Towards a Naturalistic Spirituality By Tom Clark

Tom Clark offers the best description I’ve discovered of my own humanist world view rooted in the natural world.

Thomas W. Clark is the creator of Naturalism.Org, among the Web’s most comprehensive resources on scientific naturalism and its applications.

Tom Clark’s Experience of Spirituality

While the words “spiritual” and “spirituality” have supernatural connotations for many, they are widely used to refer to the domain of ultimate existential concerns that engage all of us, eventually. Our approach to these concerns need have nothing to do with the supernatural. Instead, the realization that human beings and their emotions, thoughts, desires and actions are empirically “at one with the universe” can ground a naturalistic, non-dualist spirituality, one that generates wonder, compassion, gratitude, and acceptance.

Spirituality can thus be naturalized, and a naturalistic vision of ourselves and the world can inspire and inform spiritual experience. Naturalism understands such experience as psychological states constituted by the activity of our brains, but this doesn’t lessen the appeal of such experience, or render it less profound. Appreciating the fact of our complete inclusion in nature can generate feelings of connection and meaning that rival those offered by traditional religions, and those feelings reflect the empirical reality of our being at home in the cosmos.

Naturalism as presented here is a comprehensive, science-based worldview, premised on the idea that existence in all its dimensions and complexity is a single, natural realm, not split between the natural and the supernatural.

A naturalistic understanding of spirituality

The spiritual experience – the experience of meaning, connection and joy, often informed by philosophy or religion – is, from a naturalistic perspective, a state of the physical person, not evidence for a higher realm or non-physical essence. Nevertheless, this understanding of spirituality doesn’t lessen the attraction of such an experience, or its value for the naturalist. We naturally crave such feelings and so will seek the means to achieve them consistent with our philosophy.

The dilemma for naturalists

But the question for the naturalist arises: how, as someone who doesn’t believe in transcendent, otherworldly connections, or in ultimate meanings or purposes, can I legitimately evoke such feelings? That is, how, consistent with naturalism as my guiding philosophy, can I find the same emotional resonance or the same sorts of consolations that my religiously or supernaturally inclined friends experience? What is spiritually uplifting about naturalism?

For naturalism to evoke spiritual states akin to those evoked by religion, the follower of naturalism must find that the conclusions of her philosophy have profound, positive psychological consequences. The conclusions must resonate with her basic human needs for connection and meaning, even though, paradoxically, naturalism tends to undercut the easy presumption of overarching purposes. What then, are some of the conclusions of naturalism, and how might they affect the person who holds them? Although the conclusions for the most part seem negative, in that they deny dearly held assumptions common to most religious views, it may be that the very act of freeing ourselves from these assumptions can generate the exhilaration and joy of freedom, of discovering a tough but liberating truth, in which uncertainty moves us in the same way that certainty does others. This is an experience which counts as spiritual, even though no spirits are involved.

The cosmic connection

Most generally, naturalism places us firmly within the natural realm, extending from quarks to quasars. The scope of this realm as depicted in our sciences is nothing less than staggering. It is a far more varied, complex, and vast creation than any provided by religion, offering an infinite vista of questions to engage us. What naturalism takes away in terms of a central, secure role for us in God’s kingdom is more than compensated for by the open-ended excitement of being part of something whose dimensions, purpose and precise nature may never be known. In accepting a naturalistic view of ourselves, we trade security for surprise, certainty for an unending, perhaps unfulfillable quest for understanding, and easy platitudes about salvation for a flexible, mature accommodation to the often difficult facts of life and death.

That we are alive and sentient, with the capacity to form an understanding, however provisional, is the source of much amazement to the naturalist, since after all, none of what we consist of is sentient. Such amazement (and there are thousands of natural facts that can evoke it) can be the start of spiritual experience. That the stuff of our bodies came originally from the initial big bang, transmuted by stars and expelled in supernovas, seems a supremely satisfying connection to the most far flung corners (in both space and time) of the universe. This deep sense of connection forms a central aspect of spiritual feelings. The aesthetics of the natural world contribute as well, from the most sophisticated of the human arts, to the colors of Brazilian agate, to the grand structure of the great galactic wall. Best of all, though, is that naturalism shows that creation can’t be tied up neatly by our understanding: we will always stand in wonder at the vastness of possibilities in nature, those realized and those unrealized, knowing that we comprehend just a fraction of what might be known, and knowing that there is no end to it. Faced with all this, the naturalist, if she is capable of letting go into a non-cognitive response, may discover feelings of profound awe, delight, and surrender, feelings typical of religious revelation but now felt in the context of a world view consistent with the most hard-edged empiricism. Although it is not widely known, the full appreciation of naturalism and its implications can be as intoxicating, perhaps more so, than any religion yet devised.

