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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Natural and supernatural again

Once again, the point needs to be made that we don't have clear, agreed, definitions of the words "natural" and "supernatural". This is not a surprising fact. These are ordinary English words, used on a daily basis in informal discourse. We know that the words used in this way, in ordinary language, are typically quite fuzzy. Wittgenstein showed this with the example of the word "game", whose meaning is surprisingly difficult to nail down. It is very arguable - and Wittgenstein makes the argument - that the various things we call "games" have no one feature possessed by all. Rather, they bear a kind of family resemblance to each other. You can find paradigm examples that everyone calls a "game" - chess perhaps - but it might not have any feature in common with absolutely everything that we call a game. Still, most things that we call "games" do have features in common with many other things that we call "games". For most practical purposes, we can use the word "game" without too much misunderstanding.

Discussion of whether science can investigate "the supernatural" often seems to involve one party or another to the discussion assuming that "supernatural" has a clear meaning, when it simply doesn't. There are various phenomena that are commonly called "supernatural", but it's not really clear what they have in common.

Think of ghosts, gods, angels, demons, and astrological influences. You might think that what is involved with some of these is the claim that a disembodied mind exists, but gods are not always thought of as disembodied, and even ghosts are sometimes thought of as having a body of a certain kind - some sort of very thin stuff (the word "ectoplasm" is sometimes used here). In the past, spirits were not thought of as disembodied in the sense of being totally immaterial: they were made of "spirit" or "pneuma", a kind of super-thin material. The idea of a totally immaterial mind seems much more recent. Perhaps it existed before Descartes, but it's not clear where it appears in ancient thought or in mythology. And of course, astrological influences are not usually thought of as involving minds at all, although there is some kind of influence that we (perhaps) don't want to call "physical".

Perhaps some clear definition of "physicality" or "body" can be given, and people who call themselves "naturalists" can claim to be rejecting the "supernatural" when they reject the existence of minds that are totally without any physicality or embodiment. However, it would be unusual to find anyone who believes in the existence of such "supernatural" minds while claiming that they have no power to influence the physical world in ways that can be sensed. If a "supernatural" mind has the power to interact with the physical world, then we can study it. We can't study its physical substance, of course, if it has no physical substance, but we can study its powers, its behaviour, perhaps its motivations. Its non-physicality may limit the conclusions we can draw about it, but as long as enough is asserted about what it does we can certainly study whether there is evidence for or against the claim that it exists.

Thus, on one definition of "the supernatural", it is not beyond science to examine any claims at all about the supernatural.

But "the supernatural" might be defined in other ways. If we define "the supernatural" as "whatever cannot be studied by science", then of course it is true by definition that science cannot study the supernatural. However, this sort of definitional fiat tells us absolutely nothing about what sorts of things actually do exist and what sorts of things actually are open to investigation by science.

If we define "the natural" to mean "whatever exists" and "the supernatural" to mean "whatever is not natural", then we have made it true by definition that whatever exists is "natural" and that nothing "supernatural" exists. It follows that science cannot study "the supernatural" because there is no such thing to study. That, however, does not prove that gods, ghosts, demons, astrological influences, etc., don't exist. Nor does it show that they can't be studied by science. It only shows us that if ghosts (for example) do turn out to exist, then they must be classified as "natural".

In short, you can't determine what sorts of things do or do not exist, or what sorts of things can or cannot be studied by science, simply by definitional fiat. The definitions of words don't control what exists in reality.

Again, say you define "supernatural" as meaning "can't be studied by science". Using that definition, you can then demonstrate (a simple semantic entailment) that "the supernatural cannot be studied by science".

What you can't do is then pretend that you defined "the supernatural" to mean (for example) "ghosts and gods" and conclude "ghosts and gods cannot be studied by science". That's equivocation on the word "supernatural".

When we say that science deals with the "natural", while religion deals with the "supernatural" we need to define our terms (reasonably) clearly, then use them consistently. If we define the "natural" so that it means "everything" then it will turn out to be the case that science can deal with whatever turns out to exist, but that tells us nothing about what sorts of things actually do exist. It leaves open the question of whether gods and ghosts exist, for example. If they do, then it suggests that science can deal with them.

Whenever we debate what can be investigated by science, whether science and religion are compatible, whether the existence of entities typically referred to by religions (such as gods) can be studied scientifically, and whether those things exist at all, it would be helpful if we made a conscientious effort to use the various terms consistently and to take note of how others define their terms if they bother to do so. This is difficult to do - language is slippery, and a point comes where it is too demanding to cross every single "t" and dot every single "i". Nonetheless, it is not playing games. It is important that we do this to avoid trapping ourselves in prisons of words, drawing conclusions that are not justified by the facts. It would also help us avoid a lot of distracting emotional attacks that merely make the debate more difficult to keep under control.

72 comments:

luke said...

Russell Blackford,

--"When we say that science deals with the "natural", while religion deals with the "supernatural" we need to define our terms (reasonably) clearly, then use them consistently. If we define the "natural" so that it means "everything" then it will turn out to be the case that science can deal with whatever turns out to exist, but that tells us nothing about what sorts of things actually do exist. It leaves open the question of whether gods and ghosts exist, for example. If they do, then it suggests that science can deal with them."---

Since you say this a few different ways, I just picked this quote from near the end. Also, anyone interested can see my most recent post in the - NAS on the compatibility of science and religion - blog post in response to Russell's response to me.

Science concerns itself only with the natural. By definition it's true something can be defined out of existence and this tells us nothing of the fact of whether it exist or not (you have twisted yourself in knots again to say a very simple and understood point). In the scientific sense, you can say we are defining "God" out of existence, it is not science that has defined God out of nature, that has been the doing of "believers", science makes has NO use for the God hypothesis. One can say it's a ploy for "believers" to define God out of nature and not knowable because they fail to reveal God in nature, however true that may be, what science is concerned with is studying the naturalistic claims (claims with regards to nature that are scientifically testable). What has been refuted is the claims to nature, not "supernaturalims". It doesn't matter that the "believers" claim that their God is acting within nature as long as they make their claims testable, falsifiable, i.e. scientifically verifiable.

Again, as far as we know we are dealing with belief systems when it comes to Gods and "supernatural forces". You are simply playing the same game as the creationist in nearly redefining science to accept an idea that the "supernatural" is falsifiable and therefore scientifically testable (yet their theories are NOT scientific for this exact problem "God did it" is not a scientific theory). The facts we have on the table are that people believe in the "supernatural" that is defined outside of nature while claiming it is interacting with nature.

You're just playing the game of vagueness to allow for what is defined outside of nature to possibly exist. However, in a very real sense, there is no vagueness to the fact that science is naturalistic (naturalism) and it is you that is creating unnecessary vagueness.

RichardW said...

Hi Russell. I've been making the same point (though less eloquently) for many years, in arguing against those who insist that science requires a principle of "methodological naturalism".

Many who insist on such a principle fail to even define what they mean by "natural". Others define it to mean something like "that which can be studied by science", which turns methodological naturalism into a tautology. Still others define it to mean "testable" or "falsifiable". To those I respond: if you mean "testable" or "falsifiable" you should call your principle "testability" or "falsifiability", instead of using the misleading name "methodological naturalism". Yet another group defines "natural" to mean "material", but then fails to define "material".

Then there's another group of defenders of MN who play a different definitional game altogether. They insist that science only deals with "natural" causes because that's how the word "science" is defined. (I kid you not!)

It seems like only a handful of MN's defenders take the job seriously enough to actually provide a non-question-begging account of what their principle means. Those typically define "natural" to mean something like "consisting of matter and/or energy". But they are then unable to explain why such a principle is needed by science.

snafu said...

Heavens, someone talking sense on this topic at last. Praise the almighty.

snafu said...

(I should make it clear, I was referring to the original post, not the first comment).

I have to say, I don't get Luke's drift at all.

"You are simply playing the same game as the creationist in nearly redefining science to accept an idea that the "supernatural" is falsifiable and therefore scientifically testable..."

But isn't this Russell's entire point? Plenty of paradigmatically supernatural things *are* testable/falsifiable. Ghosts, Messages from the dead, miracle cures...I could go on all day.

Yes, there are also things that are not, for example the transubstantiation of bread into divine stuff. The question is: after we've eliminated all of the former, is there any beef left to the arguments for the latter?

Russell Blackford said...

As I said on Jerry Coyne's blog just now, Luke (or Dave as he calls himself over there) simply doesn't know what he's talking about.

He may be intellectually incapable of engaging with the detail of the argument. Or maybe he's simply unwilling to. Either way, his comments don't deal with the argument at all. He just repeats the same simplistic, dogmatic claims over and over.

The irony is that his position may not be all that far from mine, since I actually agree that a problem with many supernatural claims is that they are framed so as to be unfalsifiable. Over time, many religionists have progressively retreated to unfalsifiable claims under pressure from science.

But of course some claims about supernatural events (in a perfectly familiar sense of the word "supernatural"), e.g. the claim that the world was created by God 6000 years ago, are not only falsifiable but actually falsified. This claim only becomes unfalsifiable if you add the additional claim that God created the world in a pre-aged state so that it looks billions of years old, but not all religionists do that. Even if some do, there are obvious reasons not to take such a claim seriously. One way or the other, science gives us good grounds to reject the YEC claim that God created the Earth 6000 years ago: either it is straightwardly false or it takes a form that has modified to a point where no one would believe it except out of desperation (or something similar). The only rational view is that the Earth is, at it looks, billions of years old.

The result is that YEC supernaturalist claims, for a start, are, indeed, incompatible with science. To claim that modern scientific findings about the age of the Earth and these YEC claims might both be true is nonsense.

I for one do not intend to go through life pandering to the fiction that religion is "another way of knowing" whose claims are compatible with those of science. I suggest that we abandon that sort of accommodationism.

snafu said...

Russell -

Yes, I've read that exchange now. If you don't mind, I'll disengage; I don't think a continued debate is going to be productive.

thx.

luke said...

I posted this response on Jerry Coyne's blog and I am just copy/pasting here. It is in response to a comments by Russell.---

Russell Blackford

—”For the record, though, the idea that I am trying to allow for the existence of something outside of nature is very odd. If anything, my motivation is closer to the opposite.”—

Right, well, what it comes down to really are your motivations, which is exactly what I am saying is at the bottom of this nonsense. But, in your earnestness to create the illusion (as I see it, and I’m sure others do as well, you are just a victim) that science study’s the “supernatural” or can refute “supernaturalism” you are dredging up the dead to play ghost of debates past to take part in your imaginary “war between “supernaturalism” and naturalism”. You are in essence playing the same game as the creationist to justify a claim that Gods and “supernatural forces” are scientifically testable.

John Pieret said...

Okay. The "supernatural" is that set (which may well be empty) of things which are not "natural." Of course, that's not very helpful unless we can define "natural." I think you were getting close in one of your earlier posts: the "natural" is that set of things (entities, forces, etc.) which operate with such regularity that we induce (i.e. assume) that they operate consistently across time and space. We call that consistency "natural law". Interestingly, we have no idea why things operate with such consistency; it is, at best, a brute fact of the world. Some theologies hold that God sustains the universe from micro-instant to micro-instant and that God is, in effect, natural law (though not necessarily only natural law qua Spinoza's god). That's totally unevidenced but, then again, so is any other cause of natural law.

