Metaphysical Naturalism vs. Methodological Naturalism (Differences)

In this guide, we will discuss metaphysical naturalism vs. methodological naturalism. We will talk about some of the main differences and we will also see each one separately more in-depth. 

Metaphysical Naturalism vs. Methodological Naturalism

Methodological Naturalism must be differentiated from Metaphysical Naturalism, which argues that only natural ‘stuff’ exists. However, it is important to get clear on the nature of Methodological Naturalism in terms of the limitations it places on the sciences and here where it seems useful to make the differentiation between what philosopher Martin Beaudry calls Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism and Provisional Methodological Naturalism.

Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism is the point of view which states that the Methodological Naturalism of science is an intrinsic feature to science but science by definition is limited to natural causes, events and explanations. 

On the other hand, we have Provisional Methodological Naturalism which is only provisionally part of the sciences. This perspective on the nature of the relationship between methodological naturalism and the sciences is merely contingently in place. It has been informed by the history of science. In this view supernatural explanations are not rejected by definition, rather they are rejected because of their dismal performance historically.

Additionally, as indicated by Barbara Forrest on, “Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism are distinguished by the fact that methodological naturalism is an epistemology as well as a procedural protocol, while philosophical naturalism is a metaphysical position.”

Methodological Naturalism

“Methodological naturalism is not a “doctrine” but an essential aspect of the methodology of science, the study of the natural universe. If one believes that natural laws and theories based on them will not suffice to solve the problems attacked by scientists – that supernatural and thus nonscientific principles must be invoked from time to time – then one cannot have the confidence in scientific methodology that is a prerequisite to doing science”, according to Lawrence Lerner from

The term ‘naturalism’ doesn’t have a precise meaning in contemporary philosophy but important representatives such as John Dewey or Ernest Nagel attempted to close the gap between philosophy and science. They argued that reality is exhausted by nature which meant there was no possibility of considering supernatural phenomena as existent or part of reality. However, the scientific method is said to be needed to investigate all the areas of reality, including those concerning the human spirit.

Philosophy meets science

As we have indicated, methodological naturalists believe philosophy and science are engaged and should go hand in hand since both seem to pursue similar ends and use similar methods. But what does it mean when we talk about having a methodological attitude when establishing a relationship between philosophy and science? Well, we have to mention how philosophy and science seem to have a concern to establish synthetic knowledge from the natural world and to achieve this after further investigation.

Philosophers and theorists acknowledge that there are also differences between philosophy and science but they will say that they are rather shallow. For instance, philosophical questions are usually said to have a sense of generality. As indicated in, “Where scientists think about viruses, electrons or stars, philosophers think about spatiotemporal continuants, properties, causation or time, categories that structure all our thinking about the natural world. Another common feature of philosophical questions is that they involve some kind of theoretical tangle.”

Subsequently, this entails that our way of thinking can lead to conflicting results or conclusions. In order to progress, we need to try to get rid of previous assumptions that may difficult the process of investigation. 

A priori intuition

Philosophers who say they believe the conceptual analysis is believed to defend analytic a priori knowledge while others don’t. However, on many occasions, some philosophers seem to describe their view of conceptual analysis as a matter of articulating synthetic claims and assess them against a posteriori facts or evidence. Robert Brandon is a clear example of this type of view of conceptual analysis. 

The role of intuition

The idea of intuitions seems to be a ‘hot topic’ and a topic of debate in philosophy. They can be analytic in the sense that they contain no substantial information or they can be synthetic, in which case they seem to be less reliable. For many philosophers, philosophy should get rid of the concept of intuition and focus only on the proper observation of evidence instead of giving space to assumptions since they can be doubtful.

However, this doesn’t seem to case at all. In fact, intuitions are said to play an important role in science as well as philosophy. For instance, if we think back to important thought experiments performed by Galileo or Einstein where intuition seems to have the same function as in philosophy. An individual thinks about a possible scenario or situation in their mind and they make intuitive judgements about what could happen in that particular case. 

