Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity

Colloquia Series on Human Nature

In 2020, the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity initiated a series of online colloquia on the theme of human nature. The concept of human nature is among the most fundamental concepts that underlies contemporary discourses. All individuals carry certain ideas about the nature of the human being, some of which they are more aware than others. The purpose of the series of colloquia is to reflect more profoundly on the concept of human nature and related ideas.

An initial colloquium took place between November 2020 and January 2021. It explored the influence of what has been called ‘naturalism' on our understanding of human nature, and the attempts of certain thinkers to transcend this influence in order to open up space for an expanded conception of human nature. The term naturalism can be used to refer to the belief that human beings are essentially clever animals, ultimately governed by the laws discovered by the natural sciences. Naturalists often argue that human beings can be comprehensively understood, at least in principle, by using the explanatory tools of physics, chemistry, and biology. While some disagree with this position, there is less clarity and consensus about what would constitute an alternative conception of human nature. One strand of thought that has emerged over the past several decades has argued that the natural sciences are insufficient for understanding the complexity of human beings. It points to various phenomena that transcend capture from a natural-scientific perspective, such as the very act of scientific investigation, consciousness, the ability to reason and use language, and moral experience. Some thinkers within this current also defend a partially re-enchanted view of the world itself, arguing that things such as ‘reasons’, values, and norms, which similarly evade natural-scientific description, should be included in the best account of what is real. Although they agree that human bodies are very much animal in nature, they argue that what distinguishes human beings from animals is language, morality, and/or the quest for meaning. During the colloquium, panelists explored the thought of scholars such as Thomas Nagel, John McDowell, and Charles Taylor, in order to glean insights into how naturalism might be transcended in order to allow for a more expanded conception of human nature to come into view.

Following the first colloquium, a set of five questions on the theme of naturalism and human nature was compiled, and a number of the panelists were asked to write short responses to them—a few pages in length. Below are the five questions:

  1. What do you take naturalism to mean? How does it influence the discourse in your field, particularly its conception(s) of human nature?
  2. Why has naturalism become so widespread, particularly in certain intellectual circles in the West? What is so attractive about it?
  3. What contributions and/or difficulties does naturalism bring to the thinking around human nature?
  4. What scholar(s) has or have offered you insights into the relationship between human nature and naturalism? What points have they raised?
  5. Are there any insights from religion that could illumine our understanding of naturalism and human nature?

While each essay speaks to all five of the above questions, the panelists naturally focused on different themes and topics. The first piece, “Origins and challenges of naturalism”, dwells on the historical background for the emergence of naturalism, considers certain challenges that arise when naturalism becomes prominent, and explores the complementarity of the languages of science and religion. The next response, “Varieties of naturalism”, offers a philosophical analysis of different kinds of naturalism—since the term is used in so many different ways today—and some of the problems each encounters. “Missing dimensions of reality” and “Taking a broader view” both emphasize what is missed by a vision that is confined by naturalism—namely, the spiritual dimension of reality, including the reality of the human being. “Limitations of naturalistic inquiry” helps the reader consider the ways in which naturalism hampers social-scientific inquiry, and how we might move beyond it. The four remaining pieces—“Naturalism among the philosophers”, “Religion and naturalism”, “Naturalism and music scholarship”, and “Examining naturalism in neuroscience”—each investigate the prevalence and influence of naturalism in specific fields of endeavour: philosophy, religious studies, music scholarship, and neuroscience, respectively. In each of these fields, the panelists explain, naturalism exercises an explicit or implicit influence, restricting the kinds of phenomena under discussion or subtly shaping how data and results are interpreted. You will find links below to the nine responses that were produced.

Origins and challenges of naturalism

Varieties of naturalism

Missing dimensions of reality

Taking a broader view

Limitations of naturalistic inquiry

Naturalism among the philosophers

Religion and naturalism

Naturalism and music scholarship

Examining naturalism in neuroscience