Methodological naturalism: does it exclude the supernatural?

Over the past week or so we’ve had a bit of to-and-fro about whether there is any evidence that could in principle count as supporting the existence of gods.  My answer of “yes” seems to be a minority view, but it’s true in the sense that yes, I would indeed believe—provisionally—in gods or supernatural forces if I encountered certain types of evidence.

I’m not going to defend my opinion in detail here, but I do want to dispel the accusation, leveled by The Great Decider among others, that that view is not shared by serious philosophers.  For the many of you who appear really engaged by this debate, I urge you to read a new paper in Foundations of Science by Maarten Boudry and two colleagues from the Department of Philosophy at Ghent University  (you can download it either here or here).  I’d also urge you not to pass judgment on Boudry et al. from my brief post here: their manuscript merits reading in entirety.

Methodological naturalism (“MN”) is the commitment of scientific investigation in practice to studying only naturalistic causes and explanations.  Boudry et al. observe, though, that there are really two types of MN:

Intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN) is the a priori philosophical commitment to not even consider supernatural explanations (see the authors’ definition of “supernatural” below).  As Boudry et al. state in a forthcoming paper, under IMN “science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue.”  This is the view expressed by people like Eugenie Scott, Kenneth Miller, and Rob Pennock. It also appears to be the official position of the National Center for Science Education and the semi-official position of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences.

Provisional (or pragmatic) methodological naturalism (PMN),“a provisory and empirically grounded commitment to naturalistic causes and explanations, which in principle is revocable by extraordinary empirical evidence.” As the authors note:

According to this conception, MN did not drop from thin air, but is just the best methodological guideline that emerged from the history of science (Shanks 2004; Coyne 2009; Edis 2006), in particular the pattern of consistent
success of naturalistic explanations. Appeals to the supernatural have consistently proven to be premature, and science has never made headway by pursuing them. The rationale for PMN thus excludes IMN: if supernatural explanations are rejected because they have failed in the past, this entails that, at least in some sense, they might have succeeded. The fact that they didn’t is of high interest and shows that science does have a bearing on the question of the supernatural.

I’m a proponent of PMN, of course; others who seem to agree are Victor Stenger and Richard Dawkins.  P. Z. Myers and the others named above go with IMN.  Boudry et al. go on to claim that IMN is “philosophically indefensible.”

Of course much of this hinges on what you see as the definition of “the supernatural.” (I’d recommend reading Russell Blackford’s analyses of this slippery term here and here.)  Here is Boudry et al.’s definition:

. . . we propose to define ‘supernatural’ as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science (for a similar approach, see Stenger 2008, pp. 14–16).

Here’s an example they give of a “supernatural” phenomena that could be studied by science:

. . . suppose the RCT [randomized controlled trial] in American Heart Journal turned out to confirm the hypothesis of therapeutic efficacy of intercessory prayer.  Moreover, suppose that further experimental work following this demonstration, which would arguably mark a complete revolution in science, indicated that this form of supernatural causation is predictable because it exhibits certain regularities. For instance, it works only with prayers officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, only if the ill person is baptised by a Catholic priest, etc. Though it may be ridiculous to speculate that anything of the sort would ever happen, as no alleged case of miraculous healing has even been authenticated scientifically, if it would, there is no obvious reason why the scientific enterprise would immediately and entirely collapse.  The fact that some prayers actually do help people recover would admittedly cause a complete metaphysical revolution in science (imagine the enthusiasm of theologians), but if the range of action of this supernatural power turned out to be restricted, why would it endanger the rest of our scientific endeavours?

Using this definition, they show that the most common arguments for IMN—those used by the NCSE and others—are philosophically weak.  It’s simply not kosher to say, as does the NCSE that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural.”

The authors also assert that, if you’re philosophically consistent, refuting things like intelligent design under the IMN requires only this dismissal:  “we can’t even scientifically discuss or debate this issue because there is no empirical evidence that bears on the supernatural.”  That’s not the way scientists—and the NCSE—attack creationism, of course.  They take a Designer seriously an an explanation, and then show that the evidence better supports the alternative of evolution.  If you’re an adherent of IMN, why bother?

That in fact seems to be the sentiment of many who are posting on this point. The definition of a god is claimed to be so slippery, so nebulous, that it shouldn’t even be considered as something scientists should debate. But doesn’t that argument also apply to a creationist Designer—or an Intelligent Designer?  After all, how do we know what people mean by an “intelligent Designer”? Without a precise definition of “intelligence” and an explication of how an intelligent Designer should behave, can’t we just wave away the problem without argument?  I would agree with Boudry et al. that even given the absence of a precise specification of “god”, one can still use science to study the supernatural.

The authors also note that IMN can be and has been used as prop for accomodationism:

Elsewhere (Boudry 2009 [reference below]) we have demonstrated that the principle of IMN is also an ill-advised attempt to reconcile science and religion. By excluding the supernatural from science by philosophical fiat, IMN has been grist to the mill of anti-evolutionists intent on accusing scientists of philosophical prejudice and dogmatism. To this end, they have exploited some of the specific philosophical weaknesses discussed in this paper. In our view, the conception of PMN salvages these philosophical problems and provides a more accurate picture of the proper role and rationale of science’s naturalistic methodology.

Do go read the paper, as I’m sure that my precis leaves out important points.

_______

Boudry, M., S. Blancke and J. Braeckman.  2010. How not to attack intelligent design creationism: philosophical misconceptions about methodological naturalism.  Foundations of Science (online) DOI 10.1007/s10699-010-9178-7

Boudry, M. (2009). Methodological naturalism as an intrinsic property of science: Grist to the Mill of intelligent design theory. Paper presented at the conference “150 years after origin: Biological, historical and philosophical perspectives”, November 2009, Toronto.  [JAC: this talk is now a manuscript that is submitted for publication].

208 Comments

  1. Jhjeffery
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    “we propose to define ‘supernatural’ as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science ”

    I cannot be sure I fully understand this definition. But, if it saying what it seems to be saying, literally, the “modern science” qualification promotes anything we cannot now explain to the supernatural. Thus, to the goatherds of the first century, the orbit of the sun around the earth was precipitated by the supernatural. Someone tell me I’m reading this wrong.

    • DamnYankees
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      You’re not. The definition is incoherent and meaningless.

      Like all claims of the supernatural, all this does it build a house on a cracked and incoherent foundation. Merely burying the foundation under layers of obfuscation doesn’t change that fact.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      I think you’re reading it wrong.

      I didn’t get that at all from the definition. They’re not saying that anything we can’t explain is “supernatural”. They’re saying that the supernatural is beyond the bounds of space-time-matter-energy and the “normal” laws of physics. Including, of course, quantum physics.

      • DamnYankees
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

        Which is what? The whole argument of PZ and others is that according to that definition, the “supernatural” is both (1) incoherent and (2) an empty set, by definition.

        • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

          Either that, or indistinguishable from Alice’s Red King’s dream, or Lao Tzu’s butterfly, or the philosopher’s brain-in-a-vat, or Hollywood’s matrix, or your local drug dealer’s stash of psychotropics.

          Cheers,

          b&

        • KG
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

          Well insofar as that is their argument, they are quite clearly wrong. (See, I can make assertions without any supporting argument too!)

        • KG
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          Also, you’ve managed to contradict yourself within a sentence: if the definition is “incoherent”, then it can’t possibly specify anything, even the empty set. “Even primes greater than 2″ is coherent, and does specify the empty set; “Hens morbid great aliquot politicians” is incoherent, and hence doesn’t specify anything.

        • MK
          Posted October 25, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

          It cannot both be incoherent and be the empty set — that is incoherent.

          “supernatural” is tricky because, while it isn’t semantically empty, it is empirically empty. Anything *described* as “supernatural” will turn out either not to exist, or not to be supernatural, because to exist *is* to be natural.

          • JamesM
            Posted June 29, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

            Null set being that the set of all things beyond space-time-energy-etc is an empty set. Incoherent in that “beyond space-time-energy-etc” doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t say anything, and is touted as saying and meaning something.

          • Posted November 20, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

            Concepts (such justice, goodnes, the number 2) exist, but they are not natural!

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        If I did the double slit experiment in front of a bunch of 18th century scientists, do you think they’d say, “Egads! It’s a new law of nature!” or “Egads! magic is real!”?

        Undiscovered scientific truths seem supernatural.

        But I think Russell is smuggling in some teleology into his definition. Notice he uses the phrase “impersonal matter and energy.” Then the supernatural could be some form of matter or energy, but it can’t be impersonal.

        To see that it couldn’t be an impersonal “something-other-than-matter-or-energy” is easy enough. If it has effects on matter/energy, then it is matter/energy (by definition of energy). So Russell’s definition really only excludes impersonal phenomena.

        Which means that when we talk about the “supernatural” what we really mean is that “the part of the universe that has a personality.” That’s actually why my father believes in a higher power. He insists that the universe has a sense of humor (I attribute his evidence to the law of large numbers).

        • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

          Right. If the universe were shown to have a sense of humor, why would that be supernatural? Wouldn’t it mean that a sentient humorous universe was natural?

          Personally, I think if you have sufficiently rigorous definition of “supernatural”, the difference between IMN and PMN collapses, and what you are left with is two options: “I believe the stuff I believe in is real” and “I don’t care if the stuff I believe in is real.”

          • KG
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

            Of course if you insist on defining “natural” to mean “everything that exists”, then nothing could be supernatural. But I’m puzzled that you think this has achieved anything: as Boudry et al. point out (have any of those arguing against their view actually read the paper?), this will not discommode theists, including creobots, in the slightest. They can quite happily accept that their god is natural by that definition: a natural entity that created everything else that exists 6000 years ago, demands worship, and cares deeply what you do with your genitals.

            • Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

              My personal goal is not to win debate points, but to use precise language, observations, and logic to probe the nature of reality.

              I can think of no better definition of “natural” than “something that exists.”

              And, I would agree that, if it were the case that YHWH created the Earth about the same time the Egyptians were perfecting the art of brewing beer, then he would be an entirely natural entity. The next obvious step is to determine if evidence supports the hypothesis that Egyptian beer is older than the Earth; the logical conclusion is obvious.

              These same theists who are so obsessed with divine genitals also make another claim, in addition to YHWH’s terrestrial creation postdating Egyptian brewing: they claim that YHWH can do anything and everything. This particular claim is logically absurd, akin to claiming that he lives north of the North Pole. For example, either YHWH can commit suicide and thus is incapable of doing anything afterwards and thus not omnipotent; or he is incapable of committing suicide and thus incapable of doing something humans do with too much frequency and thus not all-powerful.

              The claim that YHWH is omnipotent is a claim that he is supernatural. The claim is self-evidently, by definition, one of nonexistence.

              Cheers,

              b&

            • MK
              Posted October 25, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

              Of course if you insist on defining “natural” to mean “everything that exists”, then nothing could be supernatural.

              That is correct.


              But I’m puzzled that you think this has achieved anything: as Boudry et al. point out (have any of those arguing against their view actually read the paper?), this will not discommode theists, including creobots, in the slightest.

              Since when does such a failure amount to doing nothing? They are not who I am trying to convince when I put forth rational arguments.

              a natural entity that created everything else that exists 6000 years ago, demands worship, and cares deeply what you do with your genitals.

              These are empirical claims.

        • abb3w
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

          Of course, a side effect of that definition is that since they have personalities, dogs, cats, and dolphins all must be considered “supernatural”.

          • MK
            Posted October 25, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

            You’re misinterpreting “the part of the universe that has a personality” — it refers to an aspect, not a component.

        • Posted October 25, 2010 at 5:44 am | Permalink

          Robert Young discovered the double-slit phenomenon in 1803, so he *was* pretty close to an 18th century scientist. I think that this supports your point, though, that when confronted with a new, completely bizarre effect that runs against everything we understand about nature, mystics want to recruit it as proof of the workings of their supernatural beliefs while scientists want to explore it.

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        Is “supernatural” beyond the bounds of Jesus physics?

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      I agree, I am still not comfortable with this definition of “supernatural.”

  2. Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    It is very interesting that, on this issue — the soundness of IMN — one finds theists on both sides of the question, and opponents of intelligent design as well.

    Philip Kitcher, for instance, whom no one would ever mistake for a supporter of ID, argues:

    “Even postulating an unobserved Creator need be no more unscientific than postulating unobserved particles. What matters is the character of the proposals and the ways in which they are articulated and defended.” (Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism [MIT Press, 1982, p. 125])

    In general, I find Gnu Atheists to be skeptical of IMN, whereas so-called “accomodationists” tend to support the position. That correlation can’t be accidental.

  3. Tulse
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    we propose to define ‘supernatural’ as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science

    The problem with this definition is its artificial dependence on the limitation of “modern” science, and the implicit presumption that anything that falls outside of our current understanding simply isn’t science. This is a standard that surely shifts as science evolves. For example, at the time of its discovery radioactivity was arguably a process that transcended the descriptions of science. Earlier, the discovery of magnetism demonstrated a force that could not be explained by the understanding of the day.

    • TheBear
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      I (quelle surprise!) concur.

      I can understand that they included the reference to our current understanding – because to define the supernatural without a reference to our understanding of the natural is (at least in my view) impossible.

      But this leads us quite quickly to the conclusion that a viable, coherent and stable definition of the supernatural is impossible.

      Some of us would of course argue that it is impossible because the concept the word describes does not exist as a concrete phenomenon. Rather it is a construct to cover what we don’t understand or can’t envision.

      Outside of social science and psychology, the term is in other words scientifically meaningless.

      Anybody who disagrees with me can formulate a definition without referring to what we know – and demonstrate how this definition would be immune to shifts in our understanding of nature and cosmology.

      And just to pre-empt some: Definitions buildt on cases of imaginary constructs like unicorns, gods, Q or Christine O’Donnell’s wisdom won’t convince me.

      • Chris
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        Then again, a viable, coherent and stable definition of science hasn’t been formulated either, despite much work on the problem. Philosophically, definitions are always a problem – there are always gray areas and fuzzy boundaries caused by conceptual difficulties and linguistic issues, so while we all accept science as the best arbiter of truth despite its being ill-defined, it seems to me we could therefore provisionally accept certain definitions of the supernatural for the purposes of scientific investigation or philosophical discussion, despite their also being ill-defined.

        (Lest anyone think I’m defending the supernatural, I am not. I reject all of it largely for the reasons outlined in Boudry’s definition of PMN – there could be or could have been evidence somewhere along the way, but there has never been.)

        • Posted October 22, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

          You might want to add “widely accepted” to that list of qualifiers. “Competitive testing of descriptions of experience selecting for maximum probable correctness given the assumption of existence of some pattern” works for me. Of course, that’s a bit colloquial; a more rigorous form requires giving more math. (Which, of course, means “coherent” in a philosophical sense, but not “coherent” such that a typical member of a lay audience can readily grasp it.)

    • DamnYankees
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      There’s a further problem, which is the use of the word “transcend”. I literally have no idea what it means in that definition. What the heck can it *possibly* mean to “transcend” the realm of matter and energy? It’s gobbledygook.

      • TheBear
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink

        Aye, but I let that one pass. I imagine they meant to say “is outside” – some linguistic confusion from messing with woosters might be expected.

        • DamnYankees
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

          I don’t even know what “outside” means. Considering “inside” and “outside” are words which only make sense in a world of space and time, how can something be “outside” of space?

          Again, it’s nonsense.

          • kevin
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

            How about “not explained by” then?

            QED

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Yup. Because after science has studied the rules of (say) intercessory prayer, we can simply add those rules to our scientific knowledge. At this point, according to this definition, it is no longer considered “supernatural”, but simply part of the way the world works.

    • MK
      Posted October 25, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      the time of its discovery radioactivity was arguably a process that transcended the descriptions of science

      It did not “transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy”.

  4. Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I never found a need for a commitment to methodological naturalism. I’ll take whatever evidence. And if the evidence turns out to be reliable and repeatable, I will use it. I will then declare that the evidence is natural.

    The MN arguments seems to be based on a mistaken assumption that there is a fixed division between natural and supernatural. I cannot find any basis for that assumption. It seems to me that much that was once considered supernatural is now considered natural.

    • Miles McCullough
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      Indeed, even the example of “supernatural” given about prayer could have a natural explanation, something like a Deepak Chopra phlogiston of life energy one can activate with one’s thoughts.

