Monday, February 01, 2010

Methodological Naturalism

Here's the abstract from a talk given by Maarten Boudry at the Darwin Conference in Toronto last November (see Good News from Gent).
Maarten Boudry, Ghent University
Methodological Naturalism as an Intrinsic Property of Science: A Grist to the Mill of Intelligent Design Theory

In recent rounds of debate between evolutionists and supporters of Intelligent Design, the principle of methodological naturalism (MN) has been an important battleground. Creationists and intelligent design proponents have previously claimed that the commitment of evolutionists to naturalism and materialism constitutes a philosophical prejudice on their side, because it rules out any kind of supernatural causes by fiat. In response to these charges, some philosophers and scientists have argued that science is only committed to something they call methodological naturalism: Science does not deal with supernatural causes and explanations, but that does not mean that the latter do not exist. However, there has been some philosophical discussion about the correct understanding of MN. The principle of MN is often conceived of as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic MN or IMN) - which is defended by people like Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse and Robert Pennock and has been adopted in the ruling of Judge John E. Jones III in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case - science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue. It is clear that this depiction of science and MN offers some perspectives for reconciling science and religion. Not surprisingly, IMN is often embraced by those sympathetic to religion, or by those who wish to alleviate the sometimes heated opposition between the two.

However, we will argue that this view of MN does not offer a sound rationale for the rejection of supernatural explanations. Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded commitment of scientists to naturalistic causes and explanations, which is in principle revocable by future scientific findings (Qualified MN or QMN). In this view, MN is justified as a methodological guideline by virtue of the dividends of naturalistic explanation and the consistent failure of supernatural explanations in the history of science.

We will discuss and reject four arguments in favour of IMN: the argument from the definition of science, the argument from lawful regularity, the science stopper argument, and the argument from procedural necessity. Moreover, we will argue that defining the supernatural out of science is a counterproductive strategy against ID creationism, and, for that matter, against any theory involving supernatural explanations. More specifically, IMN has been eagerly exploited by proponents of ID to bolster their false claims about the philosophical and metaphysical prejudices of evolutionists. As ID proponent Philip Johnson rhetorically noted, if science is about following the evidence wherever it leads, why should scientists exclude a priori the possibility of discovering evidence for the supernatural? Therefore, IMN is actually grist to the ID mill.
We conclude that IMN is philosophically artificial and that its attempt to reconcile science and religion is ill-conceived. QMN, alas, does not provide any such ready reconciliation either, but it does offer a sound rationale for the rejection of supernatural designers in modern science.
Here's the problem. You can't just arbitrarily restrict science to methodological naturalism. That's like ruling out supernatural explanations by fiat and not by logic. If God exists, then there's no reason why supernatural explanations can't be a legitimate part of science. This is one of the arguments made by Philip Johnson and it hasn't been adequately addressed by most philosophers.

But there's another problem with using methodological naturalism as a defense of accommodationism. How do draw the line between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism? Obviously, there's no difference for an atheist; in fact, the distinction seems rather silly. If supernatural explanations are never found to be necessary in explaining the natural world then doesn't it make sense to conclude that fairies and Santa Claus don't exist?

But for theists it's important to make a distinction so that they can adhere to methodological naturalism as scientists without having to abandon their belief in supernatural beings outside of the laboratory.

Where is the boundary and how do you tell when the line has been crossed? Accommodationists are absolutely convinced that they can tell the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism but they are never very clear about explaining this difference to others.

Here's your chance. Let's see if anyone can come up with a good way of telling when the practice of methodological naturalism becomes philosophical naturalism.


43 comments :

  1. Larry,

    You fail to understand that not everything is science. Math, ethics, aesthetics, logic, those are not science.

    You definitely conflate science with scientism. That's epistemology 101.

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  2. Could it be as simple a distinction as the following?

    METHODOLOGICAL NATURALISM: not looking for anything other than natural causes in experiments.

    PHILOSOPHICAL NATURALISM: assuming in principle that the things naturalistic methods cannot study aren't real.

    There would be no difference in what happens in a lab, for instance, but that is the whole point.

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  3. The biggest issue is that we don't have a rigorous, precise and most of all consistent, definition of any sort of "naturalism", methodological, intrinsic, qualified or otherwise.

    There are at least three definitions I'm aware of. (I've applied entirely ad hoc, arbitrary labels.)

    1: Nonteleological Naturalism: the universe is fundamentally not intelligent, sentient or conscious.

    2: Internal Naturalism: all scientific explanations should reference causes "inside" the universe.

    3: Epistemic Naturalism: science can only establish empirically falsifiable explanations by trying and failing to falsify them.

    It's tough to pin them down, but its my understanding that theists typically define "supernaturalism" as contravening all three definitions: God is a teleological being, outside the (physical) universe, who cannot be explained or described using empirical falsification.

    Nonteleological naturalism is fuzzy; we don't understand teleology very well. Furthermore, if we provisionally define "teleology" as "the sort of thing that human beings do (whatever that might happen to be)" it's fairly obvious that teleology is operative within the physical universe. It is both unjustified and unnecessary to assume the universe is fundamentally nonteleological; we can instead draw conclusions about fundamental teleology or nonteleology from empirical evidence.

