In Defense of Naturalism: A Response to Timothy Williamson

In a recent article in The Stone,  Timothy Williamson has some strong opinions on the intellectual strength of naturalism as a comprehensive worldview. What does Willamson mean by naturalism? He says ” [Naturalists] believe something like this: there is only the natural world, and the best way to find out about it is by the scientific method.” This is supposed to be a bad thing. Why? Because, for starters, the current science of physics might be superseded by a different physics in the future. Hence,  “Naturalism becomes the belief that there is only whatever the scientific method eventually discovers.” And how does Williamson characterize the scientific method? “[Science] involves formulating theoretical hypotheses and testing their predictions against systematic observation and controlled experiment. This is called the hypothetico-deductive method.”

What’s the problem? For one, Williamson doesn’t think this method can handle the science of mathematics. Moreover, “Which other disciplines count as science? Logic? Linguistics? History? Literary theory? How should we decide? The dilemma for naturalists is this. If they are too inclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its bite.” Apparently, “I don’t call myself a naturalist because I don’t want to be implicated in equivocal dogma. Dismissing an idea as “inconsistent with naturalism” is little better than dismissing it as “inconsistent with Christianity.” And coming to the crux of his attack on the intellectual respectability of naturalism, Williamson says “Where experimentation is the likeliest way to answer a question correctly, the scientific spirit calls for the experiments to be done; where other methods — mathematical proof, archival research, philosophical reasoning — are more relevant it calls for them instead…Naturalism tries to condense the scientific spirit into a philosophical theory. But no theory can replace that spirit, for any theory can be applied in an unscientific spirit, as a polemical device to reinforce prejudice. Naturalism as dogma is one more enemy of the scientific spirit.”

I find this whole article to be fantastically misguided in its attempts to attack naturalists as “dogmatic” or antiscientific in “spirit”. For one, I think Williamson has not adequately captured the intellectual core of naturalism as a worldview. In my opinion, the essence of naturalism is not a defense of the “hypothetico-deductive method” as the only worthwhile method of inquiry. Rather, the essence of naturalism is the claim that there is no supernatural realm and no supernatural entities inhabiting that realm. The essence of naturalism is thus negative, in the sense that it denies that there is something beyond the natural world (whatever that might turn out to be). But contra Williamson’s caricature, naturalism, in my view, does not impose strict edicts on the best method for investigating the natural world. Naturalism is merely the view that the natural world is all there is, with nothing extra left over.

Of course, one can step into dogmatic waters in trying to explicate what exists in the natural world. But I don’t think naturalism is required to say what the ultimate constituents of the natural world is, be that atoms or some kind of quantum foam. Is there only one universal super object and all other objects are merely modes of that super object? Or are there a lot of fundamental objects? I take it that we can’t decide on these issues from the armchair. But this is not a failure of naturalism for naturalism is essentially a reactive enterprise. Our species’ religious history has caused us to inherit theological baggage such that many people would say that there exists both a natural world and a supernatural world. Naturalism is simply the thesis that the supernatural world is a figment of our overactive imaginations. In order to make this claim, the naturalist need not say anything substantial about the best method to inquire about the natural world. It is only a thesis about the fictive status of historically proposed supernatural realms like heaven and hell as well as the supernatural entities which inhabit these realms like angels, demons, and gods.

Accordingly, we can see that Williamson has it exactly backwards in regards to the supposed “dogmatism” of naturalism and the scientific spirit. For who is more dogmatic? The naturalistic who “dogmatically” proclaims the supernatural realm is an illusion based on the latest and greatest brain science, or the supernaturalist who proclaims he “just knows” the supernatural realm exists because he has faith in it? For this is the great advantage of naturalism: what it “dogmatically” proclaims to exist (the non-supernatural reality) is, in principle, discoverable or encounterable by means of our fleshy sensory apparatuses coupled with whatever tools we can harness, like the telescope or atom-smasher. In contrast, what supernaturalism dogmatically proclaims to exist is not, in principle, encounterable by such flesh for the supernatural is defined as being outside of time and space. Of course, supernaturalists often claim that supernatural entities do in fact interact with our world, but such claims cannot be brought into the respectable scientific arena of prediction and manipulation, so the claims are often left unprincipled and taken on faith. And of course, supernaturalists often report experiences of the supernatural. But in regards to explaining such experiences, it strikes me as obvious that brain science and evolutionary theory (including theories of cultural evolution) does a better job of accounting for why people believe their experiences of the supernatural are veridical. A better explanation than “the experiences are accurate” is that the brain is capable of causing hallucinations that are triggered by specific cultural contexts such as being raised in a religious environment where the interpretational framework of supernaturalism exists. It remains to be seen if a far-future atheistic society would interpret hallucinations in the same way as most people do now.

