Naturalism and the Future

Paul Kurtz

Naturalism has been the dominant voice in American philosophy for most of the twentieth century. Beginning with pragmatism in the early part of the century and cresting with John Dewey in the latter half, it has included philosophers such as W.V. Quine, Sidney Hook, Ernest Nagel, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, Donald Davidson, and Adolf Grünbaum, among others. Today, naturalism is being challenged by religious, antisecular, and antihumanist forces, although it still plays a commanding role.*

Naturalism in one sense is synonymous with modernism and secular humanism, beginning with the Renaissance, with its new emphasis on humanist values instead of religious piety. Naturalism continued with the growth of modern science and the scientific temper. It reached a crescendo in the eighteenth century with the Enlighten­ment and the democratic revolutions in France and the United States. The progressive ideals of Condorcet and les philosophes helped to crystallize a conviction that science, education, democracy, human rights, and the secularization of morality would liberate human beings from les anciens régimes. Founders of the American republic such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison shared this optimistic outlook.

Today strident voices bleat, opposing the Enlightenment within the academy. Following the postmodernist disciples of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, they denigrate the objectivity of science and the agenda of liberation humanism. Exacerbating the challenge is the sudden recrudescence of fundamentalist Islam, Hinduism, and evangelical Christianity; the reappearance of the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe; and rising conversions to Christianity and Islam in Asia and Africa.

Naturalism is too narrowly construed if it is defined only by its opposition to supernaturalism. Recently, the term New Atheism has been introduced to denote the battle against theistic religion. But this definition of naturalism is too limited; it has been criticized by conservative theists and liberals alike for its negativity.

This indictment overlooks the fact that naturalism has had a positive impact. For naturalism does not begin with God as a myth left over from a prescientific age to be debunked or refuted but rather with nature itself, directly experienced, with the primordial world of diversity and plenitude that humans encounter in living and interacting, and with their attempts to understand and cope with it. As such, naturalism has been enormously beneficial for modern civilization, which, freed from the constraints of repressive theology, has a constructive agenda for the future.

There are three normative principles of naturalism that provide an effective alternative to religion and that are continuing to transform our world. By improving the human condition, they provide, I submit, promising opportunities for humankind.

The first is methodological naturalism, which is the bedrock of all scientific inquiry and the secret of its unparalleled success. The use of scientific methods of inquiry—broadly conceived—is the most effective way of attaining reliable knowledge. Scientific inquiry makes every effort to be impartial in evaluating, testing, and validating claims to knowledge. This entails theoretical and mathematical coherence, an appeal to evidence, and the use of experimental prediction. The grounds for accepting a claim to knowledge are that it must be corroborated (or replicated) by competent inquirers in the field under study. It does not depend on subjective caprice or arbitrary authority. Unlike religious claims, scientific knowledge is open to revision in the light of new discoveries or theories. It is fallible, following Peirce, for some skepticism is intrinsic to the very process of scientific inquiry; yet it continues to advance the frontiers of knowledge, whereas other methods do not.

Many naturalists take the natural sciences as the exemplar of knowledge. This presupposes that occult causes are inadmissible in science, and that only natural entities and processes exist and/or are dependent on physical causal processes. Here, the physicalist model is the guide. My caveat is that the methods of justification should not be too narrowly construed; the strategies of investigation and confirmation may vary from field to field, depending on the context under inquiry. The natural sciences—physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, etc.—surely stand as an ideal model of applying a physicalist framework. The biological sciences, however, provide new concepts and theories not entirely reducible to their physical-chemical substrata. Similarly, the behavioral sciences of psychology and the social sciences, such as economics, political science, and sociology, introduce new constructs and theories, and their modes of confirmation may not be as precise as those in the natural sciences. This implies letting each science gain practical confirmation in its own way. This leads to scientific pluralism instead of physicalist reductionism.

What is especially important is the practical need to educate students and the general public to think critically—an extended sense of the application of scientific methods. This should be applied to all fields of human interest, including religion, morality, politics, and ordinary life. Scientific methods grow out of the practical ways that people cope with the world and solve problems: as Dewey pointed out, they are continuous with common sense. In the final analysis, methodological naturalism provides a powerful set of prescriptive rules that are tested by their pragmatic consequences.

