The Critique of the Concept of “Pure Nature”

Document Type : Original Article


Lecturer. Department of Philosophy, Liceo Leonardo in Brescia (Italy).


Metaphysical naturalism has been the dominant strand since the mid-20th century (e.g., Quine, 1981), though the exact formulation of it has been heatedly disputed (Papineau, 2007/2020). Often it is discussed with its kin physicalism and materialism, though these terms have different connotations and theoretical baggage (Stoljar, 2010). In recent years, a relative consensus amongst the Anglo-Saxon tradition seems to be this: metaphysical naturalism should take the form of certain version of physicalism, and details aside, some form of physicalism has to be right (Kim, 2011). One prominent exception is John McDowell’s variant: accumulated in his seminal work Mind and World (1996a), he has been arguing for a relaxed version of naturalism, which denies physicalism (1996b; for discussions, see e.g., Fink, 2006; Toner, 2008). This variant has not been taken seriously in the naturalism literature, partly because McDowell’s writing style is idiosyncratic, and his works involve elements in continental philosophy, notably German Idealism and hermeneutics (e.g., 1996a, 2003). To remedy this, there are two aims of this paper. The first is to explain why Hans-Georg Gadamer’s distinction between environment and world (1960/2004) is crucial for understanding McDowell’s relaxed naturalism; the second is to explain how contemporary analytic metaphysics can help cash out a crucial missing piece in McDowell’s writings, i.e., strong emergence (O’Conner, 2020; Wilson, 2021).


Main Subjects

  1. Definitions

Plato and Aristotle taught us that "Natural" does not mean "material”:  for them many natural entities are spiritual (i.e. immaterial). Since all substances are individual compounds of form and matter, therefore all the forms are, by definition, non-matter: for example, according to Aristotle, the soul is not the body. Aristotle was definitely a non-materialist naturalist philosopher; whereas, Epicurus was a materialist naturalist philosopher. Thus 'naturalism' is not synonymous with 'materialism' and, unlike materialism, is not opposed to 'spiritualism'.

In fact, the only logical opposition, founded in the millennial tradition of the three Abrahamic religions, is between 'naturalism' and 'supernaturalism'.  Nature is that of creatures, super-nature is that of the creator God. A Naturalist philosophy thinks that this universe is self-founded and, apart from natural causes (material or spiritual it does not matter, see Aristotle), nothing else exists. A non-naturalist philosophy such as that of Thomas Aquinas, Ibn-Sina, Averrois or Maimonides, on the other hand, holds that the universe has an ontological status as a creature which imposes the existence of a creator, i.e. something ‘super-natural’ ('supra-natural').

These considerations lead us to a second distinction: 'supernatural' does not mean 'magical' or 'anti-natural' or 'something that breaks the laws of nature'. Even if the meaning of 'supernatural' as synonym of 'magical' is the most widespread meaning today, it is certainly not the case in the millennial tradition of philosophy and theology.


  1. An Overview of the History of Philosophy

We know that in his Summa Theologiae Aquinas, after treating God as creator, follows the biblical scheme of the seven days of creation and analyses creatures, both spiritual ones - i.e. angels - and the physical world, focusing mainly and at length on human beings. A part of this treatise is mainly based on Aristotle's De anima and can be called 'philosophical anthropology', a branch of philosophy, the domain of reason; a branch that in philosophical treatises is put before the exposition of ethics, of which it is a kind of preamble. This - philosophical anthropology - is the part that inspired the English philosopher Herbert McCabe and the Scottish philosopher Alasdair McIntyre and was so ably improved by them;  but it was philosophical and not the theological anthropology.

Theological anthropology in those decades was improved – however -  by some Jesuit theologians: first of all Henri De Lubac in his Surnaturel (1946) and his Le Mystere du surnaturel (1965), then Juan Alfaro Jimenez in his Cristología y antropología (1973), and then Luis Ladaria in his Antropología teológica (1983): the main point of these reflections  is to trace the supernatural action of grace from the actual beginning of the natural action of creation, and thus to conceive of human nature as always called to divinization from its very beginning.

De Lubac's basic question in Surnaturel is how human persons in the natural order can be inwardly directed to the order of Grace that realises them, without possessing by themselves  this Grace in advance, and without being able to claim it for themselves at all. In his book, De Lubac tries to show when, why and how, what he calls "the system of pure nature" has come to prevail in Christian theology, in an attempt to answer this basic  question.

