Poetic Naturalism


Naturalism is a philosophy according to which there is only one world — the natural world, which exhibits unbroken patterns (the laws of nature), and which we can learn about through hypothesis testing and observation. In particular, there is no supernatural world — no gods, no spirits, no transcendent meanings.

I like to talk about a particular approach to naturalism, which can be thought of as Poetic. By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world. “Ways of talking” shouldn’t be underestimated; they can otherwise be labeled “theories” or “models” or “vocabularies” or “stories,” and if a particular way of talking turns out to be sufficiently accurate and useful, the elements in its corresponding vocabulary deserve to be called real.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” That is absolutely correct. There is more to the world than what happens; there are the ways we make sense of it by telling its story. The vocabulary we use is not handed to us from outside; it’s ultimately a matter of our choice.

A poetic naturalist will deny that notions like “right and wrong,” “purpose and duty,” or “beauty and ugliness” are part of the fundamental architecture of the world. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. But these moral and ethical and aesthetic vocabularies can be perfectly useful ways of talking about the world. The criteria for choosing the best such ways of talking will necessarily be different that the criteria we use for purely descriptive, scientific vocabularies. There won’t be a single rational way to delineate good from bad, sublime from repulsive. But we can still speak in such terms, and put in the hard work to make our actions live up to our own internal aspirations. We just have to admit that judgments come from within ourselves.

Here I collect some writings I’ve done, and talks I’ve given, elaborating on this basic idea. I claim no special originality here, of course; the relevant concepts are associated with a line of illustrious folks like Epicurus, Lucretius, Ibn Sina, Elisabeth of Bohemia, Pierre-Simon Laplace, David Hume, Charles Darwin, Daniel Dennett, and many others (not all of whom were themselves poetic naturalists). For more, see my book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.

Facebook will allow you to declare Poetic Naturalism as your religion.


I’ve written about the underpinnings of Poetic Naturalism a number of times, mostly on my blog. Here are some of the major themes.


The Big Picture, May 2016. A talk I gave at Google, discussing some of the ideas in my book of the same title.

The case for naturalism, March 25, 2012. This was my opening statement at a debate on the existence of God. It was set to some very nice visuals by whoever runs the Inspiration Journey YouTube channel.

Poetic Naturalism, January 2013. A talk at the University of Oxford. This was at a conference of scientists and philosophers, so it’s a bit more academic than the others.

Purpose and the Universe, May 2013. A talk to the American Humanist Conference. The universe doesn’t have a purpose, nor does it give any purposes to us; that doesn’t prevent us from creating purpose for ourselves.

Death and Physics, October 2014. A talk to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Life is a process, not a substance, and death is the end of that process, as surely as extinguishing a candle is the end of its flame. Confronting this reality is a major project for naturalism.