Systematizing Naturalism: Answering Life’s Vital Questions

A worldview, naturalistic or not, is a multi-purpose cognitive tool that can help make sense of our situation and guide behavior over the long haul.


A worldview, naturalistic or not, is a multi-purpose cognitive tool that can help make sense of our situation and guide behavior over the long haul. It’s the big picture about reality and the meaning(s) of life that puts things in an ultimate context, there to be consulted if we need it. We often don’t, since life generally takes care of itself pretty well on a day-to-day basis. Or we often can’t, since we’re too busy to think about the big picture. (Naturalists take note: regular church attendance ensures that congregations touch base with their worldview and each other at least once a week.) But there will be times when we’re pushed to consider the ultimate context for life: facing death and loss, making crucial choices about careers and relationships, pondering the goals of nations, the future of our species and others, the fate of the planet, the possibility of sentient life elsewhere, the scope and structure of reality. Sometimes we’re simply curious about our existential situation, independent of any personal need or end in view. We want to know what’s real according to our best lights. And sometimes we want to find community with those of similar persuasions.

A worldview also acts as a cognitive filter, shaping fundamental attitudes and beliefs, for instance about what sort of creatures we are, what our life goals should be, and how society should be ordered. Having a particular big picture in mind helps to settle the central questions about life in particular ways. So even if a worldview isn’t consciously consulted, it can have far flung ramifications by setting the basic parameters of goals and values, individually and collectively. Think, for instance, of the radical differences between Western liberal democratic cultures and Muslim theocracies. The divergent founding philosophies get reflected in most practices of everyday life, from cuisine, to marriage, to jobs, to education, and the relationship of government and religion. When those practices are challenged, the worldview is available to justify them. Worldviews are therefore non-trivial influences in the very world they claim to represent.[1]

Of course, those in the market for a worldview are particular individuals with their own tastes, proclivities and beliefs already in place to a great extent. This means some worldviews will have more immediate appeal than others by conforming to expectations and hopes about reality – they tell people what they want to hear. They might, for instance, speak to certain widespread desires: for immortality, a cosmic purpose, a simple moral rule-book, for a special status for you and your tribe, or perhaps for humanity to be a special sort of creature, central to creation in some respect.

The worldview on offer here – naturalism – doesn’t cater much to such desires; it isn’t designed to have immediate surface appeal, at least as judged from the perspective of our current culture. Rather it has explicit ambitions to objectivity that try to minimize the biasing effects of preconceptions and wishful thinking that supernatural religions so often cater to. After all, if a worldview is primarily, although not exclusively, a cognitive tool, then its first order of business is to get the world right according to some reliable ways of knowing.[2]

In any case, if you’re a savvy consumer in the market for a philosophy of life, you’ll very likely want to evaluate the alternatives. You’ll want to pose some tough questions to purveyors of big pictures: Why should I suppose what you’re selling me is true? If it’s true, is it also livable?  If I buy into your take on reality, where do I end up, practically, ethically and existentially? In answering such questions, the seller would do well to lay out a plausible rationale for the worldview as a more or less accurate picture of things and a viable guide to living. She would offer the potential buyer a prospective owner’s manual, explaining the worldview’s structure and justifications. Such as: its basis for how we know what’s real (epistemology), what it says exists (ontology), what sort of beings we fundamentally are (human nature), and what the implications of all this are for us individually, collectively and existentially. How should we live in light of the worldview on offer (ethics)? And where does it situate us in the grand scheme of things (ultimate concerns)? The worldview advocate might also try to establish its pedigree: that it reflects the considered judgment of generations of responsible thinkers; that it’s tried and true, not hasty or half-baked.

In his book Living Without God (reviewed here), Ron Aronson writes: “To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life’s vital questions,” such as those posed above. He goes on to address questions originally asked by Kant: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?  These are the essentials, of course, and Aronson also addresses concerns about responsibility, death and meaning. He says “I welcome the fact that others will dispute my list of essential questions, and will argue for better answers than the ones I give.” I don’t dispute his questions, and many of his answers are first-rate from a naturalistic and humanistic standpoint, but here’s my slightly amended list:  

  • How do we know what we know, and why are we justified in thinking it’s true? How do we know what’s real? (epistemology and cognition)
  • What exists, what is real, according to this way of knowing? (metaphysics and ontology)
  • Who are we, essentially?  (selfhood, personhood, agency)
  • How can we best live, as individuals and as a society? (ethics, moral responsibility, government, social policy)
  • How can this worldview help with the practical problems of life? What’s in it for me, for those I love, for my culture, for my planet? (practical benefits)
  • What’s it all about? (meaning and existential concerns)
  • Is the worldview on offer livable and coherent? (viability)

Given its 10+ years in existence, Naturalism.Org has generated a good deal of material relevant to such questions; after all, its mission has been to articulate worldview naturalism and its implications. As it stands, the basic layout of Naturalism.Org divides the material into three categories:

  • the personal and social applications and effects of naturalism (Applied Naturalism)
  • the philosophical basis and justification of naturalism (Philosophy)
  • the existential implications of naturalism (Spirituality).

