Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Defining Naturalism II

Yesterday I posted on my recent article in Free Inquiry on Defining Naturalism, in which I also replied to The Teapot Atheist's response to that FI article. TPA then answered back (Richard Carrier on Richard Carrier on Naturalism...I think just using my last name would have been more economical, but that's just my aesthetics talking :-). He's well in earnest. But still wrong. 

Some of my responses to other comments on yesterday's blog are pertinent (if you want to catch up with those, start here). But now I'll just quote and reply to TPA's latest blog...

TPA: I can certainly appreciate the difficulties of negotiating space constraints in serial publications, but perhaps a more thorough summary of his views would have included at least general references to the objections that I raised.

Indeed, the original draft had many such. But the editors of FI insisted it be reduced to a two-page spread. So it was not in my power to keep anything else in. If you look the resulting article over, there is simply nowhere anything could be cut. Consequently, nowhere anything could be added, either. That's why I referred readers explicitly to my blog for the remaining issues.

TPA: I was trying to show with the example of karma not only that karma could be considered natural on certain conditions, but that we do not have a good idea of [when] the specific condition to which I was referring has been met.

Once again, this was addressed in my original blog (Defining the Supernatural), where I divided the metaphysical issue (what a claim of the supernatural is asserting) from the epistemological one (whether such a claim can be known to be true). I also addressed exactly the issue TPA raises: the "possibility" that any supernatural phenomenon could still actually be a natural one, unknown to us.

First, "possibly, therefore probably" is a fallacy, therefore the mere possibility of something is of no relevance. It is "possible" nothing is natural, that unbeknownst to us everything is supernaturally caused. Yet science does not collapse under this objection, because merely being possible does not make something probable. Read in particular my example of how it is "possible" geocentrism is still true "unbeknownst to us," and you'll understand how TPA is way off base here. He has no valid epistemological objection. Mere possibilities are irrelevant to the question of what the evidence warrants believing.

More importantly, this epistemological question is still separate from the metaphysical one. TPA is confusing the two. Read that original blog's very first paragraph: naturalism is a metaphysical claim, not an epistemological one; because supernaturalism is a metaphysical claim, not an epistemological one (and even TPA admits, naturalism is by definition not supernaturalism). Thus naturalism must be defined in terms of what it asserts exists, not what it asserts is known. If what it asserts cannot be known, then we cannot know if naturalism is true. But its definition does not thereby change. As far as I can tell, TPA has yet to grasp this point.

In any case, if we can never know whether something supernatural is really at root natural, then we can never know whether something natural is really at root supernatural. If the mere possibility prevents knowledge in the one case, it prevents it in the other. This entails radical skepticism, but radical skepticism still doesn't change the definition of naturalism. Of course, such radical skepticism is absurd, but that's a different debate.

TPA: On Dr. Carrier's definition, we would first have to be sure that [karma] could not reduce to a nonmental object.

Nowhere have I ever declared that. In fact, I have everywhere denied, even refuted, the notion of such epistemic certainty. We do not have to be any more sure that karma is magic than we have to be sure that aliens aren't tricking us into thinking a geocentric solar system is heliocentric. We can't ever be "sure" of the latter. We can only know it is extremely improbable on the evidence we have. Ditto "hidden" natural causes of the supernatural. 

Note my making exactly this point in the comparison of a Harry Potter world and a Forbidden Planet world (thus, again, TPA appears still not to have read my original blog on this issue): if we found ourselves in a Harry Potter world, at some point the evidence would be such that insisting there was still a Forbidden Planet explanation for it would be as absurd as any God of the Gaps argument is now. The mere possibility that there "could yet still be" a Forbidden Planet explanation does not entail we should believe there is (or that the odds are 50/50 that there is), any more than the mere possibility that there "could yet still be" a creationist explanation of the origin of species entails we should believe there is (or that the odds are 50/50 that there is).

