04 June 2021

Naturalism and Unnaturalism

Something I read recently prompted me to think about whether I would call myself an atheist. I have probably referred to myself as an atheist in the past. Buddhism is widely considered to be an atheistic religion in that while many Buddhists treat buddhas as gods, few of us believe that god to be a creator or controller. Despite growing scepticism about the traditional claims of Buddhism, I still think of myself as "religious" in the sense of living committed to a set of rules. I sometimes say that I am religious but not spiritual. See my series of essays on "spiritual".

Theism is essentially the idea that everything depends on God, however God is conceived. Thinking about this it seemed strange for me to even have a position on such things because they are completely irrelevant to my worldview. I see the value of being aware of some of the history of the influence of the various churches in shaping the modern world, modernism being largely an organised rebellion against church claims to authenticity and authority. But theism is not relevant to me in any other way. The scientific study of religion shows that it is not what it claims to be. Which is not to say that religion is bad, just that we have to get below the surface of the claims made by priests and to look at the sociology and neuroscience of religion in order to get at the truth about religion. 

It seems to me now that it would be silly for me to define my worldview in terms of things I don't believe in. Because, of all the possible things that humans believe, the vast majority of them are not things I believe. I don't believe in unicorns, fairies, Santa, utopias, and so on. But I don't claim to be an aunicornist. The label "atheist" does not inform a reader directly as to what my values and beliefs are. If I am going to state my beliefs, why would I do it with respect to a minor religious cult that has never had any appeal for me. So what am I, if not an atheist. I would say that I am a naturalist.


Naturalism comes in many varieties and, indeed, encourages pluralism. Naturalism has its starting point in the natural world, the world that we experience and interact with as humans. The world that we perceive through our senses, but also the world of which we are wholly a part. The physical world, but also the world of human culture. There may be other worlds or other non-experiential aspects of this world, but we cannot know them. And we need say nothing more, except that our explanations of what we can experience have no gaps that suggest the need for other worlds. 

Naturalism as a metaphysics is based on and informed by a particular approach to knowledge. We observe the world, notice regularities and try to infer what such regularities connote. We can use the conclusions of these inferences to make predictions about what we will experience next and then test this. And this works surprisingly well for understanding the physical world. Different approaches must be taken to understand human culture because it is a much higher order of complexity than physical objects. For example, reductionism seldom makes for an interesting approach to human affairs. 

Within the realm of science, predictions will have a degree of accuracy and precision that we compare with what we see. If the accuracy and precision reaches a threshold then we say that prediction was accurate and precise. That threshold may be formal, such as a statistic measure such as 5σ or 99% confidence, but for lay people it may just be informal and heuristic. Scientists ideally accompany every measurement with an indication of measurement error, and measure of accuracy and precision. So we might say the Higgs Boson has a mass 125.10 ± 0.14 GeV to a 5σ confidence level. The error is due to our measurements, not to nature. 

We take results more seriously if someone has measured them by some other means and reached a similar or better level of accuracy and precision. Sometimes the confirmation or "comparing notes" part is left out of the naturalist epistemology, but it is essential. We generally call this approach to knowledge empiricism, although strictly speaking empiricism is the idea that all knowledge comes from sensory experience. Modern empiricism is a collective and collaborative enterprise that influences all other approaches to knowledge. 

We can also study the "humanities", i.e. the forms and products of human cultures, from how human societies function, to behavioural norms, to how we make and appreciate art. All this is still part of the natural world. Where weather is a complex system comprised of simple parts, a human society is a complex arrangement of complex parts. Historians, according to Hans-Georg Gadamer are less interested in universal laws, but focus on a single event and try to understand it in context.  Still, as Carl R Trueman has subsequently observed, "objectivity is not neutral or unbiased" (2010: 27ff). Objectivity by its very nature excludes the majority of explanations.