    Internal Naturalism is in one sense incoherent: one definition of "universe" is "everything that exists"; if a god exists, it is by definition part of the universe or the universe itself.

    Adding a qualifier and talking about just the "physical" universe doesn't help much: what precisely does one mean by "physical" in this context? Furthermore, even if we could adequately define "physical", an interventionist god would by definition have to have to leave some sort of physical "fingerprint", which would then be by definition within the domain of science (and from which we might draw conclusions about the "part" of God outside the "physical" universe.)

    This leaves us (assuming there are no alternative definitions) with Epistemic Naturalism: science can deal only with falsifiable theories (note that a statement that is confirmable is also falsifiable).

    This definition has the added advantage that there seem to be statements — even seemingly prosaic statements — that seem semantically propositional (i.e. truth-apt, could be true or false) that talk about existence, and that are not falsifiable: statements about "the matrix", the assertion that not the real Mona Lisa but a perfect replica hangs in The Louvre, etc. The existence of unfalsifiable ontological propositions injects "philosophical life" into the discussion: we have real, constructable sentences about the world that at least seem to have truth value that science seems to exclude a priori from consideration.

    (Keep in mind, of course, that I'm an atheist and if not a professional scientist then at least a philosophical scientist; while I think there's a live philosophical debate over Epistemic Naturalism, I think the debate can be won by scientists.)

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  4. METHODOLOGICAL NATURALISM: not looking for anything other than natural causes in experiments.

    PHILOSOPHICAL NATURALISM: assuming in principle that the things naturalistic methods cannot study aren't real.


    One could not offer a better example of useless circular definitions.

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  5. Marc says,

    You fail to understand that not everything is science. Math, ethics, aesthetics, logic, those are not science.

    Science is a way of knowing about the universe we live in. It requires evidence and rationality.

    Which of those other things count as valid ways of knowing that replace (compete with) science in some contexts?

    Math and logic are tools we use when trying to learn about the universe through science.

    Ethics and aesthetics are just ways of describing the behavior of one particular species on this planet. If you want to know anything about that behavior you use science to investigate it.

    That's the same approach you would use if you investigate the behavior of other animals. Let's say, for example, that repeated observations revealed that your cat prefers cheese over tuna. Do you really think that such an observation counts as a way of understanding anything about the universe? No, it's just an observation—it suggests that you could use science to investigate *why* your cat has such a preference but the observation by itself isn't a way of knowing (understanding) anything.

    Cat aesthetics isn't any more productive than human aesthetics. Neither is cat ethics, for that matter.

    Perhaps you disagree about cat ethics? Do you think it's a valid way of knowing—or is it only human ethics that counts as a competitor to science?
     

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  6. James McGrath says,

    METHODOLOGICAL NATURALISM: not looking for anything other than natural causes in experiments.

    If that's the definition then I reject it completely. Whenever I investigate anything I try and consider all possibilities.

    For example, when investigating claims of the paranormal the first thing you might do is try and find direct evidence that something supernatural is going on. You don't just throw up your hands and declare that you can't even examine the claim because you are restricted to "natural" explanations.

    Similarly, claims of miracles can be investigated using science as a way of knowing. If such claims are found to be valid then we would have to incorporate God into our methodology.

    PHILOSOPHICAL NATURALISM: assuming in principle that the things naturalistic methods cannot study aren't real.

    I don't assume that there's anything that science can't study. If you know of any such things then please tell me about them.

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  7. Let's say, for example, that repeated observations revealed that your cat prefers cheese over tuna.

    To be fussily precise, one cannot strictly speaking observe a preference. One might observe that, when given a choice, your cat ate cheese 20 times in one month and ate tuna 11 times in that month. These observations would count as a failure to falsify the hypothesis that the cat prefers cheese to tuna.

    Do you really think that such an observation counts as a way of understanding anything about the universe?

    Yes I do. It's fairly prosaic and trivial knowledge, but your cat is indeed part of the universe, and you understand something not directly observable about the cat, and you could have done so only by formulating and testing an empirically falsifiable hypothesis.

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  8. Can someone define supernatural for me?

    I'm looking for something that would not have included lightning bolts before we understood the weather and electricity.

    Such a definition would enable us to try to answer the question much more easily.

    Regards,

    Psi

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  9. For example, when investigating claims of the paranormal the first thing you might do is try and find direct evidence that something supernatural is going on.

    And just how could you know if something "supernatural" was going on? Testing for natural causes wouldn't help. If you found natural causes, you'd just be exercising MN. If you found no known natural causes, how could you tell there weren't unknown natural causes at work? Reaching a conclusion on that ground would be just doing the same thing as the IDiots who say "evolutionary theory can't explain X phenomenon, ergo it must be designed."

    If such claims are found to be valid then we would have to incorporate God into our methodology.

    Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." How are you going to determine if something is "miraculous"?

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  10. METHODOLOGICAL NATURALISM: not looking for anything other than natural causes in experiments.

    PHILOSOPHICAL NATURALISM: assuming in principle that the things naturalistic methods cannot study aren't real.


