The terminology of philosophy is fraught with ambiguities, multiple meanings, and meaning conflicts. The battles fought over and within philosophical terminology incorporate the battles of history and ideology. Naturalism is one of these terms. For our purposes, we can go with the relevant Wikipedia encyclopedia entries:
The former article is about methodological naturalism, that is, the methodological nature of the sciences. This figures into legal and other battles over the teaching of evolution. The latter is a stronger claim, such as one will find in the work of Richard Dawkins. Atheists and many secular humanists adhere to both. The scientific establishment of necessity embraces the first and shies away from the second.
Naturalism, however, is not by itself crystal clear as a designator of philosophical positions. It covers a multitude of philosophical positions, which themselves may compete or overlap: pragmatism, positivism, materialism, scientific realism . . .
One way of approaching the issue here is to delve into the usage of another philosophical term, materialism, as this constitutes a prime example of the politics of ideas. Materialism is customarily employed in a very restrictive way in Anglo-American philosophy, to refer to the mind-body problem alone. Note the narrow definition that introduces the Wikipedia entry on materialism. Physicalism seems to have been a prevailing view among the logical positivists. (I think of Otto Neurath’s questionable essay on physicalism and sociology.) The history of materialism, is, oddly, not so easy to reconstruct, perhaps because of the prejudices against it. In the 19th century F. A. Lange attempted to write a history of materialism in order to oppose it. The very word seems to have become taboo even among those whose position is basically that. Partly, this may be because the Marxists seemed to be the only ones to have kept materialism going, although I think the taboo, which goes back thousands of years, is probably not reducible to a more recent association of political radicalism. In the USA, “naturalism” was much more acceptable, but there are a number of vagaries at work, as a number of underlying positions may employ this terminology, as is also the case with “realism”. Just to take one example, Marvin Farber used the term “naturalism”, but finally copped to “materialism”, admitting that philosophers were too scared to use the word. Perhaps the FBI’s interest in this matter, with or without overt political connections, helps to explain why. However, it would seem that much of the scientific realism that arose in dissatisfaction with positivism (Mario Bunge apparently fits into this category) is basically materialist.
David H. Price, using FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, in detailing the decades-long investigation of the Marxist philosophical journal Science & Society from the 1940s to the 1960s, concluded that the FBI apparently viewed Marxist theorizing as almost as dangerous to national security as outright Marxist activism.
But during the postwar 1940s and throughout the 1950s the FBI viewed most philosophical links to Marxism as threats to their vision of “Americanism.” During the early Cold War most forms of materialist analysis were seen by the FBI as threats to national security . . . Thus the FBI reacted with strong concern upon reading the essays of Bernhard Stern, Elmer Barnes and others affiliated with the early years of Science & Society in the book Philosophy for the Future (Sellars, et al., 1949):“Materialism” aside, it is also important to note that the pragmatic naturalist Sidney Hook, a hero to some in the secular humanist movement, was a major culprit in the McCarthyite persecution of American philosophers, which among other effects may have changed the course of American philosophy.They are day in and day out influencing the minds of countless youths. Their influence goes beyond the classroom. They are also writers issuing books and articles designed to influence educated and articulate adults in positions of importance. There can be little doubt that these materialists are subtly preparing the minds of at least a percentage of those reached by them for the acceptance of communism. Further, they are preparing a greater percentage of educated minds to be sympathetic or soft on communism. . . . It is not unlikely that the majority of the educated enemies of the Bureau who are regularly attacking or opposing us in one form or another are philosophic materialists. And, they are not decreasing in numbers. Philosophy for the Future is our problem of the future. (WFO 100-FBI Office Memorandum, 7/28/57).
Roy Wood Sellars, a co-editor of the 1949 anthology Philosophy for the Future (and, not incidentally, author of the first Humanist Manifesto), in his 1927 essay “Why Naturalism and Not Materialism” drew a functional distinction between materialism and naturalism.
Materialism is distinctly an ontological theory, a theory of the stuff of reality. Its polar opposite is usually taken to be mentalism of some kind. Naturalism, on the other hand, is a cosmological position; its opposite is supernaturalism in the larger meaning of that term. I mean that naturalism takes nature in a definite way as identical with reality, as self-sufficient and as the whole of reality. And by nature is meant the space-time-causal system which is studied by science and in which our lives are passed. The whole nature of nature may not be exhaustively known, but its location and general characteristics come under the above categories.And:
Another weakness of materialism was its whole-hearted identification of itself with the principles of elementary mechanics. It was naively scientific. We may call this species of materialism reductive materialism. . . . By its very principle evolutionary materialism is opposed to reductive materialism. It is not finalistic, or teleological, in the old sense . . . but it does not hold that relations in nature are external and that things are machines of atomic complexity. Organization and wholes are genuinely significant.These passages are singled out by Jaegwon Kim, who states, as Sellars himself complained, that Sellars has been unjustly neglected. (Some of my sources suggest that W.V.O. Quine is the major American point of reference for naturalism.) Sellars was a central participant in American philosophical trends in the early part of the 20th century. His essays and autobiographical material compare the competing positions of the time.