In conclusion, I have attempted to argue that Williamson is wrong to claim naturalism’s most basic claim is about the hypothetico-deductive method being the only method of inquiry. Instead, naturalism’s most basic claim is that the supernatural realm implicitly and explicitly assumed to exist by religious people throughout history is in fact, fictive. All that exists is the natural world. But naturalism as a basic thesis makes no claims about about (1) what the natural world is most fundamentally or (2) what the best method(s) for inquiring about that world are. Both of these questions need not be completely resolved in order for us to see that supernaturalism (the only true opponent of naturalism) is intellectually bankrupt.



Filed under Philosophy, Theology

10 responses to “In Defense of Naturalism: A Response to Timothy Williamson

  1. A few things:

    “Naturalism’s most basic claim is that the supernatural realm implicitly and explicitly assumed to exist by religious people throughout history is in fact, fictive. All that exists is the natural world.”

    I mean, this conception leads to a different critique, doesn’t it? Why is there a name for a school of thought which is based solely on a negative claim? There’s something odd about calling this position anything at all, especially given that there is no non-circular definition of ‘natural’ (it always, *always* turns out to be “not supernatural”).

    “But naturalism as a basic thesis makes no claims about about (1) what the natural world is most fundamentally or (2) what the best method(s) for inquiring about that world are.”

    It’s worth noting that as a matter of descriptive fact these claims are false. The two most commonly cited forms of naturalism are ontological and methodological naturalism, which correspond precisely to the (1) and (2) that you claim aren’t part of the doctrine.

    I would suggest, though, that what you’re trying to do is formulate a BETTER version of naturalism, and hats off to that. My own “minimal naturalist” position simply claims that event-explanations must be causal. This adds a positive claim to the (somewhat banal) denial of “supernatural” reality, and gives the doctrine some bite, if you will. I think any naturalist has to do this if he/she is to avoid the powerful charges of vacuity and circularity.

  2. I think this is agreeing with Nick’s point, or at least mostly agreeing:

    The biggest problem I have with ‘supernaturalism’ (as you call it) is that I don’t understand why they wouldn’t make the bolder claim that the things they are interested in are part of ‘nature’. This is the biggest problem I have with claims of ‘extrasensory perception.’ I would be willing to accept, as a hypothesis, that humans are sensitive to aspects of the world through mechanisms we have yet to identify. However, if we identified the mechanism of sensitivity, we would then talk about it as ‘sensory’. That is, the notion of ‘additional sensory abilities is coherent, the idea of ‘non-sensory sensory abilities’ is garbage. Similarly, the idea that there are parts of nature is painfully, obviously true. The idea that there are things is an additional world of things in ‘addition’ to the ‘natural world’ is obviously some word-game based on an odd definition of ‘natural’.

    So, is the crux of naturalism really just the claim that we should study things that ‘are’ rather than things that ‘are not’? Or that we should study things for what they are, rather than studying them as if they are something else? If so, I support it.


    P.S. I finally got a mission statement if you are interested:

  3. Similarly, the idea that there are parts of nature WE DO NOT YET UNDERSTAND is painfully, obviously true. The idea that there is an additional world of things in ‘addition’ to the ‘natural world’ is obviously some word-game based on an odd definition of ‘natural’.

    • Gary Williams


      Are you familiar with the anthropological concept of a 3-tiered Cosmos? This metaphysical worldview has dominated our history as a species. It says that there is a natural world where humans live, a world “below”, and a world “above”. Various sorts of supernatural entities have always been posited to live in these other realms. My argument is that this worldview has been sufficiently described so as to make it’s rejection a nonvacuous metaphysical alternative. In this metaphysical alternative to the tiered cosmos, the only realm of reality which really exists is the “middle” layer in which humans live. Thus, I believe that when most religious persons talk about the supernatural, they are not just talking about something in the middle layer that we don’t yet understand, or that they are a part of the “natural” middle layer. I believe it is anthropologically true that almost every religious person has believed in a tiered cosmos, with gods and spirits living in this higher and lower layers. Thus, religious claims about the supernatural are not just about “undiscovered” aspects of the natural world. They are about “heaven above” and “hell below”. The naturalist rejects these realms as being fictitious and asserts that the only “tier” which exists is the natural tier. Most religious persons would simply not call heaven a “part of nature we do not yet understand”. They would say the other realms are supernatural, beyond nature. This is what the naturalist rejects. This puts the naturalist at odds with almost the entirety of the religious tradition. Thus, naturalism is nonvacuous and not based on “word-games”. It is a viable and coherent worldview which has arisen ever since humans developed enough smarts to realize that there is only one “layer” to reality, and that any supposed higher or lower layer is a figment of overactive imaginations.

      • Ah, that makes a lot more sense: Naturalism constitutes the rejection of the view that ‘nature’ is merely one part of a tiered universe, by claiming a) that there is only 1 tier, the one commonly labeled ‘nature’ and b) that things claimed to exist in those other tiers not only do not exist in those tiers, but do not exist at all. It is still a bit awkward that it is a purely negative claim, but that is another issue all together.

