Sunday, November 30, 2014

A naturalist attempts to define the supernatural

Does this look good to you?

45 comments:

Crude said...

Nope, for a number of reasons. Amusingly enough, their own examples don't work, as nerds would know.

For example, we discussed at the beginning a witch being able to cast a spell of fire in comparison to an X-man who has evolved the ability to produce flames from his hands. Both abilities are superhuman, but only one is supernatural. The reason why is the X-man’s superhuman ability can be explained as the result of gradual biological change and mutation, which eventually resulted in abilities that exceed those of ordinary humans.

X-men were intelligently designed. And gradual biological change and mutation can be guided.

The process behind it is still reducible.

At best, hypothetically, to brute forces. Which have no explanation. Likewise...

The witch’s abilities cannot be described as being the contingent result of blind processes.

Sure they can - he's just turning his imagination off. Hell, you don't even need contingent results - you can just brute fact your way out of problems.

I could probably spend a week going after this one, but those comments alone are satchel charges on this side of this particular boat.

Crude said...

Another way to put it is this:

The price of trying to define natural and supernatural in terms of ultimate and fundamental root causes is the following: we have never, in our lives, knowingly 'observed' either a natural or a supernatural event, because in principle every given event is privy to both an "ultimate" natural or supernatural cause. We don't knowingly observe ultimate and fundamental causes in the relevant way - not even in the finest physical sciences. And as a matter of logical possibility, we never will. At best, we infer - fallibly, using one or another bit of criteria.

Now, I happen to be fine with that limitation, especially as it applies to the sciences and empiricism. For others? That's close to the ultimate price to pay - way, way too high.

John Moore said...

Ferguson's five-part definition is needlessly complicated. I think you can just talk about our universe as a closed system with conservation of mass-energy and uniformitarian laws of motion. That way the supernatural means extra energy or what-not entering our universe from outside.

This definition can account for everything we think of as natural or supernatural. There's no need to discuss specifics of the mental or the teleological. There's no need to define what matter/energy is, aside from saying it's what exists in the closed system of our universe.

That first commenter, jayman777, asked what happens if God is included in the system, and the answer is simply that God can't be confined within our universe. He created our universe, after all, and so our universe is contingent whereas God is eternal, etc. He wouldn't be God if he were confined within our universe.

Crude said...

I think you can just talk about our universe as a closed system with conservation of mass-energy and uniformitarian laws of motion. That way the supernatural means extra energy or what-not entering our universe from outside.

Except if there's any 'extra energy', you can say it's not extra energy and simply enlarge your definition of the universe. See: multiverses. Or just expand the definition of the universe.

Likewise, there's nothing non-supernatural about apparently uniform laws of motion, or even the conservation of mass-energy - especially when both 'mass' and 'energy', for all we know, are ultimately mental in nature.

He created our universe, after all, and so our universe is contingent whereas God is eternal, etc. He wouldn't be God if he were confined within our universe.

And thus it turns out that everything from Zeus to angels to the Mormon God is entirely compatible with naturalism.

John Moore said...

That's the beauty of it because if you expand your definition of the universe, you likewise expand your definition of the natural. Whatever size of box you want, natural is in, and supernatural is "from without."

If some parallel universes exist, then they can't be inside our universe, or else they wouldn't be parallel. If anything comes into our universe from the multiverses, then that counts as supernatural.

And again, if God is said to be in our universe, then that's not the real God. Sure, Zeus and the Mormon god would be compatible with naturalism - if only they existed.

If you can throw lightning bolts with your bare hands, and if you aren't pulling in that extra energy from outside our universe, then you're just using a super-advanced technology that is fully natural. It's a technology we could also learn in the future.

Crude said...

That's the beauty of it because if you expand your definition of the universe, you likewise expand your definition of the natural. Whatever size of box you want, natural is in, and supernatural is "from without."

"The beauty of it" here means "the definition is utterly arbitrary and subject to infinite revision." Further, it leaves you exactly where I stated it did, because - surprise - there's no way to discern ultimates with science, or bare empiricism.

Which means, for all we know, every blessed thing we experience is 'supernatural'.

If some parallel universes exist, then they can't be inside our universe, or else they wouldn't be parallel. If anything comes into our universe from the multiverses, then that counts as supernatural.

