I’m beginning a new journey, and I’d like you to come along with me. I don’t have any answers, only questions, and maybe, a quest—a quest for freedom, for openness to all of experience and all of reality.
I call what I am seeking “Naturalism”, but that term is defined in particular ways. So first I’m going to present what some people have proposed as “Naturalism”, Buddhist Naturalism in particular.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society has a multi-faceted website that includes a page on Buddhist Naturalism, written by Jay N. Forrest. Here’s how Jay defines Naturaiism:
Naturalism is the conclusion, based on the evidence, that the natural world is a closed system and that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws. Therefore there is no support for supernatural explanations. Questions about what exists are basically scientific questions, rather than philosophical or religious questions.
Just for clarification sake, Naturalism is a conclusion that derives from the scientific evidence. Everyone has an ontology, a belief in what exists. In practice, one either lives as if the natural world is all that exists or they don’t. Scientific Naturalism is simply a belief based on the best available evidence. It is not a bias but a conclusion, and it is a conclusion that is open to new evidence.
So here’s how my version of Naturalism differs from the standard version. First, I don’t see the natural world as a ‘closed system’, and I don’t believe that “all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws.” ‘Natural causes and law’ is usually defined within the realm of physical sciences, such as quantum physics and neuroscience.
My 30 years of study as a sociologist taught me that human behavior and human culture evolves from it’s own set of causes, dynamics and laws, derived primarily from evolution and the dynamics of behavior, shared language and information, which cannot be reduced to neurons or quantum physics.
However, I do see human evolution, behavior, language, symbolic and information exchange as completely natural, and thus within the realm of “Naturalism.”
What is different is how I interpret human experience; I interpret it from the perspective of social science and cultural heuristics. I interpret human behavior and culture in what I define as a naturalistic way, i.e., the ethnographic method, by listening to how humans interpret their own experience and other’s behavior. I am deeply interested in knowing and being open to the whole range of human culture. Thus I am just as open to the arts and humanities as a valid and naturalistic interpretation of human experience as quantum physics and neuroscience.
I believe it is possible to understand and interpret the human experience of ‘god’ and the “supernatural” in ethnographic terms, using the heuristics of social science to understand how people create their own ‘gods’ and ‘supernatural’ experience, and also understand it’s cultural significance.
I am not drawing ‘conclusions’ from naturalism within a ‘closed’ system. I see the natural world as radically ‘open’ to new information, evolution, dynamics and life forms. There is always new information coming into our world and new discoveries to make, and I am open to all of it. I do not draw conclusions from it, but I do draw questions, observations, principles and directions of thought.
Then Jay N. Forrest defines Buddhist Naturalism:
Buddhist Naturalists are not Buddhists, they are naturalists who build their philosophical viewpoint on naturalism, and then incorporate Buddhist principles accordingly. Think of a building. For Buddhist Naturalists the foundation of their house of philosophy is naturalism. Then upon this foundation, they add naturalized and secularized Buddhist teachings.
In short, Buddhist Naturalism is a scientifically based, naturalistic interpretation of Buddhism. It is an interpretation, or reinterpretation if you prefer, that is free of ideas about rebirth, karma, or the supernatural.
So I would agree with everything that Jay N. Forrest says here. I am not a Buddhist first, I am a naturalist first, and also practice the ethics and spirituality of Buddhism. I find that scientific Naturalism, as defined above, because it is so confined to quantum physics, physical sciences and neuroscience, struggles miserably to find a scientific basis for morality, ethics and beneficial human behavior. Scientific naturalists often complain, quoting David Hume, that one cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’.
So I find that Buddhist ethics and morality, including the five precepts, the eightfold path, compassion, empathy, the relief of suffering and the prevention of harm, to be a simple yet powerful way to ground ethics in natural human experience without relying on a ‘god’ or ‘supernatural laws’, religious cateogories such as sainthood or the demonic, heaven or hell. Buddhist ethics is an effective way for me to make ethical decisions about beneficial v. harmful behavior.
Furthermore, unlike many Naturalists, I don’t reject Buddhist dharma (and I don’t know where Jay N. Forrest stands on this), but I don’t limit my field of inquiry and experience to only Buddhist dharma. My version of Buddhist Naturalism is science + culture + Buddhist dharma. Where science contradicts Buddhist dharma, science is the preferred explanation and dharma is modified or set aside.
In terms of spirituality, I am open to exploring all the extraordinary experiences that humans can generate within themselves and collectively, as ‘spirituality’ or ‘religion’. I am open to exploring and learning from the practice of meditation, chant, prayer; and learning from ‘scripture’ as artifacts of human culture, as much as I would learn from reading poetry, watching a play or listening to music.
Thus my version of Naturalism is not to limit or reduce the interpretation of reality to quantum physics, physical sciences and neuroscience, to what has been proven by science. Rather it is open to the whole range of human culture, which includes science. Science is an invention of human culture, not the other way around. Science does not invent culture; Culture invents science. Therefore, human culture within the context of the natural world is the broader realm that I am open to explore; that’s what I call “Naturalism.”
You can hear Ted Meissner interview Tom Clark about Naturalism and his book, Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses on the Secular Buddhist website:
Tom Clark is founder and director of the Center For Naturalism, a non profit advocacy organization in the Boston area devoted to educating the public about naturalism, policy development, and community building. He is the editor of the popular online website, Naturalism.Org, which is among the web’s most comprehensive resources on scientific naturalism, its implications and its applications.
In an upcoming article, I will explore “Religious Naturalism”, starting with the website https://religiousnaturalism.org
I will probably find myself saying again, ‘yes I agree with much of this, but…
So that’s a good beginning for this call to Buddhist naturalism.