(The piece below is a response to an article on the Spirtual Naturalism site. The article can be found at http://spiritualnaturalistsociety.org/roots-of-spiritual-naturalism-part-4-early-hunter-gatherers/)
My undergraduate degree is in anthropology, which perhaps gives me just enough knowledge to be dangerous. From that limited understanding, I would suggest that people have always been primarily naturalistic, at least in the most general sense of that term: that there is an orderly progression of cause and effect. At the same time, people have always perceived the world through a filter of imagination, in the most general sense of that term – mythological, ideological, or metaphysics world views.
Modern naturalism has included a somewhat systematic attempt to decoct what it considers to be the real world from the element that the imagination brings to that world. It has tried to present a picture of the world cleansed of the mythological, ideological and metaphysical, which is probably an alien notion to earlier people.
To some extent the scientific enterprise (the main methodology of naturalism) has succeeded in this decocting (though I personally believe science is much more fraught with myth, ideology and metaphysics than is generally supposed). And I think in doing so it has also succeeded in devaluing the imagination. This, I think, is unfortunate.
The human imagination provides us a tool for looking at the world and seeing what is not there. Now there are two very different sides to that tool. Long ago some human or group of humans looked out on the Saharan Desert in Egypt and imagined pyramids where in reality there was only the blowing desert sand. They then initiated the effort of making the imaginative vision into a reality. These Egyptian pyramid makers understood only a tiny fraction of modern science and mathematics, but this did not prevent them from making the physical world dance to their imaginations. This story can be repeated across the globe and the ages – Angkor Wat, the Parthenon, Chartres, the Empire State Building. The human imagination, for better or worse, has transformed the surface of the earth.
The other side of seeing what is not there is that we imagine unreal causes of real effects, like lightening or a deluge; and project unreal effects of real causes, such as certain behavior that might be thought impious. We also come to fear things that are not there – such abstract fear, anxiety, is practically epidemic in the modern age. (Perhaps one of the reasons there is still such a large number of faith healers of various sorts is that imaginary methods can be effective against the large array of imaginary fears and illnesses.)
In devaluing imagination, naturalism perhaps has paid too little attention to the creative side of the imagination. Naturalistic reality is a rather bare, meaningless phenomenon. Why wouldn’t we want to dress it in myths? Why wouldn’t we want to organize it with a meaningful metaphysics? The challenge for a healthy naturalism should not be diminishing imagination, but learning to appreciate it for what it is. This includes not mistaking the imaginative and the real – taking metaphors as metaphors, myths as myths, but not taking either literally. (Metaphors are among the mind's most imaginative creations. Going back to the those who imagined the pyramids, a pyramid was probably a kind of metaphoric mountain, which itself was probably a metaphoric place closer to the gods).
In seeking a “spiritual naturalism” I suspect that one of the things we are seeking is a re-integration of imagination and reason. Reason has proven to be a very powerful tool in manipulating the external world. Note that whether we are talking about building a pyramid or putting a person on the moon, we start with the product of the imagination and then call in the reason to help us actualize the imaginative vision. This, I believe is the proper relationship of imagination and reason – imagination should lead and reason be the servant. Unimaginative reasoning is can make us barren.
Imagination is also the tool, and the only tool, that can navigate our inner experience. This is the key to the poetic function of any art -- to explore experience and then pull from that exploration deeper meanings and articulate those meanings in extended metaphors. Such productive contemplation of experience is one of the highest elements of any spirituality. Unfortunately, it seems that people are increasingly alienated from their inner experience, and thus unable to make blossom the meanings of the great spiritual metaphors that have been handed down to us.
I suspect that those early hunter/gatherers who created the great cave paintings that still impress us today were not alienated from their inner experience. Compared to those primitives we may be giants in the exploitation of the earth’s resources, but we may be but pygmies in the creative marshaling of inner resources.