    I prefer to take a historical approach to the problem, because really the practice of science is older than the concerted effort to study its epistemology and define what is methodological and what is philosophical naturalism.

    The fact is that back in the days scientists weren't confined to methodological naturalism, creationists actually have a point that a lot of great scientists were religious and some of them were heavily into the occult and supernatural (Newton immediately comes to mind). Naturalism emerged as the thing that worked after centuries of trying to understand the world during which supernatural approaches repeatedly failed.

    So would put it this way - methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism are really the same thing, but they are empirically rooted rather than a priori defined (and as such open to reinterpretation)

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  11. John,

    Someone once said -- if the stars rearranged to spell out my name all of a sudden. "Know" is a funny concept for the philosopher -- sometimes it *means* one thing, sometimes another, depending on the current talking point. :)

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  12. Someone once said -- if the stars rearranged to spell out my name all of a sudden.

    A starfield sized projector could just be technology.

    "Know" is a funny concept for the philosopher -- sometimes it *means* one thing, sometimes another, depending on the current talking point. :)

    Of course the concept is context dependent. What isn't? That's kind of the point of coming up with a definition appropriate to the context of science.

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  13. Of course the concept is context dependent. What isn't? That's kind of the point of coming up with a definition appropriate to the context of science.

    Thank God statements of fact such as this have nothing to do with science... we would have thought you would next be providing empirical evidence to support them!!

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  14. Thank God statements of fact such as this have nothing to do with science... we would have thought you would next be providing empirical evidence to support them!!

    But they're not statements of "fact" (assuming you mean empiric statements). They are statements about how we know what we think we "know" (including the meaning of "empiric"). Epistemology precedes knowledge.

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  15. At the end of the day, after exhausting all attempts to discover the mechanism underlying the formation of one's name in the stars one has found none, the scientific conclusion is "I don't know why that happened." Supernatural explanations, whatever they may be are still in the running. Of course there's the difficult problem that once discovered and explained, are they still "super-" natural?

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  16. In practice methodological and philosophical naturalism can't be distinguished, because we have so far never encountered replicable phenomena which require a supernatural explanation. It wasn't always thus; Newton supposed that God must intervene to keep the planets in their orbits, but when Laplace worked through the details he declared that he had no need of that hypothesis.

    Clarke's Law is as irrelevant as the distinction between MN and PN, since phenomena which might raise the question have yet to be observed. We can however stipulate that any candidate behavior should be capricious or irregular, whether caused by demons or mischievous aliens. Anything predictable could be handled by familiar methods, even when the underlying cause is mysterious.

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  17. Can anyone come up with a difference between "supernatural" and "currently unexplained by natural forces"?

    I haven't seen one yet?

    If not, then it would seem to me that having a word to describe something that is not "currently unexplained by natural forces" is logically redundant anyway.

    If the very term "naturalism" exists only because of woolly thinking about a concept we can't even clearly separate from "don't know" then deciding whther we look for explanations using a "method" or we believe that we can find explanations for some things on principle just doesn't make any waves anymore.

    This debate vanishes in a puff of logic.

    Somehow I don't see this argument making much difference though.

    ;-(

    Which says more about the use of logic in the debate than it does about science.

    Regards,

    Psi

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  18. Can anyone come up with a difference between "supernatural" and "currently unexplained by natural forces"?

    There's a tougher problem: define "natural causes."

    If the very term "naturalism" exists only because of woolly thinking about a concept we can't even clearly separate from "don't know" then deciding whther we look for explanations using a "method" or we believe that we can find explanations for some things on principle just doesn't make any waves anymore.

    In an ideal world where we all agreed what to "know" meant, that might be true. But we don't and there is a need to distinguish what we call "science" from other activities that people engage in.

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  19. We can however stipulate that any candidate behavior should be capricious or irregular, whether caused by demons or mischievous aliens.

    Such as turbulence?

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  20. So, ok, I have more questions than answers here but here's where I'm coming from.

    For me, this is a boundary issue, related to the coalface of science and knowledge. There will always be things we don't know or understand (unless we are arrogant enough to believe we will someday know everything). For those things we can't yet explain we will always have suggestions of supernatural explanations, which we will not be able to deny as we cannot explain them.
    I say that because anything we can explain automatically becomes a 'natural' explanation (can you envisage a 'non-natural' and yet scientifically satisfactory explanation for something supernatural? In fact, can you envisage any scientific explanation for something supernatural?)

    So, I don't see how we can define a difference, given that to do so would be to say there might someday be evidence for something supernatural, the very evidence for which would have to be natural and therefore not pointing to something supernatural at all.

    If there can be no scientific evidence for supernatural, then why include it within science?

    (feel free to point out the gaping holes in my logic)

    Let's look at our own makeup: does evolution (and it's implications) allow room for anything other than empirical interactions (between our brain/mind within and the universe without)? Can an individual human 'experience' anything supernatural? If so then maybe examining the human being closely might reveal the mechanism of operation of any such non-scientific, and yet somehow (naturally induced) genetically derived capability...oh yeah, I forgot...evolution.