Anyway, that would make for a provisional definition of "supernatural" as "that which does not operate by what we call natural law."

Without going over all the convoluted arguments, it does not seem to me to be necessary in order to do science to assume that everything operates by natural law. Science would be successful and useful if most (or even a large proportion) of events that we are aware of operate by natural law. Certainly, if we observed some event that, despite our best efforts, we could not explain by natural law, we wouldn't, therefore, abandon doing science. More importantly, we wouldn't stop trying to discover a natural cause for that event. That is the flip side of methodological naturalism that you are overlooking. Methodological naturalism is as much about what we will accept as a scientific answer and when we will stop looking for a natural cause (never) as it is about whether we can investigate some or all supernatural causes.

The assertion that, because science gives good reason to reject some religious claims ("scientific creationism" because the claims are scientifically refuted and Omphalos because its claims render science impotent), we should conclude that science gives good reason to reject all religious claims, simply does not follow. That may well be a valid philosophical conclusion but the fact that your philosophy is incompatible with religion does not mean that science is.

luke said...

Russell Blackford

---"Either way, his comments don't deal with the argument at all. He just repeats the same simplistic, dogmatic claims over and over".---

Of course, this is what creationist argue as well concerning my position (and that of science as well as accepted today by most of philosophy), that is why they would like to redefine science or shift the burden of evidence.

I made my point very clear and in doing so you have chosen to argue this is dogmatic. Science does NOT concern itself with "supernatural phenomena". I keep repeating the obvious because it is clear that you would like to hedge the facts in order to argue that science can somehow falsify "supernaturalism".

You offer yet another example that I can use to demonstrate where you are going wrong. This is the most common defense of your position and illustrates you are reading past me, or choosing to ignore the nature of science to make false claims.

Russell Wrote:

---"But of course some claims about supernatural events (in a perfectly familiar sense of the word "supernatural"), e.g. the claim that the world was created by God 6000 years ago, are not only falsifiable but actually falsified. This claim only becomes unfalsifiable if you add the additional claim that God created the world in a pre-aged state so that it looks billions of years old, but not all religionists do that."---

The claim that the earth is 6,000 years old is a claim concerning nature. It doesn't matter how the God argument is used with regards to how it interacts with nature, in this case creation, it is not a falsifiable scientific theory (unless the God is defined in purely naturalistic terms). "God did it" is not a falsifiable scientific theory (science makes NO use for the God hypothesis). The claim to nature is what is refuted, not the supposed theory used to explain nature. This does not say that the "theory" (i.e. "god did it") is a reasonable assumption regarding anything concerning nature, in fact, the claims concerning nature that "believers" often make to indicate the existence or action of the God are often false (and demonstrably so).

You are simply confusing claims to mean that what is tested involves something defined as outside of nature. I can claim that prayer works to heal and this is an action of a God, we can test the claim scientifically, but what we are testing is what is in nature. The fact that these claims about the action of a "supernatural force" come up refuted, does not mean that science is studying the "supernatural". All you are doing is leapfrogging over the nature of science to claim that we can view "supernatual" and natural definitions as vague enough to allow for the existence of what is defined outside of nature to exist. However, the the fact is that science in naturalistic (naturalism) and does not test "supernatural forces" (again, you are confusing the claims with what science actually does).

As the comments here by RichardW and Russell reveal, their arguments are identical in many ways to the creationist (and many "believers" in general). They are claiming that to state science concerns itself with only the natural (that it is naturalism) is somehow dogmatic and crazy.

One final note, since this seems to be the motivator for the arguments presented by Russell and others.


Again, we are primarily faced with the fact that when it comes to claims regarding the action of a God or "supernatural force" we are dealing with belief systems. By getting the basic facts straight regarding science we can then better deal with the facts as we know them. Science can and is telling us something about "supernaturalism" with regards to belief and belief systems and we should pay attention and use that knowledge. That there are those that want to play games with what is commonly understood as science today in order to use it in an ideological war is unfortunate but yet it is the same old tiresome maneuver.

How science operates has been refined over time and is by its nature progressive and amendable to change in certain regards (though it's doing a damn fine job right now). In fact, it is largely due to people wanting to shift burdens of evidences, use bias both intentionally and ignorantly and play games of definition that refinement and clarification as has been needed. What we are witnessing now with a subset of atheist and most creationist (creationist being the most offensive and longer term) is the old game of shifting to make false claims regarding the nature of science.

Russell's continuation of remarks regarding my character are only part of the tactics used to defend what is today, indefensible.

RichardW said...

John Pieret wrote: We call that consistency "natural law".Why not call it "consistency", "law" or "regularity"? Why introduce the unnecessary and distracting word "natural"?

Some people seem so determined to rescue the idea of "methodological naturalism" at any cost that they desperately search for a meaning for the word "natural". This is putting the cart before the horse. The rational way to proceed is to look for appropriate words to label the concepts we want to express, not look for concepts to fit meaningless words that we want to use!

John Pieret said...

Why not call it "consistency", "law" or "regularity"? Why introduce the unnecessary and distracting word "natural"?

Historically that is the term that was used and it was originally employed to distinguish it from divine law. It doesn't make much difference to my pont if you call it "consistency", "law" or "regularity." It still isn't required that such a "law" be absolutely consistent in order for science to work. Of course, if you want to deny the possibility of the supernatural as an exception to that consistency, you are going beyond what is necessary for science to work. Science is still a method (though not the simple one so often taught in schools) and going beyond the necessary attributes of science and insisting on assumptions not needed to do science is entering the arena of philosophy. Again, your philosophy may be inconsistent with all religious beliefs but that doesn't mean science is.

luke said...

Here, see if you can spot your arguments.

http://www.discovery.org/a/3575

Ophelia Benson said...

'However, it would be unusual to find anyone who believes in the existence of such "supernatural" minds while claiming that they have no power to influence the physical world in ways that can be sensed.'

Hmmm...would it? Isn't that what most theists do claim about God? Especially when they want to say that science can't investigate God, and people who can't detect God are just looking in the wrong way, and so on? God is disembodied and entirely outside nature for the duration of arguments with skeptics, then when they've gone God resumes answering prayers. That's what I notice anyway.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, Ophelia, historically religionist have actually made claims about how gods, ghosts, vampires, astrological forces, etc., affect the world that we can sense.

But it's true that not all make that claim. It's possible to render your claims totally beyond the bounds of investigation: e.g. you can posit a deity who has never interacted with the world that we can sense in any way that we could check for. If that kind of supernatural entity is postulated, I think you can guess what I'd say. Why would anyone not already indoctrinated into believing such a thing be at all tempted to do so now?

Luke, I have to laugh about your complaint that I've attacked your character. You've shown an unwillingness or inability to follow the actual arguments, and have instead used extremely emotive language to attack me out of nowhere (I have no idea who you are and we have never interacted before).

You have used such words as "insane", you have repeatedly accused me of intellectual dishonesty (playing games), you've accused me of having ulterior motives and even offered a very implausible motive that you think I might have, you've claimed to be "outraged" by my mild complaint about the above and explanation of my position, you've compared me to creationist, not once but several times. All in all, your behaviour towards me has been very bad.

I don't know why you are choosing to act in this way. There was absolutely no reason to do so, but you did so right from the beginning, when we had not interacted and you were replying to my post about the NAS that had nothing to do with you. Jerry Coyne has already removed one or more of your posts for incivility (at my request, he also removed one of mine replying to it).

You have made this nasty and personal - and unnecessarily stressful - from the beginning. It was your choice; no one forced you to turn up and act in that way.

I do not wish to speculate about your character. However, if you are not simply unwilling to conduct this discussion properly (which means assuming that my posts are written in good faith, and actually trying to engage with the arguments) then I have to assume that you are unable to (psychologically or intellectually). I have no idea about your "character" beyond that.

By contrast, John Pieret is disagreeing with me about various things and making some important points.

The issue about regularity is worth exploring, and I agree that it may (or may not) be possible to define the natural as "that which acts regularly". But there will be a lot of problems - after all, astrological influences are supposed to act regularly. Conversely, there are many one-off events that it seems that science can at least help investigate. If it's said that science investigates the world by means of looking for regularities, that may or may not be true, but some supernatural claims do seem to involve regularities, and in any event nothing stops a means of investigating the world that looks for and uses regularities from then applying its findings to the investigation of one-off events. E.g., forensic scientists do this all the time.

So, once again, even if made use of the idea of regularities, it by no means follows that religion will be immune to critique from science whenever it makes claims about how the entitities and forces that it posits affect things that are accessible to us through the senses.

When religion chooses to insulate itself from all evidence, which it can do with some effort, those of us who are not already indoctrinated should simply be unimpressed by it.

luke said...

Russell Blackford,

"All in all, your behaviour towards me has been very bad.."

I have said that parts of what you have written - of course I was talking about specific points, which I have been over several times - are:

astounding[ly] idiotic, bizarre, dishonest and meaningless, ridiculous, crazy metaphor and silly argumentAnd that was my first post.

I have said that your argument mirrors that of creationist, that you are creating unnecessary vagueness, and in fact playing games (if you're not playing games, then you are also quite ignorant of modern science - which I tend to doubt you are).

What I will apologize for is that I can't apologize for what I've said. You can claim I don't know what I'm taking about and may be intellectually incapable, however your argument on this issue clearly leaves you in no position to make such accusations. After what I had said in my first comments, then seeing your "Natural and supernatural again" post, I realized you were simply digging up the corpse of slippery slope arguments and could predict your next move. You have also claimed I am being dogmatic and that you may not be willing to try to persuade me, but Russell, your underlying argument is detrimentally faulty.

Science does not concern itself with the "supernaturalism" or "supernatural" theories. Science is clearly understood as naturalistic and it's tiresome to witness the mistake of confusing that fact with unnecessary and foolish argument about the meaning of "natural". What you have continuously pointed out, thinking it means something to the debate, is that claims made regarding what is thought to be related to the "supernatural" that has in fact been explained as part of nature, or is a false claim regarding nature, somehow now means that science has studied the "supernatural".

To defend this position you have argued the definitional and vagueness ideas, including the term "natural". However, you are missing the fundamental point and instead have dredged up exactly what the creationist do on a regular basis. You are calling into question the very nature of science by confusing what are claims regarding nature thought to be associated with the "supernatural" with what science does, which is to study natural phenomena.

Again, as far as we know when it comes to "supernatural forces" we are dealing with beliefs and belief systems. Science is telling us something about these beliefs (and of course I am including the social sciences) and we do not need to play meaningless games of definition just to create the illusion that in a scientific sense there is a "war between naturalism and supernaturalism." Science is naturalistic (naturalism) and makes no use for the "God" or "supernatural force" hypothesis.

I am reacting out of equal parts frustration and concern. I am dismayed by the level of obfuscation on this issue by certain atheist (as an atheist it has been something that has actually kept me up nights). My frustration primarily is driven by the many discussions I have with particular atheist over this issue the past couple years. I don't think I am going to persuade you, I am in fact beyond that to some level, all I can do now is raise my voice and state the facts clearly.

luke said...

