Thursday, January 18, 2007

Defining the Supernatural

There is a trend in science and law to define the word "supernatural" as "the untestable," which is perhaps understandable for its practicality, but deeply flawed as both philosophy and social policy. Flawed as philosophy, because testability is not even a metaphysical distinction, but an epistemological one, and yet in the real world everyone uses the word “supernatural” to make metaphysical distinctions. And flawed as social policy, because the more that judges and scientists separate themselves from the people with deviant language, the less support they will find from that quarter, and the legal and scientific communities as we know them will crumble if they lose the support of the people. Science and the courts must serve man. And to do that, they must at least try to speak his language. And yet already a rising tide of hostility against both science and the courts is evident. Making it worse is not the solution.

As I argue in Sense and Goodness without God (pp. 29-35), philosophy is wasting its time if its definitions of words do not track what people really mean when they use them. And when we look at the real world, we find the supernatural is universally meant and understood to mean something metaphysically different from the natural. I could adduce many examples of the bad fit between real language and this ill-advised attempt at an "official" definition, but here are just two:
  • The underlying mechanics of quantum phenomena might be physically beyond all observation and therefore untestable, but no one would then conclude that quantum mechanics is supernatural. Just because I can't look inside a box does not make its contents supernatural.
  • Conversely, if I suddenly acquired the Force of the Jedi and could predict the future, control minds, move objects and defy the laws of physics, all merely by an act of will, ordinary people everywhere would call this a supernatural power, yet it would be entirely testable. Scientists could record and measure the nature and extent of my powers and confirm them well within the requirements of peer review.
Consequently, we need a proper definition of "supernatural" (and, therefore, of the word "natural" as well), one that tracks what people really mean when they use the word, one that marks a metaphysical distinction, and allows us to say when the word is being used sloppily or improperly, as must be the case for any word we intend to be useful. This is all the more crucial for metaphysical naturalists, who must define their worldview in some manner that actually makes it meaningfully different from supernaturalist worldviews. Critics of naturalism are entirely correct about this.

I define "nature" in Sense and Goodness without God (on pp. 211-12, with a little help from pp. 67-69). But I explain this in elaborate detail, with considerable supporting evidence, in my Secular Web article Defending Naturalism as a Worldview (2003), to which I referred readers in my book. After this, and the publication of Sense and Goodness, I defined the natural-supernatural distinction even more rigorously in the joint statement of the Carrier-Wanchick Debate (2006). Anyone who wishes to interact with my definitions of natural and supernatural must read these two articles.

In short, I argue "naturalism" means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, "supernaturalism" means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things. As I summarized in the Carrier-Wanchick debate (and please pardon the dry, technical wording):

If [naturalism] is true, then all minds, and all the contents and powers and effects of minds, are entirely caused by natural [i.e. fundamentally nonmental] phenomena. But if naturalism is false, then some minds, or some of the contents or powers or effects of minds, are causally independent of nature. In other words, such things would then be partly or wholly caused by themselves, or exist or operate directly or fundamentally on their own.
Despite all I have written on this, several people have had difficulties understanding how to apply my construction of these terms, so I thought I'd have some extended fun. Analogies and concrete examples always do a better job getting across to people what we're talking about, so that's what I'm going to do today. With a bit of fantasy, I'll show how my natural-supernatural distinction can be used to tell the difference between a natural and a supernatural explanation (a metaphysical question), and how we can know when one or the other actually is true (an epistemological question). I take a look at supernatural beings, substances, powers, properties, and effects, and we'll get to see what natural explanations of similar observations would look like, and how they would be different.

Before we can get to that, we need to get past one other important distinction: the meaning of paranormal.


Defining the Paranormal

I don't know if there has been any consistency in common practice, but I have always maintained a distinction between the paranormal and the supernatural. In my parlance, a paranormal phenomenon or explanation can be either natural or supernatural. What makes something paranormal is the fact that it exists outside the domain of currently plausible science. As such, it could just be a natural phenomenon we don't yet understand or haven't yet seen. But it could also be something supernatural. Or an entirely bogus claim. We won't know until we have enough evidence to make a determination. But either way, the category of "paranormal" can be applied to phenomena (hence the mere claim that something happens or exists can be paranormal) as well as explanations of that phenomena, i.e. paranormal hypotheses.

Typical example: alien abductions. There is no scientific evidence this happens, nor any scientific evidence that it's even plausible to suppose it happens. There is even, now, scientific and historical evidence that the phenomena offered as evidence of alien abductions are actually nothing of the kind. Back in the middle ages it was faerie and demon abductions. The monsters abducting us curiously change appearance, equipment, and tactics with the times. But even if we didn't have evidence confirming, for example, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucination, the claim that aliens abduct people remains outside the realm of scientific plausibility.
That alone doesn't mean it's scientifically impossible or inexplicable or even false. It's just paranormal. If we gathered enough scientific evidence to confirm it was true that aliens really were snatching people, then it would cease to be paranormal. It would then enter the realm of normal scientific fact. Moreover, the fact that extraterrestrials were abducting people, using ordinary, though highly advanced technologies, would not be supernatural. It would be an entirely natural phenomenon, as natural as the CIA abducting people off the street and whisking them off in helicopters to secret medical labs in Detroit (ooooh, scary!).

On the other hand, some Christians have proposed that these abductions really do happen, but the abductors are not really aliens but demons from Hell flying magic Satanic saucers, working their evil mischief on earth by snagging and buggering the locals (see Close Encounters: A Better Explanation). This would be a supernatural explanation of the same phenomena. Thus, a paranormal explanation can amount to a natural or a supernatural claim, depending on what kind of metaphysical entities are evoked. That something is paranormal is a separate distinction from whether it is natural or supernatural.

Another example: David Hume listed "fire burning under water" among the things he regarded as impossible and therefore unbelievable, owing to vast human testimony to the contrary. If someone told Hume, "Hey, I saw some wizards in Spain carrying torches to light their way in underwater caverns!" Hume would say, "Poppycock!" For this would be, for him, a paranormal claim, beyond the bounds of what was then scientifically plausible.


But Hume wasn't entirely dogmatic about this. Hume himself used the example of water turning into a white powder when cold: someone from a region where temperatures were always high would rightly regard "snow" to be a paranormal phenomenon. Until, that is, they were presented with adequate evidence to warrant believing it really does happen: water really does turn to white powder when sufficiently cold (at least, if you whisk a lot of air into it as it freezes, otherwise it turns into a glassy rock, which would sound even weirder to someone who'd never seen this). Hence Hume granted that, with sufficient evidence, the once-paranormal can become a normal fact: a desert native can come to a reasonable belief in snow and ice.

The same would then follow for the Spanish wizards. It turns out fire does burn under water. You just need the right chemicals or equipment. Napalm burns under water because it chemically contains its own oxygen. Magnesium flares burn under water by actually breaking the molecular bonds of water and consuming the oxygen released. The Olympic Torch was carried under water by using a welding apparatus that supplied fuel and oxygen under high pressures. And, of course, there are always flashlights, arc welders, glowsticks, volcanic magmas, and so on.
Regardless of what Hume may have written, if Hume saw these wizards himself, or heard reports from several eye-witnesses whom he trusted, whose trustworthiness in every relevant respect was abundantly supported by evidence available to Hume, then the phenomenon of underwater fire would no longer be paranormal. But any proposed explanation would still be paranormal, if it wasn't based on plausible science.

"Some unknown chemical reaction is occurring" would not be a paranormal hypothesis, because even in Hume's day there was a good grounding in established science to make that kind of hypothesis plausible. But "the wizards impregnate the wood with the element of fire" would be a paranormal hypothesis even in Hume's day, because there is and was no properly scientific basis for such a claim. However, if it turned out to be true, and fire really was an irreducible element that could be absorbed into a stick, that would be a paranormal but still natural explanation, until scientifically proved, or grounded in supported science, the way "chemical reaction" explanations now are. Then even this bizarre claim would become natural and normal. On the other hand, "the wizards cast a spell on the sticks" would be a hypothesis both paranormal and supernatural, and if this theory were scientifically proved, though it would cease to be paranormal, it would remain supernatural.


The same thing could be said about ESP or crystal healing or Big Foot and so on. These are definitely paranormal claims, at least at present (there is no scientific reason to consider them plausible). But each could still be explained either naturally or supernaturally. For example, ESP could be a natural phenomenon of human brains producing and transceiving radio waves, or it could be a supernatural power that doesn't involve any such mechanism. Crystal healing could be the operation of unknown physics or chemistry, or it could be a supernatural power. Big Foot could just be a rare but perfectly natural species of hominid, or the supernatural victim of an evil sorcerer's spell. Confirming the existence of any of these phenomena would remove it from the category of the paranormal ("ESP exists," "crystal healing works," "there is a Big Foot"), but how one still chose to explain it would still be paranormal if you appealed to concepts that are currently groundless or scientifically implausible. But even a supernatural explanation would cease to be paranormal if it was scientifically confirmed.

So the question is: What really is the underlying difference between a natural and a supernatural explanation? What follows now presupposes all I've said above.

Supernatural Beings

Let's start with supernatural beings. You know, like God. Or gods. Or demons, angels, faeries, or ghosts. Or invisible pink unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters. You get the picture. These are all supernatural if they have any mental property or power that is not reducible to a nonmental mechanism. If, however, all of their powers and properties can be reduced to nonmental mechanisms, then they are not supernatural beings after all, but natural ones.

In the most obvious case, the God of traditional theism is a pure mind, composed of nothing else but mental powers and concepts. That is indisputably supernatural. So is the ability to cause things to happen in the universe merely by willing them to happen, since that means there is no nonmental mechanism (like arms and nervous systems or graviton rays) mediating between the act of will and its realization. Such direct mental causation is certainly supernatural. And so on. Of course, just because you see God does not entail the God you are seeing is disembodied, or omniscient, or omnipresent, or omnipotent, or anything else supernatural. You would need additional evidence to confirm each of those attributes. Hence it's possible to find evidence that the God you just saw is not supernatural after all, but some sort of natural being.

The Stoic and Epicurean Gods

How would a natural God be different from a supernatural God? Well, he would have a body of some kind, and all his thoughts would be the product of a machine of some sort, like a brain, and he would only be able to realize his will by initiating a chain of causes-and-effects that is entirely reducible to nonmental events. A hypothetical analogy would be the God proposed by various Stoic theologians of the Roman era. The Stoics were not always clear or in agreement on every detail, but I shall describe here the most naturalistic conception imaginable on Stoic principles.

For convenience I'll call this naturalistic Stoic God "Theostoa." Theostoa is composed of a superfine material called pneuma, which is indestructible, invisible, and indivisible but elastic, which permeates the entire universe, like gravity or dark matter. So this God is the same size as the universe and located in every part of it, and thus "naturally" omnipresent, and because of his material composition he is "naturally" invincible and immortal. His pneumatic body interacts physically with all other matter and space, like a gigantic machine, and thereby produces all physical laws and effects, and this conversely operates as God's sensory apparatus. Since he is in contact with every piece of the universe, he is "naturally" omniscient and "naturally" omnipotent (obviously both in a certain qualified sense). This pneuma also physically stores and generates the thoughts and memories and ideas of God, and thus serves as his brain.