    Are we just being conceited and self important when we suggest that we can include in our discussions of the universe concepts that are relics from our own (ignorant) past, because we can never properly shed them?

    So how about this. Rather than accept the age-old concepts of needing to not discount the supernatural, why not flip this around and require the proof of the existence of supernatural, and give such a (meaningless) search it's own definition (supernatural naturalism, anyone?). (And maybe those who search can do so aboard the SS Schrodingers Cat).

    Or maybe we could engage in rebranding and invent Science 2.0. (made from 100% 'natural' ingredients, with guaranteed wooly-free terminology, chock-full of new improved knowledge ).

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  21. I agree with Psiloiordinary:

    natural = currently explained
    supernatural = currently unexplained (we can simply drop the circular reference to natural forces)

    If you substitute these definitions, some of the above arguments simply become meaningless - for them to have any meaning at all the onus is on their authors to provide a meaningful and non-circular definition of "natural" which differs from just "explained".

    True, one could argue that "goddidit" counts as "explained", but that does not lead to a problem. Science is about filling in the details in the explanation; once sufficient details have been filled in, and provided we reject batshit-crazy explanations, the only god left in goddidit is Einstein's god. Which I think most of us are quite comfortable with.

    Oh, and I am aware that replacing "natural" with "explained in a non-batshit-crazy way" doesn't actually solve any of the underlying philosophical and practical problems, but at least it says it like it is: science is really just about distinguishing sense from batshit-crazy.

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  22. Oh, and to answer the original question:

    Philosophical naturalism:

    1. Assume working hypothesis as premise (the universe behaves in an orderly fashion according to knowable laws).
    2. Reason from premise to conclusion.
    3. Either accept both premise and conclusion, or reject premise and remain uncommitted about conclusion.

    Methodological naturalism:

    1. Assume working hypothesis as premise (the universe behaves in an orderly fashion according to knowable laws).
    2. Reason from premise to conclusion.
    3. Accept conclusion while rejecting premise.

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  23. I agree with Konrad but would make a slight revision:

    natural- explainable
    supernatural- unexplainable

    I find this preferable, because even things that we can't explain at the moment are considered natural- we think we could, in principle, figure out the details of how it works.

    With "Goddidit" type answers, you can't fill in the details of because it's assumed to be irreducible.

    As a result, I think there can be natural analogs of supernatural beings. Intelligent design could be natural- as long as the designer is an explainable physical being. The only fundamental difference between God and a powerful extraterrestrial" is that you can "fill in the details" in the case of the extraterrestrial, whereas you can't in the case of God.

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  24. Elcaptainloco:
    "natural- explainable
    supernatural- unexplainable"

    Can you explain to me how to define when something is unexplainable?

    If not does that make your statement supernatural?

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  25. If "supernatural" is "unexplainable", and with Gtod you can not fill the holes, then "nonnaturalistic explanation" it is just explaining the unexplainable.

    You can say that Design, the mark, is observable. Then IT is natural. So there is no need to attack against naturalism.

    IRL there is claim "There is CSI" and "that is mark of design" and "CSI is nonnatural = unexplainable".

    In most sophisticated and kind way to look ID is to say it is like SETI -filter. Exept SETI try to find lawlike effeclt= natural marks and dont attack naturalism. And in SETI procect is not saying "we have this software which can distinguish between intelligent and unintelligent, so there is intelligency in universe". They run it and try find the positive first. ID:eers are not the same. They can not count the amount. And if they can't they don't. And there is not any "sencorship", we know it, becouse ID:eers have their own rewiew -publication places. They are not trying to look anything.

    So they are only assuming. It is like old theology. Assume that this is something which only God can do. And call it not a premise but "truth". And talk beautiful words of "intuition".

    Define CSI can not be made. Assume there is CSI in certain object. This is not science. This is purely logic -based theology. And not even good one. If we say "OK" with this, we can actually prove anything without any testing.

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  26. Apologies for the long post. It took me a while to get there...

    Forget about the semantics for a moment.

    Lets just say there is this something out there that we have never encountered before (and I can very well imagine theres lots of those left).

    When we do encounter such an item (and have an independently verifiable something), we investigate it, and hypothesise about it and then theorise about it.
    Why do we need to decide a-priori that it is supernatural?
    Why should we then decide that the semantics of interpretation of supernatural in any way prejudices proper investigation?
    If supernatural can be identified through science it will be. If it cannot it wont. The label itself is misleading.

    Such an argument really boils down to:
    I believe god exists. I want to force the existence of god into everyone's reality (and into science) even if there is currently no evidence for such a being, and I will try this by any means, even if it is all based on the manipulation of words.

    (This is all an effort to perpetuate anachronisms. Science no longer needs to accomodate the baggage of superstition.)

    Ultimately, there are a few possibilities of interest:
    there are things out there which we have yet to encounter which don't interact with our reality. In this regard why care. It becomes a matter of opinion, exits the realm of science, and consequently becomes irrelevant (and therfore cannot be considered as science). Of course we can never actually identify or declare this because there is nothing to label with such a declaration. But as such things dont interact with our reality what does it matter.
    there are things out there which we have yet to encounter which do interact with our reality. Until we encounter them we have no business defining what they might or might not be. If, upon encountering them, we cannot explain them then we have two choices:
    suggest that we will be able to explain them, given time.
    suggest that we may not be able to explain them, given time.

