Tenets of Naturalism



  • There exists a single, natural, physical world or universe in which we are completely included.
  • We are fully physical, material creatures, and everything we are and do can be understood without supposing that we have souls, spirits, or any other sort of immaterial supernatural stuff inside us. Your thoughts, experiences, feelings, decisions, and behavior are all things your brain and body does.

What Exists

  • Everything we are and do is included in the space-time continuum whose most basic elements are those described by physics. We are the evolved products of natural selection, which operates without intention, foresight or purpose. Nothing about us escapes being included in the physical universe, or escapes being shaped by the various processes – physical, biological, psychological, and social – that science describes. On a scientific understanding of ourselves, there’s no evidence for immaterial souls, spirits, mental essences, or disembodied selves which stand apart from the physical world.


  • Knowledge about what exists and about how things work is best achieved through the sciences, not personal revelation or religious tradition.

Free Will

  • There are no causally privileged agents, nothing that causes without being caused in turn. Human beings act the way they do because of the various influences that shape them, whether these be biological or social, genetic or environmental. We do not have the capacity to act outside the causal connections that link us in every respect to the rest of the world. This means we do not have what many people think of as free will, being able to cause our behavior without our being fully caused in turn.
  • Because we are fully physical, natural creatures, this means that everything we are and everything we do is completely connected to the rest of nature, which includes our culture and society. We are products of our social and family environment and the genetics given to us at birth. The way we develop from newborns into adults is a process of cause and effect, and we can explain our character and motives as results of that process, one that has made our brains the way they are. Similarly, we can understand our feelings and behavior as being fully caused by the brain and body. This means that if we knew the whole causal story of ourselves, we could discover all the causes going back in time of what we’re doing at this very moment.
  • We don’t have free will, defined as the power to do something without yourself being fully caused to do it. (Please note and remember this definition!) Now, many people think they do have this power, but to have it, you’d have to be disconnected from nature in some way, and naturalism says that there is no way in which we are disconnected from nature: we are completely included in the natural world. This means that everything we are and do is caused, which means we don’t have free will in the sense defined above, what we might call “contra-causal” free will. We aren’t “first causes” and we don’t cause ourselves – nothing in nature does this, so far as we know. We are not “causally privileged” over the rest of nature, that is, we don’t get to cause without being fully caused ourselves.

Responsibility, Free Will and Morality

  • Behavior arises out of the interaction between individuals and their environment, not from a freely willing self that produces behavior independently of causal connections (see above). Therefore individuals don’t bear ultimate originative responsibility for their actions, in the sense of being their first cause. Given the circumstances both inside and outside the body, they couldn’t have done other than what they did. Nevertheless, we must still hold individuals responsible, in the sense of applying rewards and sanctions, so that their behavior stays more or less within the range of what we deem acceptable.
  • Even though we don’t have contra-causal free will (which is to say we are fully caused creatures) it’s still true that we very much want certain things to happen, and very much don’t want other things to happen. We very much want to live, and don’t want to die. We love our friends, children and our families (maybe even some of our neighbors), and we want them and our communities kept safe and secure. What this means is that even though we don’t have free will, we are still very strongly motivated to want certain outcomes in life, namely we want ourselves and our loved ones to flourish. And this means that we still will want to make sure that people, including ourselves, act in ways to ensure this flourishing, which generally means behaving morally: not stealing, cheating, lying, or murdering. So we don’t lose our moral compass in accepting naturalism.
  • Since people are fully caused creatures, this means that they can be caused to behave morally and ethically. And one of the main ways we cause them to act ethically is by holding them responsible and accountable. You say to them, “If you act deliberately in such a way as to endanger my child, then we will take steps to lock you up. If you hurt my child, I will hold you responsible, so you better not.” People who are capable of being warned in this fashion, who are capable of having their behavior shaped by the prospect of being held responsible, are moral agents. (That includes just about every sane, mentally competent person over the age of 16 or so, although some kids grow up sooner than others.) So we don’t need to be uncaused or have contra-causal free will to be held responsible, or to be moral agents, or to have morality.

Human Nature

  • Thought, desires, intentions, feelings, and actions all arise on their own without the benefit of a supervisory self, and they are all the products of a physical system, the brain and the body. The self is constituted by more or less consistent sets of personal characteristics, beliefs, and actions; it doesn’t exist apart from those complex physical processes that make up the individual.
  • Science shows that we are organisms that evolved from other creatures, that in turn evolved from yet other creatures, so that we are connected to all life on the planet, and to the planet itself. Since we are fully included in the natural world that science studies, there isn’t anything non-physical about us. Naturalism says we are completely physical, material creatures, a complex, highly organized collection of atoms, molecules, cells, neurons, muscles, bone, etc., produced by evolution. So we don’t possess immaterial souls, or spirits, or any “mental” stuff inside us that’s separate from our physical being. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have minds, meaning all the things the brain does when it thinks, feels, decides, plans, and dreams. It means that the mind, and consciousness, is what the brain does, and all of this (as strange as it might seem!) is fully physical – that is, there is no soul or spirit involved, even though it might feel that there is.

Source of Value

  • Values derive from human needs and desires, not supernatural absolutes. Basic human values are widely shared by virtue of being rooted in our common evolved nature. We need not appeal to a supernatural standard of ethical conduct to know that in general it’s wrong to lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder, torture, or otherwise treat people in ways we’d rather not be treated. Our naturally endowed empathetic concern for others and our hard-wired penchant for cooperation and reciprocity get us what we most want as social creatures: to flourish as individuals within a community. Naturalism may show the ultimate contingency of some values, in that human nature might have evolved differently and human societies and political arrangements might have turned out otherwise. But, given who and what we are as natural creatures, we necessarily find ourselves with shared basic values which serve as the criteria for assessing moral dilemmas, even if these assessments are sometimes fiercely contested and in some cases never quite resolved.”


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