Many atheists identify themselves as naturalists, as Metaphysical Naturalism is the world view that states there are nothing but natural forces and causes in the Universe. (There are many forms of naturalism, but for the purposes of atheist philosophy our emphasis will be on Metaphysical Naturalism and a few segues into Scientific Naturalism, or Methodological Naturalism.) Naturalism rejects any explanation or transcendental belief in objects that are considered supernatural by theists. It is a belief that nature and only nature can exist and that explanations for observable events in nature can be explained by resort to examining observable causes.
Most naturalists reject the concept that humans are sinful and depend on god. They reject the idea that people can only make sense of their lives if they live them according to some supernatural command. On the contrary, naturalists believe that people can control their lives without believing in god or any transcendental entity.
The roots of naturalism lie in ancient Greece. The 7th Century B.C.E. philosopher, Thales, believed that all existence was one substance. There was Protagoras, the 5th Century B.C.E. philosopher, who maintained that observation and inquiry rather than omens, auguries, and priestly pronouncements were more effective tools for understanding the world. Democritus, the 5th Century B.C.E. Greek philosopher, stated that all nature was composed of atoms.
Accompanying such proto-scientific beliefs about the world were the ameliorating philosophies for human flourishing in the Hellenistic, cosmopolitan Greek civilization. For the atheist scholar, the most important of these schools was Epicureanism. Epicurus was a 1st Century B.C.E. philosopher and the author of On Nature, the definitive treatise of his school. He believed in an atomistic world that moves in a void and is governed by natural laws. Epicurus saw the gods as types of human beings, but immortal, who lived in spaces between multiple universes in perfect contentment. Such gods had no interest in human beings. Epicureans tried to live their lives with pleasure and moderation as objectives. They believed in the annihilation of the self at death. Happiness for the epicurean was enjoyment of the pleasures of peace, repose, study, friendships and play.
Epicurus wanted men to lose their fear of death and of the gods. His most famous and quoted statement on the nature of god is still an excellent argument for atheism in the present day. “Either God wants to abolish evil and cannot, or he can, but does not want to…If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can but does not want to, he is wicked.”
Lucretius, the 1st Century B.C.E. Roman poet, was an epicurean and his writing is as simple and elegant as the epicurean philosophy. He authored the great naturalist poem, The Nature of Things (50 B.C. E.) In this remarkable work, Lucretius writes about a materialist universe, its beginnings and workings. He speaks about the naturalistic manner in which human societies evolved. Lucretius takes up human discoveries and attributes, such as languages and discusses how they originated from natural causes. Nature of Things is the quintessential epicurean philosophy in verse. The poem reiterates the themes of causal explanation of the universe and the freeing of men’s minds from fear as a result. It affirms free will and denies the survival of the soul after death. Epicurean philosophy was the first time in Western philosophy that a naturalistic world view was so fully articulated.
As Christianity rose to dominance in the West, with the later spread of Islam, Metaphysical Naturalism waned. There is little evidence of naturalism in the Renaissance. However, the works of Aristotle, the 5th Century B.C.E. Greek philosopher, were reintroduced to the West during the Renaissance. The work of early scientists such as Copernicus, Keller, Galileo and Leonardo Da Vinci demonstrates an empirical method that would produce a predictive reality model. There were natural philosophers such as Francis Bacon, a proponent of the scientific method in the 16th Century and Robert Boyle, famous for inventing the air pump in the 17th Century, who was called the “father of chemistry.” Many of these men found themselves in conflict with the powerful Catholic Church, both in their conclusions about the world and the methods used to attain them.
In 1687, Isaac Newton published his Principia. This was the first time simple mathematical laws of gravity, inertia and mass described the movement of earth and the heavens, bringing them together. Formerly they were thought to be separate. In the mid 17th Century, Spinoza maintained that god was identical with the impersonal forces of nature. His monism, merged with Newtonian theory, helped eliminate the supernatural from the thinking world of that time. William Harvey showed the heart worked like a machine, pumping blood through the body. These discoveries opened the way for the concept of natural causation.