If Theostoa's entire mind (every thought, every memory, etc.) is entirely reducible to a system of nonmental pneumatic particles interacting together, and Theostoa's ability to perceive and affect the universe is entirely reducible to a system of nonmental interactions between these pnuematic particles and everything else, then Theostoa is not a supernatural God. But if any part of Theostoa's mind or activity is irreducibly mental, then despite everything else, he is still supernatural. I would then call him Supertheostoa.

But though entirely natural, the existence of Theostoa would still not be compatible with naturalism unless Theostoa's origin was also completely reducible to natural causes. If Theostoa evolved through some nonmental cosmological process, entirely without intelligent design or any mental causation at all, or was intelligently engineered by entirely natural beings, then Theostoa would be compatible with naturalism. In fact, we can vaguely imagine the possibility of mankind technologically creating a deity somewhat like this at some point in our distant future. On the other hand, if Theostoa had no origin but existed eternally, fully-formed, the issue would no longer be his temporal origin, but his ontological foundation, i.e. why he exists. This could have a natural or a supernatural answer, depending on whether this foundation were fully explicable without appealing to anything irreducibly mental about the nature of existence.

Therefore, only an evolved or accidental or naturally inevitable Theostoa would be compatible with naturalism, and this is the only sense in which naturalism could ever include something near to a traditional God. Of course, no one on earth believes in a God like this, and for good reason: there is no evidence of it, and it's highly implausible. So we have no reason to believe it. But if he did exist, we could (in principle) demonstrate his existence scientifically in the same way we can demonstrate the existence of any other embodied person: we could develop instruments capable of detecting, documenting, and measuring the existence and properties of his pneuma, and then use these instruments to communicate with his mind, learning things about him in the exact same way we learn things about people, through sciences like psychology and biodynamics.

The rival philosophy of Epicureanism offers another example. In Epicurean theology, there were many gods, but all were naturally evolved aliens of naturally superior substance and abilities, who resided far away from earth without any concern for us. We only know they exist because very fine atoms coursing through the universe bounce off their bodies, fly through space in the same pattern that they struck, and collide with our brains, causing us to "see" them in our dreams and sometimes in waking visions. Like Theostoa, these gods have no supernatural cause, no supernatural powers, and no supernatural properties. Their origin is a series of unguided, unintelligent, mechanical collisions of atoms. Their composition is a mindless substance, just atoms in space. Even their ability to appear to us in dreams and visions is entirely explained by the causal interactions of a mindless mechanism, just atoms bouncing around.

Obviously, these gods are not supernatural. They are just very odd, very lucky extraterrestrials. But notice how they are very different from what most people mean by "gods," so much so that most people today would not even call them gods. Nor would any Christian acknowledge Theostoa as a proper God. Hence there is a clear difference here between a "natural" god and a properly supernatural god. That difference is meaningful, metaphysical, and substantial.

Demons, Angels, Faeries, and Ghosts, Oh My!

The same things could be said of demons and angels and faeries, for example. They could be just like Epicurean gods, maybe even living in alternate spatial dimensions and using natural physics to travel to and from (thus "Heaven," "Hell," and "Faerie" in naturalistic terms), in which case they would be entirely natural beings. Or they could have some irreducibly mental property or power (like the ability to transport from one dimension to another by a mere act of will), which would make them supernatural. And even if they were entirely natural, if they had a supernatural origin (e.g. "God willed them into existence" rather than "they evolved by mindless processes"), then naturalism would still be false.

Note again how this differs from the epistemological question. If you dink around with a freaky puzzle box and Pinhead steps out of your wall and you beat the shit out of him and haul ass out of there, you probably won't have any reason to doubt you just beat the shit out of a demon. The characters in Hellraiser had plenty of evidence they were involved with demons. But were these just twisted, interdimensional aliens, or real supernatural demons? That's another question altogether. But regardless of whether you can know the difference, there is still a difference.

Likewise, if ghosts exist, they could be explained supernaturally, or by some Epicureanesque physics. Since ghosts are usually regarded as human souls divested of their mortal bodies, if these ghosts did exist and were supernaturally created or composed, then this would mean even humans are supernatural beings. Our flesh-and-blood bodies would not be supernatural, but our souls would be. Which brings us to our next category...

Supernatural Substances

A supernatural substance is any substance (or any comparably definable point or volume of space) imbued with mental properties or powers. For example, is our "mind" the product of a brain or a soul? If the mind is entirely caused by a mindless mechanism like the brain, which is just a system of mindless cells causally interacting with each other, then our mind is just a brain, which is a natural substance, since no part of it is irreducibly mental. It only produces mental properties as a causal consequence of a system of interacting nonmental parts. But if our mind could depart our brain, and survive and think without any material to sustain it, then just like a disembodied God, our mind would be supernatural, since it would then be irreducibly mental.

But even if our soul was a substance, it could still be a supernatural substance. Most Christians, Jews, and pagans in antiquity understood the human soul as a body composed of pneuma, an ultra-fine, indestructible substance, which inhabits our body of flesh until we die, and then leaves, and physically flies up to heaven, or descends into hell, or rests inside the corpse until the resurrection, or hovers around the graveyard, or whatever. In some accounts, this soul-body departs the corpse-body and takes on a shape more like a ball of light, though still bearing a vague stamp of a person's physical features, but all invisible to ordinary people. In our terms, we could say soul-bodies radiate and reflect light only in frequencies, or only of a sort, that normal human eyes can't detect.

Suppose this were true, and we found a way to detect these soul-bodies with instruments and track them as they left the corpse, even ascertaining their physical properties, like their mass and volume and elasticity and so on. If these soul-bodies retained mental function through some naturalistic mechanism, so that all mental powers and properties were still completely reducible to the mindless interaction of particles (like another brain made of soul-stuff, comprising, let’s say, a system of mutually interacting particles of dark matter), then as strange as this soul-body would be, it would be a natural body. It might yet have a supernatural origin, but that's a separate question. The body itself, the substance, would not be supernatural.

However, if this soul-body turned out to have no relevant sub-structure, if in fact it simply carried a person's "mind" with all its functions and powers and properties, all as an irreducible "property" of that soul-body, and not as the product of any system of interacting parts within it, then this soul-body would be a supernatural substance. What distinguishes this supernatural soul-body from a natural soul-body is the same thing that distinguishes mind-brain physicalism from traditional notions of a soul: just as mind-brain physicalism entails that all mental powers and properties are fully caused by a functioning collection of neurons called a brain, so a natural soul-body entails that all mental powers and properties are fully caused by an analogously-organized soul-brain made of ethereal substances that can float free of the flesh-and-blood brain. But in a supernatural soul, there are no interacting parts that fully explain how the soul produces mental powers and properties. It simply possesses them, as innate properties of the substance. That makes it supernatural.

We can imagine other supernatural substances. A typical example would be a magic love potion. A drink that causes someone to fall in love could be a natural substance, if the potion contained chemicals that got into the blood, and from there into the brain, and were of just the right construction as to have all the right causal effects in all the right places there. In other words, it could, for example, be an incredibly advanced nanorobotic saline solution designed by clever futuristic brain scientists.

But if the love potion contained no such chemicals, but was simply imbued with the property of "causing love" and had this effect directly, by possessing no other structure or properties except that innate power, then the potion would be a supernatural substance. This is because the idea of love is a mental property, which in this case would not be reducible to any nonmental system. That a potion would just "know" it was in a human body and "know" where their brain was and "know" precisely how to affect and reorganize that brain so as to cause the person to fall in love (much less with a specific person), is all impossible without a causal mechanism. So if the causal mechanism in the potion consists solely of the mental property of just "knowing" all these things and then directly causing them on contact, with no underlying or intervening mechanism, we're talking about a supernatural potion.

Surely you can see by now that metaphysically there is a huge difference between a natural substance (whether a soul or a love potion) and a supernatural one. That difference derives from whether an irreducible mental property or power is possessed by that substance, or whether, instead, everything that substance does (mental or not) is entirely the product of nonmental mechanisms operating in a causal system. This still leaves open the epistemological question of how we could tell the difference between a natural soul and a supernatural one, or between a natural love potion and a supernatural one. But already you may be starting to see how that might be done.


Supernatural Powers or Properties

Supernatural beings and substances are basically just beings and substances with supernatural powers or properties. However, we could make a further distinction between an ordinary substance that is imbued with a supernatural property, and a substance that always has a supernatural property by its very nature. The latter would be a proper case of a supernatural substance, while the former would be a substance that can have a supernatural property added to it and taken away. For example, temporarily imbuing someone with the supernatural power of flight or giving a broom the supernatural power to chase down Jehovah’s Witnesses and thwack them on the head until sunset.
A popular example is the Ark of the Covenant. There is nothing inherently supernatural about its construction or composition. It's made of ordinary wood and gold, in an ordinary way. But it was then imbued by the will of God with supernatural powers: it inflicts boils and mice upon anyone who steals it, instantly kills anyone who touches it, dries up or burns away any obstacles to those who carry it, gives advice to those who consult it, and various other things, generally nasty.

For all these powers to be natural, they would have to be fully caused by some mechanism. Some machine, some interacting system of nonmental parts, would have to be able to detect and calculate when it's touching a person or facing an obstacle or in the hands of a thief or being asked a question, and then activate its powers appropriately. Then some other mechanism would have to be able to cause mice to reproduce or boils to appear on human skin or rivers to dry up or brambles to burn away or snakes to die, and so on. But no such machine would be needed if these powers were supernatural.

We can certainly imagine a super-advanced technology that could accomplish all this in a compact portable form that would look deceptively like an ordinary Ark, but it would still have all that internal structure (computers, sensory systems, particle emitters, etc.), which would in principle be detectable. Likewise if all these powers were effected from, say, a spaceship in orbit, and only made to appear as though they were coming from the Ark, even then, all the same technology would exist and could in principle be found, as happened, for instance, when the crew of Picard's Enterprise discovered how Ardra was pretending to be Satan with supernatural powers. If she needed no spaceship and thus no mechanism or technology to work her miracles, then her powers would have been supernatural. Thus Clarke's Third Law ("any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") is only, at best, an epistemological principle, not a metaphysical one. Metaphysically, magic and technology are very definitely always distinguishable.

