Common Misconceptions

When people first encounter the naturalistic view of things (e.g., Tenets of Naturalism), especially as it applies to ourselves and our place in the world, it can be a bit of a shock. It can engender a good deal of defensiveness, and no wonder: the applecart of traditional assumptions about the self, about free will, about standard justifications for some basic social practices, and about a host of other issues is substantially upset. People don’t particularly like to be informed, as Tom Wolfe put it, that "Sorry, but your soul just died (link is external)", so they understandably reach for the nearest rebuttal at hand, usually involving some sort of social or personal value that, they feel, simply trumps the claims of inclusive naturalism. For example, "If we don’t have free will, then we’re just robots, so we must have free will…" You might call this "the argument from dire consequences," and of course it proves nothing about naturalism or free will.

On the other hand, those who embrace naturalism, discovering in it a satisfying, coherent, and useful world view, sometimes draw conclusions that overreach or distort the naturalistic facts of the matter. Many things change under naturalism compared to standard dualistic views of human nature, but certainly not everything. Human persons, for instance, don’t stop being real entities that figure importantly in the unfolding of events. Nor, because human actions are fully caused, is everything automatically forgiven. Even though some imagine it to be, naturalism is not, to use Daniel Dennett’s phrase, a "universal acid" that dissolves the justifications for our moral practices.[1]

Here I want to disarm some common errors and exaggerations that arise when encountering naturalism. It’s important to do this since, if people (whichever side of the debate they’re on) fall into error, the truth about naturalism and its personal and social implications will be obscured, and its value as a world view compromised. Unless we are careful to state clearly the conclusions that follow from naturalism and those that don't, a good deal of unnecessary fear (what might be called "free will panic") and backlash will be generated. And some will get on various philosophical high horses and ride rough shod, in the wrong direction, over perfectly reasonable, tried-and-true distinctions and social practices. Naturally, I think inclusive naturalism is true, given the epistemological and methodological assumptions of scientific empiricism,[2] but we have to get it right, and do so with all due tact.

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Many imagine that if we don’t have some sort of causal "leverage" over nature, for instance by virtue of being able to cause things to happen without ourselves being completely caused, then we fall into fatalism. Naturalism denies that we have this sort of causal leverage, since it holds that everything about us, including our higher capacities for memory, anticipation, thought, deliberation, and planning, ultimately comes from somewhere else, either via our genes or our environment. The expression of those capacities, all our actions, and indeed our very selves in every respect, are fully caused phenomena. But, assuming naturalism is correct to describe us as completely caused creatures, do we then fall prey to fatalism?

Fatalism is the idea that no matter what one does, one’s fate will be the same. Human actions don’t affect future outcomes, which are fixed. But it should be clear that fatalism can’t be true. Even though our actions are caused, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an effect on the future. It simply isn’t true that no matter what one does, one’s future will be the same. One’s future depends a great deal on what one does, even though actions are themselves fully caused. Naturalism does not in the least entail fatalism, although it does entail thinking quite differently about our relationship to the world. This point and others on fatalism and its falsity are discussed in three short essays, Three Strikes Against Fatalism.

No personal agency or power

Closely related to the fear of fatalism is the fear that unless human agents are causally disconnected from prior circumstances, then we can’t claim that people really do anything – we can’t consider them to be agents. If people are determined, through and through, then they are the mere "working out" of causality and contribute nothing to the world. They might be places where things happen, but people themselves don’t really contribute anything. As philosopher Saul Smilansky puts it: "…her decisions, that which is most truly her own, appear to be accidental phenomena of which she is the mere vehicle."[3]  Thus, naturalism shows we don’t really have causal powers. But is this true?

Even in a naturalistic world where all is subject to cause and effect, we can still distinguish various entities with identifiable boundaries marking them off from their surroundings. Since persons are separate individuals, each with his or her own set of traits and characteristics, human beings are one class of such entities. As a particular individual, a person produces effects on the world that can be produced in no other way. Indeed, no two people produce just the same effects, even in similar situations.

This means that in telling causal stories about the world, persons are necessarily crucial elements in the story. We can’t understand our world without referring to the causal powers, rational capacities, and actions of persons. Nor are we in a position to explain or understand human behavior without referring to the reasons people have for acting – their purposes and motives. People can’t be understood at the sub-personal level of chemicals and neurons and organs, at least not for most of our social and interpersonal purposes. The upshot is that, even though persons are determined in virtually all respects, we can’t conclude that once they exist, they contribute nothing to the world or have no causal powers. They contribute a great deal and have considerable powers that only come into being because persons are configured as they are. Furthermore, being undetermined in some sense would add nothing to our causal efficacy. For an explanation of this last point, see "The Flaw of Fatalism" at Three Strikes Against Fatalism.

