What is Philosophical Naturalism, and why do I accept it?

The question in the title of this post is a question that relates more to my skeptical and atheistic leanings than my evolutionary ones, as creationism and intelligent design fall on their own scientifically, and evolutionary theory has more than enough evidence to support itself without resorting to some fallacy-ridden argument based on the non-existence of God/s. Not that I would ever do that, of course, as my beliefs follow where the evidence leads: in other words, I am a scientific skeptic. If evolution failed to have evidence to support it, I would not invent arguments to prop it up. I’m not ideologically bound to any theory, even evolution.

Philosophical naturalism is something that most skeptics, and even atheists, shy away from, as they think that it makes them seem close-minded to the believer in God/the supernatural. Rejecting the existence of something a priori without evidence is, in their mind, obviously something that should be avoided in conversation and argument, if not removed from your personal worldview altogether. The philosophical naturalist who believes that the supernatural cannot exist is no different to the fundamentalist theist who believes in the existence of their deity because they take it on faith, right?

I think the last statement is incorrect, to put it bluntly. Don’t worry, I’m going to justify everything I say: I’m not one to invoke the demons of bad logic and leave massive unreasoned holes in my arguments for others to find and take me to task in patching up. Well, at least I think I don’t do that. Please tell me if I’m wrong.

So, some definitions. To talk about philosophical naturalism, clearly we need to define what we mean by natural and supernatural, as they lie at the heart of the matter. If I’m going to reject the existence of something, I’d better know exactly what it is I’m rejecting.

I define something as “natural” if it is anything that exists within the physical world: that interacts with matter and energy in some way. In short, it has some detectable effect on its surroundings. This extends to things like thoughts and consciousness, as the mind is simply a product of the brain and nervous system, according to all evidence on the matter (read up on Steven Novella’s excellent blog Neurologica for more information about materialistic neurology). I’m not about to argue about what consciousness is though, and I shouldn’t really be expected to in this context, since it has no bearing on what is being discussed here. Perhaps some other time, after I learn something about it.

If “natural” is defined in the way that it just was, how does that affect the definition of “supernatural”? For something to be “supernatural”, or “above the natural”/”apart from the natural”, it must therefore be something that does not exist in the physical world: something that does not interact with matter and energy. A supernatural object cannot be said to affect its “surroundings” (even though it wouldn’t be in any natural surroundings, as it would outside the Universe).

Therein lies my main problem with the supernatural. If it cannot be detected, how can it be said to exist? This is the main force behind my philosophical naturalism, and it’s the thing that I will mostly be trying to defend, I’m sure (and by extension I’ll be trying to defend my definition of “supernatural” as well).

But the believer may say: “Ghosts are supernatural and we can see them! So your definition fails!” Ignoring for the moment the simple fact that ghosts haven’t really been shown to exist, think about what being supernatural actually means. Why is a ghost labeled supernatural? Most people just use the term because it has connotations of being “unexplained phenomena”, but that’s not really correct.

A ghost, according to its general definition, is a “spirit”, the soul of someone who was previously alive, disembodied. Now, in what way is this supernatural? It interacts with photons (we can see it), it interacts with the vibrational energy of molecules (it creates cold spots), and it can interact with objects in a Newtonian manner (it can, sometimes, move objects around). All of these properties are manifesting in the physical Universe. If we had a standard of “ghost”, we could test for whether or not it was a ghost we were observing. We could test ghosts for other properties that are not necessarily immediately obvious. In short, we could find out what makes a ghost tick.

The point I’m trying to make is, if something affects the Universe in any way, we can find out information about it. For the space of time that it interacts with nature, it behaves like a natural object. Now, we may not have an understanding of how it does what it does, but since when have we understood everything about the Universe? What is science for? Why do scientists still have jobs, if not to receive shill money from evil, international corporations for producing sham papers that show the efficacy of useless drugs? (Have you got your sarcasm detectors turned on, children?) So-called “supernatural” phenomena, such as ghosts, healing energy, psychic powers, and yes, even deities, can all be investigated using the scientific method.