The Enlightenment in the 18th Century produced philosophic theorists who popularized Newton, Boyle and Harvey. It has been pointed out that the French “Philosophers” were the first public intellectuals. The publication of The Encyclopedia, edited by Dennis Diderot and others and first published in 1751, furthered naturalism as it was meant to collect all the knowledge of nature at that time. John Locke, in 17th Century England and Jean Jacques Rousseau in 18th Century France, undermined the deterministic chain of being hierarchal concept that posited fixed roles for people. Chain of being was based partly on the fall of man on account of sin from the paradise myth. God was at the top of that chain, according to the medieval view, with authority passing to the divinely ordained monarch. Locke in Britain and Rousseau in France initiated theories of humans in secular social contracts. Both philosophers attacked the churches and the monarchies for their corrupt and reactionary social systems.
Baron d’Holbach wrote an important volume in 1770, The System of Nature, which denied any truths not observed as part of natural law, which included the concept of god. Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, which explained natural selection. This volume in “one stroke unified the life sciences with the rest of the natural sciences and ended the need to posit supernatural causes as an explanation for the order and diversity of nature.”
The rise of naturalism, particularly its emphasis on the scientific method, culminated around 1870, in the most important and independent American philosophy, that of Pragmatism, also known as the Columbia School. Its founder was Charles S. Pierce. Pragmatism rejected the vague metaphysical speculation of the 19th Century Transcendentalists. Pragmatism was empirical in methodology. Charles Pierce and William James were both radical empiricists. They believed that a proposition is true only if it works successfully. Consequences of an idea or concept were the important criteria for accepting a theory. The pragmatic philosophy was most interested in the individual placed within society, and in the adaptive responses of people within social groups.
Charles S. Pierce is now sometimes credited with preparing the way for 20th Century philosophy. He invented a form of semiotics, as did the French philosopher, Saussure. Semiotics is the concept that words are “arbitrary symbols” that generate meaning. Pierce also believed that all knowledge is contingent, including scientific knowledge.
William James thought that psychology should be more like the experimental sciences. He explained consciousness and its functions in evolutionary terms; he saw consciousness as a continuous flow. James’ functionalism led him to believe that the “cash value” of certain ideas and beliefs was more important to individuals than the truth of those ideas. If a concept such as religion offered a return or reward for a person, that idea was worthwhile. Most atheists would not agree or find James’ theory robust. Secular persons do not believe that living in illusion is a permanent or rational source of happiness.
The pragmatist, John Dewey, was America’s most well known public intellectual. Dewey believed in an intelligent and scientific approach to everyday life. He found, as did Pierce, that scientific knowledge, as well as other forms of knowledge, was highly contingent. He had great influence on America’s educational thought. In his Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, children were encouraged to develop hypotheses and to test them. Dewey was a firm believer in democracy and in keeping religion out of the public school system. He attempted to take the supernatural and mythological out of religion and replace it with a concrete ‘religious feeling,’ devoid of transcendence. He stated that god is a human expression of the highest ideals.
W.V. Quine was an important neo-pragmatist, who put an end to the ascendancy of Logical positivism by demonstrating how imprecise its core concepts were. (See Logical Positivism) Richard Rorty was a contemporary neo-pragmatist, arguably the most well known. He questioned philosophy and its purpose. He believed that scientific and philosophical terms were contingent and changed over time. Rorty developed the concept of “ironism” in which people are aware of the placement of their ideas in history and society and understand their temporary condition. He was most interested in freeing people’s minds from out-dated philosophical concepts. Rorty was against foundationalism in science as well as religion. He wanted people’s minds to be free without searching for new concepts to worship. Rorty called his atheism “post-metaphysical,” meaning that he had no surrogate for god. His aversion to institutionalized religion is well known.
Neo-pragmatism has moved beyond the earlier theories of James and Dewey, and now some neo-pragmatists posit language and its relation to the external world as the most important subject for philosophy. The neo-pragmatists give credit to Dewey and James for rejecting many outworn methods and goals in philosophy. But they maintain that the original pragmatists tried to reconstruct too many antiquated concepts. They find only language can serve as a basic function of philosophy, and that having accepted this fact, philosophies are free to fashion and work to new ends.
