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

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Science and the supernatural

Here are few more posts, including a sort of round-up by George Dvorsky, and a new post by Jerry Coyne, who comments on words of wisdom from Sean Carroll. I really like Sean's take on this.

29 comments:

Brian said...

Have you read Chris Schoen's take on this?

http://underverse.blogspot.com/2010/10/is-dark-matter-supernatural.html

I'd ignore the comments.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, but I have absolutely no idea why he says this, for example: "Shouldn't we be able to study the portions that impinge upon our realm -- all the plagues and miracles and destroying of cities and cures of diseases -- and draw conclusions about their causation? Russell says we can -- and I agree -- but this is metaphysics, not science."

If we're engaged in the sort of rational inquiry he agrees we can engage in ("I agree," he says), then refusing to call it "science" seems like a semantic exercise to me, or a political choice. He's conceded the substantive point in issue, so why is he motivated to go on making a fuss? If we're actually studying events such as plagues and so on ... well, you get the picture ...

Brian said...

Yeah, it might just be political. I'm pretty sure that the USian's are motivated more about keeping science in school - a worthy aim - than other concerns.

Chris Schoen said...

I likewise am confused that you would not want to keep science and ontology semantically separate, whatever the blurry grey areas that yoke them together. I should probably stress, so that you know what I am agreeing to, that by "rational inquiry" I mean the set of inquiries that includes theology, for example, not merely the set of inquiries engaged in by rationalists. Theology may be wrong, but at its best it is rarely irrational.

Perhaps in the final analysis my point is oblique, in that I am arguing for science's inability to verify an entity I don't believe in. Perhaps it is indeed "political," in that I do oppose a conflation of science and philosophy (not out of animus for science, as it's sometimes assumed, but for scientism). But I don't think it's trivial to argue that reason is a broader endeavor than science alone (and I don't think you would take issue with this larger point. So maybe we're both being political?)

Russell Blackford said...

I don't actually think it is political in my case - not unless you are going to stretch "political" so far as to cover just about everything. I simply think it's worthwhile examining whether this being exists or not, and I see no reason to claim that the methods we use to examine that question are discontinuous with the methods we use to examine other questions about the existence of various phenomena that act or leave traces on the world of our senses. I'm yet to see an argument from you or anyone else that sounds plausible, once my concessions are taken into account (e.g. my concession that a sufficiently capricious being, or one that is motivated and able to leave no traces, might not be detectable).

I think this whole "scientism" business is jumping at shadows. I don't know anyone who thinks that the best way to interpret a poem is to conduct controlled experiments, engage in mathematical modelling, and do whatever else is distinctive of science. There may be some people out there who don't "get" the methods of the humanities and really do imagine that all inquiry is best conducted through the methods distinctive of science - which is what is conveyed to me by the word "scientism". Occasionally I see anonymous commenter on the internet somewhere who seems to think like that, but I don't know any such people.

However, even the study of poetry can sometimes be illuminated by distinctively scientific methods.

I think we can think about how all this works without being frightened by the spectre of "scientism". Bringing up scientism as if it's a real threat is - well, as I said, jumping at shadows. But more importantly I think it distorts with the debate with unwarranted fears about where certain approaches might lead.

Chris Schoen said...

Russell,

I do think that scientism is more real than chimerical, and I say that as someone well aware of the human propensity to jump at shadows. (Someone like Peter Atkins is an exemplar of the view I'm talking about--and he actually does say that poetry has nothing to offer us). Obviously, a lot hinges on our differing definitions of tricky-to-pin-down words like science, reason, and rationality. Getting to brass tacks on these terms would take a more robust and thorough dialogue than we're likely to have here and now, so I'll just say that I find your two statements here hard to reconcile:

"I simply think it's worthwhile examining whether this being exists or not," and

"...once my concessions are taken into account (e.g. my concession that a sufficiently capricious being, or one that is motivated and able to leave no traces, might not be detectable)."

My argument is that since you can't know whether or not "this being" is "sufficiently capricious," there is an instant epistemic obstacle to this examination. In the case of black swans, which are presumed to be entirely naturalistic, the absence of evidence may be sufficient evidence of absence. But induction falls apart when the laws that govern our data can't be taken for granted.

