General Information

Naturalism is a philosophical position which holds that all that exists is natural - in other words, is part of the spatio - temporal processes of nature - or, that if any sort of nonnatural object may exist, it is known only through its effects within nature. Everything that can be experienced is within the spatio - temporal order of nature.

As a system of natural processes, nature possesses a degree of orderliness that makes it intelligible, but it cannot be explained as a whole. Nor can it as a whole express moral value. Moral values, however, may emerge in the relation between human beings as one part of nature and the rest of nature. As part of nature, humans are subject to lawful natural processes; intelligence emerges from the active life of organisms within nature.

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Differing views are held within naturalism regarding the general character of nature. Reductionistic naturalism, which predominated during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, holds that all natural objects are reducible to objects as characterized by physical science. Nature is a determined system and human beings, as part of nature, are determined. Values are not real.

Contemporary naturalism, however, holds that all experienced objects and qualities are equally real within nature. The categories of science do not exhaust nature's reality. Richness, diversity, spontaneity, and value dimensions exist within nature that elude the categories of the physical scientist but that are immediately experienced in human interaction with nature. As part of nature, human beings manifest spontaneity and freedom. Scientific method, as the method of natural inquiry, is a way of dealing with any content that reveals itself within nature.

Sandra B Rosenthal

N Carver and P Hare, eds., Naturalism and Rationality (1986); S M Eames, Pragmatic Naturalism (1976); L R Furst and P Skrine, Naturalism (1971); F A Lange, The History of Naturalism, (1925); V C Punzo, Reflective Naturalism (1969); A J Reck, The New American Philosophers (1968); R W Sellars, Neglected Alternatives (1973).


Advanced Information

Naturalism is the view that the "natural" universe, the universe of matter and energy, is all that there really is. This rules out God, so naturalism is atheistic. It rules out other spiritual beings as well as God, so naturalism is materialistic. By ruling out a spiritual part of the human person which might survive death and a God who might resurrect the body, naturalism also rules out survival after death. In addition, naturalism usually but not always denies human freedom on the grounds that every event must be explainable by deterministic natural laws. It usually but not always denies any absolute values because it can find no grounds for such values in a world made up only of matter and energy. And finally, naturalism usually but not always denies that the universe has any meaning or purpose because there is no God to give it a meaning or purpose, and nothing else which can give it a meaning or purpose.

Anyone who accepts the first three denials, of God, spiritual beings, and immortality, might be called a naturalist in the broad sense, and anyone who adds to these the denial of freedom, values, and purpose might be labeled a naturalist in the strict sense, or a strict naturalist. Communists, for instance, are not strict naturalists, for their world view includes a purpose in history, at least in human history, and perhaps in the whole history of the universe. Some religious humanists are not strict naturalists, for they argue for free will and even for values which are independent of known wants and needs. Some opponents of naturalism would argue that naturalists in the broad sense are at least somewhat inconsistent and that naturalism in the broad sense leads logically to strict naturalism. Many strict naturalists would agree with this.

Those who reject naturalism in both the strict and broad sense do so for a variety of reasons. They may have positive arguments for the existence of some of what naturalists deny, or they may have what seem to be decisive refutations of some or all of the arguments for naturalism. But, in addition to particular arguments against naturalist tenets or their grounds of belief, some opponents of naturalism believe that there is a general argument which holds against any form of naturalism. These opponents hold that naturalism has a "fatal flaw" or, to put it more strongly, that naturalism is self - destroying. If naturalism is true, then human reason must be the result of natural forces.

These natural forces, are not, on the naturalistic view, rational themselves, nor can they be the result of a rational cause. So human reason would be the result of nonrational causes. This, it can be argued, gives us a strong reason to distrust human reason, especially in its less practical and more theoretical exercises. But the theory of naturalism is itself such an exercise of theoretical reason. If naturalism is true, we would have strong reasons to distrust theoretical reasoning. If we distrust theoretical reasoning, we distrust particular applications of it, such as the theory of naturalism. Thus, if naturalism is true, we have strong reasons to distrust naturalism.

M H MacDonald
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

C S Lewis, Miracles; A Flew, God and Philosophy and A Rational Animal; J N Jordan, Determinism's Dilemma; J R Lucas, The Freedom of the Will; R Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.


Catholic Information

Naturalism is not so much a special system as a point of view or tendency common to a number of philosophical and religious systems; not so much a well-defined set of positive and negative doctrines as an attitude or spirit pervading and influencing many doctrines. As the name implies, this tendency consists essentially in looking upon nature as the one original and fundamental source of all that exists, and in attempting to explain everything in terms of nature. Either the limits of nature are also the limits of existing reality, or at least the first cause, if its existence is found necessary, has nothing to do with the working of natural agencies. All events, therefore, find their adequate explanation within nature itself. But, as the terms nature and natural are themselves used in more than one sense, the term naturalism is also far from having one fixed meaning.

