Towards a Naturalistic Spirituality

What follows is an outline of how naturalism can serve as the basis for an authentic spirituality.  For a more detailed article which compares naturalism with traditional faiths in their approach to spirituality, see Spirituality Without Faith.

A naturalistic understanding of spirituality

The spiritual experience - the experience of meaning, connection and joy, often informed by philosophy or religion - is, from a naturalistic perspective, a state of the physical person, not evidence for a higher realm or non-physical essence. Nevertheless, this understanding of spirituality doesn’t lessen the attraction of such an experience, or its value for the naturalist. We naturally crave such feelings and so will seek the means to achieve them consistent with our philosophy.

The dilemma for naturalists

But the question for the naturalist arises: how, as someone who doesn’t believe in transcendent, otherworldly connections, or in ultimate meanings or purposes, can I legitimately evoke such feelings? That is, how, consistent with naturalism as my guiding philosophy, can I find the same emotional resonance or the same sorts of consolations that my religiously or supernaturally inclined friends experience? What is spiritually uplifting about naturalism?

For naturalism to evoke spiritual states akin to those evoked by religion, the follower of naturalism must find that the conclusions of her philosophy have profound, positive psychological consequences. The conclusions must resonate with her basic human needs for connection and meaning, even though, paradoxically, naturalism tends to undercut the easy presumption of overarching purposes. What then, are some of the conclusions of naturalism, and how might they affect the person who holds them? Although the conclusions for the most part seem negative, in that they deny dearly held assumptions common to most religious views, it may be that the very act of freeing ourselves from these assumptions can generate the exhilaration and joy of freedom, of discovering a tough but liberating truth, in which uncertainty moves us in the same way that certainty does others. This is an experience which counts as spiritual, even though no spirits are involved.

The cosmic connection

Most generally, naturalism places us firmly within the natural realm, extending from quarks to quasars. The scope of this realm as depicted in our sciences is nothing less than staggering. It is a far more varied, complex, and vast creation than any provided by religion, offering an infinite vista of questions to engage us. What naturalism takes away in terms of a central, secure role for us in God’s kingdom is more than compensated for by the open-ended excitement of being part of something whose dimensions, purpose and precise nature may never be known. In accepting a naturalistic view of ourselves, we trade security for surprise, certainty for an unending, perhaps unfulfillable quest for understanding, and easy platitudes about salvation for a flexible, mature accommodation to the often difficult facts of life and death.

That we are alive and sentient, with the capacity to form an understanding, however provisional, is the source of much amazement to the naturalist, since after all, none of what we consist of is sentient. Such amazement (and there are thousands of natural facts that can evoke it) can be the start of spiritual experience. That the stuff of our bodies came originally from the initial big bang, transmuted by stars and expelled in supernovas, seems a supremely satisfying connection to the most far flung corners (in both space and time) of the universe. This deep sense of connection forms a central aspect of spiritual feelings. The aesthetics of the natural world contribute as well, from the most sophisticated of the human arts, to the colors of Brazilian agate, to the grand structure of the great galactic wall. Best of all, though, is that naturalism shows that creation can’t be tied up neatly by our understanding: we will always stand in wonder at the vastness of possibilities in nature, those realized and those unrealized, knowing that we comprehend just a fraction of what might be known, and knowing that there is no end to it. Faced with all this, the naturalist, if she is capable of letting go into a non-cognitive response, may discover feelings of profound awe, delight, and surrender, feelings typical of religious revelation but now felt in the context of a world view consistent with the most hard-edged empiricism. Although it is not widely known, the full appreciation of naturalism and its implications can be as intoxicating, perhaps more so, than any religion yet devised.

Philosophy link: Faith, Science, and the Soul.

No ultimate purpose

It is easy to see that from a naturalistic perspective there cannot be any ultimate purpose to existence: as soon as any purpose is proposed, one can simply ask why that purpose should drive existence, as opposed to some other purpose. Even if God created us to glorify him and his works, we are still creatures that can ask why God himself exists. As questioning creatures, we will always be in the position of being able to second guess any overarching meaning someone attaches to the universe. In short, our intelligence guarantees that we will never rest secure in a comfortable interpretation of existence, since we can see that existence is always prior to its interpretation.