We only seem to disagree on whether or not a supernatural being can be subject to natural laws. If it turned out Thor really existed, and his behavior was completely predictable, would we still want to call him a "supernatural" entity?

Russell Blackford said...

Atkins isn't even on my radar, so you may or may not be right about him. But the usual targets who are accused of "scientism" - notably Dawkins - are accused of it unjustly. It's obvious to anyone who's fair that Dawkins is deeply cultured and loves, among other things, poetry. The same goes for Jerry Coyne and many others in that camp. I think that throwing around the word "scientism" is dangerous and unnecessarily destructive to good people who are often saying nuanced things. It's a gun that I ask you to reach for more reluctantly than you tend to do at the moment - and this applies to everyone who throws the word around willy-nilly.

That's not to deny that there really are some people who don't "get" the humanities and think that, for example, poetry is valueless. I can't comment on Atkins, but I know such people exist. But tarring Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, or me, or Ophelia, or most of the other people involved in these discussions with that particular brush is very unfair. As we say in the law faculty, it is the sort of argument that is more prejudicial than probative, and therefore should not be resorted to.

As to the capriousness thing ... well, no. My position has always been consistent on this. If there are claims we can't investigate using the methods of rational inquiry, informed by scientific knowledge, the reason we can't investigate them is not that they involve entities (ghosts, gods, vampires, etc.) that are, pre-theoretically regarded as "supernatural". If the claims turn out to be too vague, or if they are framed in such a way as to be insulated from investigation (e.g. by saying that the entities concerned are capricious or deliberately elusive, or whatever), then, yes, we may not be able to investigate them with such things as controlled experiments, though we can still ask whether the claims sound suspicious in certain ways that are well known to scientists as well as philosophers, e.g. by being ad hoc.

So it has never been my position that distinctively scientific methods can investigate every possible claim. My position has always been that the mere fact that something is "supernatural" by pre-theoretical standards does not rule out its investigation by (among other things) science. If the something is said to leave traces or to act in a reasonably orderly way on the world of the senses, then science can go and look for the alleged traces, etc.

It's not up to me to know in advance whether a claim is too vague or well insulated to investigate. My point is that people who claim that there is a supernatural realm - which is left undefined so that a pre-theoretical concept of "supernatural" is being relied upon - which science cannot investigate are barking up the wrong tree. There is no reason to believe that such a realm exists. If the claim is that it leaves traces on the world of the senses, and this provides evidence, then science can investigate the "evidence". If the claim is that it doesn't leave such evidence or acts in ways that are too capricious, and so on, to leave evidence, then fine - which is just a reason to doubt that it even exists.

What I find exasperating is that I'm trying to convey something fairly careful and subtle in response to very crude claims about the existence of a "supernatural" realm that lies beyond scientific investigation, but then I am the one who gets characterised as saying something crude.

Russell Blackford said...

The question about Thor is a good one. Pre-theoretically, Thor is a supernatural entity. But what if he presented himself in such a way as to leave no doubt of his existence, acted no more capriciously than human beings do (which is quite capriciously, of course), and demonstrated powers to affect the world that could be described consistently, even though they violated the laws of physics applying to other beings (perhaps, for example, Thor can breach the fundamental laws of thermodynamics or can travel at relativistic velocities with no increase in his mass)? Would we still regard Thor as "supernatural"?

My guess is that we would. Although he would be part of existence and could therefore be considered part of "nature", if that is defined widely enough to be synonymous with all existence, there would still be something spooky about him and his power set. The word "supernatural" could convey this.

But if you want to say that those things which are pre-theoretically regarded as supernatural will actually be natural if they turn out to exist, then you're welcome to put it that way. The issue I'm interested in is not so much the question of the best semantics for the words "natural" and "supernatural". It's whether we can rule out in advance the scientific investigation of claims about gods, ghosts, vampires, and other things that are pre-theoretically regarded as "supernatural". My position is that we can't rule it out in advance - not on that basis, though a particular claim may turn out to be vague, insulated by ad hoc qualifying claims, etc.

It seems to me that you actually agree with me on all this, which makes me wonder why I cop so much flak from you. Perhaps you simply misunderstand my position, but I think it's worth saying that from here a lot of the flak that I get seems to be politically motivated, i.e. motivated by the social and political consequences of accepting my analysis rather than by a fair attempt to understand it and consider its strengths.

