Why I am not a naturalist

Of all the possible appropriations of the Middle Way (and there are many), that by naturalism seems the most common, and the one leading to most confusion. The majority of scientists and philosophers seem to think in naturalistic terms, and the work of thinkers like Sam Harris and Mark Johnson on ethics may seem to have much in common with the Middle Way, yet proclaims itself as naturalistic. What, then, is naturalism, and why do I think it is so important to distinguish my thinking from naturalism? I thought it would be useful to try to give a brief and clear account of that here. Given to what extent naturalism is the zeitgeist (at least in Western academic circles), it seems just as appropriate to stand up and say “Why I am not a naturalist” today as it was for Bertrand Russell a hundred years ago to explain “Why I am not a Christian”.

Here is a definition of naturalism from the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (a mainstream source if there ever was one): “A sympathy with the view that ultimately nothing resists explanation by the methods characteristic of the natural sciences”. On Wikipedia, the definition that seems to have been reached by consensus is the “idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world.” Often a distinction is then made between metaphysical and methodological naturalism, where the former claims that science offers us ultimate truths, and the latter appeals only to the methods of natural science.Scientist

Metaphysical naturalism is obviously incompatible with the Middle Way, because it takes no account of the uncertainty that accompanies any human claim. Methodological naturalism is more subtle, because it only claims that we should rely on the methods of natural science to produce the best available explanations of things. Yet in both cases we need to examine the reason why scientific method or results is appealed to. It is claimed to offer objectivity only because it is a way of ascertaining facts to the exclusion of values. Scientific method, I would argue, is extremely valuable in offering us ways of investigating the world that try to avoid human biases, delusions, and limitations of all kinds. But naturalism should not be confused with scientific method – it is an interpretation of science.

The most basic problem with naturalism of all kinds is that our biases are confused with emotion and value. This reflects a widespread misapprehension: it is not emotions as opposed to reason that cause us to make mistakes, because reasons are inextricably interlocked with emotions. It is unhelpful emotions and interlocked reasons that interfere unhelpfully with justifiable emotions and reasons.

The spectre that haunts Western thought is the fact-value distinction. A distinction between factual claims (e.g. ‘Fred is hungry’) and value claims (e.g. ‘We should feed Fred’) that is valid in the terms of abstract logic is often unthinkingly applied in a very basic, foundational way to thinking about science, ethics, and all kinds of other issues that are concerned with human experience. That logical distinction, however clear it may seem conceptually, is not actually found in human experience, where every factual claim is loaded with values and every value implies facts. If Fred is a friend of mine, my recognition that he is hungry may not even be experienced separately from the felt desire to offer him food. Even the most abstract mathematical or scientific claim is, in practical experience, inseparable from the value of asserting it. The embodied meaning thesis offers further evidence that the very meaning of any language we use is not merely one of abstract representation, but remains dependent on our value-charged bodies.

There are some self-proclaimed methodological naturalists, such as Mark Johnson, who claim not to accept the fact-value distinction, or at least not to accept a crude version of it. But even they are not even-handed, and their claim to address the fact-value distinction is not followed through. If we do not accept the fact-value distinction, we need to recognise not just that values have a factual dimension, but also that facts have a value dimension. That means that all the power we have previously attributed to morality (but falsely separated into an insulated ‘moral’ zone) spreads out and potentially inspires everything else. Health, beauty, art, prudential actions, and science itself, for example, as long as they are integrative rather than dogmatically focused, can thus be recognised as moral activities. In that case, to see the natural sciences as ultimately having the right explanations for everything is just an inexcusable narrowing of human experience and value. Even a subtly articulated takeover of ethics by a single scientific model is still a long way from a Middle Way approach that genuinely follows through on the recognition that all our models have to be provisional.

There is a growing and influential body of opinion that consists of naturalism that has appropriated the Middle Way. But the Middle Way is not to be reduced to the models of natural science, any more than it can be reduced to Buddhism, or to the dominant ways of talking in any other tradition. In my recent discussion with Stephen Batchelor, he seemed to have trouble actually thinking beyond the assumption that the Middle Way was in some way essentially Buddhist, despite simultaneous indications of openness. I’m sure that there will be many naturalists who similarly just can’t digest the idea that the Middle Way is not intrinsically naturalistic. To such people, whatever their tradition, I beg you to open your minds. The possibility of communicating to people beyond your tradition and of overcoming entrenched conflicts between traditions depends on you opening your minds. The Middle Way can be approached in a naturalistic way, but it can also be approached just as readily in non-naturalistic ways. Call me stubborn if you will, but that is central to my vision of what the Middle Way is about, and I will argue for it as long as necessary.


About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

4 thoughts on “Why I am not a naturalist

  1. There have been lots of posts recently that I have wanted to reply to, which I will soon, but this one has especially caught my attention and I feel compelled to comment – even though I really should be proof reading and referencing my assignment, due in tomorrow.

    This is a very useful and interesting post for me. It has not escaped my notice that appeals against ‘scientific naturalism’ often appear in your posts, Robert, and I often find myself conflicted and confused – I have said before that I do not know if I am inclined to such thinking, or if I even understand what naturalism is at all. Similarly, the fact value distinction is one element of Middle Way Philosophy that I find the hardest to get to grips with. This post really helps, but my usual doubts will surely emerge again at some point.

