Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Am I a supernaturalist?

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. 

If science has to screen certain entities out because they are by definition beyond the competence of science to analyze, then it is a boring result that science hasn't found evidence for them. Science, on that view, can't either support of deny their existence. On the other hand, if it is within the competence of science to show that these entities do not exist (as in Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a World Without Design), then if someone has offers evidence for something like God, then it can't be thrown out of court a la Judge Jones because science has to stick to the natural and not the supernatural. 

As the Statler Brothers say, you can't have your Kate and Edith too. 

31 comments:

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Yes, you're a supernaturalist. You believe that the mental ultimately explains why anything physical at all exists. You also believe that God is not an abstract object and does not have a spatial location. A person can consistently believe that abstract objects exist and that naturalism (as I define it) is true, but a naturalist cannot believe that a concrete being (such as God) exists without a spatial location.

John Moore said...

If God were completely predictable like a set of cog wheels, would he still be God?

If human thoughts and actions were completely predictable like a machine, would you still suppose there was a soul?

Maybe the natural is what is predictable, and the supernatural is defined as something unpredictable even in principle.

Using this definition, we can detect the existence of the supernatural using scientific/mathematical/logical methods. We already have things like Godel's incompleteness theorem and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Who knows what else we might discover about the inherently unpredictable?

Victor Reppert said...

Jeff: OK, but look what you are doing here. You have to say that the natural can't be ultimately mental, and you can't say that the natural requires spatiotemporal location. I am happy to use terms this way, but this is going to be the starting point of my arguments.

John: I don't know if naturalists should want to go here. If you do, then quantum mechanics proves supernaturalism, something I think you would rather not say. But here's the problem. If predictability means probabilistic predictability.

Victor Reppert said...

If predictability means probabilistic predictability, then God can be predictable. If it is deterministic predictability, then physical particles are not predictable in this sense, and so are supernatural???

John Moore said...

I mean precise prediction. Insofar as you can predict precisely, that's not supernatural. Of course it depends on how many significant digits you need in your calculation. If you insist on great precision, then most things will indeed be "supernatural," like the final digit of pi. But who really cares about that? Let's restrict our considerations to things we care about. If the supernatural has no relevance to our day-to-day lives, we can safely consider it non-existent.

Naturalists won't mind defining the supernatural as the unpredictable - as long as we jettison a few common assumptions about the supernatural. For example, we can't assume that people's minds are unpredictable, and we can't assume there is a supernatural mind out there who created us and loves us. We would have to test these assumptions to see if they are really true.

Victor Reppert said...

Is something unpredictable because we can't predict it, or unpredictable because no one can predict it?

I couldn't have predicted that a new running back would be taken off the practice squad and gain 100 yards for the Cardinals against the Chiefs last Sunday. No NFL expert predicted such a thing either. But it happened. Does that mean it was supernatural?

John Moore said...

The supernatural is unpredictable even in theory (according to this latest suggestion of mine), so people's ignorance of prediction techniques doesn't cause something to be supernatural.

The running back was taken off the practice squad because some coach made a decision in his mind. Maybe if we had an advanced brain-scanning technique that could thoroughly analyze all the neural pathways in the coach's brain, we could have predicted his decision.

About gaining 100 yards ... uh, this reminds me of chaos theory, in which events are deterministic yet not predictable because there's no way we can know the starting conditions with enough precision.

Let me go back to the drawing board.

oozzielionel said...

What about the ability to observe? Science seems to require that the objects of its experiments be detected either by one or more of the five senses or by some instrument which exhibits readings suitable for human interpretation. Even if something can not be detected directly, its affects must be observable.

Victor Reppert said...

Well, I take it someone with a God's-eye view, namely God, could predict God's own actions, unless, of course, open theism is true.

http://opentheism.info/

im-skeptical said...

Strictly speaking, the only way we observe anything is by detecting its effects.

If you see a chair, you are really only detecting light that has bounced off it.

Crude said...

One thing that's funny about this is how the cherry picking is so obvious.

"Here's a definition of supernatural!"

'Okay, but this other thing most people takes to exist satisfies that constraint, and thus under your definition some supernatural things definitely exist.'

"Okay, clearly my definition is broken then. Let me go back to the drawing board."

