An article I submitted years ago has finally made it into the pages of Free Inquiry magazine (issue 30.3 of April/May 2010, pp. 50-51), "On Defining Naturalism as a Worldview," part of their ongoing 'It's Only Natural' column. It was sitting in their queue for ages. It essentially just summarizes the most important points of my more extensive blog on the subject, Defining the Supernatural.
It has already provoked one reply at The Teapot Atheist. But had TPA read the blog recommended in my FI article, he would have known I already addressed the concerns he raised. I just didn't have the room to fit all that into two pages of print.
First, if (per his example) we could indeed explain how karma works without any irreducible mind or mental property having caused it to exist or to operate as it does, then karma would be natural. His counter-example is thus nothing of the kind. I gave several comparable examples myself in the original blog (e.g. the difference between a Harry Potter world and a Forbidden Planet world). Hence to claim karma could exist and be a reducibly nonmental system, and thus entirely natural, only proves my point.
Indeed, as it happens, such a thing does in fact exist: social reciprocity and natural consequentialism. "He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword," is a simple statement of statistical fact: certain habitual behaviors naturally cause an elevation in associated risks. Actions have consequences. This is true even more broadly: the irrational anger and stubbornness that characterizes large segments of the populations of Israel and Palestine have the direct consequence of perpetuating their misery by causing them to repeat the very actions that cause and sustain the miserable situation they loathe so much in the first place. If that's not karma, I don't know what is. But there's nothing supernatural about it.
If, on the other hand, the universe just magically "knew" what was good and evil and inexplicably always rewarded the one and punished the other, that would be an irreducibly mental behavior and thus would be undeniably supernatural (an example of "high teleology" that I actually gave in my book Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 273-75, and there in greater detail). Unless there was some gigantic computer and system of sensors somewhere detecting what we were doing and running the math, which was programmed by some alien race that conquered the cosmos eons ago, and this was manipulating the world through natural physics to arrange for perfect reciprocal justice on earth. But then obviously no one would be calling such a thing supernatural. TPA's example of physical karmions causing karma thus leaves out the most crucial detail: how do karmions know what actions to reward or punish? Work out a complete system, without referring to any magical "knowing" or "caring," and what you'll have will be undeniably naturalistic. Just like my example of The Force in my blog (which TPA clearly didn't read). Or the "Justice Field" in Red Dwarf season 4 episode 3 ("Justice").
TPA insists that "naturalism is the converse of supernaturalism" is a sufficient definition, but as I explain in FI (and prove on my blog, as well as in the articles I cite and link to in that blog), that definition is vacuously circular. Because you still have to define "supernatural." Which necessarily requires you to define "natural." Back to square one. As I proved from an analysis of what actual naturalists say they believe (see "A Brief Ethnography of Contemporary Naturalism" in Defending Naturalism as a Worldview), everyone's intuitions on this score reduce to the definition I advance in FI.
TPA has nothing to offer in its place. Instead, he simply regresses to yet another arbitrary laundry list that he can't even explain. Why is karma "clearly supernatural"? He never says, and yet if he can't, then he has no definition. He then confusingly devolves into essentially claiming naturalism is just empiricism, which is a folly I already called out in FI. That entails (and even his own examples affirm this) that "the supernatural" merely means "that which is false," which is perverse, because many supernatural things are capable of being true, and if they are, then either naturalism includes the supernatural (if God actually exists, then he no longer belongs to things that are false, and therefore naturalism would remain true, thus refuting TPA's assertion that naturalism is the converse of supernaturalism) or naturalism is false (in which case the supernatural cannot mean "that which is false" and TPA must then explain what it does mean--the very thing he doesn't do). There is no escape from this dilemma. The horns impale him.
Likewise, TPA completely misses my point about God: if God is a disembodied mind, then he is irreducibly mental, therefore supernatural. TPA would know this if he read my blog referenced in FI, where I actually described what it would take for a god to exist on naturalism (it is in fact possible--it just wouldn't be what anyone now means by the word God). Thus, his example of God is also not a counter-example to my argument. Nor does rejecting disembodied god-minds require us to "eliminate all references to other human minds," since those minds are reducibly nonmental, thus natural. Unlike God.
