A Positive Naturalism

Although naturalism can be an uplifting philosophy, it’s got some problems. There are two ways people develop naturalism.  One way starts from science. This is the positive path into naturalism (the via positiva!). It’s the way that I prefer. But before talking about that way, we need to get some clarity about why the other way doesn’t work.  The other way mostly starts from Christianity. This is the negative path into naturalism (the via negativa!).  According to this way, naturalism is just the negation of Christianity. It’s like nature read the Bible and decided to become an atheist. Anti-Christian naturalists derive their picture of nature by negating Christian doctrines.

Here are some examples. Christians usually believe that God gave a purpose to nature. So if naturalism is anti-Christian, then nature doesn’t have any purpose. Or Christians believe in life after death. Therefore, by negation, naturalists deny life after death. Or Christians believe in objective value and objective morality. Since naturalism negates Christianity, it follows that naturalism denies objective value and objective morality.   Morality is just human opinion! Christians say God designed nature.  And so, by negation, nature has no design – nature is just atoms swirling randomly in the void.

One problem with this negative path is just its negativity. It’s never wise to define your own views by negating somebody else’s view. You just end up with a diminished version of their view. The anti-Christian naturalist still has an entirely Christian picture of nature. It’s just a diminished and distorted picture. The negative naturalist is still assuming that if God doesn’t exist (or if Christianity is false), then there’s no purpose in nature, no life after death, no objective value or morality, no design in nature, and so on. It’s clear that a Christian would affirm all those things. It’s clear that a Christian would want to say that life after death depends on God. But why would a naturalist believe that anything depends on God?

The second problem with this negative naturalism is that, instead of looking to nature, it looks to humanity. It defines nature in terms of a specific human cultural invention (that is, Christianity). It’s still a kind of human exceptionalism. It replaces God with humanity. Only humans give purposes to things; life after death is a human fantasy; only humans create values and morality; only humans design things. This negative naturalism assumes that all the significant things require minds. If not the mind of God, then the minds of humans. It would be better for naturalists to look at nature.

The third problem is that, if you derive your picture of nature from the negation of Christianity, you get nihilism. And lots of people find that nihilism is so repulsive that they reject naturalism. If naturalism entails nihilism, then naturalism must be false. Now most naturalists cry out that naturalism comes from science — and science is true.  So if science entails nihilism, then that’s what we have to learn to live with. Except that science doesn’t entail nihilism. Nihilistic naturalism is unscientific.

A scientific version of naturalism starts with science. Consider design. Was our universe designed? The nihilistic naturalist says that it can’t be designed, because design requires an intelligent designer, namely, God. And God doesn’t exist. So the anti-Christian naturalist assumes that the design argument for God is an invalid argument.  But if you look at science you get a different picture: design doesn’t require any intelligent designer. Mindless evolutionary processes designed all the life on earth. And if you look at science, you learn that human brains design artifacts using evolutionary processes of blind variation and selective retention. Just like biology. So if you’re going to deny that nature designs things, you’ll also have to deny that humans design things. Based on our best scientific understanding of design, nature designs living things.

This extends to the universe itself. It’s often said that the universe is finely-tuned for the internal evolution of complexity. Now the nihilistic naturalist just says our universe can’t be finely-tuned because fine-tuning requires an intelligent fine-tuner, namely, God. It’s bizarre that a naturalist would believe this. Evolutionary processes have finely-tuned living things to perform their functions. Eyes, wings, and brains are all finely-tuned.  Photosynthesis is finely-tuned. And just as none of that required an intelligent fine-tuner, so our universe does not require an intelligent fine-tuner to be finely tuned. The most scientific explanation for the fine tuning of our universe is that it was finely tuned by some cosmological process analogous to biological evolution.

As evolving universes become ever more finely-tuned, they gain purposes. Nature gives itself its own purposes through entirely mindless evolutionary processes. Nature is, as Nietzsche once said, a work of art without an artist. More accurately, the artist is the self-relation of the work of art. Nature relates to itself in a purposive, artistic way. Some cosmologists say the purpose of our universe is to make more universes. Or perhaps the purpose of nature is to make itself more purposive. And so as universes become more finely-tuned, they become more finely-tuned for purposiveness. They become more finely-tuned for making things that have more complex purposes. Just as life emerges from non-life, so purpose emerges from purposelessness.

Nihilistic naturalists assume that all values come from minds. Specifically, from minds that are rational. And they assume that, apart from God, only human minds are rational. So if there’s no God, then only humans are the sources of value. Value can’t emerge from irrational processes!  Unless, of course, you look at science. And if you look into biology, you see that value does emerge from irrational processes. It’s arguable that value emerges with the first cooperative unions of parts into wholes. Quarks cooperate to form protons and neutrons. And, via their cooperation, protons and neutrons gain value. When life appears, the fitnesses and functionalities start to accumulate. Values start to accumulate. No minds are required for the concentration of biological value into organisms finely-adapted to their ecological niches.

