Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Psychotherapeutic Naturalism – A Philosophical Stance for Therapeutic Practice

To practice effective psychotherapy we need, of course, the following: excellent therapeutic relating skills, a well-grounded working model of human psychology and psychopathology, and a toolkit of relevant interventions. Underpinning all of this we also need a philosophical perspective or stance which acts as a basis for all of the therapeutic work we do. When we first train in counselling & psychotherapy, and again when we apply for accreditation, we are usually asked to write about this under some heading such as “My Philosophy of Therapy”. After more than 20 years in the field, I thought it would be useful to tease out explicitly for myself again the underlying basis of the work I do, and for my Integrative CBT perspective.

I call the stance I take as a therapist “Psychotherapeutic Naturalism” – this is in turn rooted in my overall philosophical view of life and the world: Naturalism. What is meant by this term, and why am I proposing it as a valuable for Psychotherapy?

“Naturalism is the understanding that there is a single, natural world as shown by science, and that we are completely included in it. Naturalism holds that everything we are and do is connected to the rest of the world and derived from conditions that precede us and surround us. Each of us is an unfolding natural process, and every aspect of that process is caused, and is a cause itself. So we are fully caused creatures, and seeing just how we are caused gives us power and control, while encouraging compassion and humility. By understanding consciousness, choice, and even our highest capacities as materially based, naturalism re-enchants the physical world, allowing us to be at home in the universe. Naturalism shows our full connection to the world and others, it leads to an ethics of compassion, and it gives us far greater control over our circumstances.”

Thomas W. Clark, Philosopher, Director, Center for Naturalism: Encountering Naturalism: A worldview and its uses (Somerville, Massachusetts: The Center for Naturalism, 2007).

Quoted in: Fully Caused: The benefits of a naturalistic understanding of behaviour. 2008 Ken Batts.

One of the interesting things about this definition is that, although it is not written with psychotherapy in mind, it refers to some of the themes that are important in psychotherapy: consciousness, choice, control, compassion.

This view that there is a “single, natural world” fully governed by cause-and-effect processes is often called Metaphysical Naturalism. An important aspect of Metaphysical Naturalism is Monism or Non-dualism. This is the view that, contrary to what Descartes proposed, there are no separate “Mind” and “Physical” substances, just a material world which includes the psychological processes taking place in some biological organisms. Naturalists take the viewpoint that reliable knowledge comes from exploring these causal relationships within the natural world – this is called Methodological Naturalism, and is equivalent to the scientific method.

“Succintly, naturalism seeks to apply the methods of the empirical sciences to explain natural events without reference to supernatural causes” (Shook, J.R & Kurtz, P., 2009).

As a Psychotherapeutic Naturalist I believe that all helping professions (and particularly those which aspire to the status of “therapy” (i.e. “treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder; the treatment of mental or psychological disorders by psychological means” - OED 11th ed.), need to be increasingly based on unifying principles which are given wide consensus not because of personal preference, admiration of a founder, investment in training, ideological preference etc, but because they are more solidly grounded in coherent theory and objective evidence than the competing alternatives; in other words, that they have a scientific basis. Any such principles need to be consistent with the scientific findings of other, neighbouring, disciplines (in the case of psychotherapy, this refers to disciplines such as psychology, biology, anthropology, sociology etc).

There are particular areas in which science has made, and continues to make, findings which are of compelling relevance to psychotherapy. One of these is neuroscience. Neuroscientist Paul Thagard, in The Brain and the Meaning of Life, puts this view strongly, saying “…I will try to show how life can have meaning and value within the framework I call neural naturalism. Naturalism is the view that we can best address philosophical questions by taking into account scientific evidence and theories rather than by seeking supernatural sources.”

Another fascinating area of science which a naturalistic psychotherapist must take seriously is evolutionary theory, including evolutionary psychology. Taking a stance of Evolutionary Naturalism means that we see human beings as complex, highly social, language-and-tool-using apes. As therapists, we will have to come to terms with the fact that human nature consists of a set of adaptations which do not necessarily meet our needs as individuals, but have evolved to maximise the spread of the genes which underlie them. These adaptations also became established in the context of much earlier, hunter-gatherer, environments and may be less relevant to modern environments (simple examples of this are common phobias such as spider phobia and our difficulty controlling our intake of junk foods).

In conclusion, some of the possible implications of a stance of Psychotherapeutic Naturalism are:

  • Therapy practice should be based as far as is possible on interventions which have shown their worth relative to other interventions through a rigorous, objective testing process (i.e. a scientific process).
  • Therapy practice should be based as far as is possible on up-to-date information on human psychology and physiology.
  • Therapists should take seriously the possibility that all of human nature, at least in its general outlines, may in time be open to scientific study.

In future blogs I will be exploring topics such as

  • Evolutionary Psychology
  • The role of science in psychotherapy
  • The problems of choice and free will
  • The nature/nurture debate
  • Psychotherapy and psychopathology


Damasio, A. (2006). Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. Vintage.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene (3rd revised edition). Oxford: OUP

Dennett, D. (1993). Consciousness Explained. London: Penguin

Hutcheon, P.D. (1996). Leaving the cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social Scientific Thought. Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Radcliffe Richards, J. (2000). Human Nature after Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction. Routledge.

Ritchie, J. (2008). Understanding Naturalism. Acumen Publishing

Shook, J.R & Kurtz, P. (2009). The Future of Naturalism. New York: Humanity Books.

Thagard, P. (2010). The Brain and the Meaning of Life. Princeton University Press.