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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Richard Carrier on defining naturalism

An interesting essay by Richard Carrier in Free Inquiry. The opening para reads:

What is naturalism? As a worldview distinct from any form of "supernaturalism," "naturalism" is the belief that nature is (probably) all there is, and nothing supernatural exists. Of course, the word naturalism can be used in other ways. In the art world, it means one thing; as a special term in epistemology, it means something else; and so on. But as a worldview, as a comprehensive picture of the nature and content of existence, naturalism is the converse of supernaturalism. What does that mean? Attempts to distinguish the "natural" from the "supernatural" often fail on basic requirements of coherence and utility. I predict that all successful attempts will reduce to this: naturalism is the view that everything mental is fundamentally nonmental. That sounds bizarre and unexpected, but it appears to be correct.


Greg Chudov said...

Useful definition, but there are cases which are difficult to fit to it.

First thing that comes to mind, is that sort of supernatural woo that invokes pseudo-scientific explanations for supernatural claims.

For example, some so called psychics claim that telepathy or telekinesis are caused by something like electromagnetic field produced by our brains, which is 'yet' undetectable by our technology. Thus making telepathy reducible to nonmental causes.

According to author's definition, that 'explanation' would make telepathy 'natural' phenomenon.

Vampires can be defined as humans with a strange virus which makes them allergic to silver and sunlight, affects their diet and brain biochemistry, and prolongs their life by orders of magnitude.

Author's definition of supernatural allows to smuggle almost any supernatural claim into naturalism just by inventing a pseudo-explanation for it.

Untestability is a better definition of supernatural, because as author points out, any refuted supernatural claim tends to evolve to untestable claim over time, thus cementing it's place amongst supernatural.

But any supernatural claim that was not reducible to nonmental claims often receives a pseudo-explanation, which makes it sound more natural, dissolving a border between natural and supernatural.

Robert N Stephenson said...

I don't think naturalism is as easily defined as this. And the concept of supernatural isn't as easily dismissed as this either. Quantum Mechanics displays almost supernatural properties and thus consistently defies natural physics. Is it not natural?

Now, the untestability is not quite a reasonable point of view to take either; well not in every case.

Science has neither proved or disproved the concept of God without a doubt - simply because it has yet to develop reasonable testability methods. Is there a God, or Gods? Visible evidence may say no - but then not all that long a go, visible evidence didn't believe the concept of neutrinos either.

This isn't to say the supernatural exists, it is just saying that at this point in time it cannot be categorically ruled out.

Gravity was for a time considered a supernatural event until reasonable explanation came forth. So to the functions of light, which jumped between particle and wave theories for centuries.

Naturalism isn't really what exponents are trying to get at - that is another discussion though.

Richard Wein said...

I doubt Carrier is the first to suggest a definition like this. And I think that if such a simple definition were viable, it would have become popular before now. But it excludes phenomena that conventionally would be labelled "supernatural". Consider astrology. As far as I can see astrology doesn't entail the non-reducibility of the mental to the non-mental. So Carrier's definition wouldn't label it "supernatural".

Attempts to reduce the meaning of a word to a simple, definable property are often doomed to failure, because meanings can be so multi-faceted, involving many interwoven components.

People tend to propose two types of definitions of "supernatural": what I'll call epistemic definitions, which relate the supernatural to what we can know, how we can know it, or what we do know at a given time; and what I'll call ontological definitions, which attempt to categorise phenomena without regard to how we can know about them. (Suggestions for better terms would be welcome.) Epistemic definitions people have given include "untestable", "unexplainable by science in principle", and (one that I've used in the past) "far outside our current scientific understanding". Ontological definitions include Carrier's and "any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy".

We can find good reasons for rejecting both types of definition, and I suggest the reason for that is that the way we use the word has both epistemic and ontological components.

I think these days we tend to label as "supernatural" those phenomena which we don't think can possibly have a causal explanation in terms of the sort of fundamental entities that physicists deal in. But this is pretty vague, because who knows what sort of fundamental entities physicists might discover in the future, and even the notion of "fundamental" is problematic.

For purposes of labelling one's position I think it would suffice to define naturalism as "the rejection of the kinds of phenomena that are typically labelled 'supernatural'". Anyway that's how I describe my position, usually without using the word "naturalist".

The need for a more precise definition mainly arises when people want to prove or disprove naturalism. But I think the types of phenomena labelled "supernatural" are too diverse to give a general disproof of them. And we're not under any obligation to give supernaturalists a generalised position to argue against.

Greg wrote:

Author's definition of supernatural allows to smuggle almost any supernatural claim into naturalism just by inventing a pseudo-explanation for it.

I don't think there's any reason to worry about this. A naturalist is not committed to accepting all natural claims. The Loch Ness Monster is claimed to be a living animal, and I doubt you would have any problem with classifying it as "natural" while rejecting its existence. If someone wants to claim that he has a natural view of telekinesis, let him do so. We can say his belief in natural telekinesis is false, without having to deny him the word "natural".

Jason Streitfeld said...

I think the insufficiency of Carrier's definition is recognizable if we start from the notion of the supernatural. Supernaturalism is not simply the belief that there are some mental entities which have not been caused by physical entities. Rather, supernaturalism is usually defined as the belief that nature is subservient to another realm. Supernaturalists believe that what happens in nature is sometimes caused by events outside of nature, and that what is outside of nature holds dominion over nature. If we take "natural" and "physical" to be synonyms, then supernaturalism entails that there are non-physical entities or forces which have dominion over the physical world. But this does not mean those non-physical entities are necessarily mental. Supernaturalism isn't necessarily a thesis about minds.

Also, and more importantly, the key feature of supernaturalism is that it stipulates the causal significance of non-natural entities. Carrier overlooks the part about dominion over nature.

Also, "natural" (and "physical" as well) seems to mean "describable with scientific methodology." So supernaturalism is a view about the limits of science to account for nature. Naturalism is the rejection of this view. Naturalism is the belief that science can describe all of the causes.

As an aside, I have to take issue with Robert N. Stephenson's claim that "Quantum Mechanics displays almost supernatural properties and thus consistently defies natural physics." Do any physicists claim that quantum mechanics is unnatural? By what standard should we judge any quantum mechanical properties or laws to be "almost supernatural?"

Jason Streitfeld said...

Also, Carrier's definition excludes the possibility of Chalmers' naturalistic dualism.

Mark Sloan said...

Jason’s definition; “So supernaturalism is a view about the limits of science to account for nature. Naturalism is the rejection of this view. Naturalism is the belief that science can describe all of the causes.”

Here, causes include the causes of both physical and mental phenomena.

Richard Carrier’s definition: “If naturalism is true, everything mental is caused by the nonmental, whereas if supernaturalism is true, at least one thing is not.”

Here causes include the causes only of mental phenomena. So if supernatural forces exist that cause only physical, but not mental phenomena, then Richard’s definition would seem to allow that naturalism was true even if such supernatural effects on physical phenomena exists. I am sure this is not Richards’ intent.

Jason’s definition looks more useful to me. I can’t think of any flaws in it.

Mark Sloan said...