Aronson’s question-driven way of explicating a worldview expands on these categories somewhat, giving us a “logic model” of naturalism; that is, an organizational framework which draws practical, ethical, and existential conclusions (logically, one hopes) from some plausible cognitive assumptions. (I took this approach in Encountering Naturalism, as you’ll see from the table of contents, and it’s also the basis for the FAQ page.)

What follows is a catalog of articles at Naturalism.Org organized by which question they answer, along with some introductory exposition. Like Aronson, I don’t claim that either the questions or answers are definitive, but I hope they at least provide a roadmap of worldview naturalism as set forth at Naturalism.Org. They help support the claim that this version of a science-based naturalism fulfills Aronson’s basic criterion for a coherent secular popular philosophy: that it can indeed answer life’s vital questions. For another overview of naturalism, one that speaks to recent developments (circa 2008), such as the rise of humanism and the new atheism, see Worldview Naturalism: A Status Report. For books and other resources on naturalism, see here.   

How do we know what's real? -- Cognition and epistemology

  • How do we know what we know?
  • Why are we justified in thinking it’s correct?
  • How do we know what’s real?

The commitment to empiricism

We can best know what’s real by consulting the best available evidence, and by insulating our beliefs from the influence of wishful thinking and other subjective and cultural biases. The basic cognitive commitment underlying naturalism is to a public, intersubjective, culturally unbound empiricism of the sort exemplified by science and other evidence-based disciplines, such as history and archeology. This intersubjective empiricism tends to unify our understanding of reality, such that we conclude there exists a single, causally interconnected world, what we call nature, not a world divided between the natural and supernatural.

Being rational and cognitively responsible

The commitment to empiricism is a rational commitment, since evidence-based beliefs, as opposed to those based on faith, revelation, intuition and arbitrary authority, tend to be more reliable – they track the world more accurately. Public (intersubjective) evidence and observation help to correct subjective biases introduced by what people hope, or want, or feel, or intuit to be the case, or biases carried by convention, cultural traditions and non-empirical worldviews. All worldviews by definition make claims to be objective, but naturalism tries to be cognitively responsible in backing up those claims. If you want to know what’s real, what’s factually the case about the world, then the rational approach is to test your beliefs using the best evidence available, which is public, intersubjective evidence. Note that this recommendation does not assume naturalism or any other worldview. It only assumes that you want a reliable picture of reality. On that assumption, the rational choice is intersubjective empiricism. This in turn tends to unify one’s understanding of existence as a single, interconnected causal network, what we call nature. The underlying unity of reality is the basic metaphysical thesis of worldview naturalism.


What exists? -- Metaphysics and ontology

  • What exists?
  • What’s real, according to evidence-based ways knowing?

The unity of existence

As mentioned above, sticking with science and other evidence-based, empirical ways of knowing tends to unify our view of what exists. What’s real, according to our most reliable sorts of evidence and our most cogent explanations, is the single, natural world described by science and other sorts of intersubjective inquiry. This world includes human beings and their cultures, which derive their characteristics from the interplay of the human genetic endowment with physical and social environments over time, recent and historical.

An open-ended ontology

The basic constituents of the world, according to empirical inquiry, are those described by physics, and so are in this broad, definitional sense physical. But of course what physics (e.g., quantum theory, special relativity) certifies to exist may not conform in the least to our everyday notion of physical objects (see here for a recent example). The natural world may contain more than what we standardly think of as physical or material, which is why naturalism shouldn’t be confused with materialism. The ultimate nature of reality and its constituents is for our best philo-scientific theories to determine, not our everyday intuitions. Since empirical inquiry is ongoing, the naturalist’s ontology – what she supposes to exist – is conditional on that inquiry, not an a priori assumption. Should our best theories discover categorically mental, non-physical phenomena, the naturalist would perforce accept such a discovery and become an ontological dualist. At the moment there’s no intersubjective evidence or explanatory justification for such dualism, but it can’t be ruled out.