    As this could be claimed about pretty much everything we have ever investigated, why waste time arguing now whether they are supernatural or not.


    It also suggests that science is interested in or capable of denying reality.(I can appreciate that some scientists are capable of that, but not science, in the long run).

    For me the difference between MN and PN then becomes:
    MN : I believe that I live in the generation that can definitively draw the line between science and non-science
    PN: I dont believe we will be able to draw that line in this generation, and so non-science becomes irrelevant.


    (I say 'in the generation' regarding MN, because otherwise a scientist has no business suggesting any perspective different from PN. This doesnt rule out MN, it just makes it an irrelevance for now.)

    Personally, I believe that it is really an expression of arrogance for any generation to suggest it can definitively draw the line in the sand and say about science: thus far, and no more. (and even worse for an individual to do so.)

    Now, you might argue: we might find evidence in science that god exists. I would reply that if we havent already found evidence that god exists, then there is really no justification in creating any hypothesis that includes god. Once we might find such evidence then we would proceed as normal. God is just a word.

    So the question becomes: as a species do we operate based on the collective conception of reality (science), or should the conceptions of the individual be pre-eminent?

    A significant question in the 21st century, and surely one that has been answered by the previous 20....

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  27. Seamus-

    I don't think you can look at something and automatically know whether it's supernatural or not- which is kind of my point. People can propose different explanations for a phenomenon, and some of them will lack detail.

    If I ask, for example, "Where did the universe come from?", one might say might say "God", but if I ask "Where did God come from" there isn't really an answer except "that's just the way it is"(or something to that extent). It's just a brute fact that God exists and created the universe- as a principle God can't be explained and you can't fill in the details.

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  28. 'It's just a brute fact that God exists and created the universe'

    I find it curious that you can so blithely suggest that something that you believe, and for which there is absolutely no evidence can be regarded as fact.

    I dont have a problem that you have religious beliefs, but you need to accept the concept of doubt (which is intrinsic to science), and realise that if we allow discussions about reality to hinge on belief we will get nowhere.

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  29. "There's a tougher problem: define "natural causes." "

    I don't think there's any such thing. There are simply causes tout court.
    It seems to me that the whole concept of "natural" exists only as the contrary of "supernatural"- and I don't think the latter is in any way a coherent concept let alone one with real semantic content. If X actually exists it can be detected and hypotheses about it can be tested- if not now, then eventually when techniques improve. What sense, then, can it possibly make to classify X as "natural" or "supernatural"? On the other hand if it is claimed that X is such that those things can't be done even in principle (which we have observed many times to be the ultimate fallback position of accomodationists), then to say X "exists" is just to make a meaningless noise with your mouth.

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  30. Some above rightly complain about the circularity of the definitions. You can eliminate the circularity by stressing the concept of measurement.

    Methodological Naturalism requires all arguments to be based on what can be measured, where the definition of measurement includes repeatability (measures the same every time) and generality (measures the same for all competent observers).

    Anything that can be measured in this way, is a legitimate subject of science. Anything that can't, is excluded from scientific consideration simply because there's no way to deal with it there.

    This -- stressing the "method" part of the phrase -- gets you out of the definitional circle.

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  31. @elcaptainloco:

    "natural- explainable
    supernatural- unexplainable

    I find this preferable, because even things that we can't explain at the moment are considered natural- we think we could, in principle, figure out the details of how it works."

    No, doesn't work. We can't know a priori what is explainable and unexplainable. In fact, it's not even clear what we mean by "explainable" or its negation -- is Newton's law of gravity an "explanation" of gravity? It doesn't address gravity's source or ultimate cause, only its behavior.

    I think most people agree that gravity is not a supernatural force, but then, that suggests we should be asking whether anything SHOULD count as supernatural. An invisible force field holding us all to the surface of a nearly spherical rock seems like it SHOULD count as supernatural as the term is commonly understood. But it is explicable through purely naturalistic arguments, so it is in fact a natural phenomenon.

    Suppose there are such things as souls, and they manifest in the physical world as tiny forces manipulating the flow of electricity through the brain. Would this make the supernatural real (since souls are "a priori" supernatural) or would the detection of such a force through scientific study render souls "natural" rather than "supernatural"? It seems to me the latter. Once you have an material entity of one sort or other and a mechanism for interaction with other material entities you have a natural phenomenon, not a supernatural phenomenon.

    I agree with several posters who point out there is no way to define "natural" and "supernatural" without either begging the question or defining "supernatural" trivially as "natural but not sufficiently studied." If there's any other way to resolve this, I'd like to hear it.

    -Dan L.

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  32. The discussion about this sort of thing is usually profoundly confused about two issues:

    1. What does it mean when we say something is supernatural?, and

    2. What does it mean for something to be unfalsifiable?

    People often get both wrong and assume that one has to do with the other in some simple way, and that both have something to do with what science can study.