Chris Schoen said...

I think that throwing around the word "scientism" is dangerous and unnecessarily destructive to good people who are often saying nuanced things.

Lots of fairly eminent writers and thinkers have used the word 'scientism' to indicate something a lot less crude than the mere failure to value literature. Whether any particular atheists are "scientistic" or not is something we can debate without having to defend anyone from the charge of being a philistine.

To GW Shaw (who seems to have originated the term) "scientism" was the belief that through science "all the secrets of the universe would be discovered and all the problems of human life solved." To Berdayev it was the (false) belief that science could replace philosophy altogether. To Hayek it was the the attribution to all enquiry "slavish imitation of the method and language of science." (This is the defintion endorsed by Popper.) To E.H. Hutton it was the belief in the "omnicomptenence" of science. The definition I prefer is the belif that all facts are scientific facts.

Perhaps none of the people who come in for criticism under the word "scientism" embrace it in its strongest meaning, but we can certainly see a belief in omnicomptetance in E.O. Wilson's "consilience," and something of the Shaw/Berdayev defintion in Sam Harris' science-derived ethics. I think Coyne has made enough statements on the unreality of non-scientific facts on his blog to deserve the term, and Dawkins has made more than one remark about science being the only way we know of to understand the world. Right or wrong, this is a stance that deserves a name. If you want to propose an alternate, I'm happy to consider it.

I'm not crazy about the distance the overton window has been moved on this subject such that all we need to do is show that a certain person likes great literature to refute the charge of scientism, which really has nothing to do with how "cultured" someone is.

Chris Schoen said...

So it has never been my position that distinctively scientific methods can investigate every possible claim. My position has always been that the mere fact that something is "supernatural" by pre-theoretical standards does not rule out its investigation by (among other things) science. If the something is said to leave traces or to act in a reasonably orderly way on the world of the senses, then science can go and look for the alleged traces, etc.

I agree with this, though I think it is a different position than the one Boudry et al take. You seem to argue here that something seemingly supernatural may turn out to be, in fact, natural, upon closer scrutiny. Quite true, but Boudry et al are arguing for science's ability to study the actually supernatural--that is to say, phenomena in transcendance or defiance of the regularities of nature. I think this is logically impossible, and see no reason why IMN isn't a perfectly adequate position to take when scientifically examining any phenomena whatsoever.

Chris Schoen said...

[My question is] whether we can rule out in advance the scientific investigation of claims about gods, ghosts, vampires, and other things that are pre-theoretically regarded as "supernatural".

A valid question, but I think it elides a number of claims that are not pre-theoretical. Even if most people follow folk forms of their particular religion (I'm not saying they do), theology is hardly irrelevant to the matter. The classical conception of the Christian God as omnipotent and omnipresent poses a few problems for the scientific method.

Russell Blackford said...

Not necessarily "natural" unless "natural" is defined to mean just "existent". They may still be anomalous in various ways, and we may still wish to use the word "supernatural" to reflect that. I don't think that "supernatural" means "capricious", whatever else it means, but even something capricious can sometimes leave traces of its actions.

I don't read Boudry et al as saying that science can investigate all claims ever made by anyone, and even about capricious beings, except perhaps in the minimalist sense that scientists can point out that certain claims are ad hoc, insulated, etc., which falls well within scientific reasoning.

As far as I can see, Boudry, et. al. take much the same view that I do:

1. Some claims are insulated from any sort of empirical investigation (whether or not we want to call all empirical investigation "scientific"), but there are things that can be said about these claims that should make people sceptical about them, e.g. that they are protected by ad hoc moves.

2. There are claims that involve things that are usually thought of as supernatural - ghosts, vampires, etc. - which can, indeed, be investigated by science. Claims about gods may fit in here, depending on what is said about them. The fact that these claims involve pre-theoretically supernatural beings does not put them in a realm beyond rational investigation.

And maybe there are further complexities. I'm not claiming that the situation is simple.

It seems to me that various monotheists make a mixture of claims about God, demons, angels, etc. Some of those claims are open to empirical investigation and don't stand up well to it (e.g. "God created the Earth 6000 years ago"). Others may be too vague even to be meaningful. Others may not be meaningless, exactly, but the tendency is to insulate them from empirical investigation, which creates a suspicion about them.