Passivity and victimhood

A further false conclusion many tend to draw from our being fully included in natural causality is that we become passive participants in nature, not active agents. We become "victims of circumstance" or "victims of causality," mere spectators driven by factors outside us, forced to act as we do. But we can only be victims of circumstance in this global sense by supposing that we might conceivably have been masters of circumstance or causality in some global sense, i.e., by having what philosophers call "libertarian" or contra-causal free will.  Since this isn’t a possibility, and it if were, it would add nothing to our causal powers (see "The Flaw of Fatalism"), we shouldn’t conclude that we are instead 100% hapless victims.  The proper conclusion is simply to acknowledge that, yes, our genetic and environmental circumstances indeed made us what we are, but that often we play active roles vis a vis our fate, that is, acting purposefully to fulfill plans and desires (applying to college), and that sometimes we end up as more or less passive victims of events well beyond our control (getting hit by a drunk driver).  Ordinarily, our motives are the proximate, if not ultimate, cause of our behavior (proximate because motives too have their causes). To insist that even when we actively pursue our motives we are really passive victims of causality is to ignore a real distinction between being active and passive, one that marks an important dimension of action, even though this dimension lies within an overarching causality.  Naturalism doesn’t erase this distinction, but simply shows we don’t need to be supernatural agents in order to be, a good deal of the time, active participants in the world.

No basis for responsibility, all is excused

One the most acute and widespread fears engendered by encountering naturalism is that since all is caused, all is excused. If someone really and truly couldn’t have done other than what he did in the exact situation in which behavior arose, then what happens to praise and blame? If people don’t originate their behavior in some ultimate sense, then how can they be held responsible for their wrongdoings, and why should we reward them for their virtues?

Two basic points make up the reply to this worry. First, it’s clear that even in an entirely deterministic world, we still retain our strong desires for certain basic outcomes, namely the well-being of ourselves and our loved ones. Therefore, we retain strong inclinations to protect ourselves, and to shape and guide behavior in directions we deem proper. So the motives we have for maintaining public safety and a flourishing society are still in place, even though we are fully caused creatures.

Second, being motivated in this way means that we have all sorts of good reasons to hold persons accountable for wrongful, damaging behavior and to reward them for behavior we want encouraged. Such accountability and encouragement are essential to keep behavior within social norms and to create human agents who behave responsibly, considerately, and ethically. So even without the notion of retribution and just deserts, both of which are based on the idea of contra-causal free will, we have sufficient justification for keeping dangerous individuals out of society, for imposing sanctions as deterrents, and for other responses to criminality which will promote social safety, stability, and flourishing. And likewise we still have good reasons for praising and otherwise rewarding individuals for good behavior, although we won’t any longer suppose that they are good because of some uncaused, self-chosen virtue. Without such reinforcers, people simply don’t behave as well as they otherwise would.[4]

The upshot is that under naturalism, many of our social practices that work to shape behavior and protect society are left untouched, even though the justifications for them no longer include the idea that people are uncaused agents deserving of ultimate credit or blame. We must still hold people responsible, even though they are fully caused creatures, since holding them responsible is an important means to make them responsible, considerate, and ethical agents. But, since persons no longer can be considered the first cause of their behavior, we can’t any longer suppose that they deserve to suffer for having simply chosen, independent of circumstances, to act the way they did. This should help to undercut retributive attitudes that have resulted in our all too punitive criminal justice system, one which imposes needless and counterproductive suffering well beyond what’s needed for deterrence, rehabilitation, or restitution. It will also prompt us to discover and change the factors which actually cause criminality and dysfunctional behavior. For discussions of these points see the essays at Criminal Justice.

No moral standards

Some fear that naturalism, by showing that our values derive entirely from physical and social factors (that is, from our biological nature as it gets expressed in our cultural environment), undercuts any tenable justifications for our moral practices. If there is no basis outside of our contingent biological and social situation for what we believe is the right and good, then how do we make the case for our moral standards? Although this question gets us into very deep waters very quickly, some reassurance can be found in the fact that basic human values are widely shared simply by virtue of being rooted in our common biological nature. Each of us has deeply held preferences for how we want ourselves and our loved ones to be treated, preferences that define the core of everyday morality nearly everywhere one looks. We are no more in a position to seriously question the moral values that underlie human flourishing (e.g., that murder is wrong unless in self-defense, that the young, elderly and weak deserve protection by the strong, that pain should not be needlessly inflicted) than we are to voluntarily cease breathing. Such values are directly linked to human survival, and as such don’t really need further justification.