And again, that's epistemology. Naturalism is a metaphysical claim. Thus it must be defined in such terms. Whether epistemology forbids us knowing whether that claim is true is an entirely different question from how naturalism is (in practice) defined.

TPA: Anything that we can semantically (and correctly) reduce to "magical" is supernatural. Anything else isn't.

Which requires TPA to define "magical." Yet all he does is imply that he means the same thing by it that I did. Which entails he agrees my definition is correct. In the very same breath that he claims it is not. I confess to having no idea what then he means to actually say. It can't be both. Either "magic" means (in some component) irreducibly mental, or something else. If something else, what? You must answer that question, and answer it non-circularly, before you will have even proposed an alternative definition, much less replaced mine.

TPA: My definition certainly doesn't require, as Dr. Carrier says, that "supernatural" reduces to "that which is false."

I actually said his argument entails this (whether he knows it or not): since the only examples TPA gave were of just such a thing, his claims do not correlate with his actions. And his real definition (how he is actually using the word) derives from the latter (as I explain in Sense and Goodness without God pp. 33-35). Revisit yesterday's blog and see the evidence I gave for this very conclusion.

TPA: Why this is a folly is not made clear other than the semantic point that he wants us to distinguish naturalism from empiricism. Why we should do this seems to have to do with little more than his desire to provide a further, more complicated definition.

I actually stated
in the FI article a very practical reason for requiring such a distinction. I recommend that readers of this exchange read the original article. TPA seems not to have read it so well. Moreover, I gave more reasons for requiring the distinction in the blog to which the FI article refers (Defining the Supernatural). Read that as well, and you'll find TPA's claim of "little more than" is unwarranted. I have articulated several good reasons. And neither "several" nor "good" equals "little."

TPA: Dr. Carrier refers to this as a "mistake" without saying much about why.

I had hoped it would be obvious. It is a mistake to ignore nominalism, formalism, and Aristotelian realism, which TPA's original argument did, because he relied on the implied premise that only the interpretation he presented was in play. Which rendered his argument logically unsound, because such an implied premise violates the law of excluded middle. Reintroduce the alternatives he excluded, and his conclusion no longer follows. Hence, mistake.

P1. It is not possible for numbers to be explained by the reductively nonmental.
P2. If it is not possible to explain something that demonstrably exists by the reductively nonmental, Carrier's definition is inapt.
P3. Therefore, Carrier's definition is inapt.
Because nominalism, formalism, and Aristotelian realism are live options to Platonism, and all explain numbers by the reductively nonmental, P1 is false. It doesn't matter which of these models of mathematics is true (as far as whether my definition is inapt--it matters as far as whether naturalism is true, but again that's a separate problem from what naturalism is). As long as any of them is logically possible, P1 is false, and therefore P3 is not established. The argument is thus unsound.

As to his query what numbers are, absent a brain, I worry TPA is confusing words with referents. Numbers are words. As such, they do not exist outside human invention. A million years ago, no such thing as a number existed in this universe. What then existed were quantities (and ratios and such like), and that means both actual quantities (which are physical objects) and potential quantities (whose existence is entailed by physical objects, hence as I explained: potential quantities do not require for their existence anything other than actual physical objects). Numbers are words we invented to refer to those things (actual and potential quantities, actual and potential ratios, etc.). Nowhere in this scheme of things is there anything that is irreducibly mental.

TPA: None of these things are objects; none of them can be reduced any further than they are already, and they would still "exist" in the absence of minds to ponder them.

As I already explained in yesterday's blog, such thinking is incorrect.

All of the things that actually exist are objects, or the inalienable properties of objects (like quantities), which all exist in the absence of minds to ponder them (it's not as if we turn our back on a yardstick and it ceases to have any length: it's length is an inalienable property of the stick, which goes on existing, length and all, whether we ponder it or not), whereas all the things that potentially exist do not actually exist (at least yet), and thus do not "still exist" in the absence of minds to ponder them. Their potentials exist, but as such they exist again as the inalienable property of physical objects. A yardstick is potentially two broken sticks half a yard each: yet this particular 'broken stick' does not exist, so it is not an 'object' in any sense, it exists only potentially, as in inalienable property of what does exist, the yardstick I have at hand, thus there is nothing irreducibly mental here, either (it's not as if we turn our back on a yardstick and it can no longer be broken in two merely because we are no longer pondering it).