My position is not: "Supernatural things exist and science can tell us about them."

My position is more like: "The claim that 'Science cannot investigate the supernatural' is a massive over-simplification of the situation we're in and does not do justice to the extent to which we can, indeed, subject prima facie supernatural claims to scientifically-informed rational inquiry."

Owen said...

"The claim that 'Science cannot investigate the supernatural' is a massive over-simplification of the situation we're in and does not do justice to the extent to which we can, indeed, subject prima facie supernatural claims to scientifically-informed rational inquiry."

QFT.

Excellent stuff.

Richard Wein said...

As usual, I'm indebted to Russell for expressing my point of view, but doing it far better than I could have done it myself!

Chris is making the positive claim, that science cannot in principle (regardless of any evidence) accept any hypothesis within some ill-defined category ("supernatural"). The onus is on him to define this category and justify the claim, an onus he seems not to have accepted.

Chris wrote: "We only seem to disagree on whether or not a supernatural being can be subject to natural laws."

It's perfectly consistent with the ordinary usage of the word "supernatural" for a supernatural entity to be subject to laws, including some known "natural" laws. Vampires, for example, are not usually supposed to be able to walk through solid walls. Other laws affecting supernatural entities can be more spooky. For example, vampires are supposed to be unable to enter dwellings uninvited. Let's say this invitation law is not mediated by any causal mechanism; it is simply inherent in the nature of vampires. Perhaps we would call that a "supernatural" law.

Even if we were talking about an omnipotent being, not subject to any external laws, it doesn't follow that there are no regularities involved. Even omnipotent gods are generally supposed to have certain patterns of behaviour. An utterly chaotic god would not be very attractive.

Chris Schoen said...

As far as I can see, Boudry, et. al. take much the same view that I do. [summary deleted.] And maybe there are further complexities. I'm not claiming that the situation is simple.

I agree with both your number 1 and 2, above. But I don't see how they bear on the question of IMN versus PMN. They describe what we might call a Scooby Doo epistemic process where the apparently supernatural (a ghost or vampire) is discovered through detective work to be actually naturalistic (a shady local official or businessman). All of this works quite well on an IMN level. (I'm being facetiously reductive here. Maybe the vampire in question is an as-yet unknown biological phenomena. The point is just that we don't need PMN to describe the orderly processes of this new-found lifeform (undeadform?) IMN is sufficient.)

PMN, conversely, allows (in theory) for the detection of the *actually* supernatural on an evidentiary basis. It says that if the creationists, for example, are right, and Yahweh exists, we may be able to ascertain this existence by "extraordinary empirical evidence." But it's obvious that the YEC god, if he existed, would transcend all empirical detection, since one of his proclivities is to, you know, make a mockery of our presumption of naturalism by faking the data, perhaps for a "higher" rationale, perhaps just because he's a shit. In this case PMN has gained us nothing that IMN did not already provide. Remember that IMN never *prevents* us from saying that we prefer a non-natural explanation. It just provides the pretext for the naturalist explanation when we choose to seek it; namely that the world presents itself to our inspection accurately and lawfully.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, it's true that God could fake the data. But I still think you're missing my point. If someone says: "God created the world 6000 years ago" there's a question as to whether the data are least consistent with this claim about the activity of a supernatural being. And if they're not, but the person still insists on the claim (perhaps with an omphalos argument), it raises questions of ad hocery. If the data are consistent with the claim, and we atheists are not going to say it raises the probabalities in favour of a God somewhere in the ballpark of what this person is talking about even slightly - after all, an evil demon or a powerful alien could have faked the data - then I think we're just being dogmatic. If we start postulating super-aliens and evil demons every time there are what seem like traces of an action by a god, we are the ones who are being ad hoc.

And I still don't think it will wash to use a definition of "natural" that can lead to ghosts and vampires being classified as "natural". "Natural" as contrasted to "supernatural" can't just mean "existent" or "regular" - ghosts and vampires are postulated as existent, and as having some regularities, by those who believe in them. Perhaps the kind of "spookiness" involved in the concept of the supernatural is difficult to pin down, but we have to do justice to it somehow.

The point is, science is not necessarily helpless when it comes to investigating spooky claims. It may be stymied to an extent if ad hoc moves are made to protect the claims in question, but even then it's well within the competence of scientists to point out ad hocery.

