Theology and Naturalism

Charles Taliaferro

Historically and today, the movement of naturalism affirms the reality of the natural world, rejecting religious views of God, the soul, and values when these are understood to be supernatural or transcending the natural world. There are two forms of naturalism. According to scientific naturalism, what exists is ultimately describable and explainable by the natural sciences (physics, biology, chemistry). More liberal, expansive forms of naturalism allow for the social sciences, nonreductive views of the self, and values. Scientific naturalism faces substantial philosophical objections. More expansive forms of naturalism have been more philosophically resilient and been more hospitable to theological developments, even (according to some) allowing for a non-supernatural form of theism. Theological responses to both forms of naturalism have ranged from a defence of non-naturalist religious ideas to the appropriation of some forms of naturalism, including what is referred to as religious naturalism.

1 Introduction

According to the philosophical tradition of naturalism, there are only natural objects and events as opposed to supernatural beings (God, immaterial souls, angels and demons, ghosts, and so on). Those in the naturalist tradition favour scientific, empirical inquiry and shun what they deem pseudo-science such as phrenology and astrology, the appeal to intuition, magic and occult, scientifically suspect paranormal powers such as telepathy, prophecy, and precognition. While naturalism has recently been aligned with religious responses to the natural world (reverence, awe, and wonder about nature) in what is often called religious naturalism, with some philosophers seeking to accommodate theism and naturalism (Ellis 2014), historically naturalism in Western philosophy has opposed traditional religious belief and practice, especially in the Abrahamic traditions (Nielsen 2001; Kim 2003; Flanagan 2008; Oppy 2018).

Forms of naturalism may be found in the ancient world (for example, the Roman Epicurean Lucretius). Medieval thinkers wrestled with what we now refer to as naturalism in their encounter with the work of Aristotle. Although Aristotle bolstered a philosophical case for the existence of a transcendent God as the ultimate source of motion, this was not the God of Abrahamic faiths (Aristotle’s God does not know, love, and exercise provident care for persons and the cosmos). Moreover, Aristotle’s anthropology and view of nonhuman animals rejected a Platonic account of the soul as an immaterial substance. In the early modern era, naturalism is apparent in the work of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. While there is reason to think that Hobbes was a theist, he viewed God as material, and Spinoza’s God is non-supernatural, a non-purposive and impersonal reality, identical with nature (ultimate reality is Deus sive Natura; essentially, ‘God’ and ‘nature’ are interchangeable). Like most naturalists, Spinoza denied the reality of miracles (special acts of a supernatural God), libertarian (non-deterministic) freedom, and the existence of the soul, a personal, individual subject who can survive the death of the body (Spinoza 1951).

Among the first English-language philosophical works in the modern era (earlier work in the West was mainly in Greek or Latin), an important theological response to naturalism was in the form of philosophical criticism. Although the term ‘naturalism’ was not introduced until the eighteenth century, seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonists such as Ralph Cudworth and Henry More offered a robust philosophical case for theism in opposition to the naturalism of Hobbes and Spinoza, and what they saw as secular, atheistic, deterministic materialism in the history of philosophy. The Cambridge Platonists advanced a natural theology as an antidote to atheism (the title of one of More’s popular books).

In the history of ideas, the Cambridge Platonists made an important philosophical contribution at the waning of medieval scholasticism and the rise of modern science. Departing from the scholastics, they preferred the metaphysics and values of Plato, Plotinus, and Origen to Aristotle and Aquinas, and while they welcomed modern science they insisted on non-reductive, Platonic views of consciousness, persons or souls, and eternal values (the good, the true, and the beautiful). It is from the Cambridge Platonists that we inherit many of the terms used in contemporary philosophy of religion (see Christian Theology of Religions), such as the terms ‘philosophy of religion’, ‘theism’, ‘consciousness’, and so on (for a detailed study of Christian Platonism and its dialogue – one might well call it warfare – with naturalism, see Hampton and Kenney 2021; see also Hutton 2015 for Cambridge Platonism versus naturalism in the seventeenth century).

In the modern era, naturalism received support philosophically from different British and European philosophers (for example, David Hume, albeit he seems to have retained a thin form of theism, French Encyclopaedists like the atheist Denis Diderot, and the bold, unequivocal atheist Ludwig Feuerbach) and scientists (Charles Darwin who, like Hume, adhered to an attenuated, non-Christian theism but who promoted a thoroughly non-supernatural account of the origin of species, including human beings). At the same time, there were theistic counterparts, including the philosopher Thomas Reid and Joseph Butler and the co-discoverer of evolution with Darwin, Alfred Wallace. However, the debate between naturalism and its most prominent religious or theological rival, Christian theism, took centre stage especially after the Second World War (for an overview of this history, see Taliaferro 2005).

