Naturalism under a neo atheist definition



The Free Dictionary defines Naturalism (in regards to philosophy) as...

"A scientific account of the world in terms of causes and natural forces that rejects all spiritual, supernatural, or teleological explanations."

Yet there is still the definition of atheism that will not go away that posits atheism as the mere lack of belief in one or more deity(s). While it would be safe to say that most of the people who hold such a view of atheism are naturalist would this be a internally coherent world view.

Basing ones world view on a definition that is neither a for or against position in regards to the existence of one or more deity(s) and still accepting or assuming a naturalistic epistemology that discards the for position.

Would this be an internally coherent position or would this just be a poor definition of atheism? (Or maybe even not specific enough)

Now, I'm sure there is no absolute definition of atheism and that this new definition may not represent everyone who may call him/herself an atheist but this definition seems to be more and more prevalent so it is to me at least interesting to inquire about its ramifications.

Neil Meyer

Posted 2014-05-15T12:34:12.067

Reputation: 2 161



I don't see why "teleology" is ruled out in the definition of naturalism. There's plenty of goal-directed processes in nature to which biologists and other natural scientists appeal. What you mean to rule out is the idea that God's eye is on the sparrow, everything happens for a purpose and so on, but that isn't the only thing one could mean by "teleology". Aristotle doesn't think any of those things, for instance, but his philosophy of nature is the paradigm case of a teleological worldview. If you're interested, I can dig up a piece by Ernst Mayr about different senses of teleology in contemporary biology.


Posted 2014-05-15T12:34:12.067


It's de facto not part of naturalism, it would be rare for someone to call themselves a naturalist and also think that teleology is an appropriate word for their explanations, even if others might consider it so. Most naturalists I know treat the notion of purpose, and goal directedness even, with utmost suspicion at best. – Lucas – 2014-05-18T23:58:17.030

Most naturalists you know treat statements like, "canine teeth are for ripping and cutting" with utmost suspicion? If so, they've got their radar turned up too high. – None – 2014-05-19T00:10:52.767

They would not consider them teleological. – Lucas – 2014-05-19T02:39:53.723

They would mostly consider them reducible to non teleological explanations, and that doing so is a good thing. – Lucas – 2014-05-19T02:44:46.910

The point is contested in philosophy of biology, but I think your friends are wrong on both counts. "Canine teeth are for ripping" is a paradigm case of a teleological explanation. Your friends might not like to call it "teleological", but that's just semantics. It's also hard to see how a teleological explanation is going to be "reducible" to a non-teleological explanation. The concept of "reduction" itself is a source of confusion between philosophers and practicing biologists though. I can say more about that some other time too, but probably better to start a new question. – None – 2014-05-19T11:39:22.270

Generally such a "reduction" would be "canine teeth provided a competitive advantage by making it easier to rip flesh" which is backward looking, not forward looking. You might disagree with the idea that this is always possible, or that it even constitutes a non teleological explanation, but this is how the dictionary entry should be understood, whether it is sensible to be this kind of naturalist, or whether the dictionary is exacting is a different matter. – Lucas – 2014-05-19T12:34:38.893

That's not really a "reduction" in the sense that philosophers tend to use the term. The reason to think the dictionary is wrong is that I think there are good reasons to believe that on this construal, "naturalism" would turn out to be falsified by natural science. I'd take a better definition to be one that said, "naturalism is the view all that exists is the natural world, as it is discovered empirically." That seems to include the right people and exclude the right people. – None – 2014-05-19T12:38:56.220

Agreed, it's a reduction in the sense of reducing stock to gravy, expression would be a better term were it not also overloaded. Your own definition seems about right to me - the OED gives yours as an "occasional usage", and something more along the lines of the OPs as the main one (though it doesn't exclude teleology). – Lucas – 2014-05-20T17:09:51.140


There are a wide variety of ways someone can end up calling themselves an Atheist, but what you've described is pretty common among researchers in the life sciences. You've put some things as premises that I don't think really are for these folks, though. I think it goes more like this:

