A Minimalist Definition of Naturalism

I have been away from blogging here on Civitas Humana for a while, due to being busy with graduate work as part of my Ph.D. program. Thankfully, I passed my dissertation prospectus and advanced to Ph.D. candidacy last quarter, and so now I can dedicate more time to research and blogging.

I am going to start posting again here on Civ by beginning with a relatively short discussion of my definition of metaphysical naturalism. I have discussed some of the conceptual and ontological ways of defining both the “natural” and the “supernatural” in a couple of my previous essays on this blog (see here and here). In those essays I discuss criteria such as physicalism, reductionism, uniformity, and teleology. I think that all of these criteria are useful for articulating some of the ways that we differentiate the natural from the supernatural, but recently I have started to think that an even more minimal definition of naturalism is sufficient to deny one particular supernatural concept, namely the existence of God.


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Are All Norms Moral Norms?

For the next part of my blog series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” I am going to discuss metaphysical naturalism’s implications for ethics and moral imperatives. Before that, however, I am also going to discuss the meaning of normative statements and whether all normative claims are specifically “moral” normative claims.

boromir-is-oughtA normative statement is a claim that expresses value, preference, or obligation. Words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” or even “beautiful” and “ugly” are not merely factual descriptions of the world, but also include underlying judgements. It can be a factual statement that a piece of art consists of certain colors, shapes, and patterns, for example, but that is not the same thing as saying whether a piece of art is pleasant to look at or beautiful. Normative statements investigate different properties pertaining to objects and behavior. Their underlying meaning is not merely descriptive, but also preferential. This distinction is often termed the “is-ought problem.”

One of the major objections made against metaphysical naturalism is that it is unable to account for the truth of normative claims. In particular, apologetic moral arguments often levy the charge that naturalism cannot account for the truth of moral values and imperatives, and that naturalist metaphysics thus entails moral anti-realism. Whether this assertion is defensible is a question that I will investigate later in this blog series. Before that, however, I want to make some key distinctions between “moral” normative statements and other types of normative claims. In particular, a response that I often get, from both theists and atheists alike when using words like “should” and “ought,” is that such words inherently possess moral judgements. I do not think that this interpretation is correct, and accordingly, I am going to lay out certain types of normative statements below that do not necessarily relate to moral judgements, despite their normative character.

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Defining the ‘Natural’ in Metaphysical Naturalism

Before we can say what the metaphysical naturalist worldview looks like, we must first articulate the definitional limitations of what the ‘natural’ means. Philosopher Paul Draper defines naturalism as:

“The hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system [in the sense that] nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it.”

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Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism

All of us (or at least most of us) have beliefs about what exists: the universe, time, living beings, we humans and our place within the cosmos, etc. These individual entities or concepts that we believe in, however, normally do not exist in a vacuum without interrelation. Instead, we construct systems of belief, where things fit together into a “big picture” explanation of reality. This big picture makes up our metaphysical beliefs.

As Austin Cline of About Agnosticism/Atheism explains:

“In Western philosophy, metaphysics has become the study of the fundamental nature of all reality — what is it, why is it, and how are we can understand it. Some treat metaphysics as the study of ‘higher’ reality or the ‘invisible’ nature behind everything, but that isn’t true. It is, instead, the study of all of reality, visible and invisible; and what constitutes reality, natural and supernatural.”

Many atheists often eschew metaphysics as one of those arcane subjects of philosophy, which asks pointless and untestable questions about reality. However, as Cline explains:

“Because metaphysics is technically the study of all reality, and thus whether there is any supernatural element to it at all, in truth metaphysics is probably the most fundamental subject which irreligious atheists should focus on. Our ability to understand what reality is, what it is composed of, what ‘existence’ means, etc., is fundamental to most of the disagreements between irreligious atheists and religious theists.”

One way to think about metaphysics is that, even if science (or some epistemology of the sort) informs our beliefs about what exists, metaphysics is concerned with finding a place for what exists within a broader philosophical and theoretical framework. Metaphysics is concerned with fitting the pieces together.

Metaphysics Chart

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