Russell Blackford,

–”The claim that “God created the world 6000 years ago” is, indeed, a claim about a supernatural entity. It is a claim about an action attributed to God (pretty much a paradigm supernatural entity; if God doesn’t count as a supernatural entity then nothing does). The claim has been falsified.

That’s not to say that all claims involving entities such as God (or gods or ghosts or vampires) can be falsified, but many can. Others can be rendered highly implausible
.”–

One more time. The claim that the earth is 6,000 years old is a claim regarding nature. The reason it is falsifiable is because it is a claim regarding natural phenomena. The claim is made by those that think it is absolute, unquestionable truth that is revealed by a God. The “theory” then is that a God created the world 6,000 years ago. The “theory” is not a scientific theory, it is unfalsifiable, what we are dealing with is a belief (the “theory” was never scientific – even if it could have ‘reasonably’ been believed at one time). Again, you are confusing the claims regarding nature that are attributed to a “supernatural force”, i.e. God, with what science does, which is to study natural phenomena. Science is naturalistic (this doesn’t ignore the fact it is a truth seeking method of inquiry etc.). Also, again, science makes no use for a “God” or “supernatural force” hypothesis. Philosophical naturalism is a position which does not posit a “supernatural” explanation.

It is your position that creates the greatest confusion.

It is that simple…

luke said...

My last post was a copy/paste from Jerry Coyne's blog. It is a reponse to a post by Russell.

My claim that: "It is your position that creates the greatest confusion." Is misleading without the rest of his post shown. I am comparing his remarks on this issue with that of the statement by the NAS. Their statement is indeed in need of skepticism, but Russell's arguments on "supernaturalism" and naturalism are greatly more confused than that of NAS (in fact they are fundamentally false). Unfortunately my quote out of context looks like I'm saying Russell's position generally creates the greatest confusion, trust me, I certainly do not believe that for a second.

luke said...

Russell,

"Jerry Coyne has already removed one or more of your posts for incivility (at my request, he also removed one of mine replying to it).."

This is true, Jerry deleted a post of mine. It is the post I started which said I am outraged.

http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2009/05/nas-on-compatibility-of-science-and.html?showComment=1241838060000#c7933185919796388332

That's the one. But of course, you you can remove it too. Do you realize what you have done?

Tim said...

[sidestepping the Russell-Luke debate for a second...]

This all reminds me of the opening lines to Quine's On What There Is.

"A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity. It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: 'What is there?' It can be answered, moreover, in a word - "Everything" - and everyone will accept this answer as true."

Likewise, when asked 'what is natural,' it might be tempting to respond with the same answer: 'Everything.'

Yet, as Quine points out, we can still argue over cases. Are ghosts natural or supernatural? Is a the cause of a miraculous event natural or supernatural? But even the nature of this disagreement is problematic, as Russell has so ably stated.

However, I don't think one needs to accept a rigid distinction between natural/supernatural 'things' because it seems more sensible to say that there are no supernatural things. Anyone who calls something supernatural is simply mistaken.

A ghost, if agreed to exist, becomes a part of the natural world. Should some characteristics of the ghost contradict accepted knowledge of the natural world, it would serve as evidence that our knowledge of the natural world is incomplete.

Compare this to the alternate: the ghost is agreed to exist, it's characteristics contradict accepted knowledge of the natural world, but our conception of the natural world doesn't change and the ghost is added to a new category of things: supernatural.

I suspect the vast majority of scientists - or naturalists - would not be comfortable with this. They'd either show the ghost doesn't exist, or if they agree it does, they'd integrate it into their naturalistic world view.

Supernatural, as a vernacular term, can still be used for those things that naturalists don't believe exist, but less informed individuals do, such as spirits, angels, demons etc.

Russell Blackford said...

Tim, that position isn't very far from mine.

Luke, you are simply repeating and compounding the offence. You're warned.

RichardW said...

John Pieret wrote: > Science is still a method (though not the simple one so often taught in schools) and going beyond the necessary attributes of science and insisting on assumptions not needed to do science is entering the arena of philosophy. <

You are the one who appears to be insisting on imposing a rule (or "assumption") on science, namely methodological naturalism. I'm the one arguing against such an imposition. The onus is on you to explain clearly what your rule means and justify the claim that science needs it.

Claims about reality can be evaluated on the basis of such criteria as parsimony, explanatory power, perhaps falsifiability (though I'm not a fan of falsificationism), or whatever other criteria we may settle on. The process of deciding what these criteria should be is generally labelled "philosphy of science". It is these criteria--particularly parsimony--which lead us to reject claims involving gods, ghosts, goblins, etc. There is no need for an additional natural/supernatural criterion.

Like Russell, I'm happy to consider the possibility that a "regularity" criterion might be useful. But whether such a criterion is accepted or not, I object to calling it "methodological naturalism". Rational discussion is not helped by giving concepts deceptive names. If you mean regularity, say "regularity"; don't say "naturalism". If you mean irregular, say "irregular"; don't say "supernatural". Please call a spade a spade.

RichardW said...

Let me add a clarification...

John Pieret wrote: > The assertion that, because science gives good reason to reject some religious claims ("scientific creationism" because the claims are scientifically refuted and Omphalos because its claims render science impotent), we should conclude that science gives good reason to reject all religious claims, simply does not follow. <

I don't think anyone here is making that assertion. I'm certainly not. All I'm saying is that no religious claims should be considered immune to scientific scrutiny. In principle, religious claims could be confirmed by science, if warranted by the empirical data.

RichardW said...

P.S. Please ignore the words "like Russell" in my last post but one. Russell was making a different point from mine.

Windy said...
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Windy said...
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Windy said...

It doesn't make much difference to my pont if you call it "consistency", "law" or "regularity." It still isn't required that such a "law" be absolutely consistent in order for science to work. Of course, if you want to deny the possibility of the supernatural as an exception to that consistency, you are going beyond what is necessary for science to work---

As Russell and Tim pointed out, the bolded assumption is problematic - hypothetical supernatural entities have their own consistencies, and exceptions to observed regularities are not necessarily supernatural.

As an example of the former, if a house is haunted by a ghost of a young woman who was brutally murdered there, this clearly assumes some regularity both on part of the entity (at a minimum, the same ghost continues to occupy the same house for some time) and in the ways that house-haunting works in general.

As for the latter, you are right that an observed regularity does not have to be absolutely consistent, but if we look at all the regularities science observes and not just "laws", we clearly can't assume that exceptions are supernatural. For example, exceptions to Mendelian inheritance... Even in physics, people speak of the laws of physics "breaking down" near a black hole, and many "laws" are statistical, not absolute.

Steve Zara said...
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Steve Zara said...

"Interestingly, we have no idea why things operate with such consistency"

Actually, I think we do. It is just what we would expect in a universe that is pretty cold on average, and which is extremely symmetrical in all kinds of relativistic ways. The universe looks pretty much as we would imagine if there was nothing sustaining it at all.

As for the naturalism/supernaturalism matter, I find both words a problem, as they seem to make sense only as a way of defining what they are not. Supernaturalism is not naturalism, and vice versa.

I try and avoid such words. We simply explore what is real by experiment, and hope that we find some regularity so that we can build models and make predictions. It doesn't matter if what is out there is built of Strings or fairy wings, we have to use the same strategy.

(post deleted and re-entered after editing)

John Pieret said...

Russell:

... I agree that it may (or may not) be possible to define the natural as "that which acts regularly". But there will be a lot of problems - after all, astrological influences are supposed to act regularly. Conversely, there are many one-off events that it seems that science can at least help investigate. If it's said that science investigates the world by means of looking for regularities, that may or may not be true, but some supernatural claims do seem to involve regularities ...

Yes, anything that claims that some force or entity operates consistently across time and space can be examined by science and potentially disconfirmed by science's method. See, for example, Paul Thagard's classic "Why Astrology Is A Pseudoscience". (It's never been clear to me that astrology is proposing a supernatural cause or simply an unknown "natural" one, rather like homeopathy.) Other cases, like the efficacy of prayer, do not really propose regularity, since there is (allegedly) choice involved by an actor with the power to do whatever it likes, hence the familiar saying "God answers all prayers; sometimes the answer is 'No'." There the problem is, as Elliot Sober has pointed out, auxiliary assumptions about the motives and abilities of God are required, that we have no independent justification for, which runs afoul of the Duhem-Quine thesis.

Over all, my position is the same as Sober's on "theistic evolution" in his article, "Evolution without Naturalism." These kinds of positions are logically consistent and, therefore, not contrary to scientific results but not necessarily plausible and certainly not necessarily true.

RichardW:

You are the one who appears to be insisting on imposing a rule (or "assumption") on science, namely methodological naturalism. ...

The process of deciding what these criteria should be is generally labelled "philosphy of science". It is these criteria--particularly parsimony--which lead us to reject claims involving gods, ghosts, goblins, etc. There is no need for an additional natural/supernatural criterion
.

I think you are getting unnecessarily hung up on the term "methodological naturalism," perhaps resulting from Luke's ... let's call it ... over enthusiastic and under sophisticated exposition of it. Methodological naturalism is simply a term used to describe a position on the logic of science.

First of all, let's dispose of the "philosophy of science" issue. Science has a philosophy without being a philosophy, just as biology has a philosophy and every other endeavor with a logical structure has a philosophy -- which is, in fact, the working out of the logical structure and its implications.

Occam's razor is not a rule of logic; it is a rule of thumb ... a way of making an organized first approximation (i.e. guess). If it can be fairly described as a "criterion" of science, it is a limited one, not only because it is notoriously difficult to identify which, out of two or more possibilities, is the more parsimonious, but because there is no guarantee that the more parsimonious explanation is the correct one.

In any event, methodological naturalism is, in part, a rule of parsimony, in that what we are calling methodological naturalism is the recognition that we should not overstate the results of science. A criterion such as Occam's razor does not deliver "truth" and, therefore, cannot be said to necessarily contradict or even test nonscientific claims. In other words, any such "criterion" operates within the method of science without necessarily addressing claims made outside of science (hence "methodological") and, since we are, provisionally, describing the regularities that science studies as "natural," the term "methodological naturalism" is reasonably descriptive.

The issue is whether it is proper to say that science tests claims that its method does not logically reach.

Windy:

... if we look at all the regularities science observes and not just "laws", we clearly can't assume that exceptions are supernatural ...

No, of course not. The question is whether is whether science, logically, can test such claims.

Steve Zara:

It is just what we would expect in a universe that is pretty cold on average, and which is extremely symmetrical in all kinds of relativistic ways.

I'm sorry, I don't see how that's not begging the question of why the universe is pretty cold on average and extremely symmetrical in all kinds of relativistic ways.

Steve Zara said...

John-

The universe is pretty close to being nothingness, with, generally speaking, no situation in space or time being special - that is why there are symmetries. It isn't begging any questions. It is what an absence of anything being imposed looks like. What we think of as physical laws are really nothing much at all. That is one of the great achievements of modern physics - to reveal how little is needed to make the universe we see. The theistic idea of a God having to keep things going looks absurd.

