Metaphysical Naturalism (A brief guide)

In this guide, we will discuss Metaphysical Naturalism also known as Ontological Naturalism. We will also talk about some of the historical backgrounds, how the mind is conceived, free will and some additional information regarding metaphysical naturalism and what it entails.

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 plato.stanford.edu, “They hold that there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities.”

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. 

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. 

Metaphysical Naturalism (A brief guide)

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, on this view supernatural explanations are not rejected by definition, rather, they are rejected because of their dismal performance historically.

History of Metaphysical Naturalism

During the ancient period in early Greek philosophy, influent philosophers such as Thales, Anaxagoras or Democritus were labelled by their peers as “the physikoi” because they sought to explain reality by reference to natural causes alone, excluding the role of deities, spirits or magic in the creation of the world. As indicated in psychology.wikia.org, “This eventually led to fully developed systems such as Epicureanism, which sought to explain everything that exists as the product of atoms moving in a void, or the advanced Aristotelianism of Strato of Lampsacus, which sought to explain everything that exists as the inevitable outcome of uncreated natural forces or tendencies.”

However, if we analyze the definition the Greeks gave for the term ‘nature’, we can find that they did distinguish ‘nature’ from ‘artifice’. For something to be regarded as having a natural cause, it needed to have ‘innate properties’, but didn’t matter if they were themselves intelligently arranged or not, but anything that resulted from intelligent action was said to have an artificial cause. 

Metaphysical Naturalism is believed to be a Western phenomenon, but it seems it is also shared by the Eastern cultures. For instance, we have Confucian philosophy which embraced a view that we can call metaphysical naturalism. 

Middle ages to modernity

Christianity has always been a very influential doctrine that has been present for centuries, with the dominance of this doctrine, there was a decline of secular philosophy in the west. Subsequently, metaphysical naturalism became heretical and illegal making the middle ages a dark age for naturalism. Many of the ideas and concepts from the Greek and Roman resurfaced with Renaissance where there was a new revolution that would help advance the study and understanding of nature. 

However, social and legal hostility prevents those who believed in metaphysical naturalism to come forward and defend their point of view. Metaphysical naturalism acquired a distinct name which was materialism, becoming one of the most defended until the advances of physics and philosophy made the original premise of materialism untenable. Physics understood matter as a form and not the fundamental constituent of reality as materialism believed. 

Evolution

Naturalists and the theory of evolution are believed to go hand in hand where natural selection is a staple of their worldview which has a wide accepted explanation for the rise and diversity of life on earth. Our very own existence as superior intelligent beings is explained as the product of a dynamic system that generates a highly complex order on its own.

Moreover, “Since this entails that the properties of living organisms like ourselves have been selected not according to a compassionate or prescient engineer, but solely according to their differential reproductive success, naturalists interpret cells, organs and species as having a “purpose” or “function” in terms of their ability to increase differential reproductive success, but do not perceive in this any moral goal that should be emulated or furthered, since nature is the cause, and nature has no compassion or plan (psychology.wikia.org).” 

Mind as brain

The mind concept has always been a reason for debate among philosophers and theorists. Many argue that there are no entities such as soul or spirit but only the brain and its material properties.  Subsequently, the brain operates in a way that produces a mind and since our mind is said to make part of what we are, our identity. 

Moreover, you may wonder what about ideas, emotions, moral values or theories? Well, these are mental contents that can only exist as the ‘computational constructions’ of our brain and not as things that exist independently of us. However, how can we explain the damage to the brain? If there is indeed damage to someone’s brain it entails damage to the self and a reason to be concerned. Finally, we are all mortal since the death and/or destruction of our bodies can’t be avoided. 

Free will

For most naturalists, free will is said to be the way humans can choose to do what they want or desire to do and in many cases, it is also believed that they can choose their desires. However, it is believed that our choices are attached to the physical and biological circumstances of our human nature and how we are uniquely-developed as individuals. Moreover, as indicated by psychology.wikia.org:

“Some of our desires are unalterable features of our nature as human beings, while others are ingrained features of our character and thus alterable only with considerable effort…once we accept the limitations of our physical world and bodies, our will is not constrained by much else than our knowledge, desires, and powers of reasoning, so within the limitations of what we know, want, and can think of, we can indeed choose what to do, based onus a rational or intuitive analysis of the possible and likely consequences of alternative courses of action.”

Argument from precedent

Over the years, empirical methods are the way we discover natural causes and phenomena where no other methods have shown any consistent conclusions about the substance or causes of ‘things’. However, logically speaking, since naturalism has provided explanations to phenomena for so long, reducing the gaps in knowledge has given Naturalism the strength and credit to be adopted as a valid point of view.

Metaphysical Naturalism (A brief guide)

Why is this blog about Metaphysical Naturalism important?

Just as we discussed, Metaphysical Naturalism 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. Additionally, we talked about the difference there is between two types of naturalism Methodological Naturalism and Metaphysical Naturalism, where the first argues that only natural ‘stuff’ exists. However, it is worth noting that the nature of Methodological Naturalism adds some limitations to the sciences.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Metaphysical Naturalism

What does it mean to be a naturalist?

Being a naturalist means a person who studies or is an expert in natural history, especially in the areas of zoology or botany. It is also understood as an adherent of naturalism in literature or art.

What are examples of naturalism?

Examples of naturalism can be found in literature in the following books:
Example 1: The Grapes of Wrath by author John Steinbeck.
Example 2: The Open Boat by author Stephen Crane.
Example 3: The Awakening by author Kate Chopin.
Example 4: To Build a Fire by author Jack London.

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.

What are the elements of naturalism?

Elements or characteristics of naturalism in literature are said to be:

– Novel. This is believed to be the primary literary genre associated with naturalism.

– Narrative detachment. The tone is kind of detached and clinical. –

– The narrator tends to describe what is going on without getting too involved with the characters.

– Determinism. People don’t have much control over what happens or over their fate.

-Pessimism. Unlike other types of authors, here we have lots of tragedy instead of happy endings.

– Social Environment. Naturalists are very interested in social environments because they believe they can influence or determine our character and even our destiny.

– Heredity and Human Nature.

– Poverty. This is a big theme in naturalist fiction where many characters live in poverty or come from a background of poverty. 

– Survival. Influenced by the theories of Charles Darwin and the idea of the survival of the fittest.

What did naturalism focus on?

Naturalism focuses on the explanation of events, phenomena and/or reality that come from the laws of nature. Beyond the belief that everything can be explained using nature, naturalism is also a term for a particular style of art and literature traced back to the 19th century.

References 

Psychology.wikia.org: “Metaphysical Naturalism”

Plato.stanford.edu: “Naturalism”

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.