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The Gadfly: A Socratic Interrogation of Naturalism, by B. T. Newberg

February 12, 2014

Today we continue our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with B. T. Newberg’s Socratic interrogation of naturalism.

Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)

Socrates fearlessly faced the hardest questions. Can we naturalists do the same?

Socrates was known as the gadfly of Athens because he asked the questions no one wanted to answer. While waiting in line for his impiety trial, for example, he struck up a conversation about piety with a priest named Euthyphro. Surely a priest would know what piety is, right? Yet Socrates’ questions revealed a concept Euthyphro thought he understood was actually far more elusive than he’d realized.

In the same way, we naturalists may do well to look into our own favorite concept: naturalism. Do we really understand it as well as we think? If not, what do we stand to gain from unmasking false certainties?

There are numerous definitions of this worldview. Some of them are here. Unfortunately – and I’m not going to mince words here – none of them are very good. The truth is we’ll get more from exploring the ambiguities of the concept than from any definition. By doing so, we’ll learn something about a humble approach to knowledge, a little about seeing from the perspective of other people, and finally, just a bit about ourselves.

The natural

Instead of starting with definitions, then, let’s look at the word itself, and work outward from there. You can see right away that it contains the word natural. We naturalists are people concerned with the natural, or nature. We care about what’s real, and we want the way we live to be based not on speculative metaphysics or fantasies, but on what’s really going on.

The scientific

How do we know what’s real, though? We look to science, which is far and away the most successful means available today for modeling the universe. Yet, there’s something funny about referring to science in this way. Science itself presupposes naturalism, at least in practice. Regardless of what religious ideas the scientist may believe in the privacy of her heart, she does not let them enter into the laboratory. This kind of naturalism – called methodological naturalism – defines science. It seems rather circular to define naturalism by science while defining science by naturalism, doesn’t it?

There’s another kind of naturalism that goes by a variety of names – philosophical or metaphysical or ontological naturalism – which holds that only those things that are in principle discoverable by science are real. There’s something funny here too, though. You can’t prove something doesn’t exist just because you can’t find it using the tools you have, however good those tools might be. The best this kind of naturalism can hope to show is that whatever is not discoverable by science cannot affect causation in our universe, and hence is irrelevant. But that seems like a dodge, doesn’t it? Besides, there’s no escape from circularity here. What’s real is defined by science, and science by what’s real.

The supernatural

Well, if we can’t define what’s real by science, then maybe we should define it by what it isn’t: the supernatural. Gods and ghosts and spirits and souls – all that stuff that requires faith to believe in – all those are what naturalism rejects. True, but on what grounds do we reject them? There is no evidence to support them, we say, but what do we mean by evidence? Ask any religious person why they believe and they will give you evidence – faith-based reasons, intuitive feelings, or even empirical experiences. Yet, we don’t accept those things, because they’re not scientific evidence. Oops, we’re back to circularity again.

The… (giving up)

One could go on like this for quite a while, proposing and striking down arguments, but it gets tiresome rather quickly. It makes you want to throw your hands up like one of Socrates’ frustrated interlocutors. There is a temptation to resort to Justice Potter Stewart’s strategy for defining obscenity: “I know when it when I see it!”

What I want to suggest is that we should neither throw our hands up nor jump to foregone conclusions. Instead, let it be an ongoing process of investigation. There are very few of us naturalists who bother to interrogate our beliefs to the degree we demand from people of faith. If we are not to become hypocrites, we ought to do so. More importantly, though, it’s healthy to examine our beliefs. It sharpens our reason, makes us a bit more humble, and opens a space of compassion for others of different beliefs. Socrates didn’t assume the role of gadfly just to be sadistic. He believed something could be gained from unmasking false certainties.

When we reach the point where we can’t quite define what we believe, and we are tempted to throw our hands up, that is a moment of rational discovery. We see what we thought we knew was not so certain, and we reevaluate who we are and what we know. Further, we’re humbled – just a little – when we see how far we have yet to go in understanding even something so basic as this. Finally, we gain a bit of compassion for others of different beliefs when we realize that the questions on which we differ are by no means easy to answer.