TPA then makes the mistake of assuming Platonism about numbers. He evidently is unaware of Nominalism and Formalism and the Aristotelian metaphysics of mathematics that I defend in my book (even though he claims to have read it; in any event, just look up "numbers, nature of" in the index of Sense and Goodness without God; and in application to physics, see my blog Our Mathematical Universe). There is no difficulty reducing numbers to nonmental things. Even so-called Platonic naturalists admit there is no way immaterial things (like Platonic numbers) can cause anything to happen (like our being aware of them), yet that renders Platonic naturalism incoherent. If immaterial abstract objects cannot cause us to know about them, how is it that we know about them? Answer: because they aren't immaterial (see "abstraction and abstract objects" in the index of Sense and Goodness without God).
TPA commits another common error of not thinking things through when he says "I have never encountered 326,519,438.004 objects," yet he just did: in his physical, reducibly nonmental brain, "nor is there anything physical about it," yet there is: the word refers to a physical fact. Being a fraction, it refers to a ratio of two quantities, and quantity is a fundamentally physical property: space, time, matter and energy all by definition possess it. It can refer to some actual fact (odds are, such a ratio exists between some two objects in this universe--because there are so many objects in this universe to stand in ratio to each other) or a hypothetical fact (such a ratio can exist between two reducibly nonmental objects, without requiring anything irreducibly mental, e.g. I could cut two wires right now that have that ratio between them).
By analogy, there are no unicorns, either, yet the word still refers to a (hypothetical) physical fact: unicorns exist if the physical (and thus reducibly nonmental) entity described by that word exists. And if they don't exist, the thought of them exists in the brain that thinks it, and as long as the brain doing that is reducibly nonmental, then by the law of commutation, so is the idea of a unicorn. QED.
What about things no one has thought of yet, but that are logically possible? They exist only potentially. Those thoughts do not actually exist until, in fact, they actually exist. If they could exist before that, then they would have to be supernatural (because they would then have to be irreducibly mental). What does it mean to potentially exist but not actually exist? It means the physical universe is capable of producing such things in the right conditions, yet those conditions still do not require anything irreducibly mental (or if they did, then naturalism would be false).
If I have a gold ring, a gold cube potentially exists. Because I can mash it into a cube. But I require no supernatural power to do that. Nothing irreducibly mental need exist for a ring of gold to be potentially a cube of gold. Thus, potentially existing things are not irreducibly mental and thus not supernatural. Hence the same follows for a ratio like 326,519,438.004: if not referring to an actual ratio (like two actual wires, or the optical distance between two stars in ratio to some arbitrary unit of distance, etc.), then it refers to a potential ratio, and potential things neither are irreducibly mental nor require the irreducibly mental (Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 125-26).
TPA is perplexed at how he can think of a number but not what it describes. But that should not be perplexing. Because a potential ratio can be a ratio of anything possessing the property of quantity. Hence, obviously when we think solely of the ratio we leave blank what it is a ratio of, we thus "abstract" the ratio from its particular instances, and the resulting impression is of a number divorced from any physical fact. But that's an illusion, if we take it as anything other than a formalism of physical computation ("x:y = 326,519,438.004:1" where x and y = "wires or sticks or pounds or persons or...[ad infinitum]," there being too many possibilities to state or imagine all at once, so we don't). This was explicitly stated and explained by Aristotle over two thousand years ago. Someone really ought to get the memo.
Even when abstracted, a word like 326,519,438.004 is meaningless unless it describes some actual or hypothetical ratio between physical quantities. The blank must be potentially fillable. Otherwise numbers would be meaningless sounds. (I discuss this mistake more broadly in Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 31-32, essential to which is the whole discussion of pp. 29-35). If, on the other hand, 326,519,438.004 "exists" independently of our physical minds or computers constructing it, and not only that, but also independently of any actual or potential physical quantities, then it would certainly be supernatural. Because there could then be no other explanation for how or why it existed at all. Failure to face the consequences of that fact can only make naturalists look ridiculous.
This debate was continued in Defining Naturalism II.