Naturalism (Philosophy)

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For Naturalism in literature and art, see Naturalism (literature).

Naturalism designates any of several philosophical stances that make the assumption that nature is governed by objective laws, which can be understood through observation and experimentation without recourse to super-natural or extra-natural reality. 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.

Naturalism does not distinguish the supernatural (including entities like non-natural values, and universals) from nature. It equates nature with reality, insisting that all phenomena and hypotheses can be studied using the same methods. Naturalism implies that all knowledge of the universe can be arrived at through scientific investigation, and that “supernatural” phenomena can be studied through their detectable influence on natural phenomena. Anything labeled “supernatural” is either nonexistent, unknowable, or not inherently different from natural phenomena or hypotheses. Naturalistic philosophy is typically associated with materialism and pragmatism, and does not give much consideration to metaphysics.

Naturalism also designates a meta-ethical position in ethics, which holds that ethics can be derived from and are reducible to non-ethical, natural, descriptive facts, and that ethical terms can be defined by non-ethical, natural terms. (See Meta-ethics)


The ideas and assumptions of philosophical naturalism were first seen in the works of the Ionian pre-Socratic philosophers. Thales, often regarded as the founder of science, was the first to give explanations of natural events without resorting to supernatural causes such as the actions of the Greek gods. Jonathan Barnes's introduction to Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin) describes these early philosophers as subscribing to principles of empirical investigation that strikingly anticipate naturalism.

During the twelfth century, after the works of Aristotle became available to European scholars in Latin, scholastic thinkers began to formulate a rational explanation of the universe.

“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 (ca. 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 erroneous habit of attributing unusual astronomical phenomena to the supernatural. In the fourteenth century the natural philosopher Nicole Oresme (ca. 1320-1382), 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." [1]

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. Scientific investigation culminated in the development of modern biology and geology, which rejected a literal interpretation of the prevailing origin beliefs of the revealed religions.

In the 1930s and 1940s, naturalism enjoyed a resurgence in the United States among philosophers such as F. J. E. Woodbridge, Morris R. Cohen, John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, and Sidney Hook.

Methodological Naturalism

Naturalism as epistemology

During the last half of the twentieth century, philosophers began to seek continuity with science, using scientific methods and knowledge as criteria for judging the validity of philosophical inquiry. "Methodological naturalism" holds that philosophers should use the empirical methods of scientific inquiry to conduct philosophical inquiry. Some methodological naturalists accept other types of philosophical speculation, but contend that only empirical examination can determine whether a particular speculation is truly applicable to human life. Substantive naturalists believe that any legitimate philosophical inquiry must be able to be substantiated by a scientific empirical investigation.

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, for example, using scientific studies of the brain to investigate the nature of cognition. Philosophy should also feel free to offer criticism when scientific 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 that the processes of the universe have a scientific explanation, and those processes are what modern science is striving to understand.

Methodological Naturalism and Science

If objective laws and processes of nature did not exist, the pursuit of scientific knowledge would become meaningless. The fact that man continually searches for knowledge of objective truth is considered a confirmation of the naturalistic methodology. Even when one scientific theory is found to be flawed, and is replaced with another, mankind never doubts that the truth will eventually be understood. Theories change, but the method for evolving them does not.

According to Ronald Numbers, the term "methodological naturalism" was coined in 1983 by Paul de Vries, at Wheaton College, Illinois, to distinguish 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." [2] The term "methodological naturalism" had been used in 1937 by Edgar Sheffield 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.[3]

In a series of articles and books from 1996 onwards, 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. Pennock's testimony as an expert witness[4] at the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial in 2005 was cited by United States federal court Judge John E. Jones III in his Memorandum Opinion concluding that "Methodological naturalism is a "ground rule" of science today." This ruling set 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 set out an impartial assessment of the evidence and arguments relating to the use in science of methodological naturalism as against supernatural explanations.

The historical support of methodological naturalism by Christians is noted by Numbers:

Despite the occasional efforts of unbelievers to use scientific naturalism to construct a world without God, it has retained strong Christian support down to the present. And well it might, for (…) scientific naturalism was largely made in Christendom by pious Christians. Although it possessed the potential to corrode religious beliefs—and sometimes did so—it flourished among Christian scientists who believe that God customarily achieved his ends through natural causes.[5]

Naturalism and Philosophy of Mind

There is currently some dispute over whether naturalism altogether rules out certain areas of philosophy which are constructs of the human mind, such as semantics, ethics, aesthetics, or excludes the use of the mentalistic vocabulary ("believes," "thinks") employed in philosophy of mind. Some recent thinkers have argued that even though mentalistic descriptions and value judgments 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 states of the physical brain, 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. Recently developed technologies which allow the observation of human brain activity have shown that specific areas of the brain activity are associated with certain types of mental states.