John Moore said...

You seem to misunderstand - I'm trying to build a definition of the supernatural that makes it possible for supernatural things to exist.

Here's a basic question: Is there a dichotomy between different types of existence (which we might call the supernatural and the natural), or is all existence just one type of thing?

I have been supposing that there is a dichotomy, and I thought religious people also accept such a dichotomy as a basic foundation for their beliefs.

But maybe I'm wrong. What do you think?

Crude said...

You seem to misunderstand - I'm trying to build a definition of the supernatural that makes it possible for supernatural things to exist.

By all appearances, what you really mean is this: You want a definition of supernatural that maximizes your rhetoric. When you consistently dismiss definitions of supernatural pretty much entirely on the grounds of 'Well, I suddenly realize that if I define it that way, then some supernatural things do in fact exist. Oops.', you've given the game away.

It's like having someone trying repeatedly to draw a bullseye around an arrow, but they keep screwing up. And when you point out 'You're just trying to draw the bullseye around the arrow' the reply is 'I just am trying to set up a bullseye so it's possible for someone to score. Don't you want someone to score? Why, you can't play the game without a bullseye, and that's all I want to provide.'

I have been supposing that there is a dichotomy, and I thought religious people also accept such a dichotomy as a basic foundation for their beliefs.

You don't need "a dichotomy", full stop. You need "the natural/supernatural dichotomy". But where is the evidence that was where any "religious" people carved the joints, much less needed to?

Theists need God. They don't need natural and supernatural.

Put another way: atheists need 'the supernatural' one hell of a lot more than theists.

John Moore said...

If there's no dichotomy of supernatural and natural, then why do theists always talk about heaven and earth, God and man, spirit and flesh? That's what we're trying to understand here.

If you deny the dichotomy, then it means our universe is all that exists. And I think that means God couldn't have created our universe, because in order to create something you have to be separate from that thing, and if all that exists is our universe, then God couldn't be separate from the universe.

Victor Reppert said...

Are you going to define the supernatural in such a way that there can be evidence for the supernatural? Or maybe you are going to define evidence in such a way that there couldn't possibly be any evidence for it?

I am happy with the natural-supernatural distinction, until you start doing things with it that distinction that make it virtually impossible to infer its existence. It has to be an interesting result that there is no supernatural.

Crude said...

If there's no dichotomy of supernatural and natural, then why do theists always talk about heaven and earth, God and man, spirit and flesh? That's what we're trying to understand here.

What is it about heaven and earth, God and man, spirit and flesh that requires a natural/supernatural distinction?

Nothing.

Now, they require distinctions of some kind, sure - the same way it requires a distinction to talk about Bob Costas and Sam Kinison. But we don't need natural and supernatural to fruitfully talk about them.

If you deny the dichotomy, then it means our universe is all that exists.

If you want to define multiverse speculation as supernatural, be my guest.

But wait, let's skip ahead to the natural reply there: "Well, no, I'll just define the universe in a different way." Feel free - just remember who else can do the same.

And I think that means God couldn't have created our universe, because in order to create something you have to be separate from that thing, and if all that exists is our universe, then God couldn't be separate from the universe.

You're arguing for the necessity of distinctions - but that's not what you need here. You need the necessity of natural and supernatural. You do not need natural and supernatural to talk about how I created this post; a far more mundane and common distinction will do, pretty much the kind between 'me' and 'this post I created'.

If you define 'universe' to mean 'the totality of things that certainly do, in fact, exist', then you've made it so that if God exists, He's part of the universe. Argue that, therefore, God couldn't have created the universe (because even if 'at first', speaking loosely, only God existed - and therefore the universe existed by definition, and the universe was originally pure act or the like) and I'll simply shrug - it's a literary twist, but nothing interesting comes from such a definition.

The etymology of these words ('natural' and 'supernatural' both), at a glance, comes from pretty late in our religious history. Little is lost by admitting what I'm pointing out, which I think is all too obvious.

John Moore said...

I'll return to my earlier suggestion that the supernatural can be defined as extra energy entering our universe from elsewhere. What's wrong with this definition? Here's a summary of objections from the last post:

a) How to define the universe?
b) How to define mass/energy or the physical forces like gravity?
c) How to know for sure if "extra energy" comes from outside?
d) How to measure energy precisely in a closed system?