I have thought of a suggested change to Jason’s definition. I prefer the last sentence to be “Naturalism is the belief that science is innately capable of describing all of the causes” rather than Jason’s “Naturalism is the belief that science can describe all of the causes”. The problem with the word “can” is that it implies science as we know it either can do that now (it can’t) or science as we know it will be able to do that in the future (it may not ever be able to this).

Robert N Stephenson said...

Naturalism can also and has very often mean being one with nature in mind and spirit -- actually it has been this longer than the new variant proposed here.

A bit like the new version of Humanist. I have always been a Humanist in some regard, even when I was an atheist I had the tendency, but it needs to be clear and atheist in the new age is not a Humanist, their are distinctions.

I suppose the 'New Atheist' in its relentless progression is now trying to change the meaning of everything to suit itself.

The atheist, by nature is individualistic and by this standing a difficult fit within an inclusive society, and most societies are a natural formation of groups and sub groups. (Forced formations do not work, thus the reason for some wars in other parts of the world). So, by applying naturalistic rules would this then say the atheist is unnatural?

To make science the measuring stick of society and the working of the world is not an advantageous position for people. Science say half the people of the world have to die in order for us to keep feeding ourselves. The evidence has been presented, so with this new naturalism approach should we not kill half the world's population?

Though I am simply playing with the term somewhat, I hope to show that you cannot easily apply a definition to such a term just to form a new argument. You are in the exact same position if you tried to simple redefine the term 'beauty'

Now, supernatural also falls into so may different forms that simply defining it as anything that is not natural (or anything that fits with the atheist view - if the truth be told) is not right either. A meteor is not natural to this planet, so by definition it is supernatural. Moon dust is not natural to Earth, it is from the moon, so by definition it is supernatural.

Even religion is a natural process based on genetic susceptibility - The God Gene -

How does this naturalism explain the 'Twin' factor - the ability for twins to somehow understand each other and know things about each other though many kilometres apart? I believe research into this strange phenomena is ongoing.

You see just how complex the tern natural is, and it isn't something, like Humaism, that can be changed to suite another purpose.

Unknown said...

I agree that Jason's is better than the others, as long as two things are in place:

1) There is a good definition to settle what science can study and what science can't study BEFORE we try to prove that any particular "supernatural" thing exists.

2) That definition does not -- either explicitly or implicitly -- define anything that exists or any causes that can be proven to exist as being scientific.

This is required because naturalism, as a philosophy, should be falsifiable, and so can't be true by definition.

The best way I can think of to describe this requirement -- and why we need it -- is this:

Time dilation says that as we accelerate or decelerate, time slows or speeds up. That's a scientific claim, and so seems to be a reasonable claim. Now, imagine that I could prove that my muttering some nonsense syllables and making some hand gestures I could do a more dramatic form of that. Now, would that be a natural claim and scientific at that point, or would it still be magic, as it is commonly described?

If you say that the latter then would be natural, you've made it impossible to refute naturalism and, in my mind, have made it meaningless in the bargain.

Zachary Voch said...

Though it's obviously not a complete definition, the key distinction between a naturalistic worldview and others is concerning the existence disembodied minds. I can't remember the author, but this was proposed in the Oxford Companion to Atheism, Ed. Michael Martin.

That's the handy definition I use in practice, at least.

Zachary Voch said...

*Note: In practice, this eliminates "intent" as an explanation of phenomena. That cuts away most theistic, new age, and Chopra-esque wooishness.

roberrt S said...

Zachary, all it does is cemenmt your position further -- whether it is true or not isn't part of the argument for me.

The Atheist opnly holds a view that is true to them - just like any other system of belief in a way.

Your right is not better and no worse thasn anyone elses, it is just different. I may claim to believe X but in my right to believe X I do not qualify this by disqualifying Y.

The Atheist view of Naturalism is only really a small view in the bigger picture - actually the Atheist in many respects is a minority view. Now being a minority does not disqualify the view or eaken the standpoint at all, it just put the depth of the argument into world context.

One day we will agree on something, but in order for this to actually happen we all have to step away from what we have constructed about ourselves and adopt ways of thinkling that are inclusive rather than been some kind of exclusive system. Is naturalism a form of this? It coluld be, but with out reasonable clarrification of issues it also fall short of an ideal.

Zachary Voch said...

rrobert S,

I'm sorry, but I don't quite understand where you're coming from. My goal was to propose a quick, easy demarcating definition for Naturalism broadly that captures the key position held by most who characterize themselves as naturalists.

I didn't argue if it was true or not. I didn't argue it was a majority position (it isn't).

Is there some other Zachary I'm missing here?

Russell Blackford said...

I actually doubt that there's any clear line of demarcation between "natural" and "supernatural". But that doesn't make the terms useless. For everyday purposes and even for legal purposes, it's usually clear enough. Maybe even for some philosophical purposes. But if there are other philosophical purposes for which we need a clear line ... well, I suspect we'll be disappointed.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Mark, I think I understand your motivation for suggesting that change. But I think "innately capable of" is more laborious than "can," and I don't think it gets at the difference in meaning you are suggesting. Your proposed change still uses the word "science," and so could still be taken to refer to "science as we know it."

The issue is how we understand the word "science." I don't think science is defined by a single set of laws or methods. New scientific methods are developed as science progresses. So, when I refer to "science," I'm not referring to anything that is limited by our current capabilities and knowledge. I'm referring to the process of expanding shared capabilities and knowledge. With that view of science in place, I think my original definition of "naturalism" is acceptable.

Allan, I'm curious about your caveats. The first one suggests that we can define the boundaries of what is scientifically discoverable. I'm not sure that this is possible. We can define the boundaries of sense--that, I think, is what philosophy is mostly about. But as long as we're dealing squarely within the realm of sense, I don't see what limits could be placed on science. (Once again, I think this may just come down to how we define "science.")

Your second caveat, as worded, is harder for me to understand. So I can't address it directly. However, I do have a comment about what you say about falsifiability.

I don't see how naturalism could be falsifiable. It's a philosophical position, not a scientific one. (I know I'm disagreeing with some well-known and outspoken scientists here, like Sean Carroll. So be it.) The reason it is impossible to scientifically falsify naturalism is that, to do so, you'd have to have scientific evidence for something which was not natural. Since "natural" is defined as what is describable by science, this is a priori impossible. This doesn't make naturalism true a priori. It may still be possible to refute naturalism. It only makes this a matter of philosophical, and not scientific, concern.

So, if you were able to accelerate or decelerate the perception of time with mutterings and hand gestures, we should approach it as a natural phenomenon. Perhaps we'll never be able to understand it. But at no point would we have evidence or reason to suppose it was inherently beyond the scope of all possible scientific discovery. So why should we call it supernatural?

Zachary Voch said...

"But if there are other philosophical purposes for which we need a clear line ... well, I suspect we'll be disappointed."

I found the book I was referring to earlier... The Cambridge Companion to Atheism Ed. Michael Martin. The essay was Naturalism and Physicalism, by Evan Fales.

The main issue is that "Naturalism" is more a category of positions (or more descriptively, answers to questions concerning the nature of mind and abstract objects like sets), not a single philosophy. Carrier also notes this in Sense and Goodness without God.

