Shermer and I disagree on the “supernatural”

Five days ago I posted an account of Michael Shermer’s talk at the atheist meeting in Mexico City, noting that he denied the possibility of the supernatural and therefore ruled out the existence of God on first principles.  I disagreed with him, arguing that the presence of a divine being, one able to either obviate or manipulate the laws of nature, was at least a hypothetical possibility.  The proper scientific attitude, I claimed, is to say that based on a lack of evidence for a god (and the presence of evidence arguing against the existence of an intrusive and beneficent being), we can therefore ignore a god hypothesis.

There was a time, however, when the hypothesis of God was not incoherent, but viable. I refer not only to pre-Newtonian physics, but also to biology before Darwin: creation by a supernatural being was the only going theory before the 19th century, but Darwin put paid to that. It is the juxtaposition of scientific evidence with a creationist, supernatural theory making unsubstantiated claims that made Darwin’s Origin so convincing.

Michael emailed me promising to respond to my post and to defend his original view that there can be no such thing as the supernatural. He has now done so in his column over at Skepticblog, in a post called “God, ET, and the supernatural“.

Shermer’s argument is simple: we can’t distinguish between a supernatural being and an advanced civilization of, say, extraterrestrials that could perform all the “signs and wonders” that would convince most of us that God exists. As he notes,

My argument is that the most any natural science could ever discover in the way of a deity would be a natural intelligence sufficiently advanced to be god-like but still within the realm of the natural world. As I wrote in Scientific American:

“God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Since we are far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI [extraterrestrial intelligence] who has them in relatively (to us) copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. But if God were only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition it would be an ETI!”

Well, yes, we wouldn’t know whether a divine being was absolutely omniscient and omnipotent, or relatively more omniscient or omnipotent than us.  But if the degree of, say, omnipotence and omniscience is sufficiently large (i.e, any miracle can be worked, all things can be foretold), then I think we can say provisionally that there is a God.  I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees.  Alternatively, maybe only the prayers of Catholics get answered, and the prayers of Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, don’t.

Yes, maybe aliens could do that, and maybe it would be an alien trick to imitate Jesus (combined with an advanced technology that could regrow limbs), but so what?  I see no problem with provisionally calling such a being “God”—particularly if it comports with traditional religious belief—until proven otherwise.  What I can say is “this looks like God, but we should try to find out more. In the meantime, I’ll provisionally accept it.”  That, of course, depends on there being a plethora of evidence. As we all know, there isn’t.

My sharpest disagreement with Shermer is his denial that there could even be the possibility of a divine being.  Even if aliens could imitate one, to me that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a god, though we might be unable to distinguish that god from advanced ETIs.  Where Shermer and I differ, then, is in how we regard “evidence” for a God.  At some point I would just say, “Okay, I’ll tentatively say there’s a God,” while Shermer would always say, “We can’t tell if it’s God or an ETI,” even if we have no independent evidence for ETIs.  He considers his hypothesis more parsimonious because he believes evolution could produce advanced beings with “godlike” powers, given the immensity of the universe and the immensity of time.  Well, maybe, but the universe is only 14 billion years old and habitable planets are much younger than that.  Evolution can only do so much in a few billion years.

Shermer’s whole argument rests on the fallacy that scientists are committed to methodological naturalism: we can accept only natural explanations for natural phenomena:

On the matter of the supernatural, Jerry Coyne continues in his blog:

“As always, I find the natural/supernatural distinction confusing, and see that it is possible in principle for some divine being who operates outside the laws of physics to exist.  To say there is no possibility of such a thing is an essentially unscientific claim, since there is nothing that science can rule out on first principles.  We rule out things based on evidence and experience, that is, we consider the possibilities of gods extremely unlikely since we have no good evidence for them. But it is close-minded to say that nothing would convince us otherwise.”

I disagree. It is simply a matter of what philosophers of science call methodological naturalism, or the process of employing only natural explanations for natural phenomena. Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, I go so far as to say that there is no such thing as the supernatural. There is just the natural and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as “supernatural” (and, in other realms, the “paranormal”) just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural causes (or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest).

. . . A supernatural entity or force (something like the God of Abraham) that exists outside of nature is, by definition, unknowable to science. By contrast, if a supernatural being reaches into our natural world in order to act on it, He must stir the particles in some way (to, say, answer prayers for healing a cancerous tumor by reconfiguring the DNA of the cancerous cells, or to help one nation win a war over another by redirecting bullets and bombs, or to aid one football team defeat another in the Superbowl by deflecting a touchdown pass), and that action must in principle be measurable by science. If it is not measurable even in principle, then it is not knowable by science.

Like Michael, I think the word “supernatural” is a bit ambiguous, for “supernatural” beings—one who can obviate or manipulate the laws of physics—can create natural phenomena.  The being might not be demonstrable, but the actions of that being might well be. In that sense there can be natural evidence for a supernatural god.  We can’t see electrons, either, but we can see their actions, and hence infer that they exist.

Shermer thinks that a “supernatural” being must do things that obey the laws of physics, but I claim otherwise. (And how, by the way, do we know when the laws of physics or chemistry have been violated?  After all, they have been reliable generalizations, but maybe we don’t know everything about them.)  A real god could obviate the laws of physics in such a way that we could never understand godly phenomena (like answered prayers) except as something inexplicable under current knowledge. At that point Shermer defaults to aliens, while I start thinking about the supernatural.

I don’t see science as committed to methodological naturalism—at least in terms of accepting only natural explanations for natural phenomena. Science is committed to a) finding out what phenomena are real, and b) coming up with the best explanations for those real, natural phenomena. Methodological naturalism is not an a priori commitment, but a strategy that has repeatedly worked in science, and so has been adopted by all working scientists.

As for me, I am committed only to finding out what phenomena really occur, and then making a hypothesis to explain them, whether that hypothesis be “supernatural” or not.  In principle we could demonstrate ESP or telekinesis, both of which violate the laws of physics, and my conclusion would be, for the former, “some people can read the thoughts of others at a distance, though I don’t know how that is done.”  If only Christian prayers were answered, and Jesus appeared doing miracles left and right, documented by all kinds of evidence, I would say, “It looks as if some entity that comports with the Christian God is working ‘miracles,’ though I don’t know how she does it.”

My view on Shermer’s naturalistic “commitment” was expressed by one of his commenters:

Explicit Atheist says:

Michael Shermer argues “It is simply a matter of what philosophers of science call methodological naturalism, or the process of employing only natural explanations for natural phenomena.”

I completely disagree. Science is about discovering what is true about how our universe works. If divine revelation given to those who worship a particular deity in a particular way was the method that worked then science would adopt methodological supernaturalism and scientists would be people who devote themselves to obtaining revelations about how the world works by worshipping that deity that way. Mr. Coyne, Stenger, and Dawkins are correct, science a- priori presumes nothing and rules nothing in or out. Science is completely pragmatic and will adopt any methodologies and any conclusions that are successful. Success is the only criteria that defines what is scientific and what is not, both up-front with methodologies and down-back with conclusions.

In the end, the difference between Shermer and I comes down to this: if evidence were really pervasive for an immensely knowledgeable and powerful being, I would tentatively accept God, while Shermer would tentatively accept an ETI that that works in unknown (but natural) ways.  He is unwilling to say that there can be anything other than the natural world; I claim that this is a good working hypothesis but one that can never be verified with absolute certainty.

Science can never prove anything.  If you accept that, then we can never absolutely prove the absence of a “supernatural” god—or the presence of one.  We can only find evidence that supports or weakens a given hypothesis.  There is not an iota of evidence for The God Hypothesis, but I claim that there could be.

214 Comments

  1. Chris Quartly
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Like you say, I think the term “supernatural” is a bit of a get-out clause. I think it’s akin to saying “we don’t know what it is, it must/could be supernatural”, I would rather just say “that’s strange, we don’t know what that is, but let’s try to figure it out!”.

    Things in the past that were deemed supernatural are now very much part of what we know to be nature, the same will be true of things in the future. So in that sense, I’m not sure if the term “supernatural” really means anything? Everything has an explanation, even if we don’t know what it is.

    • Sarah Lawson
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      I’m inclined to agree. If a thing is thought to be “supernatural” or beyond nature, doesn’t that just mean that we need to redefine “nature”? What can be outside nature?

      • Stephen P
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Indeed. The only coherent meaning I have managed to glean for the word ‘supernatural’ is that it denotes a fictional being possessing powers that no real being possesses. If it doesn’t mean that, then what does it mean?

  2. Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    There is, I think, Jerry, one outstanding problem, and it has nothing really to do with the kinds of consideration you raise here. One of the characteristics of the gods of the monotheisms is that they are not, in the sense in which more “primitive” ideas of gods were, local entities. God, in this sense does not “exist”, that is cannot be immanent in the world in the way in which humans, planets, galaxies, and other existing things are. If they are not beyond existence in some sense, then they are not gods, and cannot intelligibly be thought to be creators of the all that does exist. As Tillich would say, God does not exist, and, as such is not an existent. Tillich used “ground of being” to describe the metaphysical or ontological “nature” if God’s being. From this point of view nothing that existed in a finite sense as a part of the universe could be a god.

    • Bebop
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Or as some kabbalists would say:

      “Ein Sof …is absolutely undifferentiated in a complete and changeless unity…He is the essence of all that is concealed and revealed.”
      According to Azriel, Ein-sof unifies within itself being and nothingness, “for the Being is in the Nought after the manner of the Nought, and the Nought is in the Being after the manner [according to the modality] of the Being… the Nought is the Being and Being is the Nought. For Azriel, Ein-sof is also “the principle in which everything hidden and visible meet, and as such it is the common root of both faith and unbelief.”

      http://www.newkabbalah.com/coinc.pdf

      • gbjames
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        I think this is an example of how the Nought of Meaning unifies with the Meaning of Nought.

        • Bebop
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

          I’m afraid you are right gb..!

      • David
        Posted November 10, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

        Eric, it took what? 4000 years to get to Tillich’s god from the OT god who lived on top of a rock in the desert, had a face, hung the stars from the firmament with invisible strings, talked real loud and killed ex-slaves because when they escaped, they partied and had an orgy. Kind of inventing god as you go in as big a conceptual framework as a man’s mind could frame… Pfft! theology!

    • Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      But there is supposed to be more than one universe. Different universes may well have different physical laws, different types of matter and energy.

      If a purported god is from another universe and/or has the ability to exist in an interstice between multiple universes AND has the ability to transduce energy and matter in a universe of his choice, then he could affect a universe without truly being a part of that universe.

      • Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        Your definition of “universe” is a bit problematical. Substitute Dr. Sagan’s “Cosmos” for one better suited to the discussion at hand.

        b&

    • Myron
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      What Tillich says is typically theological nonsense. If there is a divine ground of being, then it must be part of being, since there cannot be any being beyond being.

      • Bebop
        Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:00 am | Permalink

        Your view on this is limited by boundaries that you can’t see because they limit yourself.
        The being in question is beyond the opposites by which we can grasp the world because it is uncreated, i.e. : it never began so it can never end. That is why it can be being beyond being.

        • gbjames
          Posted November 9, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

          You know, Bebop, I’d ask you to re-read that first sentence of yours.

          If I may ask, how do you know that? Because it strikes me as an incredibly arrogant statement implying that YOU KNOW what Myron (poor thing) can’t see.

          As Ant would say…. “Poop”.

          • Bebop
            Posted November 9, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

            Oh c’mon… We all have a limited default state. That is nothing new. And the basic perspective it gives is not absolute. That may be new…
            But this can only be verified by yourself. No one or no instruments can do this at your place.

            Of course, I could write with a big “would” or “could” every time I say something, but I prefer to go straight to the point…

            • gbjames
              Posted November 9, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

              The problem is that your “point” is an unsupported assertion. You haven’t said a thing that counter’s Myron’s point… that Tillich is talking nonsense. Instead you say, in effect, “You are wrong, just because I say so.”

              I’m adopting Ant’s response to this. Poop.

              • Bebop
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

                I responded to Myron’s point with that:
                “The being in question is beyond the opposites by which we can grasp the world because it is uncreated, i.e. : it never began so it can never end. That is why it can be being beyond being”.

                Which followed that kabbalistic assertion that
                “the Nought is the Being and Being is the Nought.” Or the buddhist “the void is the form and the form is the void”. An uncreated conscious phenomenon has no choice to escape classic logic and its law of non-contradiction (A can’t be non-A).

                Again, that can be verified. But only by yourself. It concerns awareness and no one can be aware at your place.

              • gbjames
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

                “Again, that can be verified. But only by yourself.”

                This is also true of invisible pink unicorns. Prove me wrong.

              • Bebop
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                Take it backward.
                If it is true that consciousness has an uncreated nature, how could it be verified? Without our own subjectivity?

              • gbjames
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

                Poop from an invisible pink unicorn. A large pile of it. Prove me wrong.

              • Bebop
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

                Your hallucination might be real, but it doesn’t make the unicorn a physical phenomenon.

                But why do you avoid the question:
                “If it is true that consciousness has an uncreated nature, how could it be verified? Without our own subjectivity?”

              • gbjames
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

                I don’t have a hallucination. I have a real invisible pink unicorn. You can verify it. But only by yourself.

              • Bebop
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                Maybe but if you are the only one who sees it…

                The difference with the difference between the average default state of awareness and its uncreated nature is… the difference of the perspective. Which quite a difference… But no one except you could tell…

                Anyway, those buddhists are probably full of bullshit….

              • gbjames
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

                Not bullshit. Invisible pink unicornshit.

              • Bebop
                Posted November 10, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

                …taken from another blog (oups, blogsite…)

                “I was only suggesting if you can venture into yourself when the mind doesnt operate, I have done this and the findings about my own self has widened out of the limited person with a body-mind perception – for one thing it cannot be put into words or described because there is nothing in the objective world to which the experience can be compared.

                I noticed it being mentioned in one or more of the articles here that consciousness is a function of a chemical reaction that takes place with the brain as it’s focal point. Well, my own findings were the reverse, the mind exists even without the body and there is even a state where even the mind doesnt exist.

                Anyway if somehow you dont get it, its alright. I can understand how the intellect stands in the way, I have been in the same place years back.”

                S. Thoreau

              • gbjames
                Posted November 10, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

                OK. You’ve mastered the art of copy and paste. But that’s all you’ve demonstrated.

              • Posted November 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                @ Bebop

                You persist in saying, “the opposites by which we can grasp the world”. well, that’s not how I grasp the world…

                /@

                PS. &, yes, poop!

        • gbjames
          Posted November 9, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

          You know, Bebop, I’d ask you to re-read that first sentence of yours.

