Naturalism as a viable world-view (part 2)


Let us look at some foundational beliefs or truth claims of Naturalism.

Firstly, like most people, naturalists are realists, believing that there is an external reality independent of our thoughts and perceptions. So if we see a chair in a room, not believed to be an illusion, we assume the chair will still be in the room even after we have left. All this is uncontroversial as, overwhelmingly, most people hold the same view. It is worth noting that philosophers often distinguish between naive and critical realism with the former accepting perceptions ‘as is’ and the latter seeing our perceptions as heavily interpreted.

Interestingly, the opposite position of idealism sees our reality as a human (social) construction. Of course, this will be a more challenging concept for most. Before scoffing at even mentioning this alternative view, we need to recognise that without a god-eye’s view, independent of any particular world-view, we have no simple way of proving the truth of one view over another. That is why philosophical scepticism can so effectively question our fundamental assumptions about life, even something as fundamental as an independent external reality. However, perhaps, that discussion is better left for another time.

Secondly, naturalists believe we are part of a single reality that is both orderly and knowable, at least potentially. Unlike most religious world-views, Naturalism has no sense of the reality being inherently mysterious. Naturalists envision a single connected physical reality of mass and energy, existing in time and space (at least according to today’s best understandings), all derived from the same ontological ‘stuff’. This reality is often referred to as ‘nature’. I should note that the connections of nature are seen as strictly non-conscious in any sense we understand that term. Therefore, for consistency, naturalists reject any sense of a design, purpose, or meaning coming from some cosmic consciousness. Naturalists would see this as wishful thinking, a concern about being unloved in an unloving (and unlovable) universe, the well-known absurdity of existentialism. I am happy to explore that idea further during later discussion.

Therefore all causes and explanations of our existence and our experiences – behaviour, aspirations, feelings, self-conceptions, spirituality, and so on – are ultimately attributed back to physical causes, even if we do not yet understand those connections or associations. As soon as the body and brain stop processing, so does our self-awareness.

So how do we know about this physical world? We do this through human perception supported by human reason. It can be immediate – I see or hear now – or from memory – I perceived those things yesterday – or from the testimony of others – they told me of their perceptions. Of course the vast bulk of our knowledge is from the testimony of others as part of our shared social knowledge. Similarly our perceptions can be direct or through specially constructed instruments to enhance our perceptions. As an aside, we need to recognise that all perceptions are sense experiences, interpreted within our respective social and cultural contexts. No observation is made uninterpreted. Therefore, in philosophical terms, I would expect most naturalists to be empiricists with knowledge coming from those interpreted sense experiences of the external world. To quote a famous television series “the truth is out there”.

Therefore it is not surprising naturalists look towards the empirically-based sciences, like natural sciences and most social sciences, as primary sources of information about the world. And why should this not be so? Of all our human projects, the modern sciences have provided the most reliable information about the world – much more reliable, for example, than the revelations of self-declared mystics over the years. And this is despite failings throughout its history. The success of the sciences over the last few hundred years has been, to no small measure, in using methods to reduce human bias, wishful thinking, and perceptual errors. Combining controlled experimentation, well-supported consistent reasoning methods, and open discussion with peer criticism, the sciences gather, analyse, and explain data very effectively about our world. Put simply, the sciences define the external reality for a naturalist, and the rest they consider to be human wishful thinking.

As the sciences are a foundational part of a naturalist’s world-view, let us look at the nature of science, even briefly. Science develops models to explain and understand the world we inhabit. Some areas of science require specialised mathematical languages to express concepts, where our everyday human languages are inadequate. This often leads to confusion when scientists use everyday terms metaphorically to explain their research areas. Religious terms, without their theological meanings, become popular metaphors to express their awe and wonderment. It becomes amusing when religious apologists then seize these opportunities to claim a scientist’s belief in god. In this context, another Einstein quotation comes to mind: ‘I am convinced that He (God) does not play dice.’ And just for the record, Einstein wrote in a private letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind, ‘The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.

