The graphics above and below show the evolution of the human comprehension of the world (ontology), with corresponding forces and consequences of each ontology, all very much generalized to match the procession of (Western) thought. In the prior two posts of this series, Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung helped us chart the movement from spiritual to mechanized from philosophical and psychological standpoints, respectively. In this essay, I’ll use their conceptions of the separate religious, mechanistic, and naturalized ontologies as well as the changes between them in formulating my own recipe for arriving at a naturalized ontology, and then I’ll grapple with how we can live with a naturalized worldview.
While the shift from spiritual to mechanized has the distinctive traits of the deification of the universe being replaced by a mechanization (an objective assumption of the universe in human terms), the movement from mechanized to naturalized is more vague — as it’s still a process we’re grappling with, and indeed much of the world still holds onto a spiritual ontology, with religion holding answers for questions that cannot be explained by direct empirical experience, or in cases in which such experience is willfully ignored. As mentioned in my post on Nietzsche’s death of God, mechanism indicates the scientific mindset that is linked to the constructs of humans and thus not actually objective. Through the mechanistic outlook, humans anthropomorphize nature, and, conversely, on a reactionary level, define nature as being non-human. This differentiates them from the world of which they are so clearly a component. Naturalized ontology refers to the worldview in which these presuppositions are stripped down, and a scientific perspective assumed to be objective doesn’t purely define such an outlook.
How to arrive at a naturalized ontology: background and prerequisites
The shift towards the naturalized ontology isn’t an abandoning of the scientific perspective. The steady march of the natural sciences in aiding our conception of the universe is undeniable. While this “despiritualization,” “withdrawal of projections,” as Jung wrote in Psychology and Religion, continues onward, for the most part, it seems as if an enhanced understanding even beyond the reach of science is required not as much to de-deify our conception of the world, but to explicate and possibly de-anthropomorphize our replacement: the mechanized ontology. The shadow of religious explanations is in retreat, enhancing consciousness, but empirical study alone cannot account for the analytical treatment of one’s self and one’s world a naturalized approach towards comprehension requires.
First, let’s go back to religion to discover how we arrived at our current position in the procession of world-views. Religion is a system of faith under which powers are ascribed to a superhuman agency, which can be used to explain any occurence. Operating under a religious ontology, one speculates upon the workings of nature with the continual background of religious idealism exhibiting a top-down influence upon the understanding of the world. In the absence of an understanding of the world — be the absence attributed to any combination of lack of intellectual framework, physical tools, or willpower — faith is front and center as the motivational glue for continued belief in the spiritual worldview. It is bolstered, as all mass ontologies are, by a human desire for cultural cohesion. It should be noted that most people retain elements of religious and mechanistic ontologies even if they shift towards a naturalized perspective: in terms of society as a generalized whole, there likely is no clean, absolute move away from the religious ontology; some elements will remain.
Steadily, religion folded to science as the intellectual vehicle used to explain our universe. The mechanistic order fed by scientific insight is a worldview in which the universe is seen through human terms, as an objective machine, and thus an objective world-in-itself / noumenon. In mechanistic ontology, man convinces himself he is separate from nature as a means to study it and further carve his own niche upon the planet, and sees it in terms of its utility to him, thus resulted in a projected anthropocentric functionalism.
The importance of empirical observation is of course recognized in the scientific perspective, a positive development, but with the mechanistic it’s entangled in the belief of false objectivity, false because human valuations are still used in the imposition of a mechanical order upon the universe (see: Nietzsche’s Gay Science Sec. 373). Just as the overwhelmingness of the unknown allowed the spiritualized perspective to flourish, the new knowledge and thus perspective brought about by the sciences fomented an idolization of the human constructs which were her fruits, leading to a mindset, as examined in another essay I’ve written, that keeps people from appreciating the natural world, instead overvaluing their own creations and conceiving them as a separate entity from the environs and origins upon which they are dependent.
The world of appearances, under the mechanistic lens, is assumed to be the manifestation of the world-in-itself. However, since we are always to some extent perceiving from some subjective perspective, such an assumption — in fact, even the assumption of the existence of a world-in-itself, formed independently from human valuation — is untenable. That’s not to say human valuation is the only measure by which the world can exist, as that wreaks of a whole different kind of anthropocentricism than the imposition of the mechanistic order, but as far as our studies are concerned there’ll always be some degree of subjectivity: we cannot access the object without our selves.
A naturalized ontology signifies the re-integration of man into nature, which he was a part of all along. If a prime goal for the mechanistic mindset is the defining of the human environment — as everything from astrophysics to microbiology is a testament of — then in addition to the further exploration of this aim, the naturalized ontology necessitates a defining of the human self and the relations between the self and the environment — subject and object, respectively. The interest isn’t merely in some imagined “objective” reality, but the interactions that manifest the experiences of such a reality.
Each ontology doesn’t just relate to or draw from the natural and physical sciences, however. The view of history of the naturalized perspective can be seen as coexistent with a postmodern formulation recognizing not the telic, cause-effect intentionalism of mechanistic views, in fact existing throughout the mechanistic view of the social and natural sciences, but instead history as the aggregation of actors and their events, lacking any one objective mode of retelling. In such a way, each ontology’s treatment of the social sciences, with history as an example, mirrors its treatment of the natural sciences. In the spiritualized ontology, all those facets are shrouded in myth and legend with deistic cause; in mechanistic, as mentioned, there are objective frameworks, under which historical truth can be recounted; and in the naturalized, objectivity isn’t the aim of such history.