        I still think there is a funny word game going on. I had not meant that the naturalist was engaged in a word game, but that the super-naturalist was! Though your characterization of the 3 tiered system may work for many cultures, it certainly does not work for all of them. The ancient Greeks, for example, so far as I can tell had no such distinction between the places typically inhabited by gods and the places typically inhabited by people. That is, I have never gotten the impression that the ancient Greeks would have felt any reason to distinguish the ‘middle’ world from the others in so crude a way as to call it ‘the natural world’. To reverse things completely, there were ‘native American’ tribes that believed the world of their everyday experiences was fake, and that the world experienced under the influence of Peyote was real. There were also, of course, many cultures that had far more than three levels. So, to try to get back to the original point. If someone sees something, say a rainbow, and says “That’s not natural, that can only be explained by something super-natural.” Then they are playing some weird word-game, in which some observed phenomenon are natural and others are not. The naturalist denies them this word-game by simply declaring that all things that happen are equally ‘natural’.

        Is that more coherent, I feel like I was losing it a bit at the end?

        P.S. If you haven’t seen, I finally wrote a mission statement:

  4. You make it sound like ‘naturalism’ just means ‘atheism’. But that’s not how it’s generally used in philosophy. I take it the interesting contrast is not with “super-naturalism” but with positions like non-naturalism in metaethics, or property dualism in philosophy of mind. Plenty of atheists hold these latter, “non-naturalist” views.

  5. Gary Williams

    For me, the interesting contrast is with super-naturalism, since that is what the vast majority of modern humans who have ever lived on this planet have believed. Standing in contrast to that worldview seems incredibly interesting to me. Also, anyone who calls themselves an atheist shouldn’t believe in the supernatural. If you don’t believe there is anything supernatural, then everything is natural. Plausibly, the mind and ethics are included in that “everything”. This is why I don’t understand property dualism or non-naturalism in metaethics. It seems clear that minds and moral agents are natural phenomena. If you want to call property dualism or non-naturalism in metaethics something like non-reductionism, or non-microphysicsism that’s fine. But if everything is natural, then phenomena such as minds and ethical actions are clearly part of the natural world, regardless of our difficulties of talking about them in a physical vocabulary.

    But I take your point. I guess I just don’t really like how the term naturalism is generally used in philosophy. I think philosophers should do well to continue the practice of defending naturalism as a comprehensive worldview in contrast to all the other metaphysical contenders, such as Christianity and Islam. If academic philosophers want to have technical debates about whether higher-order properties like minds can be explanatorily reduced to microphysics, that’s fine, but I just think it is a philosophical duty to provide a comprehensive naturalistic worldview as a rational alternative to traditional religious worldviews. This is why I see atheism and naturalism as obvious allies. Presumably, if you are an atheist it is most likely because you have rejected the religious system you inherited. And if you toss away, for example, Islam, what are you going to replace that worldview with? It seems like naturalism is the best game in town.

  6. Michael

    Why couldn’t one have a domesticated, non-reductive supernaturalism supervene on micro-physics, just as mental events supervene? By domesticated, I mean one would throw out the supernatural stuff that differed in possible worlds in which, etc. Implausible, but possible?

  7. Gilbert

    One could just as well say that naturalism is based on human imagination, because there is only phenomena, and adding an adjective to that phenomena adds nothing informative to it, at all. All one is doing is adding metaphysical positions onto the phenomena that aren’t found in it. You’re describing it in certain terms, not how the phenomena actually are. It’s really uninformative.

    And, if we can just as well say that naturalism has no content. It has no content because it’s not testable. There’s nothing, under the principle of naturalism, that it cannot explain. Thus, it explains everything and so it explains nothing. As Wolfgang Pauli said, “Not only is it not right, it’s not even wrong!”

    One poster brought up the causal point, but this too is just human imagination. There’s no such thing as causality. There is only the human imagination imbuing things it experiences in the phenomena with something you don’t find in the phenomena itself.

    What I found interesting was someone bringing up the three tier position, when it’s just a two tier position. But what is even more interesting, naturalism holds to a two tier position. It holds to the macroscopic and the microscopic, even though you’ll never experience the microscopic. So it’s just another way of keeping the very kernel of supernaturalism that one is trying to get rid of it.

    • Gary Williams


      Did our imagination imbue geological facts with their ancient age? If there are just phenomena and human reason can never go beyond phenomena, then how can we account for the fact that geology tells us the Earth was around long before humans evolved? It is repugnant to my faculties of reason to suppose that we are not justified in talking about causes, for quite clearly it was natural forces which caused the human species to evolve into what it is now. If we were restricted only to phenomena in our reasoning, we would be greatly neutered in our explanatory power, for we could not explain fossils. Science demands that we “add metaphysics” onto our phenomena. This is not imagination, but scientific reasoning. As for your claim that we “never experience the microscopic”, this is clearly false as one can quite clearly have an experience of looking through a microscope.

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