Windy said...

... if we look at all the regularities science observes and not just "laws", we clearly can't assume that exceptions are supernatural ...No, of course not. The question is whether is whether science, logically, can test such claims.---

No, the question was the definition of supernatural. Of course what you quoted is blindingly obvious, but that was not the main point of my comment.

---Yes, anything that claims that some force or entity operates consistently across time and space can be examined by science---

It only has to operate with some regularity, not consistently across all time and space. Like the aforementioned ghost of the haunted house.

---Other cases, like the efficacy of prayer, do not really propose regularity, since there is (allegedly) choice involved by an actor with the power to do whatever it likes---

Of course choices of conscious actors can still have regularity. And the continued existence of a particular god is in itself a hypothesized regularity. It's question-begging to say that science can't deal with auxiliary assumptions about supernatural beings when we are trying to establish how 'supernatural' is defined.

luke said...

Windy,

---"It's question-begging to say that science can't deal with auxiliary assumptions about supernatural beings when we are trying to establish how 'supernatural' is defined.."---

This is correct, but has been largely dealt with.

Let me make some assumptions, which I think you may agree with, then I will make my point again.

Claims regarding nature said to be "supernatural" can be and are testable. We can refute the claim to nature (regardless of the belief that it is related in someway to "supernaturalism").

Refuting the claims regarding natural phenomena said to be "supernatural" often pushes the claimant to further distance the theory of "supernatural" causation from empirical analysis.

Many "supernatural phenomena" have been defined as beyond the natural by the "believers". This includes Gods in many respects (and this is also historical true - again, that is not to say the claim is true - in fact it has no way to reveal itself as true - therefore, there is no real reason to accept the claim as truth).

Now, the objection comes down to definition and the limitation on science.

What is confused, as illustrated by Russell in several of his comments relates particularly to my first assumption. What he is doing is starting there then sliding down through the second into the third to then say that science can study the "supernatural", and this is where the definition comes in (he perhaps believes he's hit a home run).

What happens then is defining "natural" and "supernatural" and discussing the claims made by "believers" in the "supernatural" while primarily leaving aside what it means to to scientifically investigate a claim. Normally, if science is mentioned, we are back to the idea you can't place limits on science and science can only be defined as a method therefore it can not be said that science disallows the study of "supernatual phenomena".

However, much of the debate is pointless, that's the point. If something is defined outside of nature (as "supernatural" causation is accepted to mean) it is unfalsifiable by science. Science is understood as concerned exclusively with natural phenomena (again, what is confused is thinking the claims mean that science is studying "supernatural" causation). Of course, once this is seen, the objections end up returning to the feedback loop of the three assumptions and into definitions. But, again, Science makes no use for a "God" or "supernatural force" hypothesis.

To help illustrate this point further, let go to John Pieret statement:

"perhaps resulting from Luke's ... let's call it ... over enthusiastic and under sophisticated exposition of it. Methodological naturalism is simply a term used to describe a position on the logic of science.."

John, the distinction between metaphysical naturalism and philosophical naturalism is pretty well understood by philosophers today, and naturalism is fairly clearly defined by philosophers today.

Of course, I think why you and Russell (and I'm sure others here as well) take that position of my intelligence is because I am purposefully being blunt. Reading Russell's comments on this issue and some of the other comments here (as well as dabbling into these murky waters before with the true believers), I need to be blunt, think about it.

John Pieret said...

Steve Zara:

The theistic idea of a God having to keep things going looks absurd.

It wasn't offered as particularly plausible.

The universe is pretty close to being nothingness, with, generally speaking, no situation in space or time being special ...

Again, you are just pushing the question a step back. Why are there no special places in space or time? The universe involves consistency because it looks and acts as it does but why does it look and act like it does rather than something else?

Windy:

... the question was the definition of supernatural ...

Actually, I won't venture a definition of what the supernatural is, since it is simply the negation of "that which is natural." I've offered a provisional definition of "natural" but if you think you can advance a better one, I'm all ears.

It only has to operate with some regularity, not consistently across all time and space.

I didn't claim that it had to operate consistently across all time and space. But science's tests only address the part that allegedly operates with regularity. In your ghost example, how would science go about testing if some phenomena is "supernatural"? First, I suppose, it would look for a candidate "natural" explanation (electrical fields, marsh gas, etc.) that, even if manifested in an unusual way, operate by recognizable regularities. If it finds some such regularity, science will induce (i.e. assume), under methodological naturalism, that a sufficient natural cause is the cause, without being able to directly test that it is the cause. If you want to argue that point, please feel free to explain how to test that any proposed cause is the actual cause in any particular case, at least without an appeal to induction. Then you will have to answer Hume's problem of induction, where the conclusion that induction delivers truth is, itself, an induction, making it a circular argument. Other proposed tests of the ghost hypothesis suffer similar limitations.

Of course choices of conscious actors can still have regularity.Sure. We can, for example, recognize regularities in arrowhead design and manufacture among human beings but how do we test whether a particular arrowhead-shaped piece of rock was designed by a human being as an arrowhead? The regularity involved in human beings include the abilities and general motives of humans. If we were unable to detect any evidence of human manufacturing techniques, we would be unable to scientifically show that it was human manufacture instead of some other cause, such as erosion. That would not mean that it wasn't of human manufacture, only that we were unable to detect the regularities that science can test. Nor can we eliminate all possible causes, including those (to the extent any exist) with no regularities to test, but science nonetheless will stick to "natural" ones. That is "methodological naturalism" at work.

Furthermore, even if we can detect evidence that a human being worked the piece of rock, how can we determine if the motive in the particular case was to make an arrowhead rather than, say, a piece of jewelry or some totally unique motive to that particular person?

The more interesting possibility is whether we can test the "regularity" of the continued existence of a God. The hard cases in supernatural claims (unlike the case of "creation science") involve claims about beings that have no manifest regularity to test. The God of Ken Miller does not consistently exist in one place or time (or exists in all places and times equally, which is the same thing) and has powers that are unlimited and, therefore, not subject to regularities, since they can operate in any fashion at all. I cannot imagine how the existence of such a being could be directly tested by science. Again, I'd be interested to hear any suggestions. Any indirect tests have to deal with the aptness of the auxiliary hypotheses employed.

Steve Zara said...

John-

Again, you are just pushing the question a step back. Why are there no special places in space or time? The universe involves consistency because it looks and acts as it does but why does it look and act like it does rather than something else?I am not sure that this is a useful question, as it implies that absence is a kind of presence, and needs equal explanation. The point of this is that the universe doesn't act like anything at all. The physical laws we observe (such as conservation of energy) aren't things that need to be established and maintained - they are the laws of nothingness. They are what you see when nothing happens.

I think this highlights a problem with terms like "natural law" - they suggests something imposed, when really there is nothing going on at all.

luke said...

"The God does not consistently exist in one place or time (or exists in all places and times equally, which is the same thing) and has powers that are unlimited and, therefore, not subject to regularities, since they can operate in any fashion at all. I cannot imagine how the existence of such a being could be directly tested by science.."

That is correct, congratulations, you win the prize (though you have contorted yourself to say a basic understood fact). Now watch as they start from the top of the slide and go back down again and you find yourself desperately searching out that definition (which you could avoid at some point by saying the "supernatural phenomena" must be defined in naturalistic terms to be possibly scientifically falsifiable). But, keep entertaining them... (I realize that "true believers" are sometimes hard to recognize - I am referring to the beliefs and arguments!).

luke said...

BTW, regarding my last post - I took out Miller's name, I don't know his God, but I am assuming it is defined as outside of nature somehow, i.e. "supernatural". I further speculate his "God" is said to interact within nature. To which I say this is where I can hear the Russell climbing the stairs of the slippery slope slide that I referred to before.

luke said...

Ah! Can't help myself. I promise this is it, I'm done after this, if anyone is still reading my post.

"The God does not consistently exist in one place or time (or exists in all places and times equally, which is the same thing)..."

I return to this to say, well, ok, yes. I'm giving the benefit of the doubt you have an understanding of what you're talking about (if you have read that Sober paper, than I suppose it may be possible). However, you may be making a mistake in that statement, because the "God" could be thought of as outside of space and time (this is where we end up with a God actually defining space and time arguments). So, the God is not actually "existing" anywhere, in the time/space meaning. I understand your idea is to fit with a regularity argument, but again, that's fairly well pointless, but not however for other arguments you have made such as the great example of arrowheads (in fact, I remember reading something very similar to that...)

John Pieret said...

I think why you and Russell (and I'm sure others here as well) take that position of my intelligence ...

I didn't say a thing about your intelligence. Perfectly intelligent people can be over enthusiastic and under sophisticated. In fact, it is that sort of confusion about others' statements and motives that I was, in large part, talking about and which has upset Russell. Nor do I care for any "he started it" discussion but you've been offered many chances to tone down the rhetoric and so far have refused. 'Bluntness' that involves assertions with little or no explanation is hardly sophisticated.

Russell, in my experience, is anything but a "true believer" and has responded favorably in the past to rational argument. Making assumptions about someone you apparently have little experience with is not sophisticated either.

I obviously have sympathy with the position you've taken and agree that the distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism isn't particularly murky (though, if you are going to rely on authority, it would be helpful to cite some). The issue here, I think, is subtly different, namely: what practical difference is there between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. That is why I am taking the time to try to explain (which you seem to think are "contortions" but I do not) rather than just make assertions.

Steve Zara:

I am not sure that this is a useful question, as it implies that absence is a kind of presence, and needs equal explanation. The point of this is that the universe doesn't act like anything at all. The physical laws we observe (such as conservation of energy) aren't things that need to be established and maintained - they are the laws of nothingness. They are what you see when nothing happens.Ah, philosophers do not consider "usefulness" a criteria for the questions they ask. ;-)

Don't over interpret my use of the word "act" ... I was just talking about the existence of phenomena. But I don't understand how you can say that phenomena are the result of a "law" of nothingness. There is a root of some sort to existence and the conservation of energy implies the existence of energy. These are the brute facts about the world I mentioned before.

What you seem to be saying is that given the universe that exists the phenomena that we observe should exist. Yes, but that hardly qualifies as an explanation of either.

Steve Zara said...

Don't over interpret my use of the word "act" ... I was just talking about the existence of phenomena.Forgive me. I did realise that. But I deliberately over-interpreted to highlight how our language can be misleading here.

But I don't understand how you can say that phenomena are the result of a "law" of nothingness.I found detailed study of Einstein's work was pretty revealing about this. Victor Stenger writes well on this matter, I have found.

There is a root of some sort to existence and the conservation of energy implies the existence of energy. These are the brute facts about the world I mentioned before.I am afraid they aren't. I am not sure how much more effective I can be about explaining this, and I am moving things away from Russell's topic.

As I said, I think this illustrates something significant. It is easy to assume a Newtonian reality, in which things seem to need "maintaining", either by a deity or some universal mechanism. That is a mistake.

Anyway, I had best leave it there.

David B. Ellis said...