He argues that for medieval thinkers there was one and only one concrete order of history, one in which God had made humanity for himself, and in which human nature was thus created only for a single destiny, which was supernatural. They, therefore, never imagined the possibility of a purely natural end for human beings, attainable by their own intrinsic powers of cognition and volition.

De Lubac argues that this view began to unravel in the 16th century  in the thought of theologian Thomas da Vio, also called Cajetan, who, claiming to carry over the thought of Thomas, instead betrayed it and introduced the idea of human nature as "a closed and auto-sufficient whole".

The idea of a 'pure nature', de Lubac argues, while allowing Catholic theologians to defend the essential integrity of fallen human nature against Protestantism which denied it,  made – however -  a separation between nature and the supernatural which would prove pernicious - making the latter (apparently) optional, not to say superfluous.

After Cajetan, the 17th century theologians Baius and Jansenius developed their hypothesis of a 'purely natural purpose' attributed to a 'spiritual nature' (human or angelic) in order  to ensure the gratuitousness of divine Grace, that is to say, that Grace must to be “added” as a undeserved gift by God onto the human nature, which, by itself, has got only ‘natural’ features ruled by ‘natural’ laws which include contingency and death.

The system of 'pure nature', perceived as a novelty in the 17th century, became mainstream in the 20th century, so much so that rejecting it became synonymous with denying the gratuitousness of the supernatural.

Whereas, De Lubac considers the Christian tradition from the 2nd to the 17th century, and provides evidence to show Aquinas (who was the first to use the word 'supra-natural' systematically) never imagined any purpose for the created spirit other than a supernatural one. In addition, De Lubac examines the origins of the word 'supernatural', including the problematic epithet 'super-additum' ('something super-added'), and the widespread confusion of 'supernatural' with 'miraculous' (in the  - warped, misleading - sense of a completely arbitrary addition, as a synonym of ‘magic’, that is, something that breaks the laws of nature). Finally, De Lubac indicates why it is not necessary to resort to the hypothetical system of pure nature to protect the gratuitousness of the beatific vision.

Thus Henri De Lubac maintained the fundamental idea that there are not two parallel realities, namely the 'natural' and the 'supernatural'. For the great medieval thinkers there were not two orders of history – the sacred one of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah and Jesus, and the secular one of Cesar, Napoleon, Churchill and Stalin – but there is  only one concrete order of history, the one in which God had made humanity for himself, and in which human nature was thus created only for a single destiny, which was supernatural.



  1. What is Creation in Philosophical Theism ?

To be created identifies with to exist from nothing, and an existing thing does not have different qualities in comparison with a non-existing thing.  Creation  would  be  impossible   if  it  made a difference  to something, for instance: if creation made any difference,  it would be impossible for God to create – in the words of Herbert McCabe -  a Nicaraguan Okapi because he should create a 'created Nicaraguan Okapi’ which would be different from the mere Nicaraguan Okapi, and, if he wanted to create a created Nicaraguan Okapi he could  just create a ‘created created Nicaraguan Okapi’.   Whereas, apart from creation, all the other causes  make  differences  in the  world (for example, a  hurricane leaves detectable traces of its action), but God does not: he  makes  things  precisely  as  they  are, the  world as  it  is.

You  can  say  that a  hurricane  has  been there  but you cannot  say God  has  been  there, since  there  are  no  traces  of  God; therefore, the  'Argument for  Design'  by William Paley is wrong   because no traces  of creation (order, ingenuity, etc) can  be detected; you  can no more  say  that the world that exists has to be made  by  God  than you can say this sort of world must exist.

Like existence itself, ‘being created’ does not add anything to a thing, it cannot enter into the description of anything, we could never say, ‘if this is created then it must be like this and not like that’.

We should understand the relationship between these two aspects – dependence and autonomy – while avoiding any contrast.

