Can there be evidence for the supernatural?: an interview with Maarten Boudry

You might recall Belgian philosopher Maarten Boudry, whose work I’ve discussed several times, including his analysis about how one could test for the existence of the supernatural (he agrees with me rather than P.Z. on this issue) as well as his paper (also written with colleagues) philosophically analyzing the intelligent-design idea of “irreducible complexity.”

Yesterday evening the Think Atheist Radio Show had an interview with Boudry that is available at this website. Listeners can also grab the show from the Think Atheist iTunes page.  Here’s the Think Atheist blurb:

Dr. Maarten Boudry:  Dr. Boudry is a philosopher and Doctoral Researcher at Ghent University in Belgium. I first became aware of Dr. Boudry late last year during the extended back and forth between Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Sean Carroll and others on the question of whether there could ever be convincing evidence for the existence of God. Dr. Boudry’s work was cited and discussed and made quite an impression. His doctoral dissertation, Here Be Dragons (pdf), recently came across my radar, the reading of which gave me no less of a reason to be impressed. He joined us to talk about whether science can say anything about the supernatural, “irreducible complexity”, and the demarcation between science vs. pseudoscience.

He makes some good points, including the notion that many pseudosciences—and not just religion depend on “supernatural” explanations, and he highlights the problem of defining what is “supernatural.”  It’s well worth listening to, especially if you haven’t read Boudry’s papers.

76 Comments

  1. Posted October 24, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Jerry, can you remind us of your definition of what the “supernatural” is?

    Every definition I’ve ever come across reduces either to what I like to call the “paranormal,” that which is unlikely but not impossible, and the logically absurd — married bachelors, if you will.

    Telepathy would be an example of the paranormal. Indeed, one would expect real telepathy to be invented, through the help of technology, in the not-so-distant future. Humans (or another species) could have evolved with a mechanism to support it, and did evolve with mechanisms supporting a very weak form of it (the ability to model the internal mental state of another based on verbal and non-verbal cues).

    A married bachelor, on the other hand, doesn’t even make sense in the first place.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • qbsmd
      Posted October 24, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Richard Carrier has a post somewhere with an interesting definition: “supernatural” refers to something with a mind or mental effect that is not reducible to natural processes. He then goes on to talk about why this doesn’t suffer from unfalsifiability and different possible evidence that could occur.

      • Posted October 24, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        That could more precisely be stated as defining the supernatural as a violation of the Church-Turing Thesis.

        While Church-Turing hasn’t yet been proven, it would be unwise at this point to bet that it will ever be falsified. I’m pretty sure that any violation of Church-Turing could be exploited to create a perpetual motion machine, and the laws of conservation are about as unshakable as things get in science.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • qbsmd
          Posted October 24, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think that’s what he meant. Anyway, I found the article and I’m sure his words are better than my summary: http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html

          Also, how does a Church-Turing violation lead to a perpetual motion machine?

          • Posted October 25, 2011 at 7:16 am | Permalink

            Richard might not have meant that, but it’s what it reduces to.

            An immaterial mind could act as Maxwell’s Demon and know precisely when to open and close the gates without using any energy to do so. Le voilà, entropy reversal.

            This is trivially supported by observing that all proposed “hyper-Turing” mechanisms require infinite resources of some form or another — infinite time, infinite energy, an infinite number of computations in a finite amount of time, that sort of thing. The only way you could power something like that is with the aid of a perpetual motion machine.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Kharamatha
              Posted October 25, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

              As IANAPh, “immaterial” or “not reducible to natural processes” things that still do things just make me blank out for a while.

              Isn’t doing something material the same thing as being something material? Isn’t it the case that I’m something material BY doing something material?

              And what does “energy” mean if moving things around doesn’t necessarily relate to it?

    • Bryan
      Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      Dissertation page 32:

      “…we propose to define “supernatural” as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science (for a similar approach, see Stenger 2008, pp. 14-16)… Thus, if we possessed compelling empirical evidence for some intelligent entity residing beyond our spatiotemporal universe, but nonetheless capable of interfering with our material world…, we would have a demonstration of a “supernatural” phenomenon.”

      Does that mean that if the Christian god resides in our present universe, the Christian god is not “supernatural”?

      • Posted October 25, 2011 at 1:47 am | Permalink

        Yes, but I think that’s the point…

        I think that anciently the Christian (and Jewish) god was considered to be part of our universe, if not “of the Earth”, but as science advanced and found no evidence of god in the natural world, he was recast as a supernatural entity, (supposedly) beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry.

        Of course, as Jerry has pointed out repeatedly, if god is supernatural but still intercedes in the real world, there would be evidence of such intercession.

        /@

      • Posted October 25, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

        Thus, if we possessed compelling empirical evidence for some intelligent entity residing beyond our spatiotemporal universe, but nonetheless capable of interfering with our material world

        “Does not compute.”

        If it’s interfering with our material world, that’s taking place in our spatiotemporal universe. At most, you can invoke Flatland-style extra dimensions, but I hardly think that should qualify as somehow supernatural.

        Is that which is beyond our Hubble horizon supernatural?

        Cheers,

        b&

    • Posted October 24, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      “Indeed, one would expect real telepathy to be invented, through the help of technology, in the not-so-distant future.”

      Cellphones?

      • Posted October 25, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

        I was thinking more along the lines of surgically-implanted cellphones, or mind-reading portable remote MRI scanners, or other variations on those themes — something indistinguishable in practice from the traditionally-proposed forms of telepathy. As Clarke should have said but didn’t, “Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”

        But one could also reasonably argue that Marconi was the first human telepath.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Kharamatha
          Posted October 25, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

          Or “Any sufficiently studied magic (that actually works) is indistinguishable from technology.”