The tougher question is how to justify moral norms specific to cultures, since these obviously differ from place to place. From a naturalistic perspective, such norms (e.g., allowing female circumcision, banning the death penalty) can be understood as the contingent outcome of cultural developments, not better or worse approximations to some external moral standard that exists independently of human preferences. Nevertheless, specific social practices and policies can be evaluated on the basis of the extent to which they are consonant with basic human needs and motives, e.g., the desires for food, shelter, and companionship, to avoid unnecessary suffering, to find pleasure and meaningful activities in life. Naturalism may show the ultimate contingency of our values, in that human nature might have evolved differently, and human societies and political arrangements might have turned out otherwise. But, given who and what we are as natural creatures, we perforce have basic values which serve as the criteria for assessing moral dilemmas, even if these assessments are often fiercely contested. Naturalism doesn’t lead to nihilism as some suppose,1 rather it shows the basis of our values in human nature. For an excellent discussion of how morality can be naturalized, see Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul, the chapter entitled "Ethics as Human Ecology" (I’ve reviewed this fine book). See also Materialism and Morality for why naturalism is no threat to our essential values.

No individuality

Some take determinism as an affront to human uniqueness or individuality. If we are not ultimately our own creations, then we are less than true individuals. Such a claim is, however, a patent non-sequitur. Differences that define your uniqueness as a person arise as a function of your contingent place in time and space – they need not arise by virtue of some self-originative capacity. It’s only the more or less Western myth of radical individualism – that persons somehow bootstrap themselves into their individuality – that makes us imagine that uniqueness depends on self-origination. The unimaginably vast concatenation of causes that intersect to produce each of us, and each creature on the planet, suffices to render each person a special version of homo sapiens, the one with just this set of attributes and proclivities. Of course, what makes us special as homo sapiens is the extent to which the production of our personalities and projects is mediated by complex cognitive processes carried in our heads. So in this respect, we are proximately self-authoring. But we don’t need to be ultimately self-authoring to become unique individuals.

No novelty

A closely related misunderstanding is the idea that if all is determined, then nothing new really happens under the sun. And the response is much the same: novelty, far from being banned by determinism, is instead pretty much inevitable. Since our cognitive capacities are obviously limited, we are not in a position to predict the future in any detail, determined though it might be. So our fate is often to be surprised by the way events unfold. As philosophers like to put it, the future is "epistemically open" to us, even though it might be causally closed. Furthermore, it is objectively the case that the evolving state of the cosmos produces new configurations of matter and energy, including all human affairs and the very thoughts that arise as you read these words. The fact that all this flows from prior conditions by routes determined by physical, biological, and other natural laws yet to be discovered subtracts nothing from its originality and newness.

No rationality

Some suppose that the only way we can be rational creatures, capable of knowing truths about the world and acting effectively using these truths, is by being causally disconnected from nature in some important respect. They think there's a conflict between being fully caused and being rational (for examples of this worry see here and here). But this isn't the case. If we were causally disconnected from the world in some respect, freely choosing our perceptions, consideration of evidence, thoughts, and practical conclusions, without being determined in choosing them, how would this help us be more rational, or help us better understand reality?  Animals, presumably without free will and as a result of natural selection, got to be better and better at predicting the outcomes of their behavior and other events, and so arrived at more accurate views of the world than those that didn't make the evolutionary cut.  As rather sophisticated cognitive systems, we're very good at modeling the world, and any causal disconnection from the world would worsen, not improve, our ability to model it.   Stepping outside of determinism, an impossibility, can't give us a more correct view of things.  Any part of us outside the causal network, anything radically free to choose its response or evaluation, would be uninfluenced by the world, unresponsive to it, and so this part couldn't know anything about the world.  There is no conflict between our brains being causally determined and their being capable of assessing theories and evidence.  Indeed, if processes of assessment involved indeterministic elements, that would make them less reliable and rational, not more.  So there's no conflict between being determined to have a view of the world and having a truer, more accurate view of it.  Some deterministic systems (e.g., scientists) simply do a better job of modeling the world than others (e.g., astrologers, palm readers).

No meaning

The Big Question of meaning looms large if we take naturalism seriously. Without a supernatural intelligence to define a purpose for the universe, there isn’t any intrinsic point to existence we can take comfort in. We are, ultimately, just here, doing what we do; we exist not because anyone or anything thought it was necessary, but only because we happen to have arisen by virtue of natural causes. So regrettably (some think), we must put aside dreams of a final purpose and content ourselves with local meanings derived from our contingent human nature. But, must we necessarily regret the lack of ultimate meaning?

