“Naturalism” has a bunch of definitions

A friend of mine told me that she’s been archive binging my blog, but complained about me using words she doesn’t know, particularly “naturalism.” This is a bit embarrassing to me as a writer, because I thought I’d been clear on this point, but then we all overestimate how clear we’re being. So let me tale a moment to say that “naturalism” has a bunch of definitions.

In fact, the very first sentence of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Naturalism” states: “The term ‘naturalism’ has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy.” It goes on to say that “is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers” and that it would be “fruitless” to try to pin down a more precise definition.

I most often encounter the term “naturalism” as something religious apologists attack because they wrongly imagine that if they can knock down one alternative to their religious beliefs, they’ll have proven their religious beliefs to be true. And often, their definition of naturalism is a complete strawman, having little basis in what people who call themselves “naturalists” actually believe. Graham Oppy’s review of Craig and Moreland’s Naturalism gives an especially egregious example of this.

A more sensible definition of “naturalism” given by a religious apologist comes from Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies. He writes: “I take naturalism to be the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.” That’s similar to my own preferred definition of the belief that ”there aren’t any gods, the miracles claimed by the world’s various religions didn’t happen, there isn’t an afterlife, magic spells don’t work, and so on.” But when it comes time to critique naturalism, Plantinga re-introduces the standard fallacy by declaring he’ll take naturalism to include materialism.

And these are cases where theists have given a definition of naturalism. Often, they don’t give a definition and just start asserting horrible consequences of naturalism willy-nilly.

Admittedly, part of the reason that I think first of religious apologetics when I hear the word “naturalism” is because I’m not personally very attached to the term. But many atheists are. So while writing this post, I went out to grab a few definitions of “naturalism” from around the web, and was somewhat surprised to find that the definitions tended to be pretty similar to my minimalist one.

For example, Internet Infidels (which was one of my introductions to atheism on the web) describes itself as, “dedicated to promoting and defending a naturalistic worldview,” citing Paul Draper’s definition of naturalism as, naturalism as “the hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system, which means that nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it… naturalism implies that there are no supernatural entities.”

Or, Tom Clark, of the Center for Naturalism, writes: “If you don’t believe in anything supernatural – gods, ghosts, immaterial souls and spirits – then you subscribe to naturalism, the idea that nature is all there is.”

Luke Muehlhauser, who used to blog at and is now the direct of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, also has a website called Worldview Naturalism, which also has a short video intro to naturalism, which gives a somewhat more detailed definition of naturalism, but which is still mostly pretty minimal.

Of course, some self-described naturalists do advocate stronger definitions of naturalism. A focus on excluding “supernatural” entities is still common, but that may be spelled out in ways that reference whether something is spatially located, or irreducibly mental. The claim that “everything is natural” can also be taken to rule out not just gods and spirits, but also, say, views of mathematics that describe mathematical entities as being somehow separate from the natural world. (Keith Augustine has some discussion of this last way of defining naturalism here.)

There’s also “methodological naturalism,” the use of naturalism as a working assumption under the scientific method. “Methodological naturalism” is sometimes invoked to claim science can’t say anything about the supernatural. I disagree with that, on the other hand, if the point of methodological naturalism is that we should assume naturalism because science has never found a supernatural hypothesis to be correct in the past (even though it could have), I’m on board with methodological naturalism.

Finally, in philosophy there’s a broader methodological view sometimes called “naturalism” which is taken to be about the relationship between science and philosophy. In the words of Brian Liter, it’s “the idea that questions about what there is and what we can know are basically scientific questions, rather than distinctively philosophical questions.” Though this is a definition of naturalism I hear relatively infrequentky,

  • http://twitter.com/urbster1 urbster1

    A related post which may be interesting to some is an entry from Richard Carrier’s blog entitled “Defining the Supernatural”: http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html
    as well as his book “Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism” which spells out in detail the basis of naturalism. From the blog post: “Consequently, we need a proper definition of “supernatural” (and, therefore, of the word “natural” as well), one that tracks what people really mean when they use the word, one that marks a metaphysical distinction, and allows us to say when the word is being used sloppily or improperly, as must be the case for any word we intend to be useful. This is all the more crucial for metaphysical naturalists, who must define their worldview in some manner that actually makes it meaningfully different from supernaturalist worldviews. Critics of naturalism are entirely correct about this.
    I define “nature” in Sense and Goodness without God (on pp. 211-12, with a little help from pp. 67-69). But I explain this in elaborate detail, with considerable supporting evidence, in my Secular Web article Defending Naturalism as a Worldview (2003), to which I referred readers in my book. After this, and the publication of Sense and Goodness, I defined the natural-supernatural distinction even more rigorously in the joint statement of the Carrier-Wanchick Debate (2006). Anyone who wishes to interact with my definitions of natural and supernatural must read these two articles. (referring to the articles here http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/rea.shtml and here http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/carrier-wanchick/jointstatement.html )

    “In short, I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things. As I summarized in the Carrier-Wanchick debate (and please pardon the dry, technical wording):

    “If [naturalism] is true, then all minds, and all the contents and powers and effects of minds, are entirely caused by natural [i.e. fundamentally nonmental] phenomena. But if naturalism is false, then some minds, or some of the contents or powers or effects of minds, are causally independent of nature. In other words, such things would then be partly or wholly caused by themselves, or exist or operate directly or fundamentally on their own.”

    • qbsmd

      I was going to post a link to Carrier’s definition because I also like it. It avoids the common problems of definitions which are circular (naturalism defined by rejection of the supernatural) or tautological (if we discovered how to detect and study ghosts, they would become natural). It also clearly distinguishes between magic and sufficiently advanced technology in a way that isn’t arbitrary.