Here are some of the types Fales names (themselves subcategories):

1 - Research Program
2 - Methodological
3 - Epistemological
4 - Ontological

Each of these have subtypes as well.

In another essay in the collection, "Atheism and Religion" by Michael Martin, the difficulty of defining "religion" is also discussed. He discussed one effort from Philosophical Thinking: An Introduction by Monroe C. Beardsley and Elizabeth Lane Beardsley. The approach was to define religion as "attempts to answer the [set of questions about purpose/ethics/etc.]"

I think we might use a similar approach for defining naturalism more broadly, namely, as a consistent set of answers to the following questions (or some similar set of questions):

1) What is the nature of mind?
2) How do abstract objects exist, if at all?
3) Do disembodied minds exist?
4) What types of propositions can be meaningfully assessed as true or false and what methodology should be used to determine their truth values?

Just a borrowed idea for starters. Certain answers will be considered traditionally naturalistic or not by convention, but this is a good start.

Any other questions you would recommend?

*note: I miss blockquote tags.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Addendum: I said science is the process of expanding shared capabilities and knowledge. I meant knowledge of historical facts and causal relationships, and not knowledge simpliciter. In addition to scientific knowledge, we have knowledge of the rules of discourse. This sort of knowledge logically (if not historically) precedes scientific discovery.

As a philosophical position, naturalism is a matter of analytic truths, and not synthetic ones. It's a way of defining boundaries in our language. As I see it, naturalism is true by definition. However, if the definition were shown to be incoherent or inconsistent with other analytic truths, then naturalism would be open to doubt.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Re Zachary's observation of the varieties of naturalism:

I think there's a clear tradition in 20th century philosophy to regard naturalism as a view about science and its limits. Naturalistic dualists, for example, regard mental entities either as fundamentally unlike the entities currently postulated by the sciences (a la Sellars), or as fundamentally unlike any other entities any science could ever postulate (a la Chalmers)--yet, at the same time, they stipulate that mental entities are theoretically describable via some as-yet-unknown scientific methodology. They define the mind as within the boundaries of scientific discovery, and that is why they call themselves naturalists.

Other naturalists (e.g., Dewey, Quine, Dennett, etc.) explicitly identify naturalism with a devotion to science. So, while there may be a traditional set of questions that naturalists have tended to be concerned with, I don't think that is reason to question the defining attribute of naturalism as a view about science--specifically, a rejection of the limits on science which supernaturalists attempt to impose.

As for the distinctions made between epistemological and ontological naturalism, or between metaphysical and methodological naturalism: I think the best way to approach such discussions is to focus on what naturalism is primarily about, and that is the philosophy of science.

Thus, I don't see an important distinction between metaphysical and methodological naturalism. It seems to me that those who accept methodological naturalism but not metaphysical naturalism are in a very peculiar position: They want to protect religious belief from scientific scrutiny, but are at the same time denying their ability to make that religious belief relevant. Either that, or they want to limit methodological naturalism (and thus science itself) to only a subset of what can be discovered. In that case, they are saying that methodological naturalism is not a philosophically grounded position at all, and so shouldn't be given any weight in arguments about the supernatural. So, frankly, I don't trust any attempt to distinguish metaphysical from methodological naturalism.

Also, I don't see much point in trying to distinguish between ontological and epistemological naturalism. It seems to be more a semantic difference, though maybe I'm missing some of the philosophical subtlety there.

Richard Wein said...

I think people who want to define the word "supernatural" (or any other word) should start by asking themselves the purpose of their definition. Are you simply trying to describe how the word is typically used (a reportive definition)? Or are you, as a naturalist, trying to stipulate your position? If the latter, you should just go ahead and describe your position as best you can, without worrying about how well it corresponds to normal usage, and then explain that you're giving a stipulative definition. I feel much of the confusion arises from trying to combine both functions within a single definition.

Jason wrote:

>Also, I don't see much point in trying to distinguish between ontological and epistemological naturalism. It seems to be more a semantic difference, though maybe I'm missing some of the philosophical subtlety there.<

I wasn't suggesting that these are two useful types of naturalism. I was categorising the types of definition people actually give, and arguing that the way people normally use the word "supernatural" has elements of both meanings. Those of us who are trying to account for normal language use (rather than stipulate a position) are by definition concerned with semantic distinctions.

Richard Wein said...

P.S. Of course if your stipulative definition departs too far from normal usage, you may be accused of using misleading language. For example, it might be better for Carrier to label the position described by his definition "mental reductionism" (or something of that sort), not "naturalism".

Richard Wein said...

P.P.S. Correction. All definitions (both reportive and stipulative) are concerned with meaning, and so are making semantic distinctions.

Also, the reportive/stipulative dichotomy may not be as sharp as I've made it appear. A definition can have both functions, if it stipulates our intended meaning but also approximates closely enough to how people already use the word. Even purely reportive definitions are generally only approximations, since words cover a spectrum of meanings and those meanings can be complex. Still, I think it's important to bear this distinction in mind, and think about the extent to which you're reporting and to which you're stipulating.

Jason Streitfeld said...


I agree that semantic distinctions can be important. My comment was only about identifying the substance of naturalism, as it is commonly defined. My suggestion was that, in this case at least, there is no clear substantive difference between ontological and epistemological naturalism. I think these are different ways of advocating the same point of view.

For example, you say that epistemological naturalism relates the supernatural "to what we can know, how we can know it, or what we do know at a given time." You contrast that with ontological naturalism, which attempts "to categorise phenomena without regard to how we can know about them." In theory, it looks like there's room for a distinction here. But, in practice, I'm not so sure.

You say Carrier's definition is an example of ontological, and not epistemological, naturalism. And yet, I think we both agree that what Carrier is talking about isn't really naturalism. I'd call it physicalism. You suggested "mental reductionism," which also makes sense to me. So I think we agree that Carrier's definition is not an example of ontological naturalism.

That leaves your second suggested example of ontological naturalism: "any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy." That actually looks more like a definition of "supernatural." To transform that into a definition of "naturalism," we should say: the belief that all phenomena have their basis in the spatio-temporal realm of matter and energy.

That's a possible definition, though I think some naturalists would resist it on the grounds that matter and energy, not to mention space and time as we know them, may not be fundamental elements in nature. But, again, I think this is a possible definition of "naturalism," and a good number of naturalists may find it agreeable. The question is, does this definition differ substantively from an epistemological one?

I suggest not. I think the same naturalists who would accept this "ontological" definition would also accept the following "epistemological" one: naturalism is the belief that all phenomena are theoretically knowable through science, as the study of the spatiotemporal realm of matter and energy.

Thus, I think the epistemological and ontological definitions are just different ways of saying the same thing.

I don't think you agree with me here, though, because you say, "We can find good reasons for rejecting both types of definition, and I suggest the reason for that is that the way we use the word has both epistemic and ontological components."

Your claim is that an acceptable definition would have to combine both the ontological and epistemological, such that neither one is sufficient on its own. Obviously I disagree, because I think the two are substantively equivalent in this case.

