Thursday, March 29, 2012

Is God supernatural?

A redated post. 

I wouldn't even necessarily call God supernatural. There could conceivably be a science studying God's actions, based on which we could make predictions. If God would let us, we could even perform experiments on Him. What's wrong with this idea?

Actually, if you say that what we mean by supernatural is that it won't fit in to a mechanistic order, then of course God is supernatural. That's how Lewis defined it. But does everyone understand the term "supernatural" in that way? It seems like a lot of baggage is brought into the use of this term.

21 comments:

Tom G said...

From its etymology, supernatural means above the natural. That certainly applies to God. It seems to me your "if" (if God would allow us to experiment on Him) is a very large one indeed. It's hard enough to do a decent experiment on a knowing human subject; that's why they use double-blind research designs.

But I agree there's a lot of baggage attached to the word. Any word that can (in various contexts) evoke images ranging from Isaiah 6 to Edgar Cayce to Scooby-Doo has a baggage problem.

Robert said...

“I wouldn't even necessarily call God supernatural. There could conceivably be a science studying God's actions, based on which we could make predictions. If God would let us, we could even perform experiments on Him. What's wrong with this idea?”

In my thinking science studies what is physical. So if something is physical it can be measured and mathematically described. God as an immaterial person is neither physical, nor measurable, nor mathematically describable and so necessarily outside the realm of scientific study. Trying to perform experiments on God is a category mistake: like attempting to ascertain the physical dimensions of modus tollens.

”Actually, if you say that what we mean by supernatural is that it won't fit in to a mechanistic order, then of course God is supernatural. That's how Lewis defined it. But does everyone understand the term "supernatural" in that way? It seems like a lot of baggage is brought into the use of this term.”

I had a friend, an anthropology professor, who made distinctions between the supernatural, the supranatural and the natural. The supernatural is what we would call miraculous (beyond scientific explanation, an event that can only be referred to, but not explained using normal cause-effect explanations). The supranatural is not miraculous but is above and beyond the normal natural physical phenomena (this would include God and his activities, the angels and their activities, the angels activities are not necessarily miraculous but they are above and beyond the physical creation). The natural would then refer to what is common, susceptible to various explanations including scientific explanations. Of course human persons as we are a spirit/body unity are a combination of both the supranatural and the natural.

Where this gets interesting is in areas such as the interaction between the spirit and the body (since the spirit is involved, our actions cannot be explained merely as a natural physical phenomenon, just the brain in action, and yet there is a bit of a mysterious element involved as we will never be able to explain how an immaterial spirit interacts with a physical body). While we may not fully agree with my anthropologist friend, we can see that at least his three categories are more explanatory than having just two, the supernatural and the natural. These categories may also have a bearing on Victor’s/Lewis’ mind argument (i.e., the mind is a supranatural phenomenon that cannot be explained using merely physical explanations/science, and supranatural phenomena also argue against a materialistic worldview).

Robert

IlĂ­on said...

When "the natural" is understood in terms of naturalism, then humans are "supernatural," for we are not strictly bound by mechanistic cause-and-effect.

Victor Reppert said...

Well, there is a science of psychology, and there can be, even if the mind isn't purely physical. It is logically possible to stretch even the idea of "the physical" to "anything we can form testable theories about." I claim that it is logically possible to form testable theories about God, therefore, by that definition God is physical.

You have to define the natural as mechanistic in order to get any real work out of the term supernatural. If we define it that way, then supernatural doesn't have the kind of baggage that opponents like to use against it, however.

Jason Pratt said...

[Note: this dittos a post I just made on DangIdea 2 where, in two entries, you spoke on the same topics.]

Ahem. {g}

What C. S. Lewis, in MaPS (2nd Edition), means by "supernatural". (By C. S. Lewis, 1960, p8-10 of Macmillan 1978 paperback edition.)

....... [Lewis quote follows]

The difference between Naturalism and Supernaturalism is not exactly the same as the difference between belief in a God and disbelief. Naturalism, without ceasing to be itself, could admit a certain kind of God. The great interlocking event called Nature might be such as to produce at some stage a great cosmic consciousness, an indwelling "God" arising from the whole process as human mind arises (according to the Naturalists) from human organisms. A Naturalist [per se] would not object to that sort of God. The reason is this. Such a God would not stand outside Nature or the total system, would not be existing "on his own". It would still be "the whole show" which was the basic Fact, and such a God would merely be one of the things (even if he were the most interesting) which the basic Fact contained. What Naturalism [per se] cannot accept is the idea of a God who stands outside Nature and made it.

