Metaphysical naturalism (also called ontological naturalism, philosophical naturalism and antisupernaturalism) is a philosophical worldview which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences. Methodological naturalism is a philosophical basis for science, for which metaphysical naturalism provides only one possible ontological foundation. Broadly, the corresponding theological perspective is religious naturalism or spiritual naturalism. More specifically, metaphysical naturalism rejects the supernatural concepts and explanations that are part of many religions.


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In Carl Sagan’s words: "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."[1]

According to Arthur C. Danto, naturalism, in recent usage, is a species of philosophical monism according to which whatever exists or happens is natural in the sense of being susceptible to explanation through methods which, although paradigmatically exemplified in the natural sciences, are continuous from domain to domain of objects and events. Hence, naturalism is polemically defined as repudiating the view that there exists or could exist any entities which lie, in principle, beyond the scope of scientific explanation.[2]

Regarding the vagueness of the general term "naturalism", David Papineau traces the current usage to philosophers in early 20th century America such as John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, and Roy Wood Sellars: "So understood, 'naturalism' is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers. The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject 'supernatural' entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the 'human spirit'."[3] Papineau remarks that philosophers widely regard naturalism as a "positive" term, and "few active philosophers nowadays are happy to announce themselves as 'non-naturalists'", while noting that "philosophers concerned with religion tend to be less enthusiastic about 'naturalism'" and that despite an "inevitable" divergence due to its popularity, if more narrowly construed, (to the chagrin of John McDowell, David Chalmers and Jennifer Hornsby, for example), those not so disqualified remain nonetheless content "to set the bar for 'naturalism' higher."[3]

Philosopher and theologian Alvin Plantinga, a well-known critic of naturalism in general, comments: "Naturalism is presumably not a religion. In one very important respect, however, it resembles religion: it can be said to perform the cognitive function of a religion. There is that range of deep human questions to which a religion typically provides an answer ... Like a typical religion, naturalism gives a set of answers to these and similar questions".[4]

Science and naturalism

Main article: Uniformitarianism

Metaphysical naturalism is the philosophical basis of science as described by Kate and Vitaly (2000). "There are certain philosophical assumptions made at the base of the scientific method – namely, 1) that reality is objective and consistent, 2) that humans have the capacity to perceive reality accurately, and that 3) rational explanations exist for elements of the real world. These assumptions are the basis of naturalism, the philosophy on which science is grounded. Philosophy is at least implicitly at the core of every decision we make or position we take, it is obvious that correct philosophy is a necessity for scientific inquiry to take place."[5] Steven Schafersman, agrees that methodological naturalism is "the adoption or assumption of philosophical naturalism within scientific method with or without fully accepting or believing it ... science is not metaphysical and does not depend on the ultimate truth of any metaphysics for its success, but methodological naturalism must be adopted as a strategy or working hypothesis for science to succeed. We may therefore be agnostic about the ultimate truth of naturalism, but must nevertheless adopt it and investigate nature as if nature is all that there is."[6]

Various associated beliefs

Contemporary naturalists possess a wide diversity of beliefs within metaphysical naturalism. Most metaphysical naturalists have adopted some form of materialism or physicalism.[7]

Natural sciences

According to metaphysical naturalism, if nature is all there is, just as natural cosmological processes, e.g. quantum fluctuations from a multiverse, led to the Big Bang,[8] and stellar nucleosynthesis brought upon the earliest chemical elements throughout stellar evolution, the formation of the Solar System and the processes involved in abiogenesis arose from natural causes.[9][10] Naturalists reason about how, not if evolution happened. They maintain that humanity's existence is not by intelligent design but rather a natural process of emergence. With the protoplanetary disk creating planetary bodies, including the Sun and moon, conditions for life to arise billions of years ago, along with the natural formation of plate tectonics, the atmosphere, land masses, and the origin of oceans would also contribute to the kickstarting of biological evolution to occur after the arrival of the earliest organisms, as evidenced throughout both the fossil record and the geological time scale.

