Naturalism and the Abiding Self

The philosopher David Hume suggested that we humans “are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus reflected a similar idea when he said “you cannot step in the same river twice.”  Presumably this is not just because the river is in constant change, but also because the self is in constant change.  These ideas of the human self are somewhat similar to those presented by Buddhist philosophers, who also emphasize the impermanence of all phenomenon and the contingency of the human self.

Undoubtedly there is some truth to this notion of the self, yet in the end it fails to provide an adequate account for our experience of reality.  Yes, our self is in flux, yet something holds constant.  The person who woke up in my bed this morning is intricately connected to the person who lay down there the night before.  Heraclitus, recognizing this problem apparently changed his mind; he later wrote “you both can and cannot step in the same river twice.” (1)

There have been many ideas presented to try to account for that which endures amidst change.  Most of these are metaphysical ideas, often based on the notion of a God.  A popular account in the West attributes an enduring, indeed eternal soul that contains the changing aspects of the self.  In this view, each such soul is unique, and thus the individuality of the self is an eternally real quality.

In the perspective of naturalism, the enduring quality is generally attributed to the “the laws of nature” – the fundamental regularities we observe in the world expressed in mathematical form.

The expression “laws of nature” is actually a metaphor. It may have its origin in the idea of “God’s law,” which was the major explanation in the West, prior to the rise of modern science, for the organization and enduring qualities of the world.

Taken literally, one might be tempted to ask, “Where do these laws exist?” since the laws of humans tend to exist in space and time.  But the regularities of nature do not exert their control from outside of phenomenon, they arise from the fundamental parameters of nature – the relative sizes of the various particles and the relative strengths of the fundamental forces.  The dynamic inter-relationship of these various particles and forces within the vast sphere of space and time result in a self-organizing cosmos.  These fundamental parameters are the unchanging aspect of the ever changing world. (2)

Why Nature has this “well-tuned” set of enduring parameters that result in such a universe is simply a mystery.  There are many interesting theories, but since at least for now none of them can be scientifically proven or falsified, for all intents and purposes, they probably should be considered metaphysical rather than scientific theories.

Though the ultimate origins of this self-organizing universe is a mystery, the history and inner workings of this process of self-organization are becoming ever clearer – from the so-called big bang to the formation of galaxies and our solar system, to the origins and evolution of life upon this planet.  From the naturalistic point of view, every individual life arises out of these larger processes of Nature, is sustained by them throughout its existence, and in the end is absorbed back into them.

Processes Within Processes

If we look at a human life as a process, we can consider it as vaguely starting at the moment of conception and running until death.  Throughout this time there is constant change, both physical and mental, yet there is a regularity to this change.  The physical body of a person at six is very different from that body at 60, and yet there is a continuous narrative history of that body throughout the intervening 54 years.  And, although one’s memories at 60 of who one was at six are selective and distorted, yet one has a definite feeling that there is a deep connection between these two slices of “one’s life.”

All this is to say that the constant flux and ever changing causality of a life seem to hold together in an orderly or patterned way – it is not just change but an enduring process of change.  It would appear that we both are and are not the same self at 60 as we were a six; we both are and are not the same self in the morning as we were in the evening.

For a person who feels uncomfortable with Hume’s or the Buddha’s idea that the self is something of an illusion, the idea that the self can be thought of as an enduring process may seem an improvement. Yet it also challenges any cherished notion of “my” self.

While a process may be enduring, at all times each process is a part of other processes.  As a biological organism, for instance, the human body is part of metabolic processes that are themselves integrated into vast ecological process, including the oxygen and hydrologic cycles.   The energy we metabolize from food extends these process even further, as it comes from nuclear processes in the sun.  The sun itself comes from galactic processes, and these galactic processes originate in the great beginning we currently think of as “the big bang.”  And it is becoming increasingly clear to cosmologists that the great inflation called the big bang arises from other processes that are beyond the region of space and time for which we have information.

It’s processes in the other direction also.  Each cell in our body is itself a kind of little self – in constant but orderly flux.  The cells comprise organs and the organs comprise systems.  Our body is itself like a little universe of inter-related processes.

And it is not only biological and physical processes that we are integrated into, there are also cultural processes.  The energy from our food may come from the sun, but most of us obtain our food as a part of a vast economic process that involves agriculture, transportation, and markets.  Perhaps more pointedly, we obtain our ideas from an exceedingly complex cultural system.  That I bring together here the names of Heraclitus, Buddha, and Hume – people vastly separated in space and time – is only possible because my mental processes are so integrally connected with the broader human culture. (3)

The Self and Spirituality

From the naturalistic perspective, we are a process within processes that extends both downward to the mysterious quantum processes that hold an atom together, upward to the ultimate and mysterious processes that are the origin of the cosmos, and inward to the still mysterious inter-relationship of neurological and cultural processes that give rise to awareness and conscious thought.  Another way to express this is that the human self appears to be completely rooted in things other than itself, rooted in otherness, though this is not a conclusion common to naturalistic thinking.