Although on-going scientific research leads to the questioning and adjusting of models, Thomas Kuhn famously showed that this model-making is itself set within and defined by the prevailing paradigm of the time, and that paradigm both frames the questions asked and guides research along particular pathways. So it is probably more realistic to see science as socially-based intellectual activities and to treat “objective” knowledge as something more akin to commonly accepted social knowledge, arrived through agreed observational methods supported by special reasoning techniques. Do not get me wrong. The social nature of science does not reduce its efficacy and the force of science’s explanatory work. We just need to recognise that science is a part of our social enterprise rather than some sort of independent fact-driven objective process. Sometimes these two conflicting views of science are contrasted it as archaeology, uncovering facts, versus human construal, making human-constructed models. Finally, another way of considering this is to see science as dealing with transitory scientific objects rather than the more enduring external objects themselves. So, over time, the ‘sun’ as a scientific object varies as our understanding of the sun varies, but the ‘sun’ as an external object is still essentially the same sun. All this could be summarised with the aphorism, ‘the map is not the territory’; often associated with Alfred Korzybski, founder of General Semantics.

Today science is almost unquestioned in its knowledge-making about the external world. But how does it deal with our inner world – the world of consciousness, free-will, the self, and sensed spirituality? The explanations of neuroscience, for example, involving neurons and synapses seem unsatisfying to most and fail to capture the essential human qualities we associate with them. Though naturalists believe that all human experiences have physical causes, they too often want to describe and explain consciousness, for example, in terms other than its underlying physical processes.

It is worth here drawing a distinction between reductive materialism and Naturalism. Reductionism is the process of understanding the whole by examining its parts, and this methodology has been and continues to be a very successful analytical approach for most sciences. Therefore a radical reductionist would seek to reduce all human experiences to physical descriptions and explanations, such as body-brain processes. In their world, mind states and mental processes do not exist. Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California who promotes eliminative materialism – a radical form of reductionism, is famous for describing and explaining consciousness and other ‘I’ aspects of ourselves as brain processes to rid us of myths like the ‘mind’ and the ‘soul’.

Many naturalists are comfortable describing our inner world in language not directly linked to physical causes. They will even entertain such concepts as emergent properties to acknowledge that there may be higher-level properties not directly attributable to, but still dependent on, specific physical processes. Perhaps, this is analogous to discussing the aesthetics of a chair without referring to its sub-atomic particle structure. However, it should be stressed that ultimately naturalists still regard all human experiences as having necessary underlying physical causes and nothing else. So a naturalist may be comfortable attending a yoga class for health benefits but would reject any talk of extra-physical explanations with mysterious energy forces and universal connections.

So what are some implications for a commitment to an empirical understanding of the world, especially from that of science?

Truth is out there: whatever it is. A naturalist sees a single physical reality, best understood by our empirically-based intellectual endeavours – natural sciences, most social sciences, historical research, and so on. The resulting knowledge-base – ever-growing, critically-evaluated (and re-evaluated) – is then the best bulwark we have against human wishful thinking, religious delusions, and wild shamanistic claims. (Of course, we are familiar with now famous semi-religious claims of Steve Jobs for his iPad that, obviously, got through this guard.) This knowledge-base can and will change regularly both at the margins and sometimes in fundamental ways from the on-going research and, perhaps surprisingly, from changing social contexts.

Critics of Naturalism see its weakness as depending on something so changeable and provisional as scientific understanding. It is true that speculations, questioning, and changes are significant at the frontiers of science – the very small of Quantum Physics, and the very large and very distant of Cosmology. Fortunately the vast majority of scientific knowledge is highly stable and usable. Even though this is so, we still need to leave claims of certainty and absolute truth to the imaginings of Evangelical pastors. Again, Einstein said, ‘…shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.’

What about me? Appealing to our empirically-based knowledge seems least satisfying for relating the perceived significance and reality of our inner worlds. An aside is useful here. We can see our relationships with others in ‘person’ perspectives. I am my first person; you are my second person; and he, she, they or it are my third person. (Some theologians argue that religions are about second-person relationships with god, while naturalists see all of religions meeting strictly first-person needs.) The empirical sciences describe the world in strictly third-person terms to retain independence of any particular view. On the other hand, our inner worlds are strictly first-person with only us having privileged access. We assume others have similar inner worlds by analogy from their behaviour – they sound and act as we do. As I have said, naturalists are committed the inner world coming from physical causes – it ends with the expiration of our physical bodies. Incidentally, our ability to simulate our inner-world feelings on demand with drugs and electrical stimulations supports this view.

However naturalists have no easy way of addressing people’s desire for some grand purpose, for feeling significant in a larger indifferent world. Naturalists have no mysterious beings, forces, and essences to evoke for placating our sensibilities. Religions grew out of that need with complex practices, beliefs, and creeds. On the other hand naturalists, unlike their eliminative cousins, will engage in emotion talk to access and enjoy those feelings in their own terms to give some inner purpose and happiness. By subscribing to physical causes, naturalists treat an empirically-based physical view as a “reality check” against extravagant extra-physical claims.

