That there is only the natural world, which we are a part of, seems to me truth given the evidence. Thus the naturalist like myself realizes that man and nature are the same thing. Mankind is nature becoming conscious of itself. The late Anglo-American philosopher Alan Watts knew this quite well. In recent years he's become one of my favorite philosophers, and although he may not have technically been a naturalist in the strictest sense, his Zen inspired wisdom and metaphysics more often than not fall perfectly in line with the naturalism espoused by many atheists.
There is no doubt that naturalism can seem a lot more appealing when cloaked in the beautiful poetic language of philosophy and analogy. And Watts was incredibly good at doing this. In the Eastern traditions, the universe is not a creation, it's more like an organism. It grows. And as it grows, it peoples, in the same way that an apple tree apples. Thus, human beings are not born into the universe, they're born out of it. Watts thought that existence was fundamentally musical in nature. And so just as music doesn't have a destination, he argued the universe is not heading towards a particular goal. It is the process of the music unfolding over time that is why we enjoy it, just like when we dance we don't aim at a particular spot on the dance floor. The point is not to finish as fast as you can. The enjoyment comes from the dancing itself. Western philosophy however, which is so heavily influenced by Christianity and Judaism, sees the world and man as two separate creations, each created with a teleology in mind, and this Watts observes, is fundamentally at odds with the Eastern traditions and naturalism.
From some perspectives Zen and naturalism go hand in hand. Perhaps naturalism allows us the best explanation why we at times feel one with nature. In my mind, one can easily be a naturalist and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. Now I'm not at all advocating Zen, or claiming myself as one of its followers. I'm just noticing that there is this tendency among too many atheists to reject all of what religion or spirituality has to offer because it is associated with metaphysics which the atheist rejects. I too reject the metaphysical claims of almost all religions, but that does not mean that here and there one cannot find bits of wisdom and insight that offer a far richer view of the natural world than through the lens of a purely scientific epistemology. Life is too colorful and our minds are too philosophical to restrict one's way of thinking in such rigid scientism. Philosophies like the kind held by Alan Watts can offer the naturalist who has jettisoned all forms of religion and spirituality with an enhanced understanding of their place in the universe. And so I leave you with his words:
"It's understood in Buddhism that without space there can be no solid; space and solid generate each other. In the same way the tree, as a Zen poem says, manifests the bodily power of the wind. For without things against which the wind could move, by its transparency and invisibility we should never see it. And as the trees call forth the power of wind, solid things call forth the power of space.
Now its a fundamental principle of Buddhism that all life is changing and flowing away like waters. This is not a pessimistic doctrine, as if everything is going its way to death. It is rather that life itself is change, it is a process of flowing, and we are mistaken when we try to resist this process and stop the flow by clinging to ourselves. We waste an enormous amount of psychic energy in anxiety in trying to resist the flow of life, but that is just like trying to posses this living water by catching it in a bucket and we find that in the bucket it is no longer flowing, and in time it becomes stagnant.
Therefore it is absolutely fundamental in Buddhism to allow one's self to flow with the stream of life. Really there's no way of preventing it. And trying to prevent it is like trying to swim against an overwhelming powerful current. That way one drowns. But by flowing with it one ceases to waste energy resisting it and all that energy is available as new energy for creative work in art and life.
It's basic to Chinese philosophy that death is part of life just as space goes with solids. To resist death, to resist change, to resist transience is to resist life itself. And to come to the feeling as a result of this resistance that you as a human being are in some way separate from life; that you don't belong in the universe, that you don't express its fundamental energy, as waves express the existence of the water. Through Zen Buddhism man has learned to cooperate with nature. Man is nature become conscious of itself."