  • I am not going to believe in stuff without evidence / a good model supporting it
  • I am going to take a scientific account of the world. I will not yet reject supernatural stuff
  • I now observe what is a good model with good evidence: chemistry, physics, the chemical basis of life, etc.
  • I also observe that every supernatural model I can find is a poor one with lots of conflicting evidence if it even makes any predictions at all
  • Therefore I reject the supernatural stuff hypotheses
  • I am tired of testing variations on that hypothesis, so I will henceforth take a scientific approach assuming that I don't need to test the supernatural hypotheses any more
  • Also, I now call myself an atheist

Edit: note that I'm not suggesting that these steps are explicit for most people. Rather, the first three are the cognitive process you tend to be led through, mostly without realizing it, when you start taking a lot of science classes. It's easy enough to fill in the rest on your own, as you incidentally encounter all manner of supernatural explanations that don't work. (Some of course don't ever bother thinking about supernatural explanations; I'm merely claiming that the above is common not universal.)

Rex Kerr

Posted 2014-05-15T12:34:12.067

Reputation: 15 388

No way. I think you're confusing the life sciences with internet skeptics. – Lucas – 2014-05-17T03:49:54.370

@Lucas - Which aspect do you think is an inaccurate characterization? How instead do you explain the extremely high rates of atheism among biological scientists? – Rex Kerr – 2014-05-17T14:01:53.520

I don't think the decision to "take a scientific account of the world" proceeds making judgements about "supernatural stuff", nor do I think that conclusions about the supernatural are made as the result of the application of it. I disagree that they are really tested in any serious sense, or that many people make any significant attempt to find supernatural explanations for things. Many are raised with secular values, and there is a much greater chance that unquestioning irreligious people will be successful in biology, than unquestioning religious ones. You're doing exactly ... – Lucas – 2014-05-17T21:36:56.180

what I said in my own answer, presenting atheist views as far more considered that religious ones - when generally, it has been my experience, that it is actually the other way round. Secular views are the ones that are more commonly dogmatic in biology, because no one will question you on them. – Lucas – 2014-05-17T21:39:06.733

2@Lucas - I idealized the process, of course. The first steps are really just a description of being serious about science courses in high school and college. And the evaluation of supernatural models is usually so easy that you hardly need to think about it--for instance, a quick glance at Genesis reveals that the order is all wrong; a quick description of homeopathy reveals that its supposed mechanism is based on things that haven't been observed and contradict what has been (plus double-blind trials have been done showing that it's useless), etc.. – Rex Kerr – 2014-05-17T23:05:52.980


The claim that theism is a belief but atheism is not a belief but a "lack of belief" always strikes me as an exercise in doublethink. In the context I see it, it seems to be used to say "I'm open to reason, but also there's no way I can be wrong".

A simple probabilistic model

If we model belief with a probability then this "lack of belief" which is not a belief must be at 50%. More explicitly, if it is not a belief in any sense then neither

P(x) > 0.5, nor, P(¬x) > 0.5      

with x being a statement of the kind, "there is a God", but we have

[XM]:  P(x) = 1 - P(¬x)

so P(x) = 0.5

This assignment of probability captures the askers statement of

... a definition that is neither a for or against position in regards to the existence of one or more deity(s) ...

This clearly causes problems for anyone thinking God is unlikely. Of course it possible to reject the (probabilistic version of the) law of excluded middle (XM), but you'd need a good reason to do so.

As either:

  1. You are a naturalist and assign a very low probability (or even, a priori a 0) to statements like "there is a God". It is very common take naturalism as an a priori principle and there to assign a zero.

  2. You remain fully uncertain at 50% and not a proper naturalist, but at least you're not believing in anything.

Which answers the askers question:

Would this be an internally coherent position or would this just be a poor definition of atheism?

But the definition of atheism is far from unrecoverable.