      Even traditional supernatural realms like heaven and hell must obey some set of physical laws, which would make them natural realms by definition. If it coheres, it is quite simply natural.

  5. DamnYankees
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    we propose to define ‘supernatural’ as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science

    But Jerry…what does this mean? This is a meaningless jumble of words with absolutely no referent. This is the problem. The reason the supernatural *can never* exist is that it has no meaningful definition. What in gods name does it mean to “transcent” the realm of matter and energy? Seriously, what does that mean?

    Let me give an analogous sentence, and you tell me if it’s meaningful:

    we propose to define ‘smorn’ as referring to any direction which has its location in any place north of the north pole

    This is what’s known as a meaningless paradox. It’s nonsense wrapped up in grammar.

    • DamnYankees
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      Crap, I messed up my blockquoting.

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      “we propose to define ‘smorn’ as referring to any direction which has its location in any place north of the north pole”

      Excellent analogy.

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        Could God create a point so northernly that even he couldn’t get to it by traveling smornth?

  6. Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    I still think Hobbes was right:

    “The universe, the whole mass of things that are, is corporeal, that is to say, body, and hath the dimensions of magnitude, length, breadth and depth. Every part of the universe is ‘body’ and that which is not ‘body’ is no part of the universe, and because the universe is all, that which is no part of it is nothing, and consequently nowhere.”

    • Jhjeffery
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      That’s much better. Perhaps if they just changed it from “modern science” to read “any conceivable science” it would help, but that definition still misses the mark. I view the supernatural as immaterial and undetectable (and nonexistent).

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        Another way to think about it is that IMN retains pragmatic stealth, but PMN gets to have all the fun.

        The hours spent refuting unfalsifiable propositions is simultaneously pointless(because nature is *all*) and intellectually nourishing (in the sense of refinement in critical thinking/ problem solving).

      • TheBear
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        “any conceivable science” still makes it a goalpost with megathon rockets on it. As our knowledge expands, so does our imagination.

        Did people imagine antimatter in the middle ages? Did people imagine tame electricity* in the stoneage? I think not (of course, this is only a supposition and I can in now way prove it – but I think you’ll get the drift).

        * Ie – not lightening

        • Dan L.
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink

          Nailed it.

          • Jhjeffery
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

            TheBear

            I agree. Even you replace conceivable, the flaw remains. Defining the supernatural as something that is outside of the material but can somehow interact with the material is best left to the theologians and the stupid. But I repeat myself.

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Hobbes is absolutely right.

      For discussion’s sake, we need a term for everything that exists and is real. I’ve yet to come across a word that fits better than, “universe,” though I’ll admit that I’m also fond of Sagan’s “Cosmos.”

      Using that definition, it should be clear that anything that isn’t a part of the universe simply doesn’t exist. The only way to be outside of the universe is to simply not be.

      If one adopts this definition of the term, then it only makes sense to define something as “natural” if it’s part of the universe. The opposite of the term, the supernatural, that which is not part of nature, is also not part of the universe.

      We can have a potentially-interesting discussion of that which is beyond our horizon, that which astronomers and cosmologists refer to as “the observable universe.” And, who knows? There may well be some interesting beasties out there. And maybe they even pop over the horizon from time to time to tweak our noses.

      But, clearly, any such phenomenon is part of the universe and is natural; it’s just uncommon. Then again, intercontinental travel was uncommon until recently, along with all the rest of the miracles of the modern world.

      And giving special preference to one particular faery tale that’s got more evidence against the veracity of its claims than any modern theory has in its favor, as is the repeated case of people pondering, “What if Jesus suddenly started answering prayers?” seems to meet the very definition of insanity.

      Cheers,

      b&

  7. Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    The main problem addressed by this paper (haven’t read the original yet) is that you can’t argue against ID or other woo from a standpoint of IMN – unless you say that a creator (or chi or what have you) is natural and not supernatural.

    To those who challenge the definition of “supernatural” Jerry quotes, do you think that an intelligent designer is supernatural or natural? If you think it’s natural, then do you also believe that “methodological naturalism” is a meaningless phrase – that is, do you deny that the supernatural-natural distinction is meaningful? How else could you explain hypothetical evidence that prayers to Jesus gave better medical outcomes than prayers to other deities?

    • DamnYankees
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      1) I don’t think an intelligent designer exists at all, but if it did it would have to be natural, like a super-advanced alien or something.

      2) “Methodological naturalism” is meaningfull as a sociological phrase. It means the use of a certain mindset.

      3) Not sure – I’m not an expert in prayer studies. But just theoretically, a crazy answer would be aliens can hear us and like the name Jesus, and they heal people using laser beams.

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        (agreed that no designer exists.)

        1) I’m not sure why such a designer would _have to be_ natural. I mean, why couldn’t it be supernatural? I agree that it would almost certainly be, but this argument is about “almost”.

        2) Then you don’t see methodological naturalism per se as excluding any sort of cause?

        3) yes, aliens constitute a natural explanation. What if the cause were angels? Do you take an ignostic stance toward angels?

        • DamnYankees
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

          1) Because the supernatural is a paradox which can never exist. After all, if the designer “exists”, then he is by definition natural. “Existence” is a quality of things in the universe. I don’t even know what it meant to “exist” outside of the universe.

          2) Cause of what? The origins of the cosmos? I do, simply because you have the infinite regress problem.

          3) I don’t know what a natural angel would be. Sounds like an alien.

        • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

          replace cause in my above post with “explanation”.

          in point 3, I’m trying to get at whether you can imagine anything supernatural or whether you really don’t think it’s a meaningful category. Regardless of whether anything supernatural really exists, is it possible to conceive of something supernatural or is the category (A) self-contradictory or (B) terminally vague?

          • DamnYankees
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink

            I don’t think it’s a meaningful category at all. Correct.

          • Dan L.
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

            “Explanation” is even worse. Unless we can understand the “supernatural” and how it works by doing experiments, we can’t really hope to use it as an explanation. And if we could then it wouldn’t be “supernatural.”

            This is basically a redefinition of “supernatural” to mean either “unobservable” or “incomprehensible.” My thinking on this currently is that PMN pretty much forces you into one of these definitions — if you accept that the universe has a mind and you don’t have direct access to it, then the fact that the universe has a mind is unobservable. If we can see the effects but not understand the cause, then the supernatural is incomprehensible.

            I’ve never seen a coherent definition of “supernatural” that wasn’t basically “incomprehensible” or “unobservable” or some combination of the two. This is why I reject PMN (with some sense of reservation).

        • Tulse
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink

          What is the distinguishing difference between angels and powerful aliens? After all, this is a not-uncommon trope in science fiction — the Vorlons of Babylon 5 appeared as angels to humans, and Sharon Shinn has written a collection novels around technologically-powered “angels”.

          This, I think, goes to the heart of the question: How can you tell apart supernatural beings that perform seemingly miraculous actions from merely extraordinarily powerful but natural beings that do exactly the same thing?

          • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

            How can you tell apart supernatural beings that perform seemingly miraculous actions from merely extraordinarily powerful but natural beings that do exactly the same thing?

            This is at the heart of the difference between IMN and PMN, but it’s not at the heart of the question of whether there could be evidence for God. Whether some natural force indistinguishable from God exists or whether “God” exists, the evidence for either would be identical – but is such evidence theoretically possible?

          • Posted October 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

            You can shoot the latter with a bow and arrow and kill them (unless Dr. Crusher is there to save the day). The former not so much.

    • TheBear
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      How else could you explain hypothetical evidence that prayers to Jesus gave better medical outcomes than prayers to other deities?

      Explaining nonexsistent data?

      Goddit is a bad explanation when you have the data, it’s even worse when you don’t.

      I can’t argue against a natural intelligent designer. That’s what ID is designed to do, and the people who designed ID are not stupid in their own perverse way. We can only apply the principle of parsimony and try no explain how science actually works. Not muddle it with non-defined concepts.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      do you think that an intelligent designer is supernatural or natural?

      J. Craig Venter seems pretty natural to me (his ego may be supernaturally large, but that’s another matter).

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Easy: An intelligent designer that doesn’t exist is supernatural. One that exists — regardless of the extent of its powers — is, by definition, natural.

      How could I explain hypothetical evidence about prayers to Jesus? Easy — Jesus exists and answers prayers (this would not be my first hypothesis, of course, but what is supernatural about that hypothesis? Except for it being false, of course?)

  8. Uncle Bob
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I would love to “debate” the existence of god, but that isn’t the problem. When the debate only centers around arbitrary contradicting attributes loosely wrapped together and then labeled the whole of the “entity”, what is there to debate? All that can be argued is the attributes listed, but doesn’t say anything about whether the entity actually exists.

    It would be like arguing whether a chair exists by only arguing it is a very compassionate chair.

    Also often called, “incoherent nonsense”

  9. Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    IMN / PMN is an interesting distinction, but it isn’t the one that you’re actually debating with PZ &c.

    Let’s have two sets of ‘stuff': the natural set and the super-natural set (assume for now everything is is one of these two sets). IMN says stuff in the super-natural set can never be an explanation for stuff in the natural set. PMN says it can, but is just hasn’t been yet.

    But PZs point is that the super-natural set is *known* to be *empty* (let’s call this “Emptyism”). If you’re Emptyist, then the distinction between IMN and PMN is totally moot.

    So you can be Emptyist for (at least) three reasons:

    1. It just happens to be empty. There could be stuff in it, but there isn’t. How would we know, is the obvious objection, probably through some PMN-tyle process.

    2. The set is ill defined, to the extent that it cannot provide a decision procedure for determining if something is contained within it. PZ seems to be arguing this.

    3. The set is well-defined, but tautologically empty. Like “the set of all locations north of the north pole” (h/t DamnYankees).

    So I guess I’m a type-3 Emptyist.

    • Dan L.
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Well said.

    • Felix
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      or for 3:
      “The set of stuff which exists but is not natural”

      which is empty since anything which exists is natural.

      (h/t everybody)

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted October 24, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

        Along these lines, I think of it this way:

        If science can study it, it ain’t supernatural. Or natural. It’s just something which science can study. Natural/supernatural duality isn’t meaningful for science. It is for philosophy and religion. Science just gets on studying whatever comes its way. Not natural or supernatural phenomena with natural or supernatural causes; just phenomena and their causes. Not the natural or supernatural world just the world. Scientific knowledge of what does not belong to the world is impossible. And nobody can prove it is possible to know anything about what does not belong to the world; if anything other than the world exists.

  10. Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I’m a really, really, really big fan of the term, “paranormal.” The example given of effective Catholic prayer would be a manifestation of the paranormal. As observed earlier, radioactivity, when first discovered, was firmly in the realm of the paranormal. Quantum Mechanics might even still have a foot or two in that door.

    As I just wrote in yesterday’s thread, the whole point of the gods is that they can do the impossible. What else is a miracle except the manifestation of the impossible?

    But, of course, by doing the impossible, the gods demonstrate the phenomenon to be possible, after all — and, therefore, no longer miraculous.

    If a miracle is simply the manifestation of the improbable, then we are all gods. If our actions on the ‘Net, participating in this very thread, are not miraculous, then what is? Think about it: I press some buttons and have corresponding words appear before me. I then wave a magic mouse, squeeze it just so, and those words instantly appear in front of thousands of other people all across the globe.

    My lousy, cheap, last-generation cell phone would have been too unbelievably magical for Dick Tracy.

    My refrigerator would have been a portal to Hell in the Dark Ages.

    With a box of matches, I could have made a Stone Age tribe bow down and worship me.

    DamnYankees is exactly right. A god is somebody who lives north of the North Pole whose hobby is drawing square triangles in Euclidean space. Or, if you prefer, a god is a flebshtup who gnerpistles magrinops while bluverating horpmerps.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Tulse
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      My lousy, cheap, last-generation cell phone would have been too unbelievably magical for Dick Tracy.

      Was it a wristwatch that did video calling?

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        With a bit of duct tape, yes. Though you have to pay extra for the video calling, and neither I nor anybody else I know actually sees the point in such a thing.

        And it will tell me exactly where I am on the planet, and tell me, by speaking out loud, how to get to any other place on the planet. (Except it’s a miserable GPS, better suited to Max Smart.)

        And it’s an encyclopedia and so much more (thanks to the hands-down worst Web browser I’ve ever seen).

        And, since it’s a general-purpose computer (with a miserable user interface) with perhaps as much computing power as an early supercomputer…well, you get the idea.

        For that matter, there’s no reason you couldn’t hack together some code to use it as a wireless remote for an aircraft, and use the built-in motion sensors to control it just by waving around the phone. If that’s not black magic, what is?

        Cheers,

        b&

  11. Nick
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but why are we playing around with this “supernatural” term, anyway? For as long as we’ve been keeping score, there’s never been a single shred of evidence for what these two fellows would define as “supernatural”.

    In point of fact, I would go so far as to say that there CANNOT BE any empirical evidence of “entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm”. The instant one of these entities or processes interacts with the “spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science” it becomes – what else? – a natural phenomenon. If it is is subject to observation, or testing, or measurement, or any sort of empirical analysis, is it not, by definition, natural? If a phenomenon is not subject to empirical analysis, are we not justified in rejecting assertions of its existence?

    I certainly don’t have much deep training in philosophy, but I fail to see how any phenomenon that we are able to empirically analyse, as a part of the natural world we inhabit, can be “supernatural” in the first place. The more I think about it, the more PMN smacks of a newer, sleeker, god-of-the-gaps.

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      At first blush, it appears to make sense if one adopts dualism; the supernatural is the ghost in the machine, that works from outside from time to time to tweak things in an otherwise-inxplicable manner.

      On closer inspection, though, it becomes clear that one simply needs to broaden one’s horizons to incorporate that portion of the universe in which the ghosts spend most of their time.

      If we are in a Matrix-style simulation, then, quite clearly, the universe encompasses not only that which the Matrix is simulating, but also the computer on which the simulation is running, the room in which the computer is situated, the engineers and programmers who built it, and the whole rest of their observable universe. And if that part of the universe is itself a part of Alice’s Red King’s dream, then the Red King is part of the universe, as is the tree under which he sleeps….

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        Ah yes, perhaps that’s the issue. Dualism.

        So — are we inherent non-dualists or provisional non-dualists? I would argue that if the mental were demonstrated to exist in a realm independent of the physical, that would only show that there are two natural realms…

  12. Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    To me the problem with the IM position, which might be summarised by

    “All that really exists is natural, and therefore the supernatural couldn’t possibly exist.” [paraphrasing several posters]

    sounds too much like forcing our conclusion just by defining “natural”.

    I think the statement is probably true, and that the natural is all there is, but just asserting by definition doesn’t demonstrate anything.

    On the other hand, it seems reasonable enough to say “Centuries of attempts to demonstrate the supernatural have all failed. Let’s move on the naturalistic methods that have shown themselves to work.”

    Ray (not a philosopher but willing to learn)

    • DamnYankees
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      I would be happy to entertain another definition, the problem is no other definition makes any sense.

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        Confounding the problem is a common tendency to confusingly conflate the supernatural and the paranormal….

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Paul W.
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          Yes. A “paranormal” phenomenon like telepathy, for example could be perfectly natural, or it could be supernatural, depending on how it worked.

          • Posted October 25, 2010 at 5:52 am | Permalink

            We already have natural telepathy: pheromones in insects and mobile phones in humans.

    • TheBear
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Well, how would you define natural then?

      It is easy to define natural as “what we know and accept” – but the actual content of the definition would change with the times. In other words: That’s the definition of social sciences, and in social sciences gods, fairies, witches and unicorns very much exists since they are constructs in culture and language.

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        Here’re my definitions:

        The Universe is all things which actually exist and are real. It includes our thoughts and imaginings of things that don’t exist, but it doesn’t include the actual things that don’t exist. It includes those things which are impossible for us to know about, such as galaxies beyond our observable horizon and the programmers of the Matrix.

        Something is natural if it is a part of the universe; that is, if it exists.

        Something is supernatural if it is “beyond” the natural universe; that is, if it doesn’t exist.

        Something is paranormal if we can’t explain it within the current bounds of our understanding of the universe. It might be that we can’t explain it because we don’t know enough or aren’t smart enough to figure it out, or it might be that we can’t explain it because it’s just a figment of our imaginations and therefore doesn’t exist.

        I believe those definitions are sufficient to discuss everything we’ve been beating to death recently. I also believe the position that’s becoming popular to label as “igtheism” is the inevitable conclusion of these definitions.