Personally, I'm inclined to use the term supernatural as simply a label for claims about the existence of things which seem incompatible with our current knowledge about the way the world works.

In that sense, the supernatural is as much a matter for scientific inquiry as anything else (if it exists and if it has observable effects).

luke said...

Russell,

Take a look at our comments over on Jerry's blog. He has deleted more of mine then rearranged the comments. Also, adding a comment displays not as the last one, the last two stay as Jerry correcting me and my apology. It's a very nice move. I have requested, since I have at least two comment post deleted and other comments rearranged, that Jerry please delete the rest of my comments (that seems extremely reasonable considering). I also thought that, if done right with your post, it could appear like a much stronger statement in agreement with your original thoughts.

luke said...

Well, he's taken down two more post of mine and the post are staying rearanged and it's still set where when a comment is added it appears not as the last one. It's a very nice move, also rather interesting. He found an extraordinary way to make sure, well... it's obvious.

Nothing to fear :)

Russell Blackford said...

Anyway, Luke has actually toned it down now, for which I thank him. I'll say a little bit more in a separate comment.

I'm still not sure what terrible slippery slope I'm on or whatever, but as long as the discussion proceeds on a basis of mutual respect and a degree of politeness, I'm okay to have it continue with all involved.

As a hint about what's acceptable in my mind, I've still only ever banned one person from this blog. His main sin was comparing me to a Young Earth Creationist. Obviously, comparisons like that don't go down well with me.

But if someone thinks I'm wrong about something, put the arguments and I'll reflect on them. I'll also be more impressed if I think you've taken the trouble to try to understand my own arguments.

Some of you - John, I think, but maybe Luke agrees with this, for all I know - want to say that claims about God are implausible, or at least something like "not particularly plausible". I agree with this, of course, but I'm wondering how YOU can say it. What standards of plausibility do you use? How do you make judgments about plausibility at all when it comes to claims about what you regard as the supernatural? Shouldn't you just suspend all judgment?

There's something about your position that I'm not getting, because I'm sure you don't simply suspend all judgment as to the existence of ghosts, goblins, etc. But why don't you? If I understand your answer to that, I'll be much closer to understanding your position.

Russell Blackford said...

Luke, since you have actually toned things down, I won't harp, and I've let all your posts stand. Next time you think bluntness is necessary, though, please ask yourself, "Necessary for what?" It didn't make it more likely that I'd change my mind or that the majority of people who read my blog would tend to think that you were on to something.

But you seem fairly contrite, so stay here and get a feel for the blog.

RichardW said...

John, you're continuing to beg the question and misconstrue the arguments being made against your position. I feel further discussion would be a waste of time.

John Pieret said...

Russell:

Some of you - John, I think, but maybe Luke agrees with this, for all I know - want to say that claims about God are implausible, or at least something like "not particularly plausible". I agree with this, of course, but I'm wondering how YOU can say it. What standards of plausibility do you use? How do you make judgments about plausibility at all when it comes to claims about what you regard as the supernatural? Shouldn't you just suspend all judgment?

"Plausibility" is the kind of judgment we all make in the absence of or relative lack of evidence. It probably involves some subconscious calculation involving multiple factors, including the types of evidence we personally find persuasive -- and is often wrong. I don't think it has any "standards" as such. Two people may hear the same recital of evidence and one will find some explanation of the evidence plausible and the other not. And, of course, it is relative. I think even you, Russell, would find Ken Miller's God more plausible than the young-Earth creationist's God.

The kind of things I would look to, since I judge scientific evidence to be the best type of evidence, would be, for example, is there some sort of critical test that science could make of the claim, has there been scientific investigation of the claim and, if so, what were the results. Ken Miller's God is not, as far as I can see, scientifically testable. It would be more plausible to me if it could be tested and scientific evidence found to support it but despite that lack it is still more plausible than the YEC God that has had its claims disconfirmed. The same sort of factors go into my judgment of the plausibility of ghosties and ghoulies and fairies in the bottom of the garden.

RichardW:

John, you're continuing to beg the question and misconstrue the arguments being made against your position.

Well, I've given a definition of "natural" that is not a tautology and doesn't depend on a catalogue of "natural" forces/entities. By negation, it also serves as a definition of "supernatural." I've explained why it applies to science (because of science's logical structure) and therefore explained why it is "needed" by science (we like science to be logical) and also, therefore, I've explained why I'm not imposing an assumption on science. So I addressed, I think, all your complaints about methodological naturalism. I don't agree with various arguments that have been made against my position, but that doesn't mean I've misconstrued them. If you won't explain where and how I've done so, I can't respond. Similarly, the fact that you don't like my arguments doesn't mean that they have been refuted.

luke said...

Russell Blackford,

Yes, I'm going back on my promise, though I doubt it matters at this point. Even though you take the position it is me who seems inherently unwilling to modify their position, it is in fact the reverse situation. What normally follows from your belief about my position is that you take it to mean I will not understand your argument, unless of course I change my stance.

Russell Wrote:

----"His main sin was comparing me to a Young Earth Creationist.."-----

I am comparing a particular type of argument. You are in essence saying what they have been attempting to get others to believe. The most common argument used for your position is the Young Earth creationist belief.

However, when you say: -"“God created the world 6000 years ago” is, indeed, a claim about a supernatural entity. It is a claim about an action attributed to God (pretty much a paradigm supernatural entity; if God doesn’t count as a supernatural entity then nothing does). The claim has been falsified."-

You are actually arguing that the theory is scientific, the claim that science is concerned with has to do with the age of the earth. Since I have explained this a few times, last time on Jerry's site - http://tinyurl.com/pmqupw - I will proceed to the next step.

The standards I use for the plausibility for the existence of a "supernatural force" (i.e. Gods etc.) is the same as yours - in fact they are the only ones I know of for such a situation - science and reason. My main concern in these debates is about the nature of science. Using scientific understandings, logic and reason, I have further come to the tentative conclusion that a God or "supernatural force" does not exist. I have no way to measure the plausibility that a "supernatural force" does exist, the only thing to go on are the claims, and so far all that leaves me are belief systems (never once a testable scientific theory) - they have in fact only offered a position to which I can not accept (I can say "I don't know" about certain claims, but I actually don't know what I don't know - I have nothing to go on that I can use science to clarify - to make a statement of acceptance or plausibility at some level would take a leap of faith). In many respects worry over plausibility of Gods and "supernatural forces" leads to confusion over how to conduct scientific investigation and further into extended debate on the meanings of "supernatural" and natural. My position then does not hold in any way that beliefs do not have consequences, in fact I argue quite the opposite since science and reason can be viewed as part of a belief or belief in a philosophical sense (science then gives us provisional truths regarding reality that are then confirmed beliefs about reality).

Creationist would like people to believe that their theories are scientific. However, they often get facts about nature wrong - wronger than wrong, let alone offering a "theory" to which they know would take redefining science in order to make scientific. That's part of the problem here, is we do have good definition at many very useful levels, there's no reason to confuse that fact. If Darwin pained himself over how to phrase his theory,Natural Selection, over concern of the definition of natural to the point of hedging it we may find ourselves even more on the defensive (which this is apart from any concern over what to call it - though it does put itself in opposition to a "supernatural" theory - in fact that is a large part of the long argument - though his theory is scientific and we are forced to recognize it - it is for me part of the confirmed belief regarding reality, it is fact and theory, it is scientific truth - I hold this position in full recognition of the provisional nature of science).

I'll have to pick this up later... reality calls :) I don't have time to edit any misspelling right now, so I apologize for any gross errors.

Windy said...

JP:
---Actually, I won't venture a definition of what the supernatural is, since it is simply the negation of "that which is natural." I've offered a provisional definition of "natural" but if you think you can advance a better one, I'm all ears.---

My examples were intended to point out problems with your definition of 'natural'. There are purportedly supernatural entities such as ghosts which also operate with such regularity! If you refuse to address this, I have to agree with Richard.

Since some of us are questioning the utility of the categories natural-supernatural, it's not our responsibility to come up with better definitions.

---In your ghost example, how would science go about testing if some phenomena is "supernatural"?---

You misunderstand, I was not talking about testing anything yet. Just assume that the "ghost hypothesis" is true in the most important respects and it 'really' is a spirit of a woman haunting a house. Let's say that we are agnostic about whether it should be labeled natural or supernatural. I am saying that the phenomenon operates with regularity, philosophically speaking.

---Furthermore, even if we can detect evidence that a human being worked the piece of rock, how can we determine if the motive in the particular case was to make an arrowhead rather than, say, a piece of jewelry or some totally unique motive to that particular person?---

I don't know what your arrowhead example has to do with the need for a category of supernatural things. It's hard to attribute motives to supernatural things, but maybe this is just because the hypotheses about them are so poorly conceived, not because of any inherent difficulty science has? Natural hypotheses of non-human design, such as "Aliens made the Nazca Lines", have similar difficulties.

John Pieret said...

Windy:

My examples were intended to point out problems with your definition of 'natural'. There are purportedly supernatural entities such as ghosts which also operate with such regularity! If you refuse to address this, I have to agree with Richard.

I did address it. I responded to Russell before: "Yes, anything that claims that some force or entity operates consistently across time and space can be examined by science and potentially disconfirmed by science's method." I'm not sure your example qualifies but, if ghosts can be said to operate with, say, the regularity of human actors, then they can be studied in the way human agency is.

Let's say that we are agnostic about whether it should be labeled natural or supernatural. I am saying that the phenomenon operates with regularity, philosophically speaking.

If we take as an example, the regularity enabling us to study human actors, we have objective knowledge of their motives and means of acting. We don't, as far as I know, have that for ghosts. Humans who dwell in a certain area can be expected to inhabit that area consistently, perhaps hiding (even doing it quite well) but being consistently physically present across time and space and leaving behind consistent physical objects, such as artifacts and waste. While ghosts are said to "haunt" certain locals, they have, at most, intermittent and unpredictable "physical" presence, leave behind no consistent waste or artifacts, etc. I don't think ghosts qualify for objectively confirmable regularity but, if they do, then they are as amenable to scientific study as humans are.

Since some of us are questioning the utility of the categories natural-supernatural, it's not our responsibility to come up with better definitions.

Well, it was RichardW's complaint that the definitions used by those supporting methodological naturalism were inadequate. If you don't have as good or better a definition of "natural," then you are simply defining the supernatural out of existence which may be satisfying move but not a very convincing one. Anyway, I haven't seen any real criticism of my definition so far.

I don't know what your arrowhead example has to do with the need for a category of supernatural things. It's hard to attribute motives to supernatural things, but maybe this is just because the hypotheses about them are so poorly conceived, not because of any inherent difficulty science has? Natural hypotheses of non-human design, such as "Aliens made the Nazca Lines", have similar difficulties.

Okay, I could have made that clearer. I pointed out that a "natural" consistency could not be expected from a being of unknown/unknowable motives and unlimited abilities. Literally any phenomena could be the result of the actions of such a being -- a point often made to show that such a being cannot be a scientific hypothesis (when we are addressing IDers' claims). No critical test could be made as to whether such a being was the cause of any phenomena because any and all phenomena could be caused by it. This is the one area where Popper's "falsifiability criterion" reliably works: if, by the very nature of the hypothesis, there is no way to falsify it -- to have a critical test -- it cannot be science. And that's a two-way street; it can't be science for creationists and it can't be science for philosophical naturalists.