          If I may ask, how do you know that? Because it strikes me as an incredibly arrogant statement implying that YOU KNOW what Myron (poor thing) can’t see.

          As Ant would say…. “Poop”.

          • gbjames
            Posted November 9, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

            I have no idea why my comment appears twice. Apologies. Here’s hoping this one just displays once!

        • Richard Wein
          Posted November 9, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

          And it has been being a being beyond being since being began to be being.

      • Posted November 9, 2012 at 2:42 am | Permalink

        Now that you mention it, it sounds a bit like a causeless First Cause.

        • Bebop
          Posted November 9, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

          We could say that. But words are not good with defining those kind of paradoxes.

  3. gr8hands
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Of course Science can prove things.

    Person X claims they can breathe water and are immortal. In a test, they get under water, inhale, drown and die. Their claim has been proven false.

    • TomZ
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      Maybe there was some variable in the specific water molecules used in this particular experiment that skewed the results. Maybe the subject had some variable that skewed the results. Maybe it only works on Tuesdays in Novembers of years that are prime numbers that are not leap years.

      Granted, these are extremely unlikely, but until you test every single subject in every single possible conceivable testing parameter you haven’t “proven” anything, you’ve just added degrees of confidence to the scientific theory that states that person can not breath water and is immortal.

      • Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        First, except for 2, all prime numbers are odd…and, in the Gregorian calendar, all leap years are even.

        But, as I’ve noted elsewhere, you can trivially prove that you aren’t being boiled in acid as you read these words. The boiling pot of acid in which you are swimming provably doesn’t exist.

        You can prove that the Earth orbits the Sun with essentially the same degree of confidence, and you can have similar confidence that all other human-scale supernatural phenomena don’t exist, either.

        b&

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 12, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

          Even a trivial proof is still a proof, negating the statement that one cannot prove anything.

  4. Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    ” …if evidence were really pervasive for an immensely knowledgeable and powerful being, I would tentatively accept God, while Shermer would tentatively accept an ETI…”

    Wouldn’t we be best off accepting the possibility of either option and seeking further evidence to resolve it?

    • Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      +1

    • TJR
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Indeed.

      God? Aliens pretending to be god? The programmer of the simulation we’re in?

      They would all be viable hypotheses and we would just have to keep gathering more information in the hope of distinguishing between them. Just like we do with any other competing hypotheses.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        Actually we can rule out the simulation hypothesis pretty quickly. In all likelihood, the vast majority of simulated people inhabitat simulations just sufficient for the purpose. World of Warcraft does not model the dynamics of billions of galaxies spanning billions of lightyears, nor will its successors centuries or millennia from now, because there’s simply no need for them to do so.

        Since the universe we find ourselves in does have such large-scale features, stretching out to the very limits of detection and beyond, we can safely conclude that all of that immense structure was not created for the purpose of simulating us.

        • Gary W
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

          Your argument doesn’t rule out the simulation hypothesis. It only rules out a simulation hypothesis in which the purpose of the simulation is to simulate people.

          Or, rather, your argument would rule that out if it were valid. But I don’t think your argument is valid. I don’t see any basis for your premise that “in all likelihood, the vast majority of simulated people inhabitat simulations just sufficient for the purpose.” How do you know this is likely?

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

            It follows from basic engineering principles. You design a system for the job it’s meant to do. If the goal is to simulate people, you don’t start from a simulated Big Bang that produces billions of extraneous galaxies. You design a simulated world that’s just large enough and complex enough to meet the needs of your simulated people (as in the WoW example).

            Therefore the set of simulations that include simulated people is larger than the set of simulations that include billions of galaxies. Probably much larger, since billions of galaxies are much harder to simulate.

            • Gary W
              Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

              It follows from basic engineering principles.

              This just isn’t true. Products routinely include features that are not required for their “purpose.” My car has numerous features that are not required for its purpose of transportation but are included for reasons of convenience or comfort or aesthetics. You have no basis for assuming the simulation designers would not include any features except those that are essential to its purpose, whether that purpose is limited to simulating people or is broader in scope (e.g., simulating an entire universe).

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

                You’re splitting hairs. Your car’s purpose is to transport you in convenience, comfort, and style. If you didn’t care about those qualifiers, you would have bought a cheaper car, or ridden the bus.

                The point is that no sane engineer designs a system that’s many orders of magnitude larger and more complex than it needs to be. If the goal is to transport three or four people, you build a car (however you choose to accessorize it), not an aircraft carrier.

              • Gary W
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

                Your car’s purpose is to transport you in convenience, comfort, and style.

                In that case, we may say that the purpose of the simulation is to “simulate people in a realistic universe.” Voila, there’s the reason for including stars, galaxies, etc. in the simulation as well as people.

                The basic point is that you have no basis for making assumptions about the motives and purposes of the beings that created the simulation, and therefore no basis for making claims about what the simulation is “likely” to include or exclude.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:12 am | Permalink

                The only assumptions I’m making about motives and purposes is that there will be a wide variety of them, and that the majority of them will not require simulating billions of galaxies. These seem like reasonable assumptions to me, and they suffice to establish the improbability of finding ourselves in a simulated universe of billions of galaxies. Postulating one example of a motive that does require all those galaxies does not alter the probabilities; there are still many other possible motives that don’t require them.

                But if you remain unconvinced, fine. I’ve made my case and there’s no point in repeating myself if you’re not buying it.

              • Gary W
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

                The only assumptions I’m making about motives and purposes is that there will be a wide variety of them, and that the majority of them will not require simulating billions of galaxies. These seem like reasonable assumptions to me,

                Not to me. You simply have no basis for making those assumptions. The assumption that the dominant purpose of the simulation-builders would be to simulate people in a toy universe akin to World of Warcraft rather than in a realistic universe such as the one we observe around us seems particularly bizarre.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted November 9, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

                You’re entitled to your assumptions and I’m entitled to mine.

                But, bizarre or not, it’s a fact that the one real-world example of simulation-building civilization that we know of — our own — allocates far more computing resources to game-like simulations than to cosmological simulations.

                So if your only counterargument is various iterations of “you can’t know that” or “I don’t accept your assumptions”, then I guess we’re done.

        • Posted November 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

          If all I wanted to do was find out what time I should get to my parents’s place for breakfast on Saturday morning, there’d be absolutely no need whatsoever to create a global telecommunications network.

          Further, you’re assuming that what, to us, is an incomprehensibly vast system is, to the simulators, also equally vast. If the “outside” is big enough, our entire universe, from Big Bang to heat death, including every subatomic particle and galactic supercluster, could be nothing more than a minor subroutine of an even more incomprehensibly vast computer. Indeed, there’s nothing that even says that physics in the “outside” has to be even remotely like our physics.

          And, again, that whole “outside” could itself be but a fleeting dream in the head of Alice’s Red King.

          But, I ask you: so what? What difference does it make what the “ultimate” nature of reality “really” is? Would our lives be somehow any less real if we were “merely” a string of ones and zeros in a computer somewhere? Our reality is real enough for our porpoises.

          If we should find some reason to suspect that our horizons are bigger than we think they are now, fantastic! That gives us that much more to explore. It most emphatically does not change the meaning / significance / whatever (if any) of our existence.

          b&

        • David Evans
          Posted November 9, 2012 at 4:22 am | Permalink

          They don’t have to simulate all those galaxies, only the observations we make of them, which are only a tiny subset of all our experiences.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted November 9, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

            Our observations strongly indicate that distant galaxies are not illusions, but real objects obeying the same physics that we obey down to the level of fundamental particles. The microwave background shows the detailed quantum signature of the Big Bang. Any new test we can think of to perform invariably confirms this view, at whatever resolution we choose to examine.

            Now of course it’s conceivable that the simulation programmers are much cleverer than us and have already anticipated all our cosmological observations and provided the appropriate false data. But generating consistent data would still require the simulation, at some level, of all those galaxies.

            And at best this sort of fakery is still merely a possible sort of simulation we could have been in; I see no reason to think it’s a typical or likely one.

      • NoAstronomer
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        @Gregory

        “…we can safely conclude that all of that immense structure was not created for the purpose of simulating us.”

        But that doesn’t show we’re not in a simulation it just shows that we’re not the purpose of the simulation. In much the same way that we’re not the purpose of a non-simulated universe.

        Mike.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

          If we’re not the purpose of the simulation, then there’s no reason for the programmers to appear to us pretending to be gods. They may not even know or care that we exist.

          Beyond that, the set of simulations containing both minds and billions of galaxies is (presumably) a vanishingly small subset of the set of simulations containing minds. So it becomes vanishingly improbable that we find ourselves in one of the former rather than a generic, galaxy-free instance of the latter. We therefore must look elsewhere than the simulation hypothesis for the explanation of all those galaxies.

        • DV
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

          If you’re in a simulation, then that simulation is playing for your consumption. You are the purpose of that simulation. I don’t exist, you just see a simulation of another person responding to you. All the billions of stars don’t exist, as well as the scientists reporting about them. They just appear to you as if there is a history of science getting trickled into your awareness. It would be like you’re just watching everything on TV with the news being generated at hoc without anything real actually occurring. In your TV Obama won the election, but there is no real Obama.

          The immensity of the detail that is involved in the production of this elaborate simulation is all for your consumption, no one else. You are the purpose of this simulation.

          So this is the choice: either you have to believe you are so special as to have been programmed with an extremely elaborate simulated universe, or you have to believe the extremely elaborate universe is real and not a simulation for your benefit, and in which case you are nothing special at all since the universe will go on without you.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

            I think the word “simulation” is being used to mean two different things here.

            You seem to be referring to a simulation of the Matrix type, which I think is more properly called virtual reality: a real brain being fed false perceptions. In that case, yes, obviously that brain would be the intended audience of the simulation.

            My argument applies to simulations of the Nick Bostrom type, in which we ourselves are products of the simulation: simulated (but nevertheless self-aware) minds running on simulated brains. Such minds might be the purpose of the simulation, or they might be unintended epiphenomena of a more generalized (and more difficult and resource-intensive) simulation of fundamental physics. In the former case, the scope of the simulation would be much smaller than our physical universe, so we’re not in one of those. In the unlikely case that we’re in one of the latter, we’re not its purpose.

            • John Scarborough
              Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

              I hope we’re not in a simulation as I would hate the programmers to see what I get up to in the shower.

            • DV
              Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

              I don’t get the Bostrom type of simulation and how it is different from a Matrix type simulation. In both cases false perceptions are being fed to conscious entities. But with the Matrix type, you have the advantage of starting with real brains.

              What would be the purpose of creating simulated reality with simulated minds in them actually experiencing real consciousness? If the purpose is to simulate the interaction of “conscious” entities, for the benefit of the programmer (for research, entertainment, etc), it should be sufficient to simulate the behavior of the “conscious” characters in the simulated reality. There would be no need to program the characters to such complexity that they would achieve real consciousness. If we live in a simulated reality that means that the simulated reality is so complex that each of us has been programmed with Matrix-type TV feed of simulated perceptions of an extremely detailed Universe.

              My guess is that it would be easier to achieve the technology to create a real physical universe that can then be allowed to evolve according to its initial parameters, than to achieve the technology to run a simulated reality so complex that real consciousness arise within the computer, experiencing fake but very detailed picture of a universe.

  5. Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I’m not at all convinced that there’s a line to be drawn between what the two of you are describing as super-powerful extraterrestrial aliens and gods.

    Let’s say we’re in a Matrix-style computer simulation. The programmers would surely qualify as super-powerful extraterrestrial aliens, no? And would they not also be worthy of divinity according to Jerry’s standards?

    Take a step even further back, and let’s suppose that there’s no computer running the simulation, but rather that reality is, as the Christians sometimes put it, part of the mind of Jesus, much like what the Red King is dreaming in Alice in Wonderland. Does that at all change the equation?

    And, in both cases, we’re still left with the obvious situation that none of these are the top of the heap. Whence the realities the programmers / dreamers occupy? Who are their gods?

    Once you probe the inevitable infinite regress of the First Cause “problem” that the Christians so desperately try to not think about, it becomes inescapable that there are no ultimate anythings. At most there might be localized ordered hierarchies, but that’s no different from politics as usual here on Earth.

    If the fact that one entity is vastly more powerful than some other class of entities is all that’s necessary for the “god” label, then every child with an ant farm and a magnifying glass is a god.

    b&

    • Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      I should add: labeling something a “god” is, in practice and often in intent, an exercise in power politics designed to shut down further lines of inquiry.

      If the programmers of the Matrix are powerful aliens, we can be morally justified in attempting to probe the nature of the simulation and even attempt to figure out what reality is like in the “outside” world.

      But if this is the mind of a god, who are we to question what this god wants of us? We are not worthy.

      Logically, there’s absolutely no difference whatsoever between the two scenarios. The computer hardware is different, sure, but the software is equivalent — it’s like surfing the Web on a Mac or on Windows or on a smartphone, or even reading a paper printout of raw HTML.

      But politically? The differences couldn’t be more stark.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • sbrickner
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        In what way are we “not worthy” to question the god?

        We are, even if somehow merely “created” thus, free moral agents — we’re responsible for our own evaluation of right and wrong, and must decide moral questions for ourselves. Anything less is a sort of abdication of personal responsibility. Even handing such a decision over to the god is still a moral decision in itself, and we have to own that.

        It’s that moral agency that makes us entirely worthy to question the god’s motives, even if we’re nothing more than a figment of its imagination.

        • Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

          Gods are fictions invented by (would-be) ruling classes to control the masses. We are unworthy to question the gods, by definition; else we could question those who speak on behalf of the gods — and we can’t have that, now, can we?

          b&

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      There is no well defined line that everyone who is reasonable must agree on, like there is no well defined line regarding when someone lacks enough hair to qualify as being bald, or when someone is ethnically American Indian, etc. But we don’t require we’ll defined lines that every reasonable agrees resides in one particular place for the concepts of bald, American Indian, etc. to be useful. It is the same here with this natural ET versus supernatural deity distinction. All we need is a criteria that can evaluate this distinction, and we have a criteria here.

      The criteria is that the phenomena have properties that are outside the scope of those we can expect a merely very intelligent and technologically advanced ET to have and deploy. Different people will locate this line in different places and apply it differently to different contexts, but its still a line that we draw based on the evidences. Were the evidences to present us with this choice, we would be motivated to take sides insofar as we are motivated to try to understand the nature of our universe. And that makes this as real a line as the line between being rich or poor, or light and dark, and any of the myriad other such lines we draw that are not well defined but are still useful and meaningful.

      • Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

        So, to you, an imaginably powerful extraterrestrial force is an alien, and an unimaginably power extraterrestrial force is a god?