Also, you seem to have suggested that my definition is more stipulative, and not descriptive of the way the terms are generally used. I beg to differ. As my previous post indicates, I'm not arbitrarily defining "naturalism" to present my own view. Rather, I'm tracing this definition to the history of 20th century philosophy. More than that, I'm offering it as a possibility to others who self-identify as naturalists. I predict that many will find it agreeable.

True, this is the definition of "naturalism" that makes the most sense to me--but that is because this is the definition which seems to best capture the spirit of naturalism as it has evolved since the early 20th century.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I left out a step in my chain of reasoning. It's not just that people who are likely to embrace the ontological definition are also likely to embrace the epistemological one. That would only show a correlation, and not substantive equivalence, between the two definitions. Rather, I think that people who accept one would accept the other for the same reasons.

Though, again, I admit I may be missing some philosophical subtlety which distinguishes ontological from epistemological naturalism. Perhaps somebody has shown that you can reject one variety without rejecting the other. However, I'm not aware that this has been done.

Unknown said...

Jason, it seems that you definitely didn't get my second point because, well, you walked right into it [grin].

"So, if you were able to accelerate or decelerate the perception of time with mutterings and hand gestures, we should approach it as a natural phenomenon. Perhaps we'll never be able to understand it. But at no point would we have evidence or reason to suppose it was inherently beyond the scope of all possible scientific discovery. So why should we call it supernatural?"

See, what I was describing there was, in fact, pure magic: muttering incantations and gesturing with the hands to do something that the laws of nature say that we shouldn't be able to do. So here you are essentially asking "Why should we consider magic supernatural?" to which my reply would be "Because if we don't consider magic inherently supernatural we can't consider ANYTHING inherently supernatural". Thus making the term natural pretty much meaningless, and the philosophy of naturalism meaningless along with it. After all, it would seem to boil down to, using what I think is your progression: natural is that which science can study, science can study anything that can be shown to exist, therefore the natural is everything that exists. And note that this isn't empirical, but by definition; if it was empirical, at least there'd be a chance of arguing against it.

This bleeds into your discussions of falsification. The claim of "There are no supernatural entities" seems to be one that is begging for someone to disprove by pointing out a supernatural entity that we've proven exists. That's the -- ahem -- natural way to disprove that sort of contention. Except that your definition precludes it. So, in order to examine or refute that philosophy, I would have to attack -- or refuse to accept -- the definition. Which means that that definition gets us no where.

Now, you say that it's an a priri truth, but that's impossible. It's a claim about the world we live in and about what's in it. That can't be a priori; it has to be a posteriori. At any rate, even getting past that you have defined science as being able to study everything that exists, and then defined natural as being everything that science studies. Thus, you clearly define the natural as being everything that exists. Anyone who isn't sure about that is free to cry foul on that; I don't, for example, accept it as an a priori truth that science can study everything that exists OR that natural is best described as just what science studies without clarifying what science can and can't study. So, we're back to wrangling over definitions, but let me just take the skeptical stance here: can you demonstrate to me why I should accept your definition? Especially when I can replace natural with "existent" and lose nothing?

Russell, I'm not sure you were referring to me, but this is what I meant by naturalism becoming meaningless: if I can't use it to at least in general identify natural and supernatural things, and if it reduces to "there do not exist things that do not exist", it's meaningless. Or, to put it better perhaps, vacuously true.

Unknown said...

I just wanted to separate this issue out from the previous discussions, so sorry about the double post.

Epistemic naturalism and ontological naturalism are importantly difference claims. Epistemic naturalism says that all we will ever be able to know are things that are natural. This doesn't in any way entail that there are no things that are not natural or that the supernatural doesn't exist or even that we shouldn't BELIEVE that supernatural things exist, just that we'll never be able to know that supernatural things exist. In short, it's a claim about human understanding and the limits of that.

Ontological naturalism, on the other hand, it seems to me commits someone to saying that there really AREN'T such things in the world that aren't natural. That's a far stronger claim. Also note that if the epistemic naturalist is right the ontological naturalist is overreaching the bounds of what they can know to make that claim.

So, yeah, there's an important difference in commitments there. Or, at least, it seems so for me. Even if they use the same reasons to come to those conclusions, the epistemic naturalist stops short of the ontological naturalist's position based on their view of what can be known, making them not only different positions, but positions that actually clash interestingly.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Allan, you say, "if we don't consider magic inherently supernatural we can't consider ANYTHING inherently supernatural."

First, I doubt many supernaturalists equate the supernatural with magic. Second, why does there have to be something we designate as "the supernatural"? Third, I think you are at cross purposes. You want something to be "inherently supernatural," but you are defining "supernatural" in contingent terms, with respect to a given body of knowledge. If "supernatural" is defined in contingent terms, nothing is inherently supernatural.

You say naturalism, as I've defined it, is irrefutable, because it is not based on empirical observation. I disagree. For one thing, the terms "natural" and "supernatural" are not defined by any empirical standards of measurement. You haven't suggested any empirical standard of measurement, either. All you've said is that what runs contrary to our scientific understanding is magic, and therefore supernatural. You can define your terms that way, but I don't think many supernaturalists define supernaturalism in contingent terms. It seems arbitrary.

Also, as I've noted, you can argue against naturalism as I've defined it. You can argue against the coherence of the definition. Similarly, you can argue that this definition does not pick out anything relevant to discussions of naturalism.

You say naturalism is "a claim about the world we live in and about what's in it." Why do you say that? It's a claim about our means of gaining knowledge of the world. Calling something "natural" does not ascribe to it any unique property.

You say, "I don't, for example, accept it as an a priori truth that science can study everything that exists OR that natural is best described as just what science studies without clarifying what science can and can't study."

Maybe we just don't understand science in the same way, then.

I view naturalism as a limitation on what we can say about science, and not as a limitation on what we can do with science. As such, it's more of a political position than anything else. Science would have no need for naturalism, if it weren't for efforts to curtail scientific progress in the name of the supernatural.

I'm not trying to sell naturalism to people who don't have any stake in this debate. I'm just trying to clarify some muddy waters. Notice that scientists don't classify any objects of scientific discovery as "natural" or "supernatural." The term "natural" only arises as a rejoinder to supernaturalists who attempt to place limits on what phenomena can be scientifically explained--and they do this irrationally, without any clear notion of what makes something supernatural. So, like you, I don't see much point in calling something "natural", except when arguing against supernaturalists. The point is that supernaturalists do not have a legitimate philosophical position, because they have no basis for calling anything "supernatural," and yet they use the term as if it had some dire consequences for scientific discovery. It would be okay to just ignore them, if they didn't have political influence. That's why naturalism is important.

You want a reason to adopt my definition of "naturalism." I've pointed out how prominent naturalists have used the term in the past. I believe my definition is consistent with what is common in--or at least gets at the general spirit of--their various views. What else can I do?

Jason Streitfeld said...

If somebody claims to be an ontological naturalist, but not an epistemological one, I'd press them on what they meant by "natural." I predict that their answer to that question will reveal that their position has an epistemological foundation. Either that, or they will not have a coherent answer at all.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Allan, I said we may not agree on how to understand science. More clearly, I think we may just have different approaches to epistemology. I'm more Wittgensteinian. I think we often fail to make sense, even when it seems obvious to us that we are speaking rationally. For example, I don't think it makes sense to say that there are things that exist which science cannot study. I know it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to say; but when analyzed, I don't think it stands to reason. What it would mean is that there are facts which cannot be described by any process of describing facts.

