naturalism and NATURALISM

 Two definitions for the same word 
will cause confusion when we discuss

scientific, philosophical, and theological
relationships between methodological naturalism
and philosophical/metaphysical/ontological NATURALISM.

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.


We'll begin with a question:
What is the meaning of "natural" in "naturalism"?

      Theistic Action — What does God do?
      When we examine origins, our worldviews (our theories about reality; our theories of the world, used for living in the world) play an important role.  In my monotheistic Christian worldview, I find it useful to think about God's theistic action as if there are two aspects: foundational and active.
      foundational theistic action:  God designed and created the universe using initial theistic action, and "keeps it going" through sustaining theistic action.
      active theistic action changes "what would have happened without the active theistic action" into what actually happens.  With normal-appearing guiding theistic action everything appears normal and natural because God's guidance blends smoothly with the usual workings of nature.  In miraculous-appearing theistic action an event differs from our expectations for how things usually happen.

      Natural Process — Does it happen without God?
      I define natural as normal-appearing.  A normal-appearing natural event can be interpreted theistically (as "produced by God"), atheistically (as "without God"), or in other ways, including deistic, pantheistic, animistic, and agnostic.
      For a theist, natural does not mean "without God" because God designed and created nature, and constantly sustains nature.  And natural does not mean "without control" because God can guide nature so one natural result occurs instead of another natural result.
      A theist believes that a supernatural God is involved in natural process, that the natural depends on the supernatural.  Although thinking about natural as being not-supernatural is sometimes useful, to avoid wrong implications we usually should contrast natural-appearing (normal-appearing) with miraculous-appearing.

      comparing terms: naturalism versus naturism (or NATURALISM)
      To avoid giving the word "natural" (which a theist thinks is good) an atheistic or pantheistic implication — and for other reasons — it might be better if a claim that "only nature exists" was called naturism, while naturalism means "only natural causes."  The worldview of atheists and pantheists includes naturism because they believe that only nature exists, while methodological naturalism is a decision to include only natural causes in scientific theories, and evolutionary creationists propose a naturalistic formative history in which only natural events occurred, with no miracles.
      But maybe this change is impractical, because many authors already have used "naturalism" to mean "only nature exists."  For example, in The Creation Hypothesis (1994), Phillip Johnson says, "naturalism is the doctrine that the cosmos has always been a closed system of material causes and effects that can never be influenced by anything from 'outside' — like God";  and P.J. Moreland says, "naturalism may be defined as the view that reality is exhausted by the spatiotemporal world of physical entities embraced by our scientific theories." 
      Johnson and Moreland are proponents of intelligent design;  the word is also used in this way by evolutionary creationists, but with an important difference because usually the intended meaning is clarified by using an adjective (so it's atheistic naturalism, metaphysical naturalism, or philosophical naturalism) or by capitalization (to make it Naturalism instead of naturalism).  For example, Terry Gray refers (in 1997) to "the fight against an atheistic naturalistic worldview" and (2003) to "the random, undirected evolution of atheistic naturalists."  George Murphy (2001) defines metaphysical naturalism as "the claim that there is nothing but the natural world which we observe."  Loren Haarsma (2003) contrasts a "Naturalistic worldview" with a Christian worldview.  Keith Miller (2003) says, "many people continue to view evolution as inherently antitheistic and inseparably wedded to a worldview that denies God... [but this] conflation of a metaphysical naturalism with evolution should be rejected on philosophical, theological, and historical grounds."
      When the same term is used for both meanings, without clarification, it can be difficult to distinguish between "naturalism" and "naturalism" and this can cause confusion for a reader.
      There are two commonly used meanings, so you may find it useful to think of them as naturalism (only natural causes) and NATURALISM (only nature exists) which I'm calling naturism.  Or, as suggested by Howard Van Till, you can think of them as naturalism (narrow) and Naturalism (broad).

      To decrease possible confusion, authors should clearly explain their intended meanings, what they are (and are not) claiming.  And as a reader you can read carefully, with the goals of correctly understanding and logically evaluating an author's meanings and claims.
      But disagreements usually involve more than just terminology.  Authors also argue about ideas.  For example, when different authors compare methodological naturalism (an "only natural causes" method for doing science) with ontological NATURALISM (an "only nature exists" theory about reality) they may disagree about relationships between methodological procedures and ontological theories, and the ways each tends to influence the other.  { Is methodological naturalism theologically acceptable? }  They may disagree about the similarities, differences, and mutual influences between naturalism and NATURALISM.  While you evaluate different claims, it is useful to remember the two meanings (naturalism and NATURALISM) so you can think carefully about connections — in some ways but not others — between the two meanings, so you won't fall into the trap of simplistically concluding that since both have the same name, they're the same in all ways.