        You do realize the problem with that as a definition, don’t you?

        It means that, if James Randi were so inclined as to set himself up as the local deity of some back-bush tribe, he really would be a god — at least, to the tribespeople using your definition.

        And that’s my point. Even the super-duper extra-special really-powerful entities have their limits. They’re also stuck with the Incompleteness Theorem, for example.

        To be a god, you have to be the ultimate something-or-other, and there are no ultimates. We know that as surely as we know that there is no last digit of π. All you’re doing with your definition is saying that, since your computer can’t calculate the umpteen-trillionth digit of π, the umpteen-trillionth-and-one digit must be the last one.

        b&

        • Explicit Atheist
          Posted November 9, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

          My impression is that you think are making a stronger argument than you really are. The fact is that the sort of objections you are making against my argument are essentially the same type of argument made against an empirical approach to justifying beliefs that are made generally. The anti- empiricism argument is that the evidence can be missing, incomplete, misleading, we are not omniscient and omnipresent, something could be true but leave no evidence so we will falsely conclude it is false, etc. All of that is correct, yet empiricism is still also correct. This is because empiricism merely claims to be to best, and the only, method that gains us knowledge, no one claims that empiricism is perfect and that it always, instantaneously, gives us the whole truth, and nothing but the whole truth, about everything. But so what? Just because empiricism has flaws doesn’t mean it is wrong, and just because people are properly justified in their beliefs empirically at any given point in time doesn’t mean their beliefs are always correct. The point is that empiricism is the only and best method even though it isn’t perfect. The tribesman in your example would only need to pursue and follow the additional evidences that would demonstrate he is not a god. If the tribesman were not open to changing their mind as they collect additional evidence, and they didn’t maintain a healthy skepticism and recognize their limitations, then they wouldn’t be properly justifying their beliefs.

          • Posted November 9, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

            You actually prove my case.

            You agree that Randi really wouldn’t be a god, even if the tribesmen thought so.

            And my point is that, even if your own criteria puts an entity on the god side of the line as opposed to the alien side, we can be similarly confident that an observer on the other side of the line would think our deification as silly as we think it’d be to apotheosize Randi.

            So, either Randi really is the god of the back-bush tribe, or no entity, no matter how relatively more powerful than we are, can possibly be a god.

            Cheers,

            b&

  6. Occam
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    There was a time, however, when the hypothesis of God was not incoherent, but viable. I refer not only to pre-Newtonian physics, but also to biology before Darwin: creation by a supernatural being was the only going theory before the 19th century, but Darwin put paid to that.

    How far back are you willing to consider “pre-Newtonian physics” and “biology before Darwin”?
    Because if you go back to Greek and Roman antiquity, a number of chaps made quite a strong case against supernatural, meddlesome gods.
    Consider De rerum natura by Lucretius. Consider Epikouros. Consider the Atomists, especially Demokritos and Leukippos. No creation, no supernatural beings.

    Granted, much of their argument was speculative, although we tend to underestimate the amount of observational and experimental work underpinning it, because it was not the Greek habit of boasting about elbow grease. But their hypothesis was always the more parsimonious: no need for the divine “kochleffel” where a natural, universal explanation would do.

  7. Stewy0013
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Anyone interested in reading the argument against the common interpretation of methodological naturalism should read chapters of Maarten Boudry’s “Here be dragons: Exploring the hinterland of science.”

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      Maarten Boudry has this exactly correct. The more common/popular perspective is mistaken.

  8. Parker
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    “Where Shermer and I differ, then, is in how we regard “evidence” for a God. At some point I would just say, “Okay, I’ll tentatively say there’s a God,” while Shermer would always say, “We can’t tell if it’s God or an ETI,” even if we have no independent evidence for ETIs”

    We do not have independent evidence for ETIs (unless you count the stories from those who have been purportedly abducted or who recount stories under hypnosis, etc) but then, we don’t have any independent evidence of the supernatural either. You cite these stories about the God of Abraham and of Muhammed, but we don’t count those as evidence for their existence, do we? Those are really just more elaborate, and much older, versions of our more patently bunk present day UFO/ghost/whatever else stories.
    I wonder if the culture here has not biased your thinking towards the supernatural a bit. If, say, stories of ETIs were as pervasive as our present day Judeo-Christian/all other major and folk religions involving the supernatural, and if stories of Para-physical beings were relinquished but to a few more widely accepted crackpots and cult-followers, I wonder if you might be more willing to rule out the supernatural on first principles.

    Also, as a side thought I had. Beings in the supernatural have always been, mythologically, able to interact with the natural world and
    even supersede the laws therein, but why the imbalance? If you lived in the supernatural realm and were as contained there as we are here, wouldn’t our so-called natural realm be your supernatural realm? Why don’t we hear stories of our abilities to modify the supernatural realm, or of any beings ability to do so? (I’ll note that prayer may count and the departure to the afterlife might as well, but these pale in comparison to any god’s manipulation of time, chemistry, football physics). It doesn’t appear to me that there should be an a priori reasoning to exclude this possibility, but it does seem it’s a bias we hold.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      these pale in comparison to any god’s manipulation of time, chemistry, football physics

      Someone’s god was on Celtic’s side last night, when they beat Barcelona. Personally, from the edited highlights, I think Celtic’s goalkeeper could be a minor god.

    • Vaal
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      (My reply, being in sympathy with Jerry’s position).

      Parker: “We do not have independent evidence for ETIs (unless you count the stories from those who have been purportedly abducted or who recount stories under hypnosis, etc) but then, we don’t have any independent evidence of the supernatural either. You cite these stories about the God of Abraham and of Muhammed, but we don’t count those as evidence for their existence, do we?”

      We don’t accept those religious claims because the evidence is poor. The point made by Jerry is that if NEW evidence shows up for those religious deities, evidence like the kind we get for all the other things we accept scientifically, then we WOULD have evidence in favor of those deities.

      If Beings showed up in flying saucers, bulbous heads, big eyes, doing all the things that many UFO devotees claim for aliens while also claiming to BE those aliens, then this would constitute obvious support for the conclusion such beings exist.

      Alternately, if a Being showed up doing the things that Jesus/God is claimed to be able to do, and claims to be the Christian God, and provides evidence of how He created the earth, the universe etc, then that constitutes evidence for THAT hypothesis, not the alien hypothesis.

      Just look at what kind of claims are made for the hypothesis in question and see whether the evidence supports it. Theoretically, we could get evidence to support we had a Creator who also manifested
      as Jesus, and who sacrificed Himself for “our sins” and that who shows us how this plays into a coming newly formed world etc.

      We may think such a Being’s plan to be stupid or immoral by our lights, but that’s a different question vs whether such a Being exists and can do and did the things claimed.

      Vaal

  9. gbjames
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Is this the atheist equivalent to arguing over the angel-on-pinhead count? Is there some reason that answering this question matters to me as an atheist? Maybe I’m just being lazy here, but someone tell me what I’m missing.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      I have to agree – that was my first thought on reading this.

  10. Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, Jerry, but you haven’t convinced me. I submit that “Supernatural” is something that only exists in language. It is largely synonymous with “Imaginary”.

    “The supernatural” can be a handy explanation for mysterious phenomena, but in all cases, it is ultimately a lazy and unsatisfying one, because it halts inquiry. If a phenomenon is real, it will answer to a naturalistic explanation, even if the phenomenon should be a baffling one like amputees regrowing limbs. We may not find the naturalistic explanation in our lifetimes, but if we give up, sing halleluiah, and credit the supernatural, we will never arrive at the truth. The naturalistic explanation will always be more interesting, and satisfying, than an imaginary (er, supernatural) one.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Who said we should stop looking once we label something “supernatural”? As I emphasized repeatedly in this post, my conclusion would be tentative, and would certainly not preclude looking for other explanations. In the case of ESP, for instance, we should always keep looking for fraud and other explanations.

      But if things are truly supernatural, we’ll reach a point where nothing has worked and things appear not only mysterious, but mysterious in a divinely controlled sort of way (e.g. only Christian prayers work). At that point I’m willing to accept a tentative conclusion of a divine being.

      But OF COURSE one should always keep investigating these phenomena! That goes without saying

      • jose
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        I give up: David Copperfield really flies.

    • eric
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      I tend to agree with Jerry.

      To use a concrete example, let’s imagine we find some subject that can do whatever it wants by act of will. Design any test, break any law, it merely has to think X and X happens. Now, you could scientifically investigate that. You could hypothesize rules by which the power works, then go test your hypotheses. But such a power would seem to fit the vernacular use of the term ‘supernatural.’

      I guess another way to put it is this: ‘supernatural’ is used in common English to describe two different types of things: a method of cause (i.e. a miracle) and as a category of wierd phenomenon (ghosts, telepathy, etc.). You can certainly acknowledge that some discovered phenomenon would fit into the latter categorization while not giving up on/not accepting that it must be a miracle.

  11. John K.
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I find the entire “supernatural” wheelhouse to be completely incoherent. As Sarah Lawson already said, what can be meant by “outside nature”? If an intervening god was always making things happen, it would be part of nature, would it not?

    Moreover, supernatural events seem to require a causal entity, be it a god or ghost or telepath or what have you. How can a link ever be reliably established between a so called “supernatural event” and the supposed causal agent if the laws of physics are to be suspended? I think Shermer has some legitimate points in his alien analogy, although he has no reason to take the aliens over the god in any direct fashion. A better point is that there is no method the true cause of the supernatural could ever be established.

    Perhaps Jerry has a point as well, though. If some miracle worker had verifiable results it would make sense to at least start with said miracle worker’s explanations for those results, although those explanations would also have to be tested and verified in some fashion to be given much traction.

    I suppose some experimental results could theoretically demonstrate an omniscient and all powerful god, but they would have to be testable and repeatable, the 2 things the supernatural always avoid. Such a god would have to be considered part of nature, and by definition not supernatural.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      If some miracle worker had verifiable results it would make sense to at least start with said miracle worker’s explanations for those results…

      Would it? If his “explanation” is that he’s a Jedi Knight using the Force to work miracles, then the sensible thing is to assume he’s lying.

      • Sarah Lawson
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Or is a fantasist or mistaken or nuts. There are plenty of faith healers who would explain their “successes”, but would those explanations be a good starting point? Professional magicians can create amazing effects, but we don’t assume that they are supernatural, but rather obey laws of nature. It seems to me that a thing is either real or imaginary and it should be reasonably easy to tell the difference.

      • John K.
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        Well, if the Jedi is getting verifiable results it at least bears looking into. Like I said, however, testing and verifiable results are still needed.

        We need not assume honesty in all cases, but if such a Jedi is able to lift an X-wing out of the swamp, through the air, on command, for all to see, under conditions set by skeptics that have considered how it is working, she gets some credibility (just not the final word).

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          Chiropracters get results, but that doesn’t earn any credibility for their “explanation”, only for their methods.

          • John K.
            Posted November 9, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

            Only because we have looked into the methodology they describe, and have found it does not hold up to rigorous testing. Also the “results” of chiropractors are dubious at best.

  12. Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Robert Chambers to Alfred Russel Wallace in 1867: “The term ‘supernatural’ is a gross mistake. We have only to enlarge our conceptions of the natural, and all will be alright.” (Wallace 1905. My Life. Vol. 2, p. 286).

    • Myron
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Of course, if “natural” were synonymous with “real”, everything would be natural.

  13. Greg Esres
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    if evidence were really pervasive for an immensely knowledgeable and powerful being, I would tentatively accept God,

    Would “Q” from “Star Trek: Next Generation” be God, then?

    • Posted November 10, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      But notice that Q is portrayed as having limitations, too. He can have his powers revoked, and he’s certainly not all knowing – especially in “Encounter at Farpoint” where part of the point is that he doesn’t know the “point in history” the Federation characters are.

      Does “godliness” come in degrees? In many religions, it would be a heresy to suggest so …

  14. Yair
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Shermer contradicts himself. In his penultimate paragraph Shermer raises the scenario of a God stirring atoms from beyond the universe. Yet in his last paragraph he says that “the only God that science could discover would be a natural being—an entity that exists in space and time and is constrained by the laws of nature”. Which is it? Clearly, the first. A being that intervenes from beyond the universe can be detected scientifically, yet would not be subject to the laws describing our spacetime nor be within it.

    The essence of naturalism is “constrained by the [same] laws of nature” – if naturalism is true, then the laws of nature are universal and uniform, there are no entities exempt from them. Shermer’s hypothetical atom-stirring deity is. Shermer described a super-natural reality.

    Yet Shermer claims that “there is no such thing as the supernatural”. This is due to confusing ‘causally interacting’ with ‘natural’. You can scientifically investigate something that doesn’t answer to the uniform laws of nature – e.g. the (supernatural) powers of the soul to affect the world, above and beyond the laws of physics. Such a science doesn’t exist, but can exist in principle; it doesn’t exist only because there is no evidence for souls with such powers! Should we discover entities that interact causally with us yet are not governed by the same universal uniform laws as everything else, then we’ll be ushering an era of the science of the supernatural. (I’m not holding my breath…)

    “Shermer’s Last Law” is at the level of our knowledge, not of the structure of reality. And yes, we can’t distinguish between such a deity and a highly-advanced alien. But we can also not distinguish between the world being billions of years old or a second-year old but created with evidence of being billions of years old. Nevertheless, it is more rational to tentatively accept the simplest hypothesis. Hypothesizing a simple distant past is simpler than assuming the spontaneous appearance of a complex recent past that, by some ruse, has evidence of a distant past in it. Likewise, given evidence of divine atomic stirring the hypothesis that it’s indeed divine is simpler than the hypothesis that it is an alien ruse.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      What evidentiary test would you use to distinguish “divine” atomic stirring from “unexplained but possibly natural” atomic stirring in order to know that it is indeed divine? Without such a test, how can you claim to have evidence of “divine” anything?

      • Vaal
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        “What evidentiary test would you use to distinguish “divine” atomic stirring from “unexplained but possibly natural” atomic stirring in order to know that it is indeed divine? Without such a test, how can you claim to have evidence of “divine” anything?”

        1. Evidence for the Divine Being who can do such “stirring.” Such a Being manifests in an empirically verifiable manner and shows us the power to do the things hypothesized.

        2. You can in principle put this Being to “test” in exactly the way you can test any human abilities. “What capability do you claim? Ok, show me…and all these other independent teams who will verify the results.” For instance, the Being could claim the ability to vary the speed of light, surely a testable claim. (The variety of testable ways one could think of how this Being could manipulate nature in front of us seems only limited by the imagination).

        3. The being could also make all sorts of claims about what He did in the history of our earth and where we will find the specific evidence He indicates. We go looking…we find it.