This entry focusses on naturalism and theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Barry Stroud aptly summarizes the recent popularity of naturalism, alongside of different disputes about its nature:

‘Naturalism’ seems to me in this and other respects rather like ‘World Peace.’ Almost everyone swears allegiance to it, and is willing to march under its banner. But disputes can still break out about what it is appropriate or acceptable to do in the name of that slogan. And like world peace, once you start specifying concretely exactly what it involves and how to achieve it, it becomes increasingly difficult to reach and to sustain a consistent and exclusive ‘naturalism.’ There is pressure on the one hand to include more and more within your conception of ‘nature,’ so it loses its definiteness and restrictiveness. Or, if the conception is kept fixed and restrictive, there is pressure on the other hand to distort or even deny the very phenomena that a naturalistic study—and especially a naturalist study of human beings—is supposed to explain. (Stroud 1996: 43–44)

This entry explores different forms of naturalism, those that are restrictive and those that are more liberal. There are three sections: scientific naturalism and theology; expansive naturalism and theology; and theology beyond the naturalism versus theism philosophical debate. In the third section, along with panpsychism and religious pluralism, this entry will include the aesthetic dimension to the choice between naturalism and some non-naturalist religious alternative, but this entry will not address ‘naturalism’ as a technical term in the history of art. In art history, the visual and literary arts are often considered naturalistic when they depict the world in representational, realistic and factual terms, as opposed to depicting myths, magical or fantastic creatures, portraits of heaven, hell and other domains of the afterlife, fairy tales, and the like. Philosophical naturalists today might favour naturalism in the arts, but they certainly may not; you do not have to abandon philosophical naturalism if you love non-representational, abstract art, or the work of Dante, Tolkien, or Rowling.

As we shall see, different forms of naturalism will have different implications for theology, and the nature and practice of religion. The complete rejection in the name of naturalism of theism, miracles, the soul, and an afterlife, will lead either to rejecting traditional views of scripture, prayer and liturgy, or to their radical reinterpretation (or demythologizing, to use a phrase from Rudolf Bultmann 1960). But we shall be noting, too, the way some philosophers have sought to embrace an expanded version of naturalism with theism (Ellis 2014). If the later course is taken, there may be significant theological reform but not as seismic as we see in versions of atheistic Christianity (for example, in the theology of Gordon Kaufman 1972).

2 Scientific naturalism and theology

Since the mid-twentieth century, what is commonly known as scientific naturalism holds that there are only natural things and events (Flanagan 2008). Most importantly, scientific naturalists propose that what is natural is that which can be described and explained by the natural sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology (interestingly, the scope of the natural sciences is less restrictive in some non-English languages that would include history and medicine as sciences). Aware of the likelihood of scientific revolutions in which current science may be subject to substantial revisions, many scientific naturalists appeal to what will be the results of future, complete, or ideal findings of the natural sciences, assuming that there could, in principle, be such a complete, ideal state and that it would not include the positing of any supernatural beings. These two assumptions have been challenged, but they have rarely been widely regarded as deep flaws in scientific naturalism.

On the first point, scientific naturalism has been challenged by scientific instrumentalism, the view that science is chiefly concerned with prediction and control rather than reaching some ideal view on what there is. Instrumentalism might ease tension between scientific and religious claims about reality (indeed, it was employed in an effort to defuse the tension between heliocentric and geocentric scientific theories in the early seventeenth century). Robert Koons aptly notes:

[The typical] defense of naturalism presupposes a version of scientific realism: unless science provides us with objective truth about reality, it has no authority to dictate to us the form which our philosophical ontology and metaphysics must take. Science construed as mere instrument for manipulating experience, or merely as an autonomous construction of our society, without reference to our reality, tells us nothing about what kinds of things really exist and act. (Koons 2000: 49)

While this may be true, success in terms of scientific prediction and control has often been seen as based on (increasingly) accurate views of reality. Yes, the idea that the physical world is matter needed to be expanded to include energy, atomic theory needed to recognize sub-atomic particles, but such expanded views of the physical, including the atomic world, appear to be more accurate than previous models. Arguably, scientific realism is the best explanation of scientific progress (Putnam 1975). Still, instrumentalism or anti-realism persists in philosophy of science, so this is not a matter of a full consensus in the philosophical literature. While realists have accused their anti-realist challengers as believing in miracles (to critics, it would seem to be like a miracle that science would be so successful unless it was getting closer to reality), anti-realists accuse realists of underestimating (or ignoring) how so-called ‘objective’ scientific facts reflect shifting cultural assumptions (sometimes prejudices).

As for whether future science may posit supernatural agency, it has been argued that past cases in which God has been posited to account for natural phenomena have yielded to explanations by natural causes: the emergence of order from chaos; the emergence of life from non-life; the orbital pattern of planets; gaps in the fossil record linking humans with other mammals; the recovery from diseases that have at first appeared to be miracles. In one of his popular essays, provocatively entitled ‘An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish’, Bertrand Russell writes:

Throughout the last four hundred years, during which the growth of science has gradually shown men how to acquire knowledge of the ways of nature and mastery over natural forces, the clergy have fought a losing battle against science, in astronomy and geology, in anatomy and physiology, in biology and psychology and sociology. Ousted from one position, they have taken up another. After being worsted in astronomy, they did their best to prevent the rise of geology; they fought against Darwin in biology, and at the present time they fight against scientific theories of psychology and education. At each stage, they try to make the public forget their earlier obscurantism, in order that their present obscurantism may not be recognized for what it is. (Russell 2009: 47)

Russell may be overlooking how religious traditions have welcomed scientific advances; this has been the case for modern Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist philosophers, as well as for Christians, for example, theistic evolution, the use of Big Bang cosmology in theistic cosmological arguments, and the ways in which many, but not all Christians have accommodated biblical historical criticism. Still, Russell has captured the spirit of those naturalists who see the success of the natural sciences as reducing the plausibility of at least theistic religious claims. True, it may well still seem baffling how our cosmos formed around 14 billion years ago from dust and gas and come to have formed suns and planets, making up an estimated 100 to 200 billion galaxies, but shouldn’t we trust the answer will ultimately not involve a supernatural agent? Doesn’t the latter seem unduly anthropomorphic? Afterall, as Russell observed, other appeals to a ‘God of the gaps’ seem obviated over time. We will return to this matter below. Some efforts to avoid theism seem quite extravagant. There has also been the worry that in its effort to not leave any gaps in its account of the physical world, scientific naturalism may undermine substantial, common-sense convictions about human agency, including free will and the very existence of consciousness.