Thus if the Ark of the Covenant had no internal structure at all, just ordinary wood and gold arranged as the bible describes, yet could do all these things on its own, actually knowing when and how, then these would be supernatural powers. For then there would be something fundamentally and irreducibly mental about its ability to know when to perform certain miracles (like knowing when it was stolen and who the thieves were), and to know what miracles to perform, and where. So, too, for its ability to cause intelligent effects without any underlying mechanism. Like a love potion, for the Ark to "cause death" to anyone who touches it, the Ark would have to be imbued with the idea of death, and the idea of a person and of touching and of causing and so on. If these concepts are not realized by an underlying mechanism in which no single part knows anything about death or persons and so on, then these concepts can only be realized supernaturally. In other words, they would have to be irreducibly innate to the object.

Another way to convey this distinction is to contrast the underlying metaphysics implied in Forbidden Planet and Harry Potter. In Harry Potter's world, a wizard speaks a word and something happens. A single word causes a wand to generate light, another word causes objects to move wherever the wand points, and so on. Suppose this really happened. There is no doubt we could document the hell out of it scientifically and thus confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that the effect exists. That’s why in Harry Potter's world entire agencies are vexed with the task of trying to prevent this evidence from getting to the public (like, say, photographs of flying cars over London). So we can scientifically test for its existence. But would the phenomenon be natural or supernatural? That depends on what really is happening.

In the film Forbidden Planet (and similarly in other books and movies since) whatever a man dreamed, happened. Of course, this meant his nightmares caused monsters to appear and ravage and kill. It was subsequently discovered that the entire planet had been hollowed out by an ultra-advanced alien civilization and filled with a gigantic machine that used futuristic technologies to scan his mind and then mechanically generate (with particle beams and so forth) what his mind was thinking. The effects were therefore entirely natural. But in the Harry Potter world, there is no gigantic machine inside the earth scanning the air for spoken words and sending out particle beams to construct what is requested. There is no comparable or analogous mechanism behind what happens at all. The universe itself simply responds to spoken words.

In a similar fashion, in the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the rocks and trees and winds respond to verbal commands, despite having no brains or ears or nervous systems, or anything structurally analogous to these. Therefore, magic in the Harry Potter and Jonathan Strange universes is genuinely supernatural. It relies on irreducibly mental powers and properties of the universe. Words directly cause what they request, without any mindless mechanism connecting the spoken word to the realized effect. Such a universe would have to be fundamentally supernatural, because it would be fundamentally mental to some extent.

Similarly, the Force in the Star Wars universe would be supernatural, unless it was entirely caused by nonmental mechanisms of some kind (whether natural or technological), which mediate between what one willed and its effect. Likewise, an innate force of love in the universe would be supernatural, if it actually had causal effects and was not solely the product of a nonmental mechanism like a brain. For example, if the mere act of loving someone directly healed their wounds or illnesses, or the amount of love in a community caused crops to grow, or the power of love in the cosmos caused cruel animals to go sterile and kind animals fertile, so evolution proceeded according to survival of the kindest instead of merely the strongest. And so on. You get the picture.

Supernatural Effects

Last but not least are supernatural effects. Anything that is the effect of a supernatural cause is a supernatural effect, even if the effect itself is not supernatural. Thus, in the Belgariad when Garion created a new species of flower by simply willing it into existence, the flower itself was entirely natural, but its existence was a supernatural effect. Indeed, given everything Garion observed in the Belgariad saga, he would have no reasonable doubt that naturalism was false and that the universe contained supernatural powers. Even his wife Ce'Nedra could talk to trees and make them move. If these trees had no brains or muscles or nervous systems, or anything causally analogous, then trees in Garion's world must also have supernatural powers. So when these trees supernaturally bend their limbs, though a bent tree limb in and of itself is not supernatural, this particular bending would be a supernatural effect. The same distinction can be made between the effects of Harry Potter magic and the phenomena of the Forbidden Planet.

I shall end my examples with the mother of all purportedly supernatural effects: the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. Contrary to what some have inferred, I have never said naturalism, if true, entails that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Aliens, for example, using advanced but perfectly natural technology could have done it, like Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Heck, we could do it now, with a defib kit and modern drugs (and I've said this before: see The Event is Not Proportionate to the Theory, part of my old Secular Web article Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story).

If you accept the probable truth of naturalism, this only leads to ruling out supernatural causes of resurrections, not resurrections themselves. Hence in The Empty Tomb I argued that the inference to naturalism only supports arguments against a supernatural resurrection (p. 370, referenced on pp. 196-97, 364). Moreover, not only are natural resurrections possible (thus an inference to naturalism is not alone sufficient to warrant disbelieving in the resurrection of Jesus), it is also possible to have enough evidence of a supernatural resurrection to actually refute naturalism. I have never claimed otherwise.

So, applying to this all I've surveyed above, it follows that if "God" were actually an organism like Theostoa, entirely produced by the interaction of mindless building blocks much like we are, and if he needed chemicals or machines of any sort to raise Jesus from the dead, then he is not a god in any traditionally accepted sense, and certainly not any kind of supernatural being. Moreover, even if this being retained some supernatural properties (if he was a faerie, say, or a wizard), but still needed natural mechanisms to raise Jesus, then the resurrection would still not be supernatural even if it occurred. Therefore, when I say naturalism rules out supernatural explanations of what happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, I am obviously not including mechanical pseudo-gods. Such entities would fall closer to the "aliens did it" category of explanations, which naturalism does not address, nor does it need to. Good old fashioned inductive logic already does away with them.

Ultimately, since The Empty Tomb was not written to address such fringe hypotheses (after all, Christian apologists are not claiming aliens or a mechanical God raised Jesus), it would be rather silly to expect a chapter or even a paragraph in The Empty Tomb debunking such theories. This would be as silly, in fact, as devoting even so much as a sentence to debunking the theory that Simon Magus supernaturally raised Jesus by casting a spell. Obviously, when "resurrection" is the theory we are responding to, everyone knows we're not talking about aliens, mecha-gods, or spellcasting, but an immaterial God directly willing a man back to life. And that is most definitely a supernatural claim.

Is the Supernatural Knowable?

Clearly there is a metaphysical difference between the natural and the supernatural, and it tracks the reducibility of phenomena to the nonmental. This must not be mistaken as requiring any particular form of physicalism or reductionism. Naturalism does entail causal physicalism and reductionism, but only in the very broadest sense of these terms (see what I say about this in Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 130-34, with pp. 143-44 & 224-25). But whatever the essential metaphysics of naturalism and supernaturalism may be, the epistemological question remains: even supposing the supernatural is possible, as something metaphysically distinct from the natural, does this distinction entail that the supernatural is untestable and therefore unknowable?

I don't see how. There is nothing inherent in either my definition of the supernatural or in the definition of scientific method (see Sense and Goodness, pp. 214-26) that leads to any such entailment. And all of the examples I have given are clearly capable of scientific test and empirical demonstration. The claim that supernatural hypotheses can never be verified or falsified, are untestable, and therefore unknowable, is therefore not tenable. With sufficient evidence I am certain any reasonable scientist would be persuaded to believe any of the supernatural scenarios I have described above. In fact, with sufficient standards and documentation I am certain I could get them into any peer reviewed scientific journal.

Hence I reject radical methodological naturalism, which holds that science can only investigate natural phenomena. Nonsense. Science would have no special problem investigating the supernatural. If there were any. But I do embrace pragmatic methodological naturalism, which holds that supernatural phenomena have been shown to be so scarce (in fact, as far as we can tell, non-existent), and therefore so improbable, that it is a waste of time and money to investigate supernatural hypotheses, or any uncorroborated paranormal claims. Science should only investigate the paranormal when there is sufficient reason to believe there is really something that needs explaining, and even then should only bother testing natural explanations first. This is a pragmatic position, not an epistemological one. If someone wants to spend his own time and money testing supernatural hypotheses and claims, then all the power to him. If they exist, he should be able to find them, and confirm them scientifically. Good luck.

The objection I usually hear is that though science could prove, for example, the existence and efficacy of Harry Potter magic, and even analyze in scientific detail its properties and limitations, science can never really establish that there wasn't some natural explanation underlying it all. For instance, there could be a gigantic machine inside the earth making it all happen with particle beams, and we just haven't found it yet, nor detected any of its scanning or constructing beams or anything else. But I can say exactly the same in reverse: no matter how much evidence we get that aerodynamics causes airplanes to fly, there could still be supernatural sky faeries keeping planes in the air and we’ve just not detected this yet.

Hence this "could be" argument is an unreasonable demand that no scientist would accept in any other context. Obviously we can always not know something that would change our conclusions. Science actually embraces this fact, and gets past it, by concluding that we can arrive at confident conclusions anyway, so long as we remain open to new evidence that could prove us wrong. Scientists rightly accept that there comes a point when it is unreasonable to hold out for alternative hypotheses, until new evidence arrives.

In the case of Harry Potter's magic, for example, it would be absurdly unreasonable to claim there is an undiscovered machine behind it all. Yes, there could be. But we would have no reason to believe there was. When we've conducted a detailed investigation and all we have left that actually carries substantial predictive success is a supernatural hypothesis, then science has established the latter as well as it could any other theory. Science can therefore prove the supernatural. It just needs damned good evidence. And yet like all science, even this conclusion would be revisable, if we discovered new evidence of a natural cause after all. But it would be irrational to hold out for that evidence. This would be as irrational as holding out for evidence of sky faeries rather than accepting the conclusions of aerodynamics.


By analogy, it is always possible that there is a gigantic machine inside the earth that is changing the course of photons approaching the earth, fooling us into thinking the earth revolves around the sun. In this way the heliocentric theory could actually be false. But no scientist would claim we have not proven heliocentrism merely because of possibilities like this. Yet if a scientist will not tolerate such objections to heliocentrism, he cannot tolerate methodologically identical objections to any supernatural hypothesis that is as well established as heliocentrism. Therefore, this is not a valid objection to allowing supernatural hypotheses into science.

If the supernatural existed, we should be able to accumulate evidence in support of it just as we have accumulated evidence of heliocentrism. Indeed, if the universe were as blatantly and pervasively supernatural as we have found it, instead, to be natural, then naturalism would be as untenable as supernaturalism is now. Supernaturalism would then be the default worldview. But even if the evidence was not that overwhelming, just as for heliocentrism, at some point the evidence could accumulate so high that you will have to admit a supernatural explanation is the best explanation there is. In fact, eventually the evidence could stack so high you will concede it's the best explanation by far. It's not reasonable to say "possibly, therefore probably" something else is going on. This is as irrational for a creationist to maintain against evidence for evolution as for a naturalist to maintain against the same quality of evidence for supernatural creation. If there were such evidence. It just so happens there isn't. But no one should confuse an actual lack of evidence for the theoretical impossibility of having it.

Thus, for example, if Biblical Creationism were true, by now we should have accumulated tons of scientific evidence that the entire universe is less than six light days across and the earth is at the center of it, all fossils and rocks radiologically and stratigraphically date no older than six thousand years, the fossil and DNA records confirm that all species appeared simultaneously six thousand years ago and have not substantially changed since, and much more. For further examples of how the evidence should have turned out if creationism were true, see The Original Christian Cosmos, the last part of my Secular Web article Why I Am Not a Christian (2006). But alas, the data didn't come out that way. But if it had, supernaturalism would have been as scientifically established as naturalism is now.