Philosophy link: Faith, Science, and the Soul.

No ultimate purpose

It is easy to see that from a naturalistic perspective there cannot be any ultimate purpose to existence: as soon as any purpose is proposed, one can simply ask why that purpose should drive existence, as opposed to some other purpose. Even if God created us to glorify him and his works, we are still creatures that can ask why God himself exists. As questioning creatures, we will always be in the position of being able to second guess any overarching meaning someone attaches to the universe. In short, our intelligence guarantees that we will never rest secure in a comfortable interpretation of existence, since we can see that existence is always prior to its interpretation.

The initial psychological response to this dilemma is often the melancholy feeling that life is therefore devoid of meaning. Since we can never construe an ultimate purpose, what’s the point, anyway? But on second thought, once we see the logic of the desire for ultimate meaning – that by its very nature it is an unsatisfiable demand – we can begin to laugh about it, and savor our position as a very curious one indeed. It turns out that smart creatures will never be in a position to satisfy themselves about meaning, at least of the ultimate variety. That fact itself is rather a compelling discovery about existence, one that prevents a complacent, boring acceptance of the status quo from ever setting in. There is no way things are ultimately meant to be, so existence becomes a work in perpetual progress (not towards a goal, however), whose outcome is never settled. We therefore stand perpetually surprised, curious, and wondering. We cannot easily set aside our demand for meaning, but instead of being disappointed about its frustration, we find ourselves free to play with existence (or to be its playthings, perhaps), to create local meaning in activities we find intrinsically satisfying, and get caught up in our human drama, knowing that the drama is set on a much larger stage whose dimensions may never be determined, and which exists for no reason. The direct appreciation of this “no meaning, no reason” aspect of existence can have a profound, and positive psychological impact: we are free of any confining purposes; we are free of the deadening certainty that we have a set role to play and a “correct” goal to achieve; we are liberated to be perpetually amazed at the sheer, startling fact that something exists, not nothing, and that we are part of it. Amazement, wonder and the feeling of connection are arguably central components of the spiritual experience.

No free will

A naturalistic understanding connects the human organism to the larger physical world in all respects, via genetics and environmental influences. Since we don’t, on this understanding, exist as independent, immaterial agents directing our behavior from a causally disconnected vantage point, this means we don’t have free will in the traditional sense. We cannot have done other than what we did in a given situation.

This means that persons are not first causes, rather they are links in the natural unfolding of the world in space and time. As much as we experience ourselves as separate egos, deliberating our fates one decision at a time, our very deliberations are entirely included in this unfolding.

This insight may at first disturb us, since we might suppose we are nothing more than passive puppets, moved at the whim of forces beyond our control. But we are not even puppets, since there is no one separate from the various forces, processes, and states that comprise the person-environment complex to be pushed around. We are, in fact, fully connected parts of the whole, identifiable as separate persons to be sure, but neither causal masters nor victims.

The psychological consequences of this realization are manifold. Without giving up the sense of our own identity and particularity (pretty much impossible, short of profound experiences of ego loss, which may themselves be of value in the right context) we feel a deep connection to the world around us, since that world is, after all, where each aspect of ourselves originates. A relaxation ensues from letting go of the illusion that we must continually “steer” ourselves through life, from realizing that our decisions themselves arise on their own out of the circumstances that constitute our body and its environment. We don’t choose our character or motives from some independent vantage point; they are the creations of life and culture themselves, not the artifacts of a causally autonomous ego. Freed from the burden of being our own creators, we nevertheless don’t passively resign ourselves to fate, since we understand that as creatures fully embedded in the world, our actions do indeed have causal effects which sometimes make all the difference. The naturalistic dismantling of free will frees thus connects us and liberates us: we are parts of the evolving whole that can witness the evolution and add interesting twists to the outcome by virtue of the capacities that life has given us. But since we are such parts, we can let go of the rather arrogant and ultimately disabling presumption that we stand outside creation. As Alan Watts said, You Are It, and the direct appreciation of this connectedness becomes part of a naturalistic spirituality.

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