Naturalism is an important philosophy for free thinkers. It is grounded in monism rather than Cartesian dualism. Naturalism is the default working method for science today. More thinkers are coming to accept the fact that the mind and its consciousness are embedded in the working of the material brain. In philosophy a majority of professional philosophers assume naturalism as a base from which they work. Despite critics, naturalism has emerged from its earlier embattled position and is being accepted by more and more people. The time is coming when outmoded thinking is discarded, when people will think and exist in a world that is grounded in their material bodies and minds. They will begin to live with an intelligent and unbiased view of morality and society.
(For Works Cited and List of Selected Books see below)
3 Lucretius. The Nature of Things. Tras. Frank Copley. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1977.
4 Prado, Ignacio. Ionian Enchantment: A Brief History of Scientific Naturalism. June 2006. Web. (Link)
The following is a list of books that have been cited by critics and readers as works that will help the beginning reader in naturalism and enhance the information and pleasure of readers who have already begun a study of naturalism:
Clark, Tom. Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses. n.p., Center for Naturalism, 2007.
Tom Clark’s small volume on naturalism is an excellent description of the philosophy. Clark covers the early history of naturalism up to the Pragmatists. He explains that naturalism has discarded the idea of Cartesian dualism and has become a monist endeavor. This means there is no body/soul dichotomy. Nature is all there is and humans are an embodied material part of nature. There aren’t spiritual entities such as angels or ghosts, no heaven, no hell, and no god.
Clark discusses the ramifications of his point of view in envisioning a just and compassionate society. He maintains that naturalists are committed to an evidence based scientific method. He states that the mind is a function of the brain. Humans do not have disembodied souls; they do not survive death. Naturalists believe humans are products of biological evolution. Clark devotes a great deal of text to denying the concept of free will, although his stance is one of blending determinism with choice and good reasons for committing certain actions. While his arguments are very good, this area of thought remains an open and problematical question. (See Determinism versus Free Will)
Clark writes in a lively, clear and plain spoken prose. There is a very nice list of volumes referenced for readers who want to read more about naturalism. Encountering Naturalism is an excellent short little book for the beginning student of naturalism.
Dewey, John. The Philosophy of John Dewey. (John J. McDermott, Ed.) Two Volumes in One. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 1981.
John Dewey was one of America’s most famous public intellectuals. Volume One contains his essays on metaphysics, inquiry, knowledge problems and value theory. Volume Two is concerned with applied philosophy, and James’ discourses on pedagogy, ethics, aesthetics, politics and culture. McDermott has written a very helpful preface to each section which readers praise.
Dewey is an important figure in pragmatism and his writings on education for children are tantalizing. Many teachers still profit from reading him. Educators of the present day are interested in Dewey’s contention that too much emphasis on curriculum rather than learning by doing separates children from the real world. He emphasized a multi -faceted program for schools that involved science experimentation and the scientific method. He was also in favor of industrial subjects. He was a strong proponent of democracy and he believed that schools should be organized so that socialization of the children would bring about morality. Dewey was very opposed to and outspoken against the teaching of religion in public schools.
James, William. William James: Writings: 1902-1910. New York: Library of America, 1988.
This handsome Library of America volume contains most of James’ important works: The Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, The Meaning of Truth, Some Problems of Philosophy, and Essays. James has a polished style and most of his work is accessible. Pragmatism is an important essay which discusses his consequentialism. James believed that philosophy does not matter unless it affects humans in concrete terms, in their experienced lives. He takes the position that the “cash value” of beliefs is what counts. If the individual benefits from a concept, then its truth is of no consequence. Many Atheists will not agree with James’ thinking that religions might be a dupe, but a necessary one. Surely living one’s life in accord with an illusion must have certain negative consequences in the long run. His thinking on religion is not robust.
James is an important philosopher and psychologist, very much engaged with empirical evidence, which he hoped would provide answers for both men and society. His Writings is an excellent book to begin the study of his pragmatic outlook. He is not only a clear and accessible author, but a fine stylist and an elegant one.
Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2001.
Kai Nielsen is a very spirited defender of naturalism and this thick volume is Nielsen at his very intellectual best. The publisher’s note on the text states that Nielsen writes of naturalism without dogmatism or partisanship. This statement is quite mistaken. Nielsen is a partisan for the world view of naturalism and for a liberal socio/political outlook.