        Specifically, gods are typically defined as those beings that can do miracles, and miracles are manifestations of the supernatural. Either the gods can perform an action that is allegedly miraculous, thereby demonstrating it to be a natural phenomenon and not a miracle, or the phenomenon is so impossible even the gods can’t do it (rendering the point moot).

        Don’t forget: for 99.999% of human history, what I’m doing right now, by typing this post, would have seemed miraculous, thereby conclusively demonstrating my divinity.

        Cheers,

        b&

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        TBH, I don’t have a better definition of “natural”, but I’m just pointing out that we’re not proving anything by forcing our conclusion from our definition.

        I think it’s a “rhetorical tautology”.

        Philosophically smart folks, please jump in here and correct me.

        • TheBear
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

          Yes and no. We are forcing the issue by definition because it does not make any sense to debate terms we haven’t defined.

          That’s also why the authors of the piece in question tries to define the supernatural. They fail to make a static definition though, so debating it is still not possible.

  13. Sigmund
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    While being fairly close to Jerry rather than PZ on this question, I think the definition of supernatural is problematic. For all we know the solution to the dark energy and accellerated expansion of the universe might involve a new force unknown to modern science on the same way magnetism or x-rays were in the past. I think a better definition of the supernatural would involve some sort of consciousness that can interact with matter.

    • DamnYankees
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Like…us?

  14. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    A while ago I added to the post one of the authors’ examples of a “supernatural” phenomenon that could be studied by science.

    • DamnYankees
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      Jerry,

      I still don’t think you’ve addressed the idea that the supernatural is incoherent. You’ve certainly addressed that it’s vague and slippery, but that’ a different thing.

      In all seriousness, do you find the definition of supernatural in your post to be meaningful or coherent? Can you explain how?

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        DY, i haven’t seen your argument that supernatural is incoherent, just that the definition in the paper doesn’t work. Why is a supernatural entity inconceivable?

        • DamnYankees
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

          I’ve said it many times in this thread already. Upthread I addressed the notion of anything being “beyond” the natural as quite literally paradoxical. It’s hard to say in the abstract, because the only way to show the supernatural is impossible is in response to a definition of the supernatural. I’ve done that in multiple posts in this thread – look around. I don’t just want to copy/paste the same posts here.

          I might as you – if something’s definition doesn’t work, isn’t that the exact same thing as saying it’s incoherent? I don’t see the difference. If something *can’t* be defined in a way which avoids paradoxes and impossibilities, then it simply is incoherent. That’s what the word means. It doesn’t cohere, to logic or sense.

  15. Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    See I’m all confused, because I feel like that interpretation of the “RCT confirms Catholic-only intercessory prayer” is more like IMN! Or at least, my version of IMN… If the RCT confirms it, then it’s “natural”, not “supernatural.”

    A universe in which “Catholic intercessory prayer is affective at curing disease” was as fundamental a law as the conservation of energy would be a rather inelegant universe, but it would still be (by definition) a natural universe.

    Possible physical laws: F=ma, entropy always increases, you can’t exceed the speed of light, the force of gravity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance, and Jesus is Lord. Where’s the supernaturalism here?

    • Tulse
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      universe in which “Catholic intercessory prayer is affective at curing disease” was as fundamental a law as the conservation of energy would be a rather inelegant universe, but it would still be (by definition) a natural universe.

      Exactly — if magic can be reliably performed, how is it “magic”?

      I often irritate the people I play D&D with, because I tend to treat magic in the game as just another technology. I just don’t understand why all the villages and town aren’t lit with Continual Light stones, why there aren’t large industrial processes powered by golems or other constructs, and why the sanitation systems aren’t run on Purify Water spells.

      If our world were actually like that, would we still think of it as “magic”? How many people today essentially treat technology as magic, in terms of their understanding of it?

      If it obeys laws, it’s not supernatural.

      • Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        I think it actually the unpredictable characteristic of “magic” that led to it being mostly replaced with religion.

        If the magic failed to worked, the magician/shaman got the blame from his/her angry customer. However, with religion, the priest/minister could always claim that the prayers/ceremonies didn’t work because “god” just had other ideas as to the best outcome, was not pleased with the supplicant’s lack of faith or bad attitude, or whatever.

        Religion is a much better scam since failures can be attributed to the inscrutable mind of “god”.

        • TheBear
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          Not to mention that victim-blaming is easier with religion and is easier to bend to the needs of the practitioner.

          When homeopathy doesn’t work it doesn’t work.

          When faith-healing doesn’t work the patient hasn’t been pious enough/hasn’t been giving enough money to the minister.

      • Felix
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        Tulse says: “If it obeys laws, it’s not supernatural”

        Taking this as a starting point, God is an entity which exists but does not obey laws.

        The universe is everything that we can sense which obeys ‘natural’ laws that we can explore through science.

        God can interfere in the ‘natural’ at will and rearrange anything whilst allowing its intervention to be detected or, if it desires, whilst not allowing its interfering to be detected (possibly by rearranging the mental state of any entity capable of noticing, or by adjusting the timeline so that no interfering was required)

        God is that entity which, while existing and having agency, does not obey ‘natural law’.
        The supernatural is that set of events which are caused by the action of God.
        The paranormal is that (ever reducing) set of phenomena that which, whilst appearing to be part of the universe, appear to be fundamentally inconsistent with our current understanding of natural law.

        How can God exist but not obeys laws? Maybe one moment God exists encoded in the pattern of starlight falling on the surface of Pluto, at another encoded in the price of gold on every planet in the universe at all moments of time, or occasionally written in binary notation as a single digit (this may be impossible :-).

        Can God do the impossible? No, the impossible is that which cannot be done.

        Therefore if Ben were to ask God to draw this magic triangle, God could rearrange the entire fabric of space-time and everything within it to please Ben.
        If however this level of potency turned out to be insufficient, and Ben still wouldn’t grant God full deity status, then we should admit that Ben is being too demanding. :-)

        If we take as a given that God exists, how could we convince ourselves, upon encountering God in a mood to allow testing. that the entity we were dealing with was God and not some hyper intelligent alien?

        We couldn’t. Since, as is commonly said, it is impossible to prove a negative likewise we could not prove that the events that God was causing to allow our experiments to take place were not produced by some as yet undiscovered natural process.

        • Posted October 22, 2010 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

          Therefore if Ben were to ask God to draw this magic triangle, God could rearrange the entire fabric of space-time and everything within it to please Ben.

          If your god is going to cheat like that, why go to the bother of warping space? He could just as easily pick the paper up off the table and stretch it over the nearest globe. Or draw the triangle with curved “lines” and be done with it. It all amounts to exactly the same thing. Sure, one method of cheating might be more impressive than another, but none of them is actually accomplishing the task at hand.

          I’ll do you a flavor and ignore, for the moment, the rest of your word salad….

          Cheers,

          b&

  16. Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I’ll read the article, but for now, I think we should introduce a further subdivision of IMF and recognize two sub-categories:
    (1) Science can’t say anything about the supernatural, because the supernatural has properties that prevents it from being studied.
    (2) Science can’t say anything about the supernatural, because the supernatural is so incoherently defined, you (or anyone else) can’t say anything about it – or that it is must be an empty set almost by definition.

    Position (1) leaves open the possibility that there is such a thing as the supernatural, as well as the possibility that religion might have something to say about it. This is clearly what the NCSE and others are promoting. Position (2), on the other hand, is what PZ has been saying, and which I am also sympathetic to.

    I also don’t think that position (2) is incompatible with PMF. All supernaturaly claims encountered so far have either been “downgraded” to natural claims, been refuted by natural claims, or been shown to be incoherent.

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Figures. I should have read the article first. What I describe as position (2) they describe as Philosophical Naturalism. I guess that comes closest to what I support then.

  17. stvs
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    The paper’s bumper sticker is in the abstract, and has the added benefit of being correct:

    We conclude that IMN, because of its philosophical flaws, proves to be an ill-advised strategy to counter the claims of IDC. Evolutionary scientists are on firmer ground if they discard supernatural explanations on purely evidential grounds, instead of ruling them out by philosophical fiat.

    IMN is invalid not only on philosophical grounds, but more importantly because it is not supported by our current understanding of the universe. Though we may yet accomplish this, we do not possess an axiomatic understanding of say, why the probability amplitude of an event equals exp(iS[x]/) summed over all paths x(t). This is a fundamental problem for ruling out a priori ” ‘supernatural’ … processes that transcend … modern science” because we literally have no idea why modern science “works,” or if quantum mechanics could be violated. Don’t take my word for it; here’s Richard Feynman on this unsolved problem: “There is no theory that adequately explains these numbers. We use the numbers in all our theories, but we don’t understand them—what they are, or where they come from. I believe that from a fundamental point of view, this is a very interesting and serious problem.”

    There is a world of difference between “We almost certainly know that there is no god” and “We can reject a priori all evidence for god.” Without an axiomatic understanding of nature, attempting to take the strongest position is, right now, a bridge too far, and makes one vulnerable to many factual and rhetorical attacks.

    It is rather a stronger position to observe, based on current knowledge, that however unlikely it may be, we do not know with absolute certainty that Jesus couldn’t fulfill his promise of John 14:14—”You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it”, and ask why doesn’t He?

    • Tulse
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      we do not know with absolute certainty that Jesus couldn’t fulfill his promise of John 14:14—”You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it”

      Yes we do: simply say “Oh Jesus, I ask in your name that you not do anything that is asked in your name.”

      (I think genies have similar occupational hazards…)

      • stvs
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Please do not conflate “Epicurus’ old questions.” There is a crucial difference between willing and able. We cannot yet use modern science to rule out ability. We can certainly use modern science to determine if Jesus fails to fulfill his promises, whether or not He’s able to do so.

        • Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

          The difference is ultimately moot.

          What matters whether it’s a person’s muscles or brain that prevents a person from pulling a trigger? The trigger remains un-pulled, and the person is unable to do so. It might just as well be that the IPU (MPBUHHH) has jammed the bolt with Her Horn. The end result is the same.

          Cheers,

          b&

        • Tulse
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          There is a crucial difference between willing and able.

          The passage says nothing about willingness: “You may ask me anything…and I will do it.”

          We cannot yet use modern science to rule out ability. We can certainly use modern science to determine if Jesus fails to fulfill his promises, whether or not He’s able to do so.

          I have the ability to miraculously fly (of course, I’m not willing to show off that ability, but I have it…honest). Since my ability is “miraculous”, presumably you can’t use science to rule out my ability, right?

          • stvs
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

            But you can fly:

            This is why we all do and should regard all such physical claims as provisional, not logical absolutes.

      • stvs
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        Also, even though it may be undeserved, I think we must give the faithful the benefit of the doubt that they don’t expect their deity to perform logically impossible acts (like your example), but merely physically impossible ones.

        We can rule out a priori the logically impossible, but not (yet) the physically impossible.

        • Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

          I challenge you to provide a coherent method for determining whether an act is physically or logically impossible.

          For example, is it a physical or a logical impossibility that prevents Jesus from drawing, on a flat sheet of paper on a flat table on the surface of the Earth as we know it, a triangle whose angles sum to anything other than 180° (using all the other common definitions of Euclidean geometry)?

          Similarly, is it a logical or a physical impossibility that prevents the International Space Station in its present configuration from attaining lunar orbit? After all, its thrusters lack sufficient Δvs; any attempt to go to the moon would be as logically absurd as attempting to make 1 + 1 = 3.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • stvs
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

            I challenge you to provide a coherent method for determining whether an act is physically or logically impossible.

            The first is simple, but not the second, and for the reasons we have been discussing.

            Logically impossible is an absolute and simply means violating the rules of logic to arrive at a nonsensical and therefore impossible outcome, whether it’s a Euclidean triangle whose angles don’t sum to 180°, the equation 0 = 1, or any other reductio ad absurdum result like these.

            Physically impossible is provisional and means violating the rules of known physics. The fact is that these rules are simply smart guesses that we have found by experiment, not logic, to describe the world very well. Therefore, violating quantum mechanics is not only a logical possibility, but QM is constantly being tested experimentally against other logically possible alternatives. We are not aware of any reason why violating known physical laws like QM would result in a logical fallacy.

            Establishing an axiomatic foundation for QM or its successor is one of physic’s Holy Grails: “does god have any choice in the matter”? If anyone can explain how violating known physical laws results in a logical fallacy, then it’s case closed in favor of intrinsic methodological naturalism.

            I’ve answered your challenge to provide a method to determine if an act is physically impossible, but I can’t provide a method to determine logically impossible acts because there’s no known connection between the rules of physics and logic.  This is Feynman’s Greek versus Babylonian mathematics conundrum.

            So here’s a counter-challenge: prove that a particle-manipulating-deity that violates either the standard model or general relativity or both necessarily results in a logical impossibility. Until you can prove that, you must accept provisional methodological naturalism.

            • Posted October 22, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

              So here’s a counter-challenge: prove that a particle-manipulating-deity that violates either the standard model or general relativity or both necessarily results in a logical impossibility. Until you can prove that, you must accept provisional methodological naturalism.

              Since QM and GR are so poorly understood, even by those who have devoted their lives to it (as witnessed by the fact that nobody’s yet been able to reconcile the two), permit me to instead re-state my question above that only requires an introductory-level understanding of geometry to address:

              Is it a physical or a logical impossibility that prevents Jesus from drawing, on a flat sheet of paper on a flat table on the surface of the Earth as we know it, a triangle whose angles sum to anything other than 180° (using all the other common definitions of Euclidean geometry)?

              Or would you ask me to seriously consider the possibility that Jesus might, indeed, be capable of the feat?

              From that example, it should be obvious that a particle-diddling god would be analogous to Jesus, in an attempt to draw a square triangle, warping the paper around a globe. He did the trick, fine. But he did it by cheating, and anybody who knows the cheat can do the same trick.

              Particle-diddling is as incompatible with our current understanding of physics as are square triangles in Euclidean space. A god who can diddle particles is able to warp paper around a globe, is all. Particle diddling in a manner consistent with our current understanding of physics is impossible, full stop, just as drawing a square Euclidean triangle is impossible, full stop. There is no meaningful distinction to be had between the “physical” and the “logical” in this context.

              Cheers,

              b&

            • stvs
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

              Is it a physical or a logical impossibility that prevents Jesus from drawing, on a flat sheet of paper on a flat table on the surface of the Earth as we know it …?

              Logical impossibility implies physical impossibility.

              But, so far as we known, physical impossibility does not imply logical impossibility. This is a fundamental problem.

              In contrast, there is no problem with omnipotence and logical impossibilities, as we know that these are, by construction, impossible. Any claim of an omnipotent entity that can perform logically impossible feats like squaring the circle can be dismissed out-of-hand.

              Particle-diddling is as incompatible with our current understanding of physics as are square triangles in Euclidean space.

              No! There exists a proof that square Euclidean triangles are logically impossible, but there is no such proof for the impossibility of a particle-manipulating-deity.

              Until we can point to such a proof, its existence must therefore be admitted as a logically possibility, however remote, and PMN must be accepted, provisionally.

            • Posted October 22, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

              Just as we know that the successor to Relativity must encompass Relativity in the same way that Relativity encompasses Newtonian Mechanics, we know that any such successor must also encompass Euclidean geometry as well as Newtonian Mechanics encompasses Euclidean geometry.

              Even if it turns out that particle-diddling is possible, we still know that drawing square triangles on a flat piece of paper remains impossible.

              It may be that there are not many limits beyond those of Euclidean geometry, but we know that those limits exist and are absolute.

              As the joke goes, all we’re doing now is haggling over the price.

              Cheers,

              b&

        • Tulse
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          Also, even though it may be undeserved, I think we must give the faithful the benefit of the doubt that they don’t expect their deity to perform logically impossible acts (like your example)

          Why? How is that not special pleading? If Jesus is asked that, will he enter into a long discourse about the nature of omnipotence? Isn’t the fact that the very concept of omnipotence is logically impossible problematic?

          • stvs
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

            It is special pleading, but only with the purpose of avoid intellectually vacuous discussions that amount to “Can god make a rock so heavy He can’t lift it?”

            • Posted October 22, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

              And what makes you think that such discussions are vacuous?

              The fact that, every time you turn around, omnipotence leads to a necessary contradiction is overwhelming proof, by contradiction, that there is no such thing as omnipotence.

              Theists don’t want to accept that, so they try to specially plead their way out of it.