Naturalistic non-dualism

The lack of evidence for dualism pushes the naturalist toward an ontological monism regarding the basic constituents of reality: they are those described by physical theory. This in turn leads to (or is equivalent to) the evidence-based conclusion that there’s no good reason to believe that anything exists beyond the physical, in the broad sense described above. This counts as a good reason to believe that non-physical gods, spirits, or souls, just like unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters, don’t exist, even if we can’t conclusively prove their non-existence. This is the basis for the naturalist’s denial of the supernatural: according to our most reliable ways of knowing, there exist no entities or phenomena that aren’t constituted by (realized in, instantiated by) the ultimate constituents of reality as described by physics. Everything we’ve been able to publicly observe and analyze is thus constituted, and has been found to participate in the single, causally unified spatio-temporal network we call nature, even consciousness (although there’s as yet no settled naturalistic explanation of consciousness). This naturalistic conclusion has sometimes been confused or conflated with scientism and reductionism, but neither of these are entailed by naturalism.


Who are we, essentially? -- Human nature and human agency

  • Who are we, essentially?

Fully natural, physical beings

The naturalistic conclusion about ourselves is, of course, that we are entirely natural beings, the product of unguided evolution. We are also entirely physical beings, since, despite what we might subjectively feel or intuit is the case, there’s no intersubjective, public evidence for anything categorically non-physical about us, such as an immaterial soul or spirit. Our capacities for thought, feeling, consciousness are all physically based in the brain and body, and our stable personalities are likewise functions of stable neural patterns that persist in the brain over a lifetime. We do not possess immaterial essences; we are instead, amazingly enough, naturally evolved material constructions. The fantastically elaborate neural machinery in our skulls, linked via sensory and perceptual systems to the body and outside world, gives rise to our conscious world and controls behavior effectively, putting the soul out of a job. We are of one, physical nature, not two.

Naturalizing human agency and power

The science-driven project of naturalizing ourselves is now picking up steam rapidly, and in the process some long-standing beliefs about human nature and human agency are coming under attack. In particular, the physicalist challenge to belief in the soul also challenges the widespread belief that human beings are causal exceptions to nature, that we have a contra-causal free will (or libertarian free will) that transcends natural laws. This is a radical transformation of the commonsense, dualist view of ourselves that’s held sway for millennia, which not surprisingly engenders a good deal of resistance, since much is thought to depend on having contra-causal freedom. But what we might want to be the case about human agency has nothing to do with what is the case. The naturalist’s cognitive commitment is to what the best evidence reveals about ourselves, after which the project becomes making the best of who we actually are. The naturalist can reassure those worried about losing the soul and its free will that we still remain effective agents, with robust causal powers to shape the outcomes of events to our advantage.


How can we best live? -- Ethics, moral responsibility, government, and social policy

  • How can we best live, as individuals and as a society?

Morality as a natural phenomenon

The naturalistic basis for ethics can only be in the natural world, since there is nothing more than nature according to naturalism. In particular, human moral systems are based in human nature, which is itself explained by natural selection (at the gene, individual and perhaps the group level - the scientific debate about this goes on). So, according to naturalism, morality is a completely natural phenomenon, not something supernatural handed down to us by God. Because human beings share a common human nature, this endows us with a (nearly) universally shared set of moral intuitions, but of course there are variations in moral norms stemming from cultural differences. This shared moral sense involves such things as intuitions about treating people fairly, about not harming them unnecessarily, loyalty to family and group, and wanting to be treated as an end in oneself, not as a means to achieving someone else’s agenda. Just about all human beings, religious or not, and in all sorts of different cultures, end up with these basic intuitions about how people, including themselves, should be treated, and these form the natural basis of morality. A good article on this is “The Moral Instinct” by Steven Pinker in the New York Times.

Naturalistic moral non-relativism

As science has made progress, and we see that human beings are essentially of the same nature, whatever their gender, race or sexual orientation, prejudice against them becomes harder to justify. Therefore there’s a link between the rise of empirical science (the basis for naturalism) and the rise of equal human rights. This counts as moral progress from the point of view of all those accorded such rights. So even though there is no supernatural moral standard according to naturalism, there is still a basis for moral non-relativism: that human rights should be accorded to all human beings since there are no good grounds to deny any class of human beings such rights, rights they all naturally desire and would naturally grant to their loved ones if given the chance. The more individuals that enjoy such rights, the better.