Conclusion

Many naturalists have a poor conception of how to define naturalism or the supernatural. They might know it when they see it, but when they try to capture in words what exactly it is they are talking about, they often come up with a badly worded travesty. I've done what little I can to remedy this by developing and testing a precise definition of naturalism and the supernatural, providing a sensible and usable natural-supernatural distinction, which also happens to align adequately well with how people use these words in practice (as I believe our terminology ought to do as much as possible). And now I have amplified my past work on this by surveying numerous hypothetical examples of how my proposed distinctions can be applied.

In defining the words "natural" and "supernatural" as I do, I differ from the legal and science community, as exemplified most recently in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. There, Judge Jones was bound by legal principles to follow case precedent and the professional standards of established industries. Following the 1982 McLean decision he found the courts had defined "supernatural intervention" as intervention that "cannot be explained by natural causes, or be proven through empirical investigation, and is therefore neither testable nor falsifiable." Jones further cited the official statement of the National Academy of Sciences, which declares "claims of supernatural intervention...are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science." Thus we see the same trend in both the legal and scientific communities, to veer away from metaphysical distinctions and in favor of purely epistemological ones, but as my articles, and now examples, have shown, this does not track the real-world use of the word at all, which can tend to no good.

I think the legal and scientific communities are on a bad track with this (hence the barely coherent discussion of the supernatural in Wikipedia), especially since the same point can be made without abusing the word "supernatural." It is enough to say, for example, that creationism isn't science, not because it is supernatural, but simply because it is untestable (assuming you can prove it is). There is no need to conflate the two.

Though I understand their reasons for wanting to keep metaphysics out of it (since both enterprises are more fundamentally epistemological), I disagree with their attempted solution of coopting and changing the meaning of a popular word. That's the wrong way to go about it. Hence I believe a paradigm shift is needed in those communities regarding how the word "supernatural" is defined and applied. Both law and science must get back in line with ordinary English and real-world language, ideas, and concerns. 


My discussion of this issue has been continued on this blog and in print. See Defining Naturalism and Defining Naturalism II.
 

40 comments:

DFB said...

Good points, mostly. But, wow, you don't overthink things much, do you?
I believe I see the distinction you're trying to make but I'm still trying to figure out why this matters. It sounds like you're allowing for supernaturalism to have a fair chance at being closer to Truth, and that's rather magnanimous of you, but really.. come on.
I always liked the "supernatural is not testable, if it were testable it'd be natural" definition, but I think that I had understood this to be self-evident without thinking much more about. So what you're saying is that "supernatural is that which flows from nonphysical (mental) causes." Fair enough. That's harder to defend in 25 words or less* but probably a stricter definition. I'm still struggling with the notion that supernatural phenomenon are testable; not in the world I live in, they're not. That may have sounded hyperbolic, but that's only because I spent more time trying to figure out how to punctuate that sentence and less time with the content. It must be Friday.
So thanks for the thought-munchies and have a great weekend.
* I'm not sure you did it under 25 paragraphs.

The Science Pundit said...

Another great post! Like DFB, I was a bit confused at first, but I think I catch your drift. However, in the end, epistemology is all we have to work with. But you did touch on this with the idea that any natural (or supernatural) cause could have an undiscovered supernatural (or natural) explanation.

I was intrigued by your distinction between the paranormal and the supernatural. As I was reading it, I couldn't help but think of a medical parallel. Paranormal is to supernatural as alternative medicine is to quackery. Quackery is treatment that simply doesn't work in the way we define medicine to work. Alternative medicine is treatment that hasn't passed the rigors of double-blind studies. It could be either tested or untested, and either efficable or quackery.

Again, nice post!

writerca said...

DFB,
You say to reduce the concept that: "supernaturalism" has nonphysical (mental) causes."to 25 words of less is a problem. Well to me the psychological concept of "projection" is a fairly straight forward explanation. Erich Neuman, in "The Origins and History of Consciousness," offers this exact concept to explain the creation of gods, goddesses and the like. Particularly Chapter one.

David B. Ellis said...

Your definition of the word "supernatural" tracks closely to the one I've developed over the course of my own informal internet debates on religion:

The supernatural is the ability of anything to exist, act, communicate or otherwise influence the world without any physical basis or means.

David B. Ellis said...

by the way, I like they way you've incorporated images into your essay. It makes what can be a dry, abtruse topic much more fun.

Loren Petrich said...

I wonder if a reasonable parallel could be made with vitalism. That's the old theory that living things have some sort of special vital force or life-stuff that makes them alive.

Aristotle had believed that there are three kinds of soul or vital force, the vegetable soul, the animal soul, and the rational soul, and atomists believed that there are soul atoms as well as other kind of atoms.

Vitalism used to be a respectable hypothesis in the scientific community, but in its later decades, it became essentially a "vital force of the gaps" hypothesis, and vitalism has been dead since the early 20th century.

Vitalism easily survived Frederick Wohler's synthesis of urea from ammonium cyanate, which in itself was not much of a blow. But many other organic substances were soon synthesized from inorganic ones, notably by Berthelot in the mid 19th cy, which disproved that vitalist hypothesis once and for all.

The last big-name reputable vitalist was perhaps Hans Driesch, who a century ago chopped up early sea-urchin embryos and noticed that they developed into complete but small sea-urchin larvae rather than parts of full-sized larvae. This, he thought, refuted mechanistic concepts of development and supported the hypothesis of some vital force.

But from other development studies, it was learned that many embryonic cells take a while to get committed to some specific fate, like the infamous "stem cells". So Driesch was cutting up embryos before their cells had gotten committed to specific fates.

I'm sure PZ Myers of Pharyngula might have more to say about that some time.

Since then, molecular biology has discredited vitalism so thoroughly that it is nowadays almost unthinkable. Though in fairness to the people of centuries past, the details of molecular biology had been unknown to them.


However, vitalism continues to survive as the "theoretical justification" offered for various "alternative medical therapies", forces like "prana" and "qi".

But what is interesting and curious here is that such vitalists have not been nearly as political as creationists. They have not demanded that vitalism be included in school curricula, and mainstream scientists have ignored their vitalist hypotheses rather than trying to discredit those hypotheses.

J.L. Hinman said...

You are on totally the wrong page about the supernatural. You have't even begun to discuss it. you don't even understand the concept and you refuse to even constult the real theorists who make a difference in the theolgoical world. this is something I can't understand about atheists. To learn about physics you would not consult a marine biologist. Why don't you consult theologians for theology?

For starters see Mathias Joseph Scheeben, Nature and Grace. And Eugene R. Fairweather's article in New Theology no 1 (circa 1964) "Christianity and the Sueprnatural." Until you read those two you aren't on the right page.

J.L. Hinman said...

I've written an essay in response

http://metacrock.blogspot.com/

Sastra said...

Thank you for this essay – it tracks with most of my own conclusions on how in practice we actually distinguish between what we consider natural and what we consider supernatural. Both the Inside/Outside Nature or the Testable/Untestable distinctions seem to me to be either vacuous or disingenuous. They also seem to be on a collision course with the increasing tendency for scientific tests of prayer, miracle, parapsychology, etc.

The problem I still have, though, is that I’m not sure where to put something like the pseudoscientific postulated concept of “psychotronic energy” or other forms of “energy” emitted by brains and presumably responsible for phenomena like ESP or psychokenesis. On the one hand, such mind-energy would seem to be similar to what you called a “natural phenomena of human brains producing and transceiving radio waves” – which would make it Natural. But, on the other hand, the folk-physics view of energy involved here seems suspiciously like those intentional forces or powers which somehow just know where to go, and just know how to work, with no reducible underlying mechanism – which now falls into Supernaturalism. So I’m confused by something which looks like it dwells in the borderlands.

I think the issue is complicated by the current fad for equating the word “natural” with good, right, normal, harmonious, and the way things should be (as opposed to artificial, which is stilted and wrong and hinders our journey towards holistic union of earth and spirit, or whatever.) Thus, organic foods are natural, ESP is natural, pk is natural, ghosts are natural, souls are natural, spirit is natural, irreducible magical mind-power is natural, God is natural, angels are natural, and on and on – all of them simply existing or working on higher cosmic levels or vibrations as needed. This sloppy way of using the word “natural” would mean that proponents of “psychotronic energy” would probably INSIST that such energy is of course entirely natural.

My gut reaction is to throw it in with the supernatural. Where would you place it?

Richard Carrier said...

DFB: wow, you don't overthink things much, do you?

I've been around this mulberry bush on formal philosophy lists and private email with professors and academics, which is where all this material comes from. This taught me I can't skimp on the analogies and details. I had to get all these ducks in a row just to get through a lot of thick heads. The ivory castle doesn't read well unless it reads a lot.

DFB: It sounds like you're allowing for supernaturalism to have a fair chance at being closer to Truth, and that's rather magnanimous of you...

No, what I'm doing is explaining the only way supernatural claims can be formulated so as to be deniable. In other words, if you do not formulate a claim in any way capable of falsification, then you have not said anything verifiable, either. Or, indeed, anything intelligible at all (see Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 27-48, but in short, if your theory entails that nothing at all will ever be different than if it were false, then your theory proposes nothing at all--it is devoid of content). And this goes both ways. So in order to say the supernatural is false, it is necessary to figure out what it is that you are claiming isn't true. Naturalism thus requires this exercise, even if we don't give a shit what supernaturalists think.

Of course, I also believe in giving my opponents their best chance at making their case. Giving them a theory that is actually testable is exactly that. I did the same thing in my Biology & Philosophy article: I outlined exactly what Creationists would have to do to prove their theory of supernatural biogenesis. Only when you give them their best shot does it become clear how decisively they fail.

DFB: I always liked the "supernatural is not testable, if it were testable it'd be natural" definition, but I think that I had understood this to be self-evident without thinking much more about.

As I explain in my blog entry, "the untestable equals the supernatural" is false English and therefore useless as a definition (i.e. no one uses the word "supernatural" this way in the real world, nor would such an equivalence have any practical use--we already have a word for that: it's called "untestable"). But even "the supernatural is a subset of the untestable" is a metaphysical assertion that requires justification (i.e. how is it the case that all supernatural claims are untestable?) or a semantic claim that requires clarification (i.e. if it is a subset of the untestable, then what distinguishes a supernatural untestable claim from a non-supernatural untestable claim?), and either way you end up where I am, or somewhere near.

DFB: I'm still struggling with the notion that supernatural phenomenon are testable; not in the world I live in, they're not.

It sounds like you are confusing testability with truth. Yes, in actual fact, supernatural theories fail all tests. But a theory that fails every test is still, by definition, a testable theory. Only by failing tests (and thus only by being testable) can any theory be meaningfully false.