Morality is a social business. Unlike traditional religious people, naturalists see morality as a strictly human social affair having derived from biological evolution (giving us the common things), enculturation (giving us the multiple variations), and genetic inheritance. My handout, Naturalist Morality, [to discuss] shows some of the extensive inter-disciplinary work being done by philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists today to describe and understand naturalistically the intuitions we call morality. The bottom line is that there are no absolute moral injunctions or laws given to us from outside our physical world. Ultimately, I would expect that there will be less ‘shoulds’ from Naturalists than many religionists. Hopefully, they would be less prescriptive about human behaviour than their religious counterparts.

Naturalist uncertainty versus Christian mystery. Both Naturalists and Christians recognise the finite nature of humans and, therefore, our inability to see the reality ‘as it is.’ (A question for discussion: should even talk about reality ‘as it is’, as our reliance on perceptions, ideas, and revelations make reality somewhat problematic?)

For Naturalists, using science as a primary source of knowledge, it is the recognition that all our perceptions are interpreted by physical processes, set within our personal, familial, and cultural histories. Scientific research is based on uncertainties and probabilities through the use of measuring instruments, observer involvement, and deriving generalisations through induction from the particulars. This is well-known and accepted in science and, even, celebrated by some.

For Christians and people of most religious traditions, the ‘mystery’ represents a permanent gap between claims of human understanding (knowledge derived from people) and claims of religious revelation (knowledge revealed from god through tradition). Faith is the acceptance of this mystery as a necessary part of the religious world-view. Christian claims of Jesus’ physical resurrection after his execution is seen a mystery, unquestioned and accepted by the faithful, but inexplicable by human knowledge and reason.

Perhaps, whereas the Naturalist sees uncertainty as a limitation of process and one to be continually tackled and questioned, a Christian would see the mystery as an inevitable part of belief in their religious traditions.

Seeking Happiness for a Naturalist

Finally, Naturalism offers no simple directions of how to achieve happiness, or even whether or not that is at all possible. Perhaps, one can do no better then look back to a very early Naturalist, Epicurus of fourth century BCE Athens, who had the following advice:

  1. Keep close contact with family and friends over your lifetime. Epicurus essentially started a friendship cult.
  2. Live a moderate, debt-free life (to reduce your worries).
  3. Leave time for personal reflection and contemplation.

Thank you.

Comment: Naturalism and God

Most naturalists see reality as an orderly and knowable place. Orderly in that things occur and reoccur in predictable ways. It is hard to imagine how life could evolve if things had been otherwise. Reality is also knowable, well at least in theory if not in practice. A naturalist rejects the idea of anything inherently ‘mysterious’ about our world, contrary to most religious traditions.

Our way of ‘knowing’ the world (with all due concerns about the word ‘knowing’) is through human perception supported by human reason, empiricism in philosophical terms. We have no other sources. Our perceptions can be from immediate senses or from recalled memories. However the bulk of human knowledge, our social knowledge, comes from the testimony of others from their perceptions and reasoning. Hence, not surprisingly, naturalists reject revelation as a genuine information source and are suspicious of any a priori claims to knowledge – knowledge without prior experience. Artificial, self-contained rule-based systems, such as mathematics and games, are well-known exceptions.

The unreliability of human perceptions is well-known. Seeking to confirm prior opinions, people’s wishful thinking and delusions block attempts to be truly objective. In recent years our empirically-based intellectual endeavours – natural sciences, social sciences, and historical research – have clearly been our best efforts at harnessing human perceptions while controlling human fallibilities. They have produced more reliable information about the world, than numerous religious proclamations over the years. One amusing example is the early Christian predictions, some 2000 years ago, of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom through Jesus of Nazareth. Christian zealots, Gospel writers and Paul of Taurus, were quite clear about this, even though apologists since then have attempted to reinterpret these failures away.