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."

Criticisms of Naturalism

The debate over naturalism is alive and complex, because it concerns both the basis of science, and how narrowly or broadly nature should be defined.


Karl Popper equated naturalism with inductive theory of science, and rejected it based on his general critique of induction, while acknowledging its utility as a means for inventing conjectures. {{quotation|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. [6] Popper instead proposed the criterion of "falsifiability" for demarcation.

Creationism and intelligent design

Supporters of creationism claim that the possibility of supernatural action is unnecessarily excluded by the current practices and theories of science. Proponents of intelligent design, who hold that certain features of the natural world are best explained as the results of a divine intelligence, argue that the naturalist conception of reality may restrict the ability to arrive at a correct understanding of the universe. Their general criticism is that insisting that the natural world is a closed system of inviolable laws, independent of supernatural intervention, will cause science to come to incorrect conclusions and inappropriately exclude research that claims to include such ideas. Contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued that evolutionary naturalism is incoherent. In Science and Theology News [7] he attacks the conclusions of the Kitzmiller trial and suggests that the term "science" denotes any activity that is:

  1. a systematic and disciplined enterprise aimed at finding out truth about our world, and
  2. has significant empirical involvement. Any activity that meets these vague conditions counts as science.

He concludes "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."

Naturalism in Ethics

(See Meta-ethics)

Naturalism in ethics designates a position in meta-ethics, which holds that ethics and its components are reducible to non-ethical, natural facts; ethical concepts and terms such as moral goodness, justice, and rightness can be defined by natural, descriptive, empirical terms; and they can be reducible to natural facts or natural events. Hedonism, utilitarianism, and pragmatism are examples of naturalism.

G. E. Moore criticized naturalism by arguing that "ought" cannot be derived from "is." Moore called an attempt to derive "ought" from "is" "naturalistic fallacy." Moore's criticism had a strong impact on naturalism theorists, but after the 1960s they became active again.

See also


  1. Ronald L. Numbers (2003). "Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs." When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press), 267.
  2. Nick Matzke On the Origins of Methodological Naturalism. The Pandas Thumb (March 20, 2006). Retrieved July 11, 2007.
  3. Keith Miller ASA March 2006 - Re: Methodological Naturalism. Retrieved July 11, 2007.
  4. Kitzmiller trial: testimony of Robert T. Pennock. Retrieved July 11, 2007.
  5. Numbers 2003, op. cit, 284
  6. Karl R. Popper The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Routledge, 2002), 31, ISBN 0415278449
  7. "Whether ID is Science isn't Semantics: Judge John Jones gave two arguments for his conclusion that ID is not science. Both are unsound, says Alvin Plantinga," Science & Theology News, March 7, 2006. Discovery Institute. Retrieved July 11, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barnes, Jonathan. 1987. Early Greek philosophy. Penguin classics. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. ISBN 0140444610 ISBN 9780140444612
  • Caro, Mario De. and David Macarthur (eds.) 2004. Naturalism in Question. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  • DeGrood, David H., Dale Maurice Riepe, and John Somerville. 1971. Radical currents in contemporary philosophy. St. Louis: W. H. Green.
  • Lindberg, David C., and Ronald L. Numbers. 2003. When science & Christianity meet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226482146 ISBN 9780226482149
  • Popper, Karl Raimund. 2002. The logic of scientific discovery. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415278449
  • Pennock, Robert T. 2001. Intelligent design creationism and its critics: philosophical, theological, and scientific perspectives. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. ISBN 0262162040 ISBN 9780262162043 ISBN 0262661241 ISBN 9780262661249
  • Petto, Andrew J., and Laurie R. Godfrey. 2007. Scientists confront intelligent design and creationism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 9780393050905 ISBN 0393050904

External Links

All links retrieved November 11, 2022.

Stanford Encyclopedia entry:

The following links are mostly concerning the debate between naturalists and those who regard naturalism as a denial or misrepresentation of God:


  • 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 of Naturalism

Critical of Naturalism

General Philosophy Sources


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