concepts page: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


'Nature' is a word that I try hard to avoid using (except for critical purposes) in Middle Way philosophy. It is an extremely unhelpful and yet widely used and much relied upon word. Broadly, nature means things as they are, whether we are talking about the universe or the world as it is, or the 'nature' of human beings or of individuals. As we have no access to things as they are, and need to constantly check our delusion that we know things as they are, the avoidance of claims involving the term 'nature' is a good habit to cultivate.

Middle Way philosophy explicitly rejects philosophies and theologies that rely on claims about nature, such as Natural Law and Naturalism. It also rejects the moral appeal to a concept of nature as a way of approaching environmental ethics, which is dogmatic in a way that is seldom acknowledged. In all of these cases the theories concerned often do bring important conditions to our notice, but unfortunately undermine our moral response to them by interpreting them in terms of metaphysical assumptions that distract from a recognition of those conditions.

Naturalism is the appropriation of scientific evidence to a metaphysical claim that what we know about the world and ourselves should be the basis of our judgements rather than 'supernatural' claims (this is usually accompanied by the fact-value distinction and thus an implicit relativism about moral claims). The basic point which this approach neglects is that all our beliefs about the world can only be provisionally justified. Because the fact-value distinction is only based on abstract analysis and does not consider our beliefs as we actually hold them (that is, with facts and values necessarily implying each other), naturalism's assumptions about the necessary subjectivity of values are also mistaken. There are thus no 'natural facts' to distinguish so clearly from moral values, just lots of provisional judgements with varying degrees of justification about both facts and values. One does not need to appeal to the 'supernatural' (a term which relies on the concept of the 'natural' and is thus also best avoided) to justify values, which are already part of our experience, nor does greater objectivity result from appealing only to the 'natural'.

Links to related discussion

The features of nihilism from thesis (including naturalism/ scientism)

Environmental ethics

Nugatory Nature from 'The Trouble with Buddhism'


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