Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Brights, Naturalism, and My Own Rebranding

I've recently become officially affiliated with the Brights movement, and as I was browsing through their site, and came upon the following in the FAQ:

Each person deciding whether to self-identify by the shared characteristic—a naturalistic worldview—has employed a personal understanding of the terminology (including supernatural and mystical) and of any brief elucidation elsewhere on the site. We see little need to reach a common understanding of these terms, or to explicate beyond what is provided on the home page. We anticipate that those individuals who joined the constituency employed for all these terms some understanding in general use that they personally find apt.

I joined the Brights in order to network with others who share my dedication to the (rather loose) ontological position of naturalism, which regular readers will know pervades much of my work. However, as a philosopher, their explicit disinterest in defining 'naturalism' makes my skin itch. I'd like, therefore, to make a post trying to (briefly) give a sketch of what 'naturalism' is, and what a 'naturalistic worldview' consists of. This is not an easy task; I've actually been trying to write this post for a few days now, and have discovered that naturalism, like pornography, suffers from the "I can't define it but I know it when I see it" syndrome. I suspect that it is for precisely this reason that the Brights are reluctant to try to pin a concrete definition on 'naturalism;' as authors of a relatively new movement, the Bright powers-that-be most likely want to avoid alienating any potential supporters with overly restrictive definitions. While I sympathize with this, it does seem to me that at least a solid working definition of a term so central to the movement should be sought.

It seems to me that the best way to define 'naturalism' is to contrast it to (the woefully more common) 'supernaturalism.' A supernaturalistic worldview is one which incorporates forces, entities, or concepts that are fundamentally (that is, by definition) outside the scope of natural science; any sort of theism obviously falls into this category. A God that is all-seeing and all-powerful, an immaterial soul that survives after bodily death, or a natural spirit that pervades the world and unites all living things are all examples of supernaturalistic constructs. The key here, again, is that each of them is by definition inaccessible to science; they're specifically and enthusiastically endorsed as things that fall outside the realm of physics.

Many people find these ideas--of Gods, souls, and spirits--appealing (even comforting), and are more than willing to hold onto them while cheerfully admitting that there is no scientific basis for accepting the truth of them. Brights (and others who hold naturalistic worldviews) do not. Naturalism, then, is perhaps best understood in opposition to supernaturalism: a Bright (or other naturalist) believes that we live in one and only one world (as opposed to a supernaturalist, who might believe that we've existed before in a 'spiritual dimension'), and that that world is composed entirely of physical particles (not physical particles plus souls).

Still, I'm not sure this definition is satisfactory. On the face of it, there are two characteristics about it that bother me: as presented here, it is defined negatively (which is part of the reason why I want to move away from the label 'atheist' in the first place...more on that later), and as presented here it seems to presume much about the world, and to leave little room for future ontological revolutions. I think both these problems can be addressed; let's start with the latter.

When I say "we live in one and only one world and that world is composed entirely (and only) of physical particles," it might be easy to misconstrue my statement as arrogant, if not hypocritical. Regular readers will no doubt be aware that I myself do not subscribe to any species of eliminative materialsim when it comes to consciousness--that is, I don't believe the common physicalist assertion that beliefs, desires, tickles, pains, and all the other mental states you and I experience every day are somehow illusory or don't exist: mental states are not ontologically reducible to brain states. My view on the mind/body problem is nuanced, and this isn't really the place to elucidate it fully, but I'd like to address the apparent contradiction here before I move on; I hope that in doing so, I can show that it is possible to be a Bright without being an eliminative materialist, and thus that the label "naturalistic" is sufficiently broad to accommodate major theoretical revolutions in the sciences.