You stated that "conscious actors can still have regularity" and I gave the arrowhead example to show that it is not individual motives that have regularity but, instead, the collective motives of a known group of actors with known abilities.

The type of God that is the hard case for science -- the monotheistic infinite God -- is a singleton and has neither known motives nor known abilities.

As an aside, you could try to take all the "revelations" supposedly from such a God and build up a picture of its motives and abilities but, quite apart from the fact that those revelations are wildly inconsistent as to the God's motives and abilities and the revelations are, often, interpreted as metaphors, the proposers always have a way out: "God works in mysterious ways." Even without that, the most that you would be able to test (like young-Earth creationism) is a particular version of God, not all or even most versions.

Now, you can say that the inconsistencies and ad hoc nature of the explanations and the effort to hide their God from empirical testing are all good philosophical reasons to reject that God, but it would be philosophy that is delivering that result, not science. Science will just wait until it gets something to test ... and, if it doesn't, no skin off its nose.

Russell Blackford said...

John Pieret says:

"Now, you can say that the inconsistencies and ad hoc nature of the explanations and the effort to hide their God from empirical testing are all good philosophical reasons to reject that God, but it would be philosophy that is delivering that result, not science. Science will just wait until it gets something to test ... and, if it doesn't, no skin off its nose."I more or less agree with this. Only "more or less" because I don't think that the specific sciences (as opposed to philosophy) are precluded from using that kind of reasoning in rejecting hypotheses. I don't think that the scientific method is anything so constrained. (Nor do I think that the use of hypothetico-deductive reasoning is unique to science; I think that falsification is part of the story about science but by no means the whole story).

Nonetheless, it does make sense to say in the case John gives, of an inconsistently described moving target of a god, that the conclusion is a philosophical inference - if only because its such a big issue that it doesn't seem to belong to any particular science but to some sort of "science as a whole" (which is almost indistinguishable from one kind of philosophy).

Note, though, that the reason why we've resorted to this kind of reasoning isn't because we're dealing with a god. Someone could postulate a god that is described consistently, not modified ad hoc, and so on, and could describe how we could expect it to operate on the world. This is much like Windy's ghost - it we know enough about how this ghost affects things that we can sense (with our naked vision, etc., or using instruments that are known to be reliable) then we can go and look for signs of it, and possibly debunk the stories about it.

So I come back to saying that there's no reason in principle why science can't investigate claims about beings and forces that are commonly considered "supernatural". It can't decisively falsify claims about things that are vague, inconsistent, redescribed ad hoc, but it can sometimes compel a proponent into making such ad hoc redescriptions that it is reasonable for those of us who are not already convinced to draw the inference that these things don't exist.

Again, I realise that the NAS statement can't possibly spell all this out, but nor should it say simplistic things that seem to paint a very different picture in which the supernatural (undefined) is invulnerable to whatever science discovers. Thought-provoking as this discussion has been so far, no nuances or reasonable possibilities that I'm picking up from any of you guys are making me think that the kind of simple reassurance given in the NAS statement is one we should believe. I still think it's, at best, a simplistic statement that ends up being positively misleading about how scientific investigations and findings relate to religion.

Luke says: "Using scientific understandings, logic and reason, I have further come to the tentative conclusion that a God or 'supernatural force' does not exist."In that case, we're now more or less in agreement.

John Pieret said...

Only "more or less" because I don't think that the specific sciences (as opposed to philosophy) are precluded from using that kind of reasoning in rejecting hypothesesBut would the rejection be a scientific result ... i.e. the outcome of a critical empirical test ... or a determination that the hypothesis was not empirically testable and, therefore, not amenable to scientific investigation?

You are calling a species of reasoning divorced from empiric testing "scientific." Quite apart from the problem that, historically, similar claims of "scientific reasoning" have changed over time (and has been identified by philosophers only after the fact), you seem to be converting it into a particular version of some "science as a whole" indistinguishable from philosophy. Personally, I think that is much more constraining for science in the long run than anchoring it only in empiric testing.

luke said...

Russell Blackford,

Well, appears obvious that you're sticking with your original thoughts on this matter, with no discernible modifications.

You are again simply making the mistake of confusing claims with what science actually does. Science is not studying the "supernatural", even if the supposed entity or what have you, is said to be "supernatural". As an apologist would complain of having their God defined out of existence by calling such a God a "supernatural force", you have said we define the God into existence. My point about this is you're actually doing exactly what they have been trying for decades with science.

Take for example the ghost and what are we to label it - what happened to using the logic of suspending judgment on labeling it anything if we are already being told it is "real" for the purpose of the example? (we are told we are agnostic now, but we now decide) We are not told how it is real, and the problem with these examples is they are hopelessly weak, not reliable counter factual's. We are not tied to deciding if the ghost is natural or supernatural just because we are told its real (BTW, that decision is no different in reality than deciding if its really a ghost), the "real" aspect is given to us without any testing, but that it operates with regularity. But, the regularity is assumed by philosophy alone, what the hell does that mean? Doesn't this philosophy sound fishy to you, isn't that where we should start to ask the questions? We can still stay "agnostic" to the question of what to label the ghost, but I'm not sure, what kind of philosophy is this that declares a ghost is acting with regularity without any testing? (it certainly not following the science and could simply be explainable by cognitive or otherwise processes) What is it we know (?) sounds in the night (?) dreams at night (?) are we to suspend our ability to offer other possible explanations for the sake of saying it is real so we can decide what to call it?

Of course what the likely motive is for these types of examples (usually used by psuedoscientist who will claim to be scientifically investigating the supernatural) is we get to a point of labeling it "supernatural" so someone like Windy can say, ah hah, science can test the supernatural. It's absolutely preposterous.

Of course, this leads to why I'm so frustrated by all of this, you are mucking up what we clearly understand today. You are literally dredging up the ghost of debates past to use in an imaginary "war between supernaturalism and naturalism". And I sympathize with the motivation here - to be able to say science is not limited to natural phenomena we can at least by definitional fiat say science is falsifying the supernatural (giving it the scientific supernatural hypothesis stamp of approval), thereby hopefully getting "believers' to abandon the "supernatural" belief by the weight of scientific argument (it is absolutely perverting the authority of the sciences to meet an end - which I find extremely unethical, and to imagine this stuff isn't being recognized you must be living under a rock).

The other move common to this game is to argue anything less is restraining science, usually by definition. However, we are not getting anywhere doing that. Science makes NO use for the God or "supernatural" hypothesis - to be generous we can use the title of Stenger's book, it is a failed hypothesis. It offers NO useful information for science, what is said to be supernatural is unfalsifiable, it is not amendable to science, the arguments used are impregnable by scientific investigation. We are left with beliefs and belief systems and we would be wiser to defend science as understood today, which includes communicating how to use reason and what we consider reality and natural.

To add, we make a mistake to want it both ways in these debates. We'd like to say Gods are no more likely than the tooth fairy and Russell's teapot, then on the other hand say they do possibly exist and are amendable to scientific discovery (which is nearly impossible to fully reject - we can at one time presuppose non existence and yet still say it's possible - thus back to Russell's defining it out of existence does not tell us if it actually exist or not). Of course this doesn't tell us much about science, it also doesn't change the fact the science is concerned with natural phenomena (and the examples don't matter, if discovered by science they are then within nature - we haven't changed or massaged definition). However, we actually don't know what we are talking about with regards to reality and these "supernatural entities or forces" (and yes, reality matters here and using philosophy is helpful - catch up on some current philosophy), when faced with argument we can expect the "supernatural" to continue going beyond scientific rationality, in fact as I have pointed out, this is historically true with descriptions of Gods etc. We then go chasing the arguments and taking science with us even though we have no way to actually use the science directly on the supernatural claim beyond testing what is already within the natural environment. It is also historically correct that the more science tells us about reality in ways that are scientific truths, "believers" have continued to refine their impregnable arguments. However, that has been sciences doing on its own primarily, it is presenting scientific facts and theories, much more so than giving probability to Gods and tooth fairies.

In the 15 years I've been involved in the skeptical/humanist/atheist movements, I am constantly impressed by the natural explanations for supposed "supernatural" occurrences. In fact, I have learned quite a bit about belief systems and science through these exercises. I don't understand why now, in the past few years, we have found ourselves back about making claims about science which are false. It is a distinct philosophical mistake to say that science can refute the supernatural (which you also imply by saying science can study the supernatural or supernatural phenomena are not beyond the realm of science).

I'd actually like to take a crack at the NAS statement, but for what purpose, I can't even get across a simple understanding about what is understood about the nature of science today. But, the problem of course is that Russeell continues to want to define the "supernatural" into existence, without a single shred of evidence to why this is philosophically justifiable (again, this is exactly what the creationist - when I say creationist by the way, I am automatically including ID in every instance - are trying to do) and it certainly isn't scientifically possible.

There are limits to science and accepting that the human imagination and brain processes have created incredible belief systems that gives us things not amendable to direct scientific investigation would be wise. What we have to use then is scientific rationality as we do to counter the arguments. In doing so and taking in what the sciences (this includes the social sciences and of course I include philosophy) are telling us about belief systems, we will be better able to move forward. The only thing these types of debates serve as are good ways to mix it up in "culture war" mud fights. "Believers" will most likely continue reaching for the "god of gaps" in our understandings offered by scientific discovery. However, the real "war" is often fought in where we encounter moral debate and we can recognize that religious morality is not only lacking textual justification but also logical adherence. The beliefs have consequences and we are better served to understand them as natural phenomena. All of the sciences, including historical, archeological etc. need to stop assuming for investigative sake that the "supernatural" is real in any way, to view it as a natural phenomena and look for explanation in real world examples.

Outside of defining something into existence to be possibly refuted by science, Russell has yet to offer one single example of why this is a rational, scientific approach.

luke said...

I should fix this a bit - my last sentence.

Outside of defining something into existence to be possibly refuted by science, Russell has yet to offer one single example of why his is a rational, scientific approach.

luke said...

It was bound to happen. There I was, making a list of all those things that are supernatural and therefore don't exist (or do I mean "can't" exist - well anyway); god, ghost, ooobeedoobees, and I was just about to type spaghetti monster - when god appeared. Well not all at once. I got a tingle, then another one exactly two minutes later, then yes, you guessed, two minutes later. Well, there he was, yes a male, standing in front me, I could tell instantly he was the creator, infinitely perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good and a one-of-kind type of guy. Of course, being that I defined him out of existence, I told him to go away. He said, just because you won't be able to see me doesn't mean I won't be here with you, so I am going to stay whether you like it or not, oh and by-the-way I am in all places at all times, so even though I don't actually pay attention while you pick your nose, I'm here. How could you be supernatural and exist at the same time I asked. Well, I'm neither supernatural or natural, he said. I exist and don't exist all at once, I am in your mind and I am your mind, I am existence and non-existence, I am the finger that picks your nose. Well, you are simply natural because according to my ruler I'd say you're two inches tall. Yes, I am natural, all natural, made of all natural ingredients. I am also nothing and something to see. God, but, seriously, I can scientifically validate you are here and you're a natural phenomena, period.