Rowan Williams reflected in depth on dependence: we have both a good reason (our experience of unhealthy past dependences) and a bad reason (our illusion of being self-sufficient) to be suspicious of it. In order to get a role and therefore to be independent, we risk depending in a problematic way on particular persons and institutions; whereas, a healthy dependence is one that makes us love our individual Self because we acknowledge it exists 'for another', even though we are aware that every particular 'other' cannot fulfil our expectations.  The classical doctrine of creation says that before being engaged with other people, we exist because God knows us and relates to us.   This idea of God here, I think, points to the unforeseeable multiplicity of particular dependences towards other equally dependent creatures. 'Unforeseeable' because we do not know God's plans, as McCabe says: by creation we mean the dependence of all that is, even though we do not know what it depends on.

While other creatures limit, or, at least , influence us, God does not do this. Even though he is united  to us as other creatures cannot be,  nonetheless this intimacy does not influence us, on the contrary it makes us be ourselves. That God continuously operates within creatures does not mean they have not their own actions, but that every creature is what it is – in its very autonomy - because of God.

McCabe thinks that it is easier to appreciate this in human beings and their actions than in other creatures. The more our actions are free, that is not conditioned by other creatures, the more a 'window' on the creator God opens; in fact, then, we are acting exactly because we are ourselves.  My action is free when it stems from my motives and reasons and is not caused by anything else; however,  it is caused by God because God is not ‘anything else’, is not a rival agent in the universe; the creative causal power of God does not operate on me from outside, it is what makes me me, in the autonomy of my nature.  The  idea  that  God  could  interfere  with  my   freedom  springs  from a idolatrous  concept  of God: in a  hierarchy of less   and  more  powerful  causes  God  should   be at the top; however,  the  more a  cause  is  powerful  the  more it  interferes  with the  other  causes,  in this  case  my  freedom. However, God  does  not  make  the  greatest difference, greater than say an earthquake or the explosion of a star, because he makes all the differences – creation, that is the existence of the universe – which means that he does not make any differences at all. As McCabe says: “as man becomes more and more self-creative, God does not fade out of the picture, he fades in. The pictures of God, however, fade out. The God who makes us instead of us making ourselves is replaced by the God who makes us make ourselves /.The creative power is just the power that, because it results in things being what they are, cannot interfere with creatures /.. Creation is simply and solely letting the things be, and our love is just a faint image of that”.

I comment on these passage saying that we achieve this freedom from other creatures' pressure as far as we have True ideas aimed at reaching real Goodness; freedom is a sort of  auto-nomy, i. e. self-regulation which reveals ('a window opens') our dependence on a God who is Truth and Goodness. So, God 'fades in' not  ontologically but ‘in’ our understanding: if we think that God is Truth and Goodness, the true ideas we conceive that move our will towards real goodness make us free, that is 'ourselves' (not forced by other creatures), and this fact 'opens a window' onto the creative action of God, who makes us be ourselves.  As Joseph Ratzinger suggests, the doctrine of creation means a true humility which is grateful for life and the other goods, of being dependent in love, as opposed to another kind of humility – a toxic one -  which despises existence, human beings and the world (the Dualism of the Gnostics).

God – McCabe says – is the power upon which the other powers depend for their efficacy; if such a power does exist, then the world that we take for granted must be given in a much richer and more mysterious way; in fact,  if the world were simply granted, to exist for me would mean just to be A and not B, i.e.  a particular kind of thing. Whereas, if the world is created and not granted, to exist means that the entire system of being-a-particular-kind-of-things exists, of which I am a part.

Therefore, to be dependent does not exclude at all to be autonomous. This is the ‘supernatural’ essence of every ‘natural’ item.

We at some time have a very strong feeling of the gratuitousness of things, a sense of gratitude for there being a world.  The true believers think  that even if a person was not loved by other persons , he is nonetheless loved by God because God ‘is the unconditional everlasting love which sustains  us in being’ and, therefore, God is but a 'label' for whatever makes sense of our gratitude for existing, to which we say 'thank you’.

Thus, as far as a creature is good , it is not hindered or diminished by other creatures, as we can see more clearly in free human actions. This is its autonomy. However, as far as a creature exists and is good, it depends on God, or – better said - it is made of God,  who is Being and Goodness; and this is its dependence. Human beings, when they acknowledge this dependence by their conscious gratitude, show more clearly this union of autonomy and dependence, that is, of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, than other creatures do.