This volume explores naturalism in its many aspects. Some chapter headings are: Naturalist Explanations of Religion, On Being a Secularist all the Way Down, The Faces of Immortality, and The Meaning of Life. The third section of the volume contains a lengthy critique of Wittgenstein’s thinking on religion and Wittgenstein’s critiques of relativism. Wittgenstein, the influential 20th Century philosopher, made an interesting remark that the atheist and the religious man talk past each other. The final part of the text deals with critiques for and against naturalism. As always, Nielsen presents an attractive view of naturalism, the secular world, and how we might try to live without dogma. He is a formidable and witty intellect and a fine author. This is an excellent book for readers who are somewhat familiar with philosophers such as Sidney Hook and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Nielsen’s style is most accessible and comprehensible for the armchair reader.
Rorty, Richard. The Mirror of Nature. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Richard Rorty was a professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University and a public intellectual. Mirror has been described as a “bomb shell” when it first came out in 1979. Rorty ambitiously attempted to show the commonalities in the American, British and Continental philosophical traditions in the 20th Century. There are mixed opinions by scholars concerning his success. He generated discussion, however, between previously isolated schools of thought. His position on philosophy is that each succeeding school claims the previous school was off track, that searching for truth, knowledge, how to be Good, and so on, was an exercise in mummification. But each new school exclaims that it has found The Final Answer. Rorty instead attempts to make philosophy a social activity for the good of the community. He would like to see philosophy regarded as an impermanent activity, generating some sort of contingent answers even though they are rooted in the changing world and not some ultimate reality. He has been charged incorrectly as a relativist, but he finds the middle ground between absolutism and relativism.
Rorty’s basic point is that philosophy compared the mind to a mirror that reflects reality. Since philosophers felt that knowledge is concerned with the accuracy of this representation, they decided that it was up to philosophy to accomplish the accuracy by working- polishing and repairing the mirror. But Rorty maintains many of the questions posed by philosophy simply cannot be answered and are irrelevant to social and cultural inquiry. Rorty’s work gave young graduate students an alternative to analytic philosophy and took philosophy back to human roots.
Rorty is a fine stylist and an intriguing thinker. But this is not a volume for the beginning student of philosophy. The reader should have some familiarity with philosophy and with thinkers such as Heidegger. Rorty is a challenging, but rewarding writer.
Rebuttals to Naturalism:
Plantinga, Alvin. Naturalism Defeated. Web. ( NEEDS COPY PASTE ) ( http://www.christianapologeticsalliance.com/2013/08/05/is-naturalism-rational-the-self-defeating-epistemology-behind-evolutionary-theories-of-cognition-part-3/ )
This website contains the full text of Plantinga’s argument against naturalism. Plantinga is arguably the most intellectual theist philosopher of the present day. He maintains that naturalism and contemporary evolutionary theory are at “serious odds” with each other. He offered the argument in Warrants and Proper Function (1993). Plantinga responds to objections to his position in this paper on the Web.
DeCaro, Marco and David Macarthur, Eds. Naturalism in Question. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Naturalism contains essays from thinkers who question certain assumptions of scientific naturalism. In the present day, most working philosophers maintain that philosophy and science are “continuous,” and that the natural sciences explain all, the theory of everything, as it were. These well known philosophers attempt to question such assumptions. Some of the authors are Stanley Cavell, Hilary Putnam and Barry Stroud.
A Defense and Explanation of Ontological Naturalism-
Martin, Michael. “ Naturalism.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 557-560. Michael Martin is one of atheism’s most eminent philosophers and defenders. For a very intense, rewarding exploration of naturalism, Martin’s article in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief is must reading. For those just coming to the study of naturalism, a few beginning volumes would be in order before reading Martin.
A few Books for readers who wish to study more intensely in the field of naturalism:
Roger Pennock. Tower of Babel (1999); John Dewey. A Common Faith. (1934); John R. Shook. The Future of Naturalism. (2009); Richard Carrier. Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. (2005.) Louis Menand. Pragmatism. (1997); Menand. The Metaphysical Club. (2002.)
There are also many fine essays in major Encyclopedias. Arthur Danto.”Naturalism” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (1967); William Alston.” Natural Reconstructions of Religion” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967.)
The (Bibliography) for all the Sections of Philosophy is in a separate file labeled Bibliography at the end.There are over 76 Works Listed.