To reject my view of science and naturalism, you would have to accept the claim that there are inherently indescribable facts. But facts are describable by definition. So it's a contradiction in terms.

What this means, I think, is that you can believe in the indescribable--you can believe in the supernatural--but not rationally. That's why people call it "faith."

Unknown said...


I think I misunderstood you on the ontological/epistemic naturalism divide. I agree that if you are an ontological naturalist, you will also be an epistemic naturalist. It would be very odd to argue that no supernatural things exist and to not then argue that methologically we should approach the world from only natural methods. However, I will say that one can quite easily be an epistemic naturalist without making any claims about whether or not supernatural things really exist, and therefore not being an ontological one. And, in some sense, if one is a strong epistemic naturalist one should not accept ontological naturalism because one should hold that one cannot know whether or not supernatural things exist.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Allan, but wouldn't an epistemological naturalist have to make some kind of ontological commitment? That is, if they define "the supernatural" in some way so that it is outside the boundaries of human understanding, then either (1) they are making a vacuous claim, or (2) they are saying something about what is supernatural--namely, that it has some property which makes it unknowable. That is an ontological claim, is it not?

Unknown said...


The big issue here is that you seem to be taking a political stance to the opinions of your purported opposition, and I think you get that very, very wrong. While you're right that natural doesn't ascribe to it a unique property, and never has, in general it was used to denote a set of properties that something had to have or didn't have. In short, natural WAS a classification. And then a claim of "There are no supernatural entities" reduces to "The only things that exist are the things that can be classified as natural".

This is what spawned my "magic" comment. I was not, in fact, arguing that anything outside the scope of science is magic. What I was doing was pointing out that in all of the debates from the time the terms natural and supernatural came into existence, magic was considered supernatural. So if you claim that the definition of the word natural would mean that magic would be natural if only it existed, we can see that this has to be a problematic definition, and not one that, at least, you can reasonably claim applies to "supernaturalists". Supernaturalists -- and most naturalists -- never considered the possibility that magic could be natural without there being major changes to the concept of magic. You, however, seem to have done that simply by relating the definition of natural.

That, to me, indicates that there's something wrong with your definition, at least in how it applies to what the actual debate was. You cannot, then, use your definition to make complaints about what supernaturalists do. I have no doubt that some do react the way you say they do, but the initial philosophical position is CLEARLY not as you described it.

In short, you justify your stance that they don't have a valid philosophical position by defining their position out of existence, which they can certainly cry foul over.

As for me, my main reply to your definition is that it is meaingless. As I argued, it reduces to "All that exists exists". I can replace the term natural with existent and have there be no difference. Thus, while natural and supernatural started out as classifications of concepts -- not things; I did not mean to imply that supernatural things existed -- there are no concepts that I can classify as supernatural ... a priori. So the set of supernatural things is empty based only on your definition. Yes, that might work, but I don't see any reason to grant you that a priori, as long as you want to talk about what's in the world.

So, then, the key question: do you think ghosts natural or supernatural? What about gods? What about magic? If you can't say without proving whether or not they exist, then you've got a meaningless term there.

I also disagree that the contention between us is over describable and undescribable. If I consider supernatural concepts, I'll certainly claim that they can be described well-enough to be identifiable concepts. The problem is whether or not science can study them. And one issue I'd point out is that it is possible that science cannot study everything, at least properly. So, again, I have no reason to accept your definitions, and so have no reason to think what you think about natural and supernatural things. And, to be honest, I can't see what I could possibly SAY about natural and supernatural things using your definition ...

Jason Streitfeld said...

Allan, I don't think you've quite grasped my position here. You say, "I don't see any reason to grant you that a priori, as long as you want to talk about what's in the world."

But I'm not talking about what's in the world. I'm talking about what does and doesn't make sense to say about science. So your criticism of my view seems way off base.

If you want to appeal to some historical arguments or debates, please be more specific. I have made direct references to the history of naturualism as a philosophical position. If you have a problem with the references I've offered, I'd like to know why. If you have references which you think are worth considering, please share them.

Now, if supernaturalists want to cry foul, they can. To prove me wrong, all they have to do is present a coherent philosophical position. I am not the one defining their tenable philosophical view out of existence. I'm just pointing out that it doesn't exist.

If "supernatural" has some use--apart from referring to whatever we don't understand--then please let me know.

To answer your questions: "do you think ghosts natural or supernatural? What about gods? What about magic?"

First of all, I don't think Penn and Teller are supernatural. If you mean something else by "magic," please explain.

Second, I don't believe in ghosts. How could something that never existed be either natural or supernatural? If ghosts were to exist--if it were possible for a part of a person to survive in the world after they were long dead, then I would think there was some possibility of understanding how that was the case. So, yes, I would include it within the realm of possible scientific discovery--I wouldn't call it supernatural. Same with gods, though I tend to think that the term "God" is defined out of conceivability.

But your test is suspicious. You say, "If you can't say without proving whether or not they exist, then you've got a meaningless term there."

How is that? Consider this question: is the man in a blue shirt standing exactly 500 kilometers due east of you wearing a red hat?

If you cannot say without proving that such a man exists, does that mean the notion of a man wearing a red hat is meaningless? I don't think so.

Your view is that, if science can corroborate that my dead aunt Lucy is haunting my basement, then science will have made a breakthrough in the supernatural realm. (btw, I don't have an aunt Lucy.)

In my view there is no scientific basis for defining anything as supernatural. Sure, the headlines might make good use of that term, but there will be no scientific quantification of the supernatural as such. The term "supernatural" would not play a role in the scientific discourse. It will be entirely superfluous. People would (hopefully) realize that calling such things "supernatural" had no function at all.

And that's what's generally happened throughout history. Some phenomena have, at one time or another, been considered "magical" or "supernatural", or "witchcraft," and then science came along and explained them. Now they're just part of nature. Why is that a problem?

Kirth Gersen said...

"And that's what's generally happened throughout history. Some phenomena have, at one time or another, been considered 'magical' or 'supernatural,' or 'witchcraft,' and then science came along and explained them. Now they're just part of nature. Why is that a problem?"

I have to admit that I never really understood the distinction, either. It always seemed like "supernatural" was nothing more than a convenient catch-word for "anything that people want to believe in, but which has no evidence whatsoever to support it."

But then again, I'm admittedly approaching things from a skeptic's viewpoint. Is there someone here who believes in the stuff who can give an objective definition? If so, I'd be interested to take a look at it.

Unknown said...


