Your help is needed! Please critique this entry from the HPedia: An encyclopedia of key concepts in Naturalistic Paganism. Please leave your constructive criticism in the comments below.
This often taken-for-granted term is by no means easy to define. Yet, since it fills a crucial role in naturalism by designating the realm of the natural, over and against the ream of the supernatural, it demands articulation.
Generally speaking, the myriad popular definitions of nature can be broken down into three broad categories:
- that which is (perceived to be) beyond human influence; i.e. the non-artificial
- that which is other than the realm of God or gods; i.e. the non-supernatural
- all that is; i.e. the cosmos in its entirety
This poor and unsatisfactory formulation provides at least a starting point for making sense of the uses of “nature.”
Mainstream science, as well as naturalism, generally follows the third definition, but with an explicit exclusion of supernatural causes related to the second definition. Western religions (mainly Abrahamic) generally follow the second definition.
However, this split doesn’t do justice to common Pagan conceptions of nature (of which there are many, but for the moment we’ll focus on a highly typical view). Pagans commonly consider deities entirely natural, even if outsiders might call them supernatural. For example, see the position of Star Foster (who no longer identifies with the “Pagan” label, but did at the time of her writing). An exploration of the complications of this position on nature is available here. Parallel with the question of deities is that of magic, which Pagans may also consider natural, though not yet discovered by science (for example, see Bonewits).
The disagreement may result from the legacy of traditional Abrahamic mythologies, in which a transcendent God creates nature and remains distinct from it (supernatural). Mainstream Western science and naturalism historically emerged from within an Abrahamic paradigm and still bears that mark, even though it no longer invokes supernatural causes such as a transcendent Creator. Pagan mythologies, by contrast, generally portray nature as self-existing, with the gods emerging from it. Thus, the gods, coming from nature, would seem to be natural. Magic, too, is portrayed as within nature. Yet the result is a nature populated by beings and energies which a) appear in many respects similar to those commonly considered supernatural through an Abrahamic lens as well as through a mainstream scientific one; b) have not been verified or falsified by scientific investigation; and c) may in principle be incapable of verification or falsification by science.
This suggests the key difference between common Pagan and mainstream scientific concepts of nature may be a question of method: must a thing be open, in principle, to scientific investigation for it to be considered natural? If evidence for it comes instead from some kind of mystical or magical intuition, or from claimed direct experience which is not verifiable by a third party, is it therefore supernatural? The question is all the more complicated since it may pose difficulties for some phenomena which most philosophers of science would probably like to be included in nature, such as consciousness, that have not yet acquired a scientific explanation which satisfies a consensus (see hard problem of consciousness).
Despite these complications, this cannot be considered a case of equally-likely competing theories. The mainstream scientific view can base its claims in systematic investigation among a wide array of experts with multiple avenues of evidence mutually converging on a picture of the world that tends toward consilience across disciplines; and though scientists are as fallible as any humans, a system of rigorous peer critique endeavors to reduce human bias as much as humanly possible. The common Pagan view of deities and magic, by contrast, is generally supported by claims of direct experience and anecdotal evidence, with (to my knowledge) no systematic means of verification or falsification as of yet, and no systematic means of reducing bias as far as possible (while there is no dogma against rigorously critiquing another’s beliefs or magical claims, neither is it necessarily welcomed). Thus, it would appear the probable truth-content deriving from the mainstream scientific view and the common Pagan view is unlikely to be the same.
In any case, naturalistic Pagans tend toward a position consistent with mainstream science rather than the common Pagan position outlined above. Indeed, this is one of the defining features that set naturalistic Pagans apart from many other kinds of Pagans.
The ancient Greeks conceived of nature as physis, from which we derive our words “physics” and “physical.” For the Greeks, physis referred to a thing’s origin and development over time.
Nature can be an object of naturalistic transcendence, insofar as it is greater than the individual in both degree and kind, even as the individual participates in it. In this case, the reference is not to transcendence of nature, but rather to transcendence as nature, i.e. the individual’s realization of his or her full participation in the natural world. Nature is one of the “Three Transcendents”, along with community and mind.
See also “Deity”, “Supernatural”, “Three Transcendents”, and “Transcendence.”
Check out other entries in our HPedia.