Saturday, 7 August 2010

Nature and Supernature


There is a common disjunct between scientists, philosophers and theologians about the purview of science; can science pass judgement on matters religious? Massimo Pigliucci has attacked Jerry Coyne in a blog post comparing a comment of Coyne's from 2007 to a more recent one:
Science simply doesn't deal with hypotheses about a guiding intelligence, or supernatural phenomena like miracles, because science is the search for rational explanations of natural phenomena. We don't reject the supernatural merely because we have an overweening philosophical commitment to materialism; we reject it because entertaining the supernatural has never helped us understand the natural world.
A typical acknowledgement of Hume's analysis Of Miracles; that no evidence *could* be presented that a reasonable person *should* accept for a miraculous event. Compare with:
Anybody doing any kind of science should abandon his or her faith if they wish to become a philosophically consistent scientist.
Pigliucci considers this 'naive and pretentious', perhaps because of the 'philosophically' that Coyne has added. Coyne is a scientist and not a philosopher, like Pigliucci. He thinks Coyne is overreaching too, I think. And he also sees a contradiction with the first statement. So is there a contradiction? It's something that has given me some trouble over the years, so I'm hoping to be able to organise my thoughts on the subject in this piece.

Philosophical naturalism is almost *forced* onto non-theists, since there appears to be nothing else for them to adopt, but I don't really like it; it's an unhelpful concept. In fact, Hume's point renders *naturalism* unfalsifiable, just as much as supernaturalism, for if one could prove naturalism false one would presumably have to provide some evidence for supernature which, as Hume shows, we cannot. I see no great need for a *philosophical commitment* to materialism either; I would think immaterialism *could* be part of reality - we just have no evidence for it, but could have, surely? I think Carrier argues quite convincingly along these lines. But he defines the supernatural as immaterialism, which doesn't seem right to me either; consider these points by commenter bart_klink:
In fact, multiple studies on the effect of intercessory prayer have been published in respected journals, for example this one. What if this study showed a (huge) effect of prayer? And what if other studies confirmed these results? A naturalistic explanation would be very improbable indeed. The most reasonable conclusion would be that some supernatural force, probably (a) God, did interfere in our world.
Other examples could easily be given. What if, after saying some Christian prayer, water could be really turned into wine? This also could be scientifically demonstrated, one could even do chemistry experiments. Again a natural explanation is very unlikely and a supernatural one, presumably the Christian God, is likely. Or what if it could be scientifically demonstrated that the mind could function in separation form the brain, as many people of faith claim? The experiment is not hard to set up, but the results would be hard to explain naturalistically, and a supernatural explanation would be reasonable.
But this is very problematic; if prayer showed a huge effect, a naturalistic explanation would be very improbable? Compared with what? If water was turned to wine, would a natural explanation be very unlikely? Compared to what? Even if one did accept a supernatural explanation as reasonable (again, how??), why would one then 'presume the Christian God'? If one is accepting a magical effect, then one is allowing for *anything* to be possible, in principle, so there could be any number of magical explanations, regardless of the Christian God.

Last Thursdayism is often cited as an example of something that science cannot pronounce on, and that's true. But the reason it's true is because methodological naturalism would be invalidated, since evidence would be meaningless. But what would that mean? Simply that we would have *no way* of determining the nature of reality, and this would apply to theists as much as atheists. We would all simply have literally no reason to believe anything.

So I think if someone is claiming that the supernatural exists, in the way that it is commonly claimed to work -that is, a separate realm that can interface with the natural and allows for the breaking of the accepted laws of nature - that, to me, is simply self-refuting, because it disallows the possibility of establishing any reason to believe. I mean, if you believe that, you will believe anything can happen, so you have no reason to prefer *any* explanation to any other. One's beliefs are therefore arbitrary.

However, going back to my dislike of naturalism as an ontology; I really don't see why one has to commit to a particular ontology just because you accept that evidence is required to believe something - quite the opposite, in fact. One's ontology is necessarily a moveable feast because of that. So, for example, I think it's possible to imagine a reality which includes gods within it, and allows for their interaction with us. And of course that's partly what theists believe in. And we can test for *that*. So far the tests show there aren't any of these much vaunted gods interacting with us.

I don't see these ideas as a contradiction; just two different scenarios for what actually exists. I see Coyne's second statement as saying something along the lines of:

1) A scientist will use evidence to determine what *is*.
2) If a scientist posits the supernatural, he is disallowing that evidence can be used to determine what *is*.
3) So, he would have no reason to believe.

Alternatively,

1) A scientist will use evidence to determine what *is*.
2) If a scientist posits the God as part of reality, interacting with us, then tests would show what *is*. None show the existence of God, or gods.
3) So