Of course, this requires acknowledging that the first test supernatural theories fail is every general test for establishing a modest prior probability. Which is why even theories that we sometimes call "testable in theory but not in practice" can still be considered (probably) false: they are testable in practice, at the level of establishing prior probability (in a Bayesian sense), and have been tested at that level and have failed those tests. But to fail a test requires being testable. Everything else is meaningless nonsense.

For example, we do not consider "a thief stole my car" as false just because we can't test it (i.e. if the thief is never caught and left no evidence of his theft, beyond a missing car). Instead of considering it false, we allow that this theory might be true, and in fact might even be probably true (if the prior probability of a missing car being stolen by a thief is higher than all other conceivable explanations, as I think it is). This is because the general proposition "thieves steal cars" is a testable theory that has been tested, extensively, and it's been confirmed as a general truth.

In contrast, we consider "the goddess Ishtar sucked my car up into heaven" as (probably) false, even if we have no more way to test this than the ordinary thief theory. We accept this is false because its prior probability is lower than many other alternatives, and that is because the general proposition "the goddess Ishtar sucks cars up into heaven" has been multiply tested and falsified--not only by all the observations of how cars go missing, none of which turn out to be goddesses sucking them into heaven, but also by all the observations failing to find any comparable motives and activities of any goddesses at all, much less Ishtar.

Like all theories, new evidence can allow a revision of our conclusion, but so far the evidence is pretty much against thieving goddesses sucking cars into heaven, and pretty much in favor of ordinary thieves, and this remains true even if we can't test it in a particular case.

Richard Carrier said...

David B. Ellis: The supernatural is the ability of anything to exist, act, communicate or otherwise influence the world without any physical basis or means.

Yes, I do think that your definition can be interpreted as synonymous with mine, although it could be interpreted in other ways, depending on how you define "physical." I find many other definitions in the community can similarly be interpreted as synonymous with mine, depending on how you read them.

Richard Carrier said...

Loren Petrich: I wonder if a reasonable parallel could be made with vitalism. That's the old theory that living things have some sort of special vital force or life-stuff that makes them alive. Aristotle had believed that there are three kinds of soul or vital force, the vegetable soul, the animal soul, and the rational soul, and atomists believed that there are soul atoms as well as other kind of atoms.

There are some confusions here.

First, "vitalism" is an early modern idea that has very little in common with any ancient theories. There were also numerous different kinds of "vitalist" theory in early modernity, most of which were naturalistic and only some supernaturalistic (by my definitions), though all turned out to be false. The closest thing in antiquity was humoral theory, but humoral theory was generally described in naturalistic terms: the humors were material substances that interacted with each other differently than other materials (such as by having attractive or repulsive forces that affect only certain materials, exactly as in magnetism, which was in fact the leading analogy deployed by Galen).

Second, Aristotle's notion of souls was actually formally physicalist, i.e. the only thing that can make one soul different from another (or from anything else at all) is its physical structure in space-time, thus what he meant by the three souls was more like what we mean by, respectively, DNA biochemistry, autonomic and emotive nervous system, and cerebral cortex. Aristotle actually "predicted" that each of these would have a detailed and distinctive structure that fully (and physically) explained why it behaved the way it did, and therefore his theory of souls is entirely naturalistic and not supernaturalistic at all (incidentally, this also means he denied immortality, contrary to medieval interpretations of his work).

Third, no atomist claimed there were "soul atoms" in the sense of atoms that had any mental properties or powers. They proposed that souls were constructed out of particularly fine atoms, but constructed entirely in the Aristotelian sense: the atoms of which a soul is made are themselves nothing more than volumes of material in a particular shape, just like all other atoms. Indeed, Lucretius devotes an amusing section in his De Rerum Natural to refuting supernaturalists like Empedocles who attributed supernatural properties to atoms.

Loren Petrich: But what is interesting and curious here is that such vitalists have not been nearly as political as creationists. They have not demanded that vitalism be included in school curricula...[etc.]

This is because vitalism is not connected to any system of social control. Creationists actually want to control society--they want a particular moral system imposed upon or impressed upon the entire populace, which they know can only really be achieved at the level of school children nationwide who are captive audiences with limited rights and freedoms (e.g. in many states it is illegal for a child not to go to school).

Thus, getting creationism into schools isn't really about getting creationism into schools. It's about getting biblical morals into schools, using the "wedge" of creationism. For them this is a culture war, and that culture war is not about scientific theories, but society-wide behaviors, and they tie all the behaviors they loathe and fear either to belief in evolution or, at any rate, to the rejection of god-centered worldviews. Since all the latter have in common some form of creationism, creationism is their best strategic rallying point, a stepping stone to their real goal: a biblical America.

Richard Carrier said...

J.L. Hinman: You are on totally the wrong page about the supernatural. You have't even begun to discuss it. you don't even understand the concept and you refuse to even constult the real theorists who make a difference in the theolgoical world. this is something I can't understand about atheists. To learn about physics you would not consult a marine biologist. Why don't you consult theologians for theology? For starters see Mathias Joseph Scheeben, Nature and Grace. And Eugene R. Fairweather's article in New Theology no 1 (circa 1964) "Christianity and the Sueprnatural." Until you read those two you aren't on the right page.

What I don't understand about Christians is their obsession with citing antiquated scholarship and ignoring everything recent. Okay, here we go:

1. Nature and Grace is a 1954 translation of the original German book by Mathias Joseph Scheeben, Natur und Gnade published in 1861. Good lord, man! Surely you can find something more recent. Like, say, the Christian and supernaturalist books I cite in my article on Rea, which I cited in my blog entry--refuting your claim that I didn't go to the source. Apparently the only sources that count are the rarefied dead men you can dig up for your cause. Let's stick with contemporary philosophy, please.

2. Eugene R. Fairweather's article "Christianity and the Supernatural" was published in the ninth volume of the Canadian Journal of Theology in 1963 (pp. 12-19 and 95-102). That's at least almost within my lifetime, so I'll go take a look at what he had to say and report back here.

Regarding your blog comments, however, I largely agree with you: your definition of the supernatural (so far as I can figure out what it is--you never give a clear statement) is a proper subset of mine. I never, for example, said my definition entails any opposition or lack of interaction between nature and supernature, nor did I ever claim "super" meant "opposite," whereas the only way anything can be "over" nature or "superior" to nature is for it to not be nature, since by definition a thing cannot be above or superior to itself. Therefore, something like my definition is required to explain in what way a thing is "above," "over," or "superior" to nature.

But where I disagree with you is your arrogant neglect (or dismissal) of all non-Christian supernaturalisms, which your definition (as far as I can tell) fails to account for, since it is exclusively theological. Indeed, your sources are all exclusively Christian, as if nothing supernatural ever existed in pre-Christian pagan belief systems, or in modern non-Christian ones. In contrast, my definition includes all supernatural beliefs and is therefore a better, more general, more useful, and less ethnocentric definition. My blog entry is not an exercise in etymology, but philosophy: it aims to identify universal categories that can be applied across all times and cultures.

You can equate my effort with replacing the stupid hick definition of "vegetable," which was just an arbitrary laundry list of items based on no systematic underlying theory (hence it includes cucumbers, and even tomatoes, with cabbages and celery, yet excludes nuts, beans, and grains, all for no reason), with a useful scientific definition of "fruit," which refers only to plant ovaries: hence tomatoes and cucumbers are properly identified as fruits, not vegetables. Although "vegetable" has never been a scientific term, hence scientists don't care if you call cucumbers vegetables (as long as you concede they are also fruits), this lack of concern is socially problematic when nutritional science recommends diets using these words in exclusionary terms--since then it matters whether you are eating fruits or non-fruit vegetables, and therefore the term "vegetable" should not be treated as including fruits. The most glaring concern here, though not the only one, would be people with fruit allergies. Therefore, excluding fruits from the category of vegetables is more useful than embracing an arbitrary laundry list.

My effort at producing a systematic, non-laundry-list definition that distinguishes "natural" from "supernatural," as most everyone uses these terms in the real world, is similar to a proper effort to distinguish fruits and vegetables as nutritional and culinary categories. Most everyone does use "natural" and "supernatural" as mutually exclusive terms, except when employing completely unrelated connotations, such as "God's nature is supernatural." So in the relevant connotation my definition appears more accurate and useful than any I've seen. You don't even seem to argue anything to the contrary. At least, I can't see how any of your arguments pertain to what I'm doing.

Richard Carrier said...

Sastra: The problem I still have, though, is that I’m not sure where to put something like the pseudoscientific postulated concept of “psychotronic energy” or other forms of “energy” emitted by brains and presumably responsible for phenomena like ESP or psychokenesis.

There are only two ways for proponents of this stuff to behave: they can ignore attempts to make any testable, intelligible theory out of this claim (in which case it is literal nonsense) or they can construct a testable, intelligible theory. When they do the latter, then we will be able to determine if it is a supernatural or natural explanation, although either way it will remain paranormal. Unless they prove it.

Sastra: ...the folk-physics view of energy involved here seems suspiciously like those intentional forces or powers which somehow just know where to go, and just know how to work, with no reducible underlying mechanism – which now falls into Supernaturalism.

First, I'm not sure all these proponents insist there is no reducible underlying mechanism. Just because they do not have a model to propose for that doesn't mean they think there is none, by analogy with quark theory now, where scientists don't rule out that there may be something even quarks can break into, despite the working theory that they are irreducible. Just because we don't have a model for quark composition doesn't mean we insist there is none.

Second, Feynman's quantum electrodynamic theory, which is now the accepted theory of electromagnetic fields and phenomena, also contains the prima facie claim that photons just magically know where to go, and how to work, with no underlying mechanism, yet no one is proposing that QED entails that photons have supernaturally mental powers. Rather, the working theories to explain photon behavior in QED involve a variety of purely naturalistic mechanisms that do not require photons to think or know anything.

So these two facts alone do not make something supernatural. To know where psychotronic energy falls would require knowing more about what its proponents are claiming this is and why it behaves as it does. Are they suggesting something more like QED or something more like Empedocles' atomic love-in? Inquiring minds will want to know!

DFB said...

R.C.: The ivory castle doesn't read well unless it reads a lot.

Funny.

R.C.: It sounds like you are confusing testability with truth

That's exactly where the brick wall was. I see what you're getting at, but I keep thinking of a friend of mine who reads tarot cards at my neighborhood bar on Thursday evenings. I have been giving her grief for years, accusing her of ripping people off, etc. She insists she's not "cold-reading" her people and I guess I can believe that she believes this. She often requests that I "test" her by letting her read my cards. I explain to her how that's an bogus test because she knows me, she knows what's upsetting me today and this week and in general. Shit, that's not cold-reading, that's hot-reading. My cards will probably magically tell her that I think tarot card reading is a rip-off!