  2. Teemo
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    Everything that exists is natural, not supernatural. If ghosts were proven to be real, they would be natural, as contradictory as that sounds. Therefore, anything truly supernatural is untestable — and also nonexistent. You could test for specific things, to see if they are natural instead of supernatural. You can never, however, prove something supernatural exists, because then it would be natural.

  3. Posted October 24, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    But if there is evidence for it, it ceases to be supernatural and just becomes natural -?

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted October 24, 2011 at 6:25 am | Permalink

      End of debate.

      • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
        Posted October 24, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        Not at all, that would be the start of a new world view.

        Because the claim is that we have a dualism (say matter vs souls), and instead of that we today have overwhelming evidence to the contrary one may well discover a dualist sector one day.

        [But don’t count on it, we should have seen it by now.]

      • Bryan
        Posted October 24, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

        Totally agree – end of debate. I’ve commented on several of these “evidence of the supernatural” threads and I still have no idea what Jerry is talking about – not that that’s a discredit to him, of course. I’ve yet to see a coherent definition of “supernatural”.

    • Lurker111
      Posted October 24, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      Yup. If the supernatural can be seen, smelled, heard, felt, etc., it can be measured and, once measured, becomes part of the natural world. Ergo, the supernatural is an oxymoron.

      • Posted October 24, 2011 at 7:05 am | Permalink

        Haven’t listened to the interview, but here are some aspects of what might be a commonsense understanding of supernatural:

        1) It isn’t explicable in terms of natural laws and other empirically-derived explanatory relationships.

        2) It’s beyond our ken: we can’t understand or predict it according to *any* set of laws.

        3) It’s causally privileged over the natural: it controls or has power over the natural but is not itself at the effect of the natural.

        Can we categorically rule out the possibility of there ever being observational evidence of something that meets these criteria?

        • Tulse
          Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

          1) It isn’t explicable in terms of natural laws and other empirically-derived explanatory relationships.

          Since we can’t a priori know what laws we will empirically derive in future, this doesn’t really rule out anything.

          2) It’s beyond our ken: we can’t understand or predict it according to *any* set of laws.

          Again, how can we possibly know whether something adheres to any possible set of laws that we might discover in future?

          3) It’s causally privileged over the natural: it controls or has power over the natural but is not itself at the effect of the natural.

          This just begs the question — the issue is precisely whether something is natural, and one can’t determine that by saying that it is privileged over the natural in general. Again, at best we can say that something seems to have causal priority over what we currently understand to be the natural, but by that criterion, there was a time that magnetism would have counted as “supernatural”.

          • Bernard Ortcutt
            Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink

            That’s why it’s provisional. Right, now we are provisional methodological naturalists. Maybe we later discover a phenomenon that fits Tom Clark’s three conditions, then we would provisionally accept the supernatural. If we then discover that a way of understanding this being in natural terms, then we would go back to being provisional methodological naturalists. The only mistake would be if we encountered something that seemed supernatural and gave up on inquiry.

            • Tulse
              Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

              But you missed my point, which is that we can never determine whether Tom’s criteria are met.

              Or, alternately, if we argue that the critera are relative to our understanding at a given time, magnetism really was “supernatural” prior to our understanding of electromagnetism — not that it seemed to be, but, according to the criteria, really was. That alternative seems…problematic.

              • Bernard Ortcutt
                Posted October 24, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

                No, magnetism was never supernatural. The actual fact of the matter is independent of our beliefs on the subject, although Kuhnians and other Social Constructivists make that mistake. All of this only has to do with the question of what we should provisionally believe. We would never and should never reject provisional naturalism lightly, just as we wouldn’t overturn relativity theory on the basis of one very complicated and ambiguous neutrino measurement, but adequate, persistent evidence meeting Tom Clark’s criteria should lead us to be provisional supernaturalists. But as I said, that isn’t an excuse to stop inquiry.

                Maybe the point is that the belief that something is supernatural would be so corrosive to inquiry that it is self-defeating. It is better for me to believe that something is natural and that I just don’t understand it because that is a belief that is more consistent with inquiry. I just don’t see the problem there. I think it’s possible to simultaneously believe that something is supernatural and believe that I might be wrong and should therefore continue my inquiry.

              • Tulse
                Posted October 24, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

                No, magnetism was never supernatural. The actual fact of the matter is independent of our beliefs on the subject

                Right, but we can never know if our beliefs are fully concordant with reality or not — there is always more to find out epistemically. Which is why basing criteria for the supernatural on our current understanding is problematic, as I suggested above.

            • Posted October 24, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

              Bernard:

              “The only mistake would be if we encountered something that seemed supernatural and gave up on inquiry.”

              Agreed, it’s always a matter of further inquiry to see whether a particular phenomenon eventually falls to naturalization. Seems to me neither the naturalist or supernaturalist can say with absolute certainty that their worldview is *necessarily* true, no matter what observations might come along. However, if you stick with empiricism as your way of deciding what’s the case, at the moment all the evidence is on the side of the naturalist and there’s no reason I know of to suppose this will change.

