Everything is natural

A synthetic exposition of a naturalistic philosophy

version 1.2

by Claudio Gnoli

Origin of philosophy

Knowledge originates from perception of the world. I, the subject, am aware that something exists, the object, through my senses and consciousness. René Descartes's starting point "I think, hence I exist" can be viewed in this sense.

Perceiving subject and the world

Some of what I perceive, I feel to be part of myself -- e.g., I see my skin, I feel hungry, etc. -- while the rest of what I perceive is outer world -- e.g., I see some trees, I feel cold air, etc. Such a distinction between me and the outer world is spontaneous by me. Also I easily guess that the world in general exists independently from me; I am just a little part of it.

This gives a weird situation: I am contained in the world, being a little part of it, and at the same time I contain the world, as I perceive its existence. This is a very basic paradox of philosophy. Which one does actually originate the other one?!

Idealism says that the whole world only exists as it is perceived by me. But this is true only as a description of how knowledge develops, as any knowledge starts indeed from perception by the subject. However, as my knowledge goes on, I realize that the perceiving subject is just a little part of the whole world: so that in an ontological and historical sense it was the world which originated the subject, rather than the other way around.

The naturalistic and scientific approach

We can call the existing world nature. My spontaneous distinction between myself and the rest of the perceived world can suggest that I am not just a part of this nature, but even of some other, supernatural entity sharing some spiritual property with me.

However, the principle of epistemological economy known as the Ockham's razor recommends not to multiply entities when this is not necessary. So, if I can find an explanation for my spontaneous perception of myself as distinct from the rest of the world, I can better think both myself and the rest of the world as belonging to the same entity (nature), without need of any more supernatural entity. As we will see, biology can give us such an explanation. The supposition that all things belong to one only entity, namely nature, is called naturalism.

Science is a way of investigating the world in a way as objective as possible. The aim of science is not to demonstrate any preconceived assumption, but to discover the real structure of the world, whatever it is. To favour this aim, scientific theories must be formulated in ways making them checkable, so that it is possible to falsify them by new evidences. Such a property marks a distinction between scientific and metaphysical claims, according to Karl Popper's definition.

Culture and documentation

Culture, namely experience and knowledge shared by men, is extremely useful to individual knowledge, as it offers a corpus of information that any man can exploit, without need of restarting his individual path of knowledge from scratch. Sharing knowledge is a feature characteristic of Man.

Documentation techniques help people to store and convey shared knowledge. The most important way to express and to document knowledge is language. Classification is also useful to organize knowledge and to make it available. Classification systems reflecting the structure of nature, as it is known by Man, could be especially useful; it can be noted, however, that human knowledge always evolve, so that a good naturalistic classification system should provide for reflecting new knowledge too, as it becomes available.

Integrative levels of the world

Science results show us that there are different integrative levels, or ontical levels, in the world: for example, organisms are constituted with organs, organs with tissues, tissues with cells, cells with macromolecules like proteins and nucleic acids, macromolecules with atoms, atoms with subatomic particles like protons, neutrons and electrons, subatomic particles with quarks, ... And this is true even at bigger scale: organisms constitute societies, societies constitute species, species and inorganic environments constitute ecosystems, ...

Each level is studied by a given section of science, a discipline: e.g. molecules are studied by chemistry, ecosystems by ecology, etc. The properties of a level can be explained sooner or later by referring (reducing) them to lower levels: e.g. temperature is explained by the energy amount of molecules, chemical properties are explained by interaction between atoms, organism properties are explained by nucleic acids in their cells, etc.

Each level, however, is not just a pack of elements of the preceding one; rather it shows new special properties, which first emerge at that level due to its special organization. So you can say that an organism has the property of being alive or dead, while you cannot say that an atom is alive or dead. The latter would be an overinterpretation error, namely viewing something (e.g. motion) as a sign of an higher property (e.g. life) while it is not.

Man's biological nature

One of the objects studied by science is Man itself. Science shows how Man is one of the millions of species having evolved on the Earth, starting from very simple forms of life such as bacteria. Life emerged on the Earth around 3 billions years ago, as a result of chemical interactions between macromolecules like nucleic acids and peptides. Nucleic acids have such chemical properties that they can promote the assemblage of copies of themselves, either identical or similar to the original. Natural selection, the crucial phenomenon discovered by Charles Darwin, makes only the copies most fitting their present environment to survive and widely replicate. Random mutations keep providing new possible varieties of organisms, and their differential survival in long term determines biological evolution of organisms, including more complex ones.