              Unsurprisingly, their pleas have the obviously-expected result: they render the original term meaningless. If gods get passes for not being able to do the impossible, then everybody gets those passes, and it turns out that everybody is omnipotent. Trying to put a cork in that one either results in more obvious special pleading or yet more contradictions.

              Cheers,

              b&

            • The Swede
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

              Omnipotence is a vacuous concept, barring special pleading. Why do you assert it should be granted this special pleading? What makes you assert that showing it to be an incoherent and useless concept is “intellectually vacuous”?

              What is your purpose in asserting this? What is your grounds for asserting this? Why is this case of special pleading extra special and should be allowed?

            • stvs
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

              They’re vacuous because they can be dismissed out-of-hand: we can rule out a priori the logically impossible.

              To invoke all the valid objections to omnipotence, we would need to prove that a supernatural entity is also necessarily omnipotent.

              This is not necessarily so: as far as we know, the existence of a particle-manipulating-deity that violates QM and/or GR could perform all manner of miracles is logically possible, and such a deity need not be “omnipotent” in that they must also necessarily be able to perform logically impossible feats like squaring the circle.

              If that were the case, then you have your reductio ad absurdum proof, and IMN carries the day. But it doesn’t follow.

              Shorter version: omnipotence is a red herring in this discussion, so let’s exclude it.

            • The Swede
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

              They’re vacuous because they can be dismissed out-of-hand: we can rule out a priori the logically impossible.

              And this is exactly what PZ is saying, and Jerry is not.

              Shorter version: omnipotence is a red herring in this discussion, so let’s exclude it.

              Billions of people (literally) disagree with you. Coincidentally, so do I. Any god worthy of the moniker is omnipotent.

            • stvs
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

              First, Jerry has not argued for the possibility of a deity that can perform the logically impossible, merely that the possibility of one that can perform the supernatural, which as we have been discussing is not necessarily logically impossible, cannot be dismissed a priori.

              If you can prove that a supernatural entity is necessarily logically impossible, then IMN wins the argument.

              Second, I know from my personal background a very large number of faithful people from quite a wide range of traditions (first thought-seriously-about-marriage-gf was a Missouri Synod Lutheran minister’s daughter, complete with family expecting conversion, formerly married to formerly Catholic girl, Jewish cousins, aunts&uncles, Jewish convert mother, fundy teenage niece, daughter of atheist brother, just tearfully told my mom that grandma’s going to hell, Sunni Muslim wife and family, with all the attendant extended family and friends that goes with this). So I have plenty of great stories, but I have never once encountered any faithful person that accepts the Orwellian version of god where 2+2=5. Not that they don’t exist, but I very much doubt that anyone can support the statement that billions of people hold the view that belief in god means that 2+2 equals 5, and other straightforward logical fallacies.

              So, really, omnipotence is a red herring, both for us, and a good many of the faithful.

            • Posted October 22, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

              Even if, in practice, people don’t actually believe in an omnipotent deity, they loudly proclaim that they do. The “sophisticated” theologians certainly do.

              The fact that they’re practicing doublethink at best means they’ve yet to think through the implications of their beliefs. Explaining to them how faulty their thinking is (for example, by asking if Jesus can commit suicide), can only help increase their levels of cognitive dissonance, hopefully to the breaking point.

              Cheers,

              b&

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      We know even without science that Jesus can’t keep this promise. If two people pray for opposite outcomes, he’s going to have to disappoint at least one of them.

  18. Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    As Boudry et al. state in a forthcoming paper, under IMN “science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue.”

    Under IMN, is anything else equipped to deal with the supernatural?

    That’s the bit that the NCSE and Pigliucci and co always seem to leave out – at least I’ve never seen it included. Science can’t; but what can? Anything? If so, what? If not…what is the significance of the fact that science can’t? Why single out science? Why not just say that nothing that we know of can?

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Why not just say that nothing that we know of can?

      Nothing that we know of can under IMN.

  19. Patrick
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    How about a Turing test for the supernatural? I mean if some being shows up rearranges the stars to spell “I am God” and then suspends the laws of gravity for 5 minutes, for all intensive purposes he/she/it is God. Right?

    If then said being said, “Now listen very carefully and do what I say or you will be tormented in the fires of hell forever.” Would you listen? Or would you continue to object on the numerous well founded grounds for non-believing that we’re all familiar?

    I know this is a ridiculous scenario but that’s the whole point: Even I, a trenchant non-believer, can at least imagine a scenario introducing new evidence that would force me to concede. As stated above – provisionally.

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      How about a Turing test for the supernatural? I mean if some being shows up rearranges the stars to spell “I am God” and then suspends the laws of gravity for 5 minutes, for all intensive purposes he/she/it is God. Right?

      Rong.

      All that shows is that the being has big stash of some really trippy drugs and is passing them out, whether you want them or not.

      If we pretend for the moment that it’s not the result of a mass hallucination, then all the being has shown is that it’s possible to rearrange the stars and there’s more to gravity than we know so far. Stellar typography would become a natural phenomenon. It’d be a bit more impressive than, say, a digital wristwatch, but only slightly. And the smart money would be on the Nobel committee awarding the physics prize to somebody for a unified gravity theory within the decade.

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      If then said being said, “Now listen very carefully and do what I say or you will be tormented in the fires of hell forever.” Would you listen? Or would you continue to object on the numerous well founded grounds for non-believing that we’re all familiar?

      FWIW, there’s some wiggle room for believing that such a being is God and then still refusing to listen:

      http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com/2009/07/could-god-coin-word-so-self.html (specifically, the last two paragraphs)

    • Tulse
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      if some being shows up rearranges the stars to spell “I am God” and then suspends the laws of gravity for 5 minutes, for all intensive purposes he/she/it is God. Right?

      So it is more likely that there is a supernatural being that is omnipotent than a natural being who can do some things we currently believe to beyond our current understanding of science? Seriously?

      Dude, don’t go to magic shows, or you might try to start a new religion.

      (And, to pick a nit, it is “for all intents and purposes”, not “intensive purposes” — it is a phrase that originated in English law in the 1600s.)

      • randyextry
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think the question of natural vs supernatural is the point here. I think the point is that if something came along and arranged the stars to spell Jesus Rules! and suspended gravity and then said do as I command or you will burn in hell – that may have totally natural explanations, but it becomes evidence that hell may be a real (natural) thing and there may be a real, natural being watching us and considering sending us there, and so at that point we may need to re-investigate some of the mythology surrounding hell as though some of it may be true. The point is not to determine whether something should be called natural or supernatural. The point is to decide whether any of this other nonsense about god should be taken seriously. An experience like the one just described should at the very least make one reconsider dismissing all supposed supernatural mythology out of hand.

  20. Paul W.
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Everybody seriously needs to read Pascal Boyer on what “supernatural” means. (E.g., in his book Religion Explained but also I think in shorter stuff out on the web somewhere.)

    The supernatural is NOT the complement of the “natural” in the sense that science studies the natural world. Never has been, never will be.

    All of the common examples of the supernatural are the kind of thing that has observable effects. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be interesting and people wouldn’t perpetuate stories about them.

    Likewise, supernatural concepts have a humanly comprehensible and lawful structure at a certain level—they’re minor conceptual variations on everyday concepts. They have to be, so that people can understand, be interested in, and repeat stories involving supernatural entitities.

    (E.g., a ghost is just a person—with beliefs, desires, perceptions, a personal history, and so on—who just happens not to have a normal material body.)

    The supernatural isn’t just anything you don’t understand. It’s the furthest thing from that—it’s something you do understand at a certain intuitive level, with certain kinds of weird mixings of categories you use every day.

    Supernatural concepts have a particular distinctive kind of structure. “Supernatural” is not a contentless term, or a moving target, (Except in certain apologetic uses, which do great violence to everyday concepts of the supernatural.)

    Supernatural concepts generally turn out to contain a peculiar kind of category mistake, but they’re not intrinsically incoherent.

    That said, I think the definition of “supernatural” in the OP is ambiguous and unsatisfactory, but I think it may be getting at something that’s about right.

    It specifically talks about impersonal matter and energy.

    Think about why lightning is no longer considered supernatural. It’s not just because we understand it now; it’s because once we understood it, we realized it was boring in supernatural terms.

    Electricity is not a terribly special kind of humanly meaningful thing—it’s just another form of mindless energy with no special connection to anything interesting. (After all, we’d seen invisible energy that can even pass through solid matter before, e.g., heat.)

    We found out that electricity doesn’t have an interesting kind of essence. It’s not particularly connected to punishment for wrongdoing, or an expression of anger by a special kind of being with a different kind of essence from us.

    If, instead, we’d found that lightning really was radically different from other kinds of energy, e.g., being essentially connected to godly wrath or punishment for sin, and could only be wielded by a qualitatively different and especially interesting kind of person, we might still consider it supernatural.

    • Paul W.
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Dang, sorry for the redundancy there. Network troubles were complicating my editing, and I spaced on a couple of things.

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      It is quite telling that the only concrete example in your comment is of energy. We found plenty of wierd and interesting energy forms in the C20, and none of them are considered supernatural.

      Boyer’s ideas about supernaturalism don’t correspond to what most supernaturalists think of as supernaturalism. Those that do are subject to the kinds of criticism that have been made previously. Those that don’t are just natural phenomenon.

      Any definition where something can be simultaneously in the ‘supernatural’ and the ‘natural’ set isn’t much use, I don’t think.

      • Paul W.
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        It is quite telling that the only concrete example in your comment is of energy. We found plenty of wierd and interesting energy forms in the C20, and none of them are considered supernatural.

        Of course not. I’m not claiming that the supernatural actually exists—I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. (How am I supposed to come up with an example of a supernatural phenomenon we did find, given that I think it’s never happened?)

        I’m just saying that supernatural concepts have a certain kind of distinctive content.

        If you want to understand supernatural concepts, you’ve got to understand how they’re used in stories, e.g., about ghosts, gods, demons, Karma, and so on.

        Boyer’s ideas about supernaturalism don’t correspond to what most supernaturalists think of as supernaturalism. Those that do are subject to the kinds of criticism that have been made previously. Those that don’t are just natural phenomenon.

        How so? I really don’t understand what you’re saying here, and I wonder if you’re not stumbling over an ambiguity between certain related but distinct senses of “supernatural.”

        (E.g., merely having a supernatural aspect, like a person with an immaterial soul, vs. being markedly supernatural by doing something unusual like being able to communicate directly with other souls, without use of material bodies.)

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      The far better term for what you describe as “supernatural” is “paranormal.”

      And, oh-by-the-way, all your specific examples of the paranormal have been just as throughly debunked as Phlogiston and the Luminiferous Aether.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Paul W.
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        Ben, are you under the (mistaken) impression that I actually believe in the supernatural or even the paranormal—or that I even take such ideas seriously as significant possiblities?

        I’m only arguing that the basic ideas are pretty stable, not a moving target, and not obviously incoherent.

        They’re just wrong, and the tremendous success of naturalistic science is why we’re pretty sure of that.

        I think that the supernatural has been thoroughly debunked.

        • Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          I’m trying to make the point that, as best I can tell, the only meaningful definition for “supernatural” is as a perfect synonym for “impossible,” and that “paranormal” is best understood as exactly equivalent to “implausible and / or incomprehensible yet theoretically subject to further investigation.”

          What you were describing was the paranormal, not the supernatural.

          Cheers,

          b&

    • Tulse
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Supernatural concepts generally turn out to contain a peculiar kind of category mistake, but they’re not intrinsically incoherent.

      A category error is not an example of intrinsic incoherence?

      • TheBear
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        It is, but at least as I know the term “category error” it is usually used in the social sciences – and as a social construct it is subject of negotiation and change.

        An openly gay man is a category error in Teheran, hopefully not in Tulsa and definitely not in Trondheim

        • The Swede
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

          A gay man is not a “category error” anywhere. That was one of the most disgusting analogies I’ve read on this site. You, sir, ought to be ashamed of yourself.

          • TheBear
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

            I only describe the local understanding. Perhaps I ought to have chosen another example, but I would advice against being openly gay on the streets of Teheran.

            Wishing it wasn’t so doesn’t make it so. I apologize for making you uncomfortable, but I can’t change current Iranian culture. I would if I could.

            • The Swede
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

              You do not “describe” anything. You mischaracterize what a category error is with your asinine “example”. Your backhanded apology clearly displays your lack of comprehension both of your lack of common decency and the inability of the “example” to actually be an example of a category error. Go read wikipedia to learn what it actually is before you make even more of a fool of yourself.

            • TheBear
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

              Does the words “emic understanding” mean anything to you?

            • The Swede
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

              “Category error” has precisely nothing at all to do with “emic understanding”, and your lack of comprehension of this still makes you look like a fool.

              Learn of what you speak before you speak, and you might actually convey meaning instead of looking ignorant. As it is, you cast doubt on all your points made; if you don’t even know what a category is (and no, a gay man is not a category error, even in Iran), how can anyone expect you to understand subtler points of philosophy?

            • TheBear
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

              Social constructs are only meaningful when you talk of them in the terms of cultural relativism.

              As I said, my example was ill chosen (and mark the word “open”) and I can’t see any gain arguing back and forth about the factuality. I’m sorry I brought up that example and I see why it might obfuscate my point. It was the first clear example I could think of on how category errors vary between cultures.

              I should have taken the time to think of another example.

            • The Swede
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

              It was the first clear example I could think of on how category errors vary between cultures.

              IT IS STILL NOT A CATEGORY ERROR.

              It is not even CLOSE to a category error. It is not remotely SIMILAR to one. It is something completely different, and not at all related. It does not become impossible for a person to be gay, even openly gay, just because he or she lives in Iran. Sure, it might make it possible for the person to survive being openly gay, but that is irrelevant to making it a category error.

              Go read what a category error is, FFS. You’re looking like an utter moron right now.

              And you think I dispute the fact that gays are executed in Iran. Geez.

            • TheBear
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

              Read the first statement from Ahmadinejad in this piece:

              http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,301043,00.html

              And no: A person does not become a category error. A person is viewed as such. A human can only be a human. It is the perception of said human that changes. Ethics has no place in the comparative discussion of societies.

            • Felix
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

              and here The Swede goes off the deep end.

            • TheBear
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

              and here The Swede goes off the deep end.

              To be fair to him, the whole exchange is my fault. I should not have used that example. It’s a way of talking about things that is limited to a certain field of study, and even there the rigor and the degree of observation vary.

              I also got enough experience with LGBT-issues that I should have anticipated that some might misjudge my intent and take offense.

            • The Swede
              Posted October 23, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

              You’re still being a patronizing ass, and absolutely and utterly incorrect. “Category error” is a term of philosophy, and denotes a logically impossible categorization (as you surely know, since you open your virtual mouth about it). To claim that it is logically impossible for a person to be openly gay just because he or she resides in Iran is so vile I lack words to describe it.

              You really need to get a clue. Right now you’re being a monster, claiming that just because people dislike a trait that trait automatically becomes logically impossible to possess. Where do you even get such absurd idiocy from?

            • TheBear
              Posted October 24, 2010 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

              The Swede: I tried, I really tried – and I hoped that the thing you demonstrated in your last reply wasn’t the case.

              Unfortunately, it was.

              You see: As I made clear from the start, I wasn’t talking philosophy.

              Social scientist sometimes takes terms from philosophy. When they do, the meaning of the terms are almost always slightly and subtly changed.

              The reason being that social scientists:
              1: Have to deal with real people
              2: Haven’t got the luxury of being able to pass moral judgment while doing science (what one does on ones own time is of course ones own business, but there most would value their own moral judgment and apply it accordingly).

              What is in social sciences is always a question of what the society being question belives. There is no essence of being, except that we are incarnated humans. Beyond being human there is only perception. Ones own perception of one self, and the wider community’s perception of the individual.

              In the last meaning, what is possible combinations depends very much on the society in question. Available categories and roles are a matter of definition. While there is always some room for negotiation of roles, there are always some limitations.

              Now, I’m not going to speak to you any more, because you are clearly to hung up in philosophy to speak to someone who actually cares about applied knowledge. We have very little, if any common frame of reference, and therefore it is no use continuing this conversation. If other people here thinks I’m in the wrong here, and give me good reasons for it (shouting is not good reasons) I might relent, but only then.

            • The Swede
              Posted October 24, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

              You see: As I made clear from the start, I wasn’t talking philosophy.