If, however, you wish to assert that the 'broken stick' still exists even when there is no broken stick, and the existence of this immaterial 'object' is not just a potential property of the physical object that does exist (the unbroken yardstick) but something that 'really exists' in some sense, then you are asserting a claim of the supernatural.

Ditto quantities, ergo 'numbers'.

TPA: There is nothing physical about the fact that "4 is more than 3," even if there is something physical about "4 objects are more than 3 objects."

There is everything physical about the fact that four sticks physically includes three sticks and another stick (and so on for any other instantiation of this pattern of physical quantity). The fact that this property can be shared by many things (indeed infinitely many: counts of apples, diameters of stars, areas of deep space, weights of rocks, etc.) does not require anything to exist but physical objects.

In other words, there is no immaterial "thing" that you can "remove" from the universe and somehow make it impossible for "four sticks physically includes three sticks and another stick" and "four stars physically includes three stars and another star" from both still being true (and so on for every other possible expression of quantity). 

Hence we invented words to refer to that repeating pattern (which is a physical pattern, always and ever), which is "4 is more than 3." That sentence did not exist a million years ago (humans invented it). Only what it refers to existed a million years ago. But it refers to nothing else but the repeating physical pattern of "four physical objects includes three physical objects and another physical object" (of course here allowing "physical object" to include such things as empty regions of space-time, since naturalism only requires on my definition the reducibly nonmental, and space-time is such).

There is, again, nothing irreducibly mental here.

TPA: His own definition is not very helpful since the analogy of numbers extends to obviously supernatural [things].

Which brings us back full circle to TPA's confusion between metaphysics and epistemology. Indeed, I could be wrong about numbers. What I am asserting (as a naturalist) is that I am not. If I am right, naturalism is true, and if I am wrong, supernaturalism is true. Thus, defining naturalism entails defining numbers as I have (or in some comparable way). Whether that's what numbers really are is then the epistemological question, to wit, "Is naturalism true?" You can only answer that after you have defined naturalism.

The same goes for every other claim, including the supernatural (karma, et al.). Once you stop confusing the two questions ("What is naturalism?" and "Is naturalism true?"), you'll give up such inapplicable objections to defining naturalism my way. In fact my definition is very helpful--indeed, it is the only helpful definition I know, apart from definitions that semantically reduce to it. By contrast, TPA has still not even given us a definition, much less a "helpful" one.

Hence my point stands.


Haukur said...

Maybe I missed it somewhere along the way but do you ever treat things like magical flying horses or flying carpets? If I tell you I have a flying horse/carpet in my garden, most people would call that a supernatural claim and I think James Randi would be happy to award me a million dollars if I've got the goods. But I don't see anything necessarily mental about flying horses and flying carpets.

To make the example more specific, let's say my carpet levitates one meter above the ground. Apart from that, it doesn't usually move on its own but it can be moved by wind or other means. You might be able to pin it to the ground by applying sufficient force. There's no particular explanation for how the carpet got into my garden, it just appeared there one day.

Andrew G. said...

If I understand the original blog post correctly, then the magic carpet (assuming it did not respond to mental phenomena but only physical ones) would be an example of what Richard would call "paranormal", not currently explainable by known science or reasonable extrapolation therefrom.

(Obviously, if such an item were available for examination and experiment, there would be a lot of interest in fixing the "not explainable" part.)

AIGBusted said...

Hi Rich,

OFFTOPIC: I was just wondering if you had read "The Six Ways of Atheism" by Geoffrey Berg? It's a pretty good book on atheism, although I certainly don't agree with some of the arguments. It's worth a look.