In recent years the division between science and humanities has thinned, but there is an incorrigible tendency to see them as incompatible. My layered approach to reality is set out in a three part essay.  I argued that each layer adds structure and organisation to the previous, creating new complex entities with emergent properties. This is not the same as simply changing scale, since life is an offshoot from the middle of the scale of mass, length, and energy of the universe. Whether or not life exists elsewhere, it exists here and any theory of reality that does not include life or human culture in all its complexities is useless. So, for example, the idea that a unification of general relativity and quantum field theory would become a theory of everything is simply nonsense. Physics is useless when it comes to describing human behaviour. I accept that physics certainly provides limits to what is possible. Interestingly, in phrasing it this way I have stumbled on a principle of constructor theory as enunciated by David Deutsch and Chiara Marletto. Physics limits what life can be like, but it does not determine what life actually is or what creatures evolve into being. It does not because of emergent properties at higher levels of organisation, piled on top of each other, that are not predicted by the lower level theories. Nothing about either relativity or quantum theory suggests that sapient beings will emerge to discover these explanations. And it's not that they are vague on this subject, rather there is nothing about those theories that predicts sentience or sapience as a possibility. They can be applied retroactively, but not with any great explanatory power. Determinism does not necessarily survive emergence. 

For a naturalist, then, the natural world is what can be inferred to exist and what can be known. Naturalism argues that if something exists and can be known it is part of the natural world. We can also say that if something doesn't exist it cannot be known. If something cannot be known, then we can say nothing definite about it. Our best route to knowledge is allowing observation to guide theory, principally by comparing notes on close observations of the natural world, keeping in mind that all acts of explanation are also acts of interpretation (simply because of the our human apparatus). 

Accurate and precise knowledge of the natural world has transformed human lives beyond measure, for better or worse. There are, of course, ethical and moral questions raised by naturalism. For example, it has given us tools that can be used for good or ill. A bulldozer can be used to quickly prepare a building site for the building of homes or it can be used to level areas of essential rainforest (sometimes these are the same action). But the work that one person can do with a bulldozer is thousands of times more than one person prior to the invention of high carbon steel and internal combustion engines. Technology magnifies human abilities, without similarly transforming human aesthetics or ethics. How we interpret events has become even more important because of this magnification. And how we interpret events has also become subject to empiricist scrutiny (much more so than when Gadamer was writing). 

For naturalists, then, the focus is the natural world. Anything other than the natural world is unnatural. To believe in some unnatural agent, entity, or realm is a form of unnaturalism, and one who accepts unnaturalism is an unnaturalist. Thus, for me the question is not, "What is an atheist?", rather it is "What is an unnaturalist?"


Unnaturalism is a neologism of mine. It is the flipside of naturalism. As I use it, unnaturalism is a broad term that takes in disbelief in the natural world per se, such as Indian beliefs that the world is māyā "an illusion", as well as a range beliefs about unnatural agents, entities, or forces that exist beyond the scope of the natural world (and thus beyond the scope of the naturalist epistemology). 

Unnaturalists often assert that unnatural agents are able to interact with the natural world, but this is a contradiction in terms. If agents interact with the natural world then, ipso facto, they must be part of the natural world and thus bound by the patterns of behaviour that we see in the natural world. Or else we have to rewrite our explanations to include them and there seems no necessity to do this.

Unnaturalism seems to begin with animism, which, for example, appears to be ubiquitous amongst hunter-gatherers (Peoples, Duda, and Marlowe 2016). This is the view that the natural world is full of sentient agents, seen and unseen who interact with the natural world, but exist outside of it. A modern form of animism is panpsychism in which all matter is, in some inexplicable way, "conscious". Belief in life-after-death is a common unnaturalist belief and with ancestor worship is found in about 80% of hunter-gatherers. At the other end of the spectrum are large organised religions based on sets of unnatural beliefs, notably an omnipotent, omniscient god. I will look more closely at theism and deism in the next section. 

Some terminological issues crop up. For example, some unnaturalists refer to their beliefs as "supernatural" suggesting something above the natural world, "metaphysical" suggesting something beyond the natural world, or "paranormal" suggesting a reality alongside the natural world. In my view, all these separate terms can be dismissed as hair-splitting since they all involve rejecting the naturalistic account of the world. They are therefore better categorised simply as unnaturalism, unnatural views asserting unnatural agents, entities, forces, etc. 

By definition, anything unnatural is beyond the scope of naturalism: we cannot interact with or know an unnatural world and it cannot interact with us. This does not exclude the possibility of unnatural phenomena, but it does exclude the possibility of experiencing them or gaining knowledge of them.  There are epistemic limits, and the knowable is ipso facto the natural and vice versa. Normally we need not bother with the unnatural because we cannot know anything about it. However, unnaturalists claim to have unnatural knowledge. If we press the unnaturalist for evidence they must demure because evidence implies the natural world. 

