Sunday, September 13, 2015

Defining the natural

Well, how do you define the physical, or the natural? I would have no problems whatsoever if, for example, the Apostle's Creed were true, but everything was "natural" in some sense. The word "supernatural" does not appear in the Creed at all. So, maybe it's all natural, but nature has more in it than what we used to think it did.

17 comments:

Ian Thompson said...

What word would you use, then, to describe processes that do not involve mind or intention or spiritual things?

Victor Reppert said...

I'm willing to define the mind out of the "natural", but once you do that you set up the opposition between mind and nature, and explains why I think there is a problem with going from the natural to the mental.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism/#ViaNeg

John Moore said...

Religious people are the ones who insist there must be some kind of great division between the mundane world and God's world of the spirit. Therefore, you should provide your own definition of the natural and supernatural.

Maybe the Aristotelian-Thomistic explanation would work. The natural is created, contingent and changeable, and it's made of parts, and it has unfulfilled potential, etc. The supernatural is simple and eternal and totally fulfilled, and it transcends space and time. What's wrong with this, for starters?

B. Prokop said...

"What's wrong with this, for starters?"

For starters, your proposed definition appears to leave nothing in the supernatural realm other than God Himself. I would prefer something that keeps angels and demons within it as well. They are, after all, created entities (and thus not eternal), may not be simple (i.e., they may have parts), and are certainly not totally fulfilled. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory should also be included within the supernatural (thus expanding the realm to include things other than rational entities).

How about "The natural world is capable of empirical verification; the supernatural is not."?

Jezu ufam tobie!

Dan Gillson said...

I've been puzzling over the natural/supernatural distinction recently. I think a better diametric pairing for the natural would be the providential. The supernatural has metastasized to include anything that is paranormal, mysterious, or in philosophy, non-physical. Thoughts?

Jim S. said...

"...they start by taking Nature to be the whole of reality. And they are sure that all reality must be interrelated and consistent. I agree with them. But I think they have mistaken a partial system within reality, namely Nature, for the whole."

Lewis, Miracles

B. Prokop said...

Hmm... Perhaps we would be better off not trying to define the supernatural, but rather focus on this world's relationship to it.

Taking a cue from Plato's Allegory of the Cave, let's picture the natural world as being a huge pit surrounded by unclimbable walls. The supernatural is what lies outside the pit. We live at the base of the pit and cannot see over the walls, so the only knowledge we have of what exists on the other side can only come from what originates there and falls (or is thrown) into the pit (e.g., revelation and/or miracles).

What say ye? Useful analogy? Does anyone have a better?

Jezu ufam tobie!

Ian Thompson said...

BP: that sounds like a plausible plan.
Suppose, then, we characterized the supernatural by its powers to affect us? This is a sort of Eleatic principle, and we could take it further to say that the Being of anything was constituted by its sets of powers.

So the supernatural is exists insofar as it can affect is, or affect those things which might affect us (etc). We could have a science of those causes.

This plan has the advantage that we never have an inexplicable divide between the natural and supernatural.
It also has the feature that we must deny causal closure of the physical in order to get started.
Is not that what the argument from reason is about: that mind/intentionality/reason/loves must all have causal effects on the natural?
Maybe intentionality and loves (etc) just ARE the causal powers that have those effects?

DougJC said...

In a previous thread I suggested naturalism can be cleanly distinguished from supernaturalism by an unwillingness to posit the complexity of mind as something underlying reality until simpler explanations have been exhausted. My view is strongly influenced by Richard Carrier's article at Defining the Supernatural:

""naturalism" means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, "supernaturalism" means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things."

Ian Thompson said...

Doug: how long should we be obliged to wait until natural explanations have been exhausted?
Till next year, till the next generation, or for 300 years?
Suppose that supernatural things did exist: in that case we would be waiting forever for you hunt for 'simple explanations'. "Just wait until next year. Natural explanations have always worked in the past!", I might hear you say.

Such 'unwillingness' reveals itself to be something quite serious and already presumptuous!

DougJC said...

Ian,

"Doug: how long should we be obliged to wait until natural explanations have been exhausted? Till next year, till the next generation, or for 300 years?"

I'd say as soon as the success of natural explanations to adequately explain phenomena-- which looks like an exponential curve right now I'd think-- starts to taper off and look more like a line or the start of a bell curve, that's when an inkling of a suspicion would start to form in my mind.

Ian Thompson said...

Should we be allowed to make new theories about supernatural explanations before 'an inkling of a suspicion would start to form in [your] mind'?
Would you approve research on those explanations? As a referee, would you allow publications concerning such research?

Victor Reppert said...

It seems to me that by making the nonmental the very essence of what something is to be natural is precisely what generates the prima facie case for a conflict between naturalism on the one hand, and the existence of the mind on the other. If you say "Why couldn't it be the brain" my answer is you have defined the brain as something that must be physical, and you have defined the physical as something lacking the mental. Now, since you need to mental to meet the epistemological (as opposed to the metaphysical) necessities of naturalism, the serpent ends up swallowing its tail.

It is amusing to notice that many of the moderns, whether sceptics or mystics, have taken as their sign a certain eastern symbol, which is the very symbol of this ultimate nullity. When they wish to represent eternity, they represent it by a serpent with its tail in its mouth. There is a startling sarcasm in the image of that very unsatisfactory meal. The eternity of the material fatalists, the eternity of the eastern pessimists, the eternity of the supercilious theosophists and higher scientists of to-day is, indeed, very well presented by a serpent eating its tail -- a degraded animal who destroys even himself.

Chesterton-'Orthodoxy.'

DougJC said...

Ian,

"Should we be allowed to make new theories about supernatural explanations before 'an inkling of a suspicion would start to form in [your] mind'?
Would you approve research on those explanations? As a referee, would you allow publications concerning such research?
"

Yes, that was the point of the prior Carrier link, the supernatural under this definition is not off-bounds. Read it:

"The claim that supernatural hypotheses can never be verified or falsified, are untestable, and therefore unknowable, is therefore not tenable. With sufficient evidence I am certain any reasonable scientist would be persuaded to believe any of the supernatural scenarios I have described above. In fact, with sufficient standards and documentation I am certain I could get them into any peer reviewed scientific journal."

DougJC said...

Victor,

"It seems to me that by making the nonmental the very essence of what something is to be natural"

If this comment is directed at me I'll just quickly note that this is not what I'm doing. My view of naturalism is saying the mental is a complex concept that requires non-mental building blocks.

David Brightly said...

Not sure I follow the latest turns in this discussion. I doubt any naturalist would want to oppose the mental to the natural. For him, everything is natural. So if the mental exists it's natural too. Rather he'd want to say that any mind must be an embodied mind.

Crude said...

"naturalism" means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence.

And as I've pointed out in the past, this is riddled with fun pitfalls.

For one thing, it turns paganisms and Mormonism into naturalistic hypotheses. Zeus can be Zeus and God can be God, so long as they are - in whatever distant, ultimate senses - grounded in the 'non-mental'.

For another, it makes other views - neutral monism and panpsychism - supernatural on the spot.

But perhaps best of all? It helps demonstrate that naturalism is itself completely unfalsifiable. Carrier's definition deals in fundamentals - and those fundamentals are walled off to science. It establishes that naturalism can't draw support from science.

I doubt any naturalist would want to oppose the mental to the natural.

See Alex Rosenberg, the Churchlands, and more.