Living in Light of Naturalism

First-person accounts of living with naturalism as a worldview.

What would it be like to discover yourself a fully natural creature, completely embedded in the world science reveals? It would mean discarding any remnant of supernaturalism about who you are. Just as a thorough-going naturalist discounts the existence of god or the supernatural “up there,” so too she discounts the existence of anything supernatural “in here” inside the person, for instance a soul or immaterial mental agent. Science finds no evidence for anything beyond the physical brain and body, naturally evolved and culturally tuned by social circumstances. Persons in their thinking, feeling, and behaving are moment-to-moment expressions of what nature cooks up, using biology and culture, in particular portions of space-time. Like other natural phenomena, your personality and behavior arise seamlessly out of sets of circumstances, fully caused in their unfolding. We can trace the causal story of the origins of each of us going back as far as we like: to the origins of life, to the big bang, and to whatever its causes might have been. Seen from the broadest perspective, our story is ultimately the story of nature. Nothing about us escapes the cosmic and local causal web, seen historically or in the present. Nothing about us rises above the law-like cause and effect relationships science shows to exist at the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and behavioral levels.

But it's vital to see that this naturalistic picture doesn't deny the reality of persons and their capacities, for instance of imagination, rationality, impulse control, and choice. Nor does it undermine our status as causes in our own right: we have effects on the world that only we can cause, so we don’t disappear as active agents. Nevertheless, it does deny that in exercising such powers, and in having such effects, human beings are like little gods with a supernatural capacity to transcend the cause and effect regularities that hold everywhere else in nature. There’s no evidence to suggest that the physical workings of the brain – the source of consciousness and choice – confer on us some special capacity for ultimate self-origination, even though they allow us to act for conscious purposes. As much as it might seem commonsensical, desirable or morally necessary, there’s no reason to suppose we have libertarian or contra-causal free will, that is, the capacity to have thought or acted otherwise at any moment in our lives, given the circumstances that held at that moment. Nature, remarkably, can assume the form of conscious persons – us – and as her transient expressions we necessarily play by her rules, like it or not.

What would it mean on a personal level to come to grips with this realization? How do we cope with this revolution in our self-concept, which denies the existence of what from a conventional standpoint seems the essential core of our being? Is it really possible to come to terms with the scientific understanding that we don’t transcend nature, but are instead integral to her in all respects? Can we realize that we’re not little gods without falling, as some do, into the opposite error of supposing that we cease to exist as individuals and effective agents?

We can, and what follows are first-person accounts of this realization. As naturalism has gradually made headway, some individuals have discovered that it’s possible, even psychologically and practically beneficial, to accept ourselves as fully natural, caused creatures. Without a soul or mental controller “in charge,” they carry on without running amok or succumbing to fatalism. Indeed, they have found varieties of freedom, autonomy, and personal efficacy very much worth wanting. Jody Keeler nicely poses the question of naturalized autonomy: “In the absence of an interior self, if 'who we are' is what we say and do, the question becomes: 'Is what I’m about to say or do in this moment, and this one, and this one… who I want to be?'”

Some of these accounts will show, unsurprisingly, that the transition to a naturalistic self-understanding is not without stress. After all, what’s at stake is one’s core self-concept, so it would be remarkable if it were transformed without any psychic struggle, what we might call the “dark night of no soul.” But life goes on without the fiction of the inner controller. As Norm Bearrentine puts it, the realization occurs “that my brain would somehow continue to function effectively without there being anyone in charge, as indeed, it always had.”

Of course, it’s difficult to admit that you’ve been wrong for a good part of your life about any closely held fundamental belief, so resistance to change is entirely predictable (Mike Layfield confesses for all of us: “I hate being wrong“). But core beliefs about the self can and do change, and this has considerable cognitive and emotional ramifications. Letting go of the freely willing soul and its supernatural powers means recasting basic notions of personhood, action, credit, blame, and responsibility. This in turn has consequences for how we think about and treat ourselves, our family, peers, and strangers; it has consequences as well for social policy and the big questions of our relationship to reality. Many of these personal, interpersonal and existential implications of naturalism get mentioned below.

As we'll see, the impetus for a naturalistic realization can involve several factors: dissatisfaction with supernaturalistic religions, the quest for a coherent life philosophy, encounters with science and skepticism, and struggles with the familiar pressing difficulties of life. Atheism is of course a major component of worldview naturalism, but the pivotal insight explored below is about naturalizing the self, seeing that there's no essential, immaterial me "in here" that could have done otherwise. This radical shift in self-concept can precipitate psychological changes: reductions in guilt, shame, defensiveness and self-righteousness; increases in acceptance, equanimity, empathy and compassion; and deeper feelings of equality, connection, and belonging.

It has considerable cognitive ramifications as well. Understanding that we're completely included in the causal web encourages the search for the actual causes of our successes and failures, instead of chalking them up to contra-causal free will. This gives us power and control. As Alice Carr puts it: “When you understand the causal web, you know something in the web must have caused the situation and so it must make logical and reasonable sense why we are where we are.”Allegiance to a basically empirical, scientific way of knowing also induces a cognitive humility that conditions how the naturalist holds her worldview – not as dogma but as correctable and improvable. This in turn has practical ethical implications: naturalists are led to tolerance, not absolutism, and so are well suited for life in a pluralistic, open society.

Naturalists of course don't want to claim too much for their worldview since that would betray the tough-minded realism of being constrained by evidence. A worldview is an important but limited aspect of being a person, a cognitive framework that helps to organize one's life. As we well know from everyday experience, this sort of higher level cognition can be swamped by immediate emotional or behavioral exigencies. Worldview naturalism therefore won't make you a saint, erase your ego, cut away all your self-serving reactive dispositions, solve all your moral dilemmas, or in any sense shield you from the "full catastrophe" of being an ordinary human person. But naturalism can do much to reconcile ourselves with life, just as religions do but without resorting to illusion. When fully internalized, it can give us a reality-based psychological balance, help ground a humanistic ethics, give us insight into the ways of the world, all while affording an inspiring cosmic perspective on the human condition. So although we don't want to oversell naturalism, we shouldn't be bashful about advertising its virtues. We can agree with Ajita Kamal that “… the lack of structured education in the implications of a naturalistic worldview is an enormous oversight within the system, especially considering the influence of science in our lives.” The accounts below suggest that educating ourselves in naturalism is indeed a viable route to human flourishing. We need not hide from anything science has to say about ourselves, as some think we must (for instance see here and here).

Some of these accounts come from previously published materials, some from spontaneous online conversations in Internet forums, and some were written in response to a request for descriptions of naturalistic “conversions.” To preserve the spontaneity and personal nature of the writing, I’ve not done much editing. My sincere thanks to all contributors for their honesty, wisdom, good humor and willingness to share their discovery of naturalism.

 So let’s begin.