And what about the belief in a god ? Almost automatically, a naturalist would reject the belief as accepting something so completely incomprehensible. The naturalist’s reality is one of mass and energy existing within time and space and that we are an intrinsic part of that world. Even though known reality expands and contracts with changes in our empirically-based knowledge, all ‘things’ are of the same ontological stuff. ‘God’ stands for something else entirely – different stuff, imperceptible and unfathomable by human reason (not surprisingly according to naturalists). Even the idea of such as thing, outside of that found in imaginative fiction, is amusing or perhaps even offensive to the sensibilities of a naturalist. When asked why, a believer simply declares it to be so, accepting faith over any contrary human perception and reason. Not coincidentally, the believer’s verbalisations are shaped by his or her own religious traditions. God is then explained by rewordings like ‘master’, ‘lord’, ‘shepherd’, ‘cosmic consciousness’, ‘essence’, and so on. This is the fine art of substituting one set of magical words for another.

Our lives are full of uncertainties with incomplete and changing understandings of the world. How we explain and accept these uncertainties separates naturalists from the religionists, like the evangelical Christians. For naturalists, this is a normal consequence for being part of a complicated physical world. Though acknowledging our inherent limitations, naturalists, like scientists, continue still to strive for full knowledge and understanding of the world, to overcome our limitations. By contrast religionists explain this uncertainty by imagining an unknowable consciousness called God, one who created the world and now maintains it. And, of course, this is done in ways we do not understand.

Unfortunately for religionists, the empirically-based sciences have effectively replaced religions as the major knowledge-makers in our secular society. Very little of today’s world understanding comes from religious traditions. 2000 to 3000 year-old explanations no longer hold credence and respect they once had.

So what are typical naturalists’ reactions to beliefs in God?

  • Irrelevant: the naturalist sees no need for any God to explain his or her world or to find personal meaning;
  • Incomprehensible: the idea of any existence outside of the physical world does not even make sense to a naturalist. It is more incredible that most Christians claim their God has consciousness and is even worthy of worship;
  • Offensive: hopefully explanations are no longer of angels and demons. To naturalists, theologies are still rooted in those ancients beliefs with human styled non-physical beings. Religions are re-calling past superstitions, rather than seeing humans as an integral part of the physical world like all other living things. We need to acknowledge that we physical only, without an exclusive non-physical soul.

Alex McCullie

Talk: Naturalism as a viable world-view (Part one)

pdf: text of Naturalism talk (right-click to save)


Over the last three years, I have conducted courses on Atheism and Agnosticism at the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne within the Lifestyles department. Given the diversity of participants, we would spend the first night clarifying the usage of both terms, a controversial discussion even within Atheist communities.

We typically would reduce atheism to the usual ‘disbelief or rejection of the god’ of society. In past times, that meant accusing Socrates of atheism for not believing in the gods of Athens and, even, early Christians for rejecting the gods of Rome. For us, it usually refers to the Christian god as the dominant form of worship. So atheism is a statement about our claims about reality or Metaphysics in philosophical terms.

Most saw agnosticism as a gentle form of atheism, the sort of atheism that can be declared in polite company. This is a far-cry from Thomas Huxley’s coining of the word in the 1860s to curtail any claims of certainty about rejecting god. ‘God is inherently un-knowable’ is closer to his conception of agnosticism. Again in philosophical terms, it is an epistemological claim, one about the nature of knowledge.

So, atheism and agnosticism are dealing with only limited aspects of our perspectives of the world. Therefore, neither of the concepts is an opposite of Christianity, which makes many more claims about the nature of reality and ourselves, and even on how we should behave. Enter Naturalism. Unlike atheism, Naturalism seeks to address a broader range of significant issues about life rather than be restricted to the existence or non-existence of god.


Before speaking specifically about Naturalism, let me introduce a useful way of discussing and comparing different perspectives, the world-view, a literal translation of the German Weltanshauung. Not surprisingly different writers interpret the concept in different ways. For me, world-view is an intellectual framing of our experiences, including our intuitions, perceptions, ideas, and beliefs about ourselves in the world. While acknowledging that deeply held emotions underlie our reactions to the world, I see that verbalising a perspective as a world-view makes it an intellectual process at rationalisation, similar to retelling of a dream. So a world-view provides a person and his or her community with a verbal tool set to describe, interpret, and explain experiences, emotions, and thoughts and in many cases to prescribe appropriate behaviours to be consistent with that world-view.

I would like to mention two risks when analysing world-views. I am drawing from ‘A New Science of Morality’, a talk[1] given by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology at University of Virginia, at a recent Edge seminar. Firstly, we need to be aware of being WEIRDs, people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic societies. We are a minority in the world and need to be careful not to see ourselves as the norm. Secondly, we need to be aware that human reasoning evolved to win arguments and not to pursue the truth. Using reason to justify our actions and beliefs leads to the well-known confirmation bias.