When I say "mental states are not ontologically reducible to brain states," I don't mean to say that there is some "mental stuff" floating around in our heads, or that beliefs, desires, tickles, pains, and all those sorts of things have any kind of totally independent ontology--they don't exist as any kind of separate substance, and they certainly don't exist independently of the body. What I mean to say, rather, is that there are certain facts about reality that can only be intelligibly understood as higher level processes that result from low-level physical behavior. See emergentism. Again, this is not to say that these higher level processes exist independently from the lower level physical particles that cause them, only that one cannot understand the whole system by only looking at the low-level behavior of its constituent parts; properties of the system as a whole must be taken into account, and some of these properties may manifest behaviors that cannot be deduced from looking at the behavior of the individual particles. It is worth reiterating, though, that consciousness (as the prime example of an emergent property) is still causally reducible to physics and, though it has certain properties that its constituent particles do not have, is still essentially part of the physical world.

I'd like to move on now, though the above explanation will undoubtedly strike some as less than satisfactory; to them I can only advise patience, and suggest that they read some of the back posts on this blog, as this is a topic I've discussed more than once. For now, though, I'd like to address the other problem I had with the definition of 'naturalism' we came up with above: that it is essentially negative, and makes sense only in opposition to another term ('supernaturalism,' in this case). This isn't really a technical problem per se I suppose--the definition qua definition is at least adequate, but I think there are a few compelling reasons to try to frame it differently.

I've self-identified as an atheist roughly since I was 15 years old. I was raised Catholic-ish (my immediate family wasn't terribly devout, but my grandmother was hardcore Irish Catholic, and made sure we went to church at least intermittently, and insisted I get my Fist Communion), so I most certainly did buy into the whole supernaturalism thing at one point. However, in late middle school I developed an interest in analytic philosophy, which eventually lead me to Bertrand Russell's seminal essay "Why I am Not a Christian." He raises issues that I found myself unable to ignore, and over the period of a few years I drifted from Catholic to agnostic to committed atheist, the position which I maintained henceforth. However, it always bothered me that 'atheist' is, by its very etymology, a negative term. By this I do not mean that it has "bad" connotations, or that it is "negative" in the sense that your really pessimistic friend is a "negative person;" instead, I just mean that the word 'atheist' literally means "non-theist"--it is a definition by opposition. I didn't like identifying my own worldview in this fashion, and searched for some time for a positive term that I liked--eventually, I found Bright, which satisfies me.

I most certainly still consider myself an atheist--I don't believe that God (in virtually any common sense of the word) exists--but I think the term 'Bright' more accurately captures my broader metaphysical position. Though our discussion thus far has focused on defining 'Bright' in opposition to 'Super' (the Bright-invented neologism for someone who endorses supernaturalism), I think it is the wide-ranging positive metaphysical claims of the Bright movement that really attracted me to it, and so I'd like to take a moment to discuss them.

'Atheist' implies a rather narrow set of beliefs; Alonzo Fyfe over at The Atheist Ethicist is fond of comparing being an atheist to being a heliocentrist--it is simply a claim about a single aspect of the nature of the universe, and is not necessarily incompatible with a wide range of other beliefs; it is quite possible to be an atheist, yet still believe in ghosts, souls, reincarnation, and all sorts of other supernaturalism. 'Bright,' I think, covers more ground and makes a much stronger metaphysical claim than does 'atheist.' 'Bright' represents a rejection of supernaturalism broadly--that is, not just when it comes to deities--and, moreover, represents an acceptance of a set of positive beliefs.

If naturalism is true, then the universe is inherently comprehensible by humans. It operates according to a set of natural laws, laws which are (in principle) discoverable, knowable, and understandable by us. If naturalism is true, then we are responsible to no one but each other for our actions--there is no cosmic force waiting to reward us or punish us (either with Heaven/Hell, reincarnation, or anything else), so we better learn to get along all on our own. If naturalism is true, then the pursuit of concrete truth--through science and philosophy--is perhaps the highest calling a human can strive for. If naturalism is true, then even awe-inspiringly complex processes--such as consciousness--are legitimate targets of this investigation, and will likely one day be understood by humans. Perhaps most importantly, if naturalism is true then we as individuals and as a species cannot count on intervention--help or hindrance--from occult powers; we are our own ultimate authorities, and we must face our problems, passing or failing, succumbing or surviving, all on our own merits.