Moral responsibility and progressive social policy

Many worry that the basis for moral responsibility and moral norms might be undercut by the naturalistic denial of contra-causal free will. But our norms stay intact since moral dispositions and desires for human flourishing are robust products of our biological and cultural heritage. Likewise, good justifications for holding each other responsible remain. Holding people responsible is essential for shaping good behavior and creating moral individuals. However, seeing that we aren’t ultimately self-caused means we can’t take ultimate credit for good behavior, or blame for bad. This insight inclines us toward more compassionate responsibility practices, for instance in our criminal justice system and in our treatment of behavioral disorders such as addiction and mental illness. Understanding the actual causes of why people succeed or fail, flourish or not, enables more effective social policies and approaches to treatment and prevention. Overall, a naturalistic understanding of ourselves tends to support progressive polices by undercutting conservative rationales, often based in non-empirical worldviews, for treating people punitively and unequally. Naturalism is thus ethically humanistic when applied to social concerns.


How can we solve our problems? -- Practical benefits

  • How can naturalism help with the practical problems of life?
  • What’s in it for me, for those I love, for my culture, for my planet?

Connection, compassion and control

These are the watchwords of worldview naturalism. They capture the basic benefits, ethical and practical, of holding a naturalistic view of ourselves. The idea is that seeing our complete historical and causal connection to the world fosters a compassionate understanding of our faults and virtues: we are fully caused creatures; no one chooses themselves ex nihilo, or makes choices with a contra-causal free will for which they deserve ultimate credit and blame. Accepting our full connection to the world also gives us greater control over ourselves and our circumstances, since we better understand the determinants of behavior, society and the physical world. We don’t waste time, energy and emotion looking for explanations in God’s will, the soul, or in some mysterious human capacity for uncaused choices.

Acceptance and compassion

The benefits of naturalism accrue at both the personal and social level. Personally, we are led to be more accepting, compassionate and empathetic toward ourselves and others. Naturalism shows that since you didn’t create yourself, you can’t take ultimate credit for who you are in the way traditional supernatural notions of the self make possible; only supernatural souls have contra-causal free will that endows them with ultimate credit. Seeing that you don’t have contra-causal freedom also reduces unnecessary and counter-productive guilt and shame aimed at the self for its sins. Likewise, knowing that people are fully caused to be as they are, and couldn’t have done otherwise in the circumstances they were in, you’re going to be much less likely to assign i ultimate credit and blame. This means you’re less likely to cling to feelings such as resentment, anger and contempt. As Spinoza said long ago about determinism: “This doctrine teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one.” We are all equally and entirely the products of circumstances none of us chose. On an even larger scale, appreciating the full scope of the causal network that is nature – a process that far, far transcends us – grounds a stable acceptance of what is in all its manifestations, personal, social, planetary and cosmic.

Power and control

By understanding that you are caused, and by seeing just how you are caused, you gain control and power over yourself. And remember, human beings have causal powers just as much as the factors that created them. But instead of supposing you can just will yourself to be other than you are, you understand that self-change and effective action flow from concrete conditions. Create the right conditions, then self-change and self-efficacy will follow. Naturalism also permits us to be wiser in setting up conditions under which we behave well toward each other. After all, since actions always result from causes, not from a mysterious uncontrollable free will, we can learn to control those causes to our benefit and the benefit of others we interact with. This translates into being more effective at work, in family and social situations, and in our efforts to achieve such things as environmental sustainability, which may well require wholesale change in attitudes and behavior. Understanding the determinants of our own personal and mass psychology is perhaps the key to success in taking collective control of ourselves such that we can continue to flourish here on earth.


What's it all about? -- Meaning and existential concerns

  • What’s it all about?

The wild universe*

Naturalism doesn’t afford us the existential security and specialness of being central to God’s plan, but it does afford us the cognitive context for an authentic encounter with Being, the sheer primary fact of existence. As far as we know from science, we inhabit a wild, unsupervised universe, untamed by God, ultimate fate unknown. We discover ourselves to be integral elements of an apparently non-intentional but very creative causal web, something vastly greater than ourselves, a totality that may never be entirely mapped and that resists being assigned an ultimate purpose or meaning. The fact that nature might outstrip our efforts to comprehend it, and certainly to control and construe it, makes our contingent human condition all the more remarkable and astonishing. The simultaneous sense of connection and mystery generated by the naturalistic view can work as a powerful spur to spirituality, conceived non-dualistically. Death, a natural phenomenon that doesn’t involve an ego’s plunge into eternal nothingness, can perhaps be accepted as nature’s way of “resetting” conscious subjectivity, a subjectivity which always finds itself present, and which arises in forms whose variety we can only imagine.

