This is going to be one of my “a colleague said this, I disagree, and I’m going to invite him to respond” sort of essays. This time the focus is on a recent short piece by Stephen Law, entitled “Secular Humanism: DON’T define it as requiring naturalism” , in which Stephen — as the title obviously suggests — advises fellow secular humanists (and therefore, myself as well) to stay away from including naturalism within the set of tenets of secular humanism.
Law begins by providing his list of what secular humanists should sign up for:
“1. Secular humanists place particular emphasis on the role of science and reason.
2. Humanists are atheists. They do not sign up to belief in a god or gods.
3. Humanists suppose that this is very probably the only life we have.
4. Humanists usually believe in the existence and importance of moral value.
5. Humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy and responsibility.
6. Humanists are secularists in the sense that they favor an open, democratic society and believe the State should take a neutral stance on religion.
7. Humanists believe that we can enjoy significant, meaningful lives even if there is not a God, and whether or not we happen to be religious.”
I have no quibbles whatsoever with (1), (2), (3), (5), (6) and (7). Regarding (4), I’d say that the philosophy of secular humanism (because that’s what it is) actually requires one to believe in the existence and importance of moral value, it’s not optional; besides, denying (4) would put you in a pretty awkward, philosophically speaking, position with regard to (5).
But that’s not the crux of Stephen’s essay, so let’s move to his crucial point: “What I am suggesting is that it is a strategic mistake to define secular humanism so that it entails naturalism. So far as secular humanism is concerned, signing up to naturalism should be an option, not a requirement.”
As soon as I read this I thought, hang on, doesn’t that contradict (2)? I mean, isn’t it automatic that if one rejects the existence of gods then one is, ipso facto, a naturalist? Not so fast, says Law, on the grounds that naturalism is a bit more difficult to define than commonly appreciated.
He is, of course, right that it isn’t particularly helpful to define naturalism as the negation of supernaturalism, especially if one then immediately proceeds to in turn define supernaturalism as the negation of naturalism. The thing is obviously circular, though one could argue that definitions are circular as a matter of course. Try looking up anything in a dictionary, follow up on the definitions of the terms used to define the original one, and you’ll end up in a circular web. Still, perhaps we can do a bit better with naturalism?
The Oxford dictionary says that naturalism is “a philosophical viewpoint according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes,” proceeding then to add the usual contrast with supernaturalism. This, seems to me, is already better. True, you then need to define “natural,” “properties,” and “causes,” but as I said above, that’s going to be the case no matter which term you look up in a dictionary.
Still, one can do much better, for instance by going to the always helpful Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which has a nice entry on naturalism by David Papineau . Papineau begins in a way that is friendly to Law’s objection to the use of naturalism: “The term ‘naturalism’ has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy. … ‘naturalism’ is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers.” But the SEP entry adopts a very good strategy about the issue, the same sort of intellectually fecund strategy one is well advised to adopt whenever one is confronted by a vaguely defined term (such as “science,” “pseudoscience,” “philosophy,” etc.) : “Rather than getting bogged down in an essentially definitional issue, this entry will adopt a different strategy. It will outline a range of philosophical commitments of a generally naturalist stamp, and comment on their philosophical cogency.”
Indeed, the rest of the article makes a very good case for the relevance of a number of philosophical positions that go under the umbrella of “naturalism,” many of which really ought to be part of the general philosophy of secular humanism. Even more apropos of Stephen’s essay, Papineau actually addressees — within the context of naturalism — all the areas that Stephen finds problematic and that, in his mind, counsel against the inclusion of naturalism as part of the tenets of secular humanism. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.
Law lists two chief reasons why he thinks secular humanists can excuse themselves from embracing naturalism (although, of course, they can embrace it, without contradiction):
“1. because it unnecessarily excludes many from the secular humanist club who could and should be invited in.
2. because it creates an unnecessary hostage to fortune.”
Let’s start with #1: Stephen notes that, for instance, more than 85% of practicing philosophers are non-theists, and yet only about half of them would label themselves as naturalists, leaving 35% of professional philosophers who are both non-theists and non-naturalists. Why exclude them from our club, he rightly asks? But I suspect we wouldn’t exclude them at all, because the reality is that those philosophers are simply a bit too hung up on the technical discussions about naturalism in philosophy (the very same ones that Papineau details in the SEP entry), and may not realize that what secular humanism means by “naturalism” is actually a rather “thin” concept, one that they could (indeed, should!) happily subscribe to.