Now, if something was truly “supernatural”, by definition, it would not interact with the natural world. What does this mean? Well, we couldn’t know anything about it. It couldn’t affect us, we couldn’t affect it. For all intents and purposes, supernatural phenomena don’t exist. Simple as that. If there is no possible overlap between any of my characteristics and those of another object, ie. we don’t affect each other in any way, there is no purpose in me even considering its existence.

Trying to wrap (“the bacon of”? – Thanks, George Hrab) your mind around this concept should be pretty easy, but let me know if it’s not. Having your audience confused should certainly not be a goal of any writer. Well, any writer not involved with political speeches.

So, to wrap up philosophical naturalism in the way that I understand it, it simply means that I believe that all phenomenon are natural, because supernatural phenomenon, if they are what people claim they are, are not relevant to us. Simple as that.

But how does this affect my skepticism and my atheism? Have I just proven the non-existence of God? Have I just demonstrated that ghosts don’t exist? The astute reader will notice that I couldn’t have done such a thing, as I was talking about scientifically testing ghosts earlier. But for all those who didn’t catch that: er, no. What I’ve done is simply shift the focus of the question of the existence of these “supernatural” phenomenon into terms that are scientifically testable. If ghosts exist, then I can whip out my equipment and look for them. If the body has an aura, I can measure its power. If God exists, then…

Well, God is a funny one. God has major problems outside of being a supernatural entity, like the logical inconsistencies pertaining to His divine characteristics (omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence), and a whole host of philosophical objections to specific definitions of God. Under philosophical naturalism, God exists within this Universe, perhaps in another dimension or something. I don’t know. Bah, let’s just say that He doesn’t exist and leave it at that for now, within this discussion.

The implications of philosophical naturalism are quite dramatic on the believers in “supernatural” things. While, as I explained before, it does not exclude their pet phenomenon from existing, it removes any possibility of them shuffling out of the harsh light of science by saying that it cannot be tested. The magical “memory” that water seems to take on in the alternative medicine discipline of homeopathy must have a physical cause in the real world. “Qi”, “ki” or “chi” energy must literally flow through the veins of every person, or at least through some channel that we have not discovered yet. Or, if not through the anatomical body, but some higher dimensional “imprint”. I’m sure if we got the particle accelerators onto it we should be able to find evidence for such extra dimensions. I mean, the Large Hadron Collider must have some practical uses relevant to everyday people, right?

I don’t reject your claims about what I’m going to call “claimed phenomena” out of hand, believers, but you have to understand that the only way I’m going to accept your claims is if you have some scientific evidence to back them up. You can’t run, and you definitely can’t hide. Science is inescapable. Just learn to accept that.

11 thoughts on “What is Philosophical Naturalism, and why do I accept it?”

  1. "Under philosophical naturalism, God exists within this Universe, perhaps in another dimension or something."
    That would rule out the idea, which I consider quite plausible, that God's relation to this universe parallels that of an author to a novel. The author is responsible for everything that happens in the novel, but that doesn't imply that the characters could detect his/her existence.

    1. Hi David,

      It's a nice analogy you've drawn between God and His creation, and an author and their characters. This may in fact be a true description of reality. However, it's an unfalsifiable one.

      How are we to know if this is the case, that God is the author of reality? While His actions do affect the physical world, by the very way you've set up the analogy, they affect it in a way that is not detectable: reality could proceed in exactly the same way without a God. Adding a God into the equation does not alter anything, unless that God intervenes in ways that are not consistent with what we would expect the world to do by itself.

      Unfalsifiable ideas such as this may have emotional benefits (eg. "God has a plan for me"), but ultimately, they don't advance our understanding of reality at all.