Scientific naturalists often juxtapose what the American twentieth-century philosopher Wilfrid Sellars called the ‘scientific image’ from ‘the manifest image’, namely, the world as it appears in our common experience.

In ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’, Sellars famously wrote this about the scientific image or point of view: ‘In the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not’ (Sellars 1956: 83). Scientific naturalists allow items from the manifest image (consciousness, beliefs, and desires, for example) if they can be reduced or identified with items in the scientific image (for example, consciousness is a brain state or a function of neural activity). If reduction or identity are not plausible, some naturalists adopt an error theory according to which consciousness and other phenomena do not exist or the concepts of consciousness, beliefs, desire, and so on are of practical utility but not a reliable guide to what actually exists (Dennett 1987).

Scientific naturalism is frequently described as upholding a third-person point of view, one that avoids or subordinates claims of individual, first-person subjectivity (Dennett 1991). This is a radical departure from the certitude of self-awareness in the West as exemplified in the Cogito of Descartes and, earlier, in Augustine’s reply to radical scepticism through his affirmation of the indisputable cognitive access each of us has to our own selves and experience. But after the Second World War, various forms of behaviourism were advanced as more reliable, objective or scientific (and thus subject to experimentation and confirmation) accounts of human and nonhuman animal life, rather than their Cartesian forebearers. Behaviourism seeks to analyse the mental (references to thoughts, emotions, intentions) in terms of actual and dispositional bodily movements (including speech). It is directly in opposition to theologies that stress individual, interior subjectivity (as in Søren Kierkegaard). For a critical response to behaviourism, see Galen Strawson (2017); for a careful response to the behaviouristic elements in work by Gilbert Ryle, see H. D. Lewis (1969, chapters one and two).

Scientific naturalism is commonly physicalistic: all objects and events are physical (Armstrong 1978). Here is a representative position, advanced by Daniel Dennett:

There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of physics and chemistry, and physiology – and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short: the mind is the brain [...] We can (in principle) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principle, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition and growth. (Dennett 1991: 3)

According to Dennett and many other naturalists, to countenance dualism, according to which reasons and desires are non-physical, causal components in explaining material phenomena would be anti-scientific. This is because it is commonplace to regard non-physicalist, dualist interaction as scientifically inscrutable; science either has not or cannot explain how a physical body interacts with a non-physical mind or soul. Physicalism also seems to be secured if one accepts the principle of the causal closure of the physical world, the idea that every physical event that occurs has a sufficient physical cause. On this view, any appeal to non-physical causes is either a matter of over-determination and thus unnecessary (eliminable in light of Ockham’s razor) or epiphenomenal (the supposed non-physical causes are not actually causes but products of the actual causes). Here is David Papineau on the exclusion of any causes going beyond the physical sciences:

When I say that a complete physics excludes psychology, and that psychological antecedents are therefore never needed to explain physical effects, the emphasis here is on ‘needed’. I am quite happy to allow that psychological categories can be used to explain physical effects, as when I tell you that my arm rose because I wanted to lift it. My claim is only that in all such cases an alternative specification of a sufficient antecedent, which does not mention psychological categories, will also be available. (Papineau 1993: 81)

Another famous naturalist, Jaegwon Kim offers a similar insistence on the completeness of explanations not going beyond the physical sciences:

[T]o abandon the physical causal closure is to retrogress to the Cartesian picture that does not allow, even in principle, a complete and comprehensive physical theory of the physical world. On the Cartesian dualist model, any theory that gives full coverage of the physical would have to invoke nonphysical causal agents. This is something that no serious physicalist will find palatable. (Kim 1995: 232–233)

We shall return to assess these claims below.

Scientific naturalism has fostered movements in epistemology and ethics. In epistemology, naturalists have asserted that the natural sciences can serve as their own foundation or justification, and are in need of no other, independent philosophical foundation. If we want to study the nature of perception, let us look to the retinal system, the visual cortex, the processing of visual information, electrophysiology, and so on. There is no need (and no point), according to this view, to engaging in dialogue with radical sceptics. Here is the famous statement of epistemology naturalized by W. V. O. Quine:

Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded a certain experimentally controlled input—certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance—and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the three-dimensional external world and its history. The relation between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology: namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one’s theory of nature transcends any available evidence […] But a conspicuous difference between old epistemology and the epistemological enterprise in this new psychological setting is that we can now make free use of empirical psychology. (Quine 1969: 82–83)

As some critics have pointed out, Quine seems to leave the door more open for older style epistemology than he may have intended, but followers of Quine have sought to supplant older epistemology with the findings of the empirical sciences.

Naturalist approaches to ethics have been various. John Stuart Mill famously sought to identify that which is good as a natural state: pleasure or happiness. Historically, this was widely objected to on the grounds that one can meaningfully ask whether pleasure is good, whereas it does not make sense to ask whether pleasure is pleasure. According to G. E. Moore, this indicates that goodness should not be analysed as pleasure or any other natural state (Moore 1903).