Indeed, the application of the methods of science has radically transformed human civilization. In particular, the positive effects of technology have been incalculable. Technology led to the industrial and information revolutions and the ability of humans to travel, communicate rapidly, and engage in commerce on a global scale. It has increased the food supply, and improved sanitation and medical care. It has expanded the sheer quantity of manufactured goods and services, which have im­proved quality of life and elevated standards of living everywhere. It has opened up opportunities for education, reducing illiteracy and enhancing cultural enrichment. It has contributed to human leisure and happiness—the enjoyment of the good life by more and more people. It has solved practical problems that heretofore were the bane of human existence, built highways and bridges, and launched humans into space. It has for the first time in human history made possible the realization of the humanistic ideal that each person on the planet is equal in dignity and value.

Scientific inquiry has expanded the horizons of our understanding of the universe and the place of the human species within it without myth or fantasy; the frontiers of research are pushed forward by dramatic discoveries every day. This has led to a steady increase in the amount of knowledge that we have amassed about the universe. Unfortun­ately, not everyone appreciates the significance of the new scientific conceptions of the cosmos.

The second form of naturalism is scientific naturalism. This is very important today, for it supplants traditional supernatural and mystical theories of reality. It is essential that naturalists attempt to describe and explain what has been learned about the universe; we need to interpret the body of scientific knowledge of our time for the general public. This requires generalists who are skilled in uncovering interdisciplinary generalizations, common concepts and theories, shared assumptions and presuppositions. Philoso­phers working closely with scientists can help in this important task. The eventual goal of scientific inquiry is to achieve, if possible, consilience: theories that cohere/coduct together. We need to try to work out a synoptic understanding of nature.

What should concern us is the abys­mal lack of information possessed by the general public, and indeed by scientific specialists themselves, about the import of contemporary scientific discoveries. Scientific illiteracy is rampant. That is why we need to provide general outlines of our knowledge of the universe insofar as we can. Most often it is scientists rather than philosophers—popularizers such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, or E.O. Wilson—who contribute most profoundly to the public understanding of science. I submit that it is important to develop a generalized view of the universe at this moment in history.**

We may ask, what are the implications of scientific naturalism to life as presently lived? It presents us with a universe in which “the God delusion” (Richard Dawkins’s term) has been re­futed and religion is often seen as de­structive (“poison,” in Christopher Hitch­­­ens’s term), a universe that is without divine purpose and indifferent to human fears and hopes of salvation. It just is.

Nevertheless, the universe is a scene of natural events, and the human spe­cies is an integral part of nature. In this universe, humans are capable of marshalling their own powers of intelligence, endurance, and goodwill in order to develop better lives of enjoyment and enrichment for themselves and others, no matter what the social or cultural context. Today, for the first time in hu­man history, humans can be liberated from bondage to ancient mythologies; morality can be refashioned to better fit our scientific understanding of human­kind and our desires, interests, needs, and values. Humankind has every reason to welcome its place in nature, for nature can be hospitable to human life. Countless generations of men and women, young and old, have achieved happiness by pursuing their multifarious plans and projects.

The point needs to be made loud and clear that human life need not be a vale of turbulence or sorrow; the good life is achievable by humans without the illusion of divine governance or redemption.

This leads to the third form of naturalism, ethical naturalism, which focus­es on human values and comes to fru­ition with secular humanism. If the universe has no special place for humans, how shall we assert our own significance? Human life is an audacious expression of how we choose to become what we want. What is the relevance of nature to our decisions?

We cannot deduce what we ought to do from what is the case; we cannot draw our values solely from the facts. Nonetheless, the facts of the case are relevant to our moral values and principles. We need to take them into account in decision making. Science thus can serve ethics, enabling us to make wise choices. We need, however, to understand the limits and constraints, the possibilities and opportunities, of the environments in which we live. We need to understand the circumstances and facts that surround us within the contexts of choice. Understanding the consequences of our choices may better enable us to modify them; our expanding power over the means at our disposal and the creation of new ones help us to refashion our ends. These considerations are relevant to the things we hold, cherish, and esteem. It is clear that we can make reasonable value judgments in the light of inquiry.*** Accordingly, naturalism has direct relevance to the decisions we make and the values we prize. Hence, there is an intermediary relationship between values and facts, an “act-ductive,” if not deductive or in­ductive, relationship of facts and values to actions.