  • Dorfl

    I’ve always thought (at least, since I begun thinking about it I’ve thought) that methodological naturalism is a bit of a polite fiction. Pretty much every supernatural explanation I’ve heard has been a bad explanation for much the same reason as overfitted curves are bad: with very little effort they can be adjusted to ‘explain’ every imaginable set of data, which means they don’t actually explain anything. But it’s a lot less confrontational to make a handwave about ‘methodological naturalism’ when someone asks why scientists have dismissed their favourite supernatural explanation, compared to explaining in detail why their ‘explanation’ doesn’t really have much content.

    • Patrick

      I’ve always thought the same.

      Ditto “non overlapping magisteria.”

    • eric

      I consider myself an MN. Its not rocket science: there are lots of things science doesn’t-test for because of the hundreds of years and thousands of experiments for which they didn’t matter. This is just another one of them. When conducting a fundamental physics experiment, ignoring the potential contribution of unknown supernatural causes is no different than ignoring the potential contribution of the phase of the moon.

      • Dorfl

        Fair enough. I was thinking of it more in terms of “why we tend to dismiss supernatural explanations for phenomena” than “why we think we can neglect supernatural effects in experiments”.

        • eric

          The two things are closely related. We tend to dismiss supernatural explanations because they have an unbroken record of being incorrect. Sure, a supernatural explanation may be right for some currently unexplained phenomena, but empirically, it doesn’t seem likely.

          I liken the two hypotheses (its natural, its supernatural) to horses who have run a large series of races. In the past million races, run under a wide range of conditions, N has beaten SN every time. Its 1,000,000 wins to zero wins. Now they’re going to run another race. Who will win? Well, I am not certain about that. No one can be absolutely certain about that. But ask the question “which horse is the favorite” and the answer to THAT question is very clear. Nature is the overwhelming favorite in the explanation race.

          • Dorfl

            I don’t think I agree.

            If I have some particular experimental result, there is no way I can actually rule out the explanation “the experiment turned out the way it did, because God in his ineffable wisdom wished that it should do so” as being incorrect. The same goes for any combination of experimental results. So I don’t think we can say that the ‘godidit’ explanation tends to be wrong, since it’s technically just as compatible with experimental observations as any natural explanations are.

            So the big problem I see with that ‘explanation’ is still that it doesn’t actually explain anything. It’s a grammatically correct sentence containing the word ‘because’, but it isn’t really an explanation in any meaningful sense of the word.

      • http://nolscuriosity.wordpress.com/ Nolan

        There are some MN’s who take a harder line, which Hallq hints at above. They say that science can’t even examine the supernatural in principle. This is not taken as a pragmatic consideration, but is fundamental to the scientific endeavor itself.

        I’m relieved that this hard line Hallq doesn’t agree with, because it seems so misguided. I’ve noticed that among the “Scientific Skeptic” (Steven Novella, Eugenie Scott, Michael Shermer) community, it seems to be accepted, but among the more philosophically inclined, this hard line MN is rejected.

  • MNb

    Now I still don’t know the difference(s) between naturalism, atheism and materialism. Not that I care too much as I adhere all three. But I realize I don’t really know about you. So perhaps you could write an article about the differences, which points you accept and which you reject? I think that makes more sense than looking for a formal definition.

    • eric

      IMO….

      Atheism: belief that there is no god(s).

      Naturalism (non-methodological)/Materialism: identical concepts or nearly so. Belief there are only material things. Stronger than atheism as it also rules out stuff like spirits and other non-deific supernatural stuff.

      Methodological naturalism: belief we should only hypothesize and research natural causes for phenomena. MN is a standard type of scientific belief, in that it is tentative and subject to revision, should we start finding supernatural causes for phenomena in the future.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      All three terms get defined different ways, but “atheism” is generally defined somewhat more narrowly than “naturalism”/”materialism” as just being about gods. Though most people who join atheist organizations aren’t going to think magic spells work or believe in ghosts or anything, so they’ll be “naturalists” in at least the minimal sense of rejecting the supernatural.

      Naturalism vs. materialism is trickier. David Chalmers calls himself a naturalist dualist or somesuch. His view is not that there are souls but there are mental properties which do not logically supervene on the physical, but which are connected to the physical world via laws (rather than being free-floating souls or anything like that).

      • Irenist

        Thomas Nagel seems to be another example of an atheist naturalist who isn’t a materialist. (Quibble: the O.P. misspells Brian Leiter’s surname.)

  • JJH

    As someone who uses the term “naturalist” to describe their world-view, I can relate to the to the difficulty of defining it in a way that would encompass everyone else that also use that term to describe themselves and yet we may disagree about certain epistemological or ontological concepts. The best discussion of this I have seen is on John Shook’s website http://naturalisms.org/ (note the plural used in the address). I also think his definition of naturalism is the one that best describes my outlook: “Naturalism is a worldview that
    relies upon experience, reason, and science to develop
    an understanding of reality and humanity’s place within reality.”

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com/ Q. Quine

    Part of the value of methodological naturalism is to see how far we can get without going to supernatural explanations. Perhaps we will find out that it runs out of steam, some day, but we will not know the limits unless we stick to working within the framework. I tend to use “physicalism” for naming the philosophical position rather than “naturalism” exactly for the multiple definition issues that Chris notes. One can’t prove the lack of the supernatural, but we do get an indication by the continuing success of the physical stance as I have written about here.


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