Now, I’m not advocating some warm and fuzzy relativism. I am a naturalist, after all, and I think there are indeed good ways to define naturalism, which I’ve published elsewhere, although in the end I may prove as clueless about naturalism as Euthyphro was about piety. In any case, the important thing is that each person struggle with these questions for themselves.

The gadfly

So, what have we learned? Naturalism is by no means easy to define. It is associated with science, but its relationship to it is more problematic than normally thought. It contrasts with the supernatural, but there too the water gets murky as soon as we look a little closer. Circular reasoning tends to crop up in the most unexpected places. How easy it is to notice flaws in others’ thinking, yet how difficult to see it in our own! Once we do recognize it, though, we come away with enhanced humility, compassion, and self-knowledge.

In the end, what worldview naturalism comes down to, at the very least, is a way of life rooted in reality, with the nature of that reality as an open question. We embrace scientific evidence as the best indicators available today for determining what’s real. Yet, since all facts are liable to being overturned by new evidence, this embrace must be provisional. Moreover, the very bedrock of naturalism can be probed without necessarily proving rock steady. That means we must never ignore the gadfly, that little voice in our heads that asks, like Socrates:

What is naturalism?

P.S. Want to continue the dialogue about naturalism? Leave a comment!

The Author

B. T. Newberg founded HumanisticPaganism.com in 2011, and served as managing editor till 2013.  His writings on naturalistic spirituality can be found at PatheosPagan Square, the Spiritual Naturalist Society, as well as right here on HP.

Since the year 2000, he has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective.  After leaving the Lutheranism of his raising, he experimented with Agnosticism, Buddhism, Contemporary Paganism, and Humanism.  Currently he combines the latter two into a dynamic path embracing both science and myth.

In 2009, he completed a 365-day challenge recorded at One Good Deed Per Day.  As a Pagan, he has published frequently at The Witch’s Voice as well as Oak Leaves and the podcast Tribeways, and has written a book on the ritual order of Druid organization Ar nDriocht Fein called Ancient Symbols, Modern Rites.  He headed the Google Group Polytheist Charity, and organized the international interfaith event The Genocide Prevention Ritual.

Several of his ebooks sell at GoodReads.com, including a volume of creative nonfiction set in Malaysia called Love and the Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu.

Professionally, he teaches English as a Second Language.  He also researches the relation between religion, psychology, and evolution at www.BTNewberg.com.  After living in Minnesota, England, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea, B. T. Newberg currently resides in St Paul, Minnesota, with his wife and cat.

B. T. currently serves as the treasurer and advising editor for HP.

To speak with B. T. Newberg, find him on Twitter at @BTNewberg, or contact him here.

See B. T. Newberg’s other posts.

This Friday

This Friday, John Halstead reviews Brendan Myer’s book, The Earth, The Gods and The Soul – A History of Pagan Philosophy: From the Iron Age to the 21st Century.

10 Comments
  1. February 12, 2014 2:15 pm

    Brandon, Excellent post.

  2. ThinkerBelle permalink
    February 12, 2014 5:57 pm

    Do you want the definition of “natural” to encompass the idea of ‘not-man-made?’
    How about including the idea of ‘cyclical?’

    I personally place my faith in “CAUSE and effect.” I do so because neither has ever failed to lead me to the other. There is a certainty there that is very, very compelling. – ThinkerBelle

    • February 13, 2014 7:18 am

      Hi ThinkerBelle. Thanks for the comments.

      >Do you want the definition of “natural” to encompass the idea of ‘not-man-made?’

      Natural has that meaning, of course. But when naturalists talk about nature, it is usually in reference to what can be shown to really exist, rather than a natural vs. artificial distinction.

      >How about including the idea of ‘cyclical?’

      There are lots of patterns in nature, cyclical things being one of them.

      >I personally place my faith in “CAUSE and effect.”

      As do I. What kind of cause and effect, though? If a deity sets the universe in motion, is that not a valid cause?

  3. February 15, 2014 3:01 pm

    Nice post Brandon!

    • February 15, 2014 3:15 pm

      Thank you, Eric! By the way, in our conversation about your axiarchism posts, I was intrigued by the way you defined naturalism by traits or marks. I was wondering if you would be willing to give my own definition a critique? (it could use some constructive criticism!)