Metaphysical Naturalism

Metaphysical Naturalism is also known as Ontological Naturalism and one of the central thoughts is that spatiotemporal entities must be identical to or metaphysically constituted by physical entities. Therefore, many metaphysical naturalists adopt a physicalist attitude to mental, biological and social phenomena. As indicated in, “They hold that there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities.”

Metaphysical Naturalism is also defined by humanist Paul Kurtz under the following premises:

  • Nature is best accounted for by reference to material principles, which can include mass, energy, and other physical (or chemical) properties.
  • Holds that spirits, deities and ghosts are not real.
  • There is no ‘purpose’ in nature.

Moreover, one of the motivations for this kind of naturalism theory is the need to explain the world or how special entities can have a physical effect on our reality. Many contemporary philosophers and thinkers have adopted a physicalist view of the mental realm because they believe that they will not be able to explain how mental events can influence our body and other physical items. 

Physicalism (reductive and non-reductive)

From a physicalist point of view, we can assume that mental causes have physical effects and this is what the causal closure principle entails. It basically argues that the physical effects have physical causes so, to avoid the proliferation of those causes on the physical effects, we need to conclude that the mental causes of the effects are not ontologically independent or separated from their physical causes.

However, we can think about how the causes are ‘events’ or ‘facts’ that involve instances of properties. So just as indicated by, “if some special cause is not ontologically separate from some physical cause, the property instantiations that it involves cannot themselves be ontologically separate from the property instantiations involved in the physical cause.”

Due to the divergent points of view, it is worth mentioning that for one of them (non-reductive physicalists) the causal efficacy of special causes will be respected as long as the properties they involve are physical properties, even if they are not reductively identified by them.

Supernatural forces

Many people may argue that supernatural forces, if they indeed exist, do not have the possibility of being observed or measured by the procedures of science. Supernatural forces do not have a limited form or shape, since they don’t really have (or lack) defined physical properties. Scientists then opt by denying or ignoring the existence of supernatural forces and causes. 

Subsequently, it is said to be a methodological objection to supernatural forces and causes.  Methodological naturalism has the necessity for science and the scientific method. This seems to be also a point made by ontological naturalism where the methodology is the only way to acquire reliable knowledge about the world meaning it is procedurally impossible to know what can be considered as a supernatural entity or dimensi

Why is this blog about metaphysical naturalism vs. methodological naturalism important?

As we have discussed, methodological naturalism as compared to metaphysical naturalism seems to have no difference in practice. However, the first excludes inferences to causation by ‘things’ that are not categorized as natural. Moreover, just as indicated by Forrest, they are distinguished by the fact that methodological naturalism is an epistemology as well as a procedural protocol, while philosophical naturalism is a metaphysical position.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about metaphysical naturalism vs. methodological naturalism

What does metaphysical naturalism include?

Metaphysical Naturalism is also known as ontological naturalism is the philosophical point of view that argues that there is nothing but natural elements, principles and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences. In this sense, metaphysical naturalism argues that supernatural phenomena are not possible or can’t exist.

What is the theory of naturalism?

The theory of naturalism relates scientific methodology with philosophy by affirming that all beings and events in the universe are natural. Consequently, all the knowledge of the universe falls within the range of scientific investigation so everything could be subjected to scientific study.

Is naturalism a religion?

It is said that all forms of religious naturalism, which argue that their basic beliefs are ‘naturalistic’ in nature, assert that the natural world is the centre of the experiences, knowledge and understanding of natural phenomena. It turns yo science to reinforce religious and spiritual perspectives.

What is naturalism in philosophy?

Naturalism in philosophy is the doctrine that argues that reality consists solely of natural objects and therefore uses the methods of science to offer the only reliable means to knowledge and understanding of reality. Naturalism is closely related to physicalism and materialism, therefore, it rejects any form of supernatural phenomena.

Does naturalism believe in God?

Naturalism opposes the existence of any deities (i.e God) or supernatural phenomena. Naturalists argue there’s only the natural world and there are no spirits or anything else. However, poetic naturalism emphasizes that there are many ways of talking about the natural world.

References “Methodological Naturalism?” “Naturalism” “What is metaphysical naturalism & methodological naturalism?”

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