The initial psychological response to this dilemma is often the melancholy feeling that life is therefore devoid of meaning. Since we can never construe an ultimate purpose, what’s the point, anyway? But on second thought, once we see the logic of the desire for ultimate meaning - that by its very nature it is an unsatisfiable demand - we can begin to laugh about it, and savor our position as a very curious one indeed. It turns out that smart creatures will never be in a position to satisfy themselves about meaning, at least of the ultimate variety. That fact itself is rather a compelling discovery about existence, one that prevents a complacent, boring acceptance of the status quo from ever setting in. There is no way things are ultimately meant to be, so existence becomes a work in perpetual progress (not towards a goal, however), whose outcome is never settled. We therefore stand perpetually surprised, curious, and wondering. We cannot easily set aside our demand for meaning, but instead of being disappointed about its frustration, we find ourselves free to play with existence (or to be its playthings, perhaps), to create local meaning in activities we find intrinsically satisfying, and get caught up in our human drama, knowing that the drama is set on a much larger stage whose dimensions may never be determined, and which exists for no reason. The direct appreciation of this "no meaning, no reason" aspect of existence can have a profound, and positive psychological impact: we are free of any confining purposes; we are free of the deadening certainty that we have a set role to play and a "correct" goal to achieve; we are liberated to be perpetually amazed at the sheer, startling fact that something exists, not nothing, and that we are part of it. Amazement, wonder and the feeling of connection are arguably central components of the spiritual experience.

No free will

A naturalistic understanding connects the human organism to the larger physical world in all respects, via genetics and environmental influences. Since we don’t, on this understanding, exist as independent, immaterial agents directing our behavior from a causally disconnected vantage point, this means we don’t have free will in the traditional sense. We cannot have done other than what we did in a given situation.

This means that persons are not first causes, rather they are links in the natural unfolding of the world in space and time. As much as we experience ourselves as separate egos, deliberating our fates one decision at a time, our very deliberations are entirely included in this unfolding.

This insight may at first disturb us, since we might suppose we are nothing more than passive puppets, moved at the whim of forces beyond our control. But we are not even puppets, since there is no one separate from the various forces, processes, and states that comprise the person-environment complex to be pushed around. We are, in fact, fully connected parts of the whole, identifiable as separate persons to be sure, but neither causal masters nor victims.

The psychological consequences of this realization are manifold. Without giving up the sense of our own identity and particularity (pretty much impossible, short of profound experiences of ego loss, which may themselves be of value in the right context) we feel a deep connection to the world around us, since that world is, after all, where each aspect of ourselves originates. A relaxation ensues from letting go of the illusion that we must continually "steer" ourselves through life, from realizing that our decisions themselves arise on their own out of the circumstances that constitute our body and its environment. We don’t choose our character or motives from some independent vantage point; they are the creations of life and culture themselves, not the artifacts of a causally autonomous ego. Freed from the burden of being our own creators, we nevertheless don’t passively resign ourselves to fate, since we understand that as creatures fully embedded in the world, our actions do indeed have causal effects which sometimes make all the difference. The naturalistic dismantling of free will thus connects us and liberates us: we are parts of the evolving whole that can witness the evolution and add interesting twists to the outcome by virtue of the capacities that life has given us. But since we are such parts, we can let go of the rather arrogant and ultimately disabling presumption that we stand outside creation. As Alan Watts said, You Are It, and the direct appreciation of this connectedness becomes part of a naturalistic spirituality.  

Philosophy link: Free will page.

Not knowing what’s going to happen next: being surprised by life

As naturalists, we understand there are few certainties, either in how life will work out, in how we are supposed to behave, or in what to believe. There is no finally correct way to be and no master plan that determines our role, either as individuals or as a species. Instead, we are part of nature which unfolds on its own, in a grand experiment to no point or purpose. For us, this experiment involves pain and pleasure, these being aspects of nature in its form (our form) as semi-autonomous, sentient beings. So despite our best efforts, life will shock us with unexpected tragedy and if we’re lucky, some triumphs. We can’t help but act as we do, constituted as we are, but we can’t, except within very broad limits, predict just what we’ll do next, or what will happen to us. We don’t know just what we’ll think or feel or say in the very next moment, let alone the next day, week, or year.

This lack of certainty about life and its outcome adds an inevitably tragic aspect to the naturalistic stance, since things may not work out to our liking, and often don't. But equally, it adds the element of perpetual surprise and novelty: we don't ever know quite what's next. Both the possibility of tragedy and the probability of surprise add their distinctive flavor to a naturalist's spiritual experience. There is darkness as well as light, the unknown as well as the known, and the pull between them.