Theists complain that a person cannot be good without God; they charge that secular ethics is groundless and, hence, unreliable. On the contrary, there is considerable scientific evidence that human beings are potentially moral—caring, empathetic, compassionate, and altruistic—and that with education and social development they can behave morally. In any case, methodological and scientific naturalism have profound implications for a meaningful life. This depends on the flexible application of the naturalistic method and outlook to life. Naturalism in the future must be prepared to reconstruct the morality of the past so that it more adequately serves human needs and values in the present. Philosophy can be a stepping-stone to a new naturalistic ethics, but it needs to be transformed directly into eupraxsophy. As I view it, eupraxsophers are those skilled in the art of living, and their recommendations have behavioral implications for the practical life.

Naturalistic secular humanists need to advocate ethical positions in the agora of life as lived, and to intellectually and passionately propose and defend them. We need to minister to the passional needs of ordinary people, students, colleagues, coworkers, and citizens in the communities in which we live, and to strangers and aliens in the wider community of humankind. We need eupraxsopher-practitioners in the art and science and poetry of living. And we need to apply this insight to social institutions as well.

Ranged against naturalism and dealing in illusion and delusion, fantasy and nonsense, are the priests and mullahs, rabbis and ministers, who are burdened with ancient mythologies. They seek to intrude, cajole, persuade, and convert others to their archaic worldviews, and have no qualms about doing so.

As ethical naturalists (i.e., secular humanists), we need to be forthright about our deeply held convictions and apply them to the world in concrete terms. This is central if we are to continue to advance naturalism in the future. Indeed, I submit that the new frontier for naturalism is applying normative ethics to better enable us to lead more reasonable and satisfying lives on the scale of individuals, communities, and the planetary civilization that has emerged.


Albert Ellis, Scientific Practitioner and Secular Humanist

Albert Ellis is a fine illustration of a scientific naturalist interested in helping people to achieve the good life. I knew Al for over forty years. He was an original signer of the “Secular Human­ist Declaration,” the founding document of the Council for Secular Humanism, is­sued in 1980, and he was a contributing editor of Free Inquiry from the first is­sue until his death this year. As chair of Prometheus Books, I published five of his books, and we expect to publish his forthcoming biography posthumously.

On September 28, 2007, I participated at a memorial celebration in his honor at Columbia University—Ellis was a graduate of Columbia—in which psychologists and therapists took part. Drs. Frank Farley and Alan Kazdin, past and incoming presidents of the Amer­ican Psychological Association, extolled Ellis, declaring him the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century. Dr. Brian S. Canfield, president of the American Counseling Associa­tion, said that Ellis was also the leading therapist of the twentieth century—perhaps of all time.

Ellis was responsible for introducing rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), the method most widely used by psychologists today. REBT applies the principles of both science and secular humanism.

Interestingly, Ellis was a nonbeliever, and more specifically, an atheist and secular humanist. Ellis tells us that he “be­came a firm atheist” at the age of twelve while he “was preparing for his bar mitzvah.” A follower of Bertrand Rus­sell, he became a “probabilistic atheist.” Although “we can have no certainty that God does or does not exist we have an exceptionally high degree of probability that he or she doesn’t,” Ellis wrote in his book Rational Emotive Therapy: It Works for Me—It Can Work for You (Prome­theus Books, 2004, pp. 113–114).

In his article “The Case Against Religiosity” (first published in Lyle Stu­art’s Independent and quoted in his article “Testament of a Human­ist” [FI, Spring 1987, p. 27]), Ellis wrote that “people imbued with intense religiosity and fanatici
sm are emotionally disturb­ed: usually neurotic but some­­times psychotic.” On the contrary, he hypothesized that “the more scientific open-minded, and straight thinking about themselves and others, and about the world . . . the less neurotically they will think, feel, and behave.”

Ellis went on to say that he had known thousands of people who do not profess belief in God, nor did they practice a formal religion. Yet, they “definitely lead exemplary and often outstanding lives.” He also knew hundreds of atheists who, he said, also led happy and productive lives. But his impression—albeit perhaps biased—was that “the happy and most productive people . . . are more frequently in the nontheistic than theistic class.”