For example, one option would be to take atheism to correspond with a probability anywhere less than or equal to 50%: where people are undecided through to rejecting Gods absolutely. In this case it would be wrong to say "it's not a belief" but, as you include the 50%, value you could get away with saying "it's not necessarily a belief"

Edit: a slightly less, but still rather, simple probabilistic model

Now lets consider statements of the kind, "there is a God and his it is the Christian God", which I will assume for the sake of argument is the same as "the Christian God exists". These would extend the result above in the following way:

P("the Christian God exists") = 
P("there is a God and it is the Christian God") = 
 P("there is a God") P("if there is a God it is the Christian God")

The quantity P("if there is a God it is the Christian God") can only ever be smaller than or equal to one. So, you can disbelieve in the Christian God, even all existing specifications of a God, and still assign a probability 0.5 to the statement "there is a God". The probability above sets an upper bound for the probability assigned to any particular specification of a God.

Of course, many naturalists would assign a much lower probability to x ("there is a God") in which case I maintain that they hold a belief in the statement "there is not a God".


Posted 2014-05-15T12:34:12.067

Reputation: 1 731

3This probabilistic model is so simple as to be misleading. You couldn't get any science done this way. Here's what's wrong: suppose I don't know your name. Is it true that there's a 50% chance that it is "Adam" and 50% chance that it is "Al" and 50% chance that it is "Art" and ... and 50% chance that it is "Zack"? Oh, and 50% chance it is "Felbq" and 50% chance it is "Yqfooen" and...? If you choose logically incompatible priors, you will of course get nonsensical results. – Rex Kerr – 2014-05-16T19:00:27.687

@RexKerr you would have to be very careful to stick to the probability of a statement of the kind "there is a god", for x, where the probability of its negation is reasonably considered to be 1-p. I really really didn't intend this to be understood as a model of science, I'll give it am edit when not using my crappy mobile device. – Lucas – 2014-05-17T03:22:25.130

Well, if it is to be a model of anything it needs a little more justification! It's not clear to me, for example, what the advantage is of assigning p=0.5 instead of saying, "I have insufficient information about this to meaningfully constrain the possibilities or perform any sort of instructive calculation." – Rex Kerr – 2014-05-17T23:38:13.120

@RexKerr It's a model of belief, not of truth (for want of a better word). In probabilistic models of belief "I have insufficient information ..." with regard to a binary statement is exactly the same as assigning p=0.5 – Lucas – 2014-05-18T00:01:59.913

@RexKerr ... the only point of using the probabilities is that it's concise, and I mistakenly thought transparent, way of establishing that many people (i.e. those who think its a good model of belief) would consider belief in x and disbelief in ¬x to be the same thing. – Lucas – 2014-05-18T00:10:15.973

The problem is that it doesn't make any sense to assign 50%. Why assign 50% to "there is a god" instead of "There is a Christian God" or "there exists some supernatural/nonphysical force or entity"? That simple picture of probabilistic belief doesn't adequately capture the problem. – Rex Kerr – 2014-05-18T13:36:28.050

@RexKerr well, I wouldn't, but that's not what the question was about. I think assignment of 50% probability captures the definition given by the OP, not that such an assignment captures what most atheists think. I think its a pretty bad definition of atheism, for the reasons I gave above. – Lucas – 2014-05-18T18:52:34.420

Regarding the second part of your comment, the 50% should strictly only be assigned to the statement used in the definition the OP provided. The probability of the conjunction of all more restricted statements should be 50% – Lucas – 2014-05-18T23:35:00.753


Some atheists believe in a form of "mandatory" naturalism. That is, they believe everything has a natural explanation---and unexplained phenomenon are simply events which lack a complete explanation at this time.

Others have a more "skeptical" naturalism, where everything is assumed natural in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary. This view seems to predominate among educated atheists.

In practice, it can be difficult to tell these positions apart by casual observation. In both cases, the standard reaction to any mystery will be a scientific or forensic investigation.

It is debatable whether these attitudes constitute axioms/dogma, circular reasoning, or justifiable beliefs. That would depend on the specific beliefs of each atheist.

And, for the record, your definition is fatally flawed because it is possible to be an atheist and reject naturalism. One could believe in ghosts, the zodiac, planar energy, transcendence, or magic without believing in any sort of deity. If gravity and electromagnetism require no god, why should telekinesis and astral projection?


Posted 2014-05-15T12:34:12.067

Reputation: 131