(I) If nature is understood in the restricted sense of physical, or material, nature, naturalism will be the tendency to look upon the material universe as the only reality, to reduce all laws to mechanical uniformities and to deny the dualism of spirit and matter. Mental and moral processes will be but special manifestations of matter rigorously governed by its laws.

(II) The dualism of mind and matter may be admitted, but only as a dualism of modes or appearances of the same identical substance. Nature includes manifold phenomena and a common substratum of the phenomena, but for its actual course and for its ultimate explanation, it requires no principle distinct from itself. In this supposition, naturalism denies the existence of a transcendent cause of the world and endeavours to give a full account of all processes by the unfolding of potencies essential to the universe under laws that are necessary and eternal.

(III) Finally, if the existence of a transcendent First Cause, or personal God, is admitted as the only satisfactory explanation of the world, Naturalism claims that the laws governing the activity and development of irrational and of rational beings are never interfered with. It denies the possibility, or at least the fact, of any transitory intervention of God in nature, and of any revelation and permanent supernatural order for man.

These three forms are not mutually exclusive; what the third denies the first and the second, a fortiori, also deny; all agree in rejecting every explanation which would have recourse to causes outside of nature. The reasons of this denial - i.e., the philosophical views of nature on which it is based - and, in consequence, the extent to which explanations within nature itself are held to suffice, vary greatly and constitute essential differences between these three tendencies.

I. Materialistic Naturalism

Materialistic Naturalism asserts that matter is the only reality, and that all the laws of the universe are reducible to mechanical laws. What theory may be held concerning the essence of matter makes little difference here. Whether matter be considered as continuous or as composed of atoms distant from one another, as being exclusively extension or as also endowed with an internal principle of activity, or even as being only an aggregate of centres of energy without any real extension (see ATOMISM; DYNAMISM; MECHANISM), the attitude of Naturalism is the same. It claims that all realities in the world, including the processes of consciousness from the lowest to the highest, are but manifestations of what we call matter, and obey the same necessary laws. While some may limit their materialistic account to nature itself, and admit the existence of a Creator of the world, or at least leave this question open, the general tendency of Materialism is towards Atheism and exclusive Naturalism. Early Greek philosophers endeavoured to reduce nature to unity by pointing to a primordial element out of which all things were composed. Their views were, implicitly at least, Animistic or Hylozoistic rather than Materialistic, and the vague formative function attributed to the Nous, or rational principle, by Anaxagoras was but an exception to the prevailing naturalism. Pure mechanism was developed by the Atomists (Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius), and the soul itself was held to be composed of special, more subtile, atoms. In the Christian era materialism in its exclusive form is represented especially by the French school of the latter half of the eighteenth century and the German school of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Since matter is the only reality, whatever takes place in the world is the result of material causes and must be explained by physical antecedents without any teleology. Life is but a complex problem of physics and chemistry; consciousness is a property of matter; rational thought is reduced to sensation, and will to instinct. The mind is a powerless accompaniment or epiphenomenon of certain forms or groupings of matter, and, were it suppressed altogether, the whole world would still proceed in exactly the same way. Man is a conscious automaton whose whole activity, mental as well as physiological, is determined by material antecedents. What we call the human person is but a transitory phase in the special arrangement of material elements giving rise to special mental results; and it goes without saying that in such a system there is no room for freedom, responsibility, or personal immortality.

II. Pantheism

Pantheism in its various forms asserts that God, the First Reality, World-Ground, or Absolute, is not transcendent and personal, but immanent in the world, and that the phenomena of nature are only manifestations of this one common substance. For the Stoics, He is the immanent reason, the soul of the world, communicating everywhere activity and life. According to Scotus Eriugena, "God is the essence of all things, for He alone truly is" (De divisione naturæ, III); nature includes the totality of beings and is divided into

uncreated and creating nature, i.e., God as the origin of all things, unknowable even to Himself;

created and creating nature, i.e., God as containing the types and exemplars of all things;

created and not-creating nature, i.e., the world of phenomena in space and time, all of which are participations of the Divine being and also theophaniœ, or manifestations of God;

neither created nor creating nature, i.e., God as the end of all things to whom all things ultimately return.