Anyway, back on point, these conversations are just beer-induced babble, but if I think harder on it, I guess if cared I could devise a test for her. But when she fails to show any significant difference between her "predictions" and pure chance, she isn't proven wrong, nor am I proven right, only that sometimes her readings are inaccurate and she can attribute that to anything she wants without any harm to her worldview at all. What you're saying is that its still a test and it still provides evidence that can be included in a larger body of evidence that can be used to determine reality. I can see that. Strangely, I still don't care to do the test.

Strange coincidence: my car got stolen last month. I need to inform the sherriff of your "Ishtar sucks" theory. I don't think he's investigated that angle yet.

DFB said...

Okay, when I said "What you're saying is that its still a test and it still provides evidence that can be included in a larger body of evidence that can be used to determine reality" I think I was a little bit wrong. What you're really saying is that the fact that a test can be done makes it "testable" regardless of whether the results are useful or enlightening. What she's doing at the bar is "supernatural" because there is (presumably) no physical causation between the cards and the personality of the subect. Nevertheless, it is still "testable." Okay, got it. I still don't seem to care but I think that I will present this definition to my friend on some future Thursday and see what her thoughts are. Maybe I'll let her read my cards, too.

Richard Carrier said...

DFB: I keep thinking of a friend of mine who reads tarot cards at my neighborhood bar on Thursday evenings. I have been giving her grief for years, accusing her of ripping people off, etc...

Susan Blackmore used to be a honest and convinced Tarot reader, until she applied scientific methods to her own practice and realized where she was misleading herself. There is a good account of this in her autobiography, In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist.

DFB: I guess if cared I could devise a test for her. But when she fails to show any significant difference between her "predictions" and pure chance, she isn't proven wrong, nor am I proven right, only that sometimes her readings are inaccurate and she can attribute that to anything she wants without any harm to her worldview at all.

That's not formally correct. Any test that confirms that Tarot succeeds no better than chance verifies the null hypothesis and thus does indeed prove you right, and her wrong. If she is offering an explanation of anomaly, that can be answered by further tests, until the probability of consistently sequential anomalies that all produce exactly the same effect (chance) becomes too low to credit. In actual practice, that is exactly what has happened (see below).

But even a claim of anomaly is invalid without evidence supporting the (probable) presence of an intervening cause of the claimed anomaly (i.e. "possibly, therefore probably" is inherently fallacious and therefore never a valid response to a failed test). On this particular epistemological point, see my Digression of Method in Why I Am Not a Christian (2006).

DFB: What you're saying is that its still a test and it still provides evidence that can be included in a larger body of evidence that can be used to determine reality. I can see that. Strangely, I still don't care to do the test.

That's because it has already failed abundant tests of prior probability. It's the same reason you aren't digging in your backyard for a cache of diamonds. "Caches of diamonds are buried in backyards" is not universally false (it is almost certainly occasionally true), but the evidence is extensive that it is so rarely true it's not worthwhile to start digging. In other words, "Caches of diamonds are buried in backyards" as a general rule has already been falsified by countless tests, so there is no reason for you to add yet another test.

Even more so, but in the same way, "Tarot cards predict the future" or "Taro cards are diagnostic of human lifestyle and personality" have already been tested countless times and failed, so there is no reason for you to conduct another test. Had this not been the case, then there would be scientific literature demonstrating the diagnostic value of Tarot cards and they would be employed in psychology and criminal forensics and other fields, and there would be technological applications of their predictive power already in use (not only by the military, but corporations, administrations, weather services, and so on). You know this would be the case had Tarot cards ever passed any tests, therefore you know Tarot cards have failed countless tests.

And even if you had some reason to suspect that somehow Tarot powers have been overlooked, you also have the vast evidence against even a possible mechanism for Tarot cards to operate. Hence the prior probability of Tarot theory is low even before Tarot is ever observed in use, and its prior probability is only even lower after its abundant use has also failed to produce any marketable or diagnostic powers. And even if you think somehow (!) we've missed finding any analogous or related mechanisms that would make Tarot powers plausible, there is actual literature specifically testing (and falsifying) the efficacy of Tarot cards that you can look up if you care to (like Blackmore's), negating any reason for you do repeat this work.

It's important to remember that you have all this, or much of it, already in the back of your mind when you conclude that testing Tarot is a waste of time. If, for example, we had numerous proven systems of divination similar to Tarot, i.e. if we had scientific literature confirming and technological and practical applications deriving real benefits from the I Ching and turtle-shell reading and and thrown bones and so on, then you would not scoff at the possible efficacy of Tarot cards. Instead, you would then regard it as worth the bother of testing--even if not by you, certainly by someone. Hence it is crucial to remember that we don't live in a world where manhandled randomizers have divinatory powers. Instead we live in a world where "manhandled randomizers have divinatory powers" is a hypothesis that has been tested and refuted countless times. As well as the specific Tarot hypotheses to boot.

DFB: What she's doing at the bar is "supernatural" because there is (presumably) no physical causation between the cards and the personality of the subect.

Well, that would depend on what mechanism is behind, or is proposed as being behind, its alleged efficacy. I could certainly build a machine, a la Forbidden Planet, that would make Tarot cards completely successful, but not a bit supernatural. Thus, whether Tarot was actually a supernatural phenomenon would depend on why it works (if it did).

For example, if human minds, via human touch, directly, irreducibly, "caused" the Tarot deck to sort itself according to the mind's content or even according to future events related to that mind, through some sort of direct magical "knowing," or if (as some Christians might say) invisible demons who are clairvoyant and telepathic hang around Tarot decks and meddle with the cards through unmediated telekinesis, that would be supernatural (assuming they or their powers were in some degree irreducibly mental and not completely reducible to nonmental machinery).

Similarly, in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Tarot appears to operate as an outcome of the mighty spells cast on the world by long-dead sorcerers, in which case Tarot works because the universe itself is fundamentally mental or altered and controlled by fundamentally mental forces independent of any nonmental mechanism. And that would definitely be supernatural! Indeed, if you lived in a world that widely and plainly behaved the way the world does in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, you would not think Tarot unworthy of your interest and testing. Indeed, you would probably be using it!

The Science Pundit said...

"I could certainly build a machine, a la Forbidden Planet, that would make Tarot cards completely successful, but not a bit supernatural."

And you could build a machine a la Zardoz, that would make you immortal, but not be a bit supernatural, proving Aristotle both right and wrong. :-p

Richard, sorry I missed you last night on IR, but I got caught up with other stuff. I guess I'll have to get the podcast.

DFB said...

Okay, just one more clarification. I know I started this by accusing you of overthinking things; now it seems that you've got me doing just that.

I was reading this paper today http://www.genetics.org/cgi/content/full/174/3/1073 because it sounded like a fun activity for my 11-year old and his friends this weekend. In the paper, the writers describe a biology lab project for undergraduate students in which the principles of evolution are modelled using paper airplanes as an "organism." Fun, huh?

The third section discusses the lectures that are intended to accompany the labs and this is the last paragraph of that section:

"At the end of the lecture we briefly turn the tables and ask if there are any structures in living organisms that appear to not have been intelligently designed. As potential examples, we present the human tail bone, the back-to-front retina of the vertebrate eye, and eye development in flounder... We suggest that this is an odd way to design a fish, but concede that a creator could have designed flounder this way—perhaps out of a sense of whimsy or possibly to test the faith of believers. We conclude that if such allowances are made, the design hypothesis is not testable—and that if a hypothesis is not testable, it is not a scientific explanation."

It was that last sentence that struck me. Here's three scientists, their teaching assistants and some unnamed reviewers, all of whom seem to equate untestability with unscientific and I wondered if that is in conflict with your definition of the supernatural. These guys are saying that it's the inclusion of ad hoc explanations that renders the test irrelevant and that reminds me of what I was getting at with my Tarot-reading friend. If you're going to explain away the results, then there's no point and no hypothesis can be adequately falsified.

But I think you would disagree with these writers. I think you are going to say that the shape of the flounder is evidence against an "intelligent design" hypothesis and if somebody wants to explain away the evidence with additional ad hoc notions, that's their choice, but doing so doesn't erase the evidence and it doesn't suddenly make the hypothesis non-scientific. It just changes the hypothese somewhat. Maybe from "God created flounders" to "God created funny-looking sideways flounders to amuse his friends" or something like that. Am I getting close?

I guess the assertion that "untestability is non-scientific" is somewhat different from my earlier "untestability is supernatural," but it kind of goes along the same vein, so I thought I'd throw this out. If you're tired of the topic then feel free to ignore this.

Loren Petrich said...

I had brought up vitalism as a parallel to supernaturalism in how one could construct a science of vital force just as one can construct a science of the supernatural.

However, I do agree that vitalism is a naturalistic hypothesis, because a vital force is an impersonal, nonmental sort of entity like nonliving matter.

And I must say that I've found it difficult to find very much on the history of vitalism.

Richard Carrier said...

DFB: Here's three scientists...all of whom seem to equate untestability with unscientific and I wondered if that is in conflict with your definition of the supernatural...If you're going to explain away the results, then there's no point and no hypothesis can be adequately falsified.

This corresponds to what I said about the invalidity of arbitrary excuses (i.e. repeated assertions of anomaly without evidence to back them up). This renders a theory unfalsifiable, i.e. if you are a priori committed to any excuse that saves the theory then it is logically impossible for you to ever know if you are wrong. For every theory will be saved by such a process, no matter how false.

But this is not unique to the supernatural. Naturalistic hypotheses can also be rendered unfalsifiable this way (hence my blog's analogy of denying heliocentrism with a Forbidden Planet excuse). Therefore, "unfalsifiable" does not equal "supernatural." Unfalsifiability is simply its own problem, a fallacy that invalidates any theory, supernatural or not (or rather, invalidates confidence in such a theory). Hence my point about the word "untestable" already being sufficient to describe such theories. The untestable is indeed unscientific, by definition.

What I am talking about, instead, is equating the untestable with the supernatural. Your quotation, for example, never mentions the word supernatural. They are simply objecting to untestability, and rightly so. They would object to such an approach whether the hypothesis were supernatural or not. But notice how, by using a supernatural hypothesis as their only analogy, they gave you the distinct impression that they think all supernatural hypotheses are untestable or that all untestable hypotheses are supernatural. If they meant to give that impression, they are committing a serious error (as my blog explains). But if they didn't mean to give that impression, then I would have preferred them to offer a non-supernatural example alongside the supernatural one.

For example, "aliens engineered life on earth," e.g. as proposed in the Star Trek backstory, where all humanoid life and the ecosystems producing them are the output of genetic computers seeded throughout the galaxy eons ago by a long-dead civilization, computers which now still contain a coded holographic message that proves all this (and indeed they proved it on an episode of Star Trek: TNG...rather decisively, IMO). If one dinked this theory with endless excuses so that it could never be falsified, one could defend it as surely as one can defend divine design, and just as fallaciously.