And here are my replies:

a) If two people can agree on a common definition of the universe, then they can proceed to discuss the supernatural-natural distinction on that basis. There's no need for a single authoritative definition set in stone.

Most people can agree on a few basic characteristics that a universe must have. For example, we cannot see anything outside our universe, and also that our universe follows uniformitarian laws. Another thing most people can agree on: If God created our universe, he must exist outside our universe.

b) No special need to define mass/energy or physical forces beyond what science has done. These things are "a priori" assumptions.

c) It's true we can never be absolutely sure that "extra energy" comes from outside our universe, but we can measure and we can investigate. We can eliminate some hypotheses and narrow down the possibilities. If we found some extra energy in a reaction and could not account for that extra energy despite many efforts, that would be a solid basis for suggesting it was supernatural.

d) Again, we can't achieve perfect precision, but we can learn a lot from measuring and experimenting within a margin of error. We would be able to measure "extra energy" and compare it to different things. We would be able to experiment with that extra energy under different conditions and learn about how the extra energy behaves in our world. And this would be very interesting and useful for us.

Andrew W said...

I think there's some wacky reasoning going on here.

Most people use "supernatural" as the contrast to "mundane" or perhaps "physical", rather than necessarily "natural" as scientists would use it. If I can conceptualise a physical interaction that caused an event then it is not supernatural, else it is.

Now, there are obvious weaknesses with this definition for scientific purposes (not the least that thought pushes hard against the limits of it), but it's closest to how the term is used in common conversation.

If we push for a philosophically rigorous definition then we get into problems. A "closed system" definition doesn't really help, since it's fairly arbitrary where we draw the line of the "system". If a system shows continuous influences of something outside the system, then it's not really "closed" in any useful sense, is it? We might define closed relatively - the closure is limited by what those inside the system can perceive - but even then it falls to the same problem: a rat in a box might not be able to see outside, but it does perceive that food appears within its system. It has no way to evaluate whether the food spontaneously appears in the feeding tube as a "natural" event (within the system) or is injected "supernaturally".

If I can only see in greyscale, does that make colour "supernatural"? Or is it just a "natural" limit to my ability to perceive my environment?

Crude said...

If we found some extra energy in a reaction and could not account for that extra energy despite many efforts, that would be a solid basis for suggesting it was supernatural.

Go ahead and tell us that for all you know everything you've experienced in your life is supernatural, John, as you've not been making any energy measurements during - apparently - all of it.

Likewise, go ahead and admit that multiverse speculation, particularly such speculations that involve talk of our universe being birthed from another one, as 'supernatural'. Or better yet, insist that such things are not supernatural, because that would mean the supernatural exists according to a pretty mundane understanding of science, which simply won't do.

As I said, you revealed your hand when you kept going back to the drawing board whenever it turned out that the way you defined the natural/supernatural distinction entailed that the supernatural does exist.

Put another way, you say this: If two people can agree on a common definition of the universe, then they can proceed to discuss the supernatural-natural distinction on that basis.

But why, given your very obvious approach in even defining these terms, would anyone but a dedicated evangelical atheist be particularly interested in discussing this with you to begin with?

Andrew W,

Most people use "supernatural" as the contrast to "mundane" or perhaps "physical", rather than necessarily "natural" as scientists would use it. If I can conceptualise a physical interaction that caused an event then it is not supernatural, else it is.

I think most people would happily define as 'supernatural' various aspects of quantum physics that uncontroversially exist. I think, until fairly recently, the very idea of multiverses (particularly anything above a Type I according to Tegmark's little model) would have been regarded as supernatural as well.

But that simply will not do, for obvious reasons. Why, it exists. Hell, science was instrumental in discovering it! How ridiculous it would be, this idea that the supernatural was discovered to exist a century ago. No, it doesn't fit the narrative.

We don't need natural and supernatural. These are unhelpful terms that have mostly been abused, and which have a very recent intellectual origin. It's time to phase both terms out.

Hal said...

We don't need natural and supernatural. These are unhelpful terms that have mostly been abused, and which have a very recent intellectual origin. It's time to phase both terms out.