        All you have to do is posit a Being who manifests the type of evidence we use in the normal methods of scientific inference.

        Vaal

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

          Vaal, we got nowhere with that line of argument in the previous thread so I’m not going to rehash it with you again here.

          • Vaal
            Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

            Sure, no problem. I replied because you ask an interesting question; others can evaluate if my response makes sense.

            Cheers,

            Vaal

  15. blitz442
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Jerry, would you rule out a creative intelligence that has never not existed? In other words, would any mind that we encounter in the Universe need to have an explanation that didn’t just assume its own existence?

    My understanding of Richard Dawkins position on this is that a creative intelligence, or anything using his definition of complexity, can never be assumed to have just existed for all eternity. This seems to be equivalent to ruling out on first principles the existence of at least one type of supernatural God.

    • blitz442
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      make that Dawkins’ position

    • Sastra
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      “Mental things, brains, minds, consciousnesses, things that are capable of comprehending anything — these come late in evolution, they are a product of evolution. They don’t come at the beginning. So whatever lies behind the universe will not be an intellect. Intellects are things that come as the result of a long period of evolution.” (Richard Dawkins)

      I think that if we had any good evidence for mind/body dualism then Dawkins argument is undermined. Mind is now separated from the physical world and from the need to evolve from things which are not-mind.

      The fact that his evolutionary argument could, in theory, be falsified makes it a very powerful argument indeed. It means “God” has to be special pleaded into the Land of Occam, passing over the Valley of Incoherence.

      • blitz442
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        “Mind is now separated from the physical world and from the need to evolve from things which are not-mind”

        It would still be complex, no? I have always regarded the complexity argument as substrate neutral. That is, it doesn’t matter whether the complexity is composed of “material” somethings or “immaterial” somethings: it would still require an explanation other than “it always existed”.

        • Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          +1

        • Sastra
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

          I agree.

          There is a long tradition in theology that God is “simple.” Whenever people like Dawkins try to point out that minds are not simple, they’re very complex and complexity requires a history — and God’s mind would be even MORE complicated than the minds we’re familiar with — his critics simply parrot back that no, God is simple and then whine that anyone who would argue otherwise hasn’t studied enough theology.

          We studied nature. People used to think the mind was simple. We learned it was complex. Original complexity requires an explanation. Repeating “but God is simple” doesn’t cut it.

          • Sarah Lawson
            Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

            God I don’t know about, but some of his followers are definitely simple.

          • Myron
            Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

            For the theological concept of divine simplicity, see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/divine-simplicity/

            • blitz442
              Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

              That was drivel.

          • blitz442
            Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

            They do that, but they also go on about how eternal beings are exempted from explanations too. I can still hear John Lennox bleating about how Dawkins’ arguments are only relevant to “created gods”.

            Implicit in what Dawkins is saying is that:

            - It’s never okay to posit that minds always existed, because that is an evasive non-explanation. Minds, including very advanced non-human ones of the type Jerry might call “gods”, exist today but there was a point in the past in which absolutely no minds were in existence.

            - It is, however, okay to posit that simple things always existed. There may be certain forms of stuff that have never not existed.

            Given the first point, we can rule out as impossible any claim that involves an eternal God-mind. Not .0000000001% unlikely there are eternal God-minds, rather, such things are IMPOSSIBLE.

            Unless there are circumstances, and I can’t think of a single one, in which there are exceptions to Dawkins’ first point. Are there types of minds where we would think it more likely or even possible that they are eternal in nature?

            • blitz442
              Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

              “Not .0000000001% unlikely”

              Should read “.0000000001% likely”

  16. Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the only possible “evidence” that a being is supernatural is the the being has no natural cause. How could she prove that to you Gerry?

  17. jose
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I’m interested in how we would distinguish between God’s intervention and just unlikely natural events. I think your idea of provisionally calling stuff “god” would halt scientific research because a miracle is immune to scientific research (science’s business is the material world).

    If you think a technologically advanced species healed the amputee, you would try to discover how they did it because it’s part of this world. But if you just say god did it, that’s the end of it.

    • eric
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      I’m interested in how we would distinguish between God’s intervention and just unlikely natural events.

      The same way you distingish between my intervention and just unlikely natural events. You ask me to repeat my claimed ability under controlled conditions, multiple times, until the probability of the results being coincidental meets your criteria of ‘too low to /ikely be coincidence.’

      That criteria may change but nobody really sets it at 0. For the Higgs, it was set at 1 in 1E5. For Randy’s JREF challenge, I believe they typically set the preliminary test at a couple orders of magnitude higher than the preliminary payoff (i.e., your chance of passing via random luck must be less than 1 in 100,000 before they’ll give you $10,000).

      • jose
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        The sentence right after the one you quoted responds to this.

    • Posted November 10, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      “I think your idea of provisionally calling stuff ‘god’ would halt scientific research”

      No, it wouldn’t. Because it didn’t.

      “God” was the provisional (but often – and still – fiercely defended!) explanation for pretty much everything in human experience that is now explained by science.

      /@

  18. Kevin
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I have to say that I’ve come over more to Shermer’s position recently.

    There’s no such thing as the supernatural, nor can there be.

    It’s just as simple as that.

    I base this conclusion on the fact that you (and me) and many others have given examples of what types of evidence we might find compelling in terms of demonstrating the existence of a supernatural entity.

    Thing is, if there were such a thing as a supernatural entity that was at all interested in the affairs of Earth and its inhabitants, that evidence would already have been proffered. In spades.

    So, my current line of reasoning is that the existence of a supernatural could have been demonstrated with evidence. But since it hasn’t been demonstrated, it can’t possibly be demonstrated now or in the future.

    I know — what about Spinoza’s god, or Karen Armstrong’s god who doesn’t do anything? To be honest…who cares? Unless you’re talking about an interventionalist god who actively wants you to act in a certain manner (worship him, wear hats, don’t eat bacon, etc), it just doesn’t matter. But there’s no reason to believe in that god, either, and the same rules of evidence apply.

  19. Sastra
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    In the end, the difference between Shermer and I comes down to this: if evidence were really pervasive for an immensely knowledgeable and powerful being, I would tentatively accept God, while Shermer would tentatively accept an ETI that that works in unknown (but natural) ways. He is unwilling to say that there can be anything other than the natural world; I claim that this is a good working hypothesis but one that can never be verified with absolute certainty.

    Wheee! Here we go again.

    The difference between you and Shermer doesn’t really come down to what evidence you’d accept, but how you’re defining the terms “natural” and “supernatural.” Shermer is hung up on a completely empty and worthless definition which only looks plausible on the surface: “The natural world is what we can experience and the supernatural world is outside of the natural world. Science has nothing to say about the supernatural.”

    So if we can experience something well enough to confirm it, it simply becomes “natural.” We get to automatically rule out the claims we disagree with by the simple and easy application of semantics. That way we don’t even have to bring out the messy fact that the evidence doesn’t support any supernatural hypothesis. Cut to the core. Naturalism wins — always — just by unpacking the definition!

    I’ve decided to call that The Ontological Argument for Naturalism.

    And it’s just as stupid as the theological one. You can’t write truth into a definition. If you do, you make the term either meaningless or you play a nasty trick.

    Forget the inside/outside of nature/natural law distinction. The boundary of “nature” and “natural law” is flexible. What is the special feature or features which makes a proposed claim not just weird, not just untestable, not just against current scientific understanding, not just “outside of the known universe,” not just mysterious — but supernatural?

    What does quantum theory not have, but quantum consciousness does?

    Pure consciousness. Pure mentality. An irreducible, primary aspect which is connected to thinking, feeling, valuing, wanting. Examples of supernatural phenomenon: disembodied souls, ghosts, ESP, psychokenesis, magical correspondences, “luck,” vitalism, karma, prana, God, cosmic consciousness, mind as “energy force,” a universal tendency towards the harmonic balance of Good and Evil, progressive evolution towards Higher States, mind/body substance dualism, holistic nonmaterialistic monism, dual-aspect monism.

    Would Shermer really look at that entire list and argue that we couldn’t — even in theory — have good evidence for these phenomenon?

    If we did, we’d have to be honest and agree that the bottom-up picture of the world is wrong. We would be accepting a ‘skyhook,’ which Dennett describes as “a ‘mind-first’ force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design, and apparent design, is ultimately the result of mindless, motiveless mechanicity” … and this would be HUGE. It’s meaningful.

    Anybody who tries to whine about how okay, but it’s still “natural” just doesn’t get it. Oh, so we have to invent a new word for the “part” of nature which involves disembodied souls, ghosts, ESP, psychokenesis, magical correspondences, “luck,” vitalism, karma, prana, God, cosmic consciousness, mind as “energy force,” a universal tendency towards the harmonic balance of Good and Evil, progressive evolution towards Higher States, mind/body substance dualism, holistic nonmaterialistic monism, and/or dual-aspect monism? And we get to say “supernatural” can’t exist?

    OH GOOD. THE WORD WAS SO SCARY.

    Shermer is being silly. He’s missing the point.

    • Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      If you do a survey of the posts in this thread, you’ll notice that you’re the only one proposing that we privilege dualism as the defining characteristic of the supernatural. At least in this community, the consensus is to equate nature with observable reality, which by definition leaves that which isn’t observably real to that which is imaginary.

      To recap my position: dualism is but one example of a phenomenon that violates at least one empirically observed law of nature; specifically, minds compute, and computation requires communication, and communication requires energy. Dualism is therefore above and / or beyond the natural world because it violates the natural law of conservation, as work (communication) is done without energy input.

      By the way, I’m still waiting on that explanation of why Bilbo Baggins’s glow-in-the-dark sword is supernatural according to your definition, but Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber isn’t. I still maintain that it’s really because one is in a fantasy book and the other in a science fiction movie, and has nothing whatsoever to do with mental dualism — which is why I have no problem classifing both as supernatural. Bilbo’s falls pretty easily to conservation thanks to its orc detection system; geeks with much better credentials than I have addressed the impossibility of containing plasma as depicted on the silver screen.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Sastra
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        I’m not just invoking mind/body dualism, but all forms of what’s called “the irreducibly mental.” That would include objects having properties or abilities like “responds to thoughts” or “knows what you need” or “attracts goodness and repels evil.” A light saber is ultimately purely mechanical: Bilbo’s sword, is presumably, magic (I’m not familiar with the story.) Magic deals with forces and powers connecting physical events through meaning and the “mechanics” reflect this: words, symbols, intentions, correspondences, antipothies, etc.

        To recap my position: it’s not enough that something violate at least one empirically observed law of nature to be considered “supernatural.” It has to violate these laws in a very particular way — one which involves something which is normally only associated with minds.

        Otherwise, you’re not tracking with how the word is actually USED. What it really refers to. Think.

        Question: Why don’t even the harshest critics of String Theory ever accuse the proponents of invoking the supernatural?

        Answer: Because none of those advocating String Theory have connected it to “Love.” Or brought up the idea of a Creative Principle. Or used it in order to explain why human beings were intentionally created through a teleological macrame of Consciousness. That’s why.

        And what is it those additions all have in common? It’s got jack to do with “violating the known laws of the universe.” String Theory already DOES that: if it were proven we’d just have new laws and more universe. And nobody’s Woo-Meter is tripped.

        Here is how Richard Carrier describes the distinction:

        Hence, I propose a general rule that covers all and thus distinguishes naturalism from supernaturalism: If naturalism is true, everything mental is caused by the nonmental, whereas if supernaturalism is true, at least one thing is not.

        From what I can tell, this way of approaching what it means for something to be “supernatural” is also promoted by Vic Stenger, Daniel Dennett, Tom Clark, Keith Augustine, and other philosophers and scientists who reject the accomodationist trap of “methodological naturalism” and insist that naturalism is instead a working theory capable of falsification. So I don’t care what the majority of commenters agree on if I don’t think they’ve thought through the problems with their definitions enough.

        • Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

          A light saber is ultimately purely mechanical: Bilbo’s sword, is presumably, magic

          So it does come down solely to Dewey Decimal Numbers for you.

          Answer: Because none of those advocating String Theory have connected it to “Love.” Or brought up the idea of a Creative Principle. Or used it in order to explain why human beings were intentionally created through a teleological macrame of Consciousness. That’s why.

          No, that’s just a list of elements in good storytelling — and they’re equally important in the science fiction you unjustly privilege for exclusion from the supernatural. A Jedi is nothing without the Force, but the fact that the Force is powered by super-mitochondria rather than magic is enough for you to call it natural. Never mind that the Force is all things you say magic is; Jedi Knights fly spaceships, so they’re not supernatural. If they rode flying unicorns, that’d be a different matter, of course.

          Deepak Chopra loves him some quantum woo, and it’s nothing but Love and Creative Principles and Consciousness. By your definition, quantum mechanics is supernatural, but string theory isn’t. Unfortunately for you, once (or if) string theory settles down enough for it to get popular with Barnum’s favorite class of the public, Chopra will latch on to string theory and that’ll be the new scientific supernatural.

          b&

          • Sastra
            Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

            No, it comes down to ultimate composition. Skyhooks vs. cranes. Does matter come from mind or does mind come from matter?

            I’d consider “the Force” supernatural. If you look at how it behaves, it behaves much more like a New Ager’s idea of “energy” than a modern physicist’s.

            By your definition, quantum mechanics is supernatural, but string theory isn’t.

            I think you need to read me more carefully.

            Neither QM nor String Theory as put forth by scientists are supernatural even though they are weird and may not be testable. In order for somebody to turn it into something we recognize as supernatural, they’d have to infuse it with some mind-like aspect.

            The supernatural doesn’t exist. We can say this with confidence only if we can understand what the world should look like if it does — and it doesn’t. That’s the value of my definition: it clarifies what we’re actually talking about. It allows us to focus on WHY it’s wrong and why we can know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it’s wrong.

            Your definition just says it’s wrong like a pronouncement from on high. It locks us into a religious-style ontological argument when we’ve got the damn empirical one which is better.

            • Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

              I’m sorry, but you’ve completely lost me.

              Bilbo’s sword is supernatural because it relies on magic. Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber isn’t supernatural because it uses impossible technology instead of magic. The magic that makes Bilbo’s sword always strike true is supernatural because it’s somehow mindful, but even though it’s the mindful and supernatural Force that guides Luke’s hand, the lightsaber itself isn’t supernatural.

              Your definition just says it’s wrong like a pronouncement from on high.

              It most emphatically does not.

              Again, I’m just setting up criteria by which to classify phenomena. Today, dualism is supernatural because it’s not observed, solidly debunked, and would violate everything we know about the universe. Demonstrate dualism tomorrow and it’s no longer supernatural but natural — just as whales are no longer fish but rather mammals.