Some naturalists have analysed evaluative judgements in terms of first-person desires: to say that police treatment of Black men is unjust is to claim that the speaker disapproves (loathes or is revolted by) by the police treatment of Black men. Over the years, naturalists have modified this simple account in various ways. For example, to claim that police treatment of Black men is unjust is to claim that the speaker holds that all those fully informed by police action would or should condemn its treatment of Black men. Some naturalists, like J. L. Mackie have advanced an outright error theory, according to which the ethical judgments that some acts are right or wrong are mistaken; there are no objective, real moral properties. In Mackie’s terms, moral properties are ‘queer’ versus the natural properties of persons and events (Mackie 1977).

The remainder of the section considers some theological responses to scientific naturalism, followed by three philosophical objections that have led both theologians and philosophers to explore a more expansive form of naturalism.

2.1 Theological responses

There have been many theological responses to scientific naturalism.

One theological response to scientific naturalism involves what appears to be a concession: grant that scientific naturalism is a true depiction of reality and adopt some form of non-realism or non-cognitivism, according to which religious life and discourse is not in the business of making claims about the truth of what there is (ontology). Perhaps religious life is its own form of life with its own, non-scientific approach to life’s meaning. This option has been inspired by the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, especially as developed by D. Z. Phillips. While Phillips had no use for metaphysical theism, he did not self-identify as an atheist (Phillips 1976). Non-cognitive approaches to religious language may be seen in at least one theological response to logical positivism: the work of R. M. Hare. Gordon Kaufman adopted a view like Hare’s, but with an unequivocal atheism, despite his contention that there are social and moral reasons why we should retain theistic, religious language (Kaufman 1995).

Some form of fideism in response to naturalism has also been an option, according to which religious truth-claims can have integrity and warrant notwithstanding their independence from what scientific naturalists deem the sole (not just the best) method for the study of reality (see Bishop 2007). Some argue that religious experience has evidential value even if such evidence is not within the purview of the natural sciences. Granted, if God (or Brahman or the Dao) were physical, then the physical sciences would be of tantamount theological importance, but God is not like an animal or planet, galaxy, and so on. The notion that religion and science take up two distinct domains is part of the position adopted by the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine (NASIM; now the National Academy of Medicine) statement on the relationship between science and religion:

Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist. (National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine 2008: 12)

Another response to scientific naturalism, rooted in theological tradition, needs recognition: the affirmation that God is to be understood as Being itself, rather than as a being. God qua Being transcends the distinction between physical and non-physical beings, whether finite or infinite. This position may gain some support from an interpretation of Thomas Aquinas (by Brian Davies, among others) that stresses a reverential agnosticism about God's intrinsic nature (see Davies 2011). This theology often appeals to an apophatic approach to God (the via negativa) rather than the more cataphatic (via positiva) approach of analytical theistic philosophical approaches to the divine attribute and nature.

There is also the theological and philosophical response to scientific naturalism that is in the tradition of seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonism: critique.

2.2 Philosophical responses

Scientific naturalism faces many objections today by philosophers as well as theologians. Consider three objections: (1) the evident nature of first-person experience; (2) problems facing physicalism and the causal closure of the physical world; and (3) problems facing the naturalistic treatment of ethics and epistemology.

2.2.1 The evident nature of first-person experience

Consider the claim that scientific naturalism fails to subordinate or eliminate subjective, first-person experiences (Fumerton 2013; Robinson 2016). How is recognizing the third-person point of view of science possible without recognizing the reality and reliability of the first-person point of view? For there to be science, there needs to be scientists – persons who appear to be conscious, thinking, observing, reasoning subjects whose experiences include testing and comparing hypotheses, and so on. Those seeking to eliminate consciousness risk denying what seems evident in all waking life (our ostensible conscious awareness of ourselves and the world), as well as undermining the very practice of science itself. As Roger Trigg observes: ‘Any scientific investigation must have a scientist as the subject of any knowledge’ (Trigg 2015: 134; see also Strawson 2017; on the difficulty of avoiding an implicit dualism in the practice of science, see Antonietti 2008; Manzotti and Moderato 2014).

Some critics of scientific naturalism contend (with some plausibility) that its third-person point of view cannot accommodate a simple, evident fact involving self-identity. A third-person account of the cosmos might be given but it will not include the fact that (for example) I am Charles Taliaferro (CT). We might know all about CT (birth, death, writing, love-life) without knowing whether you or I are CT (imagine we have a peculiar form of amnesia; see Baker 2013 for a sustained development of this challenge to naturalism.)

A second, related problem involving subjective experience concerns the physical elusiveness of the mental. If consciousness is a brain state, why is it that the observation and study of brain states is not the very same thing as the observation and study of consciousness? True, one may know that, for example, the robber of a bank was a masked man and not know the masked man was your father, but if the masked man is indeed your father, to see one is to see the other; just take off the mask and look. But there is no analogous removing of a mask in which one sees thoughts as brain processes. We seem to know that a brain process is correlated with a subject thinking about Nantucket only because of a subject’s report on their subjective experience. And correlation is not the same as identity, as Michael Lockwood remarks.

