Physicalism vs Naturalism (Are they different?)

In this guide, we will discuss “Physicalism vs Naturalism”. We will see what physicalism means and what does naturalism mean. Additionally, we will see the types of naturalism and what they entitle. Finally, we will mention briefly what the Identity theory is about, weaknesses we could find in the theory and what the evolutionary argument against naturalism comprises.

Physicalism vs Naturalism

Some philosophers believe that physicalism and naturalism are somehow associated. In particular, the question seems to be oriented on how we could make the transition from naturalism to physicalism. Naturalists believe that the natural world is the only world which can be explained in terms of natural phenomena and laws. Physicalism, on the other hand, explains that the world is physical in nature.

In other words and as indicated in, “is that physicalism is (philosophy) a philosophical position holding that everything which exists is no more extensive than its physical properties; that is, that there are no kinds of things other than physical things while naturalism is (philosophy) a doctrine which denies a strong separation between scientific and philosophic methodologies and/or topics.”

What is Physicalism?

For physicalists, the main thesis here is that everything is physical, intended usually as a metaphysical thesis. The general premise is that the nature of the actual words conforms to the condition of being physical. However, physicalists don’t necessarily deny the existence of things that at first are not considered as physical such as items of biological, psychological or moral nature. But they insist that items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

Physicalism is sometimes known as materialism and both terms are used interchangeably but both have different histories. The term materialism was introduced long ago while the term physicalism was introduced into philosophy in the 1930s by Otto Neurath and Rudolph Carnap who were members of the Vienna Circle. Some philosophers argue how physicalism and materialism are distinct from one another since materialists argue that everything is matter and matter is conceived as an inert, senseless substance according to Berkley, while physics has shown how not everything is matter in the sense materialists see it.

A philosophical current that is also in opposition to physicalism is idealism.

Identity theory

This physicalist theory states that ‘the mind is the brain’ and they are identical. Consequently, Mental states are brain states. This means that when brain activity occurs, mental activity occurs simultaneously because they are the same. The Identity Theory became popular in the mid to late 20th century.

Moreover, changes in our brain seem to correlate with mental and brain states. This means that we can see the changes in brain states that will ultimately result in changes to mental states and vice versa. For example, if we drink alcohol, our brain will work slightly differently than before the consumption. Since my brain will start to work differently, our minds will too.

Similarly, my mental states will also have a correlation to my brain states affecting my body. For instance, let’s consider the stress we feel when we are about to deliver a public speech or when we are about to take an important exam. The stress is ‘seen’ in the body by evidence that certain brain activity can elicit physical symptoms such as sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, upset stomach, etc.

On the other hand, we still don’t know everything about the brain and that is a premise that both identity theorists and physicalists seem to account as true, so there are things about the mind that are still not clear.

Weaknesses of the Identity Theory

The weaknesses within this theory of the mind are, how is it possible for this physical system to support or cause experiences that have a phenomenal nature? When we talk about the mind and the brain, it seems that they have different qualities. One is physical and the other one non-physical in their properties. 

Another big problem is the problem of multiple realisability. We will have to accept how animals and other living creatures (including humans) can experience pain or love but just not simply attributed to a particular chemical process that happens in the brain. This means that the lack of this chemical process would not allow you to feel pain or love. 

Finally, scientifically speaking, the Identity theory seems to have many problems in terms of creating an understanding of how we can deal with the phenomenal nature of mental processes. 

What is Naturalism?

We have started with a very superficial definition of what naturalism is so here we will talk about it more in-depth. Naturalism is considered a historical point of view born in the early 1900s to move philosophy closer to science, to argue and affirm that there is nothing beyond nature (nothing supernatural or spiritual) and to use it along with the scientific method to investigate everything that is considered ‘real’, including the human spirit.  

Ontological Naturalism

Ontological Naturalism deals with the kinds of entities we think exist and how we define things related to the supernatural (or what we understand by the supernatural). Moreover, this type of Naturalism deals with what exists. Usually, ontological naturalists will explain how there are no entities that can have an effect or influence on the physical world which are not themselves considered as physical.

