Atheists and Agnostics Compendium
Interview with Prof. Irwin Edman

Interviewer: Prof. Edman. I have long wanted to have a conversation with you. Your book, “Four Ways of Philosophy,” has been of great help to me, I have treasured it.

Edman: I’m pleased to hear that.

Interviewer: The section of your book I was most interested in is the last one, the fourth way of philosophy – you called it philosophy as nature understood. It has formed the intellectual basis of my atheism.

Edman: I can understand why it might.

Interviewer: When I say to others that the philosophy I live by is philosophical naturalism they don’t understood what I mean. In your book you have used that phrase many times as a description of an atheistic world-view. Can you share with me what it means to you?

Edman: All philosophers think of themselves as understanding nature, But there is a tradition coming from the Greeks which is simply nature understood, or philosophical naturalism. It is a philosophy that refrains from going to a world beyond the world of natural phenomena. It denies the existence of an invisible “friend” behind phenomena.

Interviewer: Exactly! Why is it though, that this simple idea is so difficult for so many people to accept?

Edman: I think to deny the existence of a friendly god that can help in times of distress is difficult for many people. To go on to describe without illusion man’s place in nature, requires courage. It requires giving up all ideas that somehow mankind’s purposes hold a special place in the universe; It often requires the abandonment of dearly held hopes and wishes.

Interviewer: You said that this courageous outlook started with the Greek philosophers. How so?

Edman: Early Greek thinkers around 400 B.C. made one of the most audacious and fruitful leaps of human imagination. They were the first to realize that all things might be variations of one substance – the atoms of Democritus. And, in thinking of all things as forms of one stuff, they hit at the same time upon the general principles of persistence amid transformation. They thought that if we could penetrate surfaces sufficiently, all the variety of things might be seen as variations of atomic combinations.

Interviewer: You mentioned principles of persistence amid transformation. What do you mean?

Edman: Well if you look around you - you see both things that seem permanent and things that are in the process of change. Democritus tried to account for both the changing and the permanent. He thought all the variety of things in the world consisted in combinations of atoms, but the combinations were dictated by natural laws. The world was rendered intelligible in terms of “constant parts and constant laws.”

As Lucretius, 100 years after Democritus, phrased it “All that exists is atoms and the void.”

The permanence of the world lay in the regularity, the constancy of its combinations. It removed from the universe chance and caprice, supernatural interference, providence, gods.

It is hard to appreciate how great a leap forward and how great an emancipation philosophical naturalism is as an intellectual ideal. The notion of a stable orderly cosmos in which, certain elements and their combinations can give us dependable predictions, in which given causes have given effects, provided the clarity and the peace that comes with understanding.

Interviewer: As you describe it I can see how differently the world appears when one moves from events caused by invisible agents to a world of cause and effect.

Edman: But in hindsight it was all so simple. To believe that all effects have discoverable causes, all causes discoverable effects, is really just common sense.
Without it men would not plant seeds, roast meat, build boats, found schools or establish or maintain governments.

This insight of Democritus seems simple, almost simple-minded now, but it died under the onslaught of religious spiritualism for 2000 years. Not until the rise of Newtonian science did the mind of man awaken from its theological slumber

Then nature was conceived as a great machine, though for various reasons, the new philosophical naturalists, with the glaring exception of Spinoza, were unable to let go of the hand of God.

Interviewer: I assume you mean someone like Decartes in the 17th century – scientist and philosopher that he was, he postulated two different realms; the realm of mind or spirit and that of matter?

Edman: He thought that there had to be a world of the non-material. And that duality plagued intellectual thought for years. It forms the basic foundation of religious thought today. The basis of philosophical naturalism is the knowledge that there is no evidence for a world beyond the physical.

Interviewer: Even the hard headed intellectuals who founded our country, as irreligious as they were, couldn’t let go of the hand of God.

Edman: Yes, The advanced thinkers of the eighteenth century, like the Deists among the founding fathers of our nation, conceived of the universe as a great machine and it led them to believe that this perfect machine had been set in motion by God.