Unless you are using the word "recent" in some peculiar sense, I don't think most would consider your claim to be true.
You could check out the book The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages for a contrary claim.

You are, of course, free to refrain from using those terms if you find them to be unhelpful. I doubt you'll have much success persuading those who do find them to be quite useful.

im-skeptical said...

Where's Illion when real intellectual dishonesty is on full display? If you blur the line between what is real and what is supernatural, it becomes easy to claim that dead people rising is just as possible quantum tunneling. Of course, we should keep in mind the true distinction between natural and supernatural: supernatural is only a fantasy.

Papalinton said...

Andrew W says: "If a system shows continuous influences of something outside the system, then it's not really "closed" in any useful sense, is it?"

Of your claimed continuous influences, give a few examples, particularly of the supernatural kind that impact on closed system from outside that system. What are those continuous influences you speak of?

Papalinton said...

Here are a few dichotomous pairings to keep us on the straight and narrow of reason and logic in establishing a definition for 'supernatural' and its relative usefulness as an explanatory tool:

Fact Fiction
Science Theology
Natural Supernatural
Reality Fantasy
Predictable Unpredictable
Knowable Ineffable
Probabilistic Possibilistic
Known Mystery

I served myself a goodly dose of persiflage with the above list. However, to believe the supernatural exists as reality is both contradictory and self-refuting. We know we can hold contradictory concepts in our brain; it's termed psychological compartmentalisation.

What's so interesting is how the totality of supernaturalism is predominantly underscored in theological mystery and utilize 'mystery' as if were a legitimate and epistemologically grounded explanation. It is interesting how much It relies on 'faith' to open the door to things that are not seen [Hebrews 11.1] in the supernatural world. If there was ever a word so abused throughout history, 'mystery' is surely the poster child of supernaturalism as an explanatory tool.
The synonyms for 'mystery': Synonyms for mystery? "Puzzle, secret, conundrum, enigma, problem, question, riddle, secrecy, subtlety. thriller, abstruseness, charade, chiller, cliffhanger, cryptogram. difficulty, grabber, inscrutability, mystification, occult, oracle, perplexity, poser, puzzlement, rebus, rune, sphinx, stickler, stumper, teaser, twister, whodunit, why, brainteaser."

Clearly not a concept or idea which one can confidently conclude is of any merit as an explanation. On the contrary, it is an idea fundamentally and epistemologically bereft of explanation. By contrast the antonyms for 'mystery', "known, understanding", are a picture of health for sound epistemologically grounded explanation.

Even more interestingly, after two thousand years of predominantly christian scholasticism, we have never come as a global society closer to a universal definition of supernaturalism than: in terms of 'supernatural powers'; "paranormal, psychic, magic, magical, occult, mystic, mystical, superhuman, supernormal; rare extramundane; and in terms of defining a 'supernatural being'; "ghostly, phantom, spectral, otherworldly, unearthly, unnatural."

If the best of contemporary definitions cannot fully describe the Christian god [supernatural being] as little more than a ghost, a phantom, a spectral, otherworldy, unearthly, unnatural, after two thousand years of christian scholarship, it's not an intellectual process that has advanced either our understanding or our knowledge of the christian god one jot. I would even hazard to say the entire enterprise has been an abject failure.

I think it can be safely assumed and generally resolved that of all the varied avenues of human endeavour since the dawn of history, our adventures into supernaturalism and mythology share a common origin. Indeed supernaturalism is the scaffold around which the Christian mythos is fabricated.

Crude said...

Hal,

Unless you are using the word "recent" in some peculiar sense, I don't think most would consider your claim to be true.
You could check out the book The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages for a contrary claim.


When I say 'recent', I mean 'in the past few centuries'. That's quite a ways after not only every biblical event, but the lion's share of doctrinal talk that relates to those events.

From what I recall, the Middle Ages use of the term defined angels as 'natural'.

You are, of course, free to refrain from using those terms if you find them to be unhelpful. I doubt you'll have much success persuading those who do find them to be quite useful.