              So we’re discussing philosophy, on a blog post about philosophy, using terms of philosophy … except you’re not, while I for some reason expect you are (wonder why?), and that is a failing of *mine*.

              I see. Forgive me for not being devastated you’re no longer corresponding with me.

          • John Phillips, FCD
            Posted October 25, 2010 at 4:54 am | Permalink

            Actually Swede, if you had properly read his first post about a gay man being a category error in Iran, you would have seen that in the first sentence he mentions social sciences and how category error is used in that subject.

            To quote his first sentence in the post you took exception too and then whigged out on mightily.

            TheBear said:

            “It is, but at least as I know the term “category error” it is usually used in the social sciences – and as a social construct it is subject of negotiation and change.”

      • Paul W.
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        A category error is not an example of intrinsic incoherence?

        It depends on what kind of category it is and what you mean by “incoherent.”

        For example, suppose somebody who doesn’t understand chemistry encounters a colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid and thinks that it’s water.

        Suppose even that it is explained to them that the liquid in question is not H20, and they don’t realize that that’s equivalent to saying it’s not water, so they still think it’s water.

        They might be wrong, but being wrong like that wouldn’t make their beliefs (internally) incoherent. The incoherence is between their internally consistent beliefs and the external, empirical fact that water actually is H20.

        Likewise, believing in a disembodied mind may be incoherent if you know what a mind actually is.

        For somebody who doesn’t know that minds are certain kinds of intrinsically complex processes occurring in otherwise nonmental matter-like stuff, it’s not internally incoherent to think of a mind that isn’t dependent on something very like matter. It’s just ignorant and wrong.

        I think that’s typical of supernatural concepts. They’re mostly structured and have some definite meaning, although they may be somewhat vague, too.

        In general, science shows them to be incoherent only in the sense that if you know the relevant science, you should have a big problem with those concepts.

        It doesn’t show them to be incoherent in light of a priori concepts, but in light of a posteriori concepts that are nonetheless necessary truths.

  21. The Swede
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    It’s quite amusing that to shoot down IMN the author trots out an example which supports IMN in a highly convincing manner. Despite all the effort placed in these papers, the author end up proving that IMN is, contrary to assertion, philosophically strong – much, much stronger than PMN, for which they provide very weak support, especially with their rather horrific definitions of supernatural.

    And even more amusing is that neither they nor Jerry appear to realize this rather trivial conclusion.

  22. poke
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    It’s extemely disingenuous to lump people who take supernatural explanations to be impossible (PZ and many commenters here) in with those who think they’re possible but arbitrarily excluded from science (Miller et al). I think you should rethink that tactic.

    It’s also quite obvious that one can hold that creationists and IDers are talking nonsense and still see it worthwhile to present the positive account of science and refute specific claims that have sense (the age of the earth, misrepresentations of the science, etc) even if the overall explanation does not (supernatural origins).

    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      I found that surprising as well.
      Just where exactly are the Deep Rifts?

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Hear hear. There’s a big difference between that type of IMN and the other type of IMN (which I think is better referred to as philosophical naturalism?)

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      The problem is that to the extent they involve the “supernatural”, they generally are not “explanations”.

  23. Tyro
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I think I could be persuaded that supernatural has some meaning and we can gather evidence for it. I’m still not persuaded that this can lead us to a god because of all the omni-max stuff.

    If we have evidence that an entity can regrow legs, we know it can regrow legs. If it can move planets we know it can move planets. What evidence would convince us that it can do any conceivable action and is omnipotent?

    If it gives us useful scientific insights, we would know it was advanced and intelligent. At what point do we say it knows everything and is omniscient?

    Perhaps if we gained some deep insight into its nature, origin and mechanisms but how do some extreme parlour tricks get us there?

    I think we’re missing some crucial steps.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      What evidence would convince us that it can do any conceivable action and is omnipotent?

      There simply isn’t any physical evidence possible to demonstrate infinity, which is essentially what is being asked. One has to resort to the standard theological proofs, which are philosophical and not empirical. One cannot empirically prove infinity.

      • Tyro
        Posted October 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        That’s my stumbling block, one that I don’t think Jerry has addressed. If we do find an extremely powerful entity, at what point do we call it a god or do we just water down the definitions in which case why call it god at all?

        Sure we could find evidence for something which we then call ‘god’, but I think PZ is saying that we can’t gather evidence for what we currently call God. To that extent, I’m not sure Jerry has properly addressed this.

  24. Nick (Matzke)
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    A few comments on the OP:

    1. “The authors also assert that, if you’re philosophically consistent, refuting things like intelligent design under the IMN requires only this dismissal: “we can’t even scientifically discuss or debate this issue because there is no empirical evidence that bears on the supernatural.” That’s not the way scientists—and the NCSE—attack creationism, of course. They take a Designer seriously an an explanation, and then show that the evidence better supports the alternative of evolution. If you’re an adherent of IMN, why bother?”

    If we take the Kitzmiller decision as an elaboration on the NCSE/AAAS etc. view (which it basically was), the above isn’t really an accurate summary. The Kitzmiller distinguished very clearly between (1) negative arguments against evolution (and positive arguments for evolution), which can be tested and assessed because evolutionary theory is well-constrained, invokes regular, lawlike processes in its explanations, etc. — versus (2) ID “explanations”, positive arguments for ID, which were not science because did not involve testable explanations (the ID people helped out here by refusing to say anything positive about their ID hypothesis during the case), and particularly because the ID guys refuse to even make their hypothesis constrained to natural law, i.e. cause and effect, conservation of mass/energy, etc., because they want to include the supernatural in science!

    So the science side of Kitzmiller case spent little-to-no time criticizing ID on the basis that some designs in biology are bad designs, evil designs, etc.

    2. Pennock made the point in the trial, widely missed since then, that the very notion of “testability” basically assumes MN. Some examples from the trial: (1) Pennock talked about AVIDA experiments, where complex adaptations evolve in the computer. Did these disprove the ID explanation? No, it’s possible, if you allow the supernatural in science, that some supernatural force was monkeying around inside the computer. (2) Is the young-earth creationist view falsified by the science of geology? Well, that depends. If your Creation/Flood theory assumes these were natural processes natural one, where evidence of recent origins (e.g. radiometric) and big flood would be expected to be left, then sure, YEC is testable and is false. But, if you’re a supernaturalist, all bets are off. God might have created things with an “appearance of age”, or any number of other possibilities that remove our ability to test the idea. Thus you have to be a methodological naturalist to even do scientific reasoning and testing in the first place.

    The only way to get around this would be, as Eugenie Scott says, to invent a theo-meter, so that you can include/exclude God from your experiments and studies.

    Finally, consistent with the above, the Kitzmiller decision said in the conclusion that ID explanations might conceivably be true — science can’t rule out the mysterious supernatural actions of an unconstrained supernatural entity — but whatever their status, they weren’t science.

    PS: 3. All that said, Pennock did emphasize at the trial and after that MN is just a “rule of thumb”, not some absolutely inviolable rule. If the “supernatural” cases under discussion in society were less about (a) God & creationism and alleged gaps in science, and were instead (b) actual cases of things like prayer-based amputee healing, and if there was lots of observational evidence for (b), then sure, the rule of thumb of MN would presumably change. But as it stands, the actual kinds of supernatural events people want to believe/teach in schools are cases of (a), and cases of (b) are only found in the imagined hypotheticals of creative philosophers.

    4. Required reading:

    Can’t Philosophers Tell The Difference Between Science and Religion?: Demarcation Revisited.
    Robert T. Pennock.
    Synthese (April, 2009) [online]

    Abstract: In the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover Area School Board case, a federal district court ruled that Intelligent Design creationism was not science, but a disguised reli- gious view and that teaching it in public schools is unconstitutional. But creationists contend that it is illegitimate to distinguish science and religion, citing philosophers Quinn and especially Laudan, who had criticized a similar ruling in the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas creation-science case on the grounds that no necessary and sufficient demarcation criterion was possible and that demarcation was a dead pseudo-problem. This article discusses problems with those conclusions and their application to the quite different reasoning between these two cases. Laudan focused too narrowly on the problem of demarcation as Popper defined it. Distinguishing science from religion was and remains an important conceptual issue with significant practical import, and philosophers who say there is no difference have lost touch with reality in a profound and perverse way. The Kitzmiller case did not rely on a strict demarcation criterion, but appealed only to a “ballpark” demarcation that identifies methodological naturalism (MN) as a “ground rule” of science. MN is shown to be a distinguishing feature of science both in explicit statements from scientific organizations and in actual practice. There is good reason to think that MN is shared as a tacit assumption among philosophers who emphasize other demarcation criteria and even by Laudan himself.

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/k305581557n60r31/?p=60c3b58db75549edb4d3777015cecc5a&pi=4

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted October 24, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      What distinguishes science and supernaturalist religions is that science has no need of the concepts of the natural and supernatural. Science studys whatever phenomena come its way. Whatever phenomena science studys are scientifically studyable phenomena. The terms “natural” and “supernatural” are superfluous for science.

  25. Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    The supernatural, to me, would be the possibility of things happening that are impossibilities, so that anything you could write down or think about, those things could happen. We would lose all ability to find natural order under a supernatural reality. The supernatural being real is really a nightmare scenario to me, but it is what theists want for whatever reason, as if it would be comforting to be a complete slave/robot to some god, existing purely at its pleasure.

    They [scientists and the NCSE] take a Designer seriously an an explanation, and then show that the evidence better supports the alternative of evolution. If you’re an adherent of IMN, why bother?

    Mostly, I don’t. I try hard to reformulate “God” into something tangible, like a flying super monkey that shoots rainbows out of its eyes, so the idiocy of it is not lost on theists.

  26. uncle frogy
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    let me get this straight. This argument is based on “what if?” I thought this was supposed to be science that is concerned with reality not make believe. all of the “speculations” put forth so far have all been just that speculations. They are made up what if stories that have not ever happened or are ever likely to happen. This is how religions “grow”, with speculations that we can imagine to be real. One of the things that the mind likes to do is see patterns, stories we make up are patterns. The stories we make up do not have to match objective reality they just have to have enough internal consistency, and emotional and psychological truth for us to respond to them.
    Can I make up a story that would have a god in it that would ring true in the story. May be something that is interesting and revealing of how the mind works but making up stories does not prove the existence of gods outside of the story in “real life”.
    It is theology, thought removed from reality and only relevant to the working of the the mind

  27. Posted October 22, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    In addition to the chatter above, I’ll add couple additional point about the natural/supernatural terms/definitions stink, based in part on discussions elsewhere.

    Pascal Boyer makes some empirical observations pertinent to the allegedly supernatural. First, he notes that humans seem to have a certain number of intuitive ontological categories: person, artifact, animal, and so on. Then, he notes that supernatural entities usually involve things almost in one of these categories, but with some violations; EG: a spirit as a person, but not impeded by walls. However, in this sense, liquid helium is “supernatural”, as it is a liquid, but will counter-intuitively flow up out over the edges of the container.

    Several pharynguloids suggested that some manner of awareness/sentience also needed to be associated; I’m not as convinced on that.

    Either way, neither of these preclude study by science; at most they mean it is more difficult.

    I thus think it is less useful to refer to the “natural”, due to the associated (apparently) false dichotomy and the idea that “science can’t study the supernatural”. Instead, I would advocate the term “experiential” (that which is experienced) and say that science can study anything in the experiential universe (experienced, or producing experience). Thus, any supernatural experience (or experienced report thereof) is subject to study.

    As such, science is not really concerned one way or another with “naturalism”, but “experientialism”.

    I’ll also note that there is some sloppiness getting less complaint by others here, in the question of what is meant by an “explanation”. Mathematically, it roughly corresponds to giving a set of rules and a starting condition that allow full reconstruction of the experiential data. (Those into gory details and with sufficient background can find doi:10.1109/18.825807 and wade in. Those into the details but without background should start with math courses on probability, information theory, and language/grammar/automata theory.)

    The problem with trying to use “supernatural” explanations in science is not per se that they are supernatural, but that they are often pseudo-explanations that agree the data is possible but fail to indicate which particular data should be expected. Should I expect a blue sky, or a paisley one? “Godidit” as a rule accepts either, and thus the full description must specify the color in the starting conditions rather than the production grammar – which bears a heavy cost in terms of probability of general correctness.

    • Paul W.
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Pascal Boyer makes some empirical observations pertinent to the allegedly supernatural. First, he notes that humans seem to have a certain number of intuitive ontological categories: person, artifact, animal, and so on. Then, he notes that supernatural entities usually involve things almost in one of these categories, but with some violations; EG: a spirit as a person, but not impeded by walls.

      Right.

      However, in this sense, liquid helium is “supernatural”, as it is a liquid, but will counter-intuitively flow up out over the edges of the container.

      I don’t think so, although it may seem supernatural until you realize that there’s nothing like teleology involved.

      Several pharynguloids suggested that some manner of awareness/sentience also needed to be associated; I’m not as convinced on that.

      I may be one of the pharynguloids you’re referring to, so I’ll take a shot at this.

      My claim isn’t that supernatural entities necessarily have actual awareness, but that they generally have mind-related properties which we’d call “high level” properties in scientific parlance.

      For example, The Force in Star Wars, or Karma, or just Luck in the superstitious sense may be thought of as impersonal and nonsentient, and yet all of those things exhibit very mind-like properties, in particular a sensitivity to what’s true or false or right or wrong or good for you or bad for you.

      The Force expressly isn’t a person or a mind, yet somehow its’s as if it just knows what you need to know and you can tap into it, and tap into that knowledge. (E.g., where the practice doohickey is so that you can hit it with your light saber.)

      Likewise Karma is not a person or amind, but it’s as if it could understand your actions, classify them as right and wrong, and punish or reward you accordingly.

      And Luck is like that too. If you have good luck, somehow Luck behaves as if understood you and your situation and knew what was good or bad for you, and arranges for the good stuff and not the bad stuff to happen. (Or the other way around if you have bad luck.)

      I don’t think this criterion is is exhaustive of all supernatural concepts in all cultures. There are other kinds of basic categories that get slightly modified or mixed to create “supernatural” concepts in a more general sense.

      I do think it’s about right for describing most supernatural concepts that survive in modern Western culture and figure in common science-vs-religion debates.

      In Boyer’s more general taxonomy, there are important basic categories in between plain brute matter at one extreme and human-like minds at the other. In particular, you have living things like plants, and motile animals which behave as though they have actual minds but not at a human level.

      Correspondingly, you have ideas like a vital essence or soul that all living things have, a special kind of animal essence or soul that animals have beyond that, and an even more special essence for human-like mental or spiritual properties.

      It’s an oversimplification to think of this as dualism—it’s more general than that, and is often at least triplism or quadruplism.

      Dualism isn’t usually a bad approximation, though, for most purposes, because the crucial distinction is often between the bottom level and all the higher ones, or between the top level and all the lower ones.

      The crucial difference between the bottom two levels is that the bottom level has no significant appearance of teleology, and all the levels above it do. (E.g., even plants appear to “know how” to develop into the appropriate adult form, recognize where the sun is and turn to face it, recognize when they’re wounded and “know how” to heal, etc.)

      The crucial difference between the top two levels in modern Western culture is that scientifically literate people recognize that most of those levels reduce to the bottom level—living things including animal bodies are basically made out of nonliving brute matter. The fight is usually about whether they also have specifically human-like dualistic souls.

      (I suspect many people are actually still vitalists—they recognize that bodies are machines in some sense, but still think they need a life force, too. That doesn’t usually come up in these debates, though, because few people want to publicly admit to being vitalists and defend that.)

      • TheBear
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

        because few people want to publicly admit to being vitalists and defend that

        I think I can see why…
        (When it comes to dualism though, wonders never cease in regards to who’s saying what)

  28. H.H.
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    For the IMN proponents: Can you, for the sake of hypothetical discussion, imagine an invisible car? Or is the idea incoherent, meaningless, an empty set, and impossible to talk about in any significant way?

    • TheBear
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      I certainly can imagine an invisible car, as I can imagine a lot of other tings that don’t exist.

      I can even imagine two invisible cars, one invisible because it is made of materials witch don’t interact with photons for some unknown (but definitely natural causes), one that is invisible because it was sprinkled with fairy dust, and fairy dust makes things invisible. The explanation for this: It’s supernatural!