We are now in a position to state the difference between the Naturalist and the Supernaturalist despite the fact that they do not mean the same by the word Nature. The Naturalist believes that a great process, or "becoming," exists "on it own" in space and time, and that nothing else exists--what we call particular things and events being only the parts into which we analyze the great process or the shapes which that process takes at given moments and given points in space. This single, total reality he calls Nature. The Supernaturalist believes that one Thing exists on its own and has produced the framework of space and time and the procession of systematically connected vents which fill them. This framework, and this filling, he calls Nature. It may, or may not, be the only [subordinate system] reality which the one Primary Thing has produced. There might be other systems in addition to the one we call Nature.

[...] This does not mean that there would be absolutely no relation between [discontinuous Natures]; they would be related by their common derivation from a single Supernatural source.

[...] It by no means follows from [theistic] Supernaturalism [per se] that Miracles of any sort do in fact occur. God (the primary thing) may never in fact interfere with the natural system He has created. If He has created more natural systems than one, He may never cause them to impinge on one another.

But that is a question for further consideration. If we decide that Nature is not the only thing there is, then we cannot say in advance whether she is safe from miracles or not. There are things outside her [if Supernaturalism is true]: we do not yet know whether they can get in. The gates may be barred, or they may not. But if Naturalism is true, then we do know in advance that miracles are impossible: nothing can come into Nature from the outside because there is nothing outside to come in, Nature being everything. No doubt, events which we in our ignorance should mistake for miracles might occur: but they would in reality be (just like the commonest events) an inevitable result of the character of the whole system.

Our first choice, therefore, must be between Naturalism and Supernaturalism.

....... [end Lewis quote]

That's how chapter 2 ends out; and it explains precisely what Lewis means by Supernaturalism compared to Naturalism. He means an ontological distinction of independence: is Nature the final Independent Fact, or is Nature dependent for her existence upon something else?

As it happens, Lewis basically shifts over to theism vs. atheism in chapter 3--which is why there his reference to 'supernatural' is (as you quoted) very much less ontologically oriented; also why there (as you've occasionally noted, and as his own personal history stands as an example of) his AfR doesn't in itself have to point toward supernaturalistic theism. It could point just as easily (as far as it goes) to an ontologically naturalistic theism, such as the absolute idealism he first accepted when he abandoned atheism.

Consequently, there is an important topical disjunction between chapter 2 and chapter 3. Lewis manages to keep it a disjunction rather than subsequently conflating the categories for his argument (I think), which conflation would admittedly be worse--and something to be avoided (as I have been stressing for years {g}).

But his disjunction does lead critics, pro or con, to routinely read that conflation back into his chapter 3 (and subsequent) arguments. His insistence on continuing to call his target Naturalism only facilitates that critical result.

Incidentally, that ontological distinction between Naturalism and Supernaturalism, is why it does in fact make for a problem, or at least for a major doctrinal difference, when you state that you wouldn't even necessarily call God supernatural. However, a supernatural God, in the ontological sense implied by Lewis' chp 2 usage--which I accept--would still be capable of letting Himself be studied scientifically, in various ways, if He chose to do so.

But we could not depend on having a controllable test situation; and much of science as a discipline involves learning about reactions that can be (to coin a term) inducibly made to occur (whether by humans or by the reactions of the natural system itself).

That kind of testability is functionally excluded by ontological supernaturalism (and still would be for supernaturalistic atheism, too). There are metaphysic-coherence reasons, not only scriptural testimony reasons, for why Theopaschytism per se is rejected as a heresy. (Though I do think orthodoxy can go further with that line of thinking than many people classically suppose.)

JRP

Nullasalus said...

Just chiming in to mention that I agree 'supernatural' is a confusing term, and usually produces more confusion than clarity in a discussion. In part for the reason ilion mentioned.

JD Walters said...

This is a very interesting and I think fruitful insight, which gives rise to another equally interesting question: why is it that God doesn't seem to want to allow us to 'experiment' on Him? Here I would refer to the work of Paul Moser, who gives a number of insightful reasons for the apparent hiddenness of God. I believe that a science of God IS possible in principle, and that maybe after the Resurrection and the Last Judgment human beings will be able to develop it ("Now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face"), but in this present age knowledge of God can only be had in certain contexts, involving believing submission and radical trust.

Robert said...