A Christian or a Jew or a Muslim can say that everything is natural ( i. e. Grace consists entirely in the external and internal events of the historical world), and he can also say that everything is supernatural (i. e. every spatiotemporal element of the world is created, i.e. sustained in existence by God). 


Who is Jesus Christ in Christianity?

The recently deceased theologian Nicholas Lash argued that in God we can only see (and understand)  Jesus Christ: if not, what other 'aspects' of God could we see and understand in God? In Jesus there is nothing missing; there is nothing else to see.  Indeed, even Herbert McCabe argues that a human person is simply a person with a human nature, and it makes absolutely no difference to the logic of this whether this same person exists (as in Jesus) or not (as in us) from eternity as divine.

This truth does not interest only logicians and metaphysicians but also theologians, because if the person of Jesus is uncreated this fact does not make any difference either: being uncreated does not add any feature to the person of Jesus.

Just as  we cannot infer anything  about Fred from Fred being created, so we cannot  infer anything  about Jesus  from Jesus being uncreated; to be divine is not to be a kind of being, just as to be a creature is not to be a kind of being (the word 'nature' is used only analogically in the phrase 'divine nature'), whereas, to be a man is to be a kind of being and this is the kind of being that Jesus was and is. McCabe maintains that the only knowledge we can have of Christ is of his human nature. When we think to know what God is in himself because we know what (the fundamental qualities of) Jesus Christ is, we are wrong, since what we know and understand is just his human nature and not his divine one, as we will see below.

The revelation of God in Jesus in no way, for Aquinas, changes the situation. By the revelation of grace, he says, we are joined to God as an unknown, ei quasi ignoto coniugamur

For example, we do not know what the intra-Trinitarian relationship is between the Father and the Son, however, both by faith and reason we know Jesus’ attitude of obedience to the will of God, and by faith we hold that this ‘is just what the eternal procession of the Son from the father appears as in history.’  McCabe thinks that a better understanding of the humanity of Jesus will help us to go towards the mystery of God: that is, we can improve our  ‘understanding of ’ Jesus’ humanity, but his divinity is a ‘mystery’. 

A contemporary theologian, Ian McFarland, resumes this observation of McCabe and provides it with historical examples of alleged ‘divine’ qualities of Jesus: perfect God consciousness (Schleiermacher), Jesus’ intention to found the kingdom of God ( Ritschl), refusal to claim any goodness for himself (Baillie), absolute subordination to the will of the Father (Pannenberg); all these Christologies share the same basic claim: Jesus’ humanity is seen in what is average and everyday, while the divinity abides in such extraordinary qualities. But this temptation has to be resisted because we can only point to what is created, and those ‘extraordinary’ or ‘heroic’ aspects are just human, not divine. If we take the humanity of Jesus seriously, then ‘no aspects of it can be treated as a proof or manifestation of his divinity’. ‘None of them, taken singly or in combination, establishes that this person is the second Person of the Trinity’, and whatever miracle Jesus performs, they can be performed by other humans also. 

And what does the Incarnation tell us, on the other hand, about the divine nature?

It is most important to observe that to be divine is not to be ‘a kind of thing’ (just as to be a creature is not to be a kind of thing), whereas to be a man means to be a kind of thing, actually that one Jesus was.  God is not part of the universe so he is not something to disregard if you want to know what a man is. 

Thus, the two natures are not like an engine and a sail to provide movement to a boat but are two levels of speaking of Jesus. They are also a way to say that Jesus exists on two levels.  And McFarland follows McCabe on this point as well:  Chalcedon says that Jesus is fully divine but, since the divine nature is invisible and ineffable, it cannot be shown and so treated as an observable property of Jesus; in fact, any observable property of Jesus can be exhibited also by other human beings. The divine nature in the mind of the Fathers of Chalcedon has qualities such as omnipotence, eternity and the like, but, for the very reason that they are super-human, Jesus cannot exhibit any of them in his human life. An impressive example is divine impassibility and how Jesus ‘exhibited’ it on the cross.

The divine nature is not something which can be known by us, neither by reason, nor by faith. The divine nature of Jesus for us is not a series of qualities or ideas, but is a relationship with us. So, the hypostatic union appears only in the transformative relationship with the believer.




Consequence of this Doctrine for our Lives

This intellectual movement through the history of thought brings us to a current consideration. The study of past history must help us to understand the present. As for what regards our topic, we should focus on three present attitudes towards Nature.