    What it means for something to be supernatural isn't a matter of simple definitions. It's a matter of how people actually think about things, such that they can intuitively recognize "supernatural" things as such, without knowing why.

    Pascal Boyer's book Religion Explained is very good on this. He's a cognitive anthropologist with a cross-cultural theory of what people think of as "supernatural," and why.

    Boyer's basic idea is that there's a folk ontology---a way people tend to carve up the world into interestingly different basic categories, and reason about them differently---and that "supernatural" concepts are those that cross-classify with the usual categories in certain ways.

    That folk ontology assumes something supernaturalish, namely that there's are crucial differences between

    1) brute inanimate matter and living things,

    2) things like plants and animals (which may have a vital essence or a simplish soul-like thing)

    3) animals, which have an animal soul-like thing with at least rudimentary goals and plans (E.g., an animal may pursue you, or evade you)

    4) human-like entities with more advanced minds fairly similar to ours

    In the usual case, you have something that's not just dualism, but more like quadruplism---there are about three levels of stuff above brute matter.

    (I suspect that about half of modern religious people in the West are not just dualists, but triplists---they still believe in vitalism to some extent.)

    The usual folk understanding of such things is essentialist---being alive or animate or rational conscious requires a thing (maybe a substance or "energy") that does the job, rather than it being a matter of properly-organized matter like a "machine."

    This folk understanding is also antireductionists, or at best unreduced---it's at least tacitly assumed that high-level properties like life and thinking cannot be reduced to the operation of properly organized brute matter. Sometimes that's explicit, but often the issue is just not "problematized"---reductionism is just not on the radar when it comes to thinking about these things.

    (more in another comment... this one exceeded the 4K character limit)

    --- Paul W.

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  33. (continuing about the "supernatural" a la Boyer...)

    Boyer points out that there are two important and related senses of "supernatural" here, and that there's a systematic relationship between them.

    At a basic level, there's the idea of a life force and/or a soul, or whatever. That is recognizably supernatural, because it's different from "brute mater" like dirt, rocks, water, etc.

    That's not what people usually call supernatural, though, because it's the usual way things operate.

    For example, most modern Christians assume that they have a dualistic soul, that isn't scientifically explicable, and can recognize that as "supernatural."

    In day-to-day life, though, that's not commented on, and often not thought about---it's just the usual understanding of the usual order of things: spiritual souls normally influence matter in certain ways and not others. (My soul can usually only interact with yours indirectly, through through actions of our bodies.)

    What we explicitly call "supernatural" is generally something that violates the usual order of things, as interpreted via this folk theory of matter/life/souls etc.

    If a soul leaves its body, goes romping around, and comes back, that's supernatural.

    If a soul communes with another soul without the need for merely material interaction like gesture and speech, that's supernatural.

    If a soul just doesn't have a body, like a nonhuman spirit or some kinds of gods, that's supernatural too. It violates the normal order of things in normal human life.

    Boyer's theory is actually more general than may be clear so far... it accounts for impersonal, overtly nonliving and soulless things like free-floating Luck and Karma, or The Force from Star Wars.

    The basic idea is that supernatural entities have unreduced and usually irreducible teleology. They may not have minds, but they behave in certain respects as if they did.

    For example, Luck or Karma somehow "knows" what would count as a good or bad outcome for you, and arranges for appropriate things to happen or not happen.

    (Or it "just works out that way" in some unreducible sense---it's a black box that's functionally equivalent to a certain kind of mind that knows certain important things.)

    ...more coming...

    --- Paul W.

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  34. (still going about the "supernatural" a la Pascal Boyer...)


    What Boyer claims is invariably true about all supernatural concepts in all cultures---despite vast surface differences---is that there's a teleological component, related to human interests.

    Supernatural entities aren't just weird, they're humanly understandable in a certain crucial sense---you may not be able to make sense of how it actually works, but you can at least understand what it does in human terms. In particular, supernatural concepts are systematically simple transformations of everyday concepts that we use in mundane human life.

    One reason for that is that antrhopologically---you might say "memetically" if you like the term---they have to be. People have to be able to quickly understand the concepts to understand stories and repeat them intelligibly, or the ideas will not survive very long, and you won't build a religion around them.

    So, for example, a ghost---the most common supernatural entity, cross-culturally---is easily understood as a human minus its brute matter body. Pretty much everything about a ghost is understandable as a human, minus certain physical constraints like the inability to walk through walls.

    Likewise, a typical god is just a human with a few properties added, removed, or amplified.

    Even things like impersonal Luck or Karma are understandable as mostly equivalent to having a supersmart, subtly powerful friend or foe who can systematically grease the skids for you or fuck with you.

    One thing to notice is that the "supernatural" is definitely not the complement of the "natural" in the sense that "science studies the natural world." There's just no simple relationship there.

    Science can study anything that has directly or indirectly observable effects, and supernatural entities systematically do have those---that's what makes them interesting to real human beings, as opposed to apologetic theologians.

    --- Paul W.

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  35. The other big confusion I mentioned is about the notion of falsifiability, and what stance we take toward unfalsifiable hypotheses.

