Monday, April 16, 2007

Naturalism & Materialism

See also my original post with extensive commentary on Freethought Forum, 16 February 2007.

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:

Naturalism (philosophy)

Metaphysical naturalism

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):
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).
“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.

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.

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.


American Atheists membership application.

Augustine, Keith. A Defense of Naturalism. 2001.

Bhaskar, Roy. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1979.

Chrucky, Andrew. Bibliography of Roy Wood Sellars. 1997.

Dankov, Evlogi. “Doubt and Atheism,” translated by Olga Cankova (1990) & Ralph Dumain (2000).

Dumain, Ralph. American Philosophy Study Guide (online).

Dumain, Ralph. Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography. 2004- .

Farber, Marvin. Naturalism and Subjectivism (Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas, 1959), Chapter 1, esp. pp. 3–5.

Farber, Marvin. The Search for an Alternative: Philosophical Perspectives of Subjectivism and Marxism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), Chapter 9, From the Perspective of Materialism, pp. 216–238.

Forrest, Barbara. “Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection,” Philo, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2000), pp. 7–29.

Fritzman, J.M. “Almeder’s Implicit Scientism,” Philosophia, vol. 33, nos. 1–4, December 2005, pp. 275–296.

Kim, Jaegwon. “The American Origins of Philosophical Naturalism,” in: Philosophy in America at the Turn of the Century (APA Centennial Supplement, Journal of Philosophical Research) (Charlottesville, VA: Philosophy Documentation Center, 2003), pp. 83–98.

Manicas, Peter T. “Naturalism and Subjectivism: Philosophy for the Future?”. 2000.

McCumber, John. The Honor Roll: American Philosophers Professionally Injured During the McCarthy Era.

Naturalism.Org, Center for Naturalism web site.

Neurath, Otto. “Sociology and Physicalism” [orig. 1931/2], translated by Morton Magnus & Ralph Raico, in: Logical Positivism, A.J. Ayer, ed. (New York: Free Press, 1959), pp. 282–317.

Nielsen, Kai. “Agnosticism,” in: Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), Vol. 1, pp. 17–27.

Parsons, Keith M. “Defending Naturalism,” Philo, vol. 3, no. 2, Fall-Winter 2000.

Philo, philosophy journal devoted to naturalism.

Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism, edited by Roy Wood Sellars, V.J. McGill, Marvin Farber. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949.

Popkin, Richard. The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2003.

Price, David H. “The FBI and Science & Society,” Science & Society, Winter 2004–2005.

Reisch, George. How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, April 2005.

Secularity (web site).

Sellars, Roy Wood. “Humanist Manifesto” (Drafter and co-signer), The New Humanist, vol. 6, No. 3 (May-June, 1933), pp. 58–61.

_______________. “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.


Ralph Dumain said...

Response to a commentator, 16 February 2007:

I’ve added three more references to the bibliography:

(1) “Agnosticism” entry in Wikipedia,

(2) “Agnosticism entry by Kai Kielsen in Dictionary of the History of Ideas,

(3) The Possibility of Naturalism by Roy Bhaskar.

A couple of notes:

I am aware of a broader philosophical meaning of “agnosticism” not related to religion or deity, which can be found in Marxist literature opposing materialism to agnosticism (related to skepticism and the denial of the objective knowability of reality). The only non-religious meaning given in the Wikipedia entry is “model agnosticism”—a term I’ve never seen before. Kai Nielsen taught me something I didn’t know before about the origin of the concept. This broader meaning of agnosticism was already built into the doctrine of (a)theistic agnosticism by Huxley, who adopted the standard Humean conception of knowledge. It is one more reason to reject “agnosticism” as a coherent position, unless the specific belief or conception about which one is agnostic can be plausibly, meaningfully, and coherently identified. Nielsen also reviews charges that agnosticism is an incoherent position.

Bhaskar’s book (from the early days, before he turned into a New Age BS artist) opens out into a broader area—the nature and methods of scientific knowledge and the relation between the natural and social sciences. Bhaskar repudiates both the positivistic and hermeneutic (irrationalist) traditions concerning the nature of the natural and social sciences. (You hint at this topic in your remark about explanatory levels and physicalism.) This is relevant to our concerns because of the reprehensible malpractice within our ranks by the likes of Michael Shermer and other “skeptics” and secular humanists, whose scientism is lousy with intellectual ineptitude and obscurantism.

Ralph Dumain said...

Following a lead from one respondent, I located:

Lectures and Essays by Thomas Henry Huxley

You can download the whole volume or read whatever you want online.

I read two essays:



Comments to follow.

Ralph Dumain said...

My response to query about T.H. Huxley's "Naturalism and Supernaturalism" and Michael Shermer; 16 February 2007:

No. I’m not familiar with Huxley’s essay, but I’ll be interested in seeing how much historical knowledge he has on the subject, whether he knew of the relevant literature from India and China, etc.

One of my many unfinished projects is to tear Shermer a new asshole, but I’ve only barely got started on him: [see my post] "Michael Shermer, Ayn Rand & other dreck."

But I was really incensed by Shermer’s editorial on Michael Richards, and wrote about it in [Freethought Forum] on 8 January:


“We’re all racists, unconsciously: Kramer just blurted out what unfortunately comes naturally to all of us.” By Michael Shermer, L.A. Times, November 24, 2006.,1,5226012.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

I’ve criticized Shermer as “philosopher” and political/social thinker in my blog. Stumbling on this old article, I find myself amazed that Shermer has the cheek to pronounce himself a scientific expert on matters such as these. He makes some remarkable extrapolations from these little experiments and declares, based on his expert knowledge of evolutionary theory, that the biases he lists are simply natural in-group out-group programming instilled in us by evolution. And that’s his explanation in toto.