The big difference between you and me is that I'm talking about the concept and the concept exclusively, while you seem to be adding notions about whether or not the concept is instantiated to your argument. Take your example of the man wearing the red hat. Of course I'd deny that "wearing a red hat" is meaningless, but I'd also say that the meaning of that concept is in no way dependent on my proving that there is a man 500 km away from me wearing a red hat. I know -- and have to know -- what "wearing a red hatness" is BEFORE I can evaluate that statement. I can, therefore, define and understand the concept of "wearing a red hatness" without having to appeal to an actual instantiated case of "wearing a red hatness". I can understand and define the concept without there ever having been anyone who wore a red hat, and I can do that even if it is physically impossible for anyone to wear a red hat (and so no one ever has or ever will wear a red hat). So, "wearing a red hatness" AS A CONCEPT is not dependent in any way for its meaning on determining whether or not something exists that fits the concept; on the contrary, we couldn't even being to look to see if something exists to fit the concept if we couldn't define the concept first.

Thus when you ask how something that does not exist could be natural or supernatural, my reply is that we can judge the CONCEPT as to whether it can fit that classification system -- as I mentioned before -- of natural or supernatural. I can judge things that do not exist as being natural or supernatural assuming that a) I know the concept that thing and b) I know what it means for something to be natural or supernatural. But classifying something as natural or supernatural should not in any way imply that the thing exists or does not exist a priori. I should be able to classify completely fictional things as natural or supernatural. Take the OT of Star Wars: I can classify X-wings as natural and the Force as supernatural (leaving midicholrians out for a moment) even though neither actually exist. I judge the concepts, not the things in themselves (necessarily).

Thus, that is my demand: you need to define natural -- and thus, by extension, supernatural -- in such a way that I can classify things as natural and supernatural a priori. But I'll settle a naturalist claim of "There are no supernatural entities" a posteriori, by looking at the world.

Now, you may be holding a view that doesn't fit into the claim of "There are no supernatural entities" and so are not talking about the world at all. Fair enough. But the debate about naturalism that INCLUDES supernaturalists IS about that sort of claim: that there is nothing that can be called supernatural. So you don't get to make any comments about their position if you aren't addressing the fundamentals of the debate. And it's also a bit of a problem if your wandering into this debate ends up defining everything that people were arguing over as not being supernatural, even though both sides agreed they were [grin].

This issue with concepts also causes your issues with the epistemic/ontological divide. The epsitemic naturalists look at the concepts of supernatural things and say that if there is such a thing that exists with those properties, humans could never know it. That definitely stops them short of any ontological claim, since they say nothing about whether or not those things exist or not.

As for your final question, I do have a big problem with it being the case -- even potentially -- that you could take an existing supernatural concept (ie something that pretty much everyone accepts would be supernatural if it existed), make no changes to its purported properties, and then call it natural just because someone proved it existed. That's not a good way to refute a supernaturalist philosophical position, in my opinion.

Jason Streitfeld said...


Your comments do not seem to reflect an understanding of my views or arguments. I'm afraid I don't have the time to try any harder to reach some common understanding. Thanks for the discussion.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I should also note, Allan, that you have made no attempt to answer any of the criticisms of your own view which I have presented. Frankly, I don't think you have presented a coherent or consistent view of naturalism or supernaturalism at all. So it is a little hard to respect your attempt to place demands on me, or anyone else, in this discussion. Hopefully, if we meet again, we'll be a bit more successful in communicating our ideas to each other.

Jason Streitfeld said...

One more point, about epistemological and ontological naturalism, since we seem to have a coherent discussion going on that front, if not elsewhere

Let's call an Epistemological Naturalism (EN) somebody who claims that there may or may not be entities with certain properties (let's call them X-properties) and that any entity with x-properties is theoretically undiscoverable. No matter how science evolves, not matter who or what is doing the investigation, they will be unable to learn about entities with x-properties.

Such a position entails the theoretical possibility of there being entities with x-properties. It is a claim about what is discoverable, but it is based on a notion of ontological possibility. The EN is ontologically committed to the theoretical possibility of entities with x-properties, and they are committed to the position that these properties correlate with (if not explain) undiscoverability. That is an ontological commitment.

Jason Streitfeld said...

And, just to be clear, while the so-called "ontological naturalist" and "epistemological naturalist" do not make the same ontological commitment, they both make ontological commitments which don't make sense to me. The problem is that there is no definition of the x-properties, so there's no sense in claiming that entities with x-properties are metaphysically possible or impossible. There's no sense in talking about it, because it's undefined--in fact, it's undefinable. (If it were definable, then we couldn't define it out of theoretical discoverability without contradicting ourselves.) That's why I think debates between ontological and epistemological naturalism are misguided.

Jason Streitfeld said...

In the spirit of giving things another try, maybe this observation can help us out a little.

Allan, you're under the impression that I'm following some natural/supernatural classification system. I'm not.

If you think there is some such system that we should all respect, then please make a case for it.

If you agree that there is no such system, then what is your argument? That we should have such a system? That we should go out of our ways to create one? Why? To serve what and whom?

Or is your position that there doesn't have to be one, and that all this talk of natural-vs.-supernatural is a waste of time?

And if that is your position, then why do you think we should establish some kind of limitations on science before we can say anything about "the supernatural?" What sort of limitations on science do you think we can (or should) try to establish?

And I do think you want to establish some kind of limitations on science, unless you've changed your mind since you said we need "to settle what science can study and what science can't study BEFORE we try to prove that any particular 'supernatural' thing exists."

Unknown said...


Thanks to Brian from Accomodation Watch who found this old article by Russell:


The post pretty much sums up my concerns, especially this part:

"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."

(Okay, I'd slightly quibble over what can and can't be studied by science, since the definition of science and the concept examined should allow you to do that, unless one of the concepts changes).

About all I'd add is that I'm coming at it from a non-naturalist perspective, and so remembering the times when people argued "Well, since the supernatural can't be studied by science, and science can study everything, then nothing supernatural can exist. So gods/ghosts/etc don't exist." I'm trying to avoid that.

I'm also trying to avoid cases where a naturalist accepts the line above but then still wants to consider the things we traditionally called supernatural in some way "special" just because we used to call them supernatural. So, if I saw what really did look like a ghost, that shouldn't be considered any more extraordinary than anything else that seemed equally improbable. So if someone I really trusted told me that they had that experience, I wouldn't reject it any faster or more reasonably than if they told me that they saw the friend of mine who never drinks getting sloshed in a bar.

Unknown said...


So, to your specific comments, my claim is more that the constant naturalist/supernaturalist debate started over these terms being considered a classification system. I accept that you don't see it that way, but then you have to accept that if you don't consider it that way you can't really say too much about the supernaturalist philosphical position based on your definition. They clearly don't accept your definition, and it's a little difficult for you to claim that they don't have a coherent philosophical position when you drop a definition and debate on them that they've never actually participated in.

As for my limiting science, you've left out part of that quote. The full one is:

"I agree that Jason's is better than the others, as long as two things are in place:

1) There is a good definition to settle what science can study and what science can't study BEFORE we try to prove that any particular "supernatural" thing exists."

This was also my replying to your proposed definition, and specifically this part of it:

"Also, "natural" (and "physical" as well) seems to mean "describable with scientific methodology." "

I concede that later you do seem to posit that naturalism means that science can study all of the causes. If I'd caught that, I could have started with the right criticism.