              • AlT
                Posted October 24, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

                >>>if you stick with empiricism as your way of deciding what’s the case, at the moment all the evidence is on the side of the naturalist and there’s no reason I know of to suppose this will change.
                <<<

                this is why "continue inquiry" does not make sense

                inquiry of "what"?

                if our brains are made up of matter and our higher order thinking (deliberative capability) therefor is the property of matter why would we bother with something that points to the substance we _know_ is outside of our operational domain?

                it is all about language

                the fact that we can construct the word "super-natural" does not mean it points to substance that exists

                since the nature of that substance in not definable it is in our benefit not to employ the language like "super-natural" etc

                we only confuse ourselves wifor nothing: we do not learn anything and an oportunity cost of wallowing in goo inside our brains and on a societal level is huge: we still running democracy and capitalism that we already know is unsustainable in the long run

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted October 24, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          Tom, your criterion #3 would seem to imply that any hypothetical supernatural agents must by definition remain forever ignorant of the existence of the natural world, since no natural cause can impinge on them in any way.

          I have to say this doesn’t sound like any conception of the supernatural I’ve ever heard of; in particular, while it’s conceivable that a supernatural god of this sort might unwittingly create a natural universe as an unintended side effect of its supernatural activity, such a god could by definition have no awareness of or interest in the fate of that natural universe or its inhabitants. So I’m not sure on what basis you characterize this as “a commonsense understanding of supernatural”.

          If there is to be genuine interaction and mutual awareness between the natural and the supernatural, then causality must run both ways, which would seem to erase the distinction you’re trying to establish.

          • Posted October 24, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

            “Tom, your criterion #3 would seem to imply that any hypothetical supernatural agents must by definition remain forever ignorant of the existence of the natural world, since no natural cause can impinge on them in any way.”

            Good point, I should have been clearer about what I meant by saying that the supernatural is not at the effect of the natural. I think it’s part of the commonsense definition of the supernatural (at least of supernatural agents) that they have powers over the natural world that merely natural agents can’t exert in response. So although there might be causal interaction both ways as you point out, there’s an asymmetry in exerting control.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted October 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

              I’m not sure I see the distinction between “control” and “causal interaction”. If prayers are heard and answered, if souls can retain memories of their embodied lives, then natural processes exert some degree of control over supernatural entities.

              If you mean simply that supernatural agents are thought to be more powerful than natural agents, in the sense of wielding greater energies or more subtle physical effects, see Clarke’s Law.

            • Kharamatha
              Posted October 25, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

              I have powers over bisquits that they can’t exert in response.

        • Nick(Matzke)
          Posted October 24, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          I actually think that simple definitions like “a supernatural event is one which violates of the laws of thermodynamics” work extremely well. E.g., if your explanation violate the conservation of mass/energy, it’s a supernatural explanation. If you violate conservation of mass/energy, it literally becomes true that 1 + 1 does not necessarily equal 2, when you are talking about objects instead of abstract math.

          I suppose it is possible that a creative philosopher can imagine some highly contrived counterfactual situation in which mass/energy conservation violations are routine and they then get taken as natural law, but I’m dubious about this entire philosophical procedure of winning arguments by imagining highly contrived counterfactuals. I suspect you could “prove” *anything* what way. E.g. “Imagine if logic didn’t work.” “Imagine if evidence always pointed to the wrong explanation”. Blah blah blah, this sort of argument doesn’t really clarify anything.

          • Posted October 24, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

            No need to get exotic.

            At a human scale, doubling the force of your rocket engine doubles the acceleration. But if you’re going a significant fraction of the speed of light, doubling the force of your engine doesn’t make you go anywhere near twice as fast.

            Lacking the “highly contrived counterfactual” knowledge Einstein gave us of that situation, you’d have every right to call that a violation of the law of conservation and declare particle accelerators to be supernatural, possibly invoking an angry Jesus blowing hard the opposite direction on your accelerator as the requisite supernatural explanation.

            The laws of conservation are essentially an expression of the symmetric nature of the universe. One can easily imagine asymmetric universes in which conservation isn’t applicable. Indeed, life on Earth is itself a perfect example, what with that bright yellow thing overhead asymmetrically suppling us with all that’s necessary to turn a tiny seed into a giant redwood.

            One can question where an all-encompassing definition of “universe” (such as Sagan’s Cosmos) can logically be asymmetric, but one can also use the same logic that Turing used to prove the Halting Problem to prove that we can never know whether what we perceive as the all of everything really is, or if there’s still something more outside.

            Cheers,

            b&

      • Jim Mauch
        Posted October 24, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

        In addition to the fact that a supernatural event that is measurable in the real world would then cease existing as supernatural we would now no longer be obligated to pray and sacrifice our virgins to its creator.

    • Posted October 24, 2011 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      What he said. It’s simple. If you can demonstrate it, it’s natural.

      • Sigmund
        Posted October 24, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        I think that is the dilemma. Evidence of supernaturalism produced as evidence for ‘God’ (the traditional God) could simply be evidence of a superior technology.

        • daveau
          Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

          As several others have pointed out, there can’t be evidence of supernaturalism. Once there’s evidence, I would assume a natural cause, then a superior technology, before I would assume God. I’m agreeing with you, it’s just that the whole language thing becomes tricky.

          • Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

            “there can’t be evidence of supernaturalism”

            Not sure about this, see my comment above to Lurker111. More along these lines at http://www.naturalism.org/Close_encounters.htm

            Also note that the title of Boudry’s second chapter of his dissertation is “Grist to the mill of intelligent design creationism: the failed strategy of ruling the supernatural out of science a priori.”