Modern human species originated among Primates some hundreds thousands years ago, having as its special properties high abilities of reasoning, awareness, and sharing its knowledge through language. So, from the biological point of view, Man can be seen as a fully natural species just as the other millions ones, though holding newly emerged powerful abilities. For most people, however, it gets hard to acknowledge their own biological nature, as they are biased both by their spontaneous tendency of distinguishing between themselves and the rest of the world, and by anthropocentric philosophies deeply rooted in culture.

Natural history of knowledge

As an ability of a natural species, knowledge has evolved as a tool to get and manage useful information about the environment. As perception and reasoning have actually developed, they must have passed the filter of natural selection, by proving useful and reliable for everyday life. This means that they must convey a quite realistic representation of the world: indeed, completely wrong representations would instead induce dangerous behaviours, and so would not survive in time.

On the other hand, knowledge is not granted a-priori as a revelation; rather it is developed by series of attempts, namely hypotheses, making human representation of the reality more and more wide and reliable, but never exact nor complete: for example, at scales much bigger and much smaller than are relevant for everyday life, knowledge tools of Man are less developed.

Such a view of the status of knowledge is called hypothetical realism. It is an important rationale to warrant that our knowledge is not arbitrary, although neither perfect.

One tool of knowledge is the ability to describe and handle things in mathematical terms. Logic and mathematics are built in innate human ability of reasoning; it is often astonishing how models developed only as mathemathical theories prove to be working when applied to some concrete aspects of the world: so several people wonder "why is the world mathematical?". An explanation of this can be guessed if we consider mathematical abilities as a part of knowledge abilities, evolved by natural selection. Mathematical concepts must correspond in some way to the real world, like e.g. the number 2 has a concrete correspondance with the ratio between the lenght of a rope and that of two equal parts of the same rope.

In the evolutionary perspective, even the spontaneous perceptual distinction between me and the rest of the world is a useful tool to manage information and consequently behave in ways who preserve my organism. In absolute terms, the distinction between me and my environment is not anymore essential than that between, say, a tree and the ground below it: both belong to a greater natural system; but while my perceptual organs are working, I strongly feel such a distinction, unlike the tree.

Why we are here

Another remarkable fact is that we, men, have appeared in this very place and time of the universe, which offers an environment where we can live. What a wonderful variety and complexity of elements and organisms, whose features are finely tuned in such ways that they can coexist! Isn't this strange?

Well, let us look at things according to the anthropic principle: all other environments, which are not fit to develop complex and intelligent life, obviously did not develop it; so that in those environments there is no intelligent living being to think about himself and the world. It is only here, where aware living beings have actually developed, that there can be someone to think about himself and the world. After all, we must not be surprised for it...

Biological functions

Living organisms are structured in such ways that they do some basic functions, which are necessary for their life: defending themselves from destruction, fighting other organisms dangerous for their integrity, getting sources of energy, reproducing, etc. Some species do this through very complex sets of systems, organs, apparati and behaviours. For that they are told to have a teleonomy: their anatomy, physiology and behaviour all work to accomplish the basic biological functions.

The existence of complex biological functions is a result of the millions years of biological evolution. In the naturalistic approach, we must look at them not as aims towards which life forms are directed, but just as natural phenomena. They are not such for something, but because of the mechanisms of evolution who preserved them as systems working well enough.

The rewarding system

Animals have evolved special systems to process information they perceive about the outer world and selecting appropriate reactions: namely nervous systems. In most complex animals, such elaboration is coordinated at one or more nervous centres, namely brains. Brain is able to recognize input information as positive or negative for survival and reproductive purposes, according to previous knowledge both genetical and individual. This is done by a rewarding system: a set of nervous structures (part of which has already been identified by neurobiologists) which labels presumably positive news with pleasure feelings, and presumably negative ones with pain feelings. The nervous system is wired in such a way to promote behaviours increasing pleasure and avoid those increasing pain.

Pleasure and pain are not good nor bad intrinsicly; but in evolution brain has, so to say, learnt to interpret them as signs of useful/dangerous situations -- as the opposite interpretation would have obviously lead to wrong behaviours, and ultimately to lesser reproductive success, so that its coding has not been preserved in brain wiring.