At any rate, I think my two objections also hold to your definition without considering the broader supernaturalist issue. If your definition is "describable with scientific methodology", you do have to, first and foremost, allow us to determine what would or wouldn't be so describable. If you can't say, then this is no better a definition than just saying "natural". And if that determination is everything A PRIORI (ie anything that can be studied at all is natural), then I can replace the word natural with studyable or knowable in all cases without losing any functionality. So what need do we have of the word "natural"?

And finally, my personal viewpoint is to reject the natural/supernatural distinction because I find naturalism incoherent philosophical, in all forms. Either it makes a statement that we clearly don't have enough evidence for, defines natural things in such a way that we've proven "supernatural" things exist already and so proven it wrong, or defines natural in such a way that anything that exists is natural by definition, making it the equivalent of "existent" and so vacuously true. But that's not really what I'm defending here.

Jason Streitfeld said...


You support the following quotation: "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 agree. But, again, I am not guilty of this charge.

I do not define "the supernatural" as "whatever is not natural." I do not define it as "that which does not exist." So, again, your criticisms are misguided.

I began my participation in this discusison by pointing out how "supernatural" is commonly defined. I am not changing the established definition. I'm just saying I don't think it makes sense.

Allan, we both reject the natural/supernatural distinction. But for some reason you think this makes naturalism a bankrupt philosophy. I think you're just confused about what naturalism is, because you apparently think it requires a natural/supernatural distinction. It does not.

You say, "I concede that later you do seem to posit that naturalism means that science can study all of the causes. If I'd caught that, I could have started with the right criticism."

I suggest you pay closer attention next time, then. You could have saved us some time.

You say, "If your definition is 'describable with scientific methodology,' you do have to, first and foremost, allow us to determine what would or wouldn't be so describable."

But, in my view, there are no possible theoretical limitations on what can be scientifically discovered. Obviously we cannot describe that which cannot be described. So we cannot describe that which cannot be discovered.

Again, the view that science can describe all of the causes is not a view about what exists. It says nothing about what science can or cannot describe. So its meaning does not depend on us defining what science can and cannot describe. In other words, you're wrong. I don't have to do what you demand. I don't have to define something out of scientific discoverability--indeed, my view is that such a task simply cannot be done!

You refer to people who have made this argument: "Well, since the supernatural can't be studied by science, and science can study everything, then nothing supernatural can exist. So gods/ghosts/etc don't exist."

Who (or, I should say, who of any philosophical stature) has ever made that argument? It's certainly nothing like the argument I'm making here, and it does not seem representative of naturalism at all.

You say, "the constant naturalist/supernaturalist debate started over these terms being considered a classification system." Can you be more specific? When do you think the debate started? Who were the first self-described naturalists?

As I've suggested, naturalism started in the early 20th century as a philosophical allegiance to scientific methodology. If you have evidence to the contrary, I'd like to see it.

Now, I don't think you've answered my main criticism of your view. You claim that some things "ghosts, gods, magic" are worthy of the name "supernatural." Yet, on the one hand, you deny a natural/supernatural distinction. That makes your position inconsistent. On the other hand, you claim that scientists should regard these things as being in some special category--that by calling something "magic" or "the supernatural," we are saying something of import to science.

If you agree with me that there is no point in calling anything "supernatural," because the term is not coherent, then I don't see where we disagree. All I see is that you are confused about what naturalism really is.

Unknown said...


Ah, I get it now: we're both conflating two different uses of the term "naturalism". The two I'm referring to can be summed up as N1 = There are no supernatural entities and N2 - Science is continuous with philosophy (or all fields).

Fortunately, for the most part I reject both [grin].

N1, to me, refers to the classic debate that's been running for hundreds of years over things like ghosts, gods, miracles, magic, etc that seemed to violate the natural laws and so violated science. At least in part because a lot of the time, they didn't seem to be things that could be physical. For views on this, see Descartes about mind and Hume about miracles (Hume argues that miracles are violations of the laws of nature and so one should always prefer to believe that the person telling you about them is lying to believing they actually exist).

When you refer to the philosophy of supernaturalists, this is the version of naturalism that they are opposing.

I reject N1 on the basis that no one can define natural coherently to make the proposition "There are no supernatural entities" either not vacuously true or proven false.

Now, I encounter N2 inside specific philosophical fields, referring to naturalized epistemolgoy and naturalized ethics specifically. These are claims that the scientific method should be used to do the conceptual analysis that philosophy does and get the answers it does. People who reject N2 are NOT, in fact, associated with supernaturalists necessarily; they just reject the idea that the scientific method can work for those fields.

I reject N2 because in epistemology and ethics I argue that there is an important normative aspect to those fields and science can't do the normative. I reject N2 in Philosophy of Mind because I think that the important things about consciousness are subjective and science can't do the subjective, at least not definitively (which is exactly what Thomas Nagel argued and, if I recall correctly, is pretty much what Chalmers, at least originally, argued).

The interesting thing is that rejecting either N1 or N2 implies that there is knowledge that we can have that we can't get through science.

The big problem, then, is as I stated above: Supernaturalists refer to N1, not N2. Your definition fits squarely into N2, but then can't be applied to the supernaturalists, at least as an overall criticism of their position, because their position is going after a different form of naturalism. There is some overlap, as I noted.

I hope this helps.

Unknown said...


Let me clarify a little on my position on N1. To me, the definition of supernatural relies on the definition of natural. So, if you can't define "natural" in N1 interestingly, you can't define "supernatural" interestingly either. Leaving me as a non-naturalist in N1, but one who would certainly feel that charging supernaturalists with coming up with a definition of supernatural that is coherent is not a fair demand to make, obviously.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I'm not necessarily advocating N2, but I'm not arguing against it, either. My view is compatible with, but not committed to, N2.

By the way, as I noted earlier, Chalmers calls himself a naturalist. He's just not a physicalist. So you shouldn't appeal to Chalmers as a justification for rejecting naturalism.

Incidentally, I'm a physicalist. I don't find Nagel or Chalmers persuasive.

And, incidentally, I agree that science cannot do the normative. But I'm a moral noncognitivist--I don't think there are moral facts at all. So ethics does not stipulate a set of facts which lie outside of scientific discovery.

You refer to discussion in modern philosophy about things like "ghosts, gods, miracles, magic, etc that seemed to violate the natural laws and so violated science." Of course, those "things" never seemed to violate anything, because there was no evidence that they existed. (Actually, maybe we should treat ghosts separately here, since ghosts are not defined out of observability, unlike gods, miracles and magic.)

The issue--for example, with Hume on miraclces--was not that miracles were observed to violate some natural laws, but that the concept of miracle denied the possibility of having a justified belief in one. Here's an excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

So despite Hume's a priori arguments against justified belief in miracles he argues that under certain circumstances the “evidence” may justify belief in the occurrence of an extraordinary event as long as we have experienced events analogous in type. However, an extraordinary event is not necessarily a miraculous one. In the case of extraordinary events that are well attested to and for which we have suitable experiential analogies, Hume thinks that the most we are justified in believing is that the event did occur — not that the event is a miracle. We are to “search for the [natural] causes whence it might be derived.”

It looks like my view is quite close to Hume's. Hume said there can be no justified belief in miracles. I'm saying there can be no rational belief in miracles.