All this is far more complex than: "Science cannot investigate the supernatural."

Again, I'm not putting forward a simplistic claim; I'm criticising a simplistic claim.

Chris Schoen said...

Again, I'm not putting forward a simplistic claim; I'm criticising a simplistic claim.

Maybe we both are.

If someone says: "God created the world 6000 years ago" there's a question as to whether the data are least consistent with this claim about the activity of a supernatural being.

Absolutely. And if we travel along this line of inquiry, we are making a presumption of the consistency (regularity) of nature. In other words, we are employing IMN. And if the data *are* consistent with the YEC claim, and non-dogmatic atheists permit themselves to evaluate the possibility that theism is true, then they are likewise employing IMN, because they are making this evaluation on an *empirical* basis.

And I still don't think it will wash to use a definition of "natural" that can lead to ghosts and vampires being classified as "natural".

Why not? "Natural" just means part of the one world which is approximated by the regularities we have observed within it ("Laws"). There are a lot of things that don't add up in our present scientific description of the world--there are still no shortage of questions to answer, problems to solve. But it is IMN, not PMN, which allows us to presume we will find the bridge between currently disparate phenomena. If vampires turned out to be real it would be a shock, but would it be a different *kind" of problem than, say, gravitation, which we cannot describe to our present satisfaction--and yet which we still presume we will find an explanation for that accords with the rest of physics?

I think where Boudry et al go wrong is in asserting that "Science does have a bearing on supernatural hypotheses." The YEC claim that the earth is 6,000 yrs old is quite patently not a hypothesis, since it resists all empirically based arguments--the opposite of what science does.

Richard Wein said...

Russell wrote: --And I still don't think it will wash to use a definition of "natural" that can lead to ghosts and vampires being classified as "natural".--

I agree with you, but perhaps this could benefit from some clarification. What I take you to mean is this: given our current conceptions of ghosts and vampires, it would be misleading to redefine "natural/supernatural" in such a way that ghosts and vampires become classified as "natural". And that seems at times to be what Chris is trying to do.

Now suppose we discovered that vampires exist, but careful study suggests that all their properties supervene on the laws of physics. There is nothing "spooky" about them after all. In that case we would probably start calling them natural, not supernatural. Someone might then say, "see, vampires are natural after all."

The thing is, though, that the meaning of the word "vampire" would have subtly changed, because our use of the word is partly regulated by the idea that some properties of vampires don't supervene on the laws of physics. At the same time, I would say this is not an absolute commitment, which is why we might continue to call these beings "vampires".

The situation may be different in the case of gods. We may feel that supernaturalness is an absolute commitment of the word "god", and that, if a being we'd called a god turned out to be natural after all, we would have to stop calling it a god.

I've been thinking some more about how to define "natural/supernatural" in a way that captures normal usage. No precise definition is possible, of course. But I think a reasonable approximation would be something like this. A natural property is one which supervenes on laws which we would think of as laws of physics. The main problem here is that this can't be limited to the presently known laws of physics, and allowing for future laws of physics leaves it open ended, leaving the question of what could be counted as a law of physics. Suppose that magic turns out to be based on certain irreducible laws of its own. Why couldn't those be counted as laws of physics? I think we have to appeal to the idea that the laws of physics are "low-level" laws. Laws of magic, astrology, etc, tend to be high-level, in the sense that they usually refer to high-level mental phenomena such as human beliefs and intentions. The vampire invitation rule refers to vampires and human acts of invitation, both of which are high-level phenomena. We call it "supernatural" because we think it doesn't supervene on laws at the level of the laws of physics.

What do you think of that suggestion?

Chris Schoen said...

Richard W.,

However you define supernatural, PMN will not be necessitated. That's the point I'm trying to make.

I'm happy to accede the definition as anything within the bounds of common practice. My point is that calling lawful, orderly, predictable behavior "supernatural" does not bear on the question of whether or not IMN is adequate to the task of examining the supernatural.

If science can demonstrate the predictable regularity of vampires' inability to enter homes uninvited, it will do so with normal presumptions of IMN. As for omnipotent gods...

Even if we were talking about an omnipotent being, not subject to any external laws, it doesn't follow that there are no regularities involved.

