“Naturalism by Numbers” by Eric Steinhart

With the new year, we are starting a new series called, “What Naturalism Means to Me”.  It is an opportunity for our readers, like you, to share what Naturalism means for you.  We are looking for essays between 1000-3000 words.  Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism[at]gmail[dot]com.


Here’s a very simple approach to naturalism: if you can measure it, it’s natural; if you can’t, it’s not.  This approach isn’t dogmatic.  It doesn’t try to tell you that you have to dogmatically believe that nature is just atoms swirling in space.  It doesn’t make any claims about the contents of nature besides saying that the things in nature – whatever they might turn out to be – can be measured.  More generally, this means that you can talk about natural things using numbers.  And, even more generally, this means that you can talk about natural things using mathematics.

The features of material things can be counted and measured.  A cup of water contains a large number of water molecules.  A water molecule contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  An oxygen atom contains eight protons.  A proton has an electric charge of plus one.  A proton contains two up quarks and one down quark.  The quarks have properties like charge and spin, which are defined by numbers.  So all these things are natural.  Naturalism is associated with materialism because material things can be counted and measured.  But naturalism isn’t identical with materialism.  It is possible to measure lots of non-material things, like information.  As science makes progress, it generally does more and more measuring.   It uses more and more mathematics.

This numerical way of thinking about nature doesn’t try to tell you what exists.  It only tries to tell you what is natural.  During Plato’s day, the standard model of matter said there were four elements: fire, air, water, and earth.  Plato, following Pythagoras, said each element was a geometrical shape: fire was a tetrahedron (four faces), water was an icosahedron (twenty faces), air was an octahedron, earth was a cube.  He broke those shapes down into triangles.  He defined the triangles using numbers for the lengths of their sides.  The Platonic atoms are natural.  As it turns out, the Platonic atoms don’t exist.  But naturalism doesn’t try to tell you what exists.

Most of the things that are traditionally said to be unnatural or supernatural cannot be measured.  They cannot be counted.  There are no mathematical models of those things.  Do you believe in ghosts?  How can we count the number of ghosts in the haunted house?  How can we measure the features of ghosts?  So far, nobody has even tried to make any mathematical models of ghosts.  So far, ghosts aren’t natural.  But if you can give us some equations that describe them, so that we can count them and measure their properties, then ghosts will turn out to be natural.  If you tell us how we can count ghosts, then we can try to figure out whether or not they exist.  There are ghosts in the haunted house if we count them and the number is bigger than zero.  But if the number turns out to be zero, then the ghosts are like Platonic atoms – they don’t exist.

The numerical approach to naturalism is sometimes called a progressive approach, because it follows the idea of scientific progress.  It looks at naturalism as a research project, which tries to naturalize things by building mathematical models of those things.  It took a lot of research to build the current mathematical model of matter.  Scientists are doing very interesting mathematical research into consciousness.  They are trying to measure it.  This is important in medicine.  Doctors want to know whether people in comas or persistent vegetative states have any consciousness.  Anesthesiologists want to know whether their patients have any consciousness during surgery.  And so neurologists have developed mathematical models of consciousness which allow it to be measured.  One of the best current measures is the perturbational complexity index (the PCI).  It can be measured by instruments that detect the electrical activity of the brain.  If your PCI is less than 0.31, you’re not conscious; if it’s greater than 0.44, you’re conscious.   The PCI shows that conscious can be measured.  It’s natural.

Progressive naturalists try to naturalize things by developing mathematical models of those things.  Consider souls.  One traditional way of defining souls comes from Descartes.  He said that souls are immaterial thinking substances.  Nobody has ever used numbers to define immaterial thinking substances.  They aren’t natural.   But another traditional way of defining souls comes from Aristotle.  He said the soul is the form of the body.  The form of the body can be naturalized.  The form of your body is closely connected with the genetic program that constructs your body.  Your genetic program can be defined using numbers.  A gene is a series of instances of the four nucleic acids A, C, G, and T.  These can be given binary numbers: A is 00; C is 01; G is 10; and T is 11.  So a gene is a just a long string of binary numbers.  It is a long string of bits.  The form of your body is also closely connected to the structure of your brain.  A naturalist treats the brain as a biological computing machine.  Computers can be defined using numbers.  So if the soul is the form of the body, then the soul is natural.

Many Neopagans believe in gods or goddesses.  But those Neopagans have yet to produce any mathematical models of their deities.  Their deities are not natural.  But there are ways to naturalize the deities.  One way to naturalize a deity is to say that a deity is a computer that generates a universe.  Many people have argued that our universe is like a video game; it’s like a computer simulation.  This means our universe is a software process running on some computer.  The computer is a deity.  Computers are obviously defined using lots of math.  So if deities are computers, then they are natural.  But this approach to deities will leave most Neopagans out in the cold.  There’s no point in worshiping a cosmic computer, no point in addressing it in some ritual.