              You’re accusing me of saying that dualism (or whatever) is impossible because it’s supernatural, but that’s the exact opposite of what I’m actually doing. I’m saying it’s supernatural because it doesn’t exist outside the imagination. Your accusations are as off-base as accusing me of claiming that I’m forcing whales from on high to nurse their young because I’m now calling them mammals rather than fish.

              And I still think you’re making this error because you’ve got some list of specific phenomena in your head that you’ve tagged with the label, “supernatural,” and you’re assuming I’ve got the same list in my head, and that we’re arguing over whether or not I’m deciding the reality of the entirety of that list based upon my definitions. Instead, I’m starting with a definition and (provisionally, of course) individually categorizing each item on your list based on how well it fits the definitions.

              b&

              • Sastra
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

                I think your definition suffers from several serious flaws.

                1.) Because you’re using naturalism as if it means the exact same thing as real or true (as opposed to imaginary), it will always look like you’re ruling things out by definition. It will constantly be taken this way by opponents.

                2.) Your definition would include things nobody would consider ‘supernatural,’ just wrong, false, or imaginary.

                3.) Your definition also fails to track with how the word is used by proponents — and automatically includes anyone who believes a purported supernatural phenomenon is REAL as a naturalist. That is, they are (mistaken) naturalists as long as they agree to label whatever they believe in “natural” instead of “supernatural.” Thus, it’s not useful.

                4.) Your definition is not informative. Somebody encountering it for the first time would not be able to tell that things like ghosts, eternal souls, and karma belong in the ‘supernatural’ category, but literary figures, failed science theories, and daydreams do not.

                5.) Your definition is confusing.

              • Posted November 8, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

                Sastra, when it comes right down to it, “supernatural,” if it is to have any meaning whatsoever, can only encompass that which is not natural. And the meaning of “natural” as “all that is sufficiently real that it can somehow be observed” is about as well established as the meaning of science as “the study of the natural world.”

                Your slavish devotion to shoehorning the lazy folk meaning of the term can only be doomed to failure. As proof, I present you with a salad.

                According to the same folk who would, as you do, limit the supernatural to the mindful, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn on the cob, and butternut squash are all vegetables.

                That’s perfectly fine around the Thanksgiving dinner table, but the fact of the matter is that they’re all fruit (except for the corn, which is a seed).

                Insisting that a botanist should refer to a tomato as a vegetable rather than a fruit is not just silly but wildly counterproductive. And, if we are to use the same logic that got tomatoes and cucumbers labeled as vegetables in the first place, then we must also concede that the croutons, Parmesan cheese, and grilled chicken in the chicken caesar salad I had for lunch the other day are all also vegetables.

                What I and the rest of us are doing is nothing more radical than insisting that a tomato is a fruit, even if you put it in your salad.

                And, you know what? When you follow a well-defined taxonomic system, you come to some fascinating discoveries. Did you know, for example, that your Jack o’ Lantern is also a fruit? And that an almond is the pit of a peach-like stonefruit?

                So, too, Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber and Iron Man’s rocket suit are every bit as supernatural as Bilbo’s elvish sword and Prince Husain’s flying carpet. And, it also turns out that the Philosopher’s Stone, the Rod of Aaron, and the luminiferous aether are all equally supernatural.

                This may not fit the common folk definition…but, then again, the common folk definition would have you think that succotash is a vegetable dish.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Peter
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

                ” “supernatural,” if it is to have any meaning whatsoever, can only encompass that which is not natural”

                This is true. It doesn’t do much for your argument. It’s true that “not natural” is implied by “supernatural. It is not true that “not natural” implies “supernatural”.

                Hope that clears up your confusion, Ben.

              • Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, Peter. I’m not following.

                Are you suggesting that the not-natural can somehow also be natural? Or that there are things not part of nature that aren’t not-natural?

                If not, then what? If so…perhaps you could offer an example?

                b&

              • Peter
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

                I’m sorry, are we having a basic logic fail?

                Example:
                If it’s raining, then there are clouds in the sky.

                If there are clouds in the sky, then it’s raining.

              • Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

                I do believe we’re having a basic logic fail.

                If something is conscious, then it’s thinking. If it’s unconscious, it’s not thinking.

                If a plane is supersonic, it’s traveling faster than sound. If it’s not supersonic, it’s traveling at or below the speed of sound.

                If something is natural, then it’s part of the observable universe. If it’s something other than natural, it’s not part of the observable universe. We have multiple words for that which isn’t part of the observable universe, including, “imaginary,” “fictional,” and “supernatural.” They all mean the same thing, yes, with different flavors, yes…but, then again, the English language is replete, abundant, and overflowing with numerous, countless, and innumerable synonyms.

                b&

              • Sastra
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

                Ben Goren wrote:

                “supernatural,” if it is to have any meaning whatsoever, can only encompass that which is not natural.

                Right.

                And the meaning of “natural” as “all that is sufficiently real that it can somehow be observed” is about as well established as the meaning of science as “the study of the natural world.”

                No, those are controversial definitions — they are not official. If science can in theory only study the natural world then it’s legitimate to use some other method to study the supernatural. “Nature is all there is” isn’t a definition: it’s a provisional conclusion. Though neither of us will hold our breath waiting for it to be overturned.

                Your analogy isn’t analogous to my argument.

                You have never given me any example of a purported supernatural phenomenon which is not somehow significantly connected to the idea that mind and/or its products cannot be reduced to the physical world. “Luck” and “magic” both fit. I will not hold my breath waiting for you to find one.

              • Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

                You have never given me any example of a purported supernatural phenomenon which is not somehow significantly connected to the idea that mind and/or its products cannot be reduced to the physical world.

                I have repeatedly, and again just now in this thread. The most recent example was a flying carpet.

                You’re probably going to claim that the fact that the carpet has a voice command interface somehow makes it immaterially conscious, so I’ll throw yet another example at you: Der fliegende Holländer. (Or maybe I’m thinking of one of the ships in Peter Pan?)

                Regardless, it’s a tall ship that flies through the air. And it’s controlled exactly the same way as an oceangoing vessel, with a rudder and a tiller and sails that get trimmed and everything.

                b&

              • Sastra
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

                I’ll say the same thing I did before: whether a “flying carpet” (or anything else) is supposed to be supernatural or not will involve examining and analyzing its features in order to classify it. If what is normally a material object has the special inherent magical property of being able to sense and respond to intentions (or values or emotions or needs) then it is supernatural. Those are mental properties. You would not find them in a rock. You would find them in a mind.

                I’m not familiar enough with your ship example and I think we’re already too snaky to get into it.

                Cucumber: fruit or vegetable?

                We would decide if a cucumber is a fruit or vegetable by considering the features which are unique to each group and analysing where the cucumber fits. That is, most of us would. That is how we classify things using a scientific approach.

                You, on the other hand, would find out whether it is the ‘fruit’ category or the ‘vegetable’ category which is fictional — and you’d put the cucumber in the other one, because you have a cucumber. I’ve no idea how you’d deal with hypotheticals.

              • Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

                Sastra: see my soon-to-be-typed reply at the bottom.

                b&

        • Alex T
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

          Frijtof Capra (not to mention thousands of other woo-meisters like Chopra) connect quantum mechanics to love, healing, and mysticsm. That doesn’t make QM mystical, nor would connecting String Theory to these things.

          The reason QM and String Theory aren’t supernatural is because they’re actual scientific theories and not just a fifteen word hand-waving allusion.

          • Sastra
            Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

            Exactly.

            Mystical versions of QM and String Theory are woo. They are trying to inject supernatural elements into perfectly natural theories.

      • Old Rasputin
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        I assume the difference lies in how the authors treat the subject matter. Bilbo’s sword is magic, while the lightsaber is technology. The latter fully comports with the laws of physics/chemistry, which apparently in the Star Wars universe, are rather different than our own. Of course, when Star Wars was written, it wasn’t like someone came up with an alternate set of physical laws and then wrote the story around them. Quite the opposite. But the point is, if the events in the story don’t quite square with our own reality, the author very politely asks you to suspend your disbelief and pretend that those laws are other than they are (in the case of advanced technology), at least in the hypothetical world they are trying to build.

        Usually no such suspension is requested on the behalf of magic/the supernatural. It’s assumed that a magic sword need not comport with physical law in the fictional universe or the real one. It’s magic.

        Relative to the rules of our own (real) reality both swords are “magic”, but according to the rules of their own local (fictional) realities, one is magic, the other not. If a lightsaber were found in real life that worked on the same principles as the ones in the movie, it would be labeled “supernatural” because it would violate (or at least very convincingly appear to) physical law here in the real world.

        Is this similar to your position, Ben? If so, I’m not sure how it conflicts with Sastra’s comment. Am I missing something… perhaps from a previous thread?

        • Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

          My position is that the literary genre the fictional device appears in should have no bearing on whether or not we consider the phenomenon in question to be supernatural.

          Fantasy and SF both have people falling in love and having babies. Great, fantastic; both natural.

          Fantasy and SF both have those babies growing up and becoming movers and shakers. Again, wonderful; that happens, too, and it makes sense that the storytellers should focus on the influential people instead of a random schmuck with an uninteresting life.

          Fantasy and SF both have these young new leaders using impossible toys to help them do what they do. That’s a great literary device, but it’s obviously not at all natural. As you note, a willing suspension of disbelief is involved, and a good storyteller can make it a lot of fun for those willing to suspend disbelief.

          My problem is that Sastra (and Dr. Carrier) is, essentially, claiming that it’s only the impossible toys in the fantasy stories that we should be saying are supernatural. Either that means that the impossible toys in SF must therefore be natural — which they clearly aren’t — or “supernatural” is a useless label for questions of existence, as it’s now ben reduced to a specialized literary term.

          b&

          • Peter
            Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

            “claiming that it’s only the impossible toys in the fantasy stories that we should be saying are supernatural.”

            That’s not at all what they’re saying. Ghosts in a sci-fi story would still be supernatural. Warp drive in a fantasy story wouldn’t necessarily be supernatural.

            Here, consider comic books. Dr. Strange has supernatural powers. Spiderman is not imagined to have supernatural powers: spider DNA fused with human DNA in a sciency experiment.

            Also, just because Stan Lee invoked a very naive and wrong conception of how DNA works doesn’t mean that he was hypothesizing a “supernatural” origin for Spiderman, even though the existence of Dr Strange in the same universe demonstrates that the supernatural exists in that universe.

            Oh, I’ve just refuted myself. If the supernatural “exists” in a fictional universe, then it’s not actually “supernatural” in that universe, and all authors who have described phenomenon as such have just been abusing the word. In their defense, though, they probably weren’t aware that your idiosyncratic and pointless definition is the One True definition of supernatural.

            • Peter
              Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

              Oh, one more point related to going to literature for your examples:

              As a comic book author, Stan Lee can help himself to whatever naive, very wrong concept of science he wants. Because it’s a comic book, and Spidermen are cool, and making up Spidermen is the point, and scientific, peer-reviewed hypothesizing isn’t. You should not try too much into literary devices and genre conventions.

            • Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

              So, again, “supernatural” is simply a genre designation. If the impossible phenomenon is in the fantasy aisle of the bookstore, it’s supernatural. If it’s in the SF aisle, it’s not.

              Sorry, but that’s as useful as a definition of what is and isn’t a vegetable based on whether or not you’d put it in a salad. It may be popular to call cucumbers vegetables, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not fruit.

              b&

              • Peter
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

                No, actually I provided a counterexample to that: i.e. the supernatural can exist within sci-fi, and that non-supernatural alternate/confused/wrong natural phenomena can exist within fantasy. The meaning of supernatural transcends genre. Get it?

            • Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

              Then perhaps you can take a different tack. Leave the examples for the moment, if you will, and jump right to the definition. Perhaps yours will make more sense to me than Sastra’s.

              Alternatively, if you don’t have a definition you’re happy with, you could offer a definitive test: something is unquestionably supernatural if it ____, and it must not be supernatural if that doesn’t hold.

              b&

              • Peter
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

                I’m mostly happy with Sastra’s. I can try to phrase it differently, I suppose:

                Supernatural phenomena are those that are possible iff minds have more powers than what mechanistic, “dumb” physics would allow. Those powers could be emergent (but still falling out of the laws of physics?), in some sense, like maybe those types of things that Deepak Chopra thinks happen around wave function collapse. Or it could be because minds are *different* and fundamental (sort of like QM spin!), and meaning, thought, consciousness, intention, etc are separate things that ultimately can’t be explained in terms of simple, mechanistic physics (or “reduced” through neurology, brain chemistry, evolution down to dumb physical processes).

                As for your definition, I reject the appropriateness of definitions from etymology. Usage defines words, not roots, and “supernatural” is used to talk about ghosts, ESP, gods, magic, etc, *but not* warp drives, phlogistons, radioactive spider-bite superpowers, and so on.

                Does this usage seem natural to you:

                “The experiments detected nothing in the expected energy ranges, and the Higgs boson has been ruled to be a supernatural phenomenon.”

              • Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

                Supernatural phenomena are those that are possible iff minds have more powers than what mechanistic, “dumb” physics would allow.

                Then the flying carpet most emphatically is not supernatural by your definition. Throw enough money at the nice folks at Raytheon, and they’ll give you a low-profile hovercraft with voice command activation and a colorful fabric-covered open top. Prince Husain’s version simply is slimmer, more flexible, and uses some handwavingly-advanced method of propulsion.

                As for your definition, I reject the appropriateness of definitions from etymology. Usage defines words, not roots, and “supernatural” is used to talk about ghosts, ESP, gods, magic, etc, *but not* warp drives, phlogistons, radioactive spider-bite superpowers, and so on.

                So, I’ll ask you.

                Cucumber: fruit or vegetable?

                b&

              • Peter
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

                Uh, right, that a device could be built with technology or with magic does not mean that the magical version isn’t magical. If it is a *magic* carpet, which flies only, for instance, because of the will of a djinni or some incantations that were spoken over it, then clearly it’s supernatural. Duh.

                I don’t get the point of your cucumber/vegetable question. Botanists have a special jargon version of the word “fruit” that’s more specific than the colloquial version. So what? Actually, don’t bother answering that. I’m sure whatever you think your point is isn’t very interesting.

              • Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

                And what makes you so sure that what you call magic isn’t merely sufficiently advanced technology? How do you tell the difference?

                And my uninteresting point is that trying to have a taxonomic discussion about the nature of reality using folk definitions is as productive as having a taxonomic discussion with a botanist using folk definitions.

                So, again: is the cucumber a fruit or a vegetable?