  • In the present, at least in the Western world (but also in the former communist world of Russia and the communist world of China), explicit religious faith has greatly diminished and is tending to disappear. Strong majorities of those people living today think that reality is Monist and this Monism is Naturalist, i. e. governed by internal laws that are predictable and controllable, and devoid of any purpose or sense that is not internal to itself.
  • Of the remaining minority (say, 30% to 10%) many think that reality is Dualist, that there are two parallel orders of reality: the natural and the supernatural. This thought concerns – perhaps ! – the majority of those who remain believers today, who say to themselves: “There is my secular life which concerns the body, health, sex, family, work, money, entertainment and politics. And there is another line of reality, the religious one, which must protect me from the evils of poverty, ageing, disease, persecution and other violent interpersonal conflicts, and death.  And this second order of reality is 'supra-natural' because it is made and willed and 'managed' by a being of a nature other than and superior to human one, called God. And the two orders can exist separately from each other”.
  • Here, however, there is a third thought, that of the tradition from Thomas Aquinas, to De Lubac, to Ladaria to McCabe that I have presented here, a thought that should enlighten at least some and convince them that reality is Monist, that is, there is one and only one order of reality, but  this one order is supernatural, not ‘natural’.

What practical consequences can we draw from the third attitude, the one denies both Monistic  Naturalism (the atheistic immanentism) and Dualistic Naturalism  (the "pure nature" system)?

We human beings live a life that is neither due to us nor planned by us, that is unpredictable and full of pain, sin and tragedy (as well of adventure, knowledge, love and joy). This life is like a 'preparation' for an hoped new life, in which we could  detach ourselves from our past personality, in which we could become fully ready and fully open to the unpredictable. This life can  really be a transformation of our natural potentials, personal desires and habits, which we have acquired from parents and society. However, Herbert McCabe emphasises that the author of this transformation is not me: there are ways to become more human (commandments, virtues), but no means to become divine: this in fact is God's business.  

McCabe thinks that modern atheism of Nietzsche and Marx is right  in saying that God cannot love  creatures because of the inequality between them; for Nietzsche and Marx God the creator of the world is just a vast omnipotent baby unable to grow up  and to abandon himself in that true love that requires equality; they say that to accept this God is to accept a sort of slavery. But McCabe observes that  these atheists omitted to notice that we are no longer just  creatures, because, by  being  taken  up  into God,  by the gracious force of the transformation (always unpredictable, sometimes painful)  he accomplishes in us and through us, we  are raised into share in divinity.   The fact that God cannot love us is not because we are sinners, but because we are creatures; ‘sin is nothing but our deliberate settling for simple creature-hood’, closing ourselves off and rejecting the gift of God's love, the risk of divinity.  However, divine love and power  perform in us  the ultimate liberation of people, the liberation from mere creature-hood.

Therefore, it seems that the difference between creation and redeemed new life , between nature and super-nature, is that the former lacks equality (the relationship between creator God and creatures is real only in the creatures, as Aquinas says), whereas the latter does have this equality, which is the necessary premise for reciprocity.

Indeed, Grace (the ‘super-natural’) is not an improvement of creatures, as would happen to a man, for example, who became more handsome, intelligent, generous, courageous or long-lived. As McCabe says: "A creature with grace is not just a superior kind of creature. Grace does not make man a better creature, it raises him beyond the creature, it makes him a partaker of divinity." What does this sentence  mean?

It means two things, which are then two practical consequences of these philosophical considerations on Naturalism.

1) being transformed by God's grace does not mean being stronger, more beautiful, more wise, or more virtuous than other human beings, and therefore, in practice, we should never live and act without this awareness.

2) No one, theist or not, is able to know the nature of God, to see his face, that is, to understand what the first and last Cause of the Universe is.  However, the theist may be endowed with a stronger awareness of the Mystery of God than the atheist, and it is therefore easier for the theist who avoids the trap of Naturalism to refute the Myths that cultural fashions gradually present to us. This kind of theist will never place the First Cause and Ultimate End of our life - i.e. God - in some phenomenon of the universe, be it the Human Spirit (Hegel), the will of the world (Schopenhauer), social and economic equality (Marx), the will to power (Nietzsche), or the Big Bang.

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