      Cheers,
      Jack

  2. Hi Jack,
    Nice post. You're right, God is a funny one, isn't he?
    I'm one of those atheists who (as you say) shies away from the philoshophical naturalist label, mainly because it makes atheism an easy target for theists.
    A Priori belief in the non-existence of the supernatural (is that a fair definition, btw?) can easily be characterised as bias, or as something requiring evidence. In that sense it shifts the burden of proof from theists (where it should be) to atheists.
    To get around this, I subscribe to a kind of functional naturalism, or maybe you could call it scientific naturalism, where I rely wholly on scientific thinking to explain the natural world, and define the supernatural as the point at which the scientific method breaks down.
    Under this definition I think it is theoretically possible to have instrusions of the supernatural on our natural world, particularly if you start considering a nature-controlling God. Genuine miracles would be a good example.
    The thing is, we're yet to observe such a breakdow, and until such time as that happens, atheism is the positon that makes the most sense.
    But like any belief, it remains contingent on the evidence presented.

    1. Hey Matt,

      "A Priori belief in the non-existence of the supernatural (is that a fair definition, btw?) can easily be characterised as bias, or as something requiring evidence. In that sense it shifts the burden of proof from theists (where it should be) to atheists."

      Oh, it is bias, but it's bias that is accompanied with a change in definition for so-called "supernatural" phenomenon so that they fall under the "natural" label. Well, mostly.

      God is tricky, but to get around the burden of proof that you claim pops up, I'd say that I'm not claiming that God does not exist (I'm really not), I'm just shunting His characteristics OUT of a category which for all intents and purposes cannot affect us.

      I don't claim to know anything about God, as it's up to the individual theist to define their deity any way they want. If they can't make the claim, I revert to the null hypothesis of non-existence, and I don't believe that it exists (which is different, of course, to believing that it doesn't exist).

      "To get around this, I subscribe to a kind of functional naturalism, or maybe you could call it scientific naturalism, where I rely wholly on scientific thinking to explain the natural world, and define the supernatural as the point at which the scientific method breaks down."

      When someones says something like "the point at which the scientific method breaks down", you really have to think about what that actually means. Why would it break down? I'll leave that to you to come up with an answer for that, because I want to hear what you have to say.

      "Under this definition I think it is theoretically possible to have intrusions of the supernatural on our natural world, particularly if you start considering a nature-controlling God. Genuine miracles would be a good example."

      Again, my reply to this depends on your explanation of "science breaking down".

      Cheers,
      Jack

      1. Hmm. Good question.
        Examples might be a genuine miracle (like regrowing an amputated limb), a failure of entropy, creation of energy, or violation of the law of angular momentum.
        I suppose what I'm saying is that if the scientific method did break down then it would be detectable in the physical world, but still identifiable as a violation.

  3. Excellent Post!

    But in relation to the ghost aspect, so-called ghosthunters arm themselves with tons of electronic equipment with the a priori belief that all of it can actually detect ghostly phenomena, whatever they may be. Why a thermal imaging camera detects a ghost's lack of body temperature, no one seems to know. Believers assume ghosts must be miserably cold entities. So, ask a ghosthunter how ghosts can be both supernatural and detectable in the natural world, and you'll likely get double-talk for an answer.

    1. Yes, I was sure someone was going to refer to the "ghostbusting" equipment ghost hunters use.

      Of course, I agree that their use of these pieces of equipment are unjustified, ie. they've never had a gold standard of "ghost" to draw expected data signals from, but the point is, if they did have such a standard, they could scientifically test ghosts.

      I think the mechanisms behind the interactions with the natural world do not have to be explained BEFORE a search commences, but it's reasonable to expect/demand that some hypotheses could be drawn up beforehand and tested against the data. Good science should be able to be done. It's clearly not being done at the moment.

      Plus, keep in mind that I don't think ghosts really exist. ;p But people making the claim that they do have no excuse for a lack of evidence.

  4. All of these violations could be studied scientifically. Why did entropy fail? Can we come up with a theoretical basis for this? Due to the necessarily interaction with matter and energy, I'd say yes.

  5. Google the Flew-Lamberth the presumption of naturalism for my take on naturalism and please should you do see vet it.

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