Encountering Naturalism

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Grant Steves

Text cover of Encountering Naturalism.

Fundamental in my search for answers has been to turn to science and philosophy. Science provides the evidence, and philosophy provides the reasoning strands that bring the evidence together for answers. In Thomas W. Clark’s book, Encountering Naturalism, you will find one rational answer through the philosophical school of naturalism. Clark’s presentation is a simple introduction to naturalism. For a more challenging approach, I would recommend Richard Carrier’s book, Sense and Goodness Without God (2005) and the website: www.centerfornaturalism.org.

Science may establish that empathy is the basis for ethics, but it does not develop the ethical system of application. Science does not tell us if the consequentialist appears right or if the deontologist is. In Clark’s short book we are introduced to naturalism as it responds to “the big questions of human nature, human purposes and how we might best flourish here on Earth, naturalism is worth exploring.”  Clark argues that naturalism, “takes science, and more broadly a rational, evidence-based empiricism, as the most reliable means for discovering what exists.”

Historically, naturalism can be found in ancient Greece and among the Buddhist of India. It is one of the older philosophical groups. For Clark, it has evolved into one that advocates connection, compassion, and control. Just as Socrates wanted people to know themselves, so does naturalism. In Clark’s chapter “Who Are We?” he develops the idea that all is physical and nothing supernatural. We have to question the character of freewill and determine its limitations.  

Most atheists will have little disagreement with facts stated within his book. The conflict may arise when he proposes how naturalism supports Progressive Policies. He makes a strong argument based on determinism that holds a person responsible for himself or herself. It would mean we have no ultimate freewill and must respond to the idea of failure based upon cause and effect and not some supernatural craps game. “We can’t take credit for what’s ultimately a matter of lucky genes and lucky social status at birth.” This is not a philosophy based on divine selection or intervention. The supernatural has no evidence to support its belief system. We accept that, causality will help shift the justification for having a reasonable standard of living from getting what you deserve, on the basis of self-caused merit, to getting what you need to live a fulfilled, satisfying life.”  

Social policy seen through the philosophical lens of naturalism requires us to address issues with compassion and understanding for the circumstances that resulted in behavior that is anti-social. There is a genetic cause for depression and perhaps for some criminal behavior. How does society determine punishment, when the crime was committed under the influence of a genetic flaw?  

In a controversial chapter, Clark discusses “Naturalizing Spirituality.” He defines spirituality as “appreciating that our complete inclusion in the natural world can generate feelings of connection and significance equal to those offered by traditional religions.”  For him it is our “deep sense of connection, of an expanded self derived from contemplating our origins in the cosmos, is a defining characteristic of spirituality.” And it is aesthetics of nature that also “play an important role in generating the spiritual response.” Clark’s redefinition of spirituality extracts religion and attempts to define it as an effect derived from one’s experiences with the natural environment. “From a naturalistic perspective there cannot be any ultimate purpose to existence… this can have a profound and positive psychological impact.” That is the spiritual dimension without religion. It is the “empirical truth generated by science that works quite wonderfully to ground and inspire our approach to ultimate concerns.” Clark does not find a term to substitute for spiritual, but he does seem to see value in the effects we experience and are described as spiritual.  

Clark then turns to the culture wars of our society and the role naturalism plays in this conflict. Some of these socially progressive ideas may conflict with some readers’ social views. For example, a naturalist accepts the findings of science that there is a genetic component to homosexuality.  

The conflict in abortion is over the soul and personhood. Naturalism rejects a supernatural concept of soul, but it does argue a secular view of personhood. This applies to end of life decision as well. Do we make decisions based on science or a supernatural conception of life’s beginning and end?  

The fourth conflict addresses the culture war issues of teaching evolution in the public schools. Science supports evolution but does not promote naturalism. Naturalism supports science and religion’s separation from government.  

In conclusion, “the significance of naturalism lies in its profound redefinition of who we are and the consequences of that redefinition for ourselves and society.” Naturalism provides the worldview that science cannot. Because of naturalism, we have a possible worldview that models “empathy, compassion and acceptance that flow from understanding our caused, interdependent nature.”  

“Naturalism is a reality-based, humanistic and effective philosophy of life that can see us safely through the 21st century, and into the world to come.”

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