The HPedia: Naturalism
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Naturalism is a worldview with numerous technical definitions, each with their own virtues and difficulties. One of the oldest definitions comes from Littré’s 1875 Dictionnaire de la langue française, which defined naturalism as:
“the system of those who find all primary causes in nature” (Furst and Skrine, 1971).
Variations on this definition continues to enjoy popularity today. Concentrating on causes, it allows analysis to focus on how people explain events, which makes it more or less portable across historical eras. Like most all definitions of naturalism, it does not escape the question of differing concepts of nature in different eras, much less the question of the so-called supernatural, which remains problematic in Pagan contexts today.
Other popular definitions obtain, such as these from Wikipedia:
- Methodological naturalism, naturalism that holds that science is to be done without reference to supernatural causes; also refers to a methodological assumption in the philosophy of religion that observable events are fully explainable by natural causes without reference to the supernatural
- Metaphysical naturalism, a form of naturalism that holds that the cosmos consists only of objects studied by the natural sciences, and does not include any immaterial or intentional realities
These two are clarified by William E. Kaufman, starting with methodological naturalism:
Naturalism may be defined as “the disposition to believe that any phenomenon can be explained by appeal to general laws confirmable either by observation or by inference from observation” (CRN 21). This does not mean that everything that happens in the universe is at present explainable. Rather, naturalism represents a methodological recommendation concerning the theory of knowledge. What it suggests is that the only instruments of knowledge we possess are reason and critically analyzed experience. Claims to knowledge based on a special faculty, such as mystical intuition, must therefore be recognized as assertions of faith which cannot be verified and can only be evaluated in terms of their consequences for human conduct. The reliance on reason and critically analyzed experience is thus the method of naturalism, its logic of inquiry.
Kaufman goes on to speak of metaphysical naturalism:
Naturalism as a theory of reality, however, can be problematic because of the ambiguity of the term “nature.” For most naturalists, nevertheless, it is safe to say that “nature” signifies the totality of reality — its substance, functioning and principles of operation, since what distinguishes naturalism from other metaphysical standpoints is its claim that there is nothing beyond nature.
HP adopts only methodological naturalism as an essential tenet; metaphysical naturalism is left up to the individual to accept or reject. This is simply and purely a statement of what HP is, not a dogmatic proclamation of what is right or wrong for all people in the universe to believe. Those who practice HP do not invoke supernatural causes; others are free to do as they see fit. Invoking supernatural causes is neither condoned nor condemned; it just isn’t HP.
Metaphysical naturalism (also called philosophical or onotological naturalism) is left up to the individual to accept or reject. Some may find it questionable to believe in the existence of the supernatural while denying it any causal influence, but that is for individuals to judge for themselves (those interested may see Barbara Forrest’s treatment of the methodological-philosophical naturalism debate). The only naturalism required for a path to be considered HP is methodological naturalism.
In HP, naturalism refers to methodological naturalism, unless otherwise specified.
Note that the definitions above rely on definitions of nature and science, which are not uncontested.
See also “Nature”, “Supernatural”, and “Science.”
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