      Two Naturalisms: narrow and BROAD
      Howard Van Till, an evolutionary creationist, describes two meanings for one word:
      One meaning, I shall call it naturalistic (narrow), is very limited in scope and simply refers to the idea that the physical behavior of some particular material system can be described in terms of the "natural" capacities of its interacting components and the interaction of the system with its physical environment.  Therefore there is a naturalistic (narrow) theory of planetary motion, or of star formation,...  No stance regarding the ontological origin of its existence is either specified or implied.  Nor is the ultimate source of its capacities for behaving as it does, or its purpose in the larger context of all reality, or its relation to divine action or intention.  Defined in this way, naturalistic (narrow) has no elements or connotations that would be in any way objectionable in principle to Christian belief.
      The other definition, which I shall call Naturalistic (broad), is far more expansive in scope.  It not only includes all of the elements of naturalistic (narrow), but it also superimposes the strong metaphysical stipulations that neither the existence nor the behavioral capacities of material systems derive from any divine source (thereby making a Creator unnecessary) and that the behavior of material systems can in no way serve in the attainment of any divine purpose or intention.  So defined, Naturalistic (broad) is essentially identical to materialistic and is, therefore, absolutely irreconcilable with Christian theism.  Any critique of methodological naturalism that fails to honor the distinction between the broad and the narrow meanings of naturalistic is, I believe, sure to generate more heat than light, more hostility than learning.
      Quoted from a middle section in Van Till's essay review of The Creation Hypothesis.

      FIVE TERMS we should avoid (multiple meanings and stolen words)
      NATURALISM:  Using naturalism to mean "a nontheistic worldview-theory claiming that nothing exists except nature" can lead to implications that "natural" means "without God."  But this is not consistent with a theistic worldview, which claims that natural process involves supernatural activity for designing, creating, and sustaining, plus (sometimes or always) for guiding that appears natural.  /  a solution?  Instead of naturalism, we should use naturism to describe a claim that "...nothing exists except nature."  Why? (*)  Because this will avoid an implication that "natural" is a word with strong links to a nontheistic worldview.  In addition, this will avoid confusion about intended meaning, since if "naturalism" means "a universe without God" there will be a conflict with three other meanings connected with science:  1) naturalistic methods for doing science focus on natural mechanisms;  2) a naturalist, such as Carolus Linnaeus or John Muir, is a person who studies nature;  3) a naturalistic approach to the scholarly study of science is based on a claim that "science" should be defined by studying what scientists actually do, not by logically deciding what scientists should do.  {* But a practical difficulty — the fact that "naturalism" has been commonly used to mean "nothing exists except nature" — is described earlier.  Thus, "the horse is out of the barn" already, but we can try to use language that is more precise in the future, in whatever we say and write. }
      MATERIALISM:  The term materialism can refer to a worldview-theory claiming that "only matter (i.e., matter/energy plus interactive forces,...) exists."  But I would rather reserve "materialism" for spiritually important critiques of un-Biblical attitudes that are common (especially in America but also in other cultures) about the pursuit of material wealth (money and what it can buy) and the sins of pride, coveting, and greed.  Maybe, as with naturism, this view should be called matterism.
      STOLEN WORDS?  A few years ago, while googling I discovered that, unfortunately, the word "naturism" has been stolen (well, that's how it seems to me) by people who wear no clothing, to describe their lifestyle;  and "matterism" is an esoteric philosophy of modern art.  Do all words have multiple meanings?  Sigh.   /   Similarly, and more significant theologically, "creationism" has been stolen so it's commonly used to mean (only) "young-earth creationism" even though it should refer to ALL views claiming that God created our world.  And so on, with many other examples of terms that are overpopulated with too many meanings, so (if you want to communicate a meaning that is not the most common meaning) you cannot use the stolen term.
      HUMANISM:  Using humanism to mean "atheism" can imply that atheistic humanism is a "religion for humans" that should be adopted by those who care for humans.  { I'll write more about this later, re: humanism being "a religion by humans" and why the name was chosen by atheists (because it's good for them) and was foolishly adopted by Christians (even though it's bad for them), and why this name should be rejected by Christians because it is inaccurate, and is overly flattering for atheism. }

      NATURAL HISTORY:  The history of nature is the history of everything that has occurred in our matter/energy universe.  For a Christian theist, nature's history includes normal-appearing events and also miraculous-appearing events such as the resurrection of Jesus.  /  But even if "natural history" means only the formative history of nature (not the salvation history of humans) there is a logical problem, and a solution:  To avoid illogical circular arguments, we should replace the term natural history with history of nature or nature's history.  Why?  Because "natural history" implies that all events in history have been natural.  This term can then be used — for example, by declaring that "all of natural history should be explained by natural causes" — in a circular argument whose purpose is to bypass the process of logic by using an assumption (hidden in the term "natural history") to answer the question of whether the history of nature has included only natural events.
      NATURAL SCIENCE:  Similarly, a claim that "in natural science, natural phenomena and natural history should be explained by natural causes" is trivial.  This is just faulty circular logic (assuming "science is natural" in order to conclude "science is natural") camouflaged with verbal ambiguity by using "natural" to mean both "pertaining to nature" (in the first three uses) and "normal appearing" (in the fourth use).  To avoid this sloppy logic, instead of natural science we should use terms that are more general (science) or more specific (physical science, biological science, social science,...).



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If you like this page, you may also like the following related pages.

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This page contains excerpts from other pages,
in the non-italicized links throughout the page.

Four Types of Intelligent Design
(another problem of "too many meanings")

pages about methodological naturalism
and intelligent design
by other authors

related pages, about MN and ID, by Craig Rusbult:
Methodological Naturalism (science & philosophy)
Can a theory of design be authentically scientific?

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Copyright © 1998 (*) by Craig Rusbult, with all rights reserved.
(* this page was assembled in 2005, but most excerpts
were written earlier, beginning in 1998