It's a term we all know, like "time". We all know what it means but when trying to explain it the difficulties start. For example, in trying to explain time circularity enters the explanation regularly, i.e., in the explanation time itself is used, which begs the question. This seems also the case in explaining "natural". For example, if we say that all things made by man are unnatural and all things not made by man are natural we have to include all unnatural processes in the collection of natural ones, as man themselves are natural processes and they haven't got the power to create, or make, unnatural things or processes.

Are maybe things we construct for which we have a natural (there you go...) alternative unnatural? Cars for transportation, instead of legs. Planes instead of wings (which we ain't even got...), artificial materials instead of natural. Atom bombs instead of a direct uppercut? A heart-lung machine instead of the real thing. All artificial stuff, art meaning imitating reality? Is artificial unnatural?

It's a question to which a lot of answers are possible. One only has to look in a dictionary for that... In MW:

nat·​u·​ral | \ ˈna-chə-rəl , ˈnach-rəl \

1 : based on an inherent sense of right and wrong natural justice

2a : being in accordance with or determined by nature natural impulses

b : having or constituting a classification based on features existing in nature

3a(1) : begotten as distinguished from adopted their natural son also : legitimate

(2) : being a relation by actual consanguinity as distinguished from adoption natural parents

b : born to parents not married to each other a natural child

4 : having an essential relation with someone or something : following from the nature of the one in question his guilt is a natural deduction from the evidence

5 : implanted or being as if implanted by nature : seemingly inborn a natural talent for art

6 : of or relating to nature as an object of study and research natural observations

7 : having a specified character by nature a natural athlete a natural leader

8a : occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature : not marvelous or supernatural natural causes died a natural death

b : formulated by human reason alone rather than revelation natural religion natural rights

c : having a normal or usual character events followed their natural course

9 : possessing or exhibiting the higher qualities (such as kindliness and affection) of human nature a noble … brother … ever most kind and natural— William Shakespeare

10a : growing without human care also : not cultivated natural prairie unbroken by the plow

b : existing in or produced by nature : not artificial natural turf natural curiosities

c : relating to or being natural food

11a : being in a state of nature without spiritual enlightenment : unregenerate natural man

b : living in or as if in a state of nature untouched by the influences of civilization and society

12a : having a physical or real existence as contrasted with one that is spiritual, intellectual, or fictitious a corporation is a legal but not a natural person

b : of, relating to, or operating in the physical as opposed to the spiritual world natural laws describe phenomena of the physical universe

13a : closely resembling an original : true to nature

b : marked by easy simplicity and freedom from artificiality, affectation, or constraint Successful people are genuine and natural rather than synthetic and imitative.— Gilbert Seldes

c : having a form or appearance found in nature natural hair

14a : having neither flats nor sharps the natural scale of C major

b : being neither sharp nor flat natural musical notes

c : having the pitch modified by the natural sign

15 : of an off-white or beige color

1 : one born without the usual powers of reason and understanding

2a : a sign ♮ placed on any degree of the musical staff to nullify the effect of a preceding sharp or flat

b : a note or tone affected by the natural sign

3 : a result or combination that immediately wins the stake in a game: such as

a : a throw of 7 or 11 on the first cast in craps

4a : one having natural skills, talents, or abilities

b : something that is likely to become an immediate success

c : one that is obviously suitable for a specific purpose

That are fifteen numbers with subs! And that's the first part only. Note that the word "natural" is sometimes used in the explanations.

Is/are god(s) natural?

Is there some overarching feature which can be used in explaining the meaning of "natural"? Is there a universal "naturalness"?

  • 1
    The key-point is that we cannot define everything; some concepts are so basic and fundamental that it is hard to define in terms of something more basic/simple. Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 13:27
  • 2
    Having said that, it may help the "structuralist" approach in terms of dichotomies: nature vs culture, nature vs society. Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 13:29
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    If your argument requires two different meanings of the word "natural", then you should carefully distinguish the meanings, either by choosing different words (mechanical, physical, non-artificial, etc.) or by using tags like natural1 and natural2. Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 16:11
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    @Felicia -- I have posted a full answer, and will be removing my comment.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 16:39
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    I recommend C.S. Lewis's Studies In Words which has an entire chapter on Nature, its meaning, and its history. All of the meanings you list are hit on during the discussion, I think.
    – Mary
    Commented Apr 16, 2022 at 1:56

2 Answers 2


In "natural" language, the same word acquires multiple meanings. These meanings are often related, but still different. Good dictionaries list multiple definitions for every word, as yours did. When one is doing reasoning, it is important to limit one's argument to only one such definition, to avoid the equivocation fallacy.

When doing philosophy, one generally needs a more explicit and complex "definition" than one will find in a general purpose dictionary. One is reasoning with a CONCEPT, and that concept is generally best articulated by a multiple paragraph explication, rather than a short sentence as dictionaries are wont to do. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is often a good reference to use. Its entries are shorter than the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This is standard when one is doing most expertise activities -- a specialty field uses more focused definitions of a term than general language does.

In philosophical terms, "natural" is mostly used in three ways, all three based on a good-bad dichotomy.

The two usages that are most common in philosophy are natural/supernatural dichotomies. I say two, as there are two different usages of supernatural that are generally used, and there is a lot of equivocation between them in most of the usage I have seen.

One of the natural/supernatural dichotomies is over ontological assumptions -- does one postulate a spirit world, vs. a solely material world? As I have seen it, the usage is primarily by materialists, and the dichotomy is cited to reject a spiritual assumption. Note that mathematics, reasoning, logic, and everything in the realm of abstractions, plus conscious awareness, have been widely conceded NOT to reduce to the material. Whether they can be encompassed is a "material plus emergence -- but material is most fundamental" type of pluralism, is still a TBD project. These sorts of issues are among the multiple problems with materialism, which have led most materialist leaning philosophers to abandon the POV in favor of physicalism. Note both pluralism and Hempel's dilemma leave "spirit" as a possible feature of our world, and are compatible with the science project, and even in a "near enough" ways with physicalism, if it is epiphenomenal.

