Naturalism (philosophy)

belief that only natural laws, entities and forces operate in the universe

In philosophy, naturalism is the "idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world." Adherents of naturalism (i.e., naturalists) assert that natural laws are the rules that govern the structure and behavior of the natural universe, that the changing universe at every stage is a product of these laws.


  • In somewhat plainer English, what this means is this: if Carrier Naturalism (or CN) is true, then all minds, and all the contents and powers and effects of minds, are entirely caused by natural phenomena. But if naturalism is false, then some minds, or some of the contents or powers or effects of minds, are causally independent of nature. In other words, such things would then be partly or wholly caused by themselves, or exist or operate directly or fundamentally on their own.
  • In short, I argue "naturalism" means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, "supernaturalism" means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.
  • Methodological naturalism requires scientific theories to mention only natural things. One problem with this suggestion is that scientists are constantly postulating new entities, such as quantum wavefunctions, quarks, and genes. And who is to say whether or not these entities are natural? What are the defining characteristics of natural entities? The problem before us, then, is to complete the following definition:

    NAT: x is natural just in case…

    But it would be extremely difficult to complete this definition in a way that would be useful for guiding scientific practice.
    First, it wouldn’t be helpful to define natural entities as those mentioned by our current best scientific theories. This is because methodological naturalism would then lead to extreme conservatism about ontology: no new entities should be introduced in science.
    Second, it wouldn’t be helpful to define “x is natural” in terms of the words “natural,” “supernatural,” or any synonym thereof. [...]
    Third, it wouldn’t be helpful to define “x is natural” in terms of space, time, energy, or mass. Contemporary science already defies simple intuitions about what is natural, and we can expect future science to do so to an even greater extent.

    • Hans Halvorson, "Why Methodological Naturalism?", in Kelly James Clark (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Naturalism (2016)
  • Even postulating an unobserved Creator need be no more unscientific than postulating unobservable particles. What matters is the character of the proposals and the ways in which they are articulated and defended.
    • Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (1982), p. 125
  • As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries-not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.
  • If I saw indirect explanatory benefit in positing sensibilia, possibilia, spirits, a Creator, I would joyfully accord them scientific status too, on a par with such avowedly scientific posits as quarks and black holes. What then have I banned under the name of prior philosophy?
  • What I call natural philosophy isn’t new, for it has been practiced in various ways by such distinguished philosophers as Thales, Aristotle, Epicurus, Lucretius, Bacon, Locke, Hume, Mill, Peirce, Russell (after 1920), Dewey, Quine (after 1950), and Kuhn. There are also many contemporary philosophers making progress on problems concerning the nature of knowledge, reality and ethics, without succumbing to the dogmas of analytic philosophy. Philosophy needs to be extraverted, directing its attention to real world problems and relevant scientific findings, not introverted and concerned only with its own history and techniques.

See also

Philosophy of science
Concepts AnalysisA priori and a posterioriCausalityDemarcation problemFactInductive reasoningInquiryNatureObjectivityObservationParadigmProblem of inductionScientific methodScientific revolutionScientific theory
Related topics AlchemyEpistemologyHistory of scienceLogicMetaphysicsPseudoscienceRelationship between religion and scienceSociology of scientific knowledge
Philosophers of science PlatoAristotleStoicism
AverroesAvicennaRoger BaconWilliam of Ockham
Francis BaconThomas HobbesRené DescartesGalileo GalileiPierre GassendiIsaac NewtonDavid Hume
Immanuel KantFriedrich SchellingWilliam WhewellAuguste ComteJohn Stuart MillHerbert SpencerWilhelm WundtCharles Sanders PeirceHenri PoincaréPierre DuhemRudolf SteinerKarl Pearson
Alfred North WhiteheadBertrand RussellAlbert EinsteinOtto NeurathC. D. BroadMichael PolanyiHans ReichenbachRudolf CarnapKarl PopperW. V. O. QuineThomas KuhnImre LakatosPaul FeyerabendJürgen HabermasIan HackingBas van FraassenLarry LaudanDaniel Dennett

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