DFB: But I think you would disagree with these writers. I think you are going to say that...if somebody wants to explain away the evidence with additional ad hoc notions, that's their choice, but doing so doesn't erase the evidence and it doesn't suddenly make the hypothesis non-scientific. It just changes the hypothesis somewhat. Maybe from "God created flounders" to "God created funny-looking sideways flounders to amuse his friends" or something like that. Am I getting close?

No. I agree completely with these writers, because they never used the word "supernatural" and stuck with correct wording for the untestable instead. My only objection is a matter of pedagogical style, since I think their use of a single supernatural example can easily mislead people into thinking they mean only or all supernatural theories count as untestable. But they never outright said that.

Stacking up ad hoc excuses does remove a theory from the domain of science. In fact, such a tactic removes it from the domain of all possible knowledge, scientific or otherwise. Excuses are only valid when you can adduce evidence in support of the claim that the excuse applies. For example, if you want to accuse an astronomer's observations of being inaccurate because of instrument error, you need to present evidence that there was indeed an instrument error (e.g. examining the instrument she used and documenting a relevant flaw in it, or repeating the observation many times and failing to see what she did, etc.). You can't just make something up and pretend it's reasonable to believe it. An excuse is, after all, just another causal theory, and like any causal theory, you need evidence that such a cause was in effect at the time. You can't just make shit up.

So, for example, the theory "God created funny-looking sideways flounders to amuse five guys in Guam whom he let in on the gag" is only knowable if it is falsifiable. If you set up conditions in which it would be falsified, and it isn't falsified in those conditions, then it is verified. That is in fact what verification is. So if you can never set up those conditions, then you can never verify the theory, and therefore you can never be justified in asserting it. This is true regardless of whether the theory is natural or supernatural. So, "five guys in Guam have doctored all the evidence so we think flounders exist and have those funny features" has no supernatural content at all, but could be just as unfalsifiable and therefore just as unbelievable (if, that is, you are committed to explaining away all evidence against it).

I explain this even more in my links in previous comments. So those still confused should revisit those links and what I say there.

But I think your questions and examples have done a good job of allowing me to clarify what may still be confusing others, if not just you, so I thank you for that.

John Bryden said...

I'm interested to know your thoughts on an idea of the supernatural holding that all of phenomenal reality (aka nature) is a reflection of a spiritual realm. The discussion in your initial article seemed to be addressing (and debunking) the possibility that various specific events could be attributed to supernatural causes. But if the whole of material reality is a reflection of a greater, "supernatural" reality, then all natural activity is in the picture, and the questions you are seeking to deal with might take on a different character. I confess that I haven't thought this concept through completely in relation to the ideas in your article. However, if you have time to respond, it might help me to become clearer on what I'm driving at here. Thanks for putting your clear-headed reasoning "out there" on your blog. Its one of the more interesting ones I've come across.

DFB said...

J.B.: "...the whole of material reality is a reflection of a greater, 'supernatural' reality..."

Yeah, I've long thought that I was really just a brain in a jar, part of some sort of alien experiment or something, and that the reality I experience is just a reflection of the electrical impulses being fed into me. The problem with my theory is that it is unknowable, so much so that one of its defining features is "unknowability." If I can't know if it's true, why do I care? Of what use is this theory to me?

Your theory sounds eerily similar. Is there some way to test your hypothesis? I can't think of one. It also seems to be unknowable by definition.

John Bryden said...

Richard,

Thanks for those observations. Since the concept of the supernatural that I alluded to is untestable, could it be that this is the same general concept that scientists are working with when they define the supernatural as that which is untestable. I'm thinking of this in the context of Platonism.

DFB said...

Those observations weren't Richard's (he wouldn't have been so snarky) but you're welcome.

J.B.: "Since the concept of the supernatural that I alluded to is untestable,.."

But one of the points of this blog entry is to dissuade you (and me) of that notion. The "supernatural" need not be "untestable."

J.B.: "..could it be that this is the same general concept that scientists are working with when they define the supernatural as that which is untestable."

Well, maybe. I'm no scientist, but as I said earlier, I've long equated the concept of "supernatural" with "untestable" so I suppose the same mistake can be made by a scientist, even if they are smarter than me.

Your concept of the supernatural may very well be untestable, and that removes it from the realm of science, but that's not what makes it "supernatural" in the sense that Richard is writing about. If all of reality is a "reflection," then what's being reflected off of what? If there's no physical causal link, then THAT FACT is what makes it supernatural, not its untestability.

Platonism is a little different, I think, but I may not entirely clear. I think a platonist would say that there are concepts that exist "outside of space and time" but they still exist. Concepts like numbers and geometric figures aren't "physical" but they're not "supernatural" either. They're actual entities (somehow) that are part of the essence of the universe. Maybe the word is "meta-physical," I don't know.

Okay, Richard, there's the topic of your next essay: are platonists' extra- meta- supra- natural concepts like numbers a supernatural phenomenon as you've described here? Or are they just ideas resulting from the emergent property of "mind?" My money is on the latter.

John Bryden said...

DFB, My apologies to you (and Richard), for that mistake over identity. Duh. There go any hopes I had of projecting mental alertness.

It would indeed be interesting to hear any further thoughts on Platonism in the present context. It's an area of thought I'd like to study at some stage, but as yet I've not had the time. The Stanford web page that I gave a link to previously, seems to introduce the core issues in modern Platonism, thoroughly.

Looks like I might have at least suggested a line of enquiry that's worth following up.

Richard Carrier said...

John Bryden: [I]f the whole of material reality is a reflection of a greater, "supernatural" reality, then all natural activity is in the picture, and the questions you are seeking to deal with might take on a different character.

There is no generic response I can offer, since how one formulates such a system can vary considerably, so I can only respond to specific examples. But you can think of all worldviews as lying on a spectrum of possibilities from "every single thing is supernatural" (e.g. radical solipsism), in which nothing natural exists at all, to "every single thing is natural" (i.e. naturalism), in which nothing supernatural exists at all. The more things you make supernatural, the more you slide along the spectrum from one side to the other. What you seem to be imagining are worldviews very near the solipsism side of the spectrum, or even all the way over there. In fact, solipsism would be an example of what you mean, although an extreme example, but I can imagine other "nothing natural exists" worldviews other than solipsism.

However, DFB's response to you confuses physical solipsism with metaphysical solipsism. A brain in a vat being piped electrical signals is still 100% naturalistic. There is nothing supernatural there at all. It's just a physically simulated world your mind resides in, not the physically actual world. Metaphysical solipsism would be where the mind is the fundamental ground of all reality and constructs the whole world out of purely mental concepts (an idea close to this is articulated as metaphysical constructivism by Michael Rea: see Defending Naturalism as a Worldview).

I discuss the general possibility of any kind of solipsism and its epistemological status in the above article, and in Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 31-32 (and in all my discussions of Cartesian Demons there--check the index), and I cover relevant background discussion in my previous blog entry Epistemological End Game.

Richard Carrier said...

DFB: Okay, Richard, there's the topic of your next essay: are platonists' extra- meta- supra- natural concepts like numbers a supernatural phenomenon as you've described here? Or are they just ideas resulting from the emergent property of "mind?" My money is on the latter.

If I could ever get a straight answer from a Platonist I'd tell you.

But I've tried. I've gone round and round with Platonists, even Platonists who call themselves naturalists, and I have yet to figure out what they are even claiming. I think there must be some kind of language block--and since modern Platonists don't properly study Aristotle or how Aristotle's metaphysics was specifically a response to Platonism, it's difficult communicating with them.

When I do try to get them to clarify what they are proposing, I start by asking them how what they are saying is any different from what Aristotle said. Since they don't study Aristotle, I have to explain what Aristotle said. And then the confusion begins. They can never articulate how their philosophy differs from Aristotle's, yet persist in refusing to admit that they agree with Aristotle. I don't know what to make of that behavior.

All I can say is that in Aristotle's philosophy, numbers and abstractions are not "things" separate from (what we now know as) matter-energy in space-time. From his view, all there really is is matter-energy in space-time. The rest comes from the way we describe and analyze matter-energy in space-time, which we do with a brain made entirely of matter-energy in space-time. I agree with Aristotle, and articulate this view in Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 124-30.

If modern Platonists believe any differently, as they insist they do, I have yet to get even one of them to explain in any intelligible way how. Nor have I heard any credible explanation of why they believe what they do. Sense and Goodness discusses this issue only a little bit (see Platonism in the index).

At any rate, I know ancient Platonism very well. Plato himself was certainly a supernaturalist: for him, Ideas (abstractions) are the primary reality, of which everything else is a dim reflection or poor mimic of, and these Ideas are immaterial and fundamentally, irreducibly mental. There were still completely natural things here and there (most things, in fact), but they are ultimately caused (ontologically and temporally) by the underlying supernatural realities of existence. So in traditional Platonism, not everything is a supernatural thing, but everything is, at least partly, a supernatural "effect" (per my blogged examples).

John Bryden said...

Richard,

Many thanks for your response, pointing out some areas of thought to look into. I will read up on these, as soon as I have some spare time.

Warm regards,

John

Richard Carrier said...

Update: Doctor Yonatan Fishman has published (or soon will) an article in Science & Education arguing the very same thesis (and for much the same reasons) as my blog entry.

Whereas I took a colloquial, teach-by-example approach, Fishman takes a formal Bayesian approach, and actually surveys many naturalists who agree with or support our position (especially against the Dover decision). I approve of Bayesian methodology, though it tends to be too technical for mathophobic laymen (hence I don't use it much here or in my book), and Fishman's use of it here is simplistic and needs refinement (e.g. it ignores most of what apologists would say in response), but it's a good start, and heading in the right direction.

His article ("Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?") shows no awareness of my blog, though he cites my book a few times. It is nice to see formal papers appearing from experts delineating the very position I have been advocating. Fishman credits Victor Stenger's discussion lists, which may have been partly influenced by me, through Stenger.

For a discussion of (and access to) Fishman's paper see Tom Clark's analysis, "Science and the Supernatural" (7 September 2007).

Bradley Monton has also authored a paper that essentially argues along lines similar to mine, not specifically in regard to defining the supernatural, but in regard to the Dover decision and the definition of science, though his remarks are entirely pertinent to my blog entry and the same remarks I make there. See: Bradley Monton, "Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision," PhilSci Archive (2006).

Richard Carrier said...

Brief note in reference to my exchange with Hinman above:

J.L. Hinman asked me to read an old article by Fairweather and I said I would and report back. Well, I just read Fairweather's article. It is not a good work of philosophy. It is confusing and question begging and poorly organized. But exactly as I thought, Fairweather has nothing to say about how to define the supernatural in general, and never once offers a definition of the word.

Fairweather is quite specific in his aims, and they are completely unrelated to mine. Ultimately, he only discusses supernaturalism in the context of what he wants to be orthodox Christian beliefs, not supernaturalism as a general category, which makes his article wholly irrelevant to my work.