    The first definition that you quote, I have no problems with, and I know where I stand; there are many things that the natural (physical?) sciences cannot really explain and there are things that we may never understand scientifically – I expect that as our scientific knowledge increases we will continue to uncover things that are beyond our comprehension, every answer throws up more questions. I do think that everything can (and probably should, in my opinion) be explored by science, but this is not the same as saying that science will have the answers – it has its limitations. One example that I can think of is meditation. Science cannot describe my embodied experience of meditation, but it may (usefully) explain some of the factors that lead to such experience (listening to music might be another, similar, example).

    The second definition is more problematic, in that I tend to agree, but perhaps not in the same way as others do. For me ‘nature’ means ‘everything’, from the known and the unknown and the knowable to the unknowable. The consequence of this is that the word ‘natural’ is, in practical terms, useless. If something ‘is’ then it is natural – by my definition nothing can be ‘unnatural’. If ghosts or telekinesis exist, then they are natural. I often object when I hear people describing human activity as ‘unnatural’. How can it be? We are as natural as anything else, and anything we do is also natural, be it useful, useless, beneficial or harmful. Venlafaxine is as ‘natural’ as St Johns Wort, GM food is as ‘natural’ as non-GM food. None of this means that everything can be explained fully by science.

    I can never be sure about the fact value distinction thing. I agree entirely that once a fact is engaged with it cannot be separated from the subjects own values. However, If ten people read a book of simple facts (they don’t have to be correct) – the facts will remain the same on the page (1 + 1 = 2 or snakes do not eat cucumber) and each person can test the facts, by trying to feed some snakes cucumber for instance. However, the value base of each individual may well be different, one may be racist another might hate snakes (or both) but none of these values will make a snake eat cucumber. It is very possible that I have completely misunderstood what you have written or that I have fallen into some obvious logical trap, but no matter how much I think about this I cannot shake these doubts.

    I do agree entirely that naturalism is not analogous with the scientific method and that the Middle Way is not inherently Buddhist (or any other denomination/ school of thought).


    1. Hi Rich, I do agree with you that the term ‘natural’ is useless if it is taken to cover everything. The alternative is that it covers only some things, but if that is the case the criteria are variable and manipulable. If naturalism is just an understanding of everything then there is nothing distinctive about it, so that is obviously not what philosophers and scientists mean by naturalism. Instead, they are talking about particular ways of investigating and/or their results, and the problem with naturalism is the excessive faith in those approaches and results to cover all cases.

      In what you say about facts and values I think there is a misunderstanding. Firstly, factual claims like 1+1=2 or snakes do not eat cucumber are subject to different interpretations because of the dependency of meaning on the body. As a keeper of snakes, for example, the claim about snakes not eating cucumber must have a lot more of a specific significance for you compared to the rather more abstract significance it has for me. For you a snake must be something you have much more directly touched and engaged with, whereas I don’t think I have ever touched a snake. The diversity of interpretation thus does not line up with the fact-value distinction: both facts and values are subject to diverse interpretation, and their objectivity depends on our response to that situation rather than on the ‘facts’ being entirely beyond the effects of individual minds.

  2. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for the patience, I know we have been over this before.

    The term unnatural always seems like an oxymoron to me. It seems obvious that everything that we are able to experience – physical, imagined or otherwise – is part of, or arising from the observable universe, and therefore natural – in my opinion. This reminds me of the discussion on Emptiness below, where the term ‘Interdependent’ was discussed. I am not sure that everything in the universe is interdependent, or if we could ever prove that it was, but I do think that everything is interconnected (I noticed that Nina used this term instead and wonder if that was intentional). One could argue that everything in the (observable) universe is connected in many ways, but the one argument that is simple and compelling, rests on the fact that, by definition, we can see everything in the observable universe and are therefore connected by photons and time. I digress. Even if we are not connected and even if there are strange, unexplained/ unexplainable things within (and even without) the universe then they are still natural, whether we can or ever will experience them.

    Is naturalism a term that other people use to describe themselves, or is it a derogatory term used to describe the position of another? You mention people like Sam Harris – would he call, or regard, himself as a naturalist?

    I am also thinking about the two, excellent, science inflected podcasts that Barry has recently done with Michael Brooks and Jean Boulton. Both of these interviewees seemed to have a genuine belief and understanding in the limitations of science, as a means of describing everything – so would I be right in thinking that neither of these would be described as naturalists (I am suspecting that if they were you might have pointed it out before now).

    I think I get the fact value distinction, if it is only related to a fact when it is embodied by a human, where it (obviously, I think) cannot be separated from that particular humans values. However, no matter what one may know, not know, feel or not feel about snakes and cucumbers, a snake will still not, willingly, eat a cucumber – ignoring the imminent discovery of the South Indian Cucumber Snake. I am also half expecting somebody to find a youtube clip of a snake eating a cucumber :), but you get my point.


    1. Hi Rich,
      I don’t think ‘naturalist’ is generally regarded as a pejorative term. On the contrary many people seem to embrace it to describe themselves. That would include Sam Harris and Mark Johnson, yes, who do use it to describe themselves and use it positively. It also similarly applies to Ted Meissner and the folks involved in the US Secular Buddhist movement.

      As to whether either Jean Boulton or Michael Brooks are naturalists, I’m not sure. In both cases I would say the podcasts left me in some degree of uncertainty, and some of my subsequent comments and queries relate to that question.

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