That we do regret it on occasion is undeniable. We are hard-wired to seek agency and purpose in events, and when we discover that the universe is ultimately inscrutable, existentially speaking, that can be a bit unsettling. But we are not entitled to remain upset for long, since it turns out that such meaning simply isn’t a possibility. Were we to discover that our world was created with someone’s purpose in mind, we would simply ask the next question: why does that entity exist? Where did it come from? What’s the purpose of its having its purposes? It’s our very ability to ask these questions that prevents ultimate meaning from being realizable. So, we can’t shake our fist at the universe for its inscrutability, nor can we legitimately characterize it as intrinsically meaningless, since that is simply to project upon it our desire for meaning, and find it wanting. Existence, in itself, necessarily transcends the meaningful/meaningless distinction – it simply is.

So while it’s true that naturalism discovers no ultimate purpose in things, that becomes a problem only because of our psychology, not the world. And besides, there's a good deal of existential joy to be found, believe it or not, in relishing the fact that we are not relegated to playing out a role in someone else’s cosmic drama, that we are part of a process that unfolds on its own, quite unexpectedly and for no obvious reason. It's possible to feel that this is a better existential situation than being confined to a purpose. Which is good, since that’s how, naturalistically, things really are. Finally, local meanings generated by our projects and amusements survive quite handily under naturalism (as they do under most religious and philosophical world views) and these are usually sufficient to satisfy us most of the time. For more on meaning and naturalism, see the Spirituality page.


People sometimes confuse naturalism with what philosopher Daniel Dennett has called greedy reductionism, the idea that higher-level phenomena (minds, persons, beliefs, currency, government) can be understood or explained at the physical level.  This can't be done, since higher-level phenomena exhibit properties that can only be understood as outcomes of the complex organization and interaction of more basic constituents and processes at various levels of an integrated hierarchy, not in terms of the constituents and processes considered in themselves.  Such explanations involve a benign reductionism that is the hallmark of a good deal of science.  It's also sometimes supposed that reductionism, if successful, eliminates higher-order phenomena as existing in their own right.  But this doesn't follow either, since explaining higher-level phenomena in terms of the organization and interaction of lower-level processes doesn't make them disappear.  Of course, few take the possibility of greedy and eliminative reductionism very seriously, except as a straw man with which to beat up on the idea of deterministic causal explanation generally, for instance here and here. An example of misconceived reductionism is the idea that because we are composed of sub-personal, biological and computational processes that are ultimately physical and causal, the person-level causality of character-based reasons and motives is somehow invalidated or made irrelevant when devising causal explanations. But of course this is false. Individuals and their causal powers don't disappear on a naturalistic understanding of ourselves. Nevertheless, it's important to realize that this doesn't entail that higher level phenomena such as human behavior aren't fully caused. Our behavior qua behavior can’t be usefully explained at the basic physical level, but it is, scientists suppose, still amenable to causal explanation at some level or levels.


Naturalism should not be confused with scientism, "the belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry" (ref).   To hold a naturalistic world view is simply to use science to decide about the ultimate constituents of the cosmos and how they combine to produce stars, planets, life and human beings; it isn't to suppose that science is the measure of all things.  Naturalists don't apply science and causal analysis to every aspect of existence, or every domain of understanding or appreciation, nor do we think that this is either wise or feasible.  Love, art, music appreciation, aesthetics, history, drama, literature, dance, cuisine, wine tasting, and dozens of other aspects of life and learning involve understandings and techniques that have little or nothing to do with science, even though everything that goes on in such endeavors is composed of the ultimate constituents of the cosmos, according to science.   Scientism is a bit like the greedy reductionism that people properly reject (see above), but that scientists are rarely actually guilty of - e.g., see my mild complaint against George Ellis. Richard Rorty is the person to emulate in this regard, not E. O. Wilson.


1. See Alex Rosenberg and Tamler Sommer's paper, "Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life" for a discussion of how naturalism undercuts certain sorts of traditional justifications for values.  Whether we'd want to call this "nihilism," and whether it renders life meaningless are both debatable.

2. The question of what assumptions undergird naturalism is addressed in the Anti-foundationalism pages.

3. Saul Smilanksy, "Free Will, Fundamental Dualism, and the Centrality of Illusion" (link is external). For a discussion of this paper, see "Is Free Will a Necessary Fiction? (link is external)"

4. Might not the power of such reinforcers diminish once we understand we aren’t "ultimately" responsible for our faults or virtues? They might to some extent, but in my experience, approval and disappointment retain their power to shape behavior, since after all we remain social creatures, dependent on others for our well-being.