They couldn’t conceive of any other way the universe came into being. Also the order that is seen in nature could be used as an argument that that order itself was God. Spinoza said just that, and, for him, the true love of God was simply the intellectual understanding of nature.

Or, on the other hand and more logically, the notion of the blind regularity of natural law could be used as an argument against the idea that there was anything like a general purpose or a cosmic directing mind in the universe.
A universe of cause and effect discards the notion of a kind and concerned cosmic Father.

Interviewer: And this understanding of a universe of cause and effect has given us the modern world.

Edman: It certainly has. It has yielded both practical and intellectual fruits. On the practical side, the whole of modern technology has been its fruit. The conception of mechanism meant the possibility of calculation, calculation meant predictability and predictability meant control.

Interviewer: But thinking of the universe as only a place of cause and effect yields a deterministic universe. Doesn’t it? Something very -- very mechanical. I’m not so happy with that.

Edman: That may be. But it describes what we call causality. And that idea is indispensable to our modern view of the world.

Interviewer: But a deterministic universe of only cause and effect seems to leave something important out. It may be correct intellectually but emotionally it leaves me cold. I want there to be something more that “atoms in the void” acting according to natural laws.

Edman: Ah, yes. As Spinoza said “We are emotional beings, ever the slaves of the love of something.” It is hard to live without an emotional attachment to something. But recently the notion of the world as a vast deterministic machine has been broken down by modern science itself. Modern science has shown us that the world in not a thing but a process. The new physics and recent cosmology reveals a dynamic evolving universe.

New understandings in modern physics are challenging the ideas of Newtonian physics and materialism. Quantum physics is disturbing the whole notion of ridged causality.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Edman: The universe is changing. Expanding. It’s in the process of growth. Nature, far from being like a machine, is more like an organism.

(Slowly – importantly) The naturalistic world-view seemed (and still does seem) cold to those brought up on the warm comfort of the providential myths of religion. Sensitive spirits have been deeply hurt by the fact that all that constitutes human value and dignity finds no support, no guarantee, no moral status in the universe.

But the division between man and nature is made more absolute than it actually is. All man’s achievements are in a large sense nature’s too.

It needs also to be pointed out that much of the sadness in the presence of the mechanistic picture of the world is a piece of romantic impertinence on the part of those who have it.

Interviewer: Can the view that man is part of nature give us a more hopeful understanding of what it means to be alive?

Edman: Yes, I believe that it can. Philosophical naturalism transcends mechanical physics. Despair over the notion that man’s highest ideals are somehow pathetic oppositions to nature neglects the important fact that those ideals are themselves part of nature. They are generated in the minds of human beings who are part of nature.

Truth, Goodness and Beauty are not visitations or glints from another world. They are fruits of this world and of human beings within it.

Interviewer: I see. We are part of the process of nature. Our ideals are part of us and we bring them into this world. Therefore, our ideals are, in this sense, a part of nature.

Edman: Yes. (passionately) We are biological animals living in a world of change, in the world that experience discloses, here and now. And in this world man thinks of goals not realized, ends not attained. He imagines a world better than he has ever known and lavishes his love upon that world.

The devotion to what humans at their best may be, to what at their best they make of the world, constitutes a love that can be hugely satisfying.

Man stands at the pinnacle of nature and looks beyond it to a world of Truth, Goodness and Beauty as this world’s still unrealized good. That vision is itself a natural development, and so is the love of it which accompanies the vision.

Interviewer: And so what the mind constructs, and the human intellect that constructs it can be objects of admiration, awe and love.

Edman: Yes

Interviewer: Thank you.

Edman: You’re welcome.



Irwin Edman 1896 - 1954

Beloved philosophy professor at Columbia University . He was also a poet. His book "Four Ways of Philosophy" explored philosophy as Logical Faith, Social Criticism. Mystical Insight and as Nature Understood.

The latter is an exposition of philosophical naturalism or atheism.