            I assume this will be a book at some point, quite the tome!

            https://sites.google.com/site/maartenboudry/teksten-1/Doctoraat%28FINAAL%29.pdf?attredirects=0&d=1

            • daveau
              Posted October 24, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

              I don’t see naturalism as a limitation. For the supernatural to exist, as far as we are concerned, it would have to interact with us somehow. Apparitions, visions, voices, moving objects, a “feeling”, are all forms of interaction, and should, therefore, be testable and ultimately explainable. Just because we can’t immediately provide an explanation does not mean that the phenomenon does not have a natural cause, even something previously considered to be in the realm of the supernatural. The nanosecond something interacts with the natural world, it becomes, by definition, a natural phenomenon, and subject to scientific inquiry. If you wish to entertain the notion that all kinds of supernatural things could exist without interacting with the natural world, well, that’s just irrelevant.

              • Posted October 24, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

                “Just because we can’t immediately provide an explanation does not mean that the phenomenon does not have a natural cause, even something previously considered to be in the realm of the supernatural.”

                Agreed. Supernaturalism is a defeasible hypothesis about the world, if one is an empiricist.

                “The nanosecond something interacts with the natural world, it becomes, by definition, a natural phenomenon, and subject to scientific inquiry.”

                Supernatural agents are often thought to interact with the natural world, but to be causally privileged over it, so I’m not sure that interaction with the natural world by definition makes something natural. But of course we can try to investigate any observed phenomenon using the methods of science and see if we can naturalize it. So far, naturalization has been the fate of all supposedly supernatural phenomena.

              • daveau
                Posted October 24, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

                And I’m not sure that you can say anything regarding causal privilege for the supernatural that isn’t pure speculation.

                If it interacts with the natural world, the interaction has a natural component, and can be measured. Maybe I overstepped a tiny bit, but the point still stands. How about “almost by definition”?

                I will have to take the time to read your link instead of just skimming it. But he says at the beginning of chapter two that any attempt to reconcile Science and Religion is doomed to failure. (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

      • dunstar
        Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        Yes I agree. I’m not at all sure if there can be any evidence for the supernatural because by definition, once it can be demonstrated then we have evidence for whatever it is and it is natural.

  4. Bernard Ortcutt
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    This does highlight what is specifically wrong with religious dogma and faith. It’s not that religious dogma and faith are beliefs. Beliefs are a totally normal part of being a human or any other agent. Atheists, naturalists and scientists have beliefs. That doesn’t make atheism or naturalism “faiths” or “another religion”. The problem with religious dogma is that it is incorrigible rather than provisional. The problems with faith are two-fold in that it is incorrigible and it deliberately violates the epistemic obligation that a belief have evidence.

  5. Peter Hoffman
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Boudry’s thesis looks extremely interesting. I only leafed through the main part (so far), and would especially recommend to readers the conclusion of roughly ten pages, which I did read a couple of times. In particular, one initially gets the impression of Boudry supporting Larry Laudan’s dismissal of the reality of the so-called demarcation problem between science and pseudoscience (especially the example of intelligent design in this thesis). However, the conclusion makes it clear that the opposite, if anything, is the case (and that is more congenial to my, admittedly somewhat superficial, attitude.

  6. Egbert
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    The definition of ‘natural’ seems somewhat of a tautology with whatever is detected by the senses. Therefore, whatever is detected is natural, including supernatural events that are detected by the senses.

    The definition of ‘natural’ seems required beforehand before practicing methodological naturalism, unless we prefer the term scientific scepticism. Again, then whatever is discovered by science must be natural.

    Thus, if the definition ‘supernaturalism’ means outside of the natural, then it must be also outside of science.

    So I can’t see how supernaturalism can ever be resolved by science, unless we change the meaning of science. Supernaturalism must fall outside of science, by definition.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 24, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      The problem with “Supernaturalism must fall outside of science, by definition” is that it is a theological claim of NOMA. Good for agnostics or philosophers, not so useful for atheists or empiricists.

      We must look at the empiricism here instead, as dragging in “science” implies.

      First, there is nothing tautological in physics. What we can observe, but didn’t have to, is that it is a physicalist monism.

      Second, the claim that there is a supernatural sector is ultimately a claim that there is a qualitative difference that constitutes a dualism (creator agents, miracles, souls, et cetera). For instance, none of those obey physicalist energy conservation, instead they break it.

      So observable, and by now invalid.

      • Egbert
        Posted October 24, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        I don’t believe NOMA is theological, but epistemological. It’s the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. What I disagree about NOMA is the silly idea that religion has anything to do with morality.

        NOMA can be understood philosophically as the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ in the case of ethical judgments, but can also apply to the difference between all concepts or values and objective facts. Naturalism is limited to the world of facts and objectivity.

        Philosophy or scepticism are not limited by this separation, and so philosophy still has plenty of life left.

  7. AdamK
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    The distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” seems to me to be close to the distinction between “real” and “imaginary”. Are specific imaginary entities subject to scientific investigation? Can you test the distiction between the characteristics of a banshee and an ordinary sidhe? (I don’t mean a study of Irish folklore here–that’s opinion and anecdote.)

    It seems to me there’s a point when it’s fine to simply shrug off imaginary nonsense without reference to detailed philosophical reasoning. Common sense can work wonders. A rule of thumb like “there’s no mind without a physical substrate” lets you rule out gods, demons, angels, fairies, ghosts, spirits, souls, and a whole host of other imaginary invisible intelligences.

    Humans are capable of imagining all sorts of wonderful stuff. We should take delight in it and enjoy it thoroughly, and not need to investigate every bump in the night to see if it’s an alien kidnapper.

    • Posted October 24, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      A rule of thumb like “there’s no mind without a physical substrate” lets you rule out gods, demons, angels, fairies, ghosts, spirits, souls, and a whole host of other imaginary invisible intelligences.