Living things start to compete and cooperate right away. Plants and fungi compete and cooperate. They form economic unions, exchanging carbon and nitrogen. Sometimes they cheat. And so the altruistic punishment evolves – cheaters get punished. With the emergence of cheating, morality emerges. Plants and fungi form moral communities. As animals increase in complexity, their moral interactions increase too. Birds and wolves interact in accordance with moral rules. Mindless evolutionary processes designed moral systems with objective validity for the species that follow them. If wolves fail to follow their evolved moral codes, they become less fit, they get filtered out. The same holds for primates, including human primates. We inherited our moral codes from evolution.  Humans have never “created their own values”. It’s impossible. Values and moral principles emerge from unintelligent natural processes. As a self-designing process, nature as a whole points ever more clearly to ever more well-defined values. As it sharpens its self-generated values, its pointing converges to what Plato called the Good. I’m perfectly happy to talk about how nature is animated by providential powers aimed at the Good. And I’ll use science to defend that hypothesis.

Nihilistic naturalists often gain their deepest metaphysics from the negation of Christianity. Christians have long been Cartesian dualists: reality contains mind and matter. If you negate Christianity, you delete the mental side of reality. On this view, nature contains only mindless matter. Of course, evolution teach us that mindless matter can evolve into intelligent matter. But when materialism is derived from Cartesian dualism, it looks like materialism is some truth about nature. It isn’t. Our best science increasingly points to the hypothesis that materialism is false.

Materialism is the doctrine that all existing things are material. And if you go with physics, that means all things are either particles from the standard model of matter or are wholes composed of those particles. But quantum field theory tells us that those particles emerge from twists and kinks in quantum fields. And quantum fields aren’t material things – they’re immaterial. At this point, a Cartesian dualist would be puzzled: if they’re not material, they must be mental!  Except that no, they’re not. The lesson is that Cartesian dualism is false. Nature doesn’t divide into mind and matter. Beyond quantum field theory, some physicists say that our universe is ultimately an ocean of quantum bits of information (qubits). Matter emerges from mindless information. The information is not material stuff. It’s pure immateriality. Protons and planets and people are just emergent patterns in an ocean of entangled qubits.

And if nature is ultimately based on information, then its activity is ultimately computation. On this picture, which comes from science, nature as a whole is a self-generating computation. What does it compute? It computes the ways to make itself more computational. Its purpose is to make itself more purposive. It mindlessly figures out all the ways to make itself figure out more ways to figure things out. It loops into itself, always amplifying its self-looping. Nature is an infinite positive feedback loop, which amplifies its self-amplification. It is recursively self-improving: it gets better and better at making itself get better and better. Out of its recursive self-improvement, it generates more valuable values. From its own self-activity, nature brings forth cooperation, morality, intelligence, reason, goodness, beauty, and more.

But what about life after death? Nihilistic naturalists unfortunately still cling to old-fashioned Christian ideas. If there’s no God, and no souls, then there’s no life after death! I can understand why a Christian would say that, but not why a naturalist would agree. Nothing depends on God. Not even souls or life after death. Aristotle said the soul is the form of the body – an entirely naturalistic idea. And if my body is just ultimately pure information, then my soul is just an informational pattern. I am a computation and my soul is a program. Evolving nature generates patterns by looping: old patterns get revised into new patterns. Patterns get copied by loops. Any complex thing, from human bodies to entire universes, comes from a progression of copy-paste operations. Your whole life is just copy pasta. And what was copied before will be copied again. There will be future copies of our universe, our galaxy, our earth, our bodies, our brains. But they will be modified in all possible ways as nature turns into itself to generate that positivity than which none greater is possible.

I’m a Platonic naturalist. So I’ve got lots of resources to deploy against nihilism. I’m happy to say that nature has a purpose. And that nature as a whole is a recursively self-maximizing computation, in which all its parts are endlessly projected into ever better versions of themselves. I’m happy to affirm life after death.  And to affirm the existence of souls. Plus objective values and objective morality. And I’ll defend those kinds of claims using our very best current science. All the positivity you could ever want emerges through the positive feedback loops in nature. Of course, this doesn’t mean that utilitarianism is true or that nature wants you to be happy right now.  Nature wants you to become more than yourself. And that’s what you’ll become.

Subscribe to The Spiritual Naturalist Society
Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society

The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

1 thought on “A Positive Naturalism”

  1. My whole life is just copy pasta. I want a bumpersticker. Thank you for the joy in reading your article this morning. I agree. And because nature has a purpose, I have a purpose. I came to it on my own, but having discovered the Naturalists, I see I am not alone.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.