  4. February 16, 2014 1:41 pm

    I like it that you realize that most of the definitions of naturalism aren’t very good. Most “naturalists” don’t recognize that at all. Far too many writers (especially among the New Atheists) go charging off with some obviously flawed definition, and then get mad when the obvious flaw is pointed out. Mostly, naturalism founders on circularities. Somebody says that naturalists believe only in science and that “Only falsifiable statements are scientific!”. Of course, that very statement isn’t falsifiable, so it’s not scientific.

    The most common error is to define naturalism in terms of our knowledge: nature is what we can observe, what we can empirically study, and so on. There’s no reason to think that nature is the observable universe. Nature might include an infinite collection of universes, and who knows what else. Reality isn’t limited by human perception. You wrote: “You can’t prove something doesn’t exist just because you can’t find it using the tools you have, however good those tools might be.” It’s nice that you see that.

    At a bare minimum, naturalism does rule some things out. Mostly, it rules out mind-body dualism. It rules out the existence of mental agents that lack bodies. It rules out minds that act on the physical universe in ways that fall outside of the laws of physics. Naturalism seems to require that things work according to laws, specifically, laws which are stated in the language of mathematics.

    And naturalism demands consistency with science. If you’re a naturalist, you accept the scientific answer to a question about the observable universe. Science is the best description of the part of nature that we can observe and measure. And that does not imply that naturalists think science has all the answers to all the questions. Many questions can’t be answered by any appeal to observation.

    You mention that naturalists generally don’t accept things like gods, souls, and spirits. But all those things can be defined in ways that are consistent with science. Aristotle said the soul is the form of the body; that’s naturalistic. Deistic, pantheistic, and Neoplatonic conceptions of God or gods are consistent with science. Of course, none of those naturalistic divinities work miracles. Natural things don’t violate the laws of nature, they are subject to the laws of nature.

    It’s great to see you demanding that naturalists examine their own beliefs. Far too many naturalists are just as dogmatic as religionists (so that naturalism becomes an irrational type of faith).

    Here’s a final thought: there are many kinds of naturalism. One kind might be Pagan naturalism. Pagan naturalism might be different than other kinds. Of course, it would still demand consistency with science. It won’t claim to do a better job than science does when it comes to talking about the observable universe. No woo, no paranormal, no occult or superstitious nonsense. But Pagan naturalism is almost surely likely to be a much deeper kind of naturalism than the kind you find in the New Atheists. What does that mean? Well, you tell me.

  5. February 17, 2014 4:21 pm

    >You mention that naturalists generally don’t accept things like gods, souls, and spirits. But all those things can be defined in ways that are consistent with science.

    Agreed. If you are referring to the “Supernatural” section above, I was speaking dialectically from the perspective of the person making that assertion. Naturalistic Paganism is founded on the insight that there can be naturalistic interpretations of such things.

    >Far too many naturalists are just as dogmatic as religionists (so that naturalism becomes an irrational type of faith).

    Agreed. It’s ironic, since this is the very error for which we reject theistic religion.

    >And naturalism demands consistency with science.

    Wouldn’t you also want to add the priviso that things in principle closed to scientific observation should be treated with agnosticism? For example, positing a being, whether god or spaghetti monster, that has the property of being unobservable by any means breaks no known laws (because there are no laws about what can never be observed), but it would be non-naturalistic to believe in its actual existence. From a scientific standpoint, such a being can’t be denied, but there is no good reason to believe in it as opposed to an infinite number of other things that could be posited in the same manner. Same with other universes that cannot affect ours: perhaps naturalistic to entertain them hypothetically, but not to positively assert or deny them. It seems to me like a Platonic form would fall into the same category (hypothesizable but not affirmable/deniable), which is why I tend to question it as naturalistic. I suspect this may the crux of our difference.

    >At a bare minimum, naturalism does rule some things out. Mostly, it rules out mind-body dualism.