True, but it is not epistemically available to us whether or not these regularities are lawful or willful. This is the problem. If we assume they are willful, we have abandoned science, since this assumption has no empirical basis (it can't be differentiated from the opposite assumption, that the regularities are lawful.) If we assume they are lawful, we are operating in an IMN framework.

In neither case is PMN of any value for the conducting of science.

Russell Blackford said...

Chris, part of the problem is that you keep insisting that we use your preferred revisionist definitions. There is no reason at all why "God created the earth 6000 years ago" cannot be treated as an hypothesis. Something doesn't cease to be an hypothesis that we can investigate just because its proponents insist on protecting it with ad hoc auxilliaries when the hypothesis is prima facie falsified. Once they start doing that, there are all sorts of thing that we can say about their intellectual integrity, about whether there's any point in arguing with them, and so on, and about whether a claim that needs these layers of protection should be believed. But that doesn't mean there was anything wrong with investigating it in the first place or that we learned nothing from the investigation.

Likewise, you want to use a revisionary concept of the supernatural and the say science cannot investigate claims that are supernatural in that sense. But so what? I've always been careful to point out that there may be some sense of "supernatural" such that science cannot investigate the supernatural. In the limit, we could define "the supernatural" as "that which science cannot investigate".

I actually doubt that your definition does the job, since even capricious beings can leave traces of their actions. But in any event, it was never the point. The point is that the claims typically made by religions, myth systems, certain kinds of folklore, etc., about things that are ordinarily regarded as "supernatural" are not automatically fenced off from scientific inquiry. It's much more complicated than that, and in many cases science can have a lot to say about whether we ahould give credence to these claims.

That doesn't mean that it is good scientific practice to go around postulating vampires or ghosts or gods as causal mechanisms. But when claims are made about the activities of these things - as so often happens - are scientists helpless to investigate those claims? No, they are not, or at least not necessarily. That's the point that I've been trying to get across over the last however many months or years it's been.

Chris Schoen said...

Russell,

I think you posted this comment before my response to Richard came through, which perhaps clarifies my position a little. But in any case, this comment is 100% free of "revisionist" definitions.

There is no reason at all why "God created the earth 6000 years ago" cannot be treated as an hypothesis. Something doesn't cease to be an hypothesis that we can investigate just because its proponents insist on protecting it with ad hoc auxilliaries when the hypothesis is prima facie falsified.

"The earth is 6,000 years old" can be treated as a hypothesis. "The earth is 6,000 years old in spite of any evidence you have to the contrary"--obviously--cannot. It rejects scientific exploration in its very construction. The creationists are not saying, Let's look at the evidence and may the best man win. They're saying, Fuck the evidence. Our metaphysical priors are bigger than science.

I completely agree with you that there's no reason why science can't explore the putatively supernatural to see if it can be explained scientifically. The question is (and this one rare area where I agree with PZ Myers): What happens if we find we cannot explain it scientifically? Do we keep trying, or do we invoke some new category, impervious to scientific explanation?

This is just speculation, but I think that if Jerry Coyne, or Sean Carroll, or Maarten Boudry found themselves in the presence of an apparently omnipotent god, they would ask, after they got over the initial shock, "OK, but how does it work?" Now maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they would start saying things like "the Lord works in mysterious ways." But in this case their *scientific" inquiry would have ended. The conclusion "God exists" would not be a scientifically derived one.

As I wrote to Richard W, when omnipotence is on the table, the null hypothesis and the God hypothesis are indistinguishable. It's a fairly modest point--far from the "hands off the supernatural" position you seem to think I am taking. But it's enough to question the utility of PMN.

Russell Blackford said...

Chris, no time to address all this now, but of course I agree with you that something like the omphalos theory cannot be directly refuted by empirical evidence. If someone retreats to the omphalos theory, we can say many things about it, including making observations about how it's over-convenient, ad hoc, etc. We can certainly claim it's an unscientific approach, and probably other things that are well within the capacity of scientists to say, though also appropriate coming from philosophers.

But, look, you agree with me on what I see as the central issue, that science is not helpless when confronted by what you call putatively supernatural claims. Maybe you've never meant to argue against that, but since it's the main point I've been trying to establish all this time I'm not sure in that case what a lot of the argument has been about.