Let me begin by nailing my colours to the mast. I count myself a materialist, in the sense that I take consciousness to be a species of brain activity. Having said that, however, it seems to me evident that no description of brain activity of the relevant kind, couched in the currently available languages of physics, physiology, or functional or computational roles, is remotely capable of capturing what is distinctive about consciousness. So glaring, indeed, are the shortcomings of all the reductive programmes currently on offer, that I cannot believe that anyone with a philosophical training, looking dispassionately at these programmes, would take any of them seriously for a moment, were it not for a deep-seated conviction that current physical science has essentially got reality taped, and accordingly, something along the lines of what the reductionists are offering must be correct. To that extent, the very existence of consciousness seems to me to be a standing demonstration of the explanatory limitations of contemporary physical science. On the assumption that some form of materialism is nevertheless true, we have only to introspect in order to recognize that our present understanding of matter is itself radically deficient. Consciousness remains for us, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, what it was for Newton at the dawn of the eighteenth century: an occult power that lies beyond the pool of illumination that physical theory casts on the world we inhabit. (Lockwood 2003: 447, original emphasis; see also Lowe 1995)

For an extensive treatment of the problems facing the identity of the mental and the physical, see Howard Robinson’s From the Knowledge Argument to Mental Substance (2016). Robinson points out how the challenge of identifying the mental with brain states leads many physicalists to denying the existence of the mental and even denying the existence of consciousness itself (see Blackmore 2006).

2.2.2 Problems facing physicalism and the causal closure principle

It has been objected that the causal explanation of reasoning requires that explanations go beyond what is (standardly recognized as) physical. When someone is asked what is the smallest perfect number and they answer 6, a full, satisfactory explanation would have to include the fact that the subject realizes that 6 is the smallest number equal to the sum of its divisors including 1, but not including itself (1+2+3=6). Many (but not all) philosophers recognize that such mathematical truths are nonphysical abstract objects, not physical things or processes. Arguably, reasoning involving necessary truths (the law of identity or that A is A) resist reduction to the contingent (non-necessary) ways in which our brains function. We reason (correctly) that objects are self-identical (apples are apples), not because of neural events alone or because we observe that every object is itself (every apple is an apple), but in virtue of presupposing (or having an implicit awareness of the truth of) the law of identity (A is A or, if A exists, then A exists). On the indispensable role of mental reasoning as an objection to scientific naturalism, see Angus Menuge (2004), Goetz (2013), and Taliaferro (2015).

The evident, essential reliability of our reasoning also raises an objection to a common assumption among scientific naturalists; namely, that we have a clearer understanding of mind-independent causal relations (radiation, photosynthesis, continental drift) than we do of mental causation (how our thoughts, intentions, and desires bring about other thoughts and physical events). What is forgotten is that there could be no grasp of mind-independent causation without recognizing the reality and power of mental causation; one requires subjects to have the concepts of radiation, and so on, the awareness of the truth that if there is radiation, there is radiation, the concepts of cause and effect (or good and bad explanations), and so on. Without our confidence in mental causation, we could form no idea of any kind of mind-independent causation, let alone grasp what might be meant by the causal closure of the physical world.

It has been objected that the insistence by Papineau and Kim on the causal closure of the physical world is based on an over-confident understanding of the nature and scope of mind-independent causal relations (see Foster 1996; Lowe 2003). Arguably, we have a clearer grasp of mental-to-mental causation (or, if you will, explanations) and even mind-body interaction than we have of mind-independent causation. Recall Papineau’s claim, cited earlier:

I am quite happy to allow that psychological categories can be used to explain physical effects, as when I tell you that my arm rose because I wanted to lift it. My claim is only that in all such cases an alternative specification of a sufficient antecedent, which does not mention psychological categories, will also be available. (Papineau 1993: 81)

The problem with this happiness is that our confident reasoning rests on believing that psychological reasoning (1+2+3=6) is genuinely explanatory; one concludes 6 is the sum because of (in virtue of) seeing that it is equal to 1+2+3. Raymond Tallis properly argues that all our reasoning, including our reasoning in practicing science, takes place on our relying on the genuine explanatory power of reasoning itself, not on the activity of non-psychological micro-particles and events. If we employ physics in everyday life it is in the manifest image or the world of ‘folk physics’, not in term of non-mental quantum activity.

While the conviction that fundamental physics is the last word on what-is and that the ‘in-itself’ of nature is sub-atomic dies hard because of the astonishing power of physics to predict, and to help us manipulate the world according to our wishes, it is, however, important to acknowledge that that power is not a stand-alone power. The microphysics in the electronic devices that have transformed our lives and vastly extended our capacity operates only in a world of macroscopic objects. What is more, the rules that apply in everyday life are those of macroscopic items and interactions – my lifting a hammer, a bus travelling along a road, a person hearing another person – that lie beyond the weird world of quantum physics or indeed reality. Folk physics is the overwhelmingly, wall-to-wall, dawn-to-dusk reality of daily life. The special power brought to us courtesy of the application of quantum physic are only applied in macroscopic localities. What is going on in the circuity of my mobile phone deliver my conversation with you in virtue of being active in a macroscopic phone, held in my macroscopic hand, as I am sitting in my macroscopic room, standing on a macroscopic floor [...] all subject to classical folk physics. (Tallis 2021: 179–180, original emphasis)

If Tallis is right, then we should not regard mental-to-mental reasoning as something mysterious, paling in comparison with the lucidity of purely non-psychological factors.