Part of the problem here is the teleological fallacy, i.e. the fallacy that everything happens for a reason. For a naive person this seems a reasonable heuristic and compatible with commonsense views on causation. Causation is tricky since Hume pointed out that it's really just a regular sequence of events; where one thing regularly precedes another we say it "caused" it. In this view, causation is metaphysical,  that is to say we don't see a separate event that we can label "causation". Discussions of causation tend to refer to billiard balls colliding and other such mechanistic ideas: we see one ball strike another and both travel off in new directions. Can we say that one ball causes the other to move? Formulations of laws of motion do not include anything that might indicate causation. We can describe two balls colliding, for example, using conservation of momentum but . My view is that our understanding of causation comes from our early experience of gaining control of our bodies. We will things to happen, like willing our hand to grasp an object, and after a while that starts to happen. The model for causation is the connection of the desire for something to happen followed by that very thing happening. As John Searle is fond of saying, "I will my arm to go up, and the damn thing goes up." (I think he says this in every lecture of his on YouTube). 

Even if we get a grasp on causation, a cause is not a reason, though the two terms are easy to confuse precisely because our internal model for causation is that of desire making our limbs move. The classical view of reasons is that they are explanations of causes. The teleological fallacy can be restated as: the reason something happens is because something causes it. But this assumes that all sequences of events are regular and that nothing novel ever happens. And of course new and one-off things happen all the time. Even so, in the classical view, reasons are still ideas about why things happen. The classical view sees reasons as prior to actions. 

But then, as naturalists, we have too look at the evidence and it turns out that reason isn't like this (See Huge Mercier and Dan Sperber. The Enigma of Reason). It turns out that experiments show that reasons are generated post hoc to rationalise decisions made by unconscious inferential processes. So it turns out that the classical view of reason is another result of unnaturalism, i.e. the result of thinking about reasoning in the abstract instead of observing reasoning in practice. And here we can see the importance of interpretation in explanations of history. If reasons are post hoc then our accounts of history in terms of the psychological motivations of individuals are likely to be inaccurate. Reasons don't drive behaviour at all. In fact, behaviour drives reasons. 

So when someone who is open to unnatural beliefs comes to understand that the universe has a beginning they may infer that the universe has a cause and they frame in terms of some agent causing the universe to begin for some reason. Even if we eliminate the overtly unnatural elements, we are still left with the possibility that something caused the universe to come into existence. With the present state of our knowledge that cause is unnatural and we cannot know anything about it. This epistemic limit is open to exploitation by unnaturalists; they may claim to know, through unnatural means, about that cause. An unnaturalist may ignore the epistemic limit, adopt the teleological fallacy, and infer that the universe came into being for a reason  and further that if there is a reason, that there must be an agent that is not part of the natural world (since the natural world for them is that which was created). Now we have an unnatural agent with superpowers creating the universe for reasons, though these reasons are typically held to be unfathomable because in practice we cannot discern any unnatural agents. And this brings us to the most visible form of unnaturalism: belief in a creator god. 

Theism as a form of Unnaturalism

Unnaturalism has a much longer history than naturalism. For most of human history most people have been unnaturalists. Unnatural ideas like animism, disembodied minds, or post-mortem existence have seemed plausible to most human beings who ever lived. Since the emergence of naturalism these kinds of ideas have been marked out by terms such as metaphysical, supernatural, or paranormal. 

Theism begins to emerge with the Zoroastrian religion, the first of the monotheisms. The dates of Zoroaster are disputed, but are generally in the range 1200-800 BCE. I have argued, for example, that aspects of Zoroastrianism may have influenced the development of Buddhism. So theism is relatively new in human evolution, but relatively old in human history. 

We can usefully contrast theism with deism. In deism, God made the world, set it in motion, but is no longer involved in the world. Some Jews take this approach, concluding that God was more involved in the world during the infancy of humanity, but now as a mature species, how we live is up to us. An increasingly common form of deism is that the idea that God was responsible for the initial conditions of the universe and the big bang that set things running, but after that God just let things play out as they will. This kind of God is also called otiose or "uninvolved". And note that this idea of setting the initial conditions and allowing them to evolve according to dynamical laws of motion is the main paradigm of physics. However, this paradigm fails to account for many phenomena, notably living organisms, prompting David Deutch and Chiara Marletto to pursue constructor theory which promises to construe physics in exact terms as counterfactuals: what is possible at any given time and what is not. 

