Philosophy:Poetic naturalism

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Poetic naturalism is a philosophical approach to naturalism which encourages a variety of ways to talk about the world, using language dependent upon the aspect of reality being discussed. The term was coined by Sean M. Carroll in his book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself to offer richer insight into naturalism, with strategies for agreeing on useful ways of talking about the natural world. It acknowledges that the methods and terms used within one domain may not be coherent with those of another domain, yet both can be considered valid representations of reality.[1]


Poetic naturalism resolves many of the conflicts caused by the fundamental differences between the various branches of science and philosophy. For example, the universe can be described mechanically in terms of atoms obeying certain laws. This results in a deterministic universe incompatible with the concepts of choice or free will. Determinism is not a useful perspective for navigating the human condition, which includes value judgments and the concept of cause and effect, as it essentially posits an endless chain of unavoidable "effects" stemming from a single primordial "cause". In spite of determinism, humans can be said to make decisions and control aspects of their environment. This apparent conflict does not negate either viewpoint; they can both be said to be legitimate depending on the frame of reference in which we are currently operating.

The tenets of poetic naturalism can be summarized in three points:

  1. There are many ways of talking about the world.
  2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
  3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.

Distinction from naturalism

Sean Carroll cites a quote which speaks to the essence of poetic naturalism's distinction from naturalism:[1]:19

"The Universe is made of stories, not atoms"

While naturalism is the "idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world",[2] poetic naturalism understands that the way we find personally relevant meaning to life does not naturally emerge from a purely scientific approach. Science is a rigorous method of finding what is true or false, while poetic naturalism encourages extending the conversation to include contemplation into what is right and wrong.[3] It integrates scientific reasoning methods into our personal purpose-seeking and meaning-making, with an emphasis on Bayesian techniques.[1]:75

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