I find this rather inspiring.


Chelsea said...

I've never heard that term before. Your point about "atheist" being negative is interesting. Of course, I think that the negativity serves a certain purpose in that part of being an atheist is to firmly plant yourself in opposition to all things theistic. I would shy away from the term "Bright" in all but the most erudite of company because of my concern about being labeled as some sort of subscriber to a new-age-y movement (the term "naturalism" to the uninitiated conjures up all kinds of gaia-worshipping images). But then, you know me, I'm pretty satisfied having contradiction (or, at its basest, confrontation) be included in my identity.

Tom Clark said...


Good thoughts on naturalism, thanks. My preference would be for naturalists to self-describe as "naturalists", which has a long history of designating philosophical naturalists. “Brights” is off-putting to many who might otherwise be open to naturalism. But the horse is out of the barn.

Re defining naturalism, one way is to say it's the worldview you get if you stick with science as a way of deciding about the ultimate constituents of the world. Science necessarily unites what it shows to exist into a single realm, what we call nature. The ontology of that realm is whatever the best theories establish as existing, and we of course can't know in advance what that will be. The commitment to science is in turn justified by wanting the most reliable beliefs about the world, those based on intersubjective evidence. This way of defining naturalism is straightforward and positive, building on the widespread desire for reliable beliefs.

I'm not sure that if naturalism is true the world is necessarily comprehensible in toto, since there might be some questions forever beyond our grasp. But I agree with your other points, and would add that naturalism as a worldview has many deep and interesting implications for personal, social and existential concerns that the Center for Naturalism is in the business of exploring - check us out at and .

Meanwhile, good luck with your studies (the mind-body problem is the best puzzle out there) and thanks for your efforts to “meme” naturalism.


Tom Clark
Director, Center for Naturalism

Jon said...

Hey Tom,

Thanks so much for your comments! I'm a big fan of your organization, and you do great work there; keep it up. To address your points:

I'm reluctant to self-identify as a naturalist, if only for the reason that Chelsea articulated above--there is too much baggage already associated with the term, and I'd be nervous about what I might be (unintentionally) telling people about my beliefs. To the uninitiated, 'naturalism' might convey anything from "He's a member of Ducks Unlimited" to "He's a new age tree worshiper." 'Bright,' as a neologism, is free of this semantic baggage, and opens the door for conversation without preconceived notions.

I'm reluctant to define 'naturalism' solely in relation to the natural sciences, if only for the reason that it seems to be a kind of sliding down the slippery slope to circularity; it's hard to define 'science' without at one point saying something like "the academic discipline which investigates the natural world." In other words, it's the definition of "natural" that's the (tricky) lynch pin here, which is why I began by trying to define it in opposition.

Of course the world isn't necessarily comprehensible even if naturalism is true, but it is at least in principle comprehensible--that is, there aren't any forces that are by definition beyond the realm of human investigation.

Again, thanks for the comments, and I'll likely be dropping your organization a line; it sounds like a group with which I'd like to be involved.

Tom Clark said...

I think you can define science without recourse to mentioning nature, since after all it's a method of inquiry, not an ontology. The natural- supernatural distinction doesn't have to be invoked to do science, at least that's what I argue at . So I don't think that there's a circularity here.

Re semantic baggage, disambiguating "naturalism" and "naturalist" for those unfamiliar with the terms can be done in 2 seconds: just say "naturalism as opposed to supernaturalism" and "naturalist as opposed to supernaturalist." People get this instantly. But "Bright" always brings up the superiority connotation, which is a big stumbling block in recruitment, imho. But this disagreement is merely tactical.

Very glad to have discovered you, and I look forward to working together.