That we are rooted in otherness is a rather common idea in the various spiritual traditions.  We mentioned earlier the idea from popular Christianity that we are at base an eternal, individual soul.  In this account, the soul is ultimately independent of the world and its processes.  Indeed, this idea leads some of its adherents to enmity toward the natural world.

Within the mystical writings of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, however, we find a more nuanced notion of the self and Other.  These mystics emphasize that the kingdom of heaven is within us, to be experienced here and now, not after death.  To enter the kingdom of heaven, however, the individual being must give itself over completely to the great otherness that is God, of which it ultimately is a part.  As the Sufi mystic Abu Yazid Al-Bistami states it: “I sloughed off my self as a snake sloughs of its skin.  Then I looked into myself and saw that I am He.”

In the great religious traditions of the East we find similar notions, expressed sometimes with and sometimes without a personalized deity.  In Hinduism, such absorption is called Samadhi; in Buddhism, Nirvana; in Taoism it is called returning to the root.  As expressed in the Tao Te Ching:

Each again returns to its root.
To return to the root is to attain quietude,
It is called the recovery of life,
To recover life is to attain the Everlasting,
To know the Everlasting is to be illumined.

Naturalism and the Perennial Philosophy

The idea that the spiritual goal and fulfillment of a life is to merge with a timeless reality (i.e. that which endures amidst the flux of the world) has been called the “perennial philosophy” or sometime the “perennial wisdom.”  The perennial philosophy also includes the idea that this goal is present in each of the great spiritual traditions, and that each tradition has developed methods that can lead to its actualization.

Aldous Huxley popularized this notion in his book The Perennial Philosophy, but a significant group of Huxley’s contemporaries were also developing this idea within the context of the established religious traditions.  These writers include Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Marco Pallis, Ananda Coomaraswamy.  Their writings contain rich spiritual insights, but unlike Huxley, (whose grandfather Thomas Huxley was an early champion of Darwinian evolution) they can be a bit hostile to scientific and naturalistic accounts of the world and thus can be rather hard to swallow for a person who sees the world from a naturalistic perspective. (4)

In his writings on the Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley uses as a starting point an expression from the Upanishads: Tat Tvam Asi, which translates as That Art Thou.  The word “That” in this expression refers to the ultimate, enduring reality.  The goal of the perennial philosophy is for the “thou,” the individual person, to have an experiential knowledge of the greater Being of which he or she is a part.  To present a common metaphor in these traditions, it is to recognize that our being is to the greater Being as a wave is to the ocean.

This ultimate reality in many, but not all, the traditions that comprise the perennial philosophy is some form of God.  In some cases it is an anthropomorphic God and in others a God without form, yet in either case a supernatural entity.

The perennial philosophy, however, does not require such a supernatural entity.  Earlier we explored the idea that our individual being is a process nestled in larger processes that are nestled in yet larger processes going all the way back to the mysterious origin of all processes.  We are completely rooted in this great Otherness.  And here, finally, is the point I have been moving toward: That Thou Art.  In our individuality, each of us is a brief flourishing of the wildly creative process of Nature; beyond our individuality, we are an integral of that very Process.

If we focus on the usual concerns of human life – survival, security, status, power and pleasure – we are the somewhat isolated “thou,” a wave on the ocean of being.  If we change our perception and focus beyond these concerns to the greater entity from which we arise, are sustained, and to which we return, we recognize that we are not only thou, but also That, not only wave, but also Ocean.  The wave must inevitably crash upon the shore; but hey dude, the Ocean abides.


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  1. Heraclitus also wrote that “all things change” and interestingly after 2,500 years his idea comes down to us essentially unchanged.)
  2. For more information about the fundamental parameters, see the Wikipedia article Dimensionless Physical Constants
  3. Some suggest that we can reduce the human self to neural mechanisms and processes. Such a reduction fails because cultural components are equally essential to any idea of the self. Thus the self cannot be reduced to either the brain or to culture, but exists in a dynamic inter-relationship of the two.  Further, the more recent aspects of the evolution of the human brain almost certainly took place within a cultural context and may very well have been driven by that context.
  4. For anyone who would like to have a better understanding of the perennial philosophy, I would recommend two collections of writings compiled by Stephen Mitchell: The Enlightened Heart, and The Enlightened Mind. I don’t know that Mitchell has ever labelled himself as a proponent of the perennial philosophy, but I find these two collections convey the idea even better than Huxley or the other the writers mentioned above.  However, for people interested in Buddhism, Marco Pallis is a writer well worth one’s attention.

2 thoughts on “Naturalism and the Abiding Self”

  1. Beautiful. This point, in its various aspects, is the same point that has inspired me most as a naturalist, though it’s been difficult for me to express it clearly.

    I was wondering about the note that Heraclitus “changed his mind” later in life. It’s my understanding that what we have from him is only fragments of a work that have been notoriously difficult to interpret, and of his biography very little that could indicate the development of his thought. Where does the idea of a change of mind come from?

    • Brandon, Thanks for the comment. The notion that Heraclitus might have changed his mind comes from the “Fragments” of Heraclitus. Fragment 41 is his well known “you cannot step in the same river twice,” but fragment 81 has hims saying “you both can and cannot step in the same river twice.”


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