                If it’s a fruit, we can have some hope of furthering our understanding the nature of the phenomena we’re discussing. If it’s a vegetable, then we’re just chewing the fat — and that’s not something I’m particularly interested in right now, myself.

                b&

              • Peter
                Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

                Oh, here, I’ll help. If someone can levitate milk out of the fridge, open it, pour it into a glass, close it, and put it back, using only a carefully spoken incantation, then that’s not supernatural since they could have done the same thing by picking it up with their hand.

                You’re right, stupid arguments ARE fun!

    • DV
      Posted November 9, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      Excellent! The immaterial mind fits perfectly as the test for distinguishing natural and supernatural.

      Using this criteria, PK and ESP are not supernatural, since the minds involved are material. But seances would be supernatural because you’re talking to a disembodied soul.

      Btw, zombies would be firmly not supernatural, since zombies don’t even have minds.

      • Posted November 9, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        Or, as I observed elsewhere: in Sastra’s lexicon, cucumbers are vegetables…which leaves us quite confused as to how we’re supposed to classify croutons.

        b&

        • Posted November 10, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

          “vegetable” is purely a matter of tradition. “fruit” has two meanings, one in ordinary language of the same sort of character, and the other meaning, in botany and what not, corresponding to “plant ovary” or the like.

          In which case, cucumber is both a fruit and a vegetable, as is tomato, green beans, etc.

    • Posted November 9, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      The position I take in this isn’t about semantics, much less dismissing claims.

      If we find ESP, we find it. But it will have to be a real thing that really happens in nature. And it will necessarily require some actual modus operandi. How can you call something like that “supernatural”? Things that aren’t like that can’t exist.

  20. Alex T
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    While I loathe the practice of labelling every little thing “God” (eg: nature, wonder, spirit, the universe, Yahweh, love, uncertainty) and I’ve long sided with Shermer on this point, I think you’ve changed my mind.

    I think the first step was reading Sean Carroll’s discussion of the Higgs, where he and other physicists would not call it the Higgs but a “Higgs-like particle”. I loved that sort of caution and precision and it really highlighted how science works by slowly gaining confidence without ever achieving absolute proof.

    The question isn’t whether we can absolutely prove that we found a god, it isn’t whether we know for certain that an entity is omniscient. The question is really at what point can we start talking about a God-like entity, then at what point we’re sufficiently confident to start calling it a god even though we know there’s always going to be some uncertainty.

    Shermer is right that there will be other explanations and I think he’s also right that the other explanations will generally be more convincing, however that’s not to say this must always be the case. In the end I think JAC wins because Shermer’s case ultimately rests on the insistence for absolute proof, and he fails to understand that all of our scientific language contains tacit uncertainty. It’s perverse to talk about “electron-like particles” rather than electrons, and as we gain more support physicists will stop referring to Higgs-like particles and just call it the Higgs. If we weren’t dogmatic, we’d follow the same path with a god.

  21. Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I agree with Jerry that the universal nonexistence of anything “SUPERnatural” cannot be logically proved or empirically demonstrated beyond ALL doubt. And I agree with Jerry and Michael both (if I understand them both correctly) that neither the existence of nor the non-existence of the “SUPERnatural” are knowABLE (empirically intersubjectively demonstrable beyond reasonable doubt). That the existence (or universal nonexistence) of X is UNknowable is not sufficient to rule-out all possibility that X exists or to rule-in that X exists.

    • Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      There is no doubt in your mind that there is no angry T-Rex biting you in half as you read these words. The non-existence of said dinosaur is absolute.

      Similarly, the nonexistence of many other phenomena are almost as well established. The laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood, and you can be as confident that there is nothing which violates those laws as you already are that the Earth orbits the Sun — and for the exact same reasons.

      Holding the door open for hypotheticals is all well and good, but we need to put the size of the opening into perspective. In the case of gods, that door is hermetically sealed even more tightly than that of any deep-sea submarine or spaceship we’ve ever built.

      b&

  22. Daniel Murphy
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Seems to me that arguments for the existence or possibility of existence of a supernatural something that is able to effect the natural are incoherent. Whatever that supernatural identity was, how would it operate in the natural world? More specifically and with more relevance to Jerry and Michael’s disagreement, how would it operate in the natural world without being itself natural? How would this supposedly supernatural thingie even be able to observe what was going in the so-called natural world?

    I may also be missing something, but without a coherent idea of what the supernatural X might be and how it could act in the natural Y, I don’t see the point in arguing whether X could exist. What would “anything other than the natural world,” and the evidence for it that would exclude it actually being merely a poorly understood but entirely natural phenonomon, be?

    • Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      What would “anything other than the natural world,” and the evidence for it that would exclude it actually being merely a poorly understood but entirely natural phenonomon, be?

      You could start with a violation of conservation, but that would much more parsimoniously be explained with an hypothesis that reality as we observe it is (the logical equivalent of) a computer simulation. Still, you could then coherently define that which is running on the simulation as the natural world, and the “outside” universe as the supernatural world.

      Of course, you’re still left with the question of what kind of super-duper computer is running the simulation that’s simulating our own Matrix computer….

      b&

  23. Vaal
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Jerry is right. Shermer is wrong (as far as I can see, though Shermer’s position doesn’t seem quite coherent to me).

    First, Shermer says: “A supernatural entity or force (something like the God of Abraham) that exists outside of nature is, by definition, unknowable to science.”

    Hold on? By whose definition? Shermer seems to be operating by fiat here. Christians hold their God to be supernatural, and it is part of the Christian conception of God that He can manifest physical miracles AND manifested Himself in human form, with the ability to perform miracles, for 33 years! This clearly includes the ability of empirical manifestation to a degree that would be”knowable to science” (scientists could show up and examine such a manifestation, like anyone else). And not a few Christians have also held God to be knowable via His works, e.g. Christian Creation Scientists etc. So why would I be forced to concede Shermer’s argument-by-his-own-definition concerning the limits of the supernatural, especially when it seems to just ignore how supernatural entities are ACTUALLY conceived by those who believe in them?

    Then Shermer goes on to say that if a God DID interact with the natural world by altering it, then “that action must in principle be measurable by science.” Well…yeah. Exactly. It would, and could be (in principle). So now, why is a supernatural/God entity “by definition unknowable to science” again?

    As to the appeal to Aliens and parsimony – Shermer is I believe being both unscientific and unparsimonious to do so. It seems even some portions of atheists get mind-boggled by the concept of God and fall into some epistemological special-pleading of the same type we see from believers. We are not omniscient. We get it. But that problem is BUILT IN to our rational conclusions about our experience, especially in science. God is not some special problem – rather, for every single observation we make, there are multiple logically possible
    explanations (that tree in front of me could be exactly as it seems, or it could be an illusion, a delusion due to some problem of my brain, could be a matrix illusion, Aliens screwing with my mind, could be a quirk of evolution that makes me deluded about seeing trees, etc).
    What we do in navigating the problem of our lack of omniscience and endless logical possibilities for what we see is to go with “This experience is as it seems UNLESS I have strong reasons from other experience (which includes collating the experience of other people) to doubt it.” We use parsimony to stop our appealing to unnecessary entities in our explanations. And we have developed a method of inquiry, science, that allows us as confident a conclusion about what we see as can be managed given our epistemological limitations.

    That’s why when we encounter new entities, so long as they pass all the scientific inquiry, we accept them for what they are. And it’s why, even in the most wild and counterintuitive, upending discoveries, for instance the results of double-slit experiments in physics, we don’t go appealing to the Sufficiently-Advanced-Aliens-Are-F*cking-With-Us hypothesis. Sure it’s a logical possibility, but why the hell would we dump parsimony and appeal to Aliens no one has shown to exist? How in the world would it simplify things to make appeals to such aliens and what explanatory power in the form of predictions would such Aliens add? They don’t, so we don’t bother with such appeals to logical possibilities, even when what we are seeing may seem crazy by the standards of what we previously thought possible. We TRUST THE METHOD of inquiry, ready to accept new entities that pass through this method. That’s how science learns and grows.

    The universe and it’s origin is a mind-bending subject in scope. Yet, when we accept incredible new accounts of the universe, e.g. the Big Bang Theory that depicts this entire universe as beginning as something near the size of an atom, we do not demand an omniscient account of the universe – that we must account for the history and position of every single atomic particle, planet, star, galaxy etc, in the universe. No, we simply look to the lines of evidence we have at our disposal and infer from it that, “yeah, we can provisionally accept the evidence supports the conclusion the Universe began in such a state.”

    So when Jerry writes:

    “If only Christian prayers were answered, and Jesus appeared doing miracles left and right, documented by all kinds of evidence, I would say, “It looks as if some entity that comports with the Christian God is working ‘miracles,’ though I don’t know how she does it.”

    He’s being consistent, and thinking like a scientist. He’s not suddenly demanding omniscience of himself. He’s saying “If this is where all the evidence associated with this Being is pointing, I’ll accept it, provisionally, as I do with all the other entities I accept through the same process of empirical verification.”

    It’s not more parsimonious to start appealing to aliens rather than to Jesus, UNLESS the alien hypothesis would explain the evidence better and make predictions that the Jesus-is-a-God view does not, which are then tested and confirmed. Lacking that, it’s entirely rational to accept the direction the evidence would point, provisionally as always.

    (Of course then we get into the problem of whether Shermer is actually saying “Well, IF a Jesus showed up and was really doing all that, then I would DEFINE Jesus as an Alien, not a God.” But such argument-via-definition isn’t terribly compelling).

    Vaal

  24. Sastra
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Many years ago (10? 15?) I heard my first talk by Michael Shermer and got a chance to ask him something in the Q&A. His book Why People Believe Weird Things had just come out and I was currently involved in a long and tedious argument on a listserv regarding the definition of “supernatural” (yes, yes, even then.)

    Since I was a member of Skeptic Society and knew he qualified as an expert, my question was brief and to the point:

    “What is difference between the ‘supernatural’ and the ‘paranormal?’”

    I assumed he had a stock response, but the question seemed to take him aback a bit. He thought about it and (iirc) said “well, nothing really. I’m not sure. The paranormal is maybe more scientifically testable but … well, you get the same sort of things in both. I think they’re the same, except one category is testable.”

    If they’re the same, then they’re pretty much both testable. And so the first question isn’t whether we could “distinguish between a supernatural being and an advanced civilization of, say, extraterrestrials that could perform all the “signs and wonders” that would convince most of us that God exists.” Forget God. Start smaller. Start at preconditions.

    What would have to happen for scientists to conclude the probable truth of some form of mind/body dualism? Like, say, ESP or PK? Can we imagine this?

    When you have that as background, then move to “the soul.”

    When you have that, the God hypothesis is already placed in a body of evidence and theory into which it FITS. And aliens, who are evolved beings like us, do not stand out as much, much more plausible. Not if you already accept disembodied souls.

    Baby steps. Baby steps.

    Science is cumulative. Do not forget about laying groundwork. We don’t have to jump to the astonishing endpoint in one big leap. We can build up a cumulative case.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      We can also demand that the other side builds up a cumulative case.

      If all the scientific evidence is for mind/brain dependency and all claims of the paranormal fail to pass fair tests, then we DO get to use science against God. God is a disembodied mind which works using PK and communicates by ESP. If positive findings on those three areas (at least) would make God a plausible hypothesis, then negative findings make it reasonable to throw it out.

      And no protecting a failed hypothesis by pleading that “the supernatural” is somehow beyond science. If some specific supernatural or paranormal claim DID meet rigorous confirmation, theists would wet their pants. Just the way they do when some idiot in the media prints some story about “science finds God” or “miracle proven!”

      It’s all about refuting reductionist materialist naturalist atheism. If they eagerly grant it can be “disproven,” then they’re just as vulnerable on their side.

      • Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        I agree v strongly, and my response is similar to theists who ask what evidence would convince me of the existence of their divine entity: that there be an interlocking body of evidence on the quality level of what supports evolution.

        I then go on to say that though this divine entity’s existence is a fact, I would refrain from worshipping it while accepting its existence (and shudder with the most oppressive dread that I could muster). And per the comment that JAC used in his post, I would let the poor scientists do their job, that is, worship this entity, which would be the equivalent of scientific research. Egads!

    • Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Shermer a decade might not have thought about the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural, but I’m more than happy to offer you a difference between the two today.

      The paranormal would be that which is real but contradicts our current understanding of how the universe works. The supernatural is that which really would only work if the universe were different from what it really is.

      Simpler: the paranormal is that which is real that we either haven’t seen yet or have seen but don’t understand; the supernatural is that which exists only in the imagination.

      Of course, proper taxonomic assignment of a particular phenomenon depends on the quality of observations. There may be something today that we understand as supernatural that a later observation will reveal to be natural. There may be something today that we understand as paranormal that we later understand to really be an illusion and thus supernatural.

      Then again, we now understand whales to be mammals, not fish. What the whales actually are hasn’t changed; merely our understanding of them has.

      b&

      • Sastra
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        The paranormal would be that which is real but contradicts our current understanding of how the universe works. The supernatural is that which really would only work if the universe were different from what it really is.,

        This is an Ontological Argument for Naturalism. You’re putting the falsehood of “the supernatural” into the definition and making naturalism unfalsifiable. It’s not a theory: it’s a commitment.

        So if any ‘supernatural’ claim turns out to be true, you’d just say it was ‘paranormal’ in the first place? God could exist, but it would have to be paranormal, and not supernatural? Or would you insist that “God,” by definition, is supernatural and thus you wouldn’t call an “intelligence which created the universe and everything in it” God, you’d maybe just call it Yahweh, or Al, or He Who Must Not Be Named?

        By the way, there is a shitload of people out there who believe in the supernatural but insist, over and over again, that they DON’T believe in the supernatural. Everything is Natural (ie. Good.) God exists; natural. Souls, pk, alt med, vitalism, and every form of magic and woo and pseudoscience and religious nonsense you can think of — but don’t worry. None of it is supernatural. It’s all part of nature.

        They’re naturalists, too.

        No they’re not. They’ve fooled around with the word and I’m not going to accept the redefinition so they can be included in “naturalists” and nod and agree with them that nope, the supernatural is fiction when they’re denying the connection between mind and brain and evoking a cosmos built on pure mentality, where matter and energy comes from Mind. Harmony and consensus between us — through the magic power of words!

        I can grant them sincerity. But not clarity. Or consistency.

        And if I’m not giving it to them, I’m not giving it to you, either.

  25. Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Why do you privilege “gods” over any and all other “supernatural” phenomena?

    This seems to me an irrational distinction. Either one accepts that we have zero evidence for *any* phenomena that violates known laws of physics, that all currently naturally explained phenomena were once attributed to supernatural causes – and that, we “have no need of that hypothesis”, or one doesn’t.