The mind is a natural phenomenon

Metaphysical naturalists do not believe in a soul or spirit, nor in ghosts, and when explaining what constitutes the mind they rarely appeal to substance dualism. If one's mind, or rather one's identity and existence as a person, is entirely the product of natural processes, three conclusions follow according to W. T. Stace. Cognitive sciences are able to provide accounts of how cultural and psychological phenomena, such as religion, morality, language, and more, evolved through natural processes. Consciousness itself would also be susceptible to the same evolutionary principles that select other traits.[11]

Utility of intelligence and reason

Metaphysical naturalists hold that intelligence is the refinement and improvement of naturally evolved faculties. Naturalists believe anyone who wishes to have more beliefs that are true than are false should seek to perfect and consistently employ their reason in testing and forming beliefs. Empirical methods (especially those of proven use in the sciences) are unsurpassed for discovering the facts of reality, while methods of pure reason alone can securely discover logical errors.[12]

View on the soul

According to metaphysical naturalism, immateriality being unprocedural and unembodiable, isn't differentiable from nothingness. The immaterial nothingness of the soul, being a non-ontic state, isn't compartmentalizable nor attributable to different persons and different memories, it is non-operational and it (nothingness) cannot be manifested in different states in order it represents information.

Arguments for metaphysical naturalism

Argument from physical minds

In his critique of Mind-body dualism, Paul Churchland writes that it is always the case that the mental substance and/or properties of the person are significantly changed or compromised via brain damage. If the mind were a completely separate substance from the brain, how could it be possible that every single time the brain is injured, the mind is also injured? Indeed, it is very frequently the case that one can even predict and explain the kind of mental or psychological deterioration or change that human beings will undergo when specific parts of their brains are damaged. So the question for the dualist to try to confront is how can all of this be explained if the mind is a separate and immaterial substance from, or if its properties are ontologically independent of, the brain.[13]

Modern experiments have demonstrated that the relation between brain and mind is much more than simple correlation. By damaging, or manipulating, specific areas of the brain repeatedly under controlled conditions (e.g. in monkeys) and reliably obtaining the same results in measures of mental state and abilities, neuroscientists have shown that the relation between damage to the brain and mental deterioration is likely causal. This conclusion is further supported by data from the effects of neuro-active chemicals (e.g., those affecting neurotransmitters) on mental functions,[14] but also from research on neurostimulation (direct electrical stimulation of the brain, including transcranial magnetic stimulation).[15]

Critics such as Edward Feser and Tyler Burge have described these arguments as "neurobabble", and consider them as flawed or as being compatible with other metaphysical ideas like Thomism.[16][17] According to the philosopher Stephen Evans:

We did not need neurophysiology to come to know that a person whose head is bashed in with a club quickly loses his or her ability to think or have any conscious processes. Why should we not think of neurophysiological findings as giving us detailed, precise knowledge of something that human beings have always known, or at least could have known, which is that the mind (at least in this mortal life) requires and depends on a functioning brain? We now know a lot more than we used to know about precisely how the mind depends on the body. However, that the mind depends on the body, at least prior to death, is surely not something discovered in the 20th century."[18]

Argument from cognitive biases

In contrast with the argument from reason or evolutionary argument against naturalism, it can be argued that cognitive biases are better explained by natural causes than as the work of God.[19]

Arguments against

Arguments against metaphysical naturalism include the following examples.

Argument from reason

Main article: Argument from reason

Philosophers and theologians such as Victor Reppert, William Hasker, and Alvin Plantinga have developed an argument for dualism dubbed the "argument from reason". They credit C.S. Lewis with first bringing the argument to light in his book Miracles; Lewis called the argument "The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism", which was the title of chapter three of Miracles.[20]

The argument postulates that if, as naturalism entails, all of our thoughts are the effect of a physical cause, then we have no reason for assuming that they are also the consequent of a reasonable ground. However, knowledge is apprehended by reasoning from ground to consequent. Therefore, if naturalism were true, there would be no way of knowing it (or anything else), except by a fluke.[20]

Through this logic, the statement "I have reason to believe naturalism is valid" is inconsistent in the same manner as "I never tell the truth."[21] That is, to conclude its truth would eliminate the grounds from which it reaches it. To summarize the argument in the book, Lewis quotes J. B. S. Haldane, who appeals to a similar line of reasoning:[22]

If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.