The RATIONALE to reject a spiritual assumption generally equivocates to the second natural/supernatural dichotomy, which is to distinguish between those things which can be investigated usefully with our reasoning and empirical toolkits, from those subjects which cannot. This is to define "natural" based on methodological naturalism, rather than ontologically as above. And then "supernatural" as those things which are immune to methodological naturalism. The usage I have generally seen is to deny that spiritual can be investigated using the tools of methodological naturalism, then assert a version of the Verification Principle to assert things that cannot be investigated using methodological naturalism can be dismissed. This argument runs afoul of our ready ability to actually examine spiritual questions both using reason and empirically. For example Aquinas created 5 Proofs of God, which should not have been possible per this claim, and the reasoning around Aquinas's 5 Proofs can be examined, which this claim would also hold to be impossible. Likewise, claims for perfect divine revelations in religious texts can be examined from a variety of testing perspectives. Likewise, the claim that the physical is causally closed, is a claim which can be examined, and is actually pretty suspect (I already noted Hempel's Dilemma, add to that the inability to define a causally isolated space, even at the entire universe level, plus the intrinsic indeterminacy of the physical universe at the fundamental level).

Some spiritual dualist have actually embraced the natural/supernatural dichotomy, and agree that the supernatural is uninvestigable. This is coupled with an anti-scientism argument, that science and the scientific method do not encompass all knowledge, and that therefore "supernatural" is both logically valid and coherently real/causal. This is rarely a consistently applied worldview, as its holders generally do reasoning about religious dogmas and theological questions within theirs and between religions -- which is to actually reject "supernaturalism" relative to religion. This claim then is generally only selectively invoked to deflect critiques from outside the religion.

Some physicalist leaning thinkers have also asserted the natural/supernatural dichotomy applies to consciousness, but likewise deny that "supernatural" implies "irrelevant". These are the "new mysterians" who generally hold that our limited reasoning skills somehow are not up to the task, and leave us baffled in understanding the real phenomenon of consciousness. The New Mysterians rarely describe their view as "supernaturalist", although it is, based on this dichotomy.

The dichotomy you seem to be interested in, is human influenced/created vs undisturbed non-human "natural" processes, which is the primary moral usage of "natural". And yes, humans are clearly the product of "nature" in the most basic sense, so much of this usage is intrinsically unclear and/or invalid.

But it is possible to define the "natural" state of humans that can handle a coherence critique, however, and that would be the state we would be in if we were in an undisturbed ecosystem and had not used our technology to deliberately change the ecosystem. These would be humans in a very low tech hunter/gatherer mode, with no animal herding, agriculture, or fire/burn policy Amerindian tribes in the eastern US deliberately set forest fires to create more underbrush and therefore feed more deer, as an example of ecosystem disturbance through fire-setting). An alternate definition, which might capture the usage, would allow all of the above three activities, but only if they support a stable ecosystem, rather than degrade it, like most human agriculture and herding does.

Much usage, which focusses on no plastic, no manufactured metal products, no fertilizers, no machinery, no chemical or bio treatment of land, etc. are intrinsically incoherent as you noted.


The least question-begging answer to this question will be to associate the meaning of the term "natural" relative to ostensive definition of the ultimate structure of the world itself and then construct a spectrum of relative gradients to it.

The most famous and influential way to do this in philosophy nowadays was brought about by David Lewis in the 80's who suggested that property ascriptions can be ranked by their 'naturalness' to the fundamental structure of the world.

The simple intuition is just to rank statements in ordinary language on the extent to which they differ from the basic units of science.

For example the sentence "My computer is composed partially of electrons" is more natural than the sentence "my computer is composed partially of plastic" because electrons are more natural relative to the ultimate constituents of the world than plastic is.

This process can then be permuted en masse to any sentences or property ascriptions. What does ultimate the work is what basic units physics picks out as the basic 'natural' constituents and then create a ranking of sentences relative to those basic constituents.

  • So to David Lewis, "more natural" means "more theoretical/abstract"? That strikes me as odd. Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 16:12
  • Natural for Lewis means closer to the actual structure of the world, which according to physics would be more abstract than everyday experience might dictate. Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 16:23
  • Lewis's assumption that reductionism is what science shows to the the nature of our universe, is rejected as untrue by the majority of the sciences and philosophers of science. See SEP article on scientific reductionism, section 5: plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-reduction Science is pluralistic. This makes his definition and methodology internally incoherent. A computer is defined functionally and based on properties, NOT based on electrons, atoms, quarks, etc, and this is empirical science.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 17:14
  • Well the assertion that most philosophers of science are today not reductionists is not supported by the article as a whole, and begs several questions. First the pluralism about scientific methodology is not inconsistent with ontological or semantic reductionism, nor is the notion that weakly emergent properties are reducible to more fundamental properties either. As indicated by my assertion above, the computational metaphor of computer's being composed of electronics will not contradict the practical functional metaphors of computer science. That was never in debate by reductionists Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 17:22
  • Re: Dcleve: To add, it seems in your above comment that you may be confusing methodological reductionism with ontological reductionism - no one in philosophy (or science to my knowledge,) will defend methodological reductionism as it is obvious to anyone that science is methodologically pluralistic. What does not follow from this however, is the assertion that methodological pluralism is concomitant with ontological pluralism. Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 17:29

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