Saturday, April 6, 2013

Supernatural Times Two

Two interesting things I've come across about defining the supernatural:

The first is a paper by Fishman and Boudry that makes the point that methodological naturalism is not an a priori commitment of the scientific enterprise; rather, it is a conclusion arrived at in the same way as other scientific results, namely, by applying the usual criteria of economical explanation of phenomena. They argue that "supernatural," as it is commonly used, is too loose a term to be useful. Instead, they say, we should talk about the "overnatural" - beings or powers that are similar to natural ones, but beyond what is normally possible (like Superman or walking on water) - and the "transnatural" - things that are "categorically different from ‘natural’ ones, so much so that their properties are essentially mysterious, ineffable, and incomprehensible."

The overnatural can be investigated the way we investigate any scientific hypothesis. The transnatural, on the other hand, cannot be scientifically investigated, since it (by definition) is incomprehensible and inexplicable. However, they argue, the transnatural is an empty concept. They quote Martin Mahner:

There neither is an ontological theory proper of the transnatural nor could there be, because there can be no theory of the unintelligible.
Scientists thus reject a transnatural explanation, not because of any a priori commitment, but for the same reason they reject any other unintelligible or ill-formed hypothesis.

The second bit is a blog post by Victor Reppert, who argues that the supernatural is a claim that minds are not composed of non-mental things - they are part of the "rock bottom level of the universe." This is really a thesis about dualism rather than a definition of the supernatural. But I think Reppert is right to focus on minds in talking about the supernatural.

Imagine that large boulders spontaneously levitated at random times. Such a phenomenon would be inexplicable according to current science, but I don't think it would be considered supernatural. It would just be another kind of natural phenomenon to be described. On the other hand, suppose they only levitated when a car was about to crash into them. Then we would suspect a purpose behind the levitations, and a mind behind that purpose. Since the phenomenon is beyond the ability of any human, we would have to suspect a supernatural being. (Or, I suppose, a powerful extra-terrestrial who can know about these events in advance and who has the ability to move rocks from a distance. In effect, such a being would be supernatural from our point of view.)

This all ties in to the discussion about the fine tuning argument for naturalism, and what sort of observations would be considered evidence of supernatural intervention - but I'm still thinking about how.


  1. Good follow-up. I read VR's post so far. This early comment from there seems relevant here. Ingx24 on VR's blog said, Quote:
    "What explains the laws of physics?
    If something explains the laws of physics, then what explains that?
    Explanations have to stop somewhere, otherwise we have an infinite regress. Victor's proposal is that consciousness doesn't need an explanation because it is fundamental. He is not begging the question."

    I'm not sure VR actually said that in the Post, but it sounds correct as to VR's position. VR said, Quote: "If, on the other hand, the basic building blocks of the universe are not restricted to the non-mental, then the mental is already present at the basic level of analysis." - I.e. he is opposed to the 'materialistic' position that the mental must not be found on the "rock bottom level of the universe."

    I'm not the least convinced that 'mental' (VR's four factors) can't all be duplicated, eventually, by skilled software design, in which case the mental would not be rock bottom, but instead just a feedback mechanism with comparative capabilities. But since we don't know what dark matter is or does, it is certainly possible there are mechanisms that could "supervene", and therefore account for 'mental', before settling on truly immaterial solutions.

  2. Thanks for the links. I want to read the Fishman article before chiming. Hope you don't mind. I posted a link on the VR post. Go Michigan?

  3. Consciousness requires explanations, among other proof of mental processes, as evidence of learning, which must be reinforced.

    Assuming that consciousness is present because of apparent regard to useful physical change of the environment, does not clarify the capabilities of whom may have caused the change(s); We must recognize when forms of evidence required consciousness to occur. Visual representations help convey context that words cannot accomplish alone.

    For example, a large item is missing from someone's open yard, and there are tire tracks in the grass. Consciousness was required to understand how an item would be useful, and also to operate a vehicle.

    For example, a sink hole could cause items to disappear, but unless this pit is visibly being used for trash as a landfill...

  4. BTH: Electronic devices are evidence of the practical applications of our scientific theories/laws of physics.

    The reality of infinity does not exist outside human consciousness, because it's only applicability is in perceivable concepts.

    Questions of which there are attempts to answer, are proof of consciousness.

    I just broke my left big toe working with firewood (lucky to be a righty), so you might think you've heard enough from me already, but think positive anyways!