      While I would most certainly agree with you that there are no non-corporeal minds, I would vigorously object to the notion that that’s something we should simply take for granted.

      Indeed, not taking it for granted is what’s led to some of the most fascinating work in information theory, especially the work of Claude Shannon. Alan Turing’s most brilliant insights only could have come about by imagining what would happen were it not the case and extrapolating the consequences. Even thermodynamics gets into the act — Maxwell’s Demon is a wonderful example of how one could build a perpetual motion machine out of an immaterial mind.

      Had we simply adopted a “rule of thumb” such as you describe, none of that would be anywhere near as well understood as it is today.

      Cheers,

      b&

  8. Posted October 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    ( subscribing )

  9. DV
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    supernatural is anything that violates known natural laws. this must be a provisional definition. if the set of natural laws eventually include an explanation of the phenomenon, then it ceases to be supernatural. This means of course that we can’t be absolutely certain that something that looks supernatural now may not turn out to be natural in the future. However this doesn’t render all supernatural claims valid. We can still rule out claims of supernatural phenomenon by probability or by logical inconsistency. As Dawkins has argued, our inability to absolutely rule-out the existence of God, doesn’t mean its probability of existence is on par with its probability of non-existence.

    • Posted October 24, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      That’s not a very useful definition, I’m afraid. Prior to Einstein, Mercury’s orbit was supernatural. If the CERN superluminal neutrino experiment can be repeated, superluminal neutrinos will be superluminal, but only until we figure out what’s going on (if we ever do).

      I don’t think anybody in the 19th century would have described Mercury’s orbit as supernatural (aside from the usual kookery suspects, of course), and nobody today would describe neutrinos as supernatural (again, same caveat), yet both fit your definition.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted October 24, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        No, prior to Einstein, Mercury’s orbit was not supernatural (by DV’s definition). It was anomalous, but it didn’t violate Newtonian gravitation. Explanations of the anomaly were quite natural; for example, that there was another, as-yet-unobserved planet (Vulcan) closer to the Sun that was perturbing Mercury’s orbit.

        I think we need to take care to distinguish between what cannot be explained by current scientific models/theories/laws – that is, putative new natural phenomena (such as general relativity) — and what truly violates those models/theories/laws – putative supernatural phenomena.

        In the first comment, Ben, you said, “Every definition I’ve ever come across reduces … to what I like to call the ‘paranormal,’ that which is unlikely but not impossible, …” But what do your preferences have to do with it? 😉 Someone else might say, “Every definition of ‘paranormal’ I’ve every come across reduces … to what I’d like to call the ‘supernatural’…”!

        Is there a really meaningful or useful distinction between the two?

        paranormal |parəˈnɔːm(ə)l|
        adjective
        denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding

        supernatural |ˌsuːpəˈnatʃ(ə)r(ə)l| |ˌsjuː-|
        adjective
        (of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature

        I suspect that “paranormal” was coined only to distinguish those “supernatural” phenomena that were fit for serious scientific study. (That is, “supernatural” is, maybe, a superset of “paranormal”.)

        Hmm… perhaps a real difference lies in that “paranormal” things are testable and falsifiable — that is, which can be tested scientifically — whereas (other) “supernatural” things aren’t… That would give you a much narrower definition of the (non-paranormal) supernatural — things which are not necessarily logically impossible — and a fairly broad definition of paranormal that would include many things that most people would call supernatural.

        /@

        • Posted October 24, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

          *ever come across

        • Posted October 25, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

          No, prior to Einstein, Mercury’s orbit was not supernatural (by DV’s definition). It was anomalous, but it didn’t violate Newtonian gravitation.

          How is “anomalous” not synonymous with a violation of the associated principle?

          Is a human walking on water a mere anomaly or does it violate the principle of the relative strengths of surface tension and gravity?

          b&

          • Posted October 27, 2011 at 2:46 am | Permalink

            I hope you’re playing devil’s advocate, Ben, because this strikes me as disingenuous otherwise… 

            You know that there’s a clear difference between something that’s an anomaly (oddity, peculiarity, abnormality, irregularity, inconsistency, incongruity, aberration, quirk, rarity) and something that violates (contravenes, breaches, infringes, breaks, transgresses, oversteps, disobeys, defies, flouts; disregards, ignores, tramples on) something.

            We know that scientific laws/models/theories are continually refined, so a small anomaly – like the perihelion precession of Mercury (a 0.86% discrepancy) or, say, horizontal gene transfer – doesn’t violate the theory – Mercury still orbits the Sun in a way that’s consistent with the principles of Newtonian gravitation, organisms showing HGT are still subject to evolution by natural selection.

            Had Mercury shown a gross difference from the behaviour expected of a planet – a rectilinear orbit? – that would have been a violation evincing something supernatural.

            Your example of walking on water? Also a gross difference and thus supernatural. (Assuming we’d ruled out errors of observation – see Judas, My Brother – and artificial aids such as large, buoyant sandals.)

            /@

            • Posted October 28, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

              I hope you’re playing devil’s advocate, Ben, because this strikes me as disingenuous otherwise…

              I’m completely serious.

              Your definition comes down to one of degree, but such a distinction is meaningless. What if, instead of walking on water, you can wade through the ocean, never getting more than waist-deep? Would that be paranormal as opposed to supernatural? How about if you can’t wade, but you can keep your depth to no more than 20 feet, and you’ve got a 30-foot pipe you can breath through? Does that then become paranormal?