Except for the fact that his conception of the supernatural entirely agrees with mine, since for Fairweather, to qualify as supernatural, an event must be causally irreducible to nonmental events. As a Christian, the only irreducibly mental events Fairweather acknowledges are those made possible by the will of God, but on my definition that is simply a proper subset of all logically possible supernatural causes.

Fairweather's article is thus one more example confirming everything I said.

Richard Carrier said...

I was asked elsewhere about the validity of certain versions of the Atheistic Cosmological Argument (ACA), in response to Loftus defending the Everitt version of same (and my defense of a different version in my book and elsewhere). I mention something like this near the end of my original blog entry here (which partly answers the question of what Christian Theism predicts vis-a-vis the contents and nature of the universe), so I am appending a comment on this here.

In general, one must not misinterpret the actual line of deduction in the Atheistic Cosmological Argument. We don't claim to predict exact details, only general details (i.e. we don't claim to predict quark spin attributes, or even quarks, only that there will be a vast quantity of something ontologically equivalent to matter-energy in space-time), and only by taking as given the premise that there is an observer and something to observe (i.e. the ACA does not apply for uninhabited or uninhabitable universes, much less non-existent ones).

To characterize all versions of the argument:

P1. Certain things must be the case in general if (a) a universe exists, (b) an intelligent observer exists in that universe (who would ask cosmological questions in the first place), and (c) no gods exist.

P2. Those things are observed to be the case.

P3. Certain things must be the case in general if (a) a universe exists, (b) an intelligent observer exists in that universe (who would ask cosmological questions in the first place), and (c) the God of Christian Theism created that universe.

P4. Those things are observed not to be the case.

P5. Certain things (are not entailed but) are expected in general if (a) a universe exists, (b) an intelligent observer exists in that universe (who would ask cosmological questions in the first place), and (c) the God of Christian Theism created that universe, which are not as expected if (a) a universe exists, (b) an intelligent observer exists in that universe (who would ask cosmological questions in the first place), and (c) no gods exist.

P6. Those things are observed not to be the case.

P7. Certain things (are not entailed but) are expected in general if (a) a universe exists, (b) an intelligent observer exists in that universe (who would ask cosmological questions in the first place), and (c) no gods exist, which are not as expected if (a) a universe exists, (b) an intelligent observer exists in that universe (who would ask cosmological questions in the first place), and (c) the God of Christian Theism created that universe.

P8. Those things are observed to be the case.

P9. If certain things must be the case on (x), and those things are observed to be the case, and certain things must be the case on any (y) which entails ~(x), and those things are observed not to be the case, and certain things (are not entailed but) are expected on (x), but not as expected on any (y) which entails ~(x), and those things are observed to be the case, and certain things (are not entailed but) are expected on any (y) which entails ~(x), but not as expected on (x), and those things are observed not to be the case, then probably (x) and not (y).

P10. Therefore, if P2, P4, P6, and P8 are true, then atheism is more likely to be true than Christian Theism.

P11. P2, P4, P6, and P8 are true.

P12. Therefore atheism is more likely to be true than Christian Theism.

More formally, P9 (and all attending premises) would be formulated according to Bayes Theorem, but since P9 follows from Bayes Theorem, I state it as I do, since Bayesian analysis is a bit advanced for most people.

Certain versions of the ACA might exclude some of the elements (e.g. P3-P4), or focus on only some items within one of the elements, but all essentially derive from this same covering argument. For example, see my formal presentation of a limited ACA in the Carrier-Wanchick debate. Beyond that, you should address further questions to Loftus, who is now making a point of defending the argument and has no doubt addressed even more issues than I have.

Haukur said...

RC on Theostoa: "no one on earth believes in a God like this"

I'm curious - what aspect of this Theostoa theory would you have disagreed with as a Taoist?

Richard Carrier said...

The Tao is immaterial. Theostoa has a body. And the Tao has mental properties (albeit not an intelligence like God, thus differing from Theostoa in that respect, but being more like an emotional intelligence, though still combined with a will and an ability to enforce its will on the physical universe), but it has and exercises them without any physical mechanism. Theostoa has a fully complex physical mechanism for having thoughts and enforcing its will.

Haukur said...

Thank you! This was honestly not clear to me.

Science Guy said...

Richard Carrier said:

"Therefore, when I say naturalism rules out supernatural explanations of what happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, I am obviously not including mechanical pseudo-gods. Such entities would fall closer to the "aliens did it" category of explanations, which naturalism does not address, nor does it need to. Good old fashioned inductive logic already does away with them."

You've hit the nail on the head here, Richard. Unfortunately, I'm not sure you realize just how much you have hit the nail on the head. You are right to point out that your argument re: the impossibility of supernatural events in the life of Jesus hinges upon inductive logic. One problem, though: induction is philosophically indefensible, as first pointed out by Hume. It may be useful, and as a scientist myself, I realize that the entire scientific enterprise depends upon a conviction that when something happens a certain way 10,000 times, it will almost certainly happen that same way on the 10,001st trial. So, one might say that science itself is susceptible to the problem of induction as well (and one would be right). But as C. D. Broad said, "induction is the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy." Since you are proposing a philosophical worldview, I think that the susceptibility of the inductive logic upon which the proposed worldview is built will indeed create quite a problem for you, rendering your proposed worldview difficult or impossible to defend.

To make my point with a concrete example: most religions actually STRESS the uniqueness of the historical miracles that they believe in. Their very rareness is treated as a mark of their significance. So if your worldview is the result of an accumulation of observations about naturalistic explanations superceding supernaturalistic explanations for specific phenomena, I wonder how you would deal with something like the resurrection story of Jesus? Christians also, after all, believe that resurrections from the dead are exceedingly rare events.

I do appreciate this thoughtful article very much, but I still have to count myself among those who want to "define the problem away". I believe only in that which is empirically known. That which is untestable (the so-caled "supernatural") is meaningless to me. If something can be tested, and evidence found for it, then it is by definition part of reality. You can call reality "nature" if you like. But I would maintain that there are no good philosophical grounds for dividing reality into "natural" and a so-called (but untestable, unobservable, unproveable) "supernatural" realm. This is a false dichotomy, a vestige of medieval theology. There's just one unitary reality, and we can only sensibly talk about that part of reality for which we have empirical evidence: that which is empirically known. Thus talk of the “supernatural” is not empirically false per se, but merely nonsensical.

Science Guy said...

By the way, Richard, I have to apologize: I just realized that I slightly misinterpreted the part of your article that I quoted in my last comment.

Nonetheless, I still think that your entire argument does hinge upon induction, and I still think that induction is philosophically problematic, so I would still like to hear a response to the point I raised. Thanks. :)

Richard Carrier said...

Science Guy said... I would maintain that there are no good philosophical grounds for dividing reality into "natural" and a so-called (but untestable, unobservable, unproveable) "supernatural" realm.

Since I argue against that dichotomy, and not for it, I assume that's the bit you say you got wrong. My whole post's point is that "supernatural" does not mean "untestable." There are untestable supernatural claims. And there are untestable natural claims. But there are testable claims of both kinds, too. Therefore "supernatural" must mean something else, and we therefore had better get straight what that is.

One problem, though: induction is philosophically indefensible, as first pointed out by Hume.

You must not read philosophy very carefully. Hume did not say it was "philosophically indefensible" (or even indefensible at all). He simply said inductive conclusions lack deductive certainty. See "Hume, Induction, and Justification" and "Hume on Rules of Judging." Hume concluded that the reliability of inductive reasoning was therefore only a hypothesis, which we test by experience, but can never conclusively prove without circularly presuming the hypothesis true. In other words, he said it's perfectly reliable, just not for the reasons formal logic is. He therefore philosophically defended induction. Exactly the opposite of saying it is philosophically indefensible.

Notably, Gödel proved the same true of all complex deductive reasoning, especially all formal mathematics: the truth of all mathematical conclusions is also "philosophically indefensible" in much the same way induction is, because, just like induction, the truth of its essential premises cannot be proved without circular reasoning (see Gödel's Theorem).

So if you are worried about induction, you should be worried about all scientific and mathematical knowledge whatever.

The absurdity of this should strike you. Clearly there is a difference between not being able to justify a conclusion with certainty (which not even mathematics can claim to do), and being able to justify a conclusion as warranted to a discernible probability (which induction can do just as well as mathematics can).

The problem of induction is therefore not a problem one need worry very much about.

Science Guy said...

"So if you are worried about induction, you should be worried about all scientific and mathematical knowledge whatever."

As I already pointed out in my own post.

You and I disagree on the significance of the problem of induction (which is not a term that I made up, despite your insistence that it's no problem at all). But, that's fine. I just thought I would bring it up. I still believe that the concept of the "supernatural" makes little sense, and especially so coming from someone who denies its existence, but if you want to continue to assert that it makes sense, go ahead.

Do you have an answer for my example of the resurrection? Christians would agree with your inductive conclusion that dead people do not bodily raise from the dead. In fact, they take it as a sign of the significance of Jesus' supposed resurrection that resurrections normally do not happen.

Richard Carrier said...

Science Guy said… I still believe that the concept of the "supernatural" makes little sense, and especially so coming from someone who denies its existence, but if you want to continue to assert that it makes sense, go ahead.

If cartoons make sense to you, then the supernatural does. Because cartoons embody the fundamental definition of supernatural causation (ontologically nonreducible mental agency, e.g. shapes with no mechanical structure think, talk, move around with intentionality, even if they are just broomsticks or sponges wearing pants).

Likewise if the Harry Potter novels and films make sense to you, then the supernatural makes sense to you. And if you lived in the Harry Potter universe, you would be a supernaturalist. As would I. Naturalism in that environment would not be logically impossible, but it would simply be absurd.

Do you have an answer for my example of the resurrection? Christians would agree with your inductive conclusion that dead people do not bodily raise from the dead. In fact, they take it as a sign of the significance of Jesus' supposed resurrection that resurrections normally do not happen.

There is not uniform agreement on any of those points among Christians, but in general you are right, it's just that frequency is irrelevant to the natural/supernatural distinction. Plenty of natural events are extremely rare. In fact, an entirely naturalistic "spontaneous" corpse reanimation has a nonzero probability, it's just that it's an insanely small one (which can be calculated using statistical thermodynamics). And of course techno-resurrections (as by aliens, say) are naturalistically conceivable and actually much more likely (but still extremely unlikely, given than we don't know of any such aliens around here).

What makes a claim supernatural is not its improbability. What makes it supernatural is its agency. If a disembodied person magically restores a corpse to life merely by willing it (just like in a cartoon), it's supernatural. If random thermal fluctuations restore a corpse to life just by a congeries of coincidences, it's natural. Thus we could have had a world in which every corpse is supernaturally reanimated and no one ever dies, and in that universe resurrections are not rare at all but routine, and yet they would still be supernatural. And indeed we would all be believers in that world.