You raise other issues near the end which involve a debate that I haven't taken part in so much, though we've touched on it briefly on this thread. I'll say a bit more about this but it'll have to wait until tomorrow. But the point of this discussion from my viewpoint has not been so much to get involved in what it would now take to convince me of the truth of Christianity. It's going to be very hard to do that, because I think that some its central doctrines are incoherent or something very close to it. E.g. it's difficult to make a lot of sense of the Trinity or the sacrificial atonement. Modern theologians can doubtless offer revisionist interpretations of those doctrines that are more coherent than the classic ones, but again there's an issue of why I should be motivated to accept such doctrines if the church didn't get them right in the first place. But more tomorrow.

In any event, I could imagine experiences that would convince me of the existence of vampires. And I don't just mean vampire-like beings that turn out not to be spooky: I mean spooky vampires whose properties are as advertised in horror narratives and are anomalous within the rest of the order of what we observe. I do, however, think that the anomalous nature of vampires within the observed world is a very good reason to think they don't exist.

Richard Wein said...

Chris wrote:

--As I wrote to Richard W, when omnipotence is on the table, the null hypothesis and the God hypothesis are indistinguishable. It's a fairly modest point--far from the "hands off the supernatural" position you seem to think I am taking.--

What null hypothesis? I've never claimed that science could conclude that an entity was omnipotent (though I'm not convinced we can say that's impossible in principle). If all you're claiming is that no such conclusion is possible, then I won't argue with you.

(Your claim about two hypotheses being "indistinguishable" makes it sound as if you are adopting a naive falsificationist position, in which science can only prefer one hypothesis over another if the data are strictly inconsistent with one of them. But the "underdetermination of theory by evidence" means that scientists have to choose between multiple hypotheses which are all strictly consistent with the data. I think you are taking a too simplistic view of scientific epistemology.)

But IMN--and you in the past--go much further than this modest point. Let me remind you that at John Pieret's blog you wrote:

--Well, just to maintain balance, I, for one, continue to believe that by at least one definition of the word "supernatural," such a hypothesis "cannot in principle be tested."--

That's why the definition of "supernatural" matters. It seems to me you are equivocating over the meaning of that word. Once again, I think you are being equivocal about just what your position is, which makes any discussion of this subject with you pointless. I only posted again because I wanted to correct your misinterpretation of my position.

Chris Schoen said...

Russell,

I had thought we were arguing (with a sidetrack on "scientism") about "Sean's take on this," more or less--something you endorsed in your post. And also about how you didn't understand something I'd said in reponse to him at my place. Presumably now you do understand me a little better. My argument here really comes down to the nature of empiricism, which presumes regularity (in one's model if not in reality) a priori. This is in contrast to Sean's assertion that:

if the best explanation scientists could come up with for some set of observations necessarily involved a lawless supernatural component, that’s what they would do. (That is, they'd include the lawless component in the scientific explanation.)

As I've said elsewhere, it's logically impossible to have "evidence" for lawlessness. This, to me, is the central issue. I'm perfectly happy to admit science can inquire into sprites, naiads, djinn and gods if anyone cares to, and I have no desire to prejudice the result. But this is not the claim that either Sean Carroll or Maarten Boudry are making, as far as I can see

In any event, I could imagine experiences that would convince me of the existence of vampires. And I don't just mean vampire-like beings that turn out not to be spooky: I mean spooky vampires whose properties are as advertised in horror narratives and are anomalous within the rest of the order of what we observe. I do, however, think that the anomalous nature of vampires within the observed world is a very good reason to think they don't exist.

This is an interesting example, given that a popular HBO series has likewise imagined such a scenario. One of the really clever things about True Blood is that once vampires are accepted as real by the culture, they cease to be "spooky." People are still afraid of them--but for rational reasons, just as people are rationally afraid of gangsters. To whatever extent the vampires on True Blood remain "supernatural" is, to my mind, fairly watered down. They are anomalous in the same way lots of presumedly natural phenomena is anomalous. They may defeat certain scientific theories, but not science itself.

Russell Blackford said...

Where it started from my point of view was with my opposition to the simplistic view that science cannot investigate the supernatural and therefore cannot critique religion.

I know there have been a lot of twists and turns, but thats the view that I've bee gunning for throughout.