Giordano Bruno also professes that God and nature are identical, and that the world of phenomena is but the manifestation of the Divine substance which works in nature and animates it. According to Spinoza, God is the one substance which unfolds itself through attributes, two of which, extension and thought, are known to us. These attributes manifest themselves through a number of modes which are the finite determinations of the infinite substance. As absolute substance, God is natura naturans; as manifesting himself through the various modes of phenomena, he is natura naturata. To-day Monism reproduces essentially the same theories. Mind is not reduced to a property, or epiphenomenon, of matter, but both matter and mind are like parallels; they proceed together as phenomena or aspects of the same ultimate reality. What is this reality? By some, explicitly or implicitly, it is rather conceived as material, and we fall back into Materialism; by others it is claimed to be nearer to mind than to matter, and hence result various idealistic systems and tendencies; by others, finally, it is declared to be strictly unknown and unknowable, and thus Monistic Naturalism comes into close contact with Agnosticism.

Whatever it may be ultimately, nature is substantially one; it requires nothing outside of itself, but finds within itself its adequate explanation. Either the human mind is incapable of any knowledge bearing on the question of origins, or this question itself is meaningless, since both nature and its processes of development are eternal. The simultaneous or successive changes which occur in the world result necessarily from the essential laws of nature, for nature is infinitely rich in potencies whose progressive actualization constitutes the endless process of inorganic, organic, and mental evolution. The evolution and differentiation of the one substance according to its own laws and without the guiding agency of a transcendent intelligence is one of the basic assumptions of Monistic and Agnostic Naturalism. Nor is it possible to see how this form of Naturalism can consistently escape the consequences of Materialistic Naturalism. The supernatural is impossible; at no stage can there be any freedom or responsibility; man is but a special manifestation or mode of the common substance, including in himself the twofold aspect of matter and consciousness. Moreover, since God, or rather "the divine", as some say, is to be found in nature, with which it is identified, religion can only be reduced to certain feelings of admiration, awe, reverence, fear, etc., caused in man by the consideration of nature its laws beauties, energies, and mysteries. Thus, among the feelings belonging to "natural religion", Haeckel mentions "the astonishment with which we gaze upon the starry heavens and the microscopic life in a drop of water, the awe with which we trace the marvellous working of energy in the motion of matter, the reverence with which we grasp the universal dominance of the law of substance throughout the universe" ("Die Welträthsel", Bonn, 1899, V, xviii, 396-97; tr. McCabe, New York, 1900, 344).

III. Transcendent First Cause of the Universe

For those who admit the existence of a transcendent First Cause of the universe, naturalism consists essentially in an undue limitation of God's activity in the world. God is only Creator, not Providence; He cannot, or may not, interfere with the natural course of events, or He never did so, or, at least, the fact of His ever doing so cannot be established. Even if the soul of man is regarded as spiritual and immortal, and if, among human activities, some are exempted from the determinism of physical agents and recognized to be free, all this is within nature, which includes the laws governing spirits as well as those governing matter. But these laws are sufficient to account for everything that happens in the world of matter or of mind. This form of naturalism stands in close relation with Rationalism and Deism. Once established by God, the order of nature is unchangeable, and man is endowed by nature with all that is required even for his religious and moral development. The consequences are clear: miracles, that is, effects produced by God himself and transcending the forces of nature, must be rejected. Prophecies and so-called miraculous events either are explainable by the known, or hitherto unknown, laws of nature or, if they are not thus explainable, their happening itself must be denied, and the belief in their reality attributed to faulty observation. Since, for religious and moral, as well as for scientific truths, human reason is the only source of knowledge, the fact of a Divine Revelation is rejected, and the contents of such supposed revelation can be accepted only in so far as they are rational; to believe in mysteries is absurd. Having no supernatural destiny, man needs no supernatural means - neither sanctifying grace as a permanent principle to give his actions a supernatural value nor actual grace to enlighten his mind and strengthen his will. The Fall of Man, the mysteries of the incarnation and the Redemption, with their implications and consequences, can find no place in a Naturalistic creed. Prayers and sacraments have only natural results explainable on psychological grounds by the confidence with which they inspire those who use them. If man must have a religion at all, it is only that which his reason dictates. Naturalism is directly opposed to the Christian Religion. But even within the fold of Christianity, among those who admit a Divine Revelation and a supernatural order, several naturalistic tendencies are found. Such are those of the Pelagians and Semipelagians, who minimize the necessity and functions of Divine grace; of Baius, who asserts that the elevation of man was an exigency of his nature; of many sects, especially among Liberal Protestants, who fall into more or Less radical Rationalism; and of others who endeavour to restrict within too narrow limits the divine agency in the universe.