      In this line – both cars belong to the same set: Thought constructs. Both cars do not exist outside my brain. We can however discuss how they would feel, what they would sound like etc etc. We could talk about these thought-cars although

      But now – try to imagine an invisible, intactile, sounless and smelless car. That would be an impossibility.

      Same thing goes for the explanation for the cars. I can’t show you a material that don’t interact with photons, but we can discuss how such a material could be working, what it would feel like etc. We probably won’t find it (I don’t think it’s possible), but if we did it would be within the natural realm and this material would be a part of science.

      The fairy dust on the other hand? It’s only mechanism is that it’s supernatural. How does it make the car invisible: It’s supernatural. Why is it supernatural: It makes the car invisible.

      The supernatural becomes a tautology instead of an explanation. That is why it is an empty set or an incoherent notion (pick one or both, I don’t care about the difference)

      • H.H.
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        But why do you need an explanation of how the car gains the property of invisibility before you can talk about it meaningfully?

        • TheBear
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

          We can talk about invisible cars all day, but if we don’t include the why it’s just not interesting. We might as well be talking about green hedgehogs and pink porcupines or Christine O’Donnells wisdom.

          • H.H.
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

            So in principle, how are invisible cars any different than immaterial minds?

            • TheBear
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

              minds are not immaterial.

            • TheBear
              Posted October 22, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

              It just dawned on me that I might have misunderstood your meaning.

              The minds we know of are not immaterial.

              There has been proposed several kinds of immaterial minds (gods, souls, ghosts etc etc etc). They are the same as invisible cars. I can imagine a ghost, but unless we discuss what makes a ghost it’s just telling ghost stories.

    • zarquon
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Sure. A car is pretty much invisible to neutrinos so they already exist. An invisible car would simply be transparent at optical wavelengths.

  29. Alex SL
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I am not sure if the question of the definition of supernatural is helpful for resolving the discussion between PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. After all, the original question what whether there could be any evidence that would convince either of the existence of god. Just saying that supernatural is an empty set (and I agree) does not resolve anything – unless you also claim that a god that is part of nature or somehow limited in its powers is not a god by definition. That, however, seems like a rather silly cop-out, winning your arguments by playing with words, like the first cause apologists are fond of doing.

    Rather more intriguing is Ben Goren’s argument that “divine superpowers” are incoherent, as we can only divide powers into those that are possible and thus in principle can be harnessed by humans given enough technological progress, and those that are impossible (even for a god). Okay, but where is the problem? Many religions in ye olden times had gods that were pretty limited – living in one place (Yahweh originally lived in Edom, as I am given to understand), powerless against iron, mortal even. Surely science could have found evidence for those entities if they existed?

    (Again, in this sense, our champions argue past each other: PZ says, given what we know now, I cannot be convinced any more, and Coyne says, if we had found out different things, I would have been convinced. That does not seem to be mutually incompatible.)

    And surely it is no problem then that, given some awesome singularity-type technical progress, we could become like gods ourselves? I mean, that is what the concept of hubris was invented to describe. Tower of Babel, anyone?

    • TheBear
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      unless you also claim that a god that is part of nature or somehow limited in its powers is not a god by definition. That, however, seems like a rather silly cop-out, winning your arguments by playing with words, like the first cause apologists are fond of doing.

      Silly words can only be fought with (silly) words. If there was any evidence to question they would not be silly words.

      I think we mostly agree that all naturalistic gods got falsified long time ago. With the exception of a Danïken-like ET, which gets thrown out on grounds of parsimony (ie – it doesn’t solve any questions raised buy the evidence, it just adds a level of complexion). If any of the possible facts Jerry has mentioned earlier (precambrian rabbits, catlikking leading to prayers being allways answered and so on) I would be prepared to resurrect the ET-explaination. It is more parsimonious than the godidit.

      Naturalist gods doesn’t go well with either current understanding of gods or nature either – but both could change (the first one is morphing so fast that the earth would overheat if it were tangible)

      • Alex SL
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

        But that is not the point. Not at all. OF COURSE our current understanding of nature precludes gods, or Jerry Coyne would not be an atheist. That is what he is saying. The point is that given other evidence than the one we actually found, would a god have been acceptable as an explanation?

        And saying that a stupendously powerful being that can regrow lost limbs if but only if you sacrifice a goat to it and pray to it in Aramaic is not a god in your definition, simply because you take care to define a god so as to be impossible to start with, is silly. Then call this powerful being zilch and ask whether there could be any evidence that would make you accept the existence of a zilch.

        • TheBear
          Posted October 22, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

          The problem here is that you haven’t defined god.

          If you define a god as “being that regrows lost limbs if but every time you sacrifice a goat to it and pray to it in Aramaic is not a god” – fine – that’s testable. Chop off a leg (I would advice against using your own) get a goat and a dictionary and gogogo.

          If the leg grows, we’re left with the task to explain how the leg grew.

          This explanation could be natural. To determine if it is natural we need to know what is natural. Not just “what’s usually natural” or “what’s natural to our current knowlegde” – we need to know what is potentially natural since this is something we haven’t encountered before (once it is established that no-one is playing silly buggers).

          The only coherent definition of natural I can think of is “all that actually is or has actually happened” (I’m open for alternative definitions, but so far no challengers for the reasons given above)

          If we use that definition, everything that happens in the physical world becomes natural. The supernatural cannot be by fiat. (Natural is still a useful term, since things that are not are not natural and cultural constructs are not natural.)

          The only problem is that in this model there would be no room left for the supernatural. There would only be the natural and the imagined.

          Natural “gods” – sure! But they would not conform to any major modern notions of god. All modern notion of gods that I know of are built on dualism, and while talking of non-dualistic gods are possible, it makes no sense. Thor is dead. Zeus is dead and almost nobody misses them(and I even doubt that those who claim to do really do).

          Now, if we on the other hand open the magic box of dualism, then all bets are off. Without an exhaustive list of what’s supernatural and what’s natural -we cannot know anything. Therefore – there can be no evidence of gods (or anything else for that matter – there could always be a demon fooling me)

          • Alex SL
            Posted October 22, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

            Well, then we are mostly agreed. I just don’t understand how you can say that everything that exists is natural (agreed!), but gods as understood today are not natural. By the first statement, if they existed, they would be natural.

            While I am not a believer myself, the definition of god would seem to be a superhuman intelligent being that is extremely powerful – in some cases able to create the universe, in others only to make it rain or cause earthquakes. As indicated above, I do not know why that should automatically mean that these great powers must be forever beyond the reach of humans.

            Today, we would preferably think of gods as disembodied. Sounds incoherent at first sight, but the thing is, it sounds so because today we know enough to be fairly sure that there are no major types of matter that we have overlooked, that intelligence is likely only possible as the end product of evolution, and that a mind likely needs a body to go with it. But that knowledge is based on evidence on how the world is, and could not have been obtained a priori by simply saying that a disembodied intelligence is incoherent. How would you have known that it is in 1000 BCE?

            Therefore – there can be no evidence of gods (or anything else for that matter – there could always be a demon fooling me)

            Ah, but that is pure solipsism. By that logic, we cannot know that we are not all brains inna tank. True, but unhelpful.

            • TheBear
              Posted October 23, 2010 at 2:04 am | Permalink

              The reason why I would put modern deities down as untestable (and ill-defined) is that common atributes are:
              1: Intangible
              2: Selectivly interventionist. That is, they sometimes answer prayer – sometimes not. And the only answer for those who doesn’t get their prayers answered is “gods ways are not ours” and the like.

              This makes them untestable. One could argue that one day they will be, but until we find something that’s not material-based that interacts with the material I find no point in entertaining that idea.

              Another level of complexity is that *most* modern gods also are the 3-O kind: Omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. All three concepts are untestable, any being with the omnipotent atribute is untestable. You’ll get the “inifitity pluss one” discourse we all know an love from the schoolyard.

              RE: Dualism:
              Ah, but that is pure solipsism. By that logic, we cannot know that we are not all brains inna tank. True, but unhelpful.

              This is true – that’s why we can’t use dualism as a model. It is unhelpful. Luckily, all the facts are stacked against dualism as a model, so we don’t have to seriously entertain it.

  30. Zuropa
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    With the Catholic prayer example Boudry et al. aim to show that a repeatable supernatural event need not violate established scientific knowledge. But they could have easily chosen a simpler illustration.

    For instance suppose there is a particular deity/god/being who responds to questions when you ask him. The reason he has hitherto not responded to anyone until now is only because nobody has asked him. “Oh Zizzyfraz, what’s up?” someone asks. “Not much,” he responds, nonverbally, to the asker’s mind.

    Zizzyfraz is not omniscient or anything; in fact he’s just a lazy entity reclining on a cosmic sofa, watching the universe unfold on his cosmic television. He will answer yes/no questions, so through careful trials using subjects in isolated rooms we can determine that the answers come from the same source. This is repeatable in independent experiments across the world.

    Remember Zizzyfraz doesn’t know much. We ask him whether string theory is of any value and he answers, “How should I know?” There’s none of the classic contradictions with all-powerful, all-knowing entities.

    The point of this Zizzyfraz example is to show that a supernatural event need not even have an “interesting” impact on the natural world like curing disease. Talking to Zizzyfraz is not much different than talking to your neighbor.

    • Felix
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      You say that Zizzyfraz is supernatural.
      Are you sure that he is not merely paranormal? i.e. not yet encompassed by current understanding of ‘natural laws’ (science)?

      • Zuropa
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

        But that is just a matter of shuffling definitions. It is also the basis for arguing that the concept of supernatural is incoherent. Once a phenomenon is testable, repeatable, and verifiable, is it still supernatural? Or can it then be called natural? If so then both Zizzyfraz and Bourdy’s example of Catholic prayer are natural phenomenon.

        And that’s just another reason why IMN is a bad idea. We don’t know a priori what is being ruled out a priori. Better to test the ideas as the come, however silly they seem. Fucking magnets, how do they work? I’m sure they once seemed magical (some idiots still think they are).

  31. cornbread_r2
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to all for a very interesting discussion. FWIW here’s a link (if I don’t screw it up) to thoughts on the subject by Richard Carrier.

    http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/search/label/supernatural

  32. Don
    Posted October 23, 2010 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    Well, I am with Jerry Coyne on this one. It seems to me that all knowledge is provisional, certainly all my knowledge is provisional at least. Given that, there is no logic, no philosophy, no definition, and no fact that is absolutely beyond the possibility of being wrong. That is not to say that I don’t treat quite a bit of my knowledge as certain. With that certainty I can agree with many of the commenters here that the definitions of god and supernatural are muddled and fairly useless. But that is why I am an atheist, that and the lack of evidence for a god of any kind.

    But still there is that chance the very basis of my knowledge or even all knowledge has flaws. So there is always a possibility that Jesus could pop down to earth and snap a super library into existence that contains clear explanations of why all of the current evidence that indicates that god is impossible is wrong. Every poor definition is clearly and neatly defined, every logical inconsistency is clearly shown not to be a problem, every philosophical objection is overcome, all with neat pictures and informative diagrams. The library would have to show where and why we went wrong, why we came to the conclusions we did and how this knowledge ties in with the old knowledge to make a coherent picture.

    Is this at all likely, no, of course not. But given that I hold all knowledge provisionally it can’t be ruled out.

    I do think that many of the commenters make excellent arguments about why a god or gods don’t exist. And if you accept some of their facts as true then it may even be impossible for them to exist. Still I can’t go that far and any evidence that came in would have to be examined.

    In theory it should take nothing less than the super library to convince me. Even then it would take years of study by greater minds than mine going over it carefully and finally drawing a conclusion that we’ve been wrong all along. In practice, being a feeble minded emotional human, it would probably take less evidence than that. Still I would hope that it would take some pretty extraordinary evidence to sway me. A well documented Jesus healing amputees would change my opinion about the probability of a god, not raising it to a certainty or even making it probable, but raising it nonetheless. However, I hope it would not stop me from questioning what else this could possibly be or how this could possibly fit with everything else we know.

  33. Paul W.
    Posted October 23, 2010 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    cornbread_r2 gave a link to Richard Carrier’s blog, but here is a better one:

    http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html

    Everybody seriously interested in this discussion should read that post.

    (Do be aware that when he talks about irreducibly “mental” properties, that does not necessarily imply actual minds—see my comments above about how The Force, Karma, and Luck behave as if they had minds.)

    • Zuropa
      Posted October 23, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      What bothers me about Carrier is that his definition of supernatural depends upon some omniscient point of view for ultimately determining whether nonmental mechanisms are at work. But from our point of view–from a practical standpoint–that is not helpful. We don’t know. We have to test claims as they come. He says,

      In the most obvious case, the God of traditional theism is a pure mind, composed of nothing else but mental powers and concepts. That is indisputably supernatural.

      But we don’t know that. It could be the being of Asimov’s The Last Question or a mischievous sysadmin of The Matrix. Carrier admits this problem in the example of a gigantic machine inside the Earth which is responsible for Harry Potter magic. But he pooh-poohs this objection, saying that a scientific verification of the supernatural would, like all hypotheses, be tentative anyway. But that is beside the point. From our non-omniscient perspective there just isn’t a distinction between testable natural phenomenon and testable supernatural phenomenon, and that makes the whole meaning of supernatural ill-defined.

      The crew of the Enterprise happened to possess the technology sufficient to discover Ardra’s trickery. But what if they hadn’t? It’s entirely arbitrary. Carrier again,

      Thus Clarke’s Third Law (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) is only, at best, an epistemological principle, not a metaphysical one. Metaphysically, magic and technology are very definitely always distinguishable.

      Distinguishable by whom? Not us. We can’t tell. Carrier gives us an interesting but useless definition.

      • Paul W.
        Posted October 23, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        Have you read Carrier’s response to that criticism. (It’s in one of the two followups linked from the piece I linked to.)

        I think he nails it.

        You are conflating metaphysics and epistemology—what supernatural means, vs how we know such things do or don’t exist.

        It’s not a particular problem with his theory of what “supernatural” means that we can never know for sure that some apparently supernatural phenomenon isn’t just sufficiently advanced technology, maybe engineered to look that way.

        Naturalism has that problem too—by the same token, we can never know for sure that any sufficiently advanced technology isn’t actually an illusion created by a supernatural (irreducibly mental) being.

        Maybe Descarte’s evil demon is fucking with us and making it look like naturalism is true, or maybe naturalism would be perfectly true, except that at bottom it’s all a dream in the mind of a superatural God.

        No matter what your theory of the supernatural or naturalism is, you have that problem—unless you resort to the verbal trick of defining the supernatural away. (But you could instead define the natural away—all appearances of naturalism are a dream. Big deal.)

        I think Carrier is right that the metaphysics and epistemology are just different issues. It’s not fair critcize his metaphysical theory for being unable to refute sufficiently radical skepticism—nobody can refute that.

        Solving that problem is just not what a definition of “supernatural” should do. (There’s something seriously wrong with any metaphysical theory that purports to solve that problem.)

        It’s not the definition’s job to explain how we know with reasonable confidence that the supernatural doesn’t actually exist—that’s science’s job, and after a point it comes down to Occam’s razor.

        (The universe looks, flies, and quacks like a naturalistic one, so it probably is one—and if it’s a supernatural universe, it’s a very peculiar one that manages to look naturalistic. You can never quite know for sure, but that’s just too bad. Neither philosophy nor science can solve that problem, and that shouldn’t be expected of a simple definition of what people mean by “supernatural.”)

        Carrier’s metaphysics is consistent with the epistemological issues, so the “problem” isn’t a bug in his explanation, it’s a feature.

      • Zurpoa
        Posted October 23, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        Paul, your response is mostly a reiteration of Carrier’s point about the Harry Potter machine, which I mentioned. I did read the other links. I am not faulting Carrier for giving us a faulty definition of the supernatural, but giving us a definition in the first place. I chided him for squaring the circle, but my meaning was that the circle can’t be squared.

        There is an opaque box with a hole in it. The box contains some hard rock-like objects. We can reach into the hole and handle them. For this analogy to make sense it has to be an absolutely impregnable box with unknown origin. Nobody has opened the box to see its contents and nobody will ever be able to do so.

        Now someone comes along and asserts that some objects inside the box are green and some objects are blue. “How do we know the green ones from the blue ones?” I ask. His response: “It’s a metaphysical distinction. You’re conflating metaphysics with epistemology.” My response: “OK. How do you know and why should I care?” By Occam’s razor we should not accept the green/blue distinction without necessity. Why are the green and blue categories necessary?