    I would add that it also rules out ultimate agency (meaning no ultimate intention behind the universe, even if that intention, like the Stoic notion of divine Providence, somehow had a physical substrate and thus did not violate mind-body dualism), and ultimate chaos (meaning an ultimately pattern-less universe, or an ultimate pattern which can be violated in the manner of magic or miracle). When I say “ultimate” in these cases, I mean in the largest possible picture. For example, certain special configurations of physical particles, e.g. animal bodies, appear to give rise to agency, but they can only do so within a larger picture of non-directed evolution. Likewise, regarding ultimate patterns, human agents can “intervene” in the pattern of wood by setting fire to it, but in the larger picture we can only do so according to a larger pattern we call the laws of nature. With these few additions, I suspect our definitions of naturalism may be quite similar.

    To put my favored definition in simpler terms, here is how I recently summed it up to a friend:

    I prefer as least perplexing the causal definition of naturalism: it is the system of those who attribute all primary causes to nature. Then I prefer to specify that this “nature” is characterized by impersonal physical laws. Impersonal means no ultimate agent directing it all. Physical means no soul, mind, or magic substance which does not have some kind of physical substrate, where “physical” is taken to include all kinds of quantum wierdness and what not. Laws means orderly pattern that is as it is whether we like it or not – no magic or miracles intervene.

    All this makes naturalism, in principle at least, a falsifiable theory. In the biggest picture, nothing can be demonstrated to a) exist without physical substrate, b) derive from ultimate intention, or c) violate the laws of nature without thereby striking down the theory of naturalism.

    • February 20, 2014 9:05 pm

      A good test case for you would be the simulation hypothesis: if our universe were running on some Great Computer built by aliens who live in some bigger universe, would all that be natural? They could work miracles, answer prayers, and so on. And our universe would be the product of their intentions.

      But here’s an even better question: what do you hope to gain by defining “nature” or “naturalism”? What is your goal? All definitions do is mark boundaries. Why are you marking this boundary? Why not just argue for what you believe? Again, one might expect a Pagan naturalist to have his or her own brand of naturalism.

      • February 22, 2014 9:32 am

        >A good test case for you would be the simulation hypothesis: if our universe were running on some Great Computer built by aliens who live in some bigger universe, would all that be natural? They could work miracles, answer prayers, and so on. And our universe would be the product of their intentions.

        Interesting. Would they be natural? I suppose that would depend on the nature of those aliens, but it would likely be indistinguishable to us. I’m afraid I’m probably missing your point, though. Since it would be indistinguishable to us, I’m not seeing why this simulation hypothesis is relevant. It doesn’t seem able to distinguish the natural from the supernatural, and so would have no utility for defining naturalism – no? Unless your point is that there is no rational way to distinguish the natural from the supernatural??

        >But here’s an even better question: what do you hope to gain by defining “nature” or “naturalism”? What is your goal? All definitions do is mark boundaries. Why are you marking this boundary? Why not just argue for what you believe?

        It sounds like you want to undermine the very concept of a definition…? But I’m game:

        One of my goals in defining naturalism is to cut down on the confusion among naturalists which leads to false and sometimes even hostile perceptions of non-naturalists. There are oodles of naturalists out there right now who think naturalism is defined by rationality and theism by irrationality – which is perjorative and just plain incorrect. Part of it derives from the (false, IMO) assumption that naturalism equals “what really exists” or “what science says exists”, both of which rely on circular reasoning and end up dismissing non-naturalistic ideas based on little more than dogma. A host of other such confusions among naturalists are leading to an overall poor ability to relate to, communicate with, and have compassion for non-naturalists. A better definition of what the naturalism really consists of would hopefully lead to greater self-awareness among naturalists and less misunderstanding of non-naturalists.

        Another goal is to enable naturalists to present themselves more effectively to the wider populace. It is not an easy philosophy to grasp, and a better, more intuitive presentation can be powerful for social relations. That’s why a prefer a simple, one-sentence definition based on “impersonal physical laws” over a long list of traits or other more technical or jargon-loaded definitions.

        >Again, one might expect a Pagan naturalist to have his or her own brand of naturalism.

        Of course, but that doesn’t mean anything goes, nor does it mean that some definitions might be better than others.

        Do you have any criticism that might help make my definition more logically-consistent or better-presented?

        Thanks!

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