Consciousness and feelings as strictly physical states

Another conclusion of naturalism is that the mental and physical are one, that perceptions, feelings, emotions, thoughts and the rest all consist of suitably organized matter, the brain. As much as it may seem to be the case that our mental lives constitute a separate realm, science shows that there is nothing over and above the brain, or any similarly organized system, whatever its physical makeup, that needs to be invoked to explain consciousness.

This non-dual conception of consciousness gives us new respect for the "merely" physical, for our bodies and our fleshly existence. In what we call our mental lives, the material world evokes a representation of itself that takes on a rich set of qualitative characteristics determined by a massively complex functional architecture. From a naturalistic perspective, there is no insubstantial essence behind or inherent in such qualities, instead they arise mutually as a system of relations and differences that the brain uses to track the world. Although it isn’t literally miraculous that the world of experience just is the physical brain, it is indeed a marvel that such is the case; it is quite an astonishing fact. That every nuance of feeling and every twitch of thought is the material world at play can spark a profound experience of wonder, and provides a satisfying, unified conception of oneself: the mental and physical bound together as a natural phenomenon.

Philosophy link: Function and Phenomenology.

No self that survives death

Naturalism disallows the existence of the soul. There is nothing about a person that survives death, so we cannot hope for a better world in the hereafter, or for reincarnation in this world. But, there is no nothingness at death, either. One is not plunged into the void, to rest there eternally. Just as we don’t experience any "nothingness" before birth, neither will we experience it after death. Therefore, we need not fear death as an ending that we can experience.

How should we feel about death, then, as naturalists? Although we still have our biologically programmed fear of death to contend with, and we may regret projects unfinished or the loss that our death might inflict on others, our death itself does not concern us directly at all. But if we still dread our ending, we should keep in mind that consciousness overall does not end, since others are still alive and being born. Death and birth actually insure the radical refreshment of consciousness, and that might be construed as a good thing (although some Buddhists, for instance, would just as soon consciousness stopped arising altogether, so this view may not give them comfort).

What we don’t know, at the moment of our deaths, is what will be next (although it won’t be nothingness, we know that). As naturalists, death confronts us with a total cognitive impasse, an ultimate limit on what we as individuals can predict or control. We may at first reflexively recoil at this prospect, but maybe we can jump in, and give ourselves up to this ending of knowledge and control with an enthusiastic curiosity. Not that we ourselves, as this particular person about to end, can ever know what’s next, but that there will be a next moment for someone, at least, we can be assured. Our last moments, then, can be ones of profound anticipation and surrender, not to the void, but to the inevitable change in which we participate that sweeps all before it. 

Philosophy link:  Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity.

No perfect or final knowledge

A corollary of being a fully integrated part of a naturalistic whole is that we cannot step outside the system to observe it. We look at the universe from a particular perspective, and even science inevitably reflects our particularly human constitution: we see what we are "designed" by evolution to see, even in our mathematics, perhaps. This means that our world views and philosophies, including naturalism itself, do not occupy a finally privileged position; they are subject to pragmatic change and improvement, and do not represent what the world might be "in itself".

The naturalist, then, may not be as dead serious or dogmatic in how she espouses naturalism compared to how others espouse their philosophies or religions. This is another aspect, driven by naturalism, of not knowing what is ultimately the case, of being forced not to cling to any certainty. Part of the spiritual experience is to leave the realm of thought for a non-discriminative state (or at least a state in which cognitive distinctions play a lesser role). Being less attached to a particular conception of how the world necessarily is, or must be, may leave the naturalist more receptive to entering such a state. (Not that the naturalist abandons her cognitive style or preferences; such a feat is nearly impossible, short of brainwashing or drug overdose.) Fewer preconceptions about what a spiritual experience must be like, or involve in the way of dogma, make it possible for the naturalist to find wonder and enchantment in many ordinary aspects of life. The distinction between the sacred and the profane gives way to the possibility that a simple, unheralded moment might be the gateway to an immediate apprehension of connection. The here and now become primary, since there are no guarantees of a perfect truth to be attained or a salvation to come later. As much as we strive to achieve understanding, there is no final understanding to achieve (except perhaps this very insight), which means there is no point in putting off the celebration of the present, if we find we are so moved.

Philosophy link: Post-modernism page.