In an historical reconstruction of the ‘mystery’ of mind-body interaction, of great contemporary interest, Daniel Garber proposes that Descartes treats the evident fact of mind-body interaction as a paradigm case of explanation:

For Descartes, mind-body interaction is the paradigm for all explanation, it is that in terms of which all other causal interaction must be understood […] Mind-body interaction must be basic and intelligible in its own terms since if it were not, then no other kind of causal explanation would be intelligible at all; to challenge the intelligibility of mind-body interaction is to challenge the entire enterprise of causal explanation. Furthermore, we cannot give a simpler or more easily understood account of causal interaction than mind-body interaction because there are no more basic or more inherently intelligible ways of explaining the behavior of anything open to us. (Garber 2013: 50–51; original emphasis)

2.2.3 Challenges for naturalistic ethics and epistemology

It has been widely objected that naturalism cannot account for what appears to be the normativity of value and epistemic judgements. On ethics, we seem to have little trouble imagining that speakers may sincerely judge that all sorts of acts are just or unjust and be wrong. Some forms of naturalism appear to lead to the conclusion that a thoroughgoing, consistent pathological racist may have no reason to abandon their racism. As for whether moral properties appear to be ‘queer’ versus natural properties, it has been argued that consistent naturalists should find epistemic properties equally queer. Arguably, naturalized epistemology cannot forgo the appeal to what is justified or warranted, evident or worthy of belief, and if we are to allow for such evaluative properties, why not allow for just and unjust acts, that which is ethically warranted or unwarranted, and so on. J. L. Mackie adopted error theory when it comes to evaluative moral properties, but he retained a robust commitment to normative epistemic properties when it came to his sustained arguments that belief in theism is unjustified.

Quine’s insistence on the primacy of the natural sciences seems not just to beg the question against non-materialist (non-behaviouristic) views of persons, but to rule out in principle what appear to be legitimate sceptical hypotheses. We have little difficulty imagining that we are subject to systematic illusions (as in the popular 1999 science fiction film The Matrix), or that what appear to be fully conscious other persons are zombies (Chalmers 1996), and so on.

For the above and other reasons, many philosophers as well as theologians have come to reject scientific naturalism. For further evaluation and critique, see Naturalism; A Critical Analysis edited by W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland (2000) and Naturalism by Goetz and Taliaferro (2008).

3 Expansive naturalism and theology

For over the past thirty years, philosophers and theologians distinguished scientific naturalism (sometimes referred to as a form of naturalism that is strict, narrow, scientistic, or even Puritanical) from a naturalism that is broad, liberal, common-sensical, expansive, or open-minded. Those adopting more liberal forms of naturalism are united by their rejection of scientific naturalism; they often accept the findings of the social sciences (moving beyond the natural sciences to include psychology and history), the reality of consciousness, non-reductive views of persons, and, in many cases, the objectivity of evaluative features of reality (good and evil, right and wrong, and even beauty and ugliness). Myriad examples of such liberal naturalists, each of whom reject scientific naturalism, can be found in work by Hilary Putnam (2016), David Wiggins, John McDowell, John Searle, John Dupré (2010), Mario De Caro and David Macarthur (2004), among many others. See especially Akeel Bilgrami’s ‘The Wider Significance of Naturalism’ (2010) and Barry Stroud’s ‘The Physical World’ (1987).

While advocates of a more expansive naturalism have been more permissive ontologically, they seem more explicit than ever about rejecting the supernatural. This is even true for someone like John Dupré who rejects the monism of scientific naturalism:

Monism is surely not grounded on empiricism. For one thing, if it were, there would be no need of the vast amounts of work expended in the elaboration of eliminativist, instrumentalist, and supervenientist theses designed to explain the empirical failures of monism. More simply, our empirical experience of nature is, on its face, an experience of a huge diversity of kinds of things with an even huger diversity of properties and causal capacities. Some of these properties are open to causal inspection; others require careful […] scientific investigation. Neither causal experience nor detailed investigation suggest that all these properties are best understood through attention to the physical stuff of which things are made. The advance of science does indeed lend credence to the view that we do not [dare] to appeal to supernatural things in explaining phenomena. One variety of supernatural things are those that are made out of non-physical stuff, like angels or Cartesian minds. So, we may allow that naturalism commits us to the monism that insists that all stuff is material, even physical, stuff. The corollary that insight into the properties of stuff holds the key to understanding the properties and behavior of all those diverse things that are made of that stuff is another matter altogether. And this indeed is the kind of doctrine that suggests the attribution of supernatural powers to physical stuff in a way wholly inimical to naturalism. (Dupré 2010: 55)

Mario De Caro shares such an anti-supernatural stance:

What makes Scientific Naturalism and Liberal Naturalism both versions of naturalism is that neither countenances the supernatural, whether in the form of entities (such as God, spirits, entelechies, or Cartesian minds), events (such as miracles or magic), or epistemic faculties (such as mystical insight or spiritual intuition). The importance of this for the philosophical approach to normativity is that any form of naturalism will be opposed to Platonism about norms, where this is understood as the view that normative facts hold wholly independently of human practices (say, of reason giving) and are, as it were, simply there anyway waiting to be discovered. For similar reasons it will be opposed to a Moorean non-naturalism that holds that our access to normative facts is by way of a sui generis epistemic faculty of intuition directed at just this kind of fact. And of course, it will be opposed to any theistic foundation for normative facts or our access to them. (De Caro 2014: 3)

Liberal naturalism receives some support from what is called methodological naturalism, according to which scientific inquiry (should) assume a naturalistic framework. Answers to questions about events (whether exclusively physical or not) should not include the causal role (or efficacy) of angels, ghosts, God, and so on. Methodological naturalism is sometimes advanced as metaphysically neutral in terms of the truth of naturalism, but it does involve the assumption that non-naturalistic phenomena are not relevant for scientific explanations of what there is.