Nature encompasses all of the aspects outlined in the chart above. The mechanistic ontology is primarily immersed in a study of the objective environment. Naturalism disowns the accessibility of a purely objective study and instead focuses on a holistic incorporation of all elements. Diversions such as art, dreams, and pleasure, though often taking place in the realm of the object, i.e. in an environment as opposed to purely in thought, can be seen as branching off the self, though not purely dependent upon it as even the self is a compilation of mental manifestations of physical processes in the body, and is thus inextricably linked to the physical world and not independent in its own right.
Philosophy, which took a back seat as its significance dwindled like that of religion as the mechanized ontology rose with the sciences, can now be called on again to compliment science’s role of providing explanations via empiricism (I’ve argued for a renewed significance of the philosophical discipline in this post). I believe that a naturalized perspective requires a two-fold shift, incorporating dually philosophical and scientific realizations of both relationships between one and the self, and one and their environment. What existentialism and psychology provide for the relationship between one and one’s self, interdisciplinary environmental studies and the natural sciences will provide for the relation between one’s self and one’s world, while neuroscience still enriches the former issue, an ongoing process. I will expound briefly upon these areas to demonstrate how they facilitate a naturalized thinking.
Existentialism was the realization by the Western man of the inherent meaningless of existence, that one can only inject one’s own life significance through action, not depending upon some pre-fabricated framework like religion, as explicated by thinkers like Camus and Sartre after a long line of predecessors like Nietzsche and Heidegger piecing together the eventual phenomenological view. Such a view is not an ideology but rather an appreciation for the individual forming their own significance through subjective experience, framing the context for their existence.
Psychology expounded upon the goal of self-definition with tools for analytic relations between parts of the self as well as the outside world. The distinction of man from his environs and fellows requires a degree of consciousness on his part. As Jung noted, consciousness was inhibited by the ample projections that forms the human web of understanding under the spiritual ontology but, “Through the withdrawal of projections, conscious knowledge slowly developed” (see: Psychology & Religion, p. 83). Psychology allows for a varied framework with which aspects of this consciousness can be accessed and analyzed. The growth of consciousness that comes with the receding of religious projections brings heightened need for psychological study.
Understanding of one’s own psychology and application to scenerios involving other people, coupled with the rigorous interrogation of the philosophical process, foments critical thinking and rigorous analysis, and in such a manner I believe philosophy and the social sciences such as psychology can work together to aid in the naturalization process of the human perspective, not least because many of the beliefs and biases from the religious and, of course, mechanistic ontologies linger and we cannot afford to keep trying to leap beyond them but instead must grapple with them in their own right. As mentioned in my earlier post concerning Jung and projections, the religious and other largely unconscious thoughts upon which our larger rational consciousness has been built must be exhumed and not merely built over in an effort for naturalization, and in this process psychology can be of utility.
While psychology expounds upon the social aspects of analyzing the self, neuroscience gives the bio-chemical background to these processes. Advances in neuroscience vindicate some aspects of the mechanistic ontology: our brains really are, in effect, like machines, computers with chemical and electrical impulses. However, this only tells us the how of what takes place in our brains, not the why. The significance is drawn from subjective experience. Even though such experience can now be explained in neuroscientific terms, we’re only given the background. This is yet another way in which the idolization primarily of physical sciences by the mechanistic perspective is faulty.
The interdisciplinary field of environmental studies shows the potential for guiding people towards naturalized awareness. In environmental studies not only can the biological processes that facilitate life and the ecological arrangements between them be studied, but also the human relationship with the environment, including human-human political and historical interactions. An intentionally sustainable human existence on the planet is probably untenable without the self-awareness of the naturalized perspective (a topic for a future essay, to be sure). An integration of the study of natural and social processes as is exhibited in environmental studies is a prerequisite to the holistic understanding of human experience a naturalized ontology needs.
How to live with a naturalized ontology
The dearth of illusions in the naturalized perspective allows us to bear witness to an honest manifestation of the world, which with God’s death we cannot be shielded from by faith and religion.So even though the naturalized perspective brought about by the death of God and de-anthropomorphizing of the universe has lead to the beneficial dismissal of faith and morality, man is left with nausea from his realization of the meaninglessness of the world through the honesty the naturalized perspective provides, including a self-awareness of his own delusional patterns (i.e. the fallibility of the scientific, mechanistic ontology).
For humans to retain some semblance of comfort in their exposed and vulnerable naturalized mindset, aesthetic and sensual forces can be called upon, serving roles of providing diversions to aid in overcoming a life too much in the foreground of the world of appearances. These diversions can take the form of the delusion of art and the aesthetic perspective, the realm of dreams, and artistic self-styling, as Nietzsche has argued for and I am in accordance with, as well as the distraction of physical pursuits like sex and sport, lest the unbearability of the absolute honesty of the naturalized ontology lead to “nausea and suicide”…
GS Sec 107:
If we had not welcomed the arts and invented this kind of cult of the untrue, then the realization of general untruth and mendaciousness that now comes to us through science—the realization that delusion and error are conditions of human knowledge and sensation—would be utterly unbearable. Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. But now there is a counterforce against our honesty that helps us to avoid such consequences: art as the good will to appearance . . . As an aesthetic phenomenon existence is still bearable for us.
Science fails to appreciate the diversions that are in part the saving grace of humanity in the face of the honesty of a naturalized perspective. Science cannot understand the value of art or music, as science is lacking in meaning, Nietzsche writes in GS 373.
The realm of dreams and art could conceivably fill this void left by the resultant uncertainty of realizing the fallible nature of our perspectives and the un-human and un-Godly nature of the universe by allowing us to break past the foreground of the world of appearances and attain an eternal perspective removed from our base point of view. Even if a naturalized perspective can be attained, there’ll still be more work to attain comfort with such a comfort, possibly, if slightly ironically, including a backtracking to elements of earlier ontologies to help satisfy metaphysical need.