On the other hand, as knowledge stored with experience in genetic and individual inclinations is not complete (i.e. organisms are not omniscient), and the variety of possible complex situations is enormous, the rewarding system only works as an approximation to the presumed value of each situation for survival and reproduction. But it is well possible that it fails: e.g., that an attractive-looking food never tried before contains poisonous substances, or that an unpleasant-looking activity leads to major gratifications. The rewarding system is especially not equipped to evaluate long-term effects of behaviours: this can be partly corrected only by experience and intelligent reasoning.

The natural aim

Due to their rewarding system, animals (including Man) spontaneously behave in order to make their individual pleasure as great as possible, and their pain as faible as possible. That is, they have a natural aim. As little pleasures can lead to big pains, and vice versa, pleasure and pain budget is actually considered by the mind on a more general scale; so that it can be more useful to talk in term of degree of happiness rather than of single pleasures and pains.

Such natural aim exists at an individual level, as the rewarding system is located in brains of individual organisms. This does not prevent some animal species with social inclinations to feel happy for situations useful to other individuals (generally their relatives): so the natural aim, although individual, is not necessarily exclusively egoistic.

Finalistic overinterpretations

As people is used to spontaneously act and think in terms of aims, they tend to see aims everywhere. They can especially guess that other objects in the world also have some aim; but this is inappropriate in the cases of non-animal objects, and of entities of integrative levels other than the living organism one, because such objects do not have any rewarding system. A rock has not any aim.

The whole world also cannot be said to have any particular aim, as aim is rather a property characteristic of single organisms living in the world. Even biological evolution, which seems to tend towards the appearance of beings more and more fitting and complex, actually has no a-priori direction: a great fitting species can become unfitting as its environment changes (as it has already happened many times in the past eras); moreover, huge masses of very simple organisms, like bacteria, keep prospering along with the most complex ones.

Nevertheless, the finalistic overinterpretation is very frequent in human culture, which tends to throw into the universe the mental categories of men, and to view it as an expression of personal entities (gods) having aims of making "the good" prevail over "the evil".

Alienation of Man

As the modern technological era goes on, traditional and religious bindings of people with familiar limited environments, which have been accompanying the anthropomorphic views of the world for millennia, run out.

Though this means a progress in knowledge, many people get feeling bewildered for it: suddenly, Man is perceived as just a little element in a universe of huge size both in space and time, an element having evolved in accidental circumstances, and without any guarantee of a safe future. Many writers in the last two centuries have expressed such situation of alienation. Technology also can increase alienation, by making everyday life too far from our natural environment, and by deeply altering the latter with its by-products.

Reverting back to old religious practices is not a real solution: at this stage they risk to be obscurantist and superficial. What is needed, instead, is a new way of being aware of our position in the universe and of our belonging to it. We must learn again to feel at home in our world.

Naturalistic ethics

Most ethical precepts in traditional cultures are imposed as "revealed", and lack any clear rationale. Now, knowing that human aims are based on the natural features of the rewarding system, which is a result of biological evolution, allows us to think about some objective bases for ethics. As happiness is our natural aim, we can say that a good, in ethical terms, is what is likely to increase happiness.

As the situations of the individual life and of different cultures are very variable, it is of course not easy to show any ethical rules with a general validity. We could be even accused of imposing our favourite principles as absolute to other people, just because they are "natural"; we must pay attention to respect individual freedom and avoid intellectual overbearing.

However, claiming that ethics can have objective bases does not mean to impose detailed rules with the pretext that they are scientifically correct. It rather means to encourage everybody to a common research of what is better for our common human nature: a research which everybody have to do by its personal experience, but in which he can be highly helped by shared wisdom acquired in time by other people. Scientific approach must not be misunderstood: it's just because a theory is scientific, that it can be freely checked and corrected by anyone.


Trying to identify the main things which are relevant to happiness, we can mention some general elements seeming to have an universal ethical value:

Besides these more concrete goods, there are others related to our general disposition towards things, which are not less important:

Everything is natural : a synthetic exposition of a naturalistic philosophy # 1.1 / Claudio Gnoli -- Yahoo!-Geocities <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Agora/7070/natural.htm> : 2001.06-2009.10 » -- UniPV. DiMat <http://mate.unipv.it/gnoli/natural.htm> : 2012.06 -