Doubt all you like, Hal - but I've managed to persuade people of exactly that in the past. It's actually easy to do for people who aren't very invested in the rhetorical tricks that rely on the ambiguity of the words. But it's also easy to illustrate both those rhetorical tricks and the ambiguity they rely on, so even the people who continue to use the words are of use here.

Oh, but I see Linton and Skep have showed up to continue helping define those words! The intellectual cavalry has really arrived, hasn't it?

Ha ha haaaaaaa. ;)

Papalinton said...

Crude: "When I say 'recent', I mean 'in the past few centuries'."
Crude: "Doubt all you like, Hal - but I've managed to persuade people of exactly that in the past. It's actually easy to do for people who aren't very invested in the rhetorical tricks that rely on the ambiguity of the words."

Hoisted with his own petard.

Crude said...

As usual, I have to mention that I don't bother interacting with Linton since he's not just demonstrably slow, but he's also a known plagiarist whose plagiarism is borne out of a desire to appear to know what he's talking about, when he clearly does not.

As is demonstrated here, when he tries to zero in on my usage of 'recent', when I've already explained: When I say 'recent', I mean 'in the past few centuries'. That's quite a ways after not only every biblical event, but the lion's share of doctrinal talk that relates to those events.

Such is the fate of Linton. Exposed as a plagiarist - more than once, by the by - he's now reduced to wallowing in his own intellectual filth, trying desperately to avenge himself, to make himself seem intelligent again.

He will not succeed. Not in this lifetime. And it's the fault of his hatred, which knows few bounds.

But, since he is desperate, I will show mercy and call him 'Paparinton'. Ah! Look at that, a misspelling. Worse yet, the l and r were transposed - which no doubt indicates anti-asian racism on Crude's part. For shame!

There's a morsel to snack upon, Linton. It's all you can hope for nowadays. ;)

WMF said...

[A] naturalist cannot believe that a concrete being (such as God) exists without a spatial location.

Interesting to hear that you apparently think that naturalism has been disproven decades ago.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Victor,

Jeff: OK, but look what you are doing here. You have to say that the natural can't be ultimately mental, and you can't say that the natural requires spatiotemporal location. I am happy to use terms this way, but this is going to be the starting point of my arguments.

This reply has me scratching my head. I agree with this:

You have to say that the natural can't be ultimately mental,

but I have no idea where this came from:

and you can't say that the natural requires spatiotemporal location.

Why?

Papalinton said...

"As is demonstrated here, when he tries to zero in on my usage of 'recent', when I've already explained: When I say 'recent', I mean 'in the past few centuries'. That's quite a ways after not only every biblical event, but the lion's share of doctrinal talk that relates to those events."

A supposed rationale for justifying equivocation. A pathology symptomatic of the apologetical mind. There is little of substance that crude brings to the table. The same old prevaricating, ambiguous and vacillating shilly-shallying, a product of centuries of religious interpretative practice in the absence of proofs, facts, evidence. I know it is hard for believers in supernaturalism superstition to understand and appreciate it is pretty much no longer a useful explanatory paradigm in modern discourse.

Supernatural superstition is slowly being ticked off the list of historical reality.

Crude said...

And so, the plagiarist and liar wriggles in his shit, begging for attention - and is ignored. ;)

Jeffrey,

A person can consistently believe that abstract objects exist and that naturalism (as I define it) is true, but a naturalist cannot believe that a concrete being (such as God) exists without a spatial location.

Does this mean you're going to count Greek gods, polytheists generally, mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, pantheists (I'm thinking here of hindu varieties), panentheists and more as naturalists? Every one of them would either accept or insist that God or gods has/have a spatial location.

And if so, are you going to go further and argue that naturalism may be in opposition to supernaturalism, as you define it, but is compatible with theism - even a considerable number of historical theisms?

Papalinton said...

"Does this mean you're going to count Greek gods, polytheists generally, mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, pantheists (I'm thinking here of hindu varieties), panentheists and more as naturalists? Every one of them would either accept or insist that God or gods has/have a spatial location."

The kind of delightful rhetorical flourish that masquerades as intellectual discourse. Oh Dear.
Is there anything at all of substance that crude brings to the table?

Hardly.

After two thousand years of christian scholarship into supernaturalism, the total sum of that 'intellectual' effort plays out in contemporary society thus far. Breathtaking. Really.