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

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

So, I haven’t posted on here for a few months, partly due to a holiday to Japan for my sisters wedding, then the collapse of the gym I was working for and the following mad scramble for employment, and then losing track of my thought process with Nielsen’s incredibly complex work. With that in mind, I’m going to scrap the previous investigation I was doing and focus instead on the naturalism that Nielsen actually espouses, namely: social naturalism.

To Nielsen we are “irreducibly” social, and self-interpreting animals, and that it is partly in social relations that constitute what it is to be human. To Nielsen this aspect of humanity is not simply a “dangler” to be snipped off to reveal “the purely biological nature of what it is to be human.” (p. 57)

This social naturalism is also a nonscientistic naturalism. It rejects, as a piece of incoherent metaphysics, the Quinean, Smartian, Armstrongian belief – the belief of metaphysical or “scientific” realists – that physics, or natural science more generally, yields our best approximation of the one true description of the world and that any further filling in of that must be done by physics or a science based on physics… I think that is nothing more than a scientistic metaphysical dogma. By contrast I argue that there is no one vocabulary – or for that matter several vocabularies taken in conjunction – that can tell it like it is and that science is not privileged here such that what science cannot tell us humankind cannot know. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 57)

Nielsen goes further to state in Wittgensteinian fashion that our “knowing and conceptualization” is perspectival, that is there are different “discourses” and “language-games” that we use to explain different social practices for different purposes.  Nielsen thinks it a mistake to put the discourse of physics ahead of say the discourses of politics, literature, social anthropology, poetry etc, as if these disciplines were not discussing reality, or indeed had nothing to say about it. They all have their place, but no one discipline leads us closer to the “truth” about reality or even “ultimate reality” Nielsen states, anymore than the other, nor can we even make any sense of what “ultimate reality” is like from the sciences over what poetry might be able to tell us or indeed, what it even is:

We do not know what we are talking about in speaking of “ultimate reality” or of “reality in itself” or even about just plain old reality full stop. Both the sciences and poetry as well help us cope with reality though in quite different ways and for very different purposes. We learn from reading poetry about human sensibilities, feelings, and conceptions of life. These tell us about realities, but different realities, realities we can be interested in for different reasons than the realities chemistry and physics tell us about. But there is no sense in saying that one reality rather than the other is “really reality”. Both tell us about things that are “equally real” but answer to very different human interests.  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 58)

From here Nielsen states that his social naturalism is a form of historicism in that there is no “over-leaping history”, that to Nielsen our attitudes, conceptions and beliefs are embedded and part of social practices that are located historically and are culturally “distinctive and determinate” (p. 58) He is quick to note that this does not relegate us to “imprisonment” in relativism, of any kind. We can alter our social practices as they come in contact with others and indeed as they come into contact with other cultures. Through this process Nielsen believes we can critically alter our social practices, as we operate in them, we can operate on them, but he states we can never stand completely free of them to the point of view from the universe: “There is no ahistorical perspective – no “perspectiveless perspective” or “God’s-eye perspective” (p. 59) Again he denies relativism here stating that it is possible to, from wherever we stand, “look back at previous ways of life or look sideways at other extant ways of life, and sometimes see how we have now come to have either a more adequate or less adequate cluster of social practices than these other ways of life.” (p. 59) To Nielsen we can never stand free of culture, but this does not mean that these are bounded systems in which we cannot escape entirely, sometimes we remain untouched within our own cultures of certain cultural practices, without ever standing outside of it.

To Nieslen his social naturalism is nonscientistic and “nonutterly biological”, moreover it is a “contextual-historicist naturalism”, which he believes escapes the common criticism of naturalism that it makes a religion, or ideology out of the natural sciences that are supposedly there to tell us how the world really is for humans and nonhumans alike, with all other perspectives being illusory. Nielsen thinks that scientific naturalisms claim to be continuous with science, and scientific themselves but end up being “ersatz science”, and although these type of naturalisms reject, as Nielsen does, appeals to the spiritual entities of theistic metaphysics, they no more “fix belief” by the scientific method “than does Thomistic-Aristotelianism”. No, Nielsen claims that in both cases we have metaphysical theories “whose theories are so problematical as to be arguably incoherent or at least best set aside as yielding very little, if anything in way of understanding. Nielsen’s social naturalism, according to him, is not metaphysical and thus not held hostage to said difficulties. (p. 60)

Nielsen does still want to address, indeed needs to how the scientific picture fits into his social naturalism; how does he think at one time that as stated above “we are “irreducibly” social, and self-interpreting animals, and that it is partly in social relations that constitute what it is to be human. To Nielsen this aspect of humanity is not simply a “dangler” to be snipped off to reveal “the purely biological nature of what it is to be human.” while accepting a scientific view of the universe, how does he avoid reductionism and scientism?

In fleshing out what he means by human beings being complicated animals, Rorty stresses the usual thing that they are language-using animals and that with that there goes the ability to think, to reflect, to be self interpretive, to make critical and reflective endorsements – all the conceptual reflectiveness that McDowell takes to be essential to his relaxed naturalism or what Putnam calls a sane naturalism (McDowell 2998; Bernstein 1995). (Nielsen, 2001, p. 436)

It is in this line of thought that Nielsen places his naturalism:

Complicated language-using animals are still animals, macroscopic objects, part of the space-time world. Still reason – it is no longer viewed as Reason – has been naturalized without losing its normativity… There is no conflict between my social naturalism and anti-scientism, on the one hand, and my regarding, on the other hand “that over and above the space-time world, there is nothing further that exists” (Armstrong 1999, 86).  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 436)

Nielsen’s naturalism is not a “scientific naturalism” nor is it an unscientific or antiscientific one, instead and in the vain (as mentioned above) of Putnam and McDowell it is a relaxed one that does not consider there to be one way to view the world, no “one true description”  of the world or one way it has to be, there are Nielsen states: “various accounts embedded in different practices answering to different interests and needs none of which are “closer to reality” or more of a telling it like it is than the others. What should be thought and said depends on the context and what interests are at issue. What is apposite to believe depends on the context.” (p. 443) For Nielsen, it is a piece of common sense that the sciences are the best way to understand the structure of the physical world, he does hold to a cosmological naturalism that the object of the sciences, that is the spatio-temporal world is the only reality we can talk about, where it is coherent to do so at all. There may be other context dependent realities, or worlds to talk about, as in the political, the artistic, the human, the moral, things that lead to Nielsen’s social naturalism, but they are so because they are not independent of the physical world, indeed “there would be none of these realities if there were not physical-realities – space-time entities.” (p. 446)

This is only a very brief look at what Nielsen’s social naturalism entails, consider it a taste if you will. Whether I investigate it further or offer strict arguments for it, will depend on my capricious nature, as such you can accept it or deny it as you will. I have not demonstrated it to be true, only briefly what it entails.


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



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