Home > Philosophy, Science, Secular > Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Cosmological Naturalism.

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Cosmological Naturalism.

In breaking down and analyzing the naturalism of Hook and Nagel, Nielsen first defines where the discussion on naturalism is at this stage; he hopes to distinguish between four species of naturalism that is “cosmological (worldview) naturalism, methodological naturalism, ethical naturalism and scientistic naturalism (the last being principally a subspecies of methodological naturalism exemplified paradigmatically by Bertrand Russell and W.V. Quine).” (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135) Nielsen states  that all of these naturalisms have a common belief (except necessarily ethical naturalism) that “everything belongs to the world of nature and can be, and indeed should be, studied by methods appropriate for studying that world.” (p. 136) Nielsen covers all four naturalisms but today we will focus specifically on Ernst Nagel’s cosmological naturalism.

1. Cosmological (worldview) naturalism is at least a putatively substantive view which holds that everything is either composed of natural entities or is dependent for its existence on natural entities. In so speaking of naturalism, the aim is to capture the distinction between (putative distinction) between the natural and the supernatural, where “nonnatural” or “supernatural” refers to such things as the objects of many of the distinctive and central beliefs and conceptions of theism, deism, idealism, to noumena the elan vital, spirits, and the like. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135)

Nielsen states that Nagel’s conception of this type of naturalism (a naturalism he, that is Nagel, Hook and Dewey hold to) does not make claims distinct from scientific claims or a scientific world-perspective, Nagel et al then are proponents of scientism (or at the very least a naturalism congruent with such), though they are not reductionists, that is they (Nagel, Hook and Dewey) reject reductionist physicalist or materialist worldviews. Nielsen states that this is not a philosophical naturalism to Nagel, one that is distinct from science that outlines the underlying presuppositions of science in some “sort of independent ontology or metaphysics” (p. 140); Nagel (along with Quine and Rorty) would reject such metaphysical attempts. It is important to note, that it seems Nagel at least was not dogmatic in this naturalism, that is he saw that it “merely formulates what centuries of human experience have repeatedly confirmed” (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 140) moreover he takes it to be a “sound generalized account of the wold encountered in practice and in critical reflection.” (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 140) We might ask, what else did Nagel’s cosmological naturalism hold to?

It is a view that goes beyond a purely methodological one, a methodological view utilizing fixing belief what he and Hook – both following Pierce and Dewey – call the method of scientific intelligence. It proffers in addition a substantive view “on things in general” (Nagel, 1956, 6). It is “a generalized account of the cosmic scheme and of man’s place in it, as well as a logic of inquiry” – so we have in Nagel’s account both what I called a cosmological and a methodological naturalism. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 140)

Nielsen states though that the logical status of this cosmological naturalism (we will address Nielsen’s thoughts on methodological naturalism in another post) is “rather puzzling for, unlike idealist, realist or Kantian metaphysical worldviews, it does not claim to be a priori true or to be established by pure reflection or logical demonstration.” (p. 140) It has, as Nielsen puts it no transcendental grounding, and moreover rejects man as being in some position of special philosophical knowledge. As the discernible reader will tease out here, there is a seeming inconsistency, after all this view is not a claim of the sciences, but, as Nielsen states: “there is no such thing on their view as a special philosophical claim or way of knowing that could yield some knowledge not attainable by science or serve as a ground for a guardianship or a monitoring of science. It has no such Kantian pretensions.” (p. 140)  This naturalism is not a theory like Newtonian mechanics provides a theory of motion states Nielsen, nor is it looking to create a ‘First Philosophy’, a grounding of special knowledge that science cannot determine or that justifies the grounding for the theories of the sciences, nor are they admits Nagel scientific statements themselves. We are right to be, with Nielsen, confused here, we might ask how this cosmological naturalism makes any sense. It is clear Nagel et al want to shirk philosophical traditions in metaphysics, they also want to plant their naturalism in the idea of an empirical-hypethetico-deductive method to investigate claims, and have ‘man’ as the center of that worldview which focuses on the natural world (problems with the natural/supernatural split will be covered later), but how does Nagel juggle all these balls convincingly? He proposes two theses central to naturalism, (1) “the existential and causal primacy of organized matter in the executive order of nature”, and (2) that of pluralism rather than monism. Before we get to those lets see how Nagel sets the stage:

The account of things proposed by naturalism is a distillation from knowledge acquired in the usual way in daily encounters with the world or in specialized scientific inquiry. Naturalism articulates features of the world which because they have become so obvious are rarely mentioned in discussions of special subject matter, but which distinguish our actual world from other conceivable worlds. The major affirmations of naturalism are accordingly meager in content; but the principles affirmed are nevertheless effective guides in responsible criticism and evaluation. (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 141)

From this “distillation” we get our two theses, let us deal with them in turn, starting with (1):

This is the assumption that the occurrence of events, qualities and processes, and the characteristic behaviors of various individuals, are contingent on the organization of spatio-temporally located bodies, whose internal structures and external relations determine and limit the appearance and disappearance of everything that happens. (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 141)

Moreover Nagel adds “that this is so is one of the best-tested conclusions of experience”. Nielsen states as we have already seen that this is not a reductive materialism or even a reductive naturalism as it contains talk of relations of meaning, or modes of actions, joy, plans aspirations and such which are not (as such) those material bodies or indeed “organizations of material bodies”. How might this still be a naturalism? Especially of the species Nagel espouses?

 [What naturalism espouses] as a truth about nature is that though the forms of behavior or functions of material systems are indefeasibly parts of nature, forms and functions are not themselves agents in their own realization or in the realization of anything else. In the conception of nature’s processes which naturalism affirms, there is no place for the operation of disembodied forces, no place for immaterial spirit directing the course of events, no place for the survival of personality after the corruption of the body which exhibits it. (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 142)

What about Nagel’s second thesis? Nielsen states that according to Nagel, in line with what has been stated there is no “ground-floor, fundamental stuff, no homogeneous reality, no substance that makes up the universe or transempirical substance that underpins or grounds the universe or is constitutive of the universe.” (p. 142) To Nagel there is a causal link between discrete things, but no substance by which all of them inhere. Nagel’s naturalism is neither atomistic nor monistic but pluralisitic “where the links between the different things that make up the world are contingent and they are constantly changing.” (p. 142) We can see in Nagel’s naturalism a rejection of reductionism when we see that to him:

Human traits and human beings as well as other animal life and indeed nonanimal things are not everlasting and are “dependent on a balance of forces that doubtless will not endure indefinitely” (Nagel 1956, 8). All things including organisms are as much a part of the “ultimate” furniture of the world as atoms or neutrons or stones, or stars or water. None are forever, nor are any of them “the ultimate stuff” (as if we understood what that meant), and all are part of integrated systems of bodies, including ones such as biological organisms “which have the capacity because of their material organization to maintain themselves and the direction of their characteristic actives’ (Nagel 1956, 8). Irreducible ‘variety and logical contingency are fundamental traits of the world we actually inhabit.” (Nagel 1956, 9). (Nielsen, 2001, p. 142)

Nielsen states that it is in such a framework, offered by Nagel that naturalism “envisages the career and destiny of human beings.” (p. 142)

As ths post is getting a little long, I will leave a simple presentation of cosmological naturalism here, and will draw out some possible criticisms and weaknesses in my next post.


Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Categories: Philosophy, Science, Secular
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