              With Newton but without Relativity, the 0.86% discrepancy in Mercury’s orbit is as shocking as a square one. If MIT developed a new substance that, when dropped in a vacuum chamber, fell at 99.14% the speed it should have, that would revolutionize physics as much as if it developed one that flew upwards. Once you encounter something unexplainable, it doesn’t matter how similar it is to something you’ve encountered before — it still remains unexplainable.

              So, I stand firm: the paranormal is as-yet unexplained bizarre shit that could be real but isn’t something worth betting much on, and “supernatural” is a perfect synonym for “impossible.”

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted October 28, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

                Well, no, it isn’t just a matter of degree.

                And I’m not arguing paranormal v. supernatural, but natural v. supernatural.

                Re Mercury, that small discrepancy is nowhere near as shocking as a square one (funnily, I was imagining a triangular one earlier). You can imagine a correction to Newton, a refinement, that explains it. As, indeed, Einstein did. But its elliptical orbit is still largely consistent with Newton. A square (or triangular) orbit, with gravitational forces acting on the planet only at the vertices (or some arbitrary force neutralising gravity except at the vertices) and then in a way that provides instantaneous deceleration in one direction and instantaneous acceleration in a perpendicular (or obtuse) direction (that is, infinite forces). And in a way that doesn’t distort other planetary motion in the solar system (beyond the perturbations of Mercury’s odd orbit.) That is truly a violation of Newton (and more!) and with a vanishingly small chance of having a natural explanation.

                If that material that fell with an acceleration of 0.9914·g was found, yes it would revolutionise physics. As would a material that flew upwards… (The former material presumably contains 0.43% of the latter… “But where does M. Wells get his ‘cavourite’, let him show me that!” — Jules Verne.) Of course, some cosmologists think we already have found such a “material” with negative gravity in dark energy. But neither is suggestive of something supernatural. Now, if the material flew sideways… 

                /@

              • Posted October 28, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

                Let me try a different tact.

                A phenomenon can be explainable or not. Our model of the phenomenon can be precise or not.

                It is the overwhelming conclusion of human experience that all phenomena are explainable. As Sean Carroll has observed, the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood.

                If there were to be a reproducible observation of something that does not fit into that understanding (or of the expanded version that includes quantum and relativistic phenomena), that would be cause to revise our understandings — it would not be cause to slap the “supernatural” label on it.

                It matters not the degree of deviation from our understanding. It could be neutrinos arriving at their destination a gnat’s sneeze sooner than a photon would or it could be Jupiter doing the rhumba with Uranus or it could be 700-foot-tall Space Jesus restoring the limbs of Christian amputees. The proper response is, “Gee, that’s odd.”

                Calling it “supernatural” is as pointless as calling it a miracle. The question is not, “What’s the metaphysical nature of what I see before me?” Rather, it’s, “What’s going on here?”

                And that’s the real difference between both the natural and the supernatural and science and religion.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Bryan
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

                Ant Allan, are *you* serious? An irregularity in the orbit of a planet or a material that is repelled by gravity, rather than attracted by it, is *not* supernatural, but a material that “flew sideways” would be supernatural? I have to agree with Ben Goren on this one.

              • Posted October 29, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

                @ Bryan

                Yep.

                I take it you’re not suggesting that an irregularity in the orbit of a planet or a material that is repelled by gravity, rather than attracted by it, cannot be natural…?

                But a material that “flew sideways” under the influence of gravity (and no other forces; e.g., no superconducting magnet to wrench an iron mass towards it) … could that be natural?

                Honestly, I don’t think so. Because… well, let me reply… 

                @ Ben

                A different tact? Hmm…

                Well, yes, I”m familiar with Sean’s article. But, if, indeed, the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood, the corollary is that we know, with a high degree of certainty, what cannot happen … according to the laws underlying the physics of everyday life.

                If you assert that something that happens in the context of everyday life (that is, not at extreme scales) but which violates those laws can still be natural, then I can only say that the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are not completely understood! Oh, but we just agreed that they are… therefore, it can only be supernatural…

                No?

                Take a look at “Realism and Religion : A Physicist Examines the Basis for Belief” by Milton Rothman:

                … Is the claim plausible according to the standard model of particle physics, the principle of relativity, the theory of gravitation, and the rest of verified knowledge? For example, does a proposed machine require the expenditure of energy without an energy source? Then it cannot happen. Does ESP require that information travels faster than the speed of light? Then it cannot happen. Does a UFO defy gravity and hang suspended high in the air with no visible means of support? Then it cannot happen.

                These are not arbitrary or a priori judgements. The experiments that establish the general laws have already been done. You do not have to repeat the experiments for special cases of ESP and UFOs. General laws that apply to everything in the world also must apply to the particular cases of ESP and UFOs. (Those who object to this statement may refute it by proving the existence of objects or events in the universe that do not follow regular and general laws of nature.)

                But, if something that cannot happen (naturally) nevertheless does happen — and thus violates the regular and general laws of nature that have been established — then it can only be supernatural.

                No?

                Later in the article, Milton nature’s indifference to what humans think:

                … consider that there are at least eleven ways of writing equations describing the motion of a baseball or a planet. (Hamilton’s equations, Lagrange’s equations, Maupertuis’ law of least action, etc.) These equations are all equivalent to Newton’s second law of motion, but each is different in structure from the others. However, there is only one reality that these several equations describe.

                If there were to be a reproducible observation of something that does not fit the description of reality provided by our scientific laws, theories, and models, then, yes, that would be cause to revise and expand that description, by refining, modifying or enlarging those laws. And of course, that’s exactly what happens. Mercury’s anomalous orbit required a change to the Newtonian model, which Einstein’s general relativity provided.