Holy molly, it's true I said. I'm so sorry God, I defined you out of existence and here you are. Well, it doesn't matter because I'm all-knowing, so I knew you'd do it, but I gave you free will to decide to it. But doesn't.... Yes, I know, is that the only paradox you noticed? But, what about Ghost, do they exist? Yes, Ghost exist. The tooth fairy? Yes, her too. I made a terrible mistake in defining you all out of existence and saying that all that exist is natural. But, we are natural remember. But........

Windy said...

Okay, I could have made that clearer. I pointed out that a "natural" consistency could not be expected from a being of unknown/unknowable motives and unlimited abilities. Literally any phenomena could be the result of the actions of such a being -- a point often made to show that such a being cannot be a scientific hypothesis (when we are addressing IDers' claims).---

Ironically, I think you have managed to put in words the kind of test you are arguing against! (even if a very rudimentary one)
"a "natural" consistency could not be expected from a being of unknown/unknowable motives and unlimited abilities."---
Since we do in fact observe a natural consistency, isn't that evidence against such a being? :)

To rescue this hypothesis, we are back to what Russell discussed above with the 6000 year old Earth. Science can't deal with an omnipotent being who deceives us, wants to stay hidden, or is absent - but such a hypothesis already implicitly assumes something about this being's motives!

As you point out, there is still a legitimate worry about the non-falsifiability of such beings- but how much of this is due to their 'supernatural' character, and how much is due to the possibility of systematic deception? Sufficiently advanced naturalistic hypotheses of deception and self-deception, like the Matrix and Boltzmann brain hypotheses, would have the same problems.

John Pieret said...

Since we do in fact observe a natural consistency, isn't that evidence against such a being? :)

Only when everyone can walk on water all the time. ;-)

To rescue this hypothesis, we are back to what Russell discussed above with the 6000 year old Earth. Science can't deal with an omnipotent being who deceives us, wants to stay hidden, or is absent - but such a hypothesis already implicitly assumes something about this being's motives!

And since science demands evidence of motives such a "hypothesis" cannot be science. We can logically examine the hypothesis to see if it fits the method of science and, as noted, any hypothesis that cannot be subjected to a critical empirical test can't be science.

The point here has always been whether there are claims or classes of claims that we can a priori identify as not testable by science and, if so, whether they can be said to be disconfirmed by science or whether they are orthogonal to science. I think there is a class of claims about an omnipotent God with unknown/untestable motives that are a priori beyond scientific examination. I do not think there exists "scientific reasoning" apart from empiric testing that can be said to disconfirm claims that can't be tested. Such reasoning is, in fact, just philosophy that some people want to label as "scientific." Therefore, claims about the existence of an omnipotent God that do not entail denying either the method or results of science are orthogonal to it and, in that sense, "compatible" with it.

Sufficiently advanced naturalistic hypotheses of deception and self-deception, like the Matrix and Boltzmann brain hypotheses, would have the same problems.

I don't know enough about the latter to judge but, logically, the Matrix "hypothesis" cannot be examined by science (by anyone still in it), anymore than Omphalos can.

luke said...

---"Sufficiently advanced naturalistic hypotheses of deception and self-deception."----

How do you create naturalistic creationism? Easy, you postulate an Alien race living in a galaxy far far away that is using earth as its petri dish. But, we have no way to show that, there is no evidence that Aliens created the earth 4.5 billions years ago and have tweaked evolution so humans were inevitable. The creator Aliens are purely natural, though significantly more advance than earthly humans. If someone says my hypothesis of an Alien creator race is "supernatural", well they're wrong, right? Then I postulate Shermer's last law: "Any sufficiently advanced ETI is indistinguishable from God." Well, not my Aliens, they have proven Gods don't exist and they show us how, when they come to dinner next week.

--"As you point out, there is still a legitimate worry about the non-falsifiability of such beings- but how much of this is due to their 'supernatural' character,..---

Haha...oh...dear....me...

luke said...

Russell

Not sure if you're still checking these comments, but perhaps someone may enjoy this. I was researching a little on the Rev. Cyril Barrett and ran across this. Since you emphasized the slipperiness of language in the blog post, and brought out Wittgenstein to get the ball rolling. Its a dissection of Wittgenstein's lectures on religion by Michael Martin (oh, maybe you've seen it, he does start off with "games").

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/wittgenstein.html

For some reason I started humming Helter Skelter reading it and thinking, oh wouldn't they enjoy this...

windy said...

Only when everyone can walk on water all the time. ;-) ---

Er, I know you are joking, but that's your example of something a being with unlimited powers and unfathomable motives would do? Walk on water? Sorry, but that's incredibly lame...

--
luke:
Haha...oh...dear....me...--

And? Did you have an answer?

I'm not sure you have understood what Russell, I and others have been getting at with our thought experiments. Nobody's trying to 'define the supernatural into existence'.

luke said...

Windy,

-"I'm not sure you have understood what Russell, I and others have been getting at with our thought experiments. Nobody's trying to 'define the supernatural into existence'.."

Yes, I know, it's so complicated. I've only recited back a couple times what Russell is saying.

Geee Wizzz....

Let's see if we can apply all our brain power to this:

-"In short, you can't determine what sorts of things do or do not exist, or what sorts of things can or cannot be studied by science, simply by definitional fiat. The definitions of words don't control what exists in reality.

Again, say you define "supernatural" as meaning "can't be studied by science". Using that definition, you can then demonstrate (a simple semantic entailment) that "the supernatural cannot be studied by science."

What you can't do is then pretend that you defined "the supernatural" to mean (for example) "ghosts and gods" and conclude "ghosts and gods cannot be studied by science". That's equivocation on the word "supernatural"If we define the "natural" so that it means "everything" then it will turn out to be the case that science can deal with whatever turns out to exist, but that tells us nothing about what sorts of things actually do exist. It leaves open the question of whether gods and ghosts exist, for example. If they do, then it suggests that science can deal with them.
."

So, is Russell saying, that if the "supernatural" is to mean "can't be studied by science" (or that it doesn't exist, or science does not deal in the "supernatural") then define something as "supernatural" only to find out it actually exist, then of course the proposition is false, because if it exist then science can "deal" with it. In other words it doesn't follow to define something out of existence because that does not tell us if it actually exist or not... How about saying "natural" means "everything" (which also doesn't tell us if Gods exist) and it turns out that Gods and Ghost exist (found in nature) it means science can deal with them, they can be studied scientifically.


So, is that right, Windy?

You have to be kidding - I keep looking back here to see what's going to happen next, and you haven't failed me, Windy.

Windy Wrote:

---"And? Did you have an answer?."---

Here's your full quote:

---"but how much of this is due to their 'supernatural' character, and how much is due to the possibility of systematic deception?"---

Tell me about this "supernatural character" which you speak of so knowingly?

Tell me God's character, and I'll see if you are defining God into existence and amendable to scientific investigation. Oh, right, "supernatural" could mean non-existent, but how do we know what doesn't exist, but you're the ones saying what happens if God exist - so describe this God. Well, we don't know this God, its said to be "unknowable" and stuff... but wait, didn't you tell me that my classifying science as concerned with natural phenomena only and doesn't concern itself with the supernatural is to narrow because we define something out of existence, and hey, that's to restrictive because what happens if God is real... So, describe God.

Let me make a note at the end here, that if you describe this God as how it is commonly understood, then what we know of reality changes, science will not matter if that God is discovered by any means, in fact we may not know the means to which that God could be discovered, it could be means that only that God knows. Of course, you could say, how do you know that... well, describe this God Russell mentions...

luke said...

Just to be clear, the formatting had messed up a bit when I published the comment. Russell's quote that ends;

---"That's equivocation on the word "supernatural""---

Is separated from what follows in my comment. It does not directly follow, I had them clearly separated, this was not something I meant to do, it is a formatting thang.

luke said...

I want to add to my comment - my add is the second paragraph.

Let me make a note at the end here, that if you describe this God as how it is commonly understood, then what we know of reality changes, science will not matter if that God is discovered by any means, in fact we may not know the means to which that God could be discovered, it could be means that only that God knows. Of course, you could say, how do you know that... well, describe this God Russell mentions...

BTW, even if the God exist, how do you know science can deal with it? How do you know reality is what it is and science is a true reflection of that reality if that God exist? Describe the God and we'll think about that...

luke said...

You know, I'm not sure if this is worth it, so I'll play your part.

You say: "I don't know", "I don't have to say I know the character of a God, only that you can't say it doesn't exist simply by defining supernatural and supernatural to mean nonexistent."

Ok, is that what you want to say?

We can keep it movin....

Oh yea, well you're the ones who keep bringing up Gods and Ghost, you must have some idea if you give them possibility and say science is to restricted by saying it concerns itself to natural phenomena only, and has nothing to do with "supernatural" and then label Gods or other beliefs "supernatural" and come to find they're real. Then of course we can scratch our heads in defining natural, or just give up on the words natural or naturalism. Of course, we can't define out of existence what we don't know exist or not, well, I'm not the one bringing up God. All I'm saying is the God question is not amendable to science, science has NO use for the God hypothesis (what we do is refute the claims to nature and also supply naturalistic explanations for supposed "supernatural" claims"). Describe a God where I'm wrong, then we'll see what God it is you keep referring too, there must be something rattling around yer heads about this God you keep bringing up. What is it that you seem to think is likely to exist at least to some level, though you really don't think it exist, but you say to yourselves that the scientific way is to say, sure it's possible, can't rule it out, God could exist, sure, like the flying spaghetti monster (heeehoohoo), but you still don't recognize that it's a philosophical error to claim that science can refute the supernatural. We must be persuasive but not goofballs, any kid could keep coming up with ways to make the claims untestable.

luke said...

I want to point a few things. I do this because I can't believe how hard it is to get this across.

Russell is only stating the problem of vagueness in the word "supernatural" depending on how one defines it (though, I'd like anyone to show me where I fell into that trap - in fact I've been "dogmatic"). Second, he does define "supernatural" into existence with his mind that lacks both physicality and embodiment. He's saying if this "mind" interacts in ways we can verify, then this "supernatural" thing is scientifically testable. He brought the "supernatural" into existence by definition and made it amendable to science (he's using an example - based on? anything in reality?).

It's this simple Windy...

A Russell breakdown:

1.Supernatural - immaterial mind.
2.Supernatural - whatever is not natural
3.Supernatural - can't be studied by science
4.Supernatural - god and ghost

1. may be amendable to science if its testable and verifiable.

2. gods and ghost can be natural (defining natural - whatever exist) - we are told this can't prove gods don't exist.

3. the supernatural cannot be studied by science.

4. ghosts and gods cannot be studied by science

Defining as 3, then saying 4 is "equivocation on the word "supernatural"(could be same in reverse).

Of Gods and Ghost:

"That, however, does not prove that gods, ghosts, demons, astrological influences, etc., don't exist."