— J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds, page 209

In his essay "Is Theology Poetry?", Lewis himself summarises the argument in a similar fashion when he writes:

If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.

— C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, page 139

But Lewis later agreed with Elizabeth Anscombe's response to his Miracles argument.[23] She showed that an argument could be valid and ground-consequent even if its propositions were generated via physical cause and effect by non-rational factors.[24] Similar to Anscombe, Richard Carrier and John Beversluis have written extensive objections to the argument from reason on the untenability of its first postulate.[25]

Evolutionary argument against naturalism

Main article: Evolutionary argument against naturalism

Notre Dame philosophy of religion professor and Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga argues, in his evolutionary argument against naturalism, that the probability that evolution has produced humans with reliable true beliefs, is low or inscrutable, unless their evolution was guided, for example, by God. According to David Kahan of the University of Glasgow, in order to understand how beliefs are warranted, a justification must be found in the context of supernatural theism, as in Plantinga's epistemology.[26][27][28] (See also Supernormal stimuli.)

Plantinga argues that together, naturalism and evolution provide an insurmountable "defeater for the belief that our cognitive faculties are reliable", i.e., a skeptical argument along the lines of Descartes' evil demon or brain in a vat.[29]

Take philosophical naturalism to be the belief that there aren't any supernatural entities—no such person as God, for example, but also no other supernatural entities, and nothing at all like God. My claim was that naturalism and contemporary evolutionary theory are at serious odds with one another—and this despite the fact that the latter is ordinarily thought to be one of the main pillars supporting the edifice of the former. (Of course I am not attacking the theory of evolution, or anything in that neighborhood; I am instead attacking the conjunction of naturalism with the view that human beings have evolved in that way. I see no similar problems with the conjunction of theism and the idea that human beings have evolved in the way contemporary evolutionary science suggests.) More particularly, I argued that the conjunction of naturalism with the belief that we human beings have evolved in conformity with current evolutionary doctrine... is in a certain interesting way self-defeating or self-referentially incoherent.[29]

— Alvin Plantinga, "Introduction" in Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Branden Fitelson of the University of California, Berkeley and Elliott Sober of the University of Wisconsin–Madison argue that Plantinga must show that the combination of evolution and naturalism also defeats the more modest claim that "at least a non-negligible minority of our beliefs are true", and that defects such as cognitive bias are nonetheless consistent with being made in the image of a rational God. Whereas evolutionary science already acknowledges that cognitive processes are unreliable, including the fallibility of the scientific enterprise itself, Plantinga's hyperbolic doubt is no more a defeater for naturalism than it is for theistic metaphysics founded upon a non-deceiving God who designed the human mind: "[neither] can construct a non-question-begging argument that refutes global skepticism."[30] Plantinga's argument has also been criticized by philosopher Daniel Dennett and independent scholar Richard Carrier who argue that a cognitive apparatus for truth-finding can result from natural selection.[31]