*The expression "wild universe" was coined by Australian doctor Jeff Dahms.

Religion and spirituality consistent with science

The naturalist need not compromise her tough-minded empirical stance about knowledge in order to be (non-dually) religious or access spiritual experience, the sense of wonder, astonishment, unity and surrender. Naturalism takes such experience to be psychological states constituted by the activity of our brains, but this doesn't lessen the appeal of such experience, or make it less profound. Its referent, its meaning – our inextricable connection with the root mystery of existence – is perfectly valid on a scientific, naturalistic view. Appreciating the fact of our complete inclusion in nature can generate feelings of connection and meaning that rival those offered by traditional religions, and those feelings reflect the empirical reality of our being at home in the cosmos. Naturalists, therefore, are not barred from being authentically religious, or from seeking out spiritual experiences that mirror, non-cognitively, what our most reliable ways of knowing reveal about the world.


Is this worldview viable? -- Viability

  • Is the worldview on offer livable and coherent?

A radical departure

Naturalism is nothing new, given its historical roots in Greek philosophy, the Enlightenment, the rise of science, and the work of American philosophical naturalists such as Dewey, Santayana, Woodbridge, and Hook in the first half of the 20th century. It is a common metaphysical outlook among many non-theistic academics, especially philosophers, psychologists and scientists. Still, as a comprehensive worldview with global implications and applications, naturalism constitutes a radical departure from mainstream religions such as the Abrahamic monotheisms, Hinduism, New Age philosophies, and other belief systems that posit “something more” than nature. Not only that, but it contradicts the widespread secular belief in the quasi-supernatural capacity of human agents to transcend cause and effect using free will, a belief that many atheists, humanists and even skeptics still hold. Contravening conventional religious and secular wisdom in these respects, can naturalism work as a livable philosophy?

Varieties of coherence

Time will tell, but the coherence of naturalism works in its favor. Naturalism aims for cognitive coherence by allying itself with science and other intersubjective disciplines which give us reliable knowledge of the world. It takes nothing on faith – even its commitment to science is based on the well-established finding that public evidence and observation generally provide trustworthy answers to factual questions, while faith, intuition and revelation often don't. Naturalism then seeks ontological coherence by resolutely (and justifiably) denying the supernatural in any guise, and by including ourselves in the natural order. We are not outside or above nature in any respect, despite our long tradition of human exceptionalism enshrined in the doctrines of the soul and free will. Finally, naturalism demonstrates its practical coherence by its wide applicability to our personal, social and existential concerns. We need not resort to anything supernatural to solve personal problems, formulate effective social policies, or access an emotionally and existentially authentic spirituality.


Given all this, there’s every reason to think that naturalism is a viable philosophy of life that can serve us in many capacities: as a guide to what’s real, as an ethical resource in accessing our better nature, and as a practical resource which illuminates the causal story behind the physical and social world, thus giving us power and control. While denying the existential security of being God’s chosen creatures, naturalism affords the pragmatic security of having reliable beliefs about reality, even if those beliefs change as new evidence arrives. It tells a grand story of our cosmic origins and our connection to the world, while highlighting the root mystery of why the world bothers to exist in the first place. Naturalism can indeed answer life’s vital questions (except for that last one), even if the answers sometimes unsettle the conventional wisdom of dominant worldviews. Still, once we get over the shock of discovering ourselves within a wild universe, we also discover that life proceeds much as it did before. After all, our basic human needs and desires haven’t changed, and for the foreseeable future we’ll be acting in their service, trying to arrange things to our advantage. It’s just that we might well act more compassionately and effectively were we to understand ourselves as fully natural beings. Naturalism, like other worldviews, conditions and informs our actions by supplying the big picture, the larger stage on which life is set. As our lives play out, it can give them a satisfying, humanistic coherence and meaning grounded in reality as we best know it. Nature, it turns out, is enough.



[1] Some folks seem not to care or think much about worldviews, see this New York Times story on Denmark, Sweden and atheism. Could this be the key to social harmony?

[2]  Worldviews, especially religions, also function as palliatives that offer hope, consolation and redemption, and so may not be primarily cognitive in their function. Whether naturalism can offer sufficient emotional resources consistent with its tough-minded realism is an open question, being explored by religious naturalists.