The Limits of Naturalism?

Holding the Tension of Two Views
Spiritual naturalists live with the tension of two views, we inhabit something of a space in between. 

By this, I mean that most of those who ascribe to the notion of spiritual naturalism find value in a naturalist worldview based on reason, science, and evidential thinking, yet we also find value in spirituality and religion rightly understood.

We spiritual naturalists tend not to wander into extreme positions regarding naturalism and spirituality – avoiding fundamentalisms, be they religious or scientific,  and their limiting, narrow, and reductionist tendencies. 

Many of us have found meaning and a sense of home in spiritual naturalism because we understand the flaws and intellectual militancy of supernatural religion as well as the extremes of what some call scientism, the view that science and its methods are the only valid form of human reasoning. Let me explain further.

Naturalism holds that the scientific method (hypothesize, predict, test, repeat) is the most effective way to investigate reality and that such methods are required to ascertain the truth about the world. Science has benefited humans in stunning and truly amazing ways – medical advances, technological progress, and significantly enhanced understanding of our world and ourselves. Humans are truly and radically better off because of science.

Naturalism and reliance on scientific methodology is fundamentally an epistemological commitment, but one that often leads to an ontological conclusion that what is real is only what science can investigate. The science most naturalists take to be foundational is physics. Therefore, the ontological worldview of naturalism is often a form of materialism or physicalism.

Many naturalists therefore argue that scientific methods are the only valid way to conduct all human inquiry, including ethical analysis, normative decision making, aesthetic experience, valuation, and even interpersonal relationships. This position has been popularized and promoted within philosophy by American thinker, W.V.O. Quine.

Some naturalists, including many spiritual naturalists, however, are recognizing that the above scientism and reductionism isn’t completely accurate and doesn’t serve human learning or science itself. The assumption that strict scientific naturalism is the totality of naturalist theory seems mistaken.

These thinkers, Hilary Putnam, Loyal Rue, Mario De Caro, David Macarthur, Wilfrid Sellars, or Lynne Rudder Baker, and others, have been developing more nuanced forms of naturalism, including liberal naturalism, poetic naturalism, and near-naturalism which are varied philosophical interpretations and explanations of naturalism that do not require a materialist or reductionist worldview. While there are important differences in these varieties of naturalism, for the sake of brevity, I will speak about these under the rubric of liberal naturalism.

Liberal Naturalism incorporates a range of views, a central tenet being that there is more to what is natural, and more to how we can investigate it, than scientific naturalism allows. It argues that one should respect the explanations and results of the successful sciences without supposing that the sciences are our only resource for understanding humanity and our dealings with the world and each other.

According to liberal naturalism, persons, existential concerns, the beauty of artworks, institutions, rational norms and moral values, to mention just some things, benefit from scientific inquiry, but are not fully explicable by science alone. Therefore, liberal naturalism calls for integrating scientific inquiry and philosophy in order to expand our efforts into personal purpose-seeking and meaning-making.

Liberal naturalism is thus more expansive both ontologically and methodologically than stricter forms of naturalist philosophy. It acknowledges the existence of non-scientific modes of understanding that are central to our talk of reasons, epistemic justification, valuing, and intention which cannot necessarily be mapped onto talk of causes and effects in the sense that physical science speaks of them.

Truth is unitive, the conclusions and assumptions of all forms of human inquiry must still ultimately align with what the sciences demonstrate. Liberal naturalism does not permit grand conjecture, magical thinking, or wish projection as valid forms of reasoning. Rather, it is a naturalism that acknowledges the descriptive and explanatory power of science without allowing it to become reductionist.

But What about Spirituality and Religion?
Where does all this discussion then leave spirituality and religion in general?

Liberal naturalism is the secular, naturalist, and scientific response to the post-secular rapprochement. It operates from a holistic understanding of human persons and attempts to avoid reductionism that is akin to the various forms of religious fundamentalism.

In short, naturalistic approaches to religion tend to pursue the following strategy: reject the transcendent claims, psychologically and neurobiologically explain aspects of religious experience, and focus primarily on the potential social and cultural aspects and benefits.

This approach toward religion is fairly easy to grasp. Naturalism largely defines itself by its rejection of supernatural realities or transcendent ontologies. Such realities cannot be demonstrated or verified by naturalist inquiry and scientific methodology, and therefore are set aside or outright rejected.

Liberal naturalism does not assert the non-existence of God or the transcendent as such, but simply the irrelevance of such entities for scientific investigation. It reaches this conclusion largely based on an argument of absence, that if the supernatural does exist it is seemingly silent and its effects are non-observable when relying on scientific methods.

The cogent naturalist concedes that naturalism cannot strictly demonstrate that nothing transcends nature. Correspondingly, the cogent theologian must also recognize that while it may be true that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it is also true that absence of evidence is absence of any respectable or sufficient reason to believe in something.

Yes, there are meaningful and fascinating philosophical arguments about nature and reality being contingent and therefore the need for some grounding beyond nature. But such arguments are complex, abstract metaphysics and do not strictly logically or practically lead to proofs for personal deities, spirits, and so on. 

Yet naturalism has its limits. Engaging in liberal naturalist methodology doesn’t render religion useless, without value, or superfluous. Rather, naturalism as I’m speaking of it here, offers religion an opportunity to refine and improve itself. This claim harkens back to Habermas’s conclusion that secularism (largely rooted in naturalism) and religion can coexist and fruitfully dialog with one another.

Naturalism, and secularism being motivated by such, in general, asks religion to justify and defend its claims. The process of such is a healthy exercise for religion, forcing it to go beyond juvenile assertions of magical thinking, wish projection, and mere assertion of revealed theological “truths.”

All religions must carefully scrutinize their claims, aligning them with science whenever possible. They must be humble, reserved, and careful of any supernatural claims they make, knowing that justification and evidence for such is difficult, at best, and that such arguments and claims are met with stiff resistance in our secular culture.

This means that revisioned views of religion must be less about supernatural metaphysics and become much more a way of life, a complex and multivalent interweaving of reason, ritual symbolism, personalism, and culture-building. Revisioned religion can therefore serve as a much needed forum for addressing issues of personality, purpose, meaning, morality, ideals and values that positive science is ill equipped to analyze.

The strong and somewhat eccentric emphasis on belief and faith in Christianity and other religions today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. Many tend to treat religion as an intellectual acceptance of a set of doctrines which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical data. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the meaning of such doctrines, they literalize them, and require assent to such literal interpretations.

Yet some religious traditions place a primary emphasis on practice and action over belief and faith. Yes, obviously thought and action are entwined and influence one another. But there is definite benefit for all religions to consider a renewed emphasis on orthopraxy instead of narrow orthodoxy.

Religion is primarily about meaning and valuing, not about science, and therefore it is (or should be) more concerned with forms of practical knowledge. During the Enlightenment, largely due to naturalism, the stage was set for scientific methods to become so successful that mythopoeia was discredited, scientific rationalism became seen as the only valid way to speak about the world and the only path to truth. The religious, and particularly Christian response was, and often remains, a rejection of science, the digging in of heels in increasingly ideological theologies, and a reactionary drift into various fundamentalisms and literalisms.

In light of the valid and useful challenge of naturalism, religion needs to update its core assumptions and revision its understanding of spirituality accordingly. And to achieve such a revisioning and place religion on more solid footing in the post-secular, post-religious world now unfolding, requires developing forms of spiritual naturalism – which is just what SNS is all about.


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