Ellis said that he “considered life meaningful” even though he rejected theistic belief. He agreed with Jean-Paul Sartre that life and the universe are meaningless and absurd. “Only humans and our humanism create personal and world significance,” he said. He was determined always to make it so, even up to the day he died, and he sought to teach others to do the same.

In his book Why Some Therapies Don’t Work (Prome­theus Books, 1987), Ellis said that “the primary goal of psychotherapy is to help people achieve a more humanistic outlook.” He rejected most existing theories of psychotherapy, because they had never been tested to determine whether they were effective.

Albert Ellis was an heir to the En­lightenment. Like John Dewey, Amer­ica’s leading philosopher of the twentieth century, Ellis defended the importance of cognition in modifying our emotions, behavior, and values. In being in­fluenced by philosophy, he expressed some confidence in the capacity of hu­man beings to improve their lives in their own terms. As a practitioner/scientist dealing with concrete lived experience, he attempted to help people live more rational, meaningful, pleasurable lives and thus advanced the ethical goals of both philosophy and psychology.

For many years, psychology and psychiatry were dominated by Sigmund Freud, whose thought emphasized dark forces within the unconscious, believed to control a person’s destiny. Ellis insisted that individuals need to take rational control of their behavior and come to terms with their fears and misperceptions. By doing so, he transformed therapy. In emphasizing the role that cognition can play in putting a person in touch with reality—without the delusion of absolutist theology or ideology—he thought individuals could come to lead more meaningful and productive lives, without hang-ups or blockages. In this endeavor, Ellis contributed enormously to our understanding of how and why we behave the way we do and how best to cope with problems, giving us new power over our lives. Ellis was an ethical naturalist in the best sense of that term.

Regrettably, the last three years of Ellis’s life were marred by controversy with a rump group that had taken over the board of the Albert Ellis Institute, which he founded and to which he had dedicated his life. Ellis suffered what many viewed as unfair treatment bordering on persecution and betrayal. As we go to press, that dispute has not yet been resolved, but we hope that it will be soon—thus honoring his memory. (Please see the important article in this issue by nine close colleagues of Ellis who are contesting control of his Institute and wish to restore it to its greatness.)

What Label for People Like Us?

I note with interest that Margaret Downey recently organized a blockbuster atheist conference in the Washing­ton, D.C., area at which convened many of the “new atheists.” We congratulate her on her energy. How­ever, I agree with Sam Harris when he states that in accepting the label of atheist “we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky subculture . . . a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms.”

I will first compliment Sam (as the newest kid on the block) for his two fine books and his eloquent voice now being heard on the national scene. May I then disagree with his subsequent “seditious proposal” that we should not call ourselves “secularists,” “humanists,” “secular humanists,” “naturalists,” “skeptics,” etc. “We should go under the radar for the rest of our lives,” he advises. We should be “responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.”

That sounds lofty, but in my view it is counterproductive. For in order to develop new ideas and policies that are effective, we need to organize with other like-minded individuals. And a name is crucial. If we follow Sam’s advice, the crical opposition to religious claims would naturally collapse. If we generalize from this, we could not come to­gether as Democrats or Repub­licans, Libertar­ians or Socialists, feminists or civil libertarians, world federalists or environmentalists, utilitarians or pragmatists. Should we operate only as single individuals who may get published or speak on street corners with little influence or clout? Come on, Sam, that is unrealistic; almost no one would be heard and we would be lone voices in the city canyons, unheard and drowned out by the powerful media. We say that democracy functions best when the citizens of a country unite under whatever label they choose to achieve what they deem to be worthy goals. True, you have had a best seller that brought you to the public forum. But for most people, the opportunity to affect the public debate is lost unless they work with others to make their views heard, and unless they build institutions dedicated to their ideals and to the values they hope will endure. These are the goals of the secular humanist movement.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Naturalism has been the dominant voice in American philosophy for most of the twentieth century. Beginning with pragmatism in the early part of the century and cresting with John Dewey in the latter half, it has included philosophers such as W.V. Quine, Sidney Hook, Ernest Nagel, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, Donald Davidson, and Adolf Grünbaum, …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.