                The Newtonian model wasn’t discarded, but kept as a first approximation to general relativity that’s more than good enough for everyday life (ignoring GPS). The Newton model wasn’t violated. Nor could it be, by anything natural, as the reality it describes is still the reality it describes and the description remains valid for certain scales and masses. It remains unsafe to take small children onto the roofs of tall buildings (as Labi Siffre once reminded me).

                I doubt that Jupiter would do a rhumba with Uranus and, although I’m not sure we’ve been through all possible orbital permutations of the planets since astronomical observations began, absent an external perturbation it’s remote in the extreme (and can be rationally discounted) that there’s anything that would cause them to behave in a way contrary to their past behaviour that’s fully described by current models. (But we do see two of the satellites of Saturn waltzing from time to time! And of course, that can be explained, quite naturally, by their gravitational interaction.)

                It’s not clear what laws would be violated by a 700-foot-tall Space Jesus, but restoring the limbs of amputees… well, that depends how it’s done. See my response to jose, below.

                In one of his follow on articles, Sean says:

                What there won’t be [in the next 1000 years] is some dramatic paradigm shift that says “Oops, sorry about those electrons and protons and neutrons, we found that they don’t really exist. Now it’s zylbots all the way down.” Nor will we have discovered new fundamental particles and forces that are crucial to telling the story of everyday phenomena. If those existed, we would have found them by now. The view of electrons and protons and neutrons interacting through the Standard Model and gravity will stay with us forever — added to and better understood, but never replaced or drastically modified.

                So, if we see something that violates this model — some everyday object or substance that is comprised only of zylbots, say – then I think that’d be a pretty good reason to slap the “supernatural” label on it.

                No?

                /@

                PS. It seems odd that folks here address me by my full name; “Ant” alone is just fine. Or “Dr. Allan” if you feel some formality is warranted. 😉

              • Bryan
                Posted October 30, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

                “But, if something that cannot happen (naturally) nevertheless does happen — and thus violates the regular and general laws of nature that have been established — then it can only be supernatural.”

                So, Ant, is your proposed definition of supernatural “that which cannot happen but nevertheless does happen”? I’ll stand by my original assertaion that I have not yet seen a coherent definition of “supernatural”.

              • Posted October 30, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

                Not quite… Rather (and I pretty musch say this verbatim above), “that which cannot happen (naturally) but nevertheless does happen”.

                I think that that (or any equivalent statement) is the only possible coherent definition.

                For a philosophical naturalist, the implication is clear, I think.

                /@

              • Posted October 30, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

                *much

              • Bryan
                Posted October 30, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

                Ant, thanks for responding. Let me try again to reword your definition of “supernatural”:

                “That which exists, but is not natural.”

                To the extent that this definition is at all meaningful, which I don’t think it is, I can’t imagine any standard of evidence and evaluation thereof that could reliably differentiate between the “natural” and the “not”.

                Separately, I don’t think I understand what you meant by “For a philosophical naturalist, the implication is clear, I think.” Are you simply saying that, for a philosophical naturalist like me, the supernatural is, *by definition*, “a perfect synonym for impossible”?

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

                Working backwards …

                Close.

                I don’t think that “the supernatural is, *by definition*, ‘a perfect synonym for impossible’?” From a philosophically naturalistic (PN) pov, supernatural ⇒ impossible, but impossible ⇏ supernatural. (If it was a perfect synonym supernatural ⇔ impossible.)

                Now… “supernatural : that which exists, but is not natural”

                Yes, I think I can agree with that.

                From a PN pov, everything that exists is natural and, as above, the supernatural is impossible. Essentially, this is the definition of PN!

                So, to accept that there can be something distinct to which the label supernatural applies, we have to suspend PN, and allow that things that are not natural can nevertheless exist.

                If it exists we can perceive its existence, then we must be able to evaluate evidence for it. (The notion that being able to evaluate evidence means that something is natural is grounded in PN, but we’ve suspended that by allowing that there can something labelled supernatural.) If there is some quotidian terrestrial material composed of zylbots, we must have a means to determine that it isn’t composed of protons, neutrons and electrons.

                With, PN suspended, natural means everything that fits within the laws, theories, and models that have been established by science (broadly defined) or contiguous extensions of them (as GR extended Newtonian gravitation), and supernatural means anything which violates, contradicts, or is otherwise runs counter to those laws, theories, and models.

                So, this is a philosophical thought experiment of the kinds that Al West might like. I think the conceptual problems one might have with it stem from PN intuitions (which are right, of course, but which you have to let go of as soon as you allow the possibility of the supernatural).

                /@

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:13 am | Permalink

                *If it exists and we can perceive its existence, … 

                *of the kind that

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:14 am | Permalink

                *or otherwise runs counter to those laws [no “is”]

  10. Posted October 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    The mulitverse (if there is one) would be supernatural , would it not? Whatever existed out there would not be constrained by naturalism.

    NB, I am NOT suggesting that “God” exists out there in the multiverse. We’re just doing definitions here.

    • Posted October 24, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      Um, no.

      The various flavours of multiverse (which might be contiguous), while highly speculative, are grounded in naturalistic physics and cosmology. Arguably, the hypotheses are not entirely falsifiable or empirically distinguishable, so they might not be properly scientific. But they’re still “natural”!

      /@

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        To flesh this out, the popular sci fi trope of “alternate dimensions” often involves realms beyond this world in which supernatural stuff like ghosts or magic.