What I mean here is going to be much more clear if we follow Stephen’s own examples of what he considers problematic areas for naturalism: “If … a mathematical reality exists, then naturalism is false … It is also philosophically controversial whether minds, or moral value, can be accommodated with the natural realm.”
So what Law is concerned about is whether naturalism can handle a number of types of realism in philosophy, particularly pertaining to mathematical Platonism, minding, and morality. I think he doesn’t need to worry. Yes, it is certainly the case that there are ongoing controversies in philosophy about the ontological status of mathematical objects, of mental constructs, and of moral values, but it is also the case that much of the disagreement can still be subsumed under a properly broad conception of naturalism.
For instance, James Ladyman and Don Ross, in their Every Thing Must Go , a detailed analysis of the relationship between metaphysics and the natural sciences, very clearly admit that their brand of structural realism (a particular position about scientific theories in the philosophy of science) is perfectly compatible with a naturalistic version of mathematical Platonism. All that it takes is to move — as they nicely put it — from a Quine-style “desert ontology”  to a more luxurious ontological forest, which is a poetic way of saying that their ontology can accommodate things, like mathematical (and moral!) concepts, that are not made of “stuff.” Very much the same point holds for minds and consciousness, different theories of which still easily fall within the broad umbrella of naturalism — so long as one doesn’t think that mathematical objects, minds or moral values somehow violate the laws of nature and/or originate from a deity of some sort, a position, I would hope, that no secular humanist ought to hold.
What about #2 above? Stephen says that the reason “it’s unwise to make secular humanism entail naturalism is that it provides an unnecessary hostage to fortune. Why so? Well, if secular humanism entails naturalism, all a theist has to do to refute secular humanism is refute naturalism.”
First of all, I find the very notion of secular humanism (logically) entailing anything to be a bit too strong. Secular humanism is a set of philosophical positions espoused by people who use the label “secular humanist” to summarize what they think about a number of issues. It is not a rigid logical system, so talk of entailment and of “refuting” seems inappropriate. Secular humanism is a way of looking at the world, revisable in several of its tenets precisely because secular humanists are supposed to be responsive to new evidence and arguments. And if, as Law writes, “critics will rub their hands together with glee knowing we have just provided them with a cupboard full of stock philosophical objections,” then secular humanists should be equally worried about their rejection of, say, belief in gods, since there too they may one day be proven wrong (as unlikely as I think that is). Well, you don’t get to stake out any interesting position if you don’t run the risk of being wrong, so I’ll bite the bullet.
After mulling all this over a bit, it finally occurred to me that perhaps what Law should be worried about is not naturalism, but physicalism. The latter is the idea that everything that exists is made of matter, and clearly numbers, moral values and thoughts don’t fall into that category — though of course they are, as far as we know, always instantiated through things made of matter (i.e., brains). Now, I would definitely agree that physicalism should be optional for secular humanists, precisely because it is much more narrow, and much more open to debate, than naturalism. Even more importantly, nothing serious hinges, for the secular humanist, on the acceptance or rejection of physicalism, while it does — I submit — on the acceptance or rejection of naturalism.
So I don’t think Stephen needs to be troubled by naturalism per se, since it can accommodate notions such as the existence of mathematical objects, minding, and moral values, as argued above, so no refutation of its tenets is likely to come from any of those quarters on serious philosophical ground. Indeed, the only people who vehemently oppose secular humanism are theologians and those who adopt a supernaturalist view of the world. Which brings us full circle to the beginning of Law’s essay: naturalism really is to be contrasted with supernaturalism, setting aside delightfully intricate, but largely besides the point, philosophical debates. And it certainly ought to be one of the tenets of secular humanism that one rejects supernaturalism. Which makes one, therefore, a naturalist.
Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).
 Secular Humanism: DON’T define it as requiring naturalism, by S. Law, 9 September 2014.
 Naturalism, by D. Papineau, SEP, 2007.
 Philosophy, my first five years, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 20 April 2014.
 Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, by J. Ladyman and D. Ross, 2007.
 W.V.O. Quine.