    The only reason to spend so much time considering the possible reality of “gods” vs “non-corporeal souls” or “emotional energy” – or invisible pink unicorns in Carl Sagan’s garage – is the fallacy of popularity and cultural conditioning/pressure. Objectively, gods are no more plausible than Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

  26. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    If only Christian prayers were answered, and Jesus appeared doing miracles left and right, documented by all kinds of evidence, I would say, “It looks as if some entity that comports with the Christian God is working ‘miracles,’ though I don’t know how she does it.”

    Suppose it were Obi-Wan Kenobi who appeared doing miracles. Would your provisional hypothesis be to accept, despite all prior evidence, that Star Wars is non-fiction? Or would you suspect some sort of trick or imposture as the more likely explanation?

    If the latter, then why not adopt the same attitude (as Shermer does) with respect to Jesus, who is after all equally fictional? What makes an apparition of miracle-working Jesus more worthy of being taken at face value than one of Obi-Wan, Gandalf, or Dumbledore?

    • Vaal
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      Gregory Kusnick,

      I think substituting Obi-Wan for Jesus is indeed an excellent test for the consistency of Jerry’s (and my own) position.

      My own answer would be: In each case the evidence would have to be specific to supporting the claims made about the entity in question.

      If a being appeared who claimed to be Jesus and did exactly the things it was claimed Jesus can do…then that WOULD count as evidence for this being Jesus (how could it not? It THAT isn’t the type of thing that constitutes “evidence,” what IS?).

      If there are larger claims we want to take on related to Jesus, e.g. that Jesus is a God who created us, the world and the universe, then we would ask for more evidence specifically in support of those claims.

      Similarly: As for Obi-Wan it would depend on the claims we are evaluating. If it is simply claimed there is a being “Obi-Wan” who as X, Y, Z powers, and such a Being with those powers, claiming to be Obi-wan appeared…then that supports the claim. IF the claim is wider, that this Obi-Wan is part of a story and galaxy filled with characters, as described in the Star Wars films, then we simply start asking for more evidence for THAT proposition. For instance, asking for evidence for the galaxy he inhabits, evidence of these other creatures, other characters etc. If we don’t get evidence for these further claims, we don’t believe them.

      Doesn’t seem in principle a difficult question to me, if we just concentrate on being consistent with how we vet all other claims, scientifically/empirically.

      Vaal

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:59 am | Permalink

        The point you’re missing is that we already have vast amounts of self-consistent evidence testifying to the fact that Star Wars is fiction. This includes the personal experience of thousands of people who contributed to the creation of that fiction, as well as millions worldwide who enjoyed it knowing it was fiction. The fictionality of Star Wars is about as well-established a fact about the real world as evolution or quantum mechanics.

        So it’s not just a matter of this putative Obi-Wan establishing his credentials by (say) taking us on a tour of that galaxy far, far away. That only makes matters worse, since we would then have two irreconcilable mountains of evidence pointing to different conclusions. At no point does “Star Wars is real” become the most plausible hypothesis, because it explains one of the mountains only by denying the other. The closest we can come to explaining them both is “There’s a trick going on here somewhere” or “I’ve gone insane” or “Our understanding of what it means to be ‘real’ is seriously flawed” or something along those lines.

    • Posted November 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Brilliant analogy, well put.

  27. eric
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Shermer:

    Since we are far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI [extraterrestrial intelligence] who has them in relatively (to us) copious amounts?

    I know a way! Its quite simple: you ask your subject to explain and design the test.

    A truly omniscient and omnipotent deity will be able to design a ‘test for omni-deification’ that is clear, confirmable, logically indisputable, and accessible to humans…and they will then pass that test. If your potential-deity cannot design a human-approved test that distinguishes the relatively omnipotent from the absolutely omnipotent, and then pass it, they are by definition not omnipotent and omniscient.

    You might ask, “how would we know such a test is a good one? Maybe the test itself has a flaw we are too stupid to notice” But that’s part of the test. If your subject cannot design a test that is logically confirmable by humans, they aren’t omnipotent.

    • eric
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      Incidentally, Vaal’s critique of Shermers “unknowable by science” (post # 22) is valid for the same reason. An omnipotent being would be capable of making their omnipotence knowable by science. If they can’t, they aren’t omnipotent.

    • blitz442
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      This is such a great point. If I am to take a theologian seriously, especially a Christian theologian, then I am to understand that God is aware of these debates about his existence involving unbelievers who are honest and sincere, and exercising their critical faculties to the fullest. Furthermore, whether or not a human accepts the existence of God is of critical importance to that human’s eternal destiny. Finally, this God is not against revealing key information to humankind.

      Yet this same God has apparently outsourced the job of providing rational support for his existence to the folks like Plantinga, while playing a cosmic game of hide and seek for the rest of us.

      Such a God should have no problems constructing and revealing some apparatus that leaves no doubt about his existence to any honest person.

      Can we elevate the problem of the hidden god to problem of evil status?

      • eric
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        Such a God should have no problems constructing and revealing some apparatus that leaves no doubt about his existence to any honest person.

        Indeed. And if your argumentative theologian brings up free will, just point out that a truely omnipotent being would be capable of proving his existence to any honest person without compromising our free will to follow Him. They can’t fall back on the claim that it’s logically impossible, since the bible has multiple examples of God in fact revealing himself to people without compromising their choice to disobey him.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Yes. The question goes like this:

      Is it possible, in theory, for God to provide clear and convincing objective scientific evidence for its existence?

      Either way they answer, they’re screwed.

      Answer “yes” and God’s existence is not somehow “beyond science.” God is just “hiding.”

      Answer “no” and you’ve got a major problem with both omniscience and omnipotence, since this would be counterintuitive on several levels. And do the theists really want to say that there could never be a time or situation when atheists have to admit they were wrong?

    • Posted November 8, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      I like!

      It’s an inversion of the approach that I like to take of constructing a theological equivalent of the common-language proof of the Halting Problem to demonstrate why Jesus can’t possibly be either omnipotent nor omniscient. Yours might not be quite as all-encompassing as mine, but it’s certainly valid and very effective rhetorically.

      b&

  28. Kevin
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    If only…Jesus appeared doing miracles left and right…I would say, “I don’t know how she does it.”

    Well, it did not take long for you to forget yesterday’s lesson about “the reproductive biology of human females”.

  29. Jim Bradley
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Jerry,

    I’m not sure there is a cohesive distinction between natural and supernatural. It seems to point more strongly to our own limitations than to an objective meaning. In fact, I think it might be true that we should discard the terms “supernatural” and “natural” for better distinctions such as true, false, an untestable event, etc.

    Philosophically, the conversation seems to be using the term supernatural several ways. One is in refence to the reliable cause of an event and the other goes to the ability to verify the relationship. For example:

    Natural – A causal agent whose presence and actions are identifiable by our senses or instrumentation, one that gives rise to a testable, patterned, controllable, repeatable event, able to be verified by other observers (common agreement), which is able to be conceptualized by human minds in terms of cause-effect relationships

    Supernatural – A causal agent whose presence is not identifiable by our senses or our instrumentation and / or whose actions are untestable (because the characteristics of the event in question are) non-patterned, unique, non-controllable (by experiment), unable to be conceptualized, or unable to be verified by other observers in common agreement

    Which is basically the methodology of science in a nutshell.

    But I’m not sure we are making a good distinction here between natural and supernatural. I’d rather see the focus put on claims we can verify and those we can’t. The definitions start to fall down as soon as the metaphysical assumptions of science are examined. We don’t have a full conceptual understanding of why gravity is the way it is (we just know how it acts), or why f=ma (and try to define one of the triad: force, mass, or acceleration without the others) … And if we come up with contingent explanations for those phenomena, we end up with a need of an explanation of our explanation, so we seem always to bump against a boundary. The more we learn, the more “supernatural” the universe looks. Reality (if the trend holds), might well be outside our conceptual ability.

    To me, it is “real magic” that we can represent the physical universe by symbols on a page, or that there is order to the universe that we can comprehend (to a degree). If anything, it’s science that is tapping the “genuine supernatural order”.

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      Those are biased misdefinitions of natural and supernatural. Those definitions redefine natural as that which is detectable, but there can be other universes, or regions in our universe, that are in principle undetectable by us and are no less natural for being undetectable. That definition confuses spatial/temporal constraints that limits what is detectable with what is natural. Similarly, supernatural phenomena presumeably could assume, or inhabit, material forms that are detectable, think Jesus as a walking, talking, earthly deity.

      It makes more sense to say that supernatural is immaterial mind and agency (Jesus, for example, is said to continue to exist as an immortal, immaterial deity after he “died” and left his temporary, material body which was inhabited for the purpose of making himself visible to, and interacting with, people). Even without inhabiting a material body, an intelligent agent can be detectable via its intentional interventions/actions, and unless it either didn’t intervene, or deliberately acted to avoid detection, its interventions would be detectable.

      • Posted November 8, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

        Even without inhabiting a material body, an intelligent agent can be detectable via its intentional interventions/actions, and unless it either didn’t intervene, or deliberately acted to avoid detection, its interventions would be detectable.

        They’d also violate the Hell out of the laws of conservation.

        Just to be clear: we can’t have absolute knowledge that the laws of conservation are absolute…but there is nothing, period, that we can have more confidence in than the laws of conservation.

        If you’re making this point to illustrate the absurdity of the supernatural, I’m with you. But if you think this somehow demonstrates the coherence of the supernatural as a plausible phenomenon, you’d quite literally be much, much better preaching Young Earth Creationism.

        b&

        • Explicit Atheist
          Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

          You seem to be refusing to let go of this universe, like a good science fiction or fiction writer would, to allow for any other possibilities. It’s like when people first try to ride a two wheel bicycle and they grip the handle bars too tightly. My advice to you is to loosen up. Stop being afraid of entertaining other possible universes and allow yourself to imagine what a universe with people in it would have to be like to properly justify those people having a belief in the supernatural. Pretend it is still Halloween. It is not a threat to our universe or our atheism to imagine an alternative universe whose attributes would, or at least could, properl justify our being theists. On the contrary.

          When we do this it becomes more apparent how unjustified theism is because such an alternative universe would need to be so entirely contrary to this universe to justify theism. So yes, this approach of trying to construct such an alternative universe does clarify how absurd theism is.

          • Posted November 9, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

            I’m all for fiction as entertainment, and I can suspend my disbelief with the best of them. But this conversation is ostensibly about fact, not fiction.

            In this universe, we obey the laws of physics, and the laws of conservation are primary. I’m more than happy to be entertained by violations of conservation, but you’ll have to do a hell of a lot more than spin a yarn if you want me to actually take anything like that seriously.

            Besides. There’s damned good reason to suspect that even any hypothetical universe that lacks some equivalent of conservation is inherently unstable and cannot sustain itself.

            b&

      • Jim Bradley
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

        In other words, other universes might operate under natural law yet be undetectable or unreachable. I get your point. In this universe, I think the question is, whether a “supernatural event” is something that could better be explained by natural causes in the future (which, interestingly, requires faith in a methodology). I think this gets to the heart of whether a supernatural being could be demonstrated to exist.

        I find the starting point of most debates (which can be shown by clarifying the definitions) many times determines the ending point, and I am interested in seeing the differences in the definitions that Jerry and others might present.

  30. Matt Flor
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Exactly what I thought. I’d be constantly trying to figure out who is tricking me and how, and certainly not consider the existence of a god. I’m with Shermer on this one.

    • Matt Flor
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      That was supposed to be a reply to Gregory Kusnick’s comment (#25).

  31. Vaal
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Matt,

    “Exactly what I thought. I’d be constantly trying to figure out who is tricking me and how, and certainly not consider the existence of a god. I’m with Shermer on this one.”

    How much time do you spend, or do you think we should spend, trying to figure out “who is tricking us” as far as the evidence for The Big Bang, or all the weird entities and behavior of the quantum world (which would have been utterly bizarre based on previous human experience)? Or the idea that all life forms arose from simple, common ancestor organisms? It’s bizarre, counter-intuitive stuff, so why not think we are being “tricked?”

    When we ask: why do you accept all these wild sounding conclusions of science (and virtually all of them are counter-intuitive to many previously held ideas of the world)…the answer has to be because you trust in the METHOD of scientific inquiry.

    And if you trust in this method, why would you suddenly abandon trust only for the issue of a Being who claimed to be our Creator? If this being supplies us with many extremely strong and irrefutable lines of evidence that He has the powers to do so, and evidence supporting that He did so…all normal modes of scientific inference would say “The hypothesis this Being is our Creator is well supported.” Yet you would refuse to follow the lines of evidence to the conclusion.

    Why are you making this exception?

    Vaal

  32. Myron
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    1. physical (natural)
    2. cryptophysical/xenophysical (yet physical)
    3. hyperphysical (supernatural)

    2 refers to phenomena which appear hyperphysical to us—because they are utterly unlike everything we experience in normal life, and we have no or can’t imagine any natural explanation of them—but really are physical. Crypto- or xenophysical phenomena are physical phenomena whose physical nature is perceptually or cognitively hidden from or alien to us, and is thus unknown to us.
    The big epistemic problem for the supernaturalist is how to tell the difference between a merely crypto-/xenophysical phenomenon and a truly hyperphysical phenomenon.

    • Myron
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      The distinction between the physical and the crypto-/xenophysical is a relative one, because it concerns the current or in-principle limits of what is humanly perceptible and knowable. But the distinction between the physical and the hyperphysical is not an epistemological or psychological distinction but an absolute ontological distinction.

      • Myron
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        Hyperphysical/supernatural entities are either spiritual concreta (souls/spirits or magical spiritual powers) or abstracta (e.g. mathematical objects or structures).

      • Myron
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        An essential difference between spiritual objects and abstract objects is that the former are agents and the latter are nonagents. That is, an immaterial soul/spirit could be a causer of observable events and thus be indirectly detectable via its actions, whereas an abstract object lacks causal powers and thus couldn’t make anything happen. So direct or indirect empirical evidence for the existence of abstract objects is absent in principle.

        • blitz442
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

          This is the most effective campaign I have seen to try to get Jerry to put an edit feature on this forum.

  33. Curt Nelson
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    What if we (and the universe) were subjects of a computer simulation, wouldn’t the programers be Gods? They would have designed everything and know everything and be able to disallow us from discovering them… And that would be supernatural I think.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      We’re not. The universe looks nothing like the kind of universe we should expect to find ourselves in if we were in a simulation.

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but I’m not trying to convince anyone that simulation is a reasonable possibility, but illustrate how the supernatural could exist and remain unknowable.

        • eric
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

          Once again, an omnipotent supernatural entity will only be unknowable if it wants to be. If it wants to be knowable, it exercises its omnipotence and..POOF! Its knowable.