There are multiple theological responses to liberal forms of naturalism. These have included an argument that once naturalism is sufficiently expansive it is compatible with a non-supernatural form of theism, for example Paul Tillich’s notion of God as the ground of being (Tillich 1951). The British philosopher Fiona Ellis is the best-known advocate of this position. She has argued that even notions of the good by Iris Murdoch may align with a form of theism that is compatible with liberal naturalism (Ellis 2020). Ellis argues in a sustained way that while scientific naturalism has no welcome place for theology, the same is not the case for expansive naturalism. She writes of a theologian not wedded to traditional supernaturalism:

Our theologian agrees that there are impoverished conceptions of philosophy, and that such conceptions lead to an impoverishment of self and world. He believes, however, that philosophy is enriched by theology, and that our being is enriched to the extent that we are inwardly transformed by God […] It will be difficult to appreciate, and perhaps impossible for the kind of philosopher who remains locked within the parameters of scientific naturalism. However, the expansive naturalist has escaped these parameters, and, to the extent that he shares at least some of the aspirations of the theologian, he may come to see that the theological reasoning makes some kind of sense, and that there is significant common ground to their respective endeavours. At this point, and in the spirit of his expansive naturalist approach, he may be persuaded to enter into dialogue with the theologian. If my conclusions are justified [in the book God, Value, and Nature] then he can forsake such a task only at the risk of compromising his insights and robbing theology of a fundamental philosophical resource. After all, he offers the prospects for demonstrating that belief in God is intellectually respectable, and that this conclusion can be appreciated by those who have taken on board the lessons of the best naturalist philosophy of our time. It is at this point, I would contend, that we truly combine the wisdom of Plato and the sanity of Aristotle. (Ellis 2014: 203–204; original emphasis)

This last line recalls the outset of this entry and the Cambridge Platonist preference for Plato over Aristotle; if Ellis is right, there may be a middle path.

Another theological option is to adopt some form of theological emergentism. This was introduced by Samuel Alexander in Space, Time, and Deity (1920), a book based on his 1916–1918 Gifford lectures. Alexander advanced a cosmological, theological evolution.

Within the all-embracing stuff of Space-Time, the universe exhibits an emergence in Time of successive levels of finite existences, each with its characteristic empirical quality. The highest of these empirical qualities known to us is mind or consciousness. Deity is the next higher empirical quality to the highest we know. (Alexander 1920: 345)

Alexander’s God is not the God of theism (or supernaturalism), but an ideal state of being or quality: ‘God is the whole world as possessing the quality of deity’ (1920: 353). This attainment of deity is something ideal to which we may contribute; ‘this possessor of deity is not actual but ideal […] As an actual existent, God is the infinite world with its nisus towards deity’ (1920: 353). According to Alexander, we may participate in the evolution of God. ‘[I]t is religion to do our duty with the consciousness of helping to create [God’s] deity’ (1920: 299).

Other advocates of theological emergence include Philip Clayton (2004). Process philosophy and theology purport to renounce supernaturalism in favour of a combination of non-interventionist theism and non-reductive naturalism (Griffin 2004). Mark Johnston’s Saving God (2009) rejects traditional theism in place of a naturalistic, Spinozist concept of the divine. Gordon Kaufman’s theological naturalism comes close to secular naturalism but avoids the reductionism of Peter Atkins because he accepts the emergence of meaning and values (Kaufman 2003: 96).

Methodological naturalism has been challenged. Arguably, liberal naturalism may be better than methodological scientific naturalism. The later might well, following Quine, employ a form of methodological behaviourism, a theory of mind widely rejected by many (but not all contemporary philosophers, as we see in the case of Dennett, as noted earlier). It is at this point that advocates of theism vigorously protest lumping theism into the category of ‘supernaturalism’, a domain that includes objects of obvious superstition (werewolves, poltergeists, and so on). While excluding such superstitions seems abundantly reasonable in scientific (and other) methods, it is less obvious that theism should be excluded as a methodological presupposition. Consider any of a variety of reported experiences that are described as a sense of divine presence. Granted that it would be over-stretching (but perhaps not impossible) that there would be a reasonable scientific argument that such experiences are veridical, but would it not also be reasonable to think that science cannot rule out the possibility of veridicality in such cases? If so, then some form of methodological agnosticism seems more reasonable than methodological atheism (see Plantinga 1996). There may be a helpful analogy here with controversy over free will.

Consider the possibility of there being free will. Mario De Caro writes:

What all this shows is only that science cannot play an exclusive role in the free will discussion. It does not show that it cannot, and perhaps should not, complement conceptual analysis. Actually, most of the major views imply that, if free will has to be real, the natural world has to be structured in an adequate way (a way that each view describes in its own terms). Certainly, determining the structure of the world is a task for empirical science. In this sense, according to many, the empirical evidence mentioned in the previous paragraph is very relevant. This is a methodological stance I call ‘pluralism,’ the view according to which, besides conceptual analysis, the investigation on free will also requires that empirical research explain how the natural world actually works. (De Caro 2014: 262)

If our scientific methodology leaves open the possibility of free will, why not be open to the possibility that some ostensible experiences of God may be veridical?

On another theological front, traditional theists have retained what critics call supernaturalism (a term many reject, as noted above, because of its association with witches, werewolves, and other items of superstition) and who argue that liberal naturalism can even contribute some evidence for the truth of theism. For example, once one admits the existence of consciousness, it has been argued that this is better explained on the grounds of theism rather than naturalism. Richard Swinburne advances this position (2004: 192–218). Along similar lines, it has been contended that if one is drawn to a theistic cosmological argument, neither scientific nor liberal naturalism can offer an overall account of why there exists and persists our contingent cosmos in the absence of a causally efficacious necessarily existing being. Many of the traditional, theistic arguments have made a come-back in contemporary philosophy of religion.