See also


  1. ^ Sagan, Carl (2002). Cosmos. Random House. ISBN 9780375508325.
  2. ^ Danto, Arthur C. "Naturalism". The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Editor Stone 2008, p. 2 "Personally, I place great emphasis on the phrase "in principle", since there are many things that science does not now explain. And perhaps we need some natural piety concerning the ontological limit question as to why there is anything at all. But the idea that naturalism is a polemical notion is important."
  3. ^ a b Papineau 2007.
  4. ^ Karkkainen, Veli-Matti (14 April 2015). Creation and Humanity: A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, Volume 3. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-6855-8.
  5. ^ (A.Sergei 2000)
  6. ^ Schafersman 1996.
  7. ^ Schafersman 1996, Section "The Origin of Naturalism and Its Relation to Science": "Certainly most philosophical naturalists today are materialists[...]"
  8. ^ Kreidler, Marc (2 March 2007). "Victor Stenger - God: The Failed Hypothesis | Point of Inquiry".
  9. ^ Carrier 2005, pp. 166–68
  10. ^ Richard Carrier, [The Argument from Biogenesis: Probabilities Against a Natural Origin of Life], Biology and Philosophy 19.5 (November 2004), pp. 739–64.
  11. ^ Stace, W. T., Mysticism and Philosophy. N.Y.: Macmillan, 1960; reprinted, Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1987.
  12. ^ Carrier 2005, pp. 53–54
  13. ^ Churchland, Paul. 1988. Matter and Consciousness (rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  14. ^ Buchman AL, Sohel M, Brown M, et al. (2001). "Verbal and visual memory improve after choline supplementation in long-term total parenteral nutrition: a pilot study". JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 25 (1): 30–35. doi:10.1177/014860710102500130. PMID 11190987.
  15. ^ Alterations of sociomoral judgement and glucose utilization in the frontomedial cortex induced by electrical stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus (STN) in Parkinsonian patients (2004): "Alterations of sociomoral judgement and glucose utilization in the frontomedial cortex induced by electrical stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus (STN) in Parkinsonian patients". Genman Medical Science: DocDI.06.06. 23 April 2004. Archived from the original on 3 September 2004. Retrieved 8 September 2008.
  16. ^ "Edward Feser: Against "Neurobabble"".
  17. ^ "Tyler Burge, A Real Science of Mind - The New York Times".
  18. ^ C. Stephen Evans, "Separable Souls: Dualism, Selfhood, and the Possibility of Life After Death." Christian Scholars Review 34 (2005): 333-34.
  19. ^ "The Argument from Cognitive Biases". 31 July 2018.
  20. ^ a b Victor Reppert C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8308-2732-3
  21. ^ "A Response to Richard Carrier's Review of C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea". Archived from the original on 20 December 2008.
  22. ^ "Philosophy Homepage | Department of Philosophy | UNC Charlotte". Archived from the original on 20 December 2008.
  23. ^ Sayer, George (2005). Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis. Crossway. ISBN 978-1581347395.
  24. ^ The Socratic Digest, No. 4 (1948)
  25. ^ Beversluis, John (2007). C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Revised and Updated). Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-1591025313.
  26. ^ "Gifford Lecture Series – Warrant and Proper Function 1987–1988". Archived from the original on 4 January 2012.
  27. ^ Plantinga, Alvin (11 April 2010). "Evolution, Shibboleths, and Philosophers – Letters to the Editor". The Chronicle of Higher Education. ...I do indeed think that evolution functions as a contemporary shibboleth by which to distinguish the ignorant fundamentalist goats from the informed and scientifically literate sheep.

    According to Richard Dawkins, 'It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).' Daniel Dennett goes Dawkins one (or two) further: 'Anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant—inexcusably ignorant.' You wake up in the middle of the night; you think, can that whole Darwinian story really be true? Wham! You are inexcusably ignorant.

    I do think that evolution has become a modern idol of the tribe. But of course it doesn't even begin to follow that I think the scientific theory of evolution is false. And I don't.
  28. ^ Plantinga, Alvin (1993). Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chap. 11. ISBN 0-19-507863-2.
  29. ^ a b Beilby, J.K. (2002). "Introduction by Alvin Plantinga". Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Reference, Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Series. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 1–2, 10. ISBN 978-0-8014-8763-7. LCCN 2001006111.
  30. ^ Fitelson, Branden; Elliott Sober (1998). "Plantinga's Probability Arguments Against Evolutionary Naturalism" (PDF). Pacific Philosophical Quarterly. 79 (2): 115–129. doi:10.1111/1468-0114.00053.
  31. ^ Carrier 2005, pp. 181–188



Further reading

Historical overview