However, this still allows for non-physical entities that lack a direct influence on the physical worlds such as mathematical and logical truths. Ontological naturalists deny that there is something outside our brain (mind or soul) which can influence the physical world somehow. Of course, those who oppose will argue that there are non-physical entities that can affect our physical world but what is understood by ‘influence’ and ‘physical entity’ are still a matter of debate.

Methodological Naturalism

In contrast, Methodological Naturalism concerns how philosophy should use the scientific method, that’s why the term ‘methodological’. They are concerned with the methods of philosophy and how they relate to science. In other words, methodological naturalists are said to defend that both science and philosophy are searching for ‘non-definitional truths’ by using experience. 

Opponents of this approach will claim that philosophy uses methods independent of experience to investigate or that philosophers engage in selling truths about definitions or analytic truths.

The evolutionary argument against Naturalism

Naturalism often goes hand in hand with evolutionary theory, which offers explanations on how human beings came to have the range of features and abilities that they have. However, for some philosophers and theorists, mixing both Naturalism and evolution seems to be a mistake. Here we will briefly mention why.

According to the evolutionary theory, genetic variability and natural selection are said to be responsible for the current features of the human species, including the evolution of our brain, responsible for the behaviour we get to display every day. However, just as naturalists argue, if we are just material things then what seems to happen in our brain and physical surroundings? Well, this interaction allows us to set a group of beliefs.

 Beliefs are said to be the processes that enhance the chance of survival and consequently reproducing. But the truth is that our beliefs seem to have a much less of a role in this process than you would think. First, consider that even if beliefs are responsible for certain behaviours, it is not necessarily true that they would always lead to survival or guaranteeing reproduction. 

Why is this blog about Physicalism vs Naturalism important?

Just when talking about the differences between physicalism and naturalism we could summarize that physicalism and naturalism are somehow associated. Naturalists believe that the natural world is the only world which can be explained in terms of natural phenomena and laws. Physicalism, on the other hand, explains that the world is physical in nature.

Moreover, we talked a bit more in-depth about what each doctrine or perspective comprises and how both seem to explain how the mind seems to work. For the first and through the identity theory, we were able to see that the mind is the brain and they are the same, while as for the Naturalism approach, we have Ontological (nothing supernatural can exist) and Methodological naturalism (methods of philosophy and how they relate to science) to account for the explanation of natural phenomena.

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

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Physicalism vs Naturalism

What is the difference between naturalism and materialism?

The difference between naturalism and materialism resides in how naturalism states that the world can be explained entirely by physical, natural phenomena or laws. In contrast, materialism is the view that argues that all that exists is matter, only matter is real and so that the world is just physical.

Is Physicalism the same as materialism?

Physicalism and materialism are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, from a historical point of view, the term materialism is older than physicalism. Materialists argue that only matter exists and the motions that happen between objects of matter and physicalism argues that only the physical exists. Even though they may sound like the same, they both seem to differ in the sense that physicalism explains the world through the language of physics (i.e. gravity, energy) and materialists through physical and ‘hard stuff’.

What is the naturalism worldview?

The naturalism worldview in philosophy supports the idea or belief that only natural phenomena or laws operate in the universe. This means that for naturalism,  there is no room for supernatural or spiritual phenomena.

What are the types of naturalism?

There are different varieties of Metaphysical Naturalism which subsequently can be divided into two general categories such as:

– Physicalism or materialism (which are said to be the same)

– Pluralism.

Does naturalism believe in God?

The short answer is that naturalists do not believe in the existence of God since they reject anything related to supernatural phenomena and the spiritual world. Since only the natural world exists, there are no spirits, no deities or anything beyond that. 

References “What is Naturalism? (Ontological vs Methodological)” “Physicalism vs Naturalism – What’s the difference?” “Philosophy of Mind, Physicalist Theories” “The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” “Physicalism”

Was this post helpful?