  5. I do not understand why defining matter as being dimly lit, or dark, somehow specifies any calculable properties.

    If we know that there many more large objects in our own universe than our technology can see, then...

    We know we can't see everything, so we obviously can't create exact replicas in digital dioramas yet..then theories including NEMESIS STARS that only orbit in our direction every 26 Million years, while simultaneously propelling potential apocalypse causing debris near our solar a better answer!

    Bee-Tee-Double-You(also FYI) archeogeology has a timeline (that extends hundreds of millions of years) where we are 10 Million years into the cycle, with 16 Million years left. Silly paranoia be blamed!

    This so-called NEMESIS isn't even half way around it's expected path, so obviously it's not visible.

  6. Our brains are as unique as the patterns of blood vessels in a single human eye. If we think about the same things, it does not mean that the same context, emphasis or parameters were mutually understood. When we are expressive, we don't use the same 'data sources' as when we think to ourselves.

  7. To KT: my point exactly ..
    "I do not understand why defining matter as being dimly lit, or dark, somehow specifies any calculable properties."

    Like NEMEMIS, God and dark matter (better even dark energy), we construct theories for that purpose of explanation of events we can see - parallel depressions in the grass. We don't see consciousness, we construct it because it's useful to do that. It might represent a missing tiger. The question about the answers is coherence and, sadly, the urge for evidence. I vote for more coherence and less evidence... and be prepared for anything.

  8. My point .. is creatures formed of dark matter and dark energy (70% or more of the universe) may well be "overnatural" and not "transnatural".. to use RO's descriptions. Theists, why not? Non-theists (non-rationalists??), why not?

  9. There are four corners to most rooms. It seems inherently possible to paint oneself into all four corners, in sequence, if not simultaneously. In philosophy, we migrate around a room with more than four corners, and settle in where we will. That by itself provides a capital reason to remain out of doors. The Fishman and Boudry paper, at least the first 2/3 of it, does a fair job of unentangling some of the unwarranted a priori presuppositions of Martin Mahner and other professed materialists. That there is more to the universe than meets the current scientific eye seems likely even if it is not always Bayesian. Remember, for reasons not at all clear, David chose to leap and dance with all his might before the ark of the lord, dressed only in a linen ephod of the priestly caste, while his wife Michal grew jealous (my interpretation) and came to despise his behavior (my interpretation). [2 Samuel 6:14-16]. What's Bayesian about that? Cheers.

  10. Hope you don't mind, I posted links

    on Deity Shmeity (Grundy)

    and on Brain, Mind and Other Things (Jon, prof. neuroscience CUNY)

    1. O.K. C.Emerson...I read it all and my simple mind is boggled. Robert's post on "supernatural" did grab my interest, as I had an experience with it that drove me to have a total nervous breakdown once.

      I decided to heck with that, I'll accept for myself what I can accept, and not let anyone else's opinion sway me on rather or not "transnatural" exists. For does, and that shrink told me no would would ever be able to convince me it doesn't...after he gave me a dose of sodium pentathol and six shock treatments

      That's why I keep it simple, but still like to read what other's think about something they haven't yet had an experience with. Great thoughts!

    2. @A.M., you jest as to the boggling of your 'simple mind'. Your own original reflections on 'Originality' show that NOT to be the case. Earlier comments made me do a little 'fact' checking. Discover Magazine has a 'popular' article out now - hard copy at least: Normal Matter 5%; Dark Matter 24%; Dark Energy 70%. Obviously humans are a bit too early in the Big Game to be declaring a definitive and all-exclusive metaphysics (either way, since no one knows what Dark Matter and Dark Energy really is or does. So onernatural, transnatural, non-natural, and non-existence are all terms worth exploring in a non-perjorative dialog, as here. Peace.

  11. I posted a lengthy rant (on my own blog) spurred by this post, about why the focus on consciousness to define 'naturalism' is mistaken. Put bluntly, it says nothing about what nature is.

    Being 'natural' is being uniform - laws of nature are regularities in nature, patterns that are maintained throughout existence; something has a natural explanation when it is shown to be a special case of a more general pattern; and so on.