An example of misunderstandings from seeing things as a WEIRD is our concept of self. We emphasise the individual – personal rights, personal goals, and personal ownership. When doing historical research or examining other societies, we bring an individualistic sense of self with us. However many communities interpret ‘self’ in a vastly different way, as a collective self of group identity. Jesus scholars regularly face this problem with their studies of first century Middle-Eastern societies. According to Bruce Malina[2], ‘Who do people [others] say that I am?‘ was and is a commonly thought of question, though rarely asked. In collectivist communities people see themselves as defined by the opinions of significant others.[3] This is something similar to the behaviourist quip: ‘You seem okay. How am I?’

I should mention that many writers even dispute the concept of world-view, as it implies some sort of consistency of our intuitions, beliefs, and ideas. It may be more accurate to characterise our verbalisations about life as trying to normalise a changing, contradictory, patchy, and often inaccessible ‘mishmash’ of emotions and thoughts. Simple honest reflections of our attitudes seem to confirm these concerns.

Despite this caveat, the concept of world-view provides a useful way of talking about fundamental perspectives and, particularly, for contrasting religious with non-religious ones. We need to remember that in reality a person’s perspective is based on deeply held beliefs or assumptions developed from his or her familial and cultural backgrounds. So someone growing up in an Islamic tradition, especially if educated in a Madrassa, will hold a perspective dominated by an Islamic world-view. He or she may later question aspects of that view although it is hard to imagine any fundamental change. Similarly, my view developed in a very secular household where religious practices were seen as cultural artefacts. Christian concepts like God, Christ, and The Trinity hold little real meaning for me and are empty of feelings. In summary, my approach is to see a world-view as an intellectual rationalisation of our attitudes and a way of enabling discussion and some possible change

Perhaps more controversially, each world-view is underpinned by foundational beliefs or truth claims that, I suggest, we are unable to prove or disprove. Within a world-view itself the language tool-sets are built from those very assumptions, which cannot be then used to verify them. Similarly, the tool-sets of other world-views are based on different sets of assumptions and are again problematic for challenging the assumptions of others, in any independent way. None of us have a god’s eye view. Or as Albert Einstein once put it, ‘Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.‘ So is the only alternative a Post-modernist ‘free-for-all’, where all world-views are of equal value? No, I believe there are ways of comparing the efficacy of world-views, but more on that later.

What are those fundamental questions? We even have to be careful about what questions we pose, as questions themselves include and exclude issues. Framing the question controls the nature of the dialogue.[4]

So, not surprisingly, Evangelical Christian world-views always include questions about a personal-style god, which would be meaningless to those from many Eastern religions without personal gods. So here are some questions:

  1. What is our reality and what does our ‘world’ consist of? (Metaphysics)
    Possibly where has it come from and where is it going to?
    What am I and what is my position in the world?
  2. How do I know? How can I know truth? What is knowledge and truth? (Epistemology)
  3. Why do I behave as I do? How should I behave? (Ethics)
  4. And, possibly more specific questions like: what is the nature of history? (events linked for causes and effects only or linked by some grand narrative – reoccurring cycles, pre-Christian or linear progress to a greater goal, Christian)?

Unfortunately the term world-view has been usurped by Christian writers. Just check the Internet or books at the Amazon site. So these writers’ categorise world-views in Christian’s terms with the underlying questions being Christian questions, such as ‘Is there a personal God?’ Then the assessments are from an Evangelical Christian perspective. For example, The Universe Next Door[5] by James W. Sire presents a catalogue such as Naturalism, Christianity, Existentialism, Nihilism, Post-modernism, and so on with the Christian world-view being shown to be more comprehensive and fulfilling. No surprises there.

Previously I mentioned a possibility of comparing world-views, even though we are inevitably within our own view. We can consider three aspects:

  • Coherence or internal consistency (internal conflicts of explanation?) Are there some parts of the world-view that is inconsistent with other aspects? Often these differences are rejected by supporters or patched over by apologetic arguments.
    Note: internal consistency is often an adequate measure of truth for post-modernists.
  • Correspondence to experience (explanatory powerful?) How well does the world-view account for the range of our experiences? Of course, the confirmation bias haunts any analysis about explanatory power. Does a materialist view of the human being provide explanations that meet our needs? Does a loving, all-powerful God reconcile with the death of a young baby?
  • Comprehensiveness (any gaps?). Here atheism or theism falls short of a comprehensive world-view. Science may similarly do so.

