Naturalism as a Worldview

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 18, 2009 in Reviews,Worldview Naturalism

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) Last time, I discussed section II.3 Method. Today, we are ready to apply our most reliable methods for truth-seeking to the question of III. What There Is.

Carrier opens with an introduction to worldviews:

Your “worldview” is your complete philosophy of life: what exists, who we are, why we are, how we should behave – everything. Everyone has a worldview, whether they are conscious of it or not. If you are unaware of this, if you cannot articulate your worldview, then you probably have a poorly-reasoned one, mostly borrowed from your surroundings, your peers, and random experiences…

We should abandon such carelessness. We should pay attention to the evidence, and construct a worldview that makes the most sense of it, using all we have learned. As we follow the best methods, consistently and correctly, a particular range of justified beliefs… will emerge.

Of course, Carrier thinks that when we apply the best methods to the world we live in, we’ll find that Metaphysical Naturalism is the most plausible worldview. Carrier presents Metaphysical Naturalism (hereafter, “naturalism”) as the accumulation of all the most carefully considered results of our best methods: logic and math, science, critically considered experience, historical method, and trusted experts. These results form the bulk of the naturalist’s worldview.

But it is what is not found in the naturalist’s worldview that sets naturalism apart. “For we do not fill it with anything not justified by [the best methods]. And the only thing we see justified is that the natural world exists… This belief is not asserted or assumed as a first principle, but is arrived at from a careful and open-minded investigation…”

We do not see good evidence for magic, demons, ghosts, unicorns, psychic powers, gods, karma, or other “non-natural” entities. Naturalists would be happy to believe in such things if – just as with everything else we believe – we were presented with good evidence for them, using our most reliable methods.

Of course, that is all that naturalists agree on, and the rest of the book presents Carrier’s own brand of naturalism – the one that makes the most sense to him. I’m sure I’ll disagree with him sometimes. I’ve already shared some misgivings I have about his most basic epistemology, though we agree on what the most reliable methods are for truth-finding.

What about me? I’m a naturalist, too. But my naturalism is not a presupposition. It does not sit at the foundation of my beliefs. Rather, it is somewhere near the top of my belief pyramid. That is, I arrived at naturalism rather late – after a thorough investigation of as much evidence and argument as I could find. It sits on top of all that other stuff. It would be much easier for me to abandon naturalism than something closer to the bottom of my belief pyramid: for example, my respect for logic and scientific methods. If logic and scientific method demonstrated that naturalism was probably false, I would abandon naturalism a million times faster than I would abandon my respect for logic and scientific methods.

So, I’m certainly willing to change my mind about naturalism if – as with everything else I believe – I was presented with good reasons, using our most reliable methods. In fact, that would be quite exciting! There is a romantic core in my being that, like most people, would love to believe in some kind of supernatural power, or mystical force, or a soul, or an afterlife. Just think of how we could use such powers for human progress if only we could understand and harness them! Genuine discovery and understanding of the supernatural would be, I think, the most exciting development in all of human history, and I would love to be part of it.

Thousands of scientists all around the world would want a piece of the action, too. They’d all jump at the chance to be part of such an important field of research, to have access to all that grant money, to have such a shot at the Nobel prize. But they haven’t yet jumped after the possibility, because there hasn’t been any good evidence for the supernatural yet.

So why did I come to the conclusion that the physical universe is probably all there is? Well, my reasons are similar to Carrier’s, so I’ll discuss them as I cover those parts of his book. Next up in “What There Is,” we have III.3 The Nature and Origin of the Universe.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Taranu June 18, 2009 at 11:07 pm

Luke, have you ever thought about making a post or a series of posts under the title “Why I’m not  a Christian?” and tell your readers what arguments made you leave this religion. I enjoyed reading Oppy Graham’s reasons for not being a Christian – – and I’m sure I will enjoy reading yours as well.


Ben June 19, 2009 at 12:01 am

Yes, one wonders why there would be a conspiracy to cover things up like transcendental meditation.  Wouldn’t scientists be more than eager to use it to explore the galaxy in the cheapest possible way?  *sigh*  Oh well.


lukeprog June 19, 2009 at 5:32 am


I have post series coming up which each deal with one major reason why I am not a Christian. But they are a ways off.


mikespeir June 19, 2009 at 6:58 am

“Genuine discovery and understanding of the supernatural would be, I think, the most exciting development in all of human history, and I would love to be part of it.”
I’m of the opinion that if there really were a God, we could dispense with this “space is the final frontier” thing.   Nothing would be more fascinating–more intellectually and emotionally alluring–than God himself.  Of course, as a Christian that’s just what I claimed God was.  The problem was that I said things like that because it was expected of me.  (I even required it of myself.)  Looking back on it honestly now, I never really experienced this awesomeness.  I simply struggled to interpret every little weird thing that might happen as evidence of it.


Jeff H June 19, 2009 at 1:23 pm

What exactly does the metaphysical naturalist say about the feedback loop that results from his worldview? If he is using evidence (and finding none that is supernatural), then concluding that the physical universe is all there is, then wouldn’t that resultant worldview then affect how he views any further evidence? I mean, I’m not trying to get into the whole “scientists are just biased against God!” argument, and I know this isn’t a problem solely with MN, but I’m just wondering how one would go about answering that charge.


Derek June 23, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Define “natural”.  What counts as a “natural entity”.
Define “physical”.  What counts as a “physical entity.”
I ask these questions because the entire project of metaphysical naturalism depends upon a hard and fast distinction between “natural” and “supernatural”.  The distinction, especially in our vernacular, is one that we have inherited from the enlightenment, was used inconsistendtently by many enlightenment authors, and is probably used even more inconsistently today.  Just a general definition of each would be nice, with maybe a few putative examples. 


lukeprog June 23, 2009 at 2:38 pm


Yes, those are much more complicated distinctions than one might think. I’ve read a few good discussions of them, but I’m forgetting where… I’ll have to track them down.


Ajita February 15, 2010 at 1:15 am

Perhaps you could think of it not as a pyramid, but as circle, or a sphere. Chronologically speaking, the realization of your naturalism may have happened at the end of a journey, but the worldview that you reached at the end of that journey was in some unformed sense within you all that time, nourished by your commitment to science and logic. Wouldn’t you agree? I mean, unless you come up with an extremely narrow definition of Naturalism, a commitment to science and logic would predispose you to reaching those exact same conclusions. I am more of an epistemological naturalist than a metaphysical one, so my basic approach is slightly different. In any case, nice to find another fellow Naturalist!


Ajita February 15, 2010 at 1:24 am

Meant to say Im more of an epistemological Naturalist than an Ontological one. But the other divide also applies, partly because it simply follows. I prefer the methodological approach to the metaphysical approach. Contrary to some claims by Metaphysical Naturalists, I believe that Methodological Naturalism is a complete worldview.

I also advance something called Cultural Naturalism, which is more of a social philosophy that relies on exploring the cultural consequences of philosophical naturalism, and providing meaningful alternatives to religion.


lukeprog February 15, 2010 at 3:34 am


Are you named, perhaps, after Ajita Kesakambali? :)


Beverly Hamilton March 26, 2010 at 7:42 pm

I’m writing a blog dealing with the unraveling of my husband’s identity due to sleep apnea/stroke/dementia. I find it fascinating how his perception of the world has changed as he enters the present moment in a very authentic way. It is interesting how his expression of the ‘right’ brain has grown as his linear ‘left brain concepts have diminished. My last post is called, “God Who?”.


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