This, from an alleged skeptic.

With friends like Shermer, Harris, and Dawkins to explain sociopolitical realities to the world in the name of science as childishly as they do, who needs enemies?


I’ve only got started on Shermer. He’s an ignorant asshole peddling pseudoscience to the public, and he’s symptomatic of just how small and narrow the secular humanist subculture in the USA tends to be.

Ralph Dumain said...

More on T.H. Huxley, 16 February 2007:

Huxley's historical purview is limited to the history of Christendom. (I'm guessing it would have been much harder to come by the history of non-European civilizations.) He beings with a review of the relation of Catholicism and then Protestantism to the progress of the sciences. He also discusses the tug of war between Biblical literalism and Church authority. He makes some interesting observations, but then he reveals himself to be a typical English bourgeois philistine with respect to the French Enlightenment. He is more perspicacious in his remarks on the practical displacement of supernaturalism by naturalism.

In the previous essay, “ON THE PHYSICAL BASIS OF LIFE”, Huxley wrestles with the nature of living matter, ultimately eschewing the vagaries of vitalism. (It looks like he’s struggling with the concept of emergent properties.)

Then, Huxley, though admitting he sounds like a materialist, declares himself in opposition to materialism, and curiously, to Comte’s positivism, which he dismisses as “Catholicism without Christianity”. Comte is just a johnny-come-lately who dresses up principles already put forward by Hume decades earlier. So what the is the difference between positivism and Humeanism? Not clear. Huxley then seems to gravitate back toward materialism, but then:

“For, after all, what do we know of this terrible “matter,” except as a name for the unknown and hypothetical cause of states of our own consciousness? And what do we know of that “spirit” over whose
threatened extinction by matter a great lamentation is arising, like
that which was heard at the death of Pan, except that it is also a name for an unknown and hypothetical cause, or condition, of states of consciousness? In other words, matter and spirit are but names for the imaginary substrata of groups of natural phænomena.”


“But, if it is certain that we can have no knowledge of the nature of
either matter or spirit, and that the notion of necessity is something illegitimately thrust into the perfectly legitimate conception of law, the materialistic position that there is nothing in the world but matter, force, and necessity, is as utterly devoid of justification as the most baseless of theological dogmas. The fundamental doctrines of materialism, like those of spiritualism, and most other “isms,” lie outside “the limits of philosophical inquiry,” and David Hume’s great service to humanity is his irrefragable demonstration of what these limits are. Hume called himself a sceptic and therefore others cannot be blamed if they apply the same title to him; but that does not alter the fact that the name, with its existing implications, does him gross injustice.”


“If we find that the ascertainment of the order of nature is facilitated by using one terminology, or one set of symbols, rather than another, it is
our clear duty to use the former; and no harm can accrue, so long as we bear in mind, that we are dealing merely with terms and symbols.”

And finally:

“In itself it is of little moment whether we express the phænomena of
matter in terms of spirit; or the phænomena of spirit in terms of
matter: matter may be regarded as a form of thought, thought may be
regarded as a property of matter—each statement has a certain relative truth. But with a view to the progress of science, the materialistic terminology is in every way to be preferred. For it connects thought with the other phænomena of the universe, and suggests inquiry into the nature of those physical conditions, or concomitants of thought, which
are more or less accessible to us, and a knowledge of which may, in future, help us to exercise the same kind of control over the world of thought, as we already possess in respect of the material world; whereas, the alternative, or spiritualistic, terminology is utterly barren, and leads to nothing but obscurity and confusion of ideas.

“Thus there can be little doubt, that the further science advances, the more extensively and consistently will all the phænomena of Nature be represented by materialistic formulæ and symbols.

“But the man of science, who, forgetting the limits of philosophical inquiry, slides from these formulæ and symbols into what is commonly understood by materialism, seems to me to place himself on a level with the mathematician, who should mistake the x’s and y’s with which he works his problems, for real entities—and with this further
disadvantage, as compared with the mathematician, that the blunders of
the latter are of no practical consequence, while the errors of
systematic materialism may paralyse the energies and destroy the beauty of a life.”

Philistine British empiricism down to the toenails! Just atrocious. No wonder Engels named this entire British tradition “shamefaced materialism”. It’s not only shamefaced, it’s shameful.

Ralph Dumain said...

My comment of 18 February 2007:

For further perspective on this general topic, and on the ideological background of T. H. Huxley's agnosticism, see my web page:

Engels on the British Ideology: Empiricism, Agnosticism, & “Shamefaced Materialism”

A related article by Engels written about the same time, addresses the flip side of positivism, the Romantic reaction. See:

Engels (& Borges) on Carlyle

Here you can see Engels’ criticism of the proto-fascist right-wing anti-capitalism of the 19th century, which will receive its highest exponent in Nietzsche.

Ralph Dumain said...

On 2 March 2007, a commentator recommended this essay:

David Papineau on "naturalism" at Stanford Encyclopedia,

Ralph Dumain said...

My response of 26 March 2007:

Please note on my newly reconstituted Emergence Blog the following entry:

Emergence: Theology or Materialism?

Roy Wood Sellars was in fact the author of the first Humanist Manifesto, as well as one of the important but sometimes neglected figures in classic American Philosophy.

Here I warn of the malignant influence of the John Templeton Foundation, which has millions of dollars at its disposal with which to inject theology into scientific research, as well as promote religious intellectualism in general.

Victor Stenger, in his new book God, the Failed Hypothesis, briefly calls attention to the obscurantist menace of holism, teleology, and the theological view of nonreductive physicalism.