Every world-view has short-comings. For example, the ‘Problem of evil’ – presence of gratuitous suffering with an all-powerful, all-loving god – presents an Achilles’ heel for an Evangelical Christian world-view. Reconciling our inner-world of consciousness with a strictly materialistic view of the world is perhaps another one.

[1]    URL:

[2]    Bruce Malina, “Understanding New Testament Persons”, ed. Richard L. Rohrbaugh, The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 44.

[3]    Malina emphasises that (1) self was interpreted by a group understanding; (2) there was little sense of self-reflection, no associated concept of internal psychological processing; (3) complete separation of sexes with vastly different roles and responsibilities; (4) personality characteristics were seen as expressed behavioural terms only e.g. knowing a women is have had sexual intercourse with her; (5) physical characteristics and deformities were signs of permanent personal qualities.

[4]    Susan Johnston audio lecture Religion, Myth & Magic
…religion is a system of beliefs and behaviors that formulates and answers questions that are important, recurrent, and must be answered.      (Page 8 for accompanying guide)

[5]    Sire James M., The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th Edn. (Nottingham: Intervarsity Press, 2009)

Comment: Naturalism – the Basics

All world-views (“how we see things”), as human constructions of reality, start with unprovable foundational beliefs or assumptions. They are assumed within one world-view and impossible to disprove from another. An accepted world-view provides hopefully an emotionally and intellectually comfortable set of perspectives about our existence in the world, by addressing the fundamental questions and answers of life. More importantly we need to recognise that, despite the intellectual claims and counter-claims, world-views are shaped, at least initially, by people’s familial and cultural backgrounds. Only later some may question these fundamental assumptions when they seem overwhelmingly inadequate to explain our experiences. So the ‘problem of evil’ continues to challenge a world-view with an all-powerful, loving God and indiscriminate and gratuitious suffering.

Naturalism, as a world-view, also is founded on fundamental assumptions or beliefs about reality. Firstly, the physical world exists independently of our perceptions. I walk into a room and see a chair. I then expect that chair to exist in the room even after I leave and, if the chair is unmoved, it will be there on my return. This is the philosophical concept of ‘realism’ and is held automatically by most people. Philosophers often talk about naive and critical realism where the latter unlike the former recognises that our perceptions of external objects are always processed or mediated.

Secondly, we are physical beings in a physical world and all our experiences derive from that interrelationship. Naturalists do not seek explanations or comfort from believing in ‘realities’ beyond our interactions within the physical world. Broadly the physical world is seen as interconnected material objects and forces that are commonly referred to as ‘nature’. Nature is not considered inherently conscious.

The only way we understand the physical world is through personal perceptions interpreted by human reason. Even though we would like to think the physical world is knowable, most would recognise the inherent flaws in our preceptive-reasoning capabilities that make any such claim as nonsense. There will always be a ‘disconnect’ between us and the world around us. In many ways our views of reality are really human constructs.
Thirdly, naturalists consider the empirically-based natural and social sciences as our most successful ways of utilising human perception and reasoning to understand ourselves in the physical world. Sciences provide many safe-guards to counter human biases, wishful thinking, and perceptual errors so to produce reliable ‘social knowledge’ about the physical world. Peer testing, open debates, and seeking falsifications are all part of the scientific processes. Ideally nothing is open to challenge. And despite frequent changes in the extremes of scientific enquiry – the very small, very large, and very distant – the vast majority of scientific knowledge is stable and highly reliable.

Fourthly, naturalists are sceptical of a priori knowledge claims, knowledge claims independent of human experience. These claims are acceptable for artificial systems like games and mathematics. So not surprisingly reasoning from the rules of chess can be made without personal playing experience. One might say that scientists also make knowledge claims without having empirical support. And that’s true. Einstein promoted hypotheses long before they could be verified by experiment. However we need to consider two points here. Scientists expect to have both experimental evidence and meaningful explanations sometime in the future as the need for experimental verification can be placed on-hold if plausable explanations are provided initially. Even then full acceptance is usually withheld until verified empirically. This attitude contrasts with many religions that embrace the concept of on-going ‘mysterious’ without any rational explanations sought now or in the future. Just accept the mystery, something that is an anthema to scientific enquiry.