The retreat to deism allows some Christians to reconcile with science using a God of the gaps argument, since science cannot tell us the reason for the initial conditions of the universe. When we consider the fine tuning problem, why the universe is conducive to life at all, it seems that the epistemic gap in which deists locate God is increasingly small. The physical parameters of our universe are fine-tuned to allow life to exist. Tiny variations of physical constants like the charge of the electron would make life impossible. Even if God was the first cause, he had little or no choice about how to make the universe. In other words, God had no free will when it came to creation of a universe in which sapient creatures would be capable of thinking about God. And what is the point of worshipping a God who was last active 13.8 billion years ago and who had no free will? There is no deist soteriology; the universe is what it is and there is nothing god can do to change it.

Note that I am also not a deist. The neologism adeist has been used informally, e.g. Daniel Finke's blog post: I am an Agnostic Adeist and a Gnostic Atheist. Some Buddhists are deists in the sense that they talk about an ultimate reality or a ground of being. 

Theists, by contrast, believe in the ongoing active involvement of God. Unlike deism, theism makes testable predictions. Theists' claims about God entail that processes we expect to be random will sometimes not be random because God intervenes on behalf of his followers. Christians, we might argue, should be more lucky than others, suffer less from disease, accidents, and other misfortunes. No such bias in the universe has ever been detected. As a simple matter of fact, Christians don't get a smoother ride, but suffer every bit as much as everyone else. Indeed, lately some Christians have been arguing that they are treated unfairly, which suggests that not only is God not tipping the balance in their favour, He is tipping it against them. So theism looks to be false for this reason and many others. 

This is a corollary argument deriving from the problem of evil, i.e. the problem of why a loving creator would make a world plagued by so much misery and suffering. Charles Darwin was dissuaded from Christian theism by the existence of parasitic wasps:

"With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." -- Darwin Correspondence Project.

I have explored different accounts of why unnaturalism was so successful and persistent; see, for example, my two-part essay: Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? Part I and Part II.

Although human beings are fully encompassed by the set of natural things, our minds are not limited to thinking in terms of the natural world. We can imagine unicorns, for example. Not only this, but we can proliferate stories about unicorns, complete with imagery. Search for unicorn online and you will find millions of references, images, theories, stories, and so on. But none of this makes unicorns a real thing. We will never meet a unicorn in the natural world. For many people this distinction can easily be blurred, especially when it comes to God. But ideas about god such as theists embrace are not universal by any means:

"Ancestor spirits or high gods who are active in human affairs were absent in early humans, suggesting a deep history for the egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer societies." (Peoples, Duda, and Marlowe 2016) 


To sum up, then, atheism is a reaction to, and thus still defined in terms of, the Christian worldview. The term itself accepts the normative value of Christian ideas. Atheism is not-theism. To me, God is irrelevant, a trivial problem easily dismissed before getting on with the serious business of understanding the world. And it makes no sense to define my worldview with respect to something irrelevant and trivial. "Atheist" is a Christian label for non-Christians. 

Please don't call me an atheist. I'm a naturalist. And in my worldview theists are unnaturalists

Of course we can discuss unnaturalism, but it is pointless to do so on the terms of unnaturalists because their views are unnatural. The study of unnatural beliefs is part of anthropology and sociology and best undertaken from a naturalist view point. It is important to objectively understand unnaturalism through careful study because so many people have unnatural views and act upon them. We need to understand and appreciate how people behave under the influence of unnaturalism because unnaturalism is still widespread and influential. 

And, of course, theism is not the only variety of unnaturalism; I've mentioned also deism and animism, for example. By lumping various forms of unnaturalism together we are better able to generalise the ideas involved in unnaturalism. 



Deutsch, D. (2013). "Constructor theory". Synthese. 190 (18): 4331–4359. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1210/1210.7439.pdf

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1975) Truth and Method. Bloomsbury Academic.

Marletto, C. (2015). "Life without design: Constructor theory is a new vision of physics, but it helps to answer a very old question: why is life possible at all?" Aeonhttps://aeon.co/essays/how-constructor-theory-solves-the-riddle-of-life

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2017) The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding. Allen Lane.

Peoples, H.C., Duda, P. & Marlowe, F.W. 2016. "Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion." Human Nature 27, 261–282. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0

Trueman, Carl R. 2010. Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway.

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