      • Gary W
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

        The universe looks nothing like the kind of universe we should expect to find ourselves in if we were in a simulation.

        Sure it is. It looks exactly like a physical universe in which our ancestors could have evolved and that they decided to simulate.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

          That’s one possible sort of simulation in which we could conceivably find ourselves. But you’ve given no basis for thinking it to be a common or typical sort of mind-containing simulation, and it’s the common or typical sort that we should expect to find ourselves in.

          • Gary W
            Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

            That’s one possible sort of simulation in which we could conceivably find ourselves. But you’ve given no basis for thinking it to be a common or typical sort of mind-containing simulation

            It’s the kind of universe in which we could have evolved. Unlike World of Warcraft-type universes which you bizarrely claim the simulation builders are more likely to create.

  34. Myron
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    An important point to mention is that the sophisticated philosophical conception of supernatural beings or agents as “spiritual substances” is not identical with the comparatively naive and primitive mythological conception of them (e.g. weightless ghosts with a transparent body).

    “We commonly think that we, as persons, have both a mental and a bodily dimension—or mental aspects and material aspects. Something like this dualism of personhood, I believe, is common lore shared across most cultures and religious traditions, although it is seldom articulated in the form of an explicit set of doctrines as in modern western philosophy and some developed theologies. It is often part of this ‘folk dualism’ that we are able to survive bodily deaths, as souls or spirits, and retain all or most of the mental aspects of ourselves, such as memory, the capacity for thought and volition, and traits of character and personality, long after our bodies have crumbled to dust.
    Spirits and souls as conceived in popular lore seem not be entirely without physical properties, if only vestigially physical ones, and are not what Descartes and other philosophical dualists would call souls or minds—wholly immaterial and nonphysical substances with no physical properties whatever. For example, souls are commonly said to leave the body when a person dies and rise upward toward heaven, indicating that they are thought to have, and be able to change, locations in physical space. And they can be heard and seen, we are told, by people endowed with special powers and in an especially propitious frame of mind. Souls are sometimes pictured as balls of bright light, causing the air to stir as they glide through space and even emitting faint unearthly sounds. But souls and spirits depicted in stories and literature, and in films, are not the immaterial minds of the serious dualist. These latter souls are wholly immaterial and entirely outside physical space.”

    (Kim, Jaegwon. Physicalism or Something Near Enough. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. p. 73)

    • Myron
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Footnote: Some substance dualists claim that embodied souls are located in space where their respective bodies are located. But the problem with this is that bodies are three-dimensional objects and souls are zero-dimensional objects, so that the question arises as to what space-point within the region occupied by the extended body is occupied by the soul. Or is the soul “jumping around” from space-point to space-point?

      • Myron
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        What is more, how is the soul attached to the body? How can the soul start to move when the body starts to move? How does the soul move in space? The motion of embodied or disembodied souls in space seems totally inexplicable.

    • blitz442
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      “These latter souls are wholly immaterial and entirely outside physical space”

      If these souls are sentient, how do they acquire information? This claim that they do not interact with physical space would seem to make information acquisition impossible. And if these souls cannot acquire info, they cannot cogitate or have any properties of mind.

      The sophisticated version of duality seems just as confusing and the “naive” version.

      • blitz442
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        *and the “naive”*

        as the “naive”

      • Posted November 8, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        Thanks to Claude Shannon, we know that communications requires energy. Tap the carrier wave from the soul to the brain and you’ve got a perpetual motion machine.

        b&

  35. Pablo
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Once again, Jerry and Michael have failed to convince me that this is an important discussion.

    Maybe it’s time to raise the stakes and ask Jerry if, given some convincing “supernatural evidence”, would he not only accept the provisional god but also follow (at least provisionally) the precepts of the religion to which that divinity belonged. Say, if the “miracles” pointed to Allah, would he convert to Islam? If not, what’s the point of the acceptance?… other than voicing an inconsequential opinion.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Well, it depends on what that “god” said and if he carried through with any threats attendent on its presence. I sure don’t believe that any scriptures are true, like the Qur’an or the Bible (those are certainly man-confected), but if that god could somehow demonstrate that it could punish people who didn’t do what he said, I’d have to take that seriously.

      • Posted November 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        I’d at least like to think I’d join (or start) the resistance. Wouldn’t you?

        Sure, the cause may be hopeless, but so what? Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.

        b&

        • Posted November 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

          Incidentally, I see this as the dividing line between super-powerful extraterrestrials and gods. You don’t have a choice of whether or not to respect and obey a god.

          b&

      • Pablo
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

        That’s an interesting response. Let’s not forget that this provisional god may very well be malevolent by human standards. I would be extremely wary of renouncing our naturalistic notion of human morality even in the presence of seemingly irrefutable evidence for a god that goes against it. In that event, an anti-theistic reaction appears inescapable.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

        If some self-proclaimed god threatened mayhem for disobedience, you’d have to take the threat seriously. It does not follow that you have to take his claim to godhood seriously, particularly if he’s claiming to be the god of some obviously human-confected scripture.

  36. Posted November 8, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me, Jerry, that you’re really just saying that you’ll go along with a god-of-the-gaps argument so long as the gap in understanding that’s provided is a whacking great chasm. I wouldn’t personally rule out the very idea that a deity exists, however, looking at the issue pragmatically, I think it is quite reasonable to say that science deals only with the physical and, if a god is anything, it’s surely metaphysical; and a metaphysical intervention is indistinguishable from an incomprehensible physical event, thus the gap where you’re inserting god.

  37. Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Sastra wrote above:

    If what is normally a material object has the special inherent magical property of being able to sense and respond to intentions (or values or emotions or needs) then it is supernatural. Those are mental properties. You would not find them in a rock. You would find them in a mind.

    Then my iPhone has a mind. I can ask it to remind me to take out the garbage, and it will. I can ask it who won the World Series in any given year, and it will. I can ask it to call my Mom, and it will. It will even give me an answer to the question of the meaning of life, and its answer will be no more invalid than any any human has ever offered.

    You, on the other hand, would find out whether it is the ‘fruit’ category or the ‘vegetable’ category which is fictional — and you’d put the cucumber in the other one, because you have a cucumber.

    That is manifestly false, a blatant misrepresentation of my position that I’ve repeatedly corrected you on.

    So, one last time.

    Disembodied minds are supernatural because they are impossible; they are most emphatically NOT impossible because they are supernatural.

    Demonstrate a disembodied mind to me and I will conclude that they are natural, not supernatural, and I will also conclude that everything I know about the natural world needs reevaluation.

    However.

    While such an earth-shattering demonstration would cause me to reevaluate everything I know, it would not automatically cause me to conclude that everything else you yourself have labeled as “supernatural” is now real and therefore natural. I would still need to evaluate each and every such phenomenon on its merits — though, with luck, I’d figure out the new way of understanding the universe and be able to come up with some mental shortcuts.

    So, if you come to me claiming that you’ve got a perpetual motion machine, today I’m not going to waste my time evaluating your claim. But I might well re-evaluate my claim if you were to demonstrate a disembodied mind to me.

    I’ll further note: your disembodied minds are but a subset of that which we have already demonstrated to be impossible. All you’re doing, when it comes right down to it, is arguing that mindless impossible things aren’t supernatural. The only reasonable conclusion is that you’re arguing that mindless impossible things are therefore natural, and that’s about the most unreasonable argument I can imagine one might make.

    And I’d again like to ask you to answer my question about the flying sailing ship. Your reluctance to do so tells me that you realize that it is, in fact, a mindless phenomenon, and that it is, in fact, something the common person would consider supernatural, and that it does, in fact, fit my definition of “supernatural” but not yours.

    b&

  38. Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    For me, the definition of the supernatural depends on how you view reductionism. If someone thinks that some things in the world reduce to something that is fundamentally mental (like the mind, souls, spirits, demons, gods, etc.) then this is something that is supernatural. If someone does not reduce to the mental (like quarks, gluons, etc.) then this is something that is natural.

    This would be a fundamental difference between simply supremely advanced aliens and an actual god. The aliens, no matter how advanced their tech is, all of it reduces to quarks, etc. On the other hand, mind-body dualists believe that human beings are fundamentally mental and thus supernatural.

    • Myron
      Posted November 9, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Of course, there is an essential difference between superhuman beings belonging to a natural, naturally evolved species of biological organisms on some planet and supernatural beings such as incorporeal angels.

  39. greyhound1405
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    Sorry Jerry, you can’t go anywhere unless you first define God! The religious keep moving the goalposts as science reveals more about Nature.
    There is nothing left to lie outside of Nature and qualities of God(s) have been destroyed by Philosophers ages ago…

  40. BillyJoe
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Is zytxwiql a theoretical possibility?
    What? You want me to define zytxwiql?
    ;)

    • BillyJoe
      Posted November 9, 2012 at 3:28 am | Permalink

      Oops, greyhound lept in there before me.
      But that’s the answer to this question…

      Define your god.

  41. Roberto Aguirre Maturana
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 4:40 am | Permalink

    I think the argument of Shermer goes in the same line of David Hume: there’s always a more parsimonious explanation than god, and I agree with that.

    But Occam’s razor is just a handy heuristic, not a truth detector. Therefore It cannot be asserted that there´s is no god because it´s not the simplest explanation, at must you can say that there are not compelling arguments or evidences to support this claim, therefore the bayesian probability of existance of god tend to zero, so Shermer seems to be wrong.

    • Vaal
      Posted November 9, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think you are using the principle of parsimony correctly.

      You can’t rule a God out a priori on Occam’s Razor. It just doesn’t work that way. Parsimony does not mean always retreating to explaining a new entity strictly by appeal to things you already think you know. “Well, we’ve never seen one of these before…so it must actually be some manifestation of something we’ve encountered in the past.”

      Such an approach could never lead you to accept actual new phenemona into your knowledge base – and of course science accepts truly novel phenomena all the time because it has a METHOD that allows us some confidence in accepting new phenomena.

      If a tree appears to be in front of you, unless there is other evidence this is not a tree, then the most parsimonious conclusion is “this thing in front of me is what it appears to be.” Science and all rational thought pretty much run on such an assumption (otherwise, we could never be trusting our senses, even in some coordinated way, to make judgements).

      Let’s say for the moment God = The Personal Being Who Created The Universe (and who has a plan for us, or whatever). So a Being shows up physically (say he’s as tall as an apartment building), claims to be the Creator, and sticks around year after year after year, for our empirical verification, and does all manner of nature-altering miracles that we can verify which indicate his world and cosmos-creating powers. He continually points us (that is predicts) toward evidence all over the world (in geological strata, fossils, etc) that indicate He has the type of knowledge the Creator would have, etc.

      Now, every bit of evidence suggests “This Being is real. This being has these powers. This Being is providing evidence that a Creator could provide.”

      The most parsimonious

      What would a “more parsimonious” explanation?
      Perhaps you’d want to say “It could be a mass hallucination, a delusion. We know they occur!” Really? The problem is that this Being would have been vetted year after year by exactly the same process we use in science to vet all other empirical entities.
      If you would say we can not trust years of such empirical inquiry, you logically throw ALL THE OTHER empirical knowledge gained the same way into disrepute, including the knowledge you think you’d be appealing to in order to dismiss the God being.

      What about Aliens? Again…how is it more parsimonious to go beyond exactly what all the evidence suggests (this is The Creator) to appeal to some OTHER beings who have the power to either do exactly what The Creator could do, or cause mass illusions for such powers, for years and years? The Aliens are a logical possibility for explaining the apparent Deity…but lacking any evidence for the proposition Aliens are behind what we see, and if no Alien Hypothesis proves ANY more explanatory, or predictive in the case of what we are seeing, why would we not trust as we always have “all the evidence is as it seems to our senses and best efforts of inquiry?”

      People who keep saying it is always more parsimonious to appeal to other things than
      a God (Aliens, Delusion, etc) never really get into the nitty gritty and makes sense of it.

      Vaal

  42. gravelinspector
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    I was moderately surprised to not find in the discussion above any mention of “Clarke’s Third Law”, the oft-cited “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
    (I don’t claim to have searched hard though.)
    I see that Shermer is well aware of it.
    With that realisation and a healthy dose of scepticism, the occasional challenge from the godly for me to prove my open-mindedness by saying what evidence would convince me of the existence of a god gets holed below the waterline because it would be much, much easier to convince me of the existence of a technology far beyond my understanding, compared to convincing me of the existence of a god.
    I see a number of variants on Clarke’s Third Law. One that I particularly like is “any technology which is distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced”. There’s a challenge for the Development Department, but it should make writing TFM relatively easy.

  43. Posted November 9, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    JAC says: “There is not an iota of evidence for The God Hypothesis, but I claim that there could be.”

    But how long are you prepared to wait before deciding that there is not and can never be?

    Shermer is just saying that the time is up. In that he agrees with Victor Stenger and in that I agree with the both of them.

    JAC is being kind of open-minded on this issue – it could well cost him as the godbelievers are going to jump on that gap or bandwagon. JAC might well soon regret this point of view.

  44. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    I think however we can definitely rule out the Abrahamic God.

  45. Roo
    Posted November 10, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm. I have been huffily ignoring your comments section due to my seething jealousy over your recent travels and foodie adventures. (Kidding. Sort of. It’s not like I’ve considered putting on a latex Jerry Coyne mask and showing up at the airport to be transported to your next meeting. Heh…)

    Anyways, I have to thank you for transforming my yearly holiday visit to the Orthodox Church with my mom (don’t even judge, you wouldn’t tell her no either, if you value your life,) so that The Cherubic Hymn will now play “We mystically represent what we would accept provisionally as the cherubic hymn if in fact creatures meeting the criteria for cherubs were presented while we investigated further” in my head. I think the harmony will be off though.

    This did put me in mind of a conference I went to with some hardcore behaviorists last week, though. It occurred to me that the above descriptions of the supernatural actually sound very similar to how they might describe subjectivity and consciousness. It probably isn’t there, but if it is it doesn’t impact us in a way that matters and therefore we shouldn’t worry about it as an entity. I find that contrast interesting, and, I suspect, the reason why supernatural theories will always exist until consciousness is understood.

  46. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 27, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I consider “supernatural action” as a proposal for magical action (action without energy). Shermer’s philosophical deist “[existence] outside of nature” is excluded when magic is, as a limit of insufficient action.

    And I disagree that such an empirical exclusion isn’t “proof of absence” beyond reasonable doubt.

    But even if it wasn’t, it would be a suggestion of a non-existent object. E.g. it wouldn’t be distinguishable from non-existence. So it isn’t something that we need to concern ourselves with.


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