Sure they can be inside our universe - because, as you yourself just noted, we'll just expand our definition.

That's the beauty of it, remember? But the beauty happens to be a non-starter.

And again, if God is said to be in our universe, then that's not the real God. Sure, Zeus and the Mormon god would be compatible with naturalism - if only they existed.

A) Not the real God, according to who? You? 'John Moore's definition of God' ain't of interest to most people. Maybe not even to John Moore. The Mormons and the rest say elsewise.

B) Feel free to concede that theisms of various forms, even popular and historical forms, are utterly natural. That just proves my point, and makes for some delightful reframing of debate. It turns out science's war against superstition and gods... was a war against naturalism.

If you can throw lightning bolts with your bare hands, and if you aren't pulling in that extra energy from outside our universe, then you're just using a super-advanced technology that is fully natural.

Or you're dealing with a brute fact that is unique to you, or any other number of things. Meanwhile, apparently modern scientific theories are supernatural, as 'energy from outside of our universe' is at work in multiverse theories, and conservation of energy is violated even for our universe.

Wait, what's that I hear? Revising of the definition and shifting of the goalposts in 5... 4... 3...

John Moore said...

No, the definition is not "utterly arbitrary and subject to infinite revision" - unless you perversely want it to be. Why can't two people agree on a particular definition of the universe, and then pursue the discussion from there?

We have pretty good ways of measuring matter/energy. If we can see the total matter/energy is the same before and after an event, then we know that event was totally confined within our universe and was thus natural.

You're right that we have a hard time knowing if something is supernatural, because we never know if the matter/energy difference before and after the event is due to extra energy or else just due to our incompetence at measuring.

And I admit that I'm making various assumptions about the world in order to build my definition of the natural/supernatural. I'm assuming there are no brute facts in our universe, but whatever seems to be a causeless brute fact is really caused by energy coming from outside our universe. I'm assuming what physicists call mass/energy is a real thing, even though we can't define it very clearly. I'm assuming that we can't see anything outside our universe.

Maybe you reject some of my assumptions, but why? The assumptions are part of the definition. And the definition just needs to be useful. After all, it's just a word-definition. It's just a tool for discussion, not a fact about the world itself.

Papalinton said...

Great discussion, guys.

Crude said...

No, the definition is not "utterly arbitrary and subject to infinite revision" - unless you perversely want it to be.

Or you, or anyone else. Which is part of the problem.

We have pretty good ways of measuring matter/energy. If we can see the total matter/energy is the same before and after an event, then we know that event was totally confined within our universe and was thus natural.

Every measurement comes with error bars, and no measurement is capable of strictly empirically determining 'intent', divine or otherwise, in an event.

You're right that we have a hard time knowing if something is supernatural, because we never know if the matter/energy difference before and after the event is due to extra energy or else just due to our incompetence at measuring.

We don't just have a hard time. We have an impossible time knowing when our definition of natural and supernatural hinges on fundamental/rock-bottom aspects - which defy testing. Even by your own standard, do you know if the multitude of events that take place in your daily life are natural or supernatural, including the vast majority - quite possibly, all - that take place in even scientific settings? Are you detecting increases or decreases, however slight, in the total overall energy? And if not, are you prepared to be agnostic about whether said events are natural or supernatural after all?

I'm assuming there are no brute facts in our universe,

Then naturalism is conceded upon the instant.

What I am rejecting is the idea that this is some cut and dry, it's-just-easy method of delineating the natural and the supernatural, and what pitfalls there are with it. Even with your proposed standard, the result is that it turns out a radical amount of what most people consider 'natural' isn't knowably so, and may as well be supernatural - or neither - for classification purposes.

John Moore said...

Even though reality is complex, it should still be possible to build an easy-to-understand theory that is useful for us when we try to develop technology. Newton's theory of gravity, for example, is broadly accurate and allows us to fly safely to the Moon, even though Newton's theory is actually wrong in the fine details. A good theory doesn't have to be perfect, just useful for something.

Theists have an interest in defining the supernatural, I think, because you talk about miracles and you also say things like "God created the world." So this dichotomy of natural versus supernatural is fundamental to Christian theology, and a thinking Christian needs to have a clear idea what it means.