"It only shows us that if ghosts (for example) do turn out to exist,"

"If they do, then it suggests that science can deal with them."

"It leaves open the question of whether gods and ghosts exist, for example."

"on one definition of "the supernatural", it is not beyond science to examine any claims at all about the supernatural."("If a "supernatural" mind has the power to interact with the physical world")"

luke said...

Ready? From the top of the slide...

(I'm skipping the thin stuff of ghost, but anyone who wants to bring it up, feel free and we'll whack it around)

1. Supernatural - immaterial mind

"We can't study its physical substance, of course, if it has no physical substance, but we can study its powers, its behaviour, perhaps its motivations. Its non-physicality may limit the conclusions we can draw about it, but as long as enough is asserted about what it does we can certainly study whether there is evidence for or against the claim that it exists.."

Is what is asserted verified, or are they just claims about a "immaterial mind" (i.e.- are we testing natural phenomena to verify the claims - the "mind" itself is already said to beyond studying the "physical substance", makes sense since it's "immaterial", no?)? But, we are told we can possibly study this "mind" and perhaps its motivations (or the potential to verify the existence of an "immaterial mind"). Then we are told we can test the "supernatural", since the "mind" is defined as "supernatural", but what are we testing (we are testing natural phenomena claimed to have been the result of an "immaterial mind")? And here is the leap of faith, why if we test and discovered this strange phenomena do we assume it is an "immaterial mind" - the claims? What do we have to make that conclusion, of course Russell added that we are "limited" to what conclusions we can draw. Well, isn't one of those an idea that we may be dealing with a natural phenomena and have absolutely no idea about an "immaterial mind" (outside of claims that there is such a thing)?

The "theory" then is that an "immaterial mind" is behaving in ways that are testable, but we are not testing the "immaterial mind", we are testing the claims to nature that are said to be attributable to the "mind". However, we have nothing in the hypothesis to tell us its correct, we are simply going on the claims without offering other possible hypothesis. In this way how do we develop a theory, in the scientific sense how do we propose to test the theory of an "immaterial mind"? How can we falsify the existence of an "immaterial mind" which we are limited to draw conclusions on.

Russell gets one thing right in part 1: "it is not beyond science to examine any claims at all about the supernatural." - as long as he makes clear not to confuse the claims with what science does. Science does not concern itself with the "supernatural", it makes NO use for the "supernatural" or Gods hypothesis.

There have been no claims regarding the "supernatural" of the "immaterial mind" behaving in ways that are scientifically testable that have been verified, the claims to nature are what have been falsified or verified, the "immaterial mind" that can do stuff and which we can't draw conclusions on, is still not testable or falsifiable (at least at this point). The behaving "immaterial mind" as an entity on its own is not something science would propose, but people may claim it, it is meaningless in the scientific sense to propose a theory of a an "immaterial mind" without thinking ahead of how would one test, verify and falsify the "immaterial mind". (hey look, flowers bloom in the spring - well of course, that's the act of the "immaterial mind")

Of course, what we could do is say, well, we don't need to falsify the "immaterial mind" based on these strict parameters, because we have subatomic particles randomly coming into existence (i.e. they are called “uncaused” because they are random - but QM makes empirically testable predictions that have a materialistic basis). Well, guess who else plays that game...

So, how do you test, falsify a completely "immaterial mind" (has no physical substance), that has "powers" and motivations? Is it a scientifically reasonable hypothesis? Isn't there always a way to distance the purely "immaterial mind" with powers from science?

See, we can test the claims of supposed "supernaturalism", but what science is doing is testing the natural phenomena that is purported to have "supernatural causation". We are then offering other explanations, always naturalistic, of the purported claims regarding what is actually beyond nature as currently understood. We can say, sure it's possible, it's possible we survive after death, it's possible that Gods, Ghost, Demons, Gremlins, Tooth Fairies, Russell's Teapot, The countless Gods of our ancestry, and what ever else is proposed is possible.

In the end, the hypothesis; An 'immaterial mind' without any physicality or embodiment, has no physical substance and has power to interact with the physical world and possible motivations is NOT a testable, falsifiable scientific theory. It's not what would be considered scientific. Of course the rebuttal may be, well I'm not proposing a scientific theory... (hopefully you see the problem there) A thought experiment run amok perhaps, bad philosophy or a religion perhaps.

Under that guideline of supernatural, science is not studying the supernatural. Only the claims said to be attributable to that supernatural "mind".

"Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.""Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."Next, 2

John Pieret said...

Windy:

Er, I know you are joking, but that's your example of something a being with unlimited powers and unfathomable motives would do? Walk on water? Sorry, but that's incredibly lame...

Yes, it would be ... if I wasn't joking. The obvious thing that a being with unlimited powers and unfathomable motives might do is create a world exactly like this one but that operates with only apparent consistency. Its motives, being unfathomable, might lead it to make the universe mostly consistent but with exceptions that we also could not determine the reasons for.

In short, the consistency we cannot expect from such a being is the consistency of its motives (that we can anticipate from, say, human beings as a group) but which can be expressed in any and all results, given its unlimited abilities.

The level of consistency with which the world, from our perspective, appears to exhibit, is not evidence that it is always consistent (Hume's Problem of Induction again). Therefore, some level of consistency in the world is not, logically, a critical test of the existence of a being with unlimited powers and unfathomable motives.

Windy said...

Wow, luke seems really bothered about something, but I don't know what, so I'll just respond to John...

"The obvious thing that a being with unlimited powers and unfathomable motives might do is create a world exactly like this one but that operates with only apparent consistency."

And what would "apparent consistency" be, exactly? I don't believe you have thought through all the implications of this. If "apparent consistency" means that there is no regularity apart from the sheer force of will of some superbeing holding everything together, then that will is the consistency. Since an omnipotent being doesn't need to do anything it doesn't want to do, we can infer that it has a motive to impose consistency. Furthermore, this motive would be mostly consistent in time. (unless the superbeing is faking our memories about a consistent past, but then it would have to do so consistently...)

In this scenario, we would be mistaken about why there is consistency, but we would not be mistaken to infer that consistency exists.

luke said...

---"luke seems really bothered about something, but I don't know what, so I'll just respond to John...."---

That seems extremely appropriate, since you're operating completely outside of science and have instead enter head first into fantasy land.

I'm sure you find such "thought experiments" to be very useful.

NickM said...

"But of course some claims about supernatural events (in a perfectly familiar sense of the word "supernatural"), e.g. the claim that the world was created by God 6000 years ago, are not only falsifiable but actually falsified. This claim only becomes unfalsifiable if you add the additional claim that God created the world in a pre-aged state so that it looks billions of years old, but not all religionists do that. Even if some do, there are obvious reasons not to take such a claim seriously."

All the reasons boil down to methodological naturalism. The only way you can conclude young-earthism is against the evidence is by assuming, consciously or not, that some unfathomed power beyond the natural stuff you know about hasn't monkeyed with things.

Basically, without such assumptions, nothing is testable against data. So the justification for methodological naturalism is that it is necessary for testability. All of the imaginary counterexamples people spin up basically work by taking something that is culturally "supernatural" and naturalizing it such that it follows all sorts of physical & psychological rules. But actual proponents of e.g. creationism/ID typically specifically refuse to provide any such details about their proposed creator/designer. Therefore their proposals are untestable. Methodological naturalism keeps that sort of pointless angels-on-the-head-of-pin theologizing out of science, and I think that is a good thing.

John Pieret said...

(Sorry, I've been too busy of late to attend to this thread, so if Windy doesn't respond it can't be assumed he couldn't, just that he though the long lay-off meant I had quit.)

If "apparent consistency" means that there is no regularity apart from the sheer force of will of some superbeing holding everything together, then that will is the consistency. Since an omnipotent being doesn't need to do anything it doesn't want to do, we can infer that it has a motive to impose consistency. Furthermore, this motive would be mostly consistent in time. (unless the superbeing is faking our memories about a consistent past, but then it would have to do so consistently...)

No, what I meant by apparent consistency in this context is the possibility of "miracles" that could not be examined because a) they occur within the vast majority of events within the world that we do not/cannot observe and that 2) we could not distinguish after the fact from statistical noise. I seem to remember an article on Panda's Thumb a while back that pointed out that the total number of mutations that had to occur since the last common ancestor of humans and chimps that would be sufficient to account for their present differences was under 1,000, and that would be within the combined populations over the 8,000,000 years since they diverged. Given that my question of how we could distinguish a random point mution from a miraculous one remains unananswered, and given the (I suggest) impossibility to detecting such interference statistically, even if we could get over the problem of determining what the "natural" course of evolution would have been without such interference, the apparent "consistency" of the universe might just be that ... apparent.

If you accept the "butterfly effect" view of the complexity of cause and effect in this world, a being with infinite computational ability could be determing outcomes in our world by interfering constantly in the world in ways we could not detect.

luke said...

I have changed my mind, in a big way.

Russell Blackford Wrote:

---"That, however, does not prove that gods, ghosts, demons, astrological influences, etc., don't exist. Nor does it show that they can't be studied by science."---

---"It leaves open the question of whether gods and ghosts exist, for example. If they do, then it suggests that science can deal with them."---

The bottom line really:

---"In short, you can't determine what sorts of things do or do not exist, or what sorts of things can or cannot be studied by science, simply by definitional fiat."---

I also agree with Steve Zara, I'm no longer going to use the word "naturalism" or "supernaturalism".

"Supernaturalism" can be amendable to science, I get it now. The God question is open to science. We can determine if a God exist with science.

I have come to believe in a God now.

I see by saying that science concerns itself with natural phenomena only was a mistake, I didn't get the parts about definition. Science can verify a God, which means God could be shown through science to be part of reality. This even goes for what happens here on earth, if a "supernatural phenomena" is confirmed, then we have evidence of God!

Also, if we can accept "naturalistic" cosmological hypothesis' about eternal space, infinite regress of finite events, infinity etc., then question about who created God seem moot. Eternal space is thought of as possible energy etc, but no idea how things got started. So, we are possibly left with "I don't know", but don't know about what (?), possibly existence of an eternal feature of reality, infinity?

I don't think we can know the mind of an Immortal, Omnipotent etc. God (we may have better knowledge when we die). We have claims made by imperfect humans, but here again, there's no reason to assume God would create perfection, that would be trying with a human brain to know the motives of an Immortal, Omnipotent God. I don't actually know the exact characteristics of God (how could I) however, being Immortal and Omnipotent seems highly reasonable.

The God Question is A Scientific Question, too!

"Supernatural phenomena" are within the realm of science!

Science CAN study the "supernatural"!

The "supernatural" is falsifiable!

Peter Ozzie Jones said...

Hello Russell, I found many useful points to plagiarise!

In your comment
. . . it may (or may not) be possible to define the natural as "that which acts regularly"

I'd suggest that what we now know from Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science (eg Quantum Mechanics, Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, Zero-Point Fluctuations, nuclear decay, Turing and Church on non-computability, Chaos and Complexity Theory) that there would be a limit on "acts regularly" to perhaps only a Newtonian-mechanical subset of nature? To paraphrase "nature is weirder than you can imagine!"