IV. General Considerations

From the fundamental principles of Naturalism are derived some important consequences in æsthetical, political, and ethical sciences. In æsthetics Naturalism rests on the assumption that art must imitate nature without any idealization, and without any regard for the laws of morality. Social and political Naturalism teaches that "the best interests of public society and civil progress require that in the constitution and government of human society no more attention should be given to religion than if there were no religion at all, or at least that no distinction should be made between true and false religion" (Pius IX, Encycl., "Quanta cura", 8 Dec., 1864). Leo XIII lays it down that "the integral profession of the Catholic Faith is in no way consistent with naturalistic and rationalistic opinions, the sum and the substance of which is to do away altogether with Christian institutions, and; disregarding the rights of God, to attribute to man the supreme authority in society" (Encycl., "Immortale Dei", 1 Nov., 1885). Moreover, like individual organisms, social organisms obey fatal laws of development; all events are the necessary results of complex antecedents, and the task of the historian is to record them and to trace the laws of their sequences, which are as strict as those of sequences in the physical world.

In ethics, the vague assumption that nature is the supreme guide of human actions may be applied in many different ways. Already the principle of the Stoics, formulated first by Zeno, that we must live consistently or harmoniously (to homologoumenos zen), and stated more explicitly by Cleanthes as the obligation to live in conformity with nature (to homologoumenos te physei zen) gave rise to several interpretations, some understanding nature exclusively as human nature, others chiefly as the whole universe. Moreover as man has many natural tendencies, desires, and appetites, it may be asked whether it is moral to follow all indiscriminately; and when they are conflicting or mutually exclusive, so that a choice is to be made, on what ground must certain activities be given the preference over the others? Before the Stoics, the Cynics, both in theory and in practice, had based their rules of conduct on the principle that nothing natural can be morally wrong. Opposing customs, conventions, refinement, and culture, they endeavoured to return to the pure state of nature. Rousseau, likewise, looks upon the social organization as a necessary evil which contributes towards developing conventional standards of morality. Man, according to him, is naturally good, but becomes depraved by education and by contact with other men. This same theme of the opposition of nature and culture, and the superiority of the former, is a favourite one with Tolstoi. According to Nietzsche, the current standards of virtue are against nature, and, because they favour the poor, the weak, the suffering, the miserable, by commending such feelings as charity, compassion, pity, humility, etc., they are obstacles in the way of true progress. For the progress of mankind and the development of the "Superman", it is essential to return to the primitive and natural standard of morality, which is energy activity, strength, and superiority; the most powerful are also the best.

If ethical naturalism is considered in its relation with the three philosophical views explained above, it sometimes means only the rejection of any duties based on a Divine Revelation, and the assumption that the only source of right and wrong is human reason. Generally, however, it means the more radical tendency to treat moral science in the same manner as natural science. There is freedom nowhere, but absolute necessity everywhere. All human actions, as well as physical events, are necessary results of antecedents that are themselves necessary. The moral law, with its essential distinction of right and wrong conduct, is, not an objective norm, but a mere subjective result of associations and instincts evolved from the experience of the useful and agreeable, or of the harmful and painful, consequences of certain actions. It is, nevertheless, a motive that prompts to act in certain directions, but the effectiveness of which is strictly determined by the degree of its intensity in a given individual compared with the resistance it encounters on the part of antagonistic ideas. Thus, the science of ethics is not normative: it does not deal with laws existing antecedently to human actions, and which these ought to obey. It is genetic, and endeavours to do for human actions what natural science does for physical phenomena, that is, to discover, through an inference from the facts of human conduct, the laws to which it happens to conform.

It is impossible to state in detail the attitude of the Catholic Church towards the assumptions, implications, and consequences of Naturalism. Naturalism is such a wide and far-reaching tendency, it touches upon so many points, its roots and ramifications extend in so many directions, that the reader must be referred to the cognate topics treated in other articles. In general it can only be said that Naturalism contradicts the most vital doctrines of the Church, which rest essentially on Supernaturalism. The existence of a personal God and of Divine Providence, the spirituality and immortality of the soul, human freedom and responsibility, the fact of a Divine Revelation, the existence of a supernatural order for man, are so many fundamental teachings of the Church, which, while recognizing all the rights and exigencies of nature, rises higher, to the Author and Supreme Ruler of nature.

Publication information Written by C.A. Dubray. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


BALFOUR, The Foundations of Belief (New York, 1895); LLOYD MORGAN, Naturalism in Monist, VI (1895-96), 76; WARD, Naturalism and Agnosticism (New York, 1899); RADEMACHER, Gnade und Natur (1908); SCHAZLER, Natur und Uebernatur (Mains, 1865); SCHEEBEN, Natur und Gnade (Mainz, 1861); SCHRADER, De triplici ordine, naturali, supernaturali et prœternaturali (Vienna, 1864); BALDWIN, Diction. of Philos. and Psychol. (New York und London, 1901); EISLER, Worterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe. See also GRACE, MIRACLE, etc.

Also, see:
Natural Theology

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