JD wrote:

“This is a very interesting and I think fruitful insight, which gives rise to another equally interesting question: why is it that God doesn't seem to want to allow us to 'experiment' on Him? Here I would refer to the work of Paul Moser, who gives a number of insightful reasons for the apparent hiddenness of God.”

Part of the reason that we do science is to control nature and be able to respond to nature. We will never ever be in the position to control God, so God will never be one of our “experiments”.

“I believe that a science of God IS possible in principle, and that maybe after the Resurrection and the Last Judgment human beings will be able to develop it ("Now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face"), but in this present age knowledge of God can only be had in certain contexts, involving believing submission and radical trust.”

We will never be in the position to do experiments with God, so a science of God is impossible. If you take the biblical records seriously, when we are in the direct presence of God we will be worshipping the Lord not doing experiments with him as the subject. Your reference to the 1 Cor. 13 passage has to deal with having a greater knowledge of God, more direct than we do now, but it hardly provides any evidence that we will ever have control over God to the extent that he will be subject to experimentation. Another problem I have with this whole science of God concept is that I believe it to be both an oxymoron and category mistake. Scientific study deals with physical aspects of nature and does so by means of physical and mathematical descriptions. And God is a person and an immaterial being so he is beyond any physical or mathematical descriptions.

Robert

JD Walters said...

Robert,

I agree with most of what you said but I think you have misunderstood me. By 'science of God' I simply meant a better understanding of how and why God works. Science is not only about control, nor is our knowledge of something unscientific when it cannot be replicated or manipulated in controlled conditions-think of the Big Bang! By scientific I have in mind more the sort of precise and certain knowledge which is the product of detailed study. It's possible, given the connotations that science often produces in the modern mind, that the term should not be used at all.

Elaine said...

The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.

If a god existed, it would have to be natural in the sense of being part of its own creation. It seems logical then that its nature would be consistent with the rest of its creation since to create something inconsistent with its nature would be a paradox.

However, it's so much easier to understand life when you quit trying to pretend some Divine Intelligence is directing it.

Tom Gilson said...

It's hard for me to see why this would have to be true, or even how it could be:

If a god existed, it would have to be natural in the sense of being part of its own creation.

If "a god" created something which included that god, then that god would have to have created itself. How did it get there beforehand to do that?

Jason Pratt said...

Elaine: {{If a god existed, it would have to be natural in the sense of being part of its own creation.}}

No, if the kind of God we're talking about exists (which, incidentally, is one reason why in English there's a formal capitalization when talking about that propositional entity--that way we distinguish between entities dependent on the natural system and any entity upon which the natural system depends), then Its own creation would have to be part of It (or Him in gender-neutral English active-sentience parlance) in some fashion. It's an ontological distinction. Similarly, if Nature is derivative from an atheistic but supernatural reality, it would have to be part of that atheistic-but-supernatural reality in some fashion, too.

However, in either case of supernaturalism per se (theistic or atheistic), the substances of the independent and dependent realities would be different in category from each other--"substantially" different, one might say. {g} Otherwise we'd still be talking about philosophical naturalism (theistic or atheistic).

While this similar-in-principle-somehow-yet-still-substantially-different ontological relationship could be paradoxical, strictly speaking it need not be contradictory. (We're talking about the final ground of all reality, so we had better be prepared to accept some legitimate paradoxes in any case, including in Its relationship with derivative substantial realities if any.)


{{However, it's so much easier to understand life when you quit trying to pretend some Divine Intelligence is directing it.}}

Most of us theists, I think I can say with some certainty, are not pretending to be theists. {s} And many of us, including myself and the author of this site, strongly oppose attempts by people on our own side of the aisle to aver that atheists are only pretending to be atheists.

And I for one (and Victor and many others here, for others {s}) find it to be more logically consistent to understand human life at least in light of both an actively personal supernatural God, and a merely reactive dependently existent system of Nature. That's why I am a supernaturalist instead of a pantheist or a cosmological dualist (or an atheist, on the other hand, supernaturalistic or otherwise.)

To put it very briefly, and going further than 'mere' supernaturalistic theism per se: I believe orthodox trinitarian theism is true, because I'm willing to believe in you. {s} But obviously there's a lot of analysis that has to be done to arrive at that belief from believing in you.


