothing about the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural which by this definition is beyond natural testing. Others holds that some supernatural explanations might be testable in principle, but are so unlikely, given past results, that resources should not be wasted exploring them. Either way, their rejection is only a practical matter, so it is possible to be a methodological naturalist and an ontological supernaturalist at the same time. For example, while natural scientists follow methodological naturalism in their scientific work, they may also believe in God (ontological supernaturalism), or they may be metaphysical naturalists and therefore atheists.

This position does not preclude knowledge that derives from the study of what is hitherto considered supernatural, but if such a phenomenon can be scientifically examined and explained naturally, it then ceases to be supernatural. However, others (methodological supernaturalists) argue that such a position is inherently inconsistent. They ask, how can science presuppose what is discoverable before it has been discovered? What is immeasurable is untestable, until a measuring device is invented and a new discovery process enabled. But in order to be allowed by scientific orthodoxy to discover and invent new ways of testing reality, one must be allowed to engage in scientific pursuits of what is considered unscientific (but then, as stated, the 'unscientific' becomes scientific, if it's true). Otherwise, knowledge is limited not as much as by religious dogmas, but by materialistic paradigms. This position is taken by creationists such as the Institute for Creation Research and Creation Science, whose website claims that methodological naturalism limits science by not invoking the supernatural, and that "methodological naturalism cannot be justified as a normative principle for all types of science – without doing violence to science as a truth-seeking enterprise" [1].

Supporters of the scientific method defend methodological naturalism, describing it as "effective, powerful"[2], "promoting successful investigation"[3], and "an essential aspect of ... the study of the natural universe"[4]. They also view the history of science as showing "a progression from supernaturalism to naturalism"[5]. These supporters consider the creationist alternative as "positively ineffective and counter-productive ... in attempts to understand the natural world"[6].

This question was given detailed attention during the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial in 2005, and in his memorandum of findings United States federal court judge John E. Jones III concluded that "Methodological naturalism is a 'ground rule' of science today". This ruling sets a federal district judicial precedent in the context of legal restrictions on the teaching of religion in U.S. schools, and more broadly the memorandum sets out an impartial assessment of the evidence and arguments relating to the use in science of methodological naturalism as against supernatural explanations.

Naturalism as epistemologyEdit

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.

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 this way philosophy becomes "continuous with" science. Naturalism is not a dogmatic belief that the modern view of science is entirely correct. Instead, it simply holds the processes of the universe have a scientific explanation, and those processes are what modern science is striving to understand.

Naturalism and philosophy of mindEdit

There is currently some dispute over whether naturalism rules out certain areas of philosophy altogether, such as semantics, ethics, aesthetics, or excludes the use of mentalistic vocabulary ("believes," "thinks,") in philosophy of mind. Quine avoided most of these topics, but some recent thinkers have argued that even though (according to them) mentalistic descriptions and value judgements cannot be systematically translated into physicalistic descriptions, they also do not need to presuppose the existence of anything other than physical phenomena.

Donald Davidson, for example, has argued that individual mental states can (must, in fact) be identical with individual brain states, even though a given kind of mental state (belief in materialism) might not be systematically identified with a given kind of brain state (a particular pattern of neural firings): the former weakly "supervenes" upon the latter. The implication is that naturalism can leave non-physical vocabulary intact where the use of that vocabulary can be explained naturalistically; McDowell has dubbed this level of discourse "second nature."


The ideas and assumptions of philosophical naturalistism date to the Ionian pre-Socratic philosophers of the 4th century BC; see, e.g., Jonathan Barnes's introduction to Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin), which describes them as subscribing to principles of empirical investigation that strikingly anticipate naturalism. 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 remove much of the remaining theistic baggage from scientific investigation culminating in the development of modern biology and geology which rejected the prevailing origin beliefs of the wider society's religion.

Criticism of naturalismEdit

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 scientific method.

— Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Routledge, 2002), p. 31, ISBN 0415278449.

Popper instead proposed the criterion of falsifiability for demarcation.

Critics of naturalism claim that the possibility of supernatural action is unnecessarily excluded by the current practices and theories of science. Currently, proponents of intelligent design, those who hold that certain features of the natural world are best explained as the results of intelligence, argue that the naturalist conception of reality is not needed in order to do science. The general criticism is that insisting that the natural world is a closed system of inviolable laws independent of theism or supernatural intervention will cause science to come to incorrect conclusions and inappropriately exclude research that claims to include such ideas.

The debate over naturalism is alive and complex, because it concerns how narrowly or broadly nature should be defined. How open it is to what is accepted as scientific is precisely the issue that concerns just how naturalism is to be interpreted. Theism and atheism are often the two liveliest philosophies that discuss these matters in delineating the content of reality.

Contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued that evolutionary naturalism is incoherent.

"Scientific materialism"Edit

Scientific materialism or methodological materialism are interchangeable dysphemisms for methodological naturalism (sometimes: scientific naturalism). The term is used to imply that scientists collude to force a materialist (or rationalist) worldview onto people.

The term is usually only used by critics of the scientific discipline, such as the proponents of intelligent design or creationism who make the teleological assumption of purpose or meaning in nature, and want science to be redefined to include supernatural explanations of natural phenomena.

The term has become somewhat more common as laymen are introduced to the creation–evolution controversy through the Discovery Institute's framing of the language. Philosophers and scientists never use the term, because it is vaguely defined. It conflicts with established language in an already-complex philosophical topic and thus causes confusion. It is intended to introduce the ambiguity and negative connotations relevant to creationist criticisms of naturalism.

See alsoEdit

Neutral linksEdit

  • 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)

Supportive linksEdit

Critical linksEdit

Notes and referencesEdit

  1. Nick Matzke: On the Origins of Methodological Naturalism. The Pandas Thumb (March 20, 2006)
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