        This is contrasted with a few different esoteric physical theories: (1) the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, (2) the inflationary multiverse model advocated by, e.g., physicist Sean Carroll, and (3) various string theories and quantum field theories that involve either extra dimensions that are too curled up to be relevant at macro scale or involve the whole universe being embedded in a larger, higher-dimensional universe that might itself contain other universes besides ours (so a sort of multiverse).

        Under (1), all the alternate worlds have identical laws of physics but indeterminate quantum events have different outcomes in different universes: there is one universe in which slightly more than half of your radioactive sample decayed in one half-life and one in which slightly less than half decayed in one half-life. Under (2), the basic outlines of the laws of nature would be consistent from universe to universe — they’d probably all have gravity and electromagnetism — but the fundamental constants might differ, so gravity might be stronger in one universe than in another. I’m not as sure about (3), but I think it would be similar to (2) in which the same basic laws apply but perhaps with different weights than for us.

        Real physicists or amateurs more committed than myself, please correct as needed.

        • Posted October 28, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

          I think (1) and (2) are the only “real” multiverses — and might actually be different views of the same underlying physics.

          (3) is how our universe is and is likely a subset of (2). There’s no other universe within those curled-up dimensions — they give rise to gravity, electroweak and strong forces. But in other universes within (2), the dimensions may curl up in different ways, actually giving rise to different sets of forces – as Sean says (in the link above), “they can have different particles, different forces, even different numbers of dimensions” — so, actually, we needn’t expect those universes to have gravity and electromagnetism at all!

          I’m a real but stale physicist — my Ph.D. is 25 years old and I haven’t practiced since. I’m relying on my understanding of Carroll, Brian Greene, David Deutsch, et al. Maybe an active physicist like Torbjörn could chip in…

          /@

          • Posted October 28, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

            Hmm… manifestations rather than views.

  11. Kharamatha
    Posted October 25, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I suppose we could keep calling something “supernatural” even after we flesh it out. But I don’t think I would be inclined to do so.

    Fucking magnets.

  12. jose
    Posted October 25, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Everything that happens in nature is natural. Duh. If it violates the laws of physics, it just means we had to adjust the laws of physics. People seem to forget we invented those laws to describe stuff. They were not given to us as eternal presents by the Elders of the Universe or anything. Newton looked at the planets and came up with a formula. If tomorrow I throw a stone and it doesn’t fall but keeps flying around, we’ll need another formula, that’s all.

    If tomorrow a paralyzed person with cancer and no arms and no legs goes to a church and prays and suddenly he’s fine, no cancer, no paralysis, yes arms and legs, science can’t say it was a supernatural event. All science can say is “I have no idea how this happened and I can’t figure this problem out for now”. Saying God Did It is religion, not science. If those things start to happen regularly, then it will be time to accept religion as a method that works and abandon science, since we could just ask the Creator instead of bothering researching stuff that might turn out to be supernatural as well.

    The moment you consider something as a miracle, you’re admitting the issue doesn’t admit explanation and the only thing left to do is to thank God for his gifts and pray.

    • Yonatan Fishman
      Posted October 25, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

      For what it’s worth, a few years ago I wrote a paper on this topic which broadly agrees with Dr. Boudry’s thesis. The paper was originally published in a special issue of the journal Science & Education and later as a chapter in the book Science, Worldviews, and Education (Springer). Tom Clark has kindly made it available at his website.

      Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?

      http://centerfornaturalism.blogspot.com/2007/09/science-and-supernatural.html

      http://www.naturalism.org/Can%20Science%20Test%20Supernatural%20Worldviews-%20Final%20Author's%20Copy%20(Fishman%202007).pdf

    • Posted October 28, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      If tomorrow a paralyzed person with cancer and no arms and no legs goes to a church and prays and suddenly he’s fine, no cancer, no paralysis, yes arms and legs, science can’t say it was a supernatural event.

      Well, let’s think about those arms and legs. Suddenly yes, arms and legs. Where did they come from? How were all internal structures formed? How did they mesh with the person’s body? How do they survive the trauma? (It seems reasonable to think that suddenly having limbs would be as traumatic as suddenly losing them.) More fundamentally, where did the matter come from?

      We know how limbs can grow back. It happens in salamanders, for example. So, if someone’s limbs regrew, well, it would be astonishing, but it could have a perfectly natural explanation — salamander gene therapy for example. (We recently heard that retinal damage can be repaired in this way. So other kinds of regeneration aren’t too much of a stretch.)

      We could even imagine those limbs being “knitted” for the person using some advanced technology. (I’m thinking here of Leeloo in The Fifth Element!)

      But to have the limbs appear fully formed, instantaneously. No. The chances of a natural explanation for that are vanishingly small.

      Yes, we invented scientific laws/theories/models to describe stuff; nature behaves as it behaves. As I’ve said often before, no electron solves Schrödinger’s equation. And as we find new evidence and encounter new phenomena, those models will undoubtedly be modified or turn out to be a special case of another more general model (as Newtonian gravity is still a perfectly useful approximation of general relativity for most quotidian purposes — GPS being the oft-cited exception). But the likelihood that something acts contrary to those models in the regime where those models have been well established is remote in the extreme and can be rationally discounted, such that if it does happen it’s a pretty good candidate for the supernatural.

      As PZ Myers has said, for example, the theory of evolution is so well established that any new discovery would result only in “evolution+”: thus, something that overturned everything we know about evolution and what it predicts would likely be supernatural. Pre-Cambrian kittehs, for example.

      Flying stones? Why not? But flying stones that accelerate without the action of a force… ? It’s not going to happen. Naturally.

      /@


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