Tom Gilson (also tom g?): {{If "a god" created something which included that god, then that god would have to have created itself. How did it get there beforehand to do that?}}

Leaving aside the confution of distinct dependent and independent systems of existence, this question is not actually a problem: self-existence is going to be either utterly (and statically) ungrounded, or else it's going to be actively self-grounding. (This is the debate between privative and positive aseity, in technical parlance, btw.) In either case there is no 'getting there beforehand'; and we don't end up having logically coherent options other than such an Independent Fact (or so I find). So, ontologically speaking, either naturalism or supernaturalism is going to be true (over against infinite regression or some kind of limited-number multiple-IF reality, such as in cosmological dualism.) And either theism or atheism is going to be true in regard to that IF, too. So there are four combinant option groups (not counting variants within the option groups), which can be dichotomized along two different topical lines.

The upshot, put briefly, is that the question of 'getting there beforehand' is just as problematic for naturalistic atheism as it is for supernaturalistic theism (or either of the other two combinant groups)--which is, no problem at all.

JRP

Tom Gilson said...

Jason, I agree with you on self-existence. I was addressing the problem in terms of Elaine's conception of the "god" being a part of that god's created natural order. There has to be, it seems to me, an ontological distinction between the self-existent and the created.

Papalinton said...

I would be very happy if believers would simply propose some methodological mechanism that could test for the supernatural, or could progress the prospect of a viable god science.

Robert says, "Trying to perform experiments on God is a category mistake .." I suggest don't jump the gun.
You are getting a bit ahead of yourself. I suggest you resolve in the first instance, that the proposition of the existence of god[s] is not a category mistake of itself. Atheism is currently wrapping at your door and is in the neighbourhood in increasing numbers and heres to stay. After a two thousand year hiatus in christian thought the community is increasingly critiquing the tradition religious model of society and noting that is has largely failed to deliver. After thousands of years of wars, holocausts, genocide, all under the watchful eye of christendom, promised big delivered little, Europe is tired and exhausted of the religious rhetoric. They are ditching the religious model of society for something a little more caring, warmer, safer; secular humanism.

Most of the commentary for the moment on this thread is regurgitative,reflecting pretty much the same stuff I used to read and debate about when I was an ardent believer. And this was some 40 years ago. It is theo-'logical' in structure and content, which in itself is not unduly inapt on a theist site.

But, in terms of addressing VR's proposition, "There could conceivably be a science studying God's actions, based on which we could make predictions. If God would let us, we could even perform experiments on Him. What's wrong with this idea?", theology has provided neither the spark or drive nor a point of departure from which a god-did-it hypothesis could be turned into a testable proposition.

Two millennia of hand wringing seems an awful waste of time. And still the issue has yet to advance beyond quibbling at the definitional stage.

Cole said...

Speaking of the supernatural. There is no evidence for your loving God. He does not express His love to us. We see this when children get their faces burned off by the universe that He supposedly designed. The universe breaks babies arms, cripples them, pops their eyeballs out of their sockets, peels the skin off their bodies. If God wanted to bring these children up to heaven why not go about it in a more humane and gentleman-like way? Maybe send down some supernatural chariots from heaven and escort the children there since He loves them so much. These beliefs in mind controlling forces, demons, and talking animals are for the mentally ill.

BenYachov said...

>If God would let us, we could even perform experiments on Him. What's wrong with this idea?

What you are talking about here is not something that can coherently be done with God as He is Classically known(& Victor you should know by now when I invoke Classic God I am talking about what Brian Davies, Feser, McCabe, etc are talking about).

It's like talking about viewing the Andromeda galaxy in the sky using your microscope.

It's like chemically testing the substance of 1+1.

Category mistake much?

God is a philosophical question not a scientific one. Otherwise there is no God just a meta-super being like the Authority in the Pulman novels that evolved first.

pboyfloyd said...

"..like attempting to ascertain the physical dimensions of modus tollens."

Well, that used to be 3 by 4, but they recently changed it to 9 by 16, as is my understanding.

Crude said...

These beliefs in mind controlling forces, demons, and talking animals are for the mentally ill.

LOL

Gregory said...

"Here comes the time, when people will behave like madmen, and if they see anybody who does not behave like that, they will rebel against him and say: 'You are mad', - because he is not like them." ---St. Antony the Great

Ian said...

I discuss this more at http://blog.beginningtheisticscience.com. Ian

ricky rai said...

Hi..what i feel ..GOD is somewhat person which society or created by us..if u are honest to your work and you are having passion for doing something ..then nobody will defeat you wherever you are and in what position you are...JUST BELIEVE IN YOURSELF and GOD WILL BE THERE FOR YOU..again saying ..god is created by us..if u believe he will be in you..