    Science is generally not agnostic toward unfalsifiable hypotheses. We view unfalsifiable hypotheses with great skepticism, and if repeated attempts to salvage an unfalsifiable hypothesis fail, we generally regard them as provisionally debunked, or "not even wrong."

    Consider Galileo's heliocentricism, for a vivid example.

    Some of the Catholic authorities pointed out that he could tweak his theory "just a little" to bring it in line with the revealed truth of scripture.

    All he'd need is a couple of relativizing axioms, so that the same basic geometric model held, but everything went around the Earth in just such a way that it was observationally equivalent to everything going around the Earth.

    The mathematics of such models are only trivially more complicated than the straight heliocentric ones.

    In fact, the modifications to the model were mathematically much simpler than several later modifications that were made and scientifically accepted:

    1) Kepler's elliptical orbits,

    2) Newton's not-exactly elliptical orbits based on mutual gravitation and inertia, and especially

    3) Einstein's relativistic motion that only approximates Newton's.

    Why was Galileo right not to make the "trivial" tweaks to his theory, in order to reconcile it with scripture, and why were we right to revise it much more drastically?

    I think the answer hinges on what Kuhn said about falsifiability, and how the (early) Popper was wrong about hypotheses being falsifiable.

    In general, falsifiability of a hypothesis is not a local property of the hypothesis. Falsifiability hinges on acceptance of a bunch of auxiliary hypotheses, and you can always evade falsifiability if you're desperate enough to tweak the background assumptions as needed.

    Galileo was right to be skeptical of desperate tweaks that appear to be contrived specifically to avoid falsfiability.

    This is actually an amazingly subtle subject, but in general, scientists are not neutral toward unfalsifiable hypothese, and are extremely skeptical of hypotheses that are clearly contrived to evade falsification.

    Accommodationists and apologists systematically tend to distract from this with simplistic rhetoric about falsifiability. They make it sound like unfalsifiable hypotheses are simply "outside the scope of science."

    They are not. Science is largely about discarding unfalsifiable hypotheses as provisionally unworkable, and typically wrong, or worse, "not even wrong."

    The apologists and accommodationists put themselves in the position of the Catholic authorities suggesting to Galileo that he should make his theory compatible with scripture.

    That is not the sort of thing that scientists should blithely ignore, and show "respect" toward religion, or toward the desperate tweaks necessary to make science and religion appear "compatible."

    That's a travesty of a mockery of two travesties of a mockery of a sham.

    --- Paul W.

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  36. Dan L.:
    Suppose there are such things as souls, and they manifest in the physical world as tiny forces manipulating the flow of electricity through the brain. Would this make the supernatural real (since souls are "a priori" supernatural) or would the detection of such a force through scientific study render souls "natural" rather than "supernatural"?

    Given good enough evidence, it would convince us that the supernatural is real.

    (Or rather, it would if the "supernatural" phenomena turn out to be irreducibly teleological, rather than just another kind of invisible energy doing things like brute matter does.)

    Whether something is supernatural has little to do with whether it's natural in the sense of having observable effects and being amenable to scientific study.

    People seem to assume that there's only one sense of "natural" and that "supernatural" is the complement of it.

    That's just empirically false. That's not what anybody who is interested in the supernatural means by supernatural.

    The word "natural" is schematic and has several concrete but related senses.

    The intuitive distinction between the natural and the supernatural is schematically similar to the distinction between the natural and the artificial.

    Something being artificial in no way makes it non-"natural" in the sense that is relevant to the scope of science.

    "Artificial" chemicals are those that don't occur "in nature," or just happen to have been created by humans rather than by

    That doesn't make them any less "natural" in any sense relevant to whether scientists can study them. They are "natural" in a larger sense, and that's plenty.

    Likewise, if purportedly "supernatural" entities have observable effects---and they systematically do---then they are well within the scope of science. They too are "natural" in the larger sense that's relevant.

    All this stuff about the supernatural being beyond science is a simple bait-and-switch "fallacy of four terms," hinging on an ambiguity in a word.

    It's utterly fallacious and dumb, but it's politically useful to apologists and accommodationists.

    We should not fall for it.

    --- Paul W.

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  37. Psiloiordinary:

    Can anyone come up with a difference between "supernatural" and "currently unexplained by natural forces"?


    Yes.

    See my above blather about what "supernatural" actually means, and consider the case of electricity.

    When people first recognized electricity as a particular natural kind of thing, closely related to lightning, Galvanism, etc., many people thought it was supernatural, or supernatural-like, in an obviously recognizable way:

    1. It was invisible, yet could affect brute matter,

    2. It could move through solid matter, even the hardest steel,

    3. It had powers of life and death---e.g., could make a live animal convulse and die, or a dead one move,

    4. It seemed to have a mind of its own, in a certain weak quasi-teleological sense, making its way to where it needed to go.

    But we---most of us, anyway---quickly came to realize that electricity wasn't supernatural, and the reasons why are interesting.

    The main thing was that it didn't have a mind of its own, or anything much like it. It followed some simple rules (following the path of least resistance). It wasn't teleological after all, and the more we learned, the less closely related to life and death it seemed to be.