        I am taking a ground-level ultra-practical view here. We have some claims; we test each one. Some hold up to our scrutiny, others do not. The former are the rock-like objects inside the box. The latter are soft squishy things which are destroyed when we clench them tightly. Thus there are two categories: things that we have squished (disproved claims) and things we haven’t been able to squish yet (claims which have passed all our tests so far—the rocks). How could this idea of unknowable green and blue colors possibly make a difference?

        • Paul W.
          Posted October 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

          You’re still conflating metaphysics and epistemology, and just insisting it’s the right thing to do.

          Whether we can ever know or prove that something is supernatural is a different question than whether the idea of the supernatural is incoherent, or what the word means, or whether that’s vacuous.

          If you don’t care about those questions, too bad. Lots of people do.

          Whether it could “make a difference” or be “useless” in your senses makes no difference to whether the word means something meaningful.

          This is important to many of us, because if we tell theists that the concept is incoherent, meaningless, or just vacuous, and they have a clue, we look really stupid. (Or at least confusing as hell, because we are talking past them.)

          They may not be able to articulate the concept of the supernatural clearly, themselves, but still rightly intuit that we don’t even know what we’re talking about when we tell them they’re wrong and give an argument that seems to miss the point.

          They will rightly suspect that we’re pulling some kind of illegitimate trick, defining “supernatural” in a conveniently bogus way that misses their points, so that we can dismiss it.

          If you don’t care about the differences between these questions, I just can’t help you, and that is just not my problem, or Carrier’s, or Jerry’s. It doesn’t make our positions wrong.

          For me, this is like the famous question in computer science of whether P = NP (i.e., whether the class of problems solvable in polynomial time by a deterministic Turing machine is identical to the class of problems solvable in polynomial time on a nondeterministic one.)

          The fact that I don’t know and maybe can’t possibly ever know whether P = NP doesn’t mean that P isn’t identical to NP, much less that it’s a vacuous or meaningless conjecture. It has an absolutely precise meaning, and a unique definite truth value, even if it’s not even possible to ever know what that truth value is.

          (It could be a Godel sentence for all I know: something that’s true but bizarrely unprovable. Or it might not be, but be something we’ll never actually figure out for sure for some more prosaic reason.)

          Objecting that it might require a “God’s eye view” to be sure is simply off point. Carrier is right that it’s invalidly dragging an epistemological question into a matter of more basic metaphysics (meaning and ontology).

          Now consider your example of a mysterious box with colored rocks, that you can reach into and feel around, but never know what color rocks you’re feeling.

          If you tell somebody that it’s a meaningless question whether the rocks in the box are colored—that it’s a meaningless idea, or an incoherent one, or that there’s no truth of the matter—they will rightly think you’re being pretty thick.

          They know what it means for the rocks in the box to be colored, and that it’s different from knowing what color they are; why on Earth don’t you?

          (And a better analogy would be a box that they think will open eventually, if the rocks are blue, but which you can’t open now to see what color they are. The color of the rocks will have some observable consequences, eventually. They also think they have some suggestive evidence that the rocks are in fact blue, but that they can’t repeat the experiment somebody did to determine that.)

          If you want to convince them that the rocks in the box aren’t green or blue, you need a much better argument than “we can’t see them” or even “we can never see them.” The fact that you may never know something simply doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

          Even in mathematics, there’s an infinity of possible coherent, absolutely precisely meaningful, and even absolutely true statements that are simply unprovable, ever, period. That’s certainly annoying—Goedel’s theorem disappionted a lot of people—but it’s just too bad; that’s the way it is.

          In science, we never know anything with absolute certainty, for that reason and/or more prosaic ones.

          That doesn’t stop us, and shouldn’t stop us from clarifying what the term supernatural means, and why it’s scientifically implausible, i.e., naturalism is empirically true, as best we can tell.

          And that’s all we can say—we can’t say that it’s incoherent or meaningless or vacuous, because it’s not.

          It’s important to realize that it’s a scientific question whether supernaturalism or naturalism is true. It’s not something we can figure out by simple philosophy.

          The philosophy is just getting clear on the question, and science provides us with the answer, albeit an ineliminably provisional one.

      • Zuropa
        Posted October 23, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

        Paul, if I wanted to “just insist” I would done it with one sentence. I’m trying to present an argument.

        If you tell me that Zompflomps are a subset of fun activities, I am justified in asking how to distinguish a Zompflomp. If you say no such test exists because the distinction is metaphysical, I can pull out Occam’s razor and reject your notion of Zompflomps. You can call that conflating metaphysics with epistemology if you like, but you can also call it not multiplying objects without necessity.

        Whether we can ever know or prove that something is supernatural depends upon whether the supernatural can be distinguished.

        What I’m advocating is almost the same as PMN. PMN is “Natural or supernatural, let’s test the claim.” WMN (Whatever Methodological Naturalism) is “Whatever, let’s test it.”

        I don’t understand your concern that people would find this confusing. “You have a claim? Let’s test it.” It’s really simple. It’s the opposite of dismissal or trickery.

        For both N=NP and Godel sentences, these are well-understood, well-defined concepts. I don’t see the analogy with metaphysical terms with non-existent distinguishing characteristics.

        Getting back to Zompflomps, is my rejection of this category “invalidly dragging an epistemological question into a matter of more basic metaphysics”?

        You’ve run across a mistake I made with the box of rocks analogy. I shouldn’t have picked colors, a known concept. I should have said that our metaphysician insists that some rocks are zizzlefrag and some rocks frizzlezag; he doesn’t define the terms and doesn’t offer a test to distinguish between the two. That would seem to answer your objections to the box of rocks, or at least require a reformulation of them.

        My position is that we should not even take a stance on the supernatural. It’s not our responsibility to either define it or assert its incoherence. We don’t a priori accept or reject claims based upon some category to which they are assigned. We just test the claim. WNM–Whatever Methodological Naturalism. “Supernatural? Whatever, let’s test it.” “Zizzlefrag? Whatever, let’s test it.” The only difference with PMN is that PMN seems to acknowledge the supernatural/natural distinction while WMN doesn’t care.

        • Paul W.
          Posted October 24, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

          If you tell me that Zompflomps are a subset of fun activities, I am justified in asking how to distinguish a Zompflomp. If you say no such test exists because the distinction is metaphysical, I can pull out Occam’s razor and reject your notion of Zompflomps.

          Yes. Not because the idea is meaningless or incoherent, though, but because there’s no evidence for it, and the simpler explanation is preferable for the usual kinds of reasons.

          (I’m assuming there is a coherent and meaningful explanation of the distinction between zompflomps and other activities, but no test.)

          I’m claiming that the basic idea of the supernatural is clear enough, on reflection, to be both meaningful and coherent, so we can’t rule all supernatural theories out of science a priori.

          I’m not saying that most supernatural things most people believe in don’t involve some incoherence. (For example, the problem of Evil is a killer for a 3-omni god, at least when taken with the empirical evidence that there’s a lot of unjustifible suffering going on. And souls with libertarian “free will” sure seem incoherent.)

          Some supernaturalist concepts are unfalsifiable, most basic supernatural concepts aren’t—they’re not only falsifiable but falsified.

          Take vitalism, for example. That’s a recognizably supernaturalist concept, and we didn’t drop it simply because it was supernaturalist.

          Vitalism is dead among scientists not because it’s necessarily meaningless or internally incoherent, at least not in any simple but because it’s observably wrong. Is is just not how living things actually work, and we don’t need anything like an irreducibly teleological life essence. Regular old causation within regular old matter-energy in space-time does the job, and the vital essence has nothing left to do.

          And consider Lamarckism, which is closely related to vitalism, and similar to it in that it assumes a certan kind of teleology that might be irreducible.

          (Vitalism assumes teleology in individual organisms’ development and function—they seem to function as if they “know” how to grow and heal and so on. Lamarckism assumes intergenerational teleology driving speciation in similar way—inheritance behaves as if it “knows” what acquired characteristics make an individual “better.”0

          It’s not clear that Lamarckism isn’t a supernatural concept, because it’s not clear such teleology could ever be reduced to nonteleological causation. (Except by a theory like Darwins, which probably makes Lamarckism superfluous.)

          The problem with vitalism was that it assumed pretty clearly spooky stuff going on: irreducible teleology. The similar problem with Lamarckism was that it wasn’t clear that it didn’t, too.

          Both were discarded for empirical reasons—because the spookiness turned out to be reducible in fact, not because we automatically exclude supernaturalist theories from consideration.

          Up until Darwin, supernatural explanations were a lot more credible. It wasn’t clear that the apparent teleology of development and evolution could ever be reduced to blind mechanical causation.

          In those days, a lot of scientists thought that some things were reducible. (E.g., brute matter doing things like gravitating and colliding vs.living things doing things like developing.)

          That was not unscientific. It just wasn’t clear yet how successful reductionism could be, and that we didn’t live in a universe with spooky irreducibly teleological stuff going on.

          Our current confidence in naturalism is partly based on the fact that we’ve been so successful so far, and partly based on the fact that past successes give us a pretty good idea how to continue with the program, until all of the “spooky” phenomena that motivated supernaturalism have been reduced. (E.g., it’s pretty clear now that minds are not irreducibly teleological either—mental goals and so on are basically computational phenomena in meat computers made of otherwwise nonliving matter.)

          This is all empirical. We are confident that we live in a non-supernatural universe only because we’ve pretty well explained the spooky appearances that motivated supernaturalism. It’s now fairly evident, but not proven, that there’s no spookiness that will survive the materialist program.

          We never ruled the supernatural out of science a priori. It just became increasingly clear that we have no need of that hypothesis.

          You can call that conflating metaphysics with epistemology if you like, but you can also call it not multiplying objects without necessity.

          Whether we can ever know or prove that something is supernatural depends upon whether the supernatural can be distinguished.

          • Paul W.
            Posted October 24, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

            Damn, the last to paragraphs of the comment above weren’t supposed to be there. They’re from what I was responding to, not part of my response.

            Sorry. I was trying to post before my laptop battery died…

        • Paul W.
          Posted October 24, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          BTW, Zuropa, I do realize that I haven’t yet sufficiently addressed your concern about whether you can ever tell for sure that a universe you’re in is really supernatural, or just magical-looking technology or something, and what that means for whether we could entertain such an idea scientifically.

          (At least, I think that’s one of your concerns.

          I need to think about how to discuss that, but I think it’s a different issue than whether you can tell that your universe looks like one as many levels down as you can study.

          So for example, our universe appears to be naturalistic as far down as we have been able to go—it doesn’t look like there’s anything irreducibly mental or teleological all the way from social minds down to relativity and quantum field theory. It could always be supernaturalistic (irreducibly mental or teleological) somewhere below that in a way we couldn’t tell. (Or “behind” it in time or something, having a supernatural cause of a cosmos which is otherwise “naturalistic” at all levels.)

          • Zuropa
            Posted October 24, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

            I hope you realize that the only reason I brought up those expamples was to emphasize that it doesn’t matter, that the distinction has no use except as an exercise in Occamming. I do not expect they have any scientific ramifications, but by all means try.

            (Note indentation change below.)

        • Paul W.
          Posted October 24, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

          My position is that we should not even take a stance on the supernatural. It’s not our responsibility to either define it or assert its incoherence. We don’t a priori accept or reject claims based upon some category to which they are assigned. We just test the claim.

          If Carrier and Boyer are right, there is something in particular that supernatural concepts have in commmon, and it is exactly that thing that rightly makes scientists so skeptical of them. (Except when some are inconsistent by making exceptions for their own religion, etc.)

          We don’t dismiss supernatural concepts a priori just because the label “supernatural” has been applied to them.

          We dismiss them (provisionally, defeasibly, and a posteriori, but forcefully) because they all have the same problem that makes them scientifically very implausible, in light of what science has already shown.

          Basically, the label “supernatural” is a pretty good one in that it’s the best word for a certain kind of common mistake that takes a whole bunch of seemingly different forms, but is always a mistake of a particular sort—a belief in irreducibly mental or teleological phenomena.

          Whether we use the label “supernatural” or not, we so need a name for that very important kind of very common mistake, so that we can talk clearly about how it’s a mistake.

          I think it’s pretty sad that we haven’t done so before—that scientists haven’t made clear to everyone what supernatural concepts are, and why we think they’re all pretty clearly deeply wrong—Karma, Luck, God, witchcraft, Vitalism, the Evil Eye, Jesus, New Agey “energies” or “vibrations,” the afterlife, Homeopathy, auras, non-cognitive mystical insight, Sin that’s like a substance you can have on your soul and be washed clean of, etc., etc., etc.

          All these things are plausible to many people because people are prone to making the same kind of conceptual mistake.

          Here’s an (extended) example. (Sorry it’s so long.)

          Homeopathy is pseudoscientific, right? But how? First, the ultra-dilution would disable any scientifically plausible effect, because it turns out that there usually isn’t even a single molecule of the diluted substance left in the homeopathic remedy.

          As if that wasn’t bad enough, and somehow the effect could survive dilution-to-zero, then your average glass of water would be a very dangerous homeopathic cocktail of all sorts of things, which a little of the water has had a little of in it at some point, normal water being a very, very dilute solution of all sorts of crud, and a dilution to zero of a vast variety of crud.

          To explain away the dilution-to-zero problem, they say that somehow the substance being diluted transfers its relevant property to the water by imposing a vibratory resonance pattern on the water, or some gibberish like that. That is credible to many people because they intuitively essentialists—they find it plausible there’s an essence of Good for X that could be transferred. That is, a very specific high-level property can just flow through low-level matter.

          To explain away the cocktail-of-lots-of-stuff problem, the homeopathy apologists say that they dilute things in a certain way, by “succussion,” (banging the dilution container at each dilution step) where the succusser’s intentions matter—power of intention controls how the preferred chemical’s essential effect is imprinted on the water, and comparable effects of other chemicals aren’t.

          This is a recognizably supernatural belief, in that it assumes some kind of direct mind over matter effect that bypasses the usual kind of information processing in the head, with input from sensors and output through effectors, etc.. Instead, the mind, at a deep level, can use its force of will to affect the matter at a deep level, in a way that is sensitive to high-level things like a homeopath’s particular intentions. Minds can just do that sort of thing, apparently.

          This seems utterly bugfuck nuts to scientific people, but not to a lot of other people. To many people, it seems like a credible story, precisely because they believe in the supernatural.

          They believe in souls, and that will is like a force you can direct, and find it credible that somehow when you apply that force, the essence of your intention could make the right thing just happen, without fancy information processing to determine the exactly right thing to do, subtle actuators that do exactly that, and so on. Low-level things like vibratory patterns in water seem plausibly sensitive to high-level properties like a homeopath’s particular intentions. It’s magic.

          It’s really just casting a spell, when you think about it; they’ve just made it more plausible to people who believe in the supernatural but maybe “don’t believe in magic,” by having it only have some minor and subtle effect on some water, as one step in a scientific-seeming process.

          (There’s no magical incantation for this “succussing”, that I know of—that’d be too obviously hokey—but these days people are less inclined to think of language as supernatural or magical—even people who overtly believe in magic often say that it’s not the words themselves that matter, but how they help you focus your intentions and direct your will to do the right thing, which is magic, and clearly supernatural.)

          Almost all sorts of magic, religion, and pseudoscientific woo are recognizably “supernatural” in this sense—failing to respect the ways high-level phenomena do and don’t affect things—and they are ridiculous in scientific terms for exactly the same reason.

          Basically, I think Carrier and Boyer have really put their fingers on what “supernatural” concepts have in common, and why it is exactly those things that are basically inconsistent with modern scientific knowledge.

          This sort of error is the single most common and important error that people make in not “getting” what science is and what modern science says and why you should believe it.

          I’m pretty sure that one reason this simple pattern of error has not been made explicit and made a focus of science education is that it applies to religion—not just “superstition” so called, and just obviously “supernaturalist” religion, but a lot of other religion that’s not explicitly “supernaturalist”—e.g., “mystical” religion that doesn’t involve obvious spells or miracles, but does involve transcendent insight that goes beyond figuring stuff out, and has similar false assumptions—e.g., that the mind has some kind of essence that can directly apprehend deep reality, rather than just processing information from sensors, etc.

          (E.g., Karen Armstrong’s mystical “intellectus” that transcends rational thought and gets at Deep Truth. She’s a poster child for religion that’s supposedly “compatible with science,” but she makes the very same mistake they all do.)