Many Neopagans also believe in magic.  But they never try to measure it.   They never try to define their spells using equations or mathematical structures.  Since Neopagan magic cannot be measured, it isn’t natural.  And until somebody can prove that it works by counting and measuring its effects, a naturalist will just ignore it.  Much Neopagan magic comes out of an ancient Neoplatonic context.  What we call magic, they called technology.  The old Neoplatonists practiced theurgy, which they called he telestike techne, the technology of self-perfection.  They used numbers in their theurgic rituals.  They were very interested in understanding the self (and the whole world) using numbers.  They wanted to be naturalists.  But they just didn’t have the tools needed to measure the numbers of the body.  Ancient Neoplatonic theurgy evolved into modern technology.  We do have the tools to understand the numbers of the body and the universe.  The modern Quantified Self Movement uses a slogan that could have been taken right from the ancient Neoplatonists.  Their slogan is “Self-knowledge through numbers.”

A naturalistic pagan (who is probably a small-p pagan, rather than a capital-N Neopagan) naturalizes the Neoplatonic idea of he telestike techne, the technology of self-perfection.  This technology measures the numbers of the body.  It measures the number of steps you walk each day, the number of calories you eat, your heart rate, your galvanic skin response, your body temperature, and so on.  At the very least, it keeps a daily journal of your detectable health parameters, and uses that journal to figure out the mathematical patterns of your body.  Diabetics measure their blood sugar levels.  Do you suffer from migraines?  What triggers them?  You can try to see whether they are triggered by changes in barometric pressure.  Most smart phones have apps that measure pressure.  You can keep a diary that tracks pressure and migraines.

Of course, none of this data matters if you don’t act on it.   Ancient Neoplatonism involved practices intended to change the body.  A modern and more naturalistic Neoplatonist can also used practices to change the body.  The most naturalistic way to act on your body is through ethical self-experimentation.  It’s not ethical to run potentially harmful experiments on your body.  Fortunately, there are plenty of ethically responsible things that you can do to change your body.  You can try different diets; different exercise routines; different medications; and so on.  You can do naturalistic versions of meditation and yoga.  Naturalistic versions of meditation and yoga won’t make any claims that can’t be backed up by measurements – that is, by numerical data.

Naturalistic Neoplatonism uses the experimental method to optimize the body.  The first step is to carefully measure your body.  What are the numbers you want to change?  The second step is to carefully research the techniques that might change those numbers.  At the end of this second step, you’ll have a list of possible techniques for self-change.  All those techniques must be ethically responsible, and must be based on numerical data.  The third step is to apply those techniques.  You start with the first technique in your list.  You apply it for some time. You measure the results to see whether it’s changing your numbers in the way you intended.  To do this, you need to keep a journal – you need to keep precise records of your experiments.  You need to do self-tracking.  You can’t keep this data in your head – you need to write it down day by day.  If some technique works, that’s great; if not, you go on to the next one in your list.  If you run out of techniques, you go back to step two.  You keep working on the numbers of your body.

The philosopher Pierre Hadot argued that ancient philosophies were ways of life rather than abstract doctrines.   His view of philosophy as a way of life has been taken up by modern Stoics and modern Western Buddhists.  Modern Stoics dispense with the unnatural aspects of ancient Stoicism.  They naturalize Stoicism by focusing on the ways that Stoic practices can produce measurable results.  And modern Western Buddhists dispense with the unnatural aspects of ancient Eastern Buddhism.  They get rid of karma, reincarnation, hungry ghosts and celestial deities, old Buddhist heavens and hells.  They naturalize Buddhism by focusing on meditation techniques that have measurable results.  Modern Neoplatonists can do the same thing.  They can naturalize ancient Neoplatonic philosophy.  Naturalized Neoplatonism remains devoted to the he telestike techne, to the technology of self-perfection.  It works on the numbers of the body.  It uses the experimental method to optimize the body.


About the Author

Eric Steinhart is a professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. He is the author of four books, including Your Digital Afterlives: Computational Theories of Life after Death. He is currently working on naturalistic foundations for Paganism, linking Paganism to traditional Western philosophy. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He loves New England and the American West, and enjoys all types of hiking and biking, chess, microscopy, and photography.

See Eric’s Posts

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5 Comments on ““Naturalism by Numbers” by Eric Steinhart

  1. I can think of things that I would call ‘natural,’ as in arising from or emergent properties of nature, that I don’t know how to measure or quantify. Values come first to mind.

    Do I read you correctly that the goal of this kind of numerical approach to naturalistic pagan practice is self perfection?

  2. Pingback: Love by Numbers – wildseed within

  3. To paraphrase an internet quote frequently misattributed to Einstein, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”.

  4. I would agree with the comments above, Naturalism includes things that can’t be measured, such as love and courage and beauty.

  5. So, can I make a comment? This post is number worship. As a mathematics major, I can tell you that numbers alone can’t describe nature. For one, numbers can define fractal length, which is the majority of nature because nature is “lumpy bumpy”. At best, we can measure the complexity of the irregularity using a decimal approximation. 2nd, you can’t “count” processes that involve infinite steps, which is essential for making models in calculus since we often take the limit to infinity. And why numbers? A vector is a perfectly reasonable mathematical object, and it requires no numbers to define it. In fact, a large body of topology, algebra, geometry and logic need no numbers at all to function properly, so do these subjects not exist in YOUR nature? I find this post pretty vague, since it has the mathematical maturity of a 5th grader. And I haven’t even started on complex numbers, higher-dimensional geometry, group theory, etc, none of which rely solely on numbers, but show up consistently in mature.

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