Naturalism vs. Idealism

 In Morality, The Mind, The Universe

In last week’s post, I started to analyze the question of how the natural world coincides with our inner experiences. There is no easy answer to this, since our lived conscious experience seems to us distinct from the natural universe, which by all accounts is entirely mechanistic. We narrowed this down to a dilemma between two possible interpretations of the reality: naturalism and idealism. As was pointed out in the prior post, these terms have a specific meaning in the context of this discussion. What we are calling “naturalism” means that everything in existence is understood to be material substance and governed by natural, physical processes. What we are calling “idealism” is the belief that our subjective, first-person experiences should be given special significance and where something immaterial and nonphysical is assumed to exists in some form.

When we fully examine the implications of both naturalism and idealism and try to evaluate which of the two makes the most sense, it seems quite bewildering. Naturalistic worldviews involve a physical universe that features material substance that is comprised of atoms and subatomic particles whose behavior is entirely governed by natural laws. Everything is ultimately deterministic, so there is only one genuine possibility for how the future will unfold. People’s feelings, values, hopes, dreams, choices, etc. are all 100% determined by natural processes and there is only one possible way that the future will unfold, regardless of what anyone wishes to believe. Modern science has given us an abundance of evidence that the universe is deterministic, including the human brain and all bodily functions. A lot of theories about the supposed nonphysical aspects of consciousness have been proposed, but science has never found evidence for any of this. Within naturalism, the only things that truly exist are mind-independent facts. Minds are simply meat computers and their values, wants, needs, desires, and rights are nothing at all more than opinions that have no bearing on reality.

Naturalism does seem to be the most reasonable conclusion based on all objective evidence, but if we take stock of all of the implications then this seems like something that hardly anyone truly believes. Nearly all of us are concerned about sustaining life, avoiding suffering, and promoting freedom. Nearly all of us recognize that rape, torture, mass murder, and genocide are evil. Most of us believe in some notion of equality among different people and in human rights. Lots of people have genuine concerns about poverty, malnutrition, health care, and education, especially among children. Lots of people are very deeply concerned about animal welfare and about the environment, including sustaining ecosystems and protecting endangered species. Then there are ethical concerns that are not quite as widely held among the general population but are common among people who have a naturalistic worldview, including concern for social justice and opposition to the ethics that come from religious dogma.

From one’s own first-person perspective and also from the standpoint of empathizing with the experiences of other people and with animals, these moral concerns are appropriate. But the problem is how these experiences coincide with reality. Within a naturalistic worldview, there is no deep reality to any of this. Secular humanism does incorporate genuine ethical concerns such as those mentioned above, but this is usually based on a naturalistic worldview, which means that such concerns cannot be understood to be derived from genuine features of the universe. Within secular humanism, our beliefs about atoms, molecules, and life forms can be true or false if they correspond to reality, but our beliefs about rights and wrong are ultimately based on popular opinions that are seen as necessary for peaceful coexistence. The humanist ethical framework might be effective in compelling people to respect each other’s rights and to get along most of the time, but disagreements will inevitably arise unless our moral convictions are understood to ultimately derive from indisputable aspects of the world, not just on popular opinions for the purpose of convenience. In fact, we are seeing that humanistic ethics too often leads people to have either nihilistic or intensely self-centered behavior, and it has become increasingly difficult to convince people to believe in a greater good.

Some idealistic worldviews do provide a way for moral concerns such as those listed above to be just as real as the physical world, but we would have a hard time finding any such worldview that seems to have much scientific evidence in its favor. But admittedly, this does depend on what we consider to be evidence. We might consider our own first-person experience to be a certain kind of evidence, and likewise if we can empathize with other conscious beings, then we can consider that evidence as well. None of that would be truly objective evidence, but we could consider it to be a form of evidence, nonetheless.

If we do this, then the most baffling realization is that these two perspectives on the world end up having enormous evidence on their side, yet it is also seemingly impossible that they could be coexistent in the same universe. It is seemingly impossible to reconcile these two perspectives and thus to have a worldview that includes the genuine existence of all that is understood to exist based on overwhelming evidence. If we go with a naturalistic worldview, then it actually doesn’t matter the outcome of any of the various moral dilemmas and quandaries and challenges that people often ponder and worry about. If you think about how any of those outcomes might play into a naturalistic worldview, they are all irrelevant. But in our hearts, we know that they are relevant in some important way. Not necessarily all of those listed above, but every single rational human being should be concerned about at least some of them. And so are we delusional if our worldview might happen to be incoherent? Are we suffering from cognitive dissonance? Or instead is it that we haven’t yet come to a full understanding of how these moral dilemmas and challenges do in fact play into the ultimate reality?

What are your thoughts? Use the comments feature to join the conversation.

Photo courtesy of

Recent Posts