          Almost all religions make the same kind of mistake. (And the ones that don’t are not clearly religion, IMHO—it’s not clear to me that philosophies that don’t have that mistake in common should be called religions, but I don’t claim that category is sharp-edged.)

      • Zuropa
        Posted October 24, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        (Reclaiming indentation space again.)

        Paul, your last response leaves me wondering whether you misread my last comment. I said,

        My position is that we should not even take a stance on the supernatural. It’s not our responsibility to either define it or assert its incoherence.

        You seem to be arguing against the a priori rejection of supernatural claims, but that is contrary to my point. I illustrated this with WMN (Whatever Methodological Naturalism), which is otherwise identical to PMN except that WMN is doesn’t care about the natural/supernatural distinction. It is precisely for this reason that supernatural-like claims should not be rejected a priori, in my view.

        In fact I can use the examples you cite to support my position. Supernatural-like things have been part of science in the past, and they may even have an intermediate use in arriving at a non-supernatural-like theory, like scaffolding that gets torn down after an edifice is built.

        However you define natural/supernatural, the two ultimately get steamrolled into the same thing when they finally interact with science: namely, as some testable claim. We needn’t fuss about the labels attached (arbitrarily or not) to claims; we just test them. In the end it doesn’t matter.

        But you see the distinction as something truly significant in some metaphysical but untestable way. If you agree that the two ultimately get streamrolled together in the practice of science, then are you maintaining their distinction only as a way of talking about science?

        In other words is our apparent disagreement about science or the philosophy of science? Feynman summarizes my view,

        Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

        What do you think of that?

        • Paul W.
          Posted October 24, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          I didn’t see your comment above until after I replied again to the previous one. It may clarify what I (now) think we agree on and why I still think “supernatural” is an important category.

          (Search for “If Carrier and Boyer are right”)

          The gist is that supernatural concepts appear to be an artifact of a particular kind of assumption, which modern science shows to be in serious error.

          Whether you call that category “the supernatural” or not, it’s a very common and important kind of error that deserves a name and deserves to be criticized.

          It’s why New Atheists are against religion as well as other forms of superstition and woo—they all make the same basic ontological mistake, and science shows that empirically, and it’s why science is incompatible with woo, including religion.

          I think we should call it “the supernatural” because on reflection, it’s what things we consciously recognize as supernatural actually have in common. (And on reflection, we can recognize other things as that sort of thing—e.g., homeopathic succussion involving casting a spell.)

          It’s a more appropriate, coherent, and useful term than it may appear at first glance.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:10 am | Permalink

            Yes, you are right. And it is surely pretty futile to argue about the natural and the supernatural at a level so abstract that what is being talked about is nothing like the concepts that believers actually hold – this is why an acquaintance with the work of anthropologists and cognitive psychologists like Boyer, Whitehouse, Plotkin and Tremlin would make the kind of debate that is going on in these comments immeasurably more fruitful. It is an enormously interesting fact about the animal Homo sapiens that every society we have knowledge of has had or has some form of religion, and it is of great scientific interest as to why this should be so. And if we understood better why this is so (which is what Boyer et al are working towards), then those of us who want to reduce the influence of religion would be in a better position to combat it.

    • H.H.
      Posted October 23, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      Carrier says better what I’ve been trying to say for weeks now. Specifically, he addresses why this distinction even matters in the comments:

      …what I’m doing is explaining the only way supernatural claims can be formulated so as to be deniable. In other words, if you do not formulate a claim in any way capable of falsification, then you have not said anything verifiable, either.

      Exactly. IMN advocates are actually defending a faith position which completely undermines the conclusion they wish to arrive at.

  34. Explict Atheist
    Posted October 23, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    A difference between IMN and PMN is that IMN overlooks weight of the evidence as the proper way to justify beliefs while PMN acknowledges overall weight of the evidence as the proper method. As a result, IMN is rigid and impractical, its inconsistent with proper belief justification of the sort that rational people otherwise routinely engage in, while PMN is consistent. Its really that simple. Root all beliefs in overall weight of the evidence, with the evidence leading and the belief following. Don’t go anywhere the evidence doesn’t direct us to go.

    • The Swede
      Posted October 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      A difference between IMN and PMN is that PMN overlooks the coherence of offered models and allows for incoherent models in the hope that they will become coherent once evidence for them materializes.

      That is, of course, a futile hope, and therefore PMN is too loose and impractical. It’s inconsistent with proper belief justification of the sort that rational people otherwise routinely engage in, while IMN is consistent. Its really that simple.

    • stvs
      Posted October 23, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

      PMN overlooks the coherence of offered models

      Sigh. There is no logical or even physical consistency supporting modern science. We only know that our models work for about 2% of the stuff in the observable universe, that they’re inconsistent and incomplete even there, and the other 98% is a total mystery.

      Unless you have some new information for us, there’s simply insufficient knowledge right now to assert with 100% absolute logically proven certainty that no matter what we observe, we’ll be able to explain it using QM, GR, or their successors.

      There really appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding here of the difference between logically proven theorems and experimentally proven theories. There are no axioms behind physics, just some damn fine guesses.

      • The Swede
        Posted October 24, 2010 at 3:35 am | Permalink

        There is no logical or even physical consistency supporting modern science.

        I think we have different definitions of “no”. The whole point of modern science is to build testable models which are as consistent as possible with reality within their scope. We don’t have perfect models, but we have good enough models that we can build these spiffy computers and sit and talk to each other over a network operating at 0.6c. That’s at least a chunk of physical consistency.

        And either way, the point is that science in practice only works with coherent models, even if they’re based on our incomplete mathematics and limited ability to observe. Putting forth “goddidit”, even if the evidence through magic were to lead that way, simply doesn’t work. That’s what makes PMN incoherent; it will lead to madness, not to understanding.

        • Paul W.
          Posted October 24, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          the point is that science in practice only works with coherent models, even if they’re based on our incomplete mathematics and limited ability to observe.

          It’s not clear to me that you’re actually talking about incoherence as opposed to vagueness, incompleteness, implausibility, etc.

          IMHO supernaturalist theories are not necessarily internally incoherent, and basic ones typically aren’t, although most of the ornate ones pushed by religion are. (Apologetic theology is largely the bogifying of simple, coherent, falsifiable concepts of the supernatural to make them unfalsifiable and often incoherent. Unfalsifiability isn’t an intrinsic or even normal property of supernatural concepts before apologetics gets to them.)

          Putting forth “goddidit”, even if the evidence through magic were to lead that way, simply doesn’t work.

          This seems to me like a non sequitur, and maybe false on other grounds, depending on just what you mean by “doesn’t work.”

          (I agree it doesn’t work now, given what we do know empirically. I don’t agree that it’s simply and obviously incoherent.)

          This isn’t an issue of incoherence. If you’re just talking about an intelligent designer, for example, that idea can be perfectly coherent.

          What’s unsatisfying about such theories is generally that they “just push the problem back a step,” and you still have a similar problem to solve. (E.g., “where did the designer come from?”)

          It’s important to realize that “pushing things back a step” in that is not necessarily an invalid move that introduces incoherence, and is sometimes exactly the right move. If there’s good evidence that the simple reductive theory is wrong, and that there is another complicated step to be explained, it’s right and proper to have a theory of that step, even if you do still have to solve another problem resembling the original one.

          So, for example, if it had turned out there was no evidence of life on the Earth before 200 million years ago, and very suddenly a variety of life forms, panspermia and the like would be much more attractive hypotheses than they are now. E.g., maybe intelligent aliens seeded the earth with a bunch of prefab life forms from a terraforming starter kit, and let evolution take over from there.

          If we found such evidence, we might look for other evidence, e.g., strange discontinuities in mutation clocks, and even terraforming space probes in 200,000 year old strata. If we found really extraordinary evidence like that, intelligent design would be a very good hypothesis.

          (That’s “intelligent design” in the uncapitalized, broad sense, not the specific crap the Intelligent Design movement pushes.)

          That kind of development would unsatisfying and annoying as hell, in an important sense—it would push the origin of life and initial proliferation of life forms off to some unknown place and time where we’d probably have a very hard time studying them—we might hit an evidentiary dead end.

          We might moan about it, but it wouldn’t be a principled problem with the hypothesis; it’d be a practical problem of an annoying fact making the early history of life much less accessible to us.

          I think “goddidit” could in principle be meaningful and coherent as well, because supernatural beings can be a meaningful and coherent concept.

          Like Carrier, I think we can make sense of the distinction between a mere alien and a supernatural being. A supernatural being is basically one with irreducibly teleological essence and/or abilities. (E.g, somehow about to think without doing the kind of computational stuff our brains do, in something vaguely normal matter, and able to affect matter directly by force of immaterial will, because it has a special kind of essence that can just do that.)

          I don’t think such essences and abilities exist, but the idea isn’t simply internally incoherent. It’s mainly just wrong in light of the fact that it’s empirically pretty clear we live in a bottom-up mechanical universe with simple rules at the bottom, not a top-down universe where thoughts directly control matter, etc. It’s pretty clear that life could have originated and developed somewhere, even if it turned out not here, by mechanical processes without irreducible teleology. Without some striking evidence for spooky irreducible mentation or teleology, intelligent alien designers would be a far more plausible hypothesis than a supernatural goddidit.

          That’s all we need to rule the supernatural out of science, heuristically and provisionally, but firmly and decisively. (Unless and until some utterly extraordinary evidence comes to light.)

          • Leigh Jackson
            Posted October 24, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

            “I think “goddidit” could in principle be meaningful and coherent as well, because supernatural beings can be a meaningful and coherent concept.”

            Just not scientifically meaningful.

          • Leigh Jackson
            Posted October 24, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

            “That’s all we need to rule the supernatural out of science, heuristically and provisionally, but firmly and decisively. (Unless and until some utterly extraordinary evidence comes to light.)”

            Science doesn’t need to waste time on “the supernatural”. Or the “natural”. It can just get on with investigating the world.

          • Jim Balter
            Posted October 25, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

            I think “goddidit” could in principle be meaningful and coherent as well, because supernatural beings can be a meaningful and coherent concept.

            “goddidit” carries no more information than “it happened”.

  35. Gordon
    Posted October 24, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Belief is not a good thing; doubt is the proper attitude. I doubt the existence of god and I doubt the non-existence of god; but the existence of god is unsupported by the greater lack of evidence.

  36. Adrian
    Posted October 25, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    There are two laws of physics that are fundamental and well tested. One is that the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the universe, they don’t change over space and time. The other is conservation of energy. Stenger’s New Atheism has a whole chapter on this.

    In my opinion for a supernatural entity or force to have any effect in this universe it would have to break one or the other of those two principles.

    So I’m in the IMN camp, supernatural things cannot have a natural effect, so they are undetectable and can be safely ignored.

  37. Jim Balter
    Posted October 25, 2010 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Pigliucci just deleted a whole facebook exchange with me (http://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=156648014370362&id=151332024876853) because I pointed out his fallacies and generally bad behavior after he quoted John Pieret: “I also have to point out that the mere fact that some ‘serious philosophers’ happen to converge on something similar to one of Coyne’s opinions doesn’t mean his philosophy isn’t still primitive.” which I pointed out attacks a strawman (aside from being grossly ad hominem; why in the world does it matter how “primitive” or advanced your philosophy is?). Among his other negative traits, Pigliucci is a pathetic coward.

  38. Sigmund
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    It’s a shame about Massimo. I first heard from him on some of the old Infidel Guy shows – Reggie would get him on to debate Ken Hovind! That was always a laugh. Even now I still listen to his podcast ‘Rationally Speaking’ and he frequently comes out with interesting points but, unfortunately, his last PhD seems to have gone to his head.
    The last podcast had a very interesting discussion about readers questions – one of which is relevant to the current discussion. That question was whether Massimo had ever changed his mind. The answer was yes and the point in question was over Massimo changing his mind from a confrontationalist attitude towards Eugenie Scotts accomodationist approach.
    OK, I thought, maybe I’ll learn something interesting here.
    The specific point was the reasoning behind the changing of the definition of evolution used by the American Biology Teachers Association.
    The original definition from 1995 was:
    “The diversity of life on Earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments”
    which was changed upon lobbying from Eugenie Scott to:
    “The diversity of life on Earth is the outcome of evolution: an unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments”
    In other words the statement dropped the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal”.
    If you actually read Eugenie Scotts reasoning behind the change you will notice that it is highly political and pragmatic.

    http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/scottreply.htm

    In other words it is mainly based on objections from religious figures – including ‘sophisticated’ theologians like Alvin Plantinga.
    Indeed Eugenie complains that many of the scientists that signed a letter complaining about the change in the definition of the word evolution were not in fact American! Isn’t science, just science? Is there an American evolution distinct from European evolution? (only one of them being unsupervised and impersonal? – Gods own country indeed).
    Its actually interesting to see the rather hands on approach of ‘sophisticated’ theologians towards natural science like evolution in this episode. Read Eugenies statement linked above in the light of the current lines of debate.
    Notice how it seems fine for the religious to stomp all over biology teaching and yet whenever a scientist makes a statement on a religious claim Eugenie and the like drag out NOMA and wave it in the air like a crucifix in a vampire movie.
    As Eugenie says:
    “What gets people’s backs up is the issue of whether life has purpose or meaning, and whether scientists are claiming to be able to refute religious views.”
    Well, guess what – we ARE claiming to refute religious views. Not only that but so is Eugenie. The only difference is that we are prepared to refute religious views held by a larger proportion of the population.

  39. Posted October 29, 2010 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    I have finished reading the paper and I agree with many of its points. My views on this one align much better with those of Jerry Coyne than with those of PZ Myers or Massimo Pigliucci. Furthermore, I don’t think Massimo has yet justified his “philosophically very naive and pretentious” line. I don’t think my opinions reflect a tribal bias because I follow “Rationally Speaking” and “Pharyngula” as well as “Why Evolution is True” (although WEIT is my favourite of the three). I will avoid getting drawn into the details of the debate (as I need to get one with writing my PhD thesis) but I have previously summarised some of my thoughts on Massimo’s arguments on one of the “Rationally Speaking” threads :

    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/08/jerry-coyne-then-and-now.html?showComment=1281535683515#c5094819274374600706

  40. Layne Myhre
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Any evidence that supports the existence of a god or gods must, in order to BE evidence, exist within a framework of physical laws… thus negating the definition of supernatural used by the authors. The entire premise is nonsense.

  41. Posted January 29, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post.

    PMN seems reasonable to me, even as a theist. It puts a heavy burden of proof on allowing the supernatural into science, which is what the success of science supports.

    IMN is ridiculous on my view. The support for it can only be empirical (the success of science), but one cannot establish an a priori principle (qua a priori principle) empirically; the most one can say about an a priori principle empirically is that the principle “looks good so far.” A priori principles can only really be proved a priori. And the a priori arguments for it suck. I think Hume would side with me here. PMN, on the other hand, can very well be confirmed empirically.


9 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Jerry Coyne recently posted some excerpts from a published paper by Maarten Boudry addressing this very subject. The paper subdivides Methodological Naturalism into two parts: Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism (IMN) and Provisional (or Pragmatic) Methodological Naturalism (PMN). PZ and I fall into the IMN camp, while Jerry falls into the PMN camp. The problems arise when this paper tries defining the “supernatural” and tries depicting the IMN position. …we propose to define ‘supernatural’ as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science. […]

  2. […] been thinking today about what constitutes the supernatural. Inspired by a blog post on whyevolutionistrue, and the resulting […]

  3. […] The Great Decider apparently deleted the dissenting comments. […]

  4. […] is an old question, which has come up again in a discussion that includes Russell Blackford, Jerry Coyne, John Pieret, and Massimo Pigliucci. (There is some actual discussion in between the name-calling.) […]

  5. […] Source: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com … ernatural/ […]

  6. […] It is true that Coyne does not differentiate between philosophical and methodological naturalism in the book, but he does so in other places. […]

  7. […] thinking, and on these ways of thinking, religious belief is irrational. Coyne appears to have the view that religious belief is not necessarily irrational: in principle, religious beliefs might be well-confirmed by the scientific method, but they just so […]

  8. […] Braeckman in Foundations of Science. Some commentary by Jerry Coyne, at Why Evolution is True, here, and [Via Jerry Coyne] articles on the definition of supernatural, by Russell Blackford at […]

  9. […] are different versions of MN. Evolutionary biologist and atheist Jerry Coyne considers […]

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