    We ended up lumping into the usual category of "brute matter," because there's nothing fundamentally interesting about it in human terms. We'd previously seen other phenomena with all of its actual interesting properties, and classed them as dumb brute matter.

    (For example, light beams are invisible and can pass through some matter, and even each other, and be invisibly refracted and so on. Poison gas can be invisible and insidiously kill you dead---and so can gravity.)

    Electricity just turned out to be invisible energy following dumb-matter rules, with no irreducible connection to human interests. It doesn't animate living matter in any essentialist, nonmechanistic sense, for example.

    Ergo, it isn't supernatural; supernatural entities are generally teleological or teleology related, and relevant to high-level human interests in ways that mere brute matter and tools are not.

    Notice that at any given time, there's lots of stuff we can't explain as the operation of (other) natural forces---in particular, the most basic natural forces that we know about. We just accept that they exist, and when it's clear that they're not interestingly teleological, we consider them "natural," not "supernatural," despite the fact that we don't currently know what makes them tick at a deeper/lower level.


    --- Paul W.

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  38. John,

    Do you hold this separation from empiricism and knowledge always? Maybe we can come up with a pragmatic example? Sue comes to the police station and says "a supernatural being told me you will find Phil in a bathtub with half a fork stuck in his chest and the other half in my purse." -- and the emipirical evidence indicates that this is so. You are on the Jury and it is time to "choose" guilty or not guilty - choose.

    1.) Sue did it. (guilty)

    2.) A supernatural being told Sue About it. (not guilty)

    3.) A Starfield projector with half-fork capabilities could be just the right technology. (Sue found the body, broke the fork in half and put it in her purse). (Forks do not exist). (not guilty)

    4.) I don't know. (won't choose)

    5.) The difference between 2 and 4 is wooly thinking. (?)

    6.) Of course the concept of guilt is context dependent. What isn't? (?)

    7.) Of course the concept of the concept of guilt is context dependent. What isn't? (?)

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  39. The boundary between MN and PN is -by definition- the boundary between science and philosophy. Isn't it?

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  40. 'The boundary between MN and PN is -by definition- the boundary between science and philosophy. Isn't it?'

    Then please define science and philosophy!

    (I would have thought PN was more hardcore than MN in terms of advocating the relevance of the application of science, which would be counterintuitive based on your 'definition'?)

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  41. Paul W:

    I find your discussion about supernatural to be strangely devoid of actual evidence.
    Essentially you are saying that before science came along to explain things, people were largely superstitious about what was going on, and that these superstitions could be categorised: this doesn't give them any validity.

    Anyway, as we are no longer living in a society without science, we have no need (or justification) for anything superstitious.

    The important point is that we have inherited all of the terms that existed before science was properly formulated, and that these terms continue to be utilised:
    natural/supernatural; soul; spirituality; I could continue....

    In my view, MN is advocated by people who consider that (at least some of) these (pre-science) concepts have validity. PN is advocated by people who consider these terms/concepts largely redundant.

    Unfortunately, although philosophy has to be considered as a core aspect of science, it too is 'polluted' by advocacy of concepts that wouldnt rigorously fit inside a scientific view of reality.
    This leads people to adopting a-priori views about reality that allow for non-science (despite an absolute lack of evidence to support them.)

    Taking things down to basics:
    as beings we interact with our environment through empirically driven senses. Though people might claim that we can experience other concepts (through esp for example, or spirituality), there is no evidence for these, and given evolution, there is no obvious justification for advocating them without evidence.

    And evidence is key, as everything we are (based on billions of years of development) and understand is based on evidence.

    The fact that we can conceive (within our minds) of things that aren't real, doesnt justify believing they might be. Our minds interact with 'reality' through our senses, so regardless of what our minds conceive, reality is what our senses tell us via measurement. (and it has to be realised that although a lot of the difficulty arises as a result of the limitations of that measurement system, measurement it remains..)

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  42. Of course some people equate what is currently unknown with “supernatural”, or they simply define supernatural as “anything that falls beyond the scope of science”. If you follow that road, it is easy to reduce the whole discussion to a semantic no-brainer: if science can study what was previously thought to be supernatural, then this must ipso facto be reconsidered as “natural”. Or, alternatively: if science would include the supernatural, it would simply cease to be science.

    I think there is a more interesting definition of natural vs. supernatural, which is closer to what many theists believe, and which allows one to say something substantial about the relation between science and the supernatural. For example , suppose we accept as ‘supernatural’ any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science. If any such 'supernatural' force were to intervene in our material universe (and thus generating observable effects) despite not being part of that universe by itself, this should be in principle detectable by scientific means. If God answers the prayers of the sick, this should be detectable by means of randomized clinical trials.
    There is no logical contradiction in this notion of ‘supernatural’, and in the past many scientists have pursued it (see the case of electricity). I agree with the ‘historical approach’:

    “Naturalism emerged as the thing that worked after centuries of trying to understand the world during which supernatural approaches repeatedly failed.”

    This is the only sound rationale for not wasting time with supernatural explanations in modern science: they have utterly failed in the past.

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