Fifthly and finally, naturalists do not give any particular weight to traditional beliefs and writings. Isaac Newton’s or Charles Darwin’s writings are fascinating in the history of science but of little use for today’s scientific research. They are respected as interesting historical documents but little else. This contrasts dramatically with most religious attitudes towards ancient texts as scripture, which many followers still see as unique and god-given sources of truth.

For naturalists, Christian, Jewish or Islamic scriptures are simply constructions of fragmented ancient human writings, made during ancient times and places so different to our own. Their world understandings were so alien with extra-physical beings as causing human maladies and good fortunes. Quite famously they operated within a three-tier cosmos with heaven above and hell below and the flat Earth between, being their battleground between good and evil. Those writings may have expressed some common truths about the human condition but they are so packaged within an alien world-view combined with later layers of religious interpretation to provide little attraction for people today. Most will turn to newer insightful sources.

So am I dismissing a study of Jewish and Christian texts as a waste of time? Certainly not. I regularly read and study Christian and Jewish scriptures combined with historical and cultural studies of ancient Israel and Palestine. Both libraries of books have had and continue to have immense impact on our society. But I see them as influential ancient human texts, interpreted and re-interpreted over the years effectively hiding any original understandings and intents.

Naturalism is the world-view held, in practical terms, by most people in Australia, New Zealand, and Western Europe. They may profess some sort of deist ‘there must be something’ beyond our physical world, but it makes no difference to their lives. With less than eight percent as regular church attendees the vast majority see churches as social institutions and antiquated ones at that. There is every sign of the churchs’ continued decline.

Like all world-views, naturalism is built on some foundational beliefs about our place in our world. For naturalists we are physical beings in a physical world ans our empirically-based sciences are our best way of knowing that relationship. It is all about human perception and human reason. Furthermore we need to recognise that there will always be a perceptional separation between us and the world around us. We process and interpret all our perceptions subconsciously before conscious awareness. It’s a matter of finding the best fit between experiences and explanation, and naturalism provides a solid basis for both.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Is Atheism the same as Naturalism (Materialism)?

In September last year Engaging Peachers posted a comment questioning the automatic relationship between atheism and naturalism (or physicalism or materialism). This came from a debate by Michael Shermer (of Skeptic magazine fame) and John Lennox where Lennox apparently assumed atheists are materialists (with all the pejorative undertones of course). Instead of responding directly, I am a bit late, here is my little contribution.

Atheism is variously defined as non-theism (non-belief) or anti-theism (“dis-belief”) in a god or many gods. An atheist may simply not believe in the existence of god (as with many other things) or she can actively deny the existence of god. The concept has developed within cultures where the prevailing religions venerate conscious, supernatural god or gods. So it is not surprising that atheism is conceived of in those terms.

With the dominance of the monotheistic religions over the last 2000 years, religious beliefs have moved to worshipping a single conscious supreme being that exists outside of the known physical world and, importantly, takes a personal interest in our lives. An interesting reflection is to think about atheism in light of some Eastern religions that posit no particular divine entity. So atheism is saying something about our conception of reality. Of all the things that may exist an atheist does not include a god – a conscious, supreme non-physical being – in that mix.

It is also quite reasonable for an atheist to hold both non-theist and anti-theist views at the same time. We can simply not believe in any form of non-physical conscious entities (non-theism) – there’s no supporting evidence – while actively denying the classical Christian conception of the all-… god as inherently illogical (anti-theism) – I do!

Naturalism, as a world-view, takes a much broader perspective on our view of the world and reality than subscribing to atheism. Also I see that naturalism subsumes materialism and physicalism even though philosophical sites and writings will discuss the subtle differences. Naturalism like other world-views addresses the fundamental questions of existence: (1) what is reality – metaphysics; (2) how do I know – epistemology; (3) how should I behave – ethics. Underpinning the approach of Naturalism is the core belief that there is only a physical reality and that there is no other “stuff”, especially supernatural “stuff”. This contrasts dramatically with most religious world-views that posit a supernatural reality of separate “stuff” that exists outside of our physical world.

To address the proposition that atheism is the same as naturalism (read the pejorative materialism), I would ask a similar question of religious believers. Is a belief that some sort of conscious non-physical entity the same as holding a Christian world-view? I think not.