Owen said...

To whatever extent the vampires on True Blood remain "supernatural" is, to my mind, fairly watered down. They are anomalous in the same way lots of presumedly natural phenomena is anomalous.

I disagree. They are most definitely supernatural. They are quite unlike more regular, non-mental, "natural" phenomena. The fact that they are known to exist makes fear of them rational, but doesn't necessarily change their nature.

(But I subscribe to Carrier's view of the supernatural, and I know many others disagree: see here.)

They may defeat certain scientific theories, but not science itself.

But this is still true. And I think this is the crux. Things don't have to be reducible to "natural" phenomena to be examined by science.

Chris Schoen said...

Richard,

Yes, I've used different definitions of supernatural, but not to equivocate or waffle. I can't insist that everyone else use my defintion, even if I think that it makes the most sense, by convention and logic. So I've tried to show that my point still stands, rephrased according to the definition preferred here.

Even we use the word as a synonym of "spooky," there's no reason to invoke provisional metaphysical naturalism. My posision has been consistent on that.

Falsification is only naive if you employ it on philosophical or metaphysical grounds, without taking other factors e.g. intuition) into account. It is not naive as a matter of scientific practice. I have never maintained that we have no reason to reject the supernatural. I have only argued that such rejection is not a scientific result. I don't read Quine-Duhem as saying that our inferences given overlapping hypothesis are scientiic ones. Perhaps this is not something we can reach agrement on. But I argue that when (for example) Richard Dawkins employed his Ultimate 747 argument in TGD, he was doing philosophy, not science.

Russell Blackford said...

I still owe some discussion here, but debate on other threads has moved on, and I'd rather concentrate my energies there. What follows will only scratch the surface.

As far as vampires go, of course it's possible that we'd get used to them, but people who've believed in vampires or ghosts, even if they've thought they know a lot about them, have still thought of them as "supernatural". If they have anomalous powers such as surviving death, imitating life without the need for respiration, and all the rest of it, they are going to seem spooky and they won't fit with the rest of nature. There'll be scientific laws that apply to everything else but not to them (perhaps including the conservation of mass/energy, given the powers they are said to have) and special rules that apply only to them.

But in any event, the point is that claims about them, or about gods, ghosts, naiads, demons, etc., are not science stoppers. As long we have claims about traces that they are supposed to leave, we can go and look for those traces.

As for omnipotent beings, this gets complicated and I'm not going to take it far. Some people think that the idea of omnipotence is not even coherent. Ironically, one of the things that an omnipotent being would struggle to do is to convince us that it's actually omnipotent, not just very, very powerful. Since it's omnipotent, it will have ways - e.g. it can just reprogram us neurally. But if it simply wants to persuade us by evidence, won't the evidence always be consistent with the hypothesis that it's just very, very powerful and we haven't yet seen its limits?

Still, there could certainly be evidence that a being is not omnipotent.

One reason why we might be suspicious if a very powerful being turned up tomorrow claiming to be the Christian god is that it will need to explain why it didn't leave more clues about itself right from the beginning. Why didn't it provide a holy book that gives some accurate information about such things as the age of the earth? Why hasn't it shown its presence in a powerful way throughout history?

Still, it doesn't seem all that hard to me to imagine living in a universe where the Christian god is a powerful and, for all practical purposes, undeniable presence. The problem is that we don't live in that universe. Quite the opposite.

Russell Blackford said...

Oh, and I've only just realised that Chris may think they when I said I like Sean's piece that I am kind of adopting it wholesale. No, not necessarily. I wasn't saying that. I like it in the sense that it's helpful and thoughtful, that I agree with the thrust of Sean's approach, which he epxresses in an articulate way, etc. But the only claims I'm committed to are the ones I've specifically made.

In my mind this thread is not about Sean's piece but just about whether science is necessarily barred from examining claims about supernatural entities, as "supernatural" is understood in everyday discourse to include gods, ghosts, vampires, etc. I argue that it isn't and that we have no reason to adopt a principle of methodological naturalism that goes that far.

I think that studying the causation of plagues is science, for example. Re some of the other threads, I don't think trying to work out the best interpretation of Macbeth is science. At least not in the sense of science that I have in mind. I do think that trying to work out what "best" means in this context is a good task for philosophers.