I was trying to explain to someone that an underlying assumption of science is ... and then couldn't come up with a term to describe it.

What I'm hoping to give a name to, is the idea that the world is wholly governed by a consistent set of physical laws, and therefore excludes the "supernatural" - eg, the randomness introduced by quantum physics has a set of laws that determine its distribution, leaving no room for dualism. This world could therefore be deterministic or any sub-type of non-deterministic that excludes the supernatural; it could be reductionistic or not - the laws may or may not actually be discoverable or even describable - just as long as they do exist and are consistent.

Sam Harris does a really great job of explaining it, but also does not provide a term... "everything that could possibly constitute your will is either the product of a long chain of prior causes ... or it's the product of randomness"

The terms "physicalism" and "materialism" do away with the supernatural, but they don't really touch on causality at all, so I don't think that's quite what I'm looking for.

Any ideas?

  • realist? see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_realism Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 14:26
  • I think realism implies reductionism to some degree, which is a stronger claim than science needs to make. Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 17:55
  • No it does not, realism is the position that the entities postulated by scientific theories objectively exist. I think realism is actually weaker than the position you defend because 'wholly' is not included (cf. your formulation in bold in your question). Your position is naturalism. Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 10:27
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    Consider that a random statistical draw with a known distribution is not all that different from a supernatural/metaphysical consciousness which has bounds and probabilities on its behaviors, but for which the actual result of the draw is undefined by the laws. The definition of being "governed" by a set of physical laws may need to be fleshed out to rationalize why random draws are considered "governed," but a consciousness with bounds, limitations, and probabilities is not.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 20:05

3 Answers 3


The position that "the world is wholly governed by a consistent set of physical laws" is just physicalism, if by "wholly" you mean that there are no other laws (or they supervene on physical laws) and nothing is excluded from them. This is quite explicit when you say that this should "leave no room for dualism". Physicalism is a monism.

You object that physicalism does not touch on causality, but your own position only touches on causality if you add a specific interpretation of laws of nature (for example that laws are not mere regularity recording). Implicit in the term "physical" is that what is physical follows the laws of physics, and nothing else.

An expression more explicitely focused on causality is physical closure or causal closure of the physical. It expresses the idea that physical effects have complete, sufficient physical causes. See http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causal_closure .

Depending on your acceptance of higher-level non-reducible (non-physical) natural laws, you might opt for the weaker position of naturalism. (There are brands of non-reductive physicalisms but there consistence and/or relevance is a contentious issue.) The term is notoriously more vague, generic and difficult to define, but it opposes the supernatural more frontally. Some authors distinguish "methodological" and "metaphysical" naturalism and equate the former with scientific method. Perhaps this is what you were after, but then you should talk of "natural laws" instead of "physical laws".

Also note that there is a tension between leaving room for non-reductionism and the desirata that "no room is left for dualism".

  • Great answer, thank you. I'm still holding out hope for a term that addresses this more directly through causality rather than physicality, but this may be the best there is. Dualist views are not necessarily focused on the idea that supernatural stuff is "made of something non-physical", but rather that it "does not obey physical laws", and so that's what I was hoping to express explicitly rather than implicitly, maybe through some sub-type of non-determinism, but perhaps such a term doesn't exist. Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 19:09
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    I am not sure there is a position specifically focused on laws, but philosophers sometimes talk of "physical closure", meaning that a physical effect has a complete, sufficient physical cause. See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causal_closure Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 19:45

Possibly answering my own question as I ran into a term that may adequately describe what I'm looking for... Not marking it accepted yet though.

Metaphysical Naturalism "... is a worldview which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences" or possibly the related Methodological Naturlism "This second sense of naturalism seeks only to provide a framework within which to conduct the scientific study of the laws of nature."

These terms do exclude the supernatural and do make reference to physical laws of nature.


Science operates on the assumption that the same set of physical rules determines how all physical systems perform. As a result, testing physical rules (properly and completely) in one place, totally determines how a disconnected system would perform.

This definition allows for both the supporter and denier of the supernatural to be on board, since God could change the physical system (by miracle) and therefore the outcome, but that wouldn't be a break of the laws of science, since they, acting on the new system, then adequately determine what "will happen given no other input".

Or put another way, if you want to make Science into law about how things are, rather than how systems perform, you are a-priori assuming a non-theistic worldview without warrant. Which may sound appealing, but I think is a question for metaphysics and philosophy, not one which science itself could even comment on.

Given all that, I think your own suggestion of Methodological Naturalism is fine, specifically because as explained above, God wouldn't be required to only act in the randomness afforded by quantum physics, he can change the underlying system without breaking the law of science, but that wouldn't affect the approach any sentient person would have to trying to understand how the universe works.

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