What is the difference between naturalism and materialism, if any?

I see definitions of naturalism that say, in effect, it is the belief that there is no supernatural. But what is the supernatural other than that which is not natural, which seems circular.

If you try to define natural without being circular, won't it come down to material, that is, what is available to the senses augmented by instruments? Or perhaps it means just matter and energy, or, if we believe modern physics, just energy in different forms.

up vote 13 down vote accepted

I think that the only difference between the two is the semantic objective of the definition. Naturalism (see the SEP) is the view that the world can be explained entirely by physical, natural phenomena/laws. Naturalists either assert that there is no supernatural (or metaphysical) existence, or that if there is, it has no impact on our physical world.

The branch called Ontological Naturalism focuses on how science can explain the world fully with physical laws. Methodological Naturalism focuses on the idea that philosophy and science share pursuits, and holds that any mention of the supernatural has no place in either philosophy or science.

Materialism is the related view that all existence is matter, that only matter is real, and so that the world is just physical. It simply describes a view on the nature of the universe, while the different branches of Naturalism focus on applications of effectively the same view.

Thus, the difference between the two is the purpose of the definition - materialism makes an argument about the ontology of the universe, while naturalism takes a premise (effectively that of materialism) to make an argument on how science/philosophy should function.

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    Hmm, looks like you have a typo in your last paragraph: "materialism makes an argument about ..., while materialism takes a premise ..." – Josh1billion Mar 14 '12 at 4:11
  • @Josh1billion Thanks! Don't know how I missed that. – commando Mar 14 '12 at 13:34
  • Thanks -- working through the SEP article, they seem to treat Naturalism as a general approach, orientation or cluster of methodologies, while Materialism is an actual metaphysical assertion. I think that's pretty much what you said. So they are very closely related -- sort of: Materialism is a (the?) primary doctrine of the Church of Naturalism (irony not altogether unintended). – David Lewis Mar 15 '12 at 1:28
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    My only gripe with this answer is when you say "Materialism is the related view that all existence is matter, that only matter is real, and so that there is no metaphysical world". I'm not sure this is the best term to use here, since metaphysics in philosophy isn't about merely a "beyond-physical" world, but things like identity, properties, causality, etc., which a physical worldview would be fine with. I think you just mean that there are only physical things in the universe... – stoicfury Mar 15 '12 at 16:21
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    @stoicfury I agree with you there, I had neglected that part of metaphysics. – commando Mar 15 '12 at 19:04

Naturalism does not presuppose materialism

In addition to and amending @commando's answer, it is of interest to note that naturalism does not presuppose materialism (or physicalism, as it is called nowadays, in order to make clear that it is not about "matter"). This is important to understand the current debate in philosophy of mind which originated in the 1990s.

Till then physicalism (i.e. a monistic solution to the mind-body problem) was widely accepted, although there were at least two important papers which argued that physicalism could not explain qualitative phenomenal experiences: Thomas Nagel's What is it like to be a bat? (1974) and Frank Jackson's famous Mary's room thought experiment in Epiphenomenal Qualia (1982).

In 1996 David Chalmers published an influential book, The Conscious Mind, which challenged monistic accounts of the mind by posing the so called hard problem of consciousness. In his book (and in several papers) he developed a dualistic position to address the problem, but he explicitly framed it in a naturalist perspective:

This position qualifies as a variety of dualism, as it postulates basic properties over and above the properties invoked by physics. But it is an innocent version of dualism, entirely compatible with the scientific view of the world. Nothing in this approach contradicts anything in physical theory; we simply need to add further bridging principles to explain how experience arises from physical processes. There is nothing particularly spiritual or mystical about this theory - its overall shape is like that of a physical theory, with a few fundamental entities connected by fundamental laws. It expands the ontology slightly, to be sure, but Maxwell did the same thing. Indeed, the overall structure of this position is entirely naturalistic, allowing that ultimately the universe comes down to a network of basic entities obeying simple laws, and allowing that there may ultimately be a theory of consciousness cast in terms of such laws. If the position is to have a name, a good choice might be naturalistic dualism.

If this view is right, then in some ways a theory of consciousness will have more in common with a theory in physics than a theory in biology. Biological theories involve no principles that are fundamental in this way, so biological theory has a certain complexity and messiness to it; but theories in physics, insofar as they deal with fundamental principles, aspire to simplicity and elegance. The fundamental laws of nature are part of the basic furniture of the world, and physical theories are telling us that this basic furniture is remarkably simple. If a theory of consciousness also involves fundamental principles, then we should expect the same. The principles of simplicity, elegance, and even beauty that drive physicists' search for a fundamental theory will also apply to a theory of consciousness.
(Consciousness and its Place in Nature)

This solution, effectively a "updated" dualism, did not become the standard view, but sparked an interesting debate and gave monistic accounts of the mind a hard time, especially physicalism. I hope this clears things up a bit.

Further readings (and songs!):

  • Interesting -- I was about to raise Chalmers' work here or in a separate question. I read his original paper with this reaction: first part -- gee, nice, telling critique of dualism/physicalism wrt consciousness; second part (section VI on) What?! You just ignored your own conclusion and are trying to come up with a dualistic or reductive explanation of consciousness. – David Lewis Mar 18 '12 at 17:10
  • @David My answer is indeed a bit off-topic (too narrow), but I wanted to bring a meaningful counterexample to the "naturalism implies materialism" claim. Feel free to ask a new question about Chalmer's work! – DBK Mar 18 '12 at 17:27


(philosophy)The system of thought holding that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws.

Source here.


Materialism is the view that the only thing that exists is matter; if anything else, such as mental events, exists, then it is reducible to matter. The definition of "matter" in modern philosophical materialism extends to all scientifically observable entities such as energy, forces, and the curvature of space.

Wikipedia also states:

In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter or energy; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions.

So, it's quite simple, really. In short, Naturalism is a system of thought which holds that everything can be explained by nature, where as Materialism simply believes that everything in existence is material.

  • And nature is what? That which explains everything? ;-) – David Lewis Mar 19 '13 at 3:12

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