Also, I sent you an email concerning my book (atheism and naturalism) sometime ago, I wondered if you had gotten it, or maybe if your response had somehow ended up in my spam folder.

GoodNewsAtheism said...

Hey Dr. Carrier. Thanks again for the lively discussion. I think that much of our disagreement at this point is reducing to semantics, though I'm still not sure that I've properly communicated the intent of my example about karma. I'll be away this weekend so I won't have time to properly respond until after Sunday, I just wanted to drop by and thank you for taking the time to engage with me on this important issue.

PS It looks like we have the same "science proves God" spammer on our blogs.

Semi-sage said...

Richard - I started reading and ... to be honest I hate epistemology. To me it is seriously the study of knowledge to the point you become stupid. I have yet to meet a single epist lune that I can even discuss if either of us really know anything. They drive me crazy. I usually end up name calling, and just trying to get them to go away. lol

You have more will power than me. :)

Richard Carrier said...

AIGBusted said... I was just wondering if you had read "The Six Ways of Atheism" by Geoffrey Berg? It's a pretty good book on atheism, although I certainly don't agree with some of the arguments. It's worth a look.


(That's not a rhetorical question. There are some twenty or thirty new books on atheism, and dozens coming every year, most of them too basic to be of any interest to me--I haven't even read any of the books on atheism by the four horsemen even--so why should I be interested in yet one more?)

I sent you an email concerning my book (atheism and naturalism) sometime ago, I wondered if you had gotten it

Re-send If I haven't replied by now.

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... I don't see anything necessarily mental about flying horses and flying carpets.

Examples can be iterated infinitely. Thus you need to look at the paradigmatic examples I discuss in my blog answering exactly that question (Defining the Supernatural), and iterate the conclusions there to any other examples you want (whether magic carpets or magic beans or wands of instant farting or whatever).

Andrew G. hit the nail on the head on this one (as he usually does)...

There's no particular explanation for how the carpet got into my garden, it just appeared there one day.

As explained in my original blog (linked above) what you have at that point is a paranormal phenomenon (and if you are merely telling me about it, what I have is a paranormal claim). Paranormal phenomena can have supernatural or natural causes, you just don't yet know. If, not knowing, you decline to assert one or the other, then you are merely making a claim of the paranormal, not a claim of the supernatural. This puts a much lighter burden of proof on you. All you need prove is that the carpet flies, not how or why.

(But as Andrew points out, scientists will then be very keen on figuring out the why)

You are only making a supernatural claim when you make assertions about why the carpet flies, and that assertion appeals to something irreducibly mental (like the carpet just magically knowing where the ground is, analogously to a love potion just magically knowing how to change your brain so it feels love). So if you instead insist the carpet flies by some non-supernatural means (i.e. if you conclude, perhaps based on a sound argument from prior probability, that whatever the cause it almost certainly will be natural), asserting the existence of the flying carpet does not disqualify you from embracing a naturalist worldview. For example, it might contain microscopic alien machinery that manipulates gravitons (a la Star Wars "speeders" and grav wagons), or any of countless other mechanisms that are reducibly nonmental. See my blog for an explanation of the distinction (using the love potion as the paradigmatic example).

Thus naturalism is not defined merely by what you observe. It's defined by what you conclude exists thereby (e.g. what's "in" the magic carpet). Hence "metaphysical naturalism" is the full appellation: you are making a complete assertion about what metaphysically does and doesn't exist. Reporting an unexplained phenomenon makes no such claim (beyond the bare facts observed).

Haukur said...

Thank you for replying. I think your treatment of my carpet example is consistent with your previous definitions and examples. The questions that seem at least somewhat open are:

A: Whether your definition of 'supernatural' is the most useful one there is.

B: How well your definition corresponds to the way people normally use the word.

For A I'll say "possibly" and for B I'll say "better than I expected".