Alex McCullie

Book: Encountering Naturalism

Naturalism combines physicalist view of the world with the values of secular humanism. It is a very popular worldview for atheists and agnostics who seek to understand the world in physical or material terms without any supernatural beliefs. is an excellent site for those who want to explore naturalism. Thomas Clark who maintains the site has assembled articles in a very accessible booklet, Encountering Naturalism. Clark introduces and promotes naturalism as a very realistic and moral view point that maintains a physical view of reality. Topics include What Do We Know?; Who Are We?; The Self and Relationships; and Naturalizing Spirituality.

I haven’t seen this booklet in Australia yet but it is available from Amazon. Highly recommended.

© 2008 Alex McCullie

News: Excellent secularism article/review


This article reviews and supports the new book The Secular Conscience by philosopher Austin Dacey. It provides are very good discussion of secularism with comments about worldviews and the need to keep naturalism separate. (full article)

Alex McCullie

Article: Is there a God?

This question was posed by Philosophy Today magazine. Here is my answer…

It’s not necessary.

This deceptively simple question has such profound implications for our sense of independence. I take a bottom-up approach to understanding reality. We have developed coherent and comprehensive physical explanations for our world. Using empirically-based sciences, we continue to build an understanding of the living and non-living aspects as it is now and has been over its 4.5 billion year history of Earth. There are still gaps in our knowledge and will also be so. Either way the growth of awareness of the physical reality over the last 500 years has been extraordinary by any measure.

However there still seems to be a significant ontological gap between the third-person physical explanations of the world and our rich first-person experiences. But is there?

Consider the following. Imagine all humans suddenly dying or consider the Earth some 750,000 years ago. Either way there would be no self-reflecting living things with personal experiences or imaging’s that concerns us today. The physical explanations of reality would be fully satisfactory, if somewhat incomplete. So the need for this gap does seem to depend on having animals like us with the ability for self-reflection. To put this timeframe into perspective we evolved to our present form some 100 000 years ago about 0.002% of the history of Earth.

We have a couple of ways of dealing with this gap. Firstly, we could infer an ontologically separate non-physical reality (NPR) – many people do. This reality could be as large as a parallel version to our total physical reality. Many see this type of NPR being filled with an all-powerful being as well as being a repository for the non-physical aspects of dead human beings – their ‘souls’. Or, for many, the NPR could be as limited as a repository for our first-person conscious processes – the “mind” – residing somewhere in the brain. This very limited form of NPR would disappear with the death of the host.

All versions of NPR seem to solve the dilemma of the gap between physical existence and your personal experiences until you delve into the detail. Immediately you notice two things. There is no physical evidence that these NPRs exist. That may seem self-evident as they are “non-physical” realities. Also there seems to be no satisfactory explanation of how these NPRs interact with the everyday physical world. For me, explanations around miracles, magic and supervenience do not “cut the mustard”. They are non-explanations and shouldn’t be considered enough to be convincing.

Given the main question let us concentrate on the universal NPR with an all-powerful being. The first difficulty is which one? The obvious sources of information, other than personal wishes or desires, are the many human religions. Given the age and obscurity of their sacred texts, most believers rely on interpretations from the religious leaders for their understanding about NPR. Even then the variations and contradictions of teachings within each religion and across different religions are staggering especially when presented with such certainty. Given the variations of theory and teaching surely a person’s belief must be an accident of birth both time and place.

From my limited observations there seems to be only a few common factors amongst the religions. There is a certainty that their version of NPR exists (often with an all-powerful being); that the universe has an underlying purpose; and that knowledge of this will give you an insight to the meaning in life. Many use the promise and threat of life after death to control people’s behaviour. No evidence other than personal revelations and testimonies are offered to support these beliefs. Even here the religious theories are malleable with regular adjustments to confirm to society expectations. Their “absolutes” is more “relative” than they wish to admit.

“The Vatican has overhauled its list of mortal sins, adding several more to cope with the age of globalisation.”

Alternatively, we could work with a physical view only. It is reasonable to expect that science will provide better explanations as to how the brain processes perceptions, feelings and cognition to manage our body’s interrelationships with the external physical world, including social relationships. Newer theories arising from neuroscience, linguistics and philosophy are proposing ways of understanding the human condition such as morality, aesthetic appreciation and socialisation. Theories like “embodied realism” provide satisfying explanations for human cognition within an embodied relationship with our environments.

Moreover there may always be a separation between third-person knowledge and first-person experience. And is that really a problem? You can still enjoy music, films, plays and art without participating in a romantic fantasy that will never fulfil its promises.

© 2008 Alex McCullie