Apparently Sellars changed his mind about materialism, for by 1944 he poses the question “Is Naturalism Enough?” and finds that it is not, contrasting materialism to the vagaries of the then current pragmatism, which under Dewey and Hook also claimed the mantle of naturalism.
In atheist, freethought, and secular humanist circles in the United States, whenever a fundamental ontological position is stated at all, it is usually naturalism and not materialism. I would imagine another popular term is scientific realism, which implies a naturalist or materialist position. Atheists (freethinkers, etc.) no more hold to a single philosophical position than do philosophers, and even with respect to “atheism” hold to a variety of positions, reflected to a certain extent in their own variants of preferred terms, not to mention the less committed position of agnosticism. They also vary among themselves as to their level of tolerance of beliefs on various relevant issues. (Interestingly, the questionnaire used to create personal profiles on the Secularity web site queries perspective members in some detail beliefs regarding deities, supernatural entities, the paranormal, and spirituality.) Then there is the question of common goals. After all, agitation for church-state (religion-government) separation encompasses a much broader spectrum of people than those to be found within the atheist/freethought orbit. Within the freethought orbit, while some individuals and groups have been extremely militant about unambiguous definitions, others are much more tolerant of diverse positions as long as they roughly fall within the “family”. Arguments over philosophical coherence and consistency have their place, depending on the nature and purpose of a given discussion.
American Atheists, in its membership application, grounds atheism in materialism:
Materialism declares that the cosmos is devoid of immanent conscious purpose; that it is governed by its own inherent, immutable, and impersonal laws; that there is no supernatural interference in human life; that humankind—finding their resources within themselves—can and must create their own destiny.I noticed this two decades ago and was impressed by this explicit philosophical declaration. There are not only various designations for nonbelievers—atheist, freethinker, rationalist, agnostic, secular humanist, etc.—there are also various designations for philosophical positions—materialism, naturalism, etc. . . . and skepticism.
I have a fundamental problem with adoption of the term skepticism. As represented in magazines like Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, the term is applied to paranormal and other claims deemed disreputable by these proponents of reputable science. I object to the term because some of the individuals involved themselves and their knowledge claims merit skeptical scrutiny, but more generally because “skepticism” is also a philosophical position which I would not want to adopt or see confused with the specific meaning adopted by the “skeptical” movement, which has ties to secular humanist and atheist circles.
Otherwise, my own philosophical position and terminological preferences aside, I maintain that for our purposes, the functional distinction that matters is naturalism vs. supernaturalism, one which works very well and now has precedent in court cases involving the teaching of evolution, and so I conclude that naturalism suits our purpose. I will continue to use naturalism as a reference point as I pursue questions of skepticism, scientism, and scientific method.
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_______________. “Is Naturalism Enough?”, in Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays, compiled and edited by W. Preston Warren (St. Louis, MO: W. H. Green, 1970), pp. 140–150. Original publication: R. W. Sellars, Journal of Philosophy, XLI (1944), pp. 533‑544.
_______________. “The New Materialism,” in A History of Philosophical Systems, edited by Vergilius Ferm (Paterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adamas & Co., 1965 [orig. 1950]), Chapter 33, pp. 418–428.
_______________. Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays, compiled and edited by W. Preston Warren. St. Louis, MO: W. H. Green, 1970. See Foreword, v-ix.
_______________. Reflections on American Philosophy From Within. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.
_______________. “Why Naturalism and Not Materialism,” Philosophical Review (36) (1927), pp. 216–225. Reprinted in Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays, ed. W. Preston Warren (St. Louis, MO: W. H. Green, 1970).]
Warren, W. Preston. Roy Wood Sellars: Philosopher of Religious Humanism (1883–1973). 1975. With links to other materials.
Wikipedia. See Agnosticism, Friedrich Albert Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus, Logical positivism, Mario Bunge, Materialism, Metaphysical naturalism, Naturalism (philosophy), Physicalism, Sidney Hook, Skeptic (magazine), Skeptical Inquirer, Skepticism, Willard Van Orman Quine.