4 Theology beyond the philosophical naturalism versus theism debate

While much philosophy of religion today seems exercised by the philosophical debate between naturalism and theism as described in this entry, there have been new developments. Consider three: the role of aesthetics in philosophical and theological inquiry; the emergence of religiously significant pan-psychism; and religious pluralism.

4.1 Aesthetics

A range of philosophical theologians have seen the dispute between the great ontological visions of reality as not merely a matter of impersonal, critical calculation, but as involving our sense of beauty and ugliness, revulsion, and desire (see Taliaferro and Evans 2013). This has not merely been a revival of the Freudian notion of wish-fulfilment but it may be wise not to rule out the role of our wishes as found in this passage from Thomas Nagel:

I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind […] This is a somewhat ridiculous situation […] [I]t is just as irrational to be influenced in one’s beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist. (Nagel 1997: 130–131)

How different from Nagel is Wittgenstein’s notion of confession before God:

Someone who in this way penitently opens his heart to God in confession lays it open for other men too. In doing this he loses the dignity that goes with his personal prestige and becomes like a child. That means without official position, dignity or disparity from others. A man can bare himself before others only out of a particular kind of love. (Wittgenstein 1980: 46)

David Brown, Victoria Harrison, Douglas Hedley, Anthony O’Hear, Jil Evans and Charles Taliaferro, Alexander Hampton, Mark Wynn, and others have brought to light how philosophy of religion (including the theism versus naturalism debate) can be enriched by the study of the arts and aesthetic experience itself. It is not that most philosophers support the view of Paul Draper (a non-theist):

[T]heism is supported by the fact that the universe contains an abundance of beauty. [A] beautiful universe, especially one containing beings that can appreciate that beauty, is clearly more likely on theism than on naturalism. Draper 2002: 204)

Indeed, there are philosophers who propose that if theism is true the cosmos is profoundly ugly (why would an all loving, all good God permit so much evil?).

This is not the place to adjudicate the problem of good and evil – Si Deus est, unde malum? Si non est, unde bonum? If there is a God, why is there evil? If there is not, why is there good? Still, let us note that contemporary philosophy of religion is more attuned to the presumed beauty or ugliness of theism versus naturalism (see Taliaferro and Evans 2021).

4.2 Panpsychism

Panpsychism stands for a variety of positions, according to which mental or psychic life is foundational to reality. It is not emergent. Indeed, one of the reasons for being panpsychist is that emergence from the non-mental, physical realm is suspect. Consciousness is not at all akin to how water ‘emerges’ from H2O. Keith Ward, in this passage, hints that once we recognize the reality of consciousness, it is natural to consider whether it has been (and is) a fundamental property of the physical world:

Consciousness cannot just arise out of nowhere and be joined onto a brain in a completely accidental and unpredictable way. For many scientists it makes more sense to see consciousness as natural development out of simpler elements, as an unfolding of potentialities inherent in matter from the first. (Ward 2000: 82)

Joanna Leidenhag is a leading advocate of a theology of panpsychism.

Although panpsychism does not commit theology to any one doctrine of God, it does make a distinctive contribution to the area of divine action. What panpsychism uniquely provides is an ontological ‘space’ for the personal and interactive presence of the Holy Spirit indwelling in the depths of creaturely subjectivity and calling all creatures toward flourishing. (Joanna Leidenhag 2021: 5)

She goes on to offer a theological welcome to panpsychism:

A world in which mind is a fundamental property and found throughout creation is a cosmos full of experience, open to God’s presence, and responsive in giving God glory. A more enchanted and theologically rich ontology would be hard to come by. At the very least, the revival of panpsychism within philosophy of mind is not a development that theologians should fear and resist, but is a trend that theologians should welcome and may profitably employ within a doctrine of creation. (Joanna Leidenhag 2021: 174)

Panpsychism can be thoroughly secular, but it can also be religious, as demonstrated by the work of Leidenhag. For a secular philosophy of nature that provides some inspiration for religious panpsychism see Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (2012). Both Leidenhag and Nagel are inspired by the failure of conventional naturalistic reductionism.

4.3 Religious pluralism

From David Hume to Bertrand Russell and J. L. Mackie, Christian theism has been a target for systematic critique. As such, some have assumed (like Hume) that the evidence for one religion is evidence that other religions are false. The idea of finding harmony among different religions is not radically new (witness the Florentine Academy in the Renaissance), but it has taken on new energy. From the standpoint of contemporary religious pluralism, different world religions may be equally valid approaches to the same religious reality, sometimes referred to as the Real (Hick 2004). Depending on your view of religious diversity, the theism versus naturalism debate may be expanded to debate between secular naturalism and a host of alternative religious, non-naturalist philosophies of nature and value (for detailed, comparative philosophy of religion on this matter, see Taliaferro’s Religions; A Quick Immersion, 2021).


Copyright Charles Taliaferro (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Chalmers, David. 2010. The Character of Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Clayton, Philip, and Simpson Zachary. 2008. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Craig, William Lane, and J. P. Moreland (eds). 2000. Naturalism: A Critical Analysis. London: Routledge.
    • Drees, William. 2010. Religion and Science in Context. London: Routledge.
    • Ellis, Fiona. 2014. God, Value, and Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Goff, Philip. 2017. Consciousness and Fundamental Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Leidenhag, Mikael. 2021. Naturalizing God? A Critical Evaluation of Religious Naturalism. New York: SUNY Press.
    • Nagel, Thomas. 2012. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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