In any case, as Hume's example demonstrates, the tradition you mention was not concerned with a set of known phenomena, but with conceptual issues relating to what we can and cannot know. So it did not depend upon a clear supernatural/natural system of classifying objects of experience.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Regarding your second comment, Allan . . .

Of course, the need for a supernatural/natural distinction came out of the rise of formal science as a challenge to theology. The notion of "natural" was always tied to what was open to scientific discovery. Yet, because of the lingering (and sometimes oppressive) religious influence, it was always up against claims pertaining to something else, something beyond what science could discover. As the philosophy of science developed, the notion of a "beyond" became unfeasible. It became apparent that the very notion of a "beyond scientific discovery" was incoherent.

So, the shift to naturalism is just a shift away from theology, a firm rejection of the belief that there is some coherent "beyond" which could be included in any account of nature.

So, no, I think you are wrong to protect the supernaturalist's right to define "supernatural." The term "natural" has a coherent definition, even if superfluous. (As I've said, the term would be unnecessary if it weren't for the political influence of supernaturalists.) However, the term "supernatural" is not coherent. There's an asymmetry there.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Sorry, I meant you're wrong to protect the supernaturalist's right not to define "supernatural."

Unknown said...


This has kinda dissolved to being a discussion between the two of us, and I'm not sure if anyone else is even reading anymore ...

At any rate, first, you're missing WHY Hume said that we should consider the event extraordinary instead of miracles. He said that because he said that the definition of miracle is precisely that it violates natural laws, and no one is ever justified in believing that something could do that. He did define natural laws upwards a bit (ie that we didn't know them or what their precise nature was), but that still puts him squarely into the camp that I was talking about with N1.

As for it being a classification system, Hume talks precisely about miracles, so he isn't just talking about overarching conceptual issues, but specific events called "miracles". That we have for quite some time been able to call some things "supernatural" -- ghosts, gods, telepathy, telekinesis, etc -- works against your claim of that as well. The big debate in N1 is over if there is anything that is supernatural, and if specific things that were considered such therefore existed. That's an empirical claim, following from a definition. You are correct that they didn't know that these things existed, but again that's mixing the concept with the actual existence of the thing; you can classify proposed things on the basis of the concept of them without proving that they actually exist.

As for Chalmers, it's been a while since I read him, but I do think that he at least argues that science would have to change significantly to be able to study consciousness. You have to be careful not to assume that when someone says "naturalism" that they mean precisely what you mean by it.

Finally, supernatural is and can only be defined relative to natural. If supernaturalists define supernatural, they will be defining natural as well. And vice versa. But if you want to hold any form of naturalism, you really should define natural for yourself, and then fit it into the appropriate debates.

And I disagree that "beyond natural" was made incoherent. Unfeasible in this world, perhaps, but not incoherent ... except, perhaps, by changes to what natural meant to include everything possible by definition. Which is, as I have said, a very bad way to refute a competing philosophical claim.

Unknown said...

Okay, I just looked up Chalmers again, and it's kinda both: he says that consciousness being non-physical doesn't mean that it's anti-scientific, but does say that you couldn't argue that everything follows from physical fundamental principles; you'd have to add the fundamental principles of consciousness as fundamental principles to do science on consciousness. I might be missing some things later, but this is what I found on a quick skimming.

How successful his argument will be will depend on how strongly you feel that science needs to have physical -- and only physical -- fundamental principles.

(I got it from "The Conscious Mind", pg 126 in my version. It's in the first few pages of "Naturalistic Dualism")

Jason Streitfeld said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Streitfeld said...


As I see it, you have two objections here:

First, you say that my understanding of naturalism makes the word "natural" superfluous and uninteresting, and that I therefore have no basis for criticizing supernaturalists for their lack of a coherent definition. But there's a clear difference between being uninteresting and being incoherent. I agree that, in a sense, naturalism is uninteresting. That doesn't mean I've failed to capture the essence or spirit of naturalism as it is commonly understood. And, in any case, the definition I've offered is coherent. Supernaturalism, on the other hand, and for reasons I've already presented,is incoherent.

Second, you object to my argument that supernaturalism is incoherent on the grounds that many things are, by convention, called "supernatural." You refer to ghosts, telekenesis, gods, and the like. As I've noted, this is arbitrary and without philosophical weight. It is not a philosophical view.

Sure, people have a right to use the word "supernatural," even when there are scientific explanations for whatever they're talking about. People can use whatever words they want. But that doesn't mean they have a coherent philosophical or scientific point.

By the way, I think you've got Hume wrong. His argument was purely conceptual. He talks specifically about "miracles," yes, but he doesn't define this ostensively. His argument doesn't depend on us defining any specific event or types of events as "miracles," and it doesn't depend upon us defining any particular events as being "natural." It's an a priori argument which rejects the possibility of justifiably referring to anything as a miracle.

Hume's view isn't simply that those entities we call "supernatural" do not exist. Rather, his argument is that we have no justification for referring to anything as "supernatural" (which is synonymous with "miraculous" here). Your discussion of Hume and N1 misses this subtle distinction, and so muddies the waters a bit.

As for Chalmers: Your warning, or admonition, or whatever it was, is not compelling. If you think I've misrepresented him, I suggest you carefully reread all of my comments before you argue that point.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Allan, I didn't catch your last post about Chalmers until after I posted.

So what's your point?

As I said, Chalmers' naturalistic dualism regards the mental as possibly open to scientific discovery. He only rejects physicalism, not naturalism. So you're not offering anything to counter my interpretation of Chalmers, and I don't see why you'd want to.

But I disagree with your claim that "How successful his argument will be will depend on how strongly you feel that science needs to have physical -- and only physical -- fundamental principles."

No, Allan. How successful his argument is depends on its logical validity and coherence, and whether or not there are any good arguments against it. His position ultimately rests upon the knowledge and conceivability arguments, and I don't think there's a good case to make for either. So I see no reason to think Chalmers has made a successful argument against physicalism--and this has nothing to do with whether or not physicalism is true.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Another word or two about Hume . . .

First, I think his argument about miracles must be understood in relation to his naturalism, and not as an argument for it. He bases his rejection of miracles on the premise that all of our knowledge--even possible knowledge of a being capable of producing miracles--is based on observation and experience. He is therefore able to argue against the possibility of evidence for a miracle. For even if we were to witness an extraordinary event, we would not be witness the miraculous as such. We'd just be experiencing an anomaly which required further investigation to explain.

I grant that, at times, it looks like Hume's argument is a posteriori. But what he's doing, I think, is making an a priori argument about the possibilities of a posteriori arguments. He writes,

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Source

He explicitly refers to arguments from experience as examples to illustrate his point--but his argument is not itself an argument from experience.

Second, Joseph Agassi (1986) makes some observations about Hume and naturalism which support my views here:

the traditional sense of "naturalism" is
straightforward and seems to have been instituted by
Pierre Bayle to designate the view of the world as devoid
of all supernatural intervention, the view of the world
as 'disenchanted," to use the equivalent term accredited
to Max Weber.

Naturalism, in this sense, is as I have said: a rejection of supernaturalism. You seem to have it backwards: you think that supernaturalism is a response to naturalism.