    The focus on consciousness tells us nothing about that. It thus misses out lots of non-theistic supernatural stuff (werewolves being harmed by silver only - Not following the regular laws of nature? Check. Involving a special place for mind? No. Fail.), and screams 'supernatural!' at perfectly natural stuff (such as panpsychism, my own position in theory of mind). Most importantly, it tells us nothing about what 'nature' is like. It is completely unfazed by the amazing uniformity that contemporary physics reveals, instead of celebrating it as the epitome of how 'natural' a world can be.

    My longer rant - longer, and less coherent - can be found here:


    1. Wow!...reads to me like you, "Arabic I assume" believes more in the "New Advent" that allows one to rant and rave incoherently at anything you do not believe...but I will go read your "longer incoherent rant" before I come to a final conclusion...just as soon as I finish raking up all those "unconscience" brown leaves in my back yard.

    2. Pardon please Mr. Yair Razek...when I assume something and it keeps bugging me...I check it out...Hebrew and Arabic letters look the same to me as I can't read either.

    3. Hi, Yair,

      Good to know about your blog. I always enjoy your comments - they often seem more well-thought-out than my posts.

      Here's a rare case where I disagree with you. If we lived in world where there were werewolves and they were (regularly and consistently) killed by silver bullets, but not by lead ones, wouldn't that just be another fact of natural law?

      And on the other hand, my randomly-levitating rocks: I don't think we'd call that a supernatural phenomenon, even if it seemed to break the other natural laws we know of. I call in evidence quantum mechanics, where things happen at random, and yet we do not consider it supernatural (e.g. nuclear decays at random times).

      I do agree with the basic point of your post, that putting the mental in at ground level does not mean introducing the supernatural. That's why Reppert's post is really about dualism, not the definition of the supernatural. I'll try to comment some more at your blog when I get a chance.

    4. Hi Robert, and thanks! I'm afraid my blog is quite neglected; I don't have the time to invest in it. But the rant was just too long and, well, rant-y, to post here.

      In regards to werewolves, I think my point stands. Werewolves are still supernatural precisely because normal animals are not harmed only be silver. There is still a deep irregularity there.

      Your randomly floating rocks example is a stronger objection. But are they really natural? I'd suggest that a world filled with such kinds of phenomena would be harder to understand and explain using scientific methods. You could not project your understanding from one phenomena to the next. At the limit, you could understand nothing as each new phenomena would follow its own rules. Each such phenomena renders the worlds less natural. And that is why it's so important to get naturalism right - to understand the tight link between epistemology and naturalism, both of which are founded on the principle of uniformity.

      Now, are the randomly floating rocks supernatural? I would suggest reserving this word for irregularities on the human (or mind) scale. If rocks float presciently to avoid being hit by cars - it's supernatural (even though no mind need be assumed behind this). If heavy atoms presciently float out of the way of helium atoms, now... that sort of irregularity is at a level so much below humans, that the label 'supernatural' I think no longer applies. (For quantum mechanics, the random laws are perfectly regular so the events are purely natural.)

      I'm not sure I've got the definition of 'supernatural' precisely so it'd fit our intuitions and all cases. I'm not sure such a definition is possible. I maintain, however, that it is a pretty good fit to the common uses, and that - much more importantly - it is based on a good positive understanding of what 'natural' is that anchors what we should expect and believe about the world.



  12. @Yair, Thanks for linking to you're blog post. Hope you don't mind, but I wanted to quote this, from it:

    "We naturalists need a definition that leads to the fact that the world behaves naturally, which is what the naturalism-as-uniformity definition does. When everything is the same then, implicitly, the place of consciousness in nature is revealed to be not independent of the laws of physics."

    I'm not sure I can successfully add anything to that. You appear to capture exactly the current problem with understanding that animal consciousness (and intentionality along with it) might well be just another expression of naturally occurring processes which are generated by increasing the complexity of molecular structures and molecular interactions. Mind, as well as consciousness, may be a completely natural process, whether ultimately explained by a theory of emergence, panpsychism, or Aristotelian hylomorphism. I would think Ben might be able to agree with your point. In fact, RO pointed out in his last post that Ben had indicated that if something occurred regularly, it would necessarily appear to be part of the natural laws (created by God of course). Mind (or at least conscious awareness and about-ness occurs with utmost regularity - i.e., in all humans - so why is it not natural?) Excellent post.

    1. Hi c emerson!

      I have only one comment on what you say, which is that even if Mind occurs with in all humans, that would not make it regular, because humans are rare - see my response to RO above. Otherwise - we seem to be in agreement.