On the other hand, when theists confront science, they seem to get defensive and try to muddy the waters and emphasize that we can't really tell the difference between natural and supernatural.

So anyway, I'm just looking for clarity. I want a straight-forward theory of the supernatural that doesn't just say "anything goes." The theory shouldn't automatically define everything as natural, or everything as supernatural. And we need some kind of way to distinguish the supernatural from the natural.

So my suggestion is that God looks to us like some extra energy appearing in our universe as if from nowhere.

Crude said...

Even though reality is complex, it should still be possible to build an easy-to-understand theory that is useful for us when we try to develop technology.

The central question here isn't 'developing technology'. It may turn out that we're entirely capable of developing technology with zero reference to whether anything at all is natural or supernatural. In fact, that seems to be the case.

Theists have an interest in defining the supernatural, I think, because you talk about miracles and you also say things like "God created the world."

What's it matter if miracles are labeled 'natural' or 'unnatural' - or if God is?

On the other hand, when theists confront science, they seem to get defensive and try to muddy the waters and emphasize that we can't really tell the difference between natural and supernatural.

That's funny, John. 'Theists' do this? Funny - last I checked, I was one of the only guys who tended to do this, in opposition to some theists. Why do atheists lie about the motivations and criticisms of theists? Is it because they're weak-willed, or is it the simple fear of complexity being recognized in issues?

So anyway, I'm just looking for clarity. I want a straight-forward theory of the supernatural that doesn't just say "anything goes."

So, let me get this straight: You want a straightforward yes-or-no answer about a tremendously complicated non-scientific topic that's been raging since practically the dawn of civilization, and if you don't get that, it's because everyone else is being defensive and/or mean?

Good luck with that.

Papalinton said...

"So my suggestion is that God looks to us like some extra energy appearing in our universe as if from nowhere.".

Ostensibly, it IS from nowhere. Neither here nor there. The conception of the supernatural has no basis in epistemological grounding. Despite millennia of attempts to investigate, define and explain supernaturalism the theological enterprise has failed to determine what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. It remains, today, a convenient euphemism for all those things yet requiring explanation, and also if an explanation is indeed warranted.

I suspect neuroscientific research will in broad measure give us an insight into how and what role the ideation of supernaturalism plays in equilibrating the mind and body of a successful human organism [in our case] and sustaining its survival instinct. From that research one will be able to quite properly infer the why[?] reasons, an inference having a substantive epistemological grounding. I don't think the answer will come from outside the universe.

Crude said...

Since he's yapping and trying to get attention, despite clearly being out of his depth, I do the usual bit of pointing out that Linton is a known liar and serial plagiarist, whose MO is (poorly) pretending to sound knowledgeable about topics he doesn't understand, but wants to take whatever he thinks is the 'anti'-theist side.

I'll be ignoring his "contributions", unless it'll be funny to mock. ;)

Papalinton said...

HERE is a rather insightful overview of the current philosophical discourse published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the 'meaning of life' . It reviews the most recent contributions [comprehensively edited and updated in 2013] incorporating perspectives from the supernaturalist, naturalist and nihilist standpoint. It also traces the problematic particulars of each perspective.

Well worth a read.

grodrigues said...

@John Moore:

"On the other hand, when theists confront science, they seem to get defensive and try to muddy the waters and emphasize that we can't really tell the difference between natural and supernatural."

In a very conservative estimate I know more mathematics than 99.99% and more physics than 99.9% of the World's population. I am also about as orthodox and a reactionary ultramontane Theist as you will likely find. In my experience, it is very rare to find an atheist who knows as much as I do; on the other hand, it is very common to find abysmally ignorant windbags, and even cranks, who absolutely love to pretend that they know, or even pretend that they are actually interested, in Science, and lecture on it and their own pet obsessions, when the truth of the matter is that they use Science and their ignorance of it as an ideological cudgel to beat Theists with.

im-skeptical said...

This pompous windbag wields his PhD as a cudgel to beat atheists with.

grodrigues said...

@im-skeptical:

"This pompous windbag wields his PhD as a cudgel to beat atheists with."

Are you such a witless, illiterate philistine that you cannot even come up with a mildly entertaining insult? Can't you do any better than to replicate word for word, like some vulgar parrot, the words of others?

grodrigues said...

@im-skeptical:

Ands by the way, and lest I forget, let me remind you of what you wrote here in a comment (im-skepticalSeptember 9, 2014 at 8:59 PM):

"I said that the absurdities are due to Craig's misapplication of logic. Craig doesn't understand the relevant mathematics. He disagrees with the mathematicians. He is so impressed with his own logical skills that he thinks he understands the math better than mathematicians do. This sounds very much like the conversation earlier today between Ilion and grodrigues (who has a PhD in mathematics)."

So, having a phd apparently serves as a recommendation enough to beat down on Íllion. Next turn, it serves to hurl the epithet of "pompous windbag" and such. Honestly, this is all chicken-feed (and there is even some truth, at least in the "pompous" part) but one would almost be tempted to qualify all of it as... say, what is the expression Íllion is always using?

note: and by the way, you are wrong about Craig; although some of his arguments on the matter of infinities are confusing (if not just plain wrong), not all of them are, and he is not disagreeing with mathematicians neither does he think he knows better than them. But as we all already know, and par for the course with you, your favorite weapons are ignorance, misrepresentation and... say, what is the expression Íllion is always using?

im-skeptical said...

Those mathematicians who discredited Carig's analysis didn't do it by using their PhD as an appeal to authority. They did it by actually showing the relevant math. If you think they're wrong, you should take it up with them. You can trot out your PhD and say "I win because I'm so much smarter that all of you."

im-skeptical said...

Incidentally, grodrigues, in that discussion between you and Illion that I mentioned, he didn't know what he was talking about (as usual), and you showed him the correct mathematical answer. That is a courtesy you would never extend to someone like me. I was not making an appeal to your authority. I was comparing two different situations, each one involving someone who thinks he's a master of logic, but actually doesn't know what he is talking about.

Dan Gillson said...

Skep just can't resist putting his damn foot in his mouth, can he?

grodrigues said...

@im-skeptical:

"Incidentally, grodrigues, in that discussion between you and Illion that I mentioned, he didn't know what he was talking about (as usual), and you showed him the correct mathematical answer. That is a courtesy you would never extend to someone like me. I was not making an appeal to your authority. I was comparing two different situations, each one involving someone who thinks he's a master of logic, but actually doesn't know what he is talking about."

I always loved this quote from you to me in here (November 25, 2013 7:54 PM) as summarizing everything quite clearly:

"Maybe I do have it all wrong. But you'll never convince me of that."

im-skeptical said...

And the people who love to throw that quote in my face completely ignore the reason I said it. They always leave out the relevant context.

WMF said...

as nerds would know.

Indeed, for in Dungeons and Dragons, the warlock’s abilities cannot be described as being the contingent result of blind processes, but the sorcerer's abilities can!

Victor Reppert said...

John: Does being in the universe mean having a particular location in space and time? Is that sufficient for naturalness?

Papalinton said...

"In a very conservative estimate I know more mathematics than 99.99% and more physics than 99.9% of the World's population."

That may be the case. But there is one thing to know something but another to apply that knowledge in the conduct of one's life. But when coupled with " I am also about as orthodox and a reactionary ultramontane Theist as you will likely find" it simply bespeaks of the classic and archetypal psychological/psychoanalytic pathology of "Compartmentalisation".

"Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person's having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves... [it] allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized self states."Wiki

A correlated and emergent secondary mechanism identified with psychological compartmentalization is a state of denial of that dissonance. It is as if the corpus callosum that divides the cerebrum into left and right hemispheres has been dissevered.

Might know more physics than 99.9% of the world's population, but is profoundly pig ignorant in the sciences of biology, physiology, psychology, and the broader field of the neurosciences.

I say, a turkey with a PhD is still a turkey.




Papalinton said...

"John: Does being in the universe mean having a particular location in space and time? Is that sufficient for naturalness?"

Interesting question, Victor. It's your God, you tell us.

John Moore said...

I think the space-time that we can see is a handy rule-of-thumb way to describe our universe, although it's hard to nail down particular locations due to relativity and all. In order to be "natural," though, a thing must already be in our space-time before we observe its activity. A supernatural thing comes into our space-time from elsewhere, according to my idea.

It's interesting that a supernatural thing can become "natural" after it enters our universe. For example, I might shoot lightning from my hands by pulling extra energy into our universe from some different place, and that's supernatural, but afterwards the energy from my lightning might sizzle and bounce around and enter some electronic circuits, and then it would presumably behave in a totally natural (predictable, measurable) way.

So the supernatural thing is just the actual event in which extra energy enters our universe. (Just according to my idea)

Crude said...

I think the space-time that we can see is a handy rule-of-thumb way to describe our universe, although it's hard to nail down particular locations due to relativity and all. In order to be "natural," though, a thing must already be in our space-time before we observe its activity.

Which already means we're incapable of telling if even rocks are 'natural' by your scheme, because we do not witness its origins. And 'making a rock with such and such process' won't work either, because you'll be taking pre-existing material - which you're still left needing to account for.

And that's if you handwave away relativity, or physicist claims of matter and energy 'popping into existence', as somehow natural - and if you're going to do that, then what's the point of the scheme to begin with?

So the supernatural thing is just the actual event in which extra energy enters our universe.

So, Sean Carroll advocates a supernatural understanding of the universe.

John Moore said...

We don't need to talk about origins. I know that a rock is natural because I can see it now. (One assumption is that we can't see anything outside our universe.)

Maybe this rock appeared in our world supernaturally at some time in the past, and I have no idea about that, but now that the rock is here, it's natural.

Any event that happens due to this rock will be natural, because I can see where that event comes from. For example, I see the rock has potential energy because it's at the top of a hill. When the rock rolls down the hill, that's totally natural because the event came from the potential energy which already existed in the rock, and I saw it. I could measure the total mass-energy before and after the event of the rock rolling, and I could more or less see that it's the same.

On the other hand, if the rock started to hover 1 meter off the ground, that might be supernatural because I don't know where the energy came from. The potential energy or chemical energy in the rock doesn't seem sufficient to make the rock hover like that. I might take measurements and find more energy in the hovering rock than the previously at-rest rock. So I could speculate that the extra energy might have come from outside our observable space-time universe.

Crude said...

John,

We don't need to talk about origins. I know that a rock is natural because I can see it now. (One assumption is that we can't see anything outside our universe.)

Alright. Considering you just made 'everything that is visible' natural by fiat, I think you've already got an obvious problem.

For example, I see the rock has potential energy because it's at the top of a hill. When the rock rolls down the hill, that's totally natural because the event came from the potential energy which already existed in the rock, and I saw it. I could measure the total mass-energy before and after the event of the rock rolling, and I could more or less see that it's the same.

John, an honest and straightforward question here: when's the last time you measured the total energy of anything at all? I mean anything. And by measurement, I mean at least in a way approximating it the way a physicist would.

And why does the existence of inaccuracy ('more or less') automatically get counted in your favor by default?

On the other hand, if the rock started to hover 1 meter off the ground, that might be supernatural because I don't know where the energy came from.

So you're explicitly advocating a supernaturalism-of-the-gaps? Really?

John Moore said...

Maybe some of our physicist or engineering friends can answer your question about measuring energy in a system. I'm just a humble computer programmer / science fiction author.

It's not supernaturalism-of-the-gaps if you say it "might" be. Only if you say it surely is.

One thing's for sure - it's a supernaturalism-of-the-gaps response if you say something is supernatural when you don't have any kind of theory of the supernatural.

Crude said...

Maybe some of our physicist or engineering friends can answer your question about measuring energy in a system. I'm just a humble computer programmer / science fiction author.

Should I take that as, no, you've never actually measured the energy content of anything - but you're assuming that everything you've encountered in your life follows the rule you think it should, and if there are discrepancies, it doesn't matter?

It's not supernaturalism-of-the-gaps if you say it "might" be. Only if you say it surely is.

So the only problem with God-of-the-gaps arguments is with the supposed certainty some people have? Likewise, I suppose, with naturalism-of-the-gaps?

One thing's for sure - it's a supernaturalism-of-the-gaps response if you say something is supernatural when you don't have any kind of theory of the supernatural.

Good thing I eschew talk of the natural and supernatural both.

im-skeptical said...

There is a simple way to distinguish the natural from the supernatural.

Natural: things that exist and events that occur in out universe.

Supernatural: things and events postulated by the superstitious that don't exist and never occur in our universe.

Crude said...

And the sad thing is, Skep actually thinks that's a valid definition. And he wonders why people laugh. ;)

Victor Reppert said...

You can't make nonexistence a defining characteristic of the supernatural. If there is no supernatural, it is not trivially true that it doesn't exist.

im-skeptical said...

Of course, the remark was made tongue in cheek. But the fact remains that there has never, ever been a documented, proven case of any miracle or supernatural entity that is unequivocally true. We have plenty of claims, but we have no proof.

Crude said...

But the fact remains that there has never, ever been a documented, proven case of any miracle or supernatural entity that is unequivocally true.

Did you not notice this entire thread has illustrated the problem of even defining supernatural?

Here's one, Skep: The fact remains that there has never, ever been a documented, proven case of any natural or non-miraculous event that is unequivocally true.

Victor Reppert said...

Well, without a good definition of the supernatural it's going to be awfully difficult to prove any cases. In fact, I just say I believe in God et al., but depending on how you define the supernatural, I am not sure I believe that supernatural entities exist. I can imagine saying that God, angels, and souls all exist, but that science just hasn't developed enough to analyze and predict the activities of these entities. So they are supernatural from the standpoint of present science, but then so are lots of things that science will someday discover. But since we don't know what "ultimate completed future science" will include we can't say for sure whether these entities are natural or supernatural.

im-skeptical said...

"But since we don't know what "ultimate completed future science" will include we can't say for sure whether these entities are natural or supernatural."

In the future, science will undoubtedly learn more about the cosmos, or about the nature of subatomic particles and fundamental forces. But I don't think it will one day come to the realization that dead people can just get up and walk (at least not without some kind of technical intervention that remains unavailable to us with our current technology).

Victor Reppert said...

Do you think that, if an omnipotent being existed, he could cause a person to rise form the dead?

Obviously, dead people aren't going to arise without something to provide the energy to cause them to arise. The question is still the causal closure of what we now think of as the physical, whether something exists that has the power to influence the material world currently understood. If you assume that there can't be anything like that, why is that not begging the question.

im-skeptical said...

To make the observation that we never observe supernatural beings or events is not begging the question. Science does not reject all things supernatural, as you claim. Science deals with whatever we observe. If it were the case that we observed something that can't be explained by natural laws, science would not simply deny that those things exist. It would attempt to explain them. And if the best explanation turned out to be something like spirits or God, then so be it. But it is undeniable that we simply never see things that require such an explanation.

Victor Reppert said...

But isn't always open to us to say that even though we don't know how to explain it naturalistically now, give science time, and they'll come up with the naturalistic explanation? Isn't that what naturalists say whenever they charge theists with having a God of the Gaps?

im-skeptical said...

True. It's based on the track record. The God of the Gaps has an ever-shrinking domain, and science keeps filling in those gaps.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Crude,

I still don't understand why you bring up Zeus as a supposed counterexample to various definitions of naturalism (including, but not limited to, mine). As I understand Greek mythology, all sorts of physically impossible acts are attributed to Zeus. Quoting Wikipedia, such acts include:

* Zeus turned Periphas into an eagle, making him the king of birds.
* At the marriage of Zeus and Hera, a nymph named Chelone refused to attend.
* Zeus transformed her into a tortoise (chelone in Greek).
* Zeus, with Hera, turned King Haemus and Queen Rhodope into mountains (the Balkan mountains, or Stara Planina, and Rhodope mountains, respectively) for their vanity.
* Zeus condemned Tantalus to eternal torture in Tartarus for trying to trick the gods into eating the flesh of his butchered son Pelops.
* Zeus condemned Ixion to be tied to a fiery wheel for eternity as punishment for attempting to violate Hera.
* Zeus sank the Telchines beneath the sea.

If Zeus really existed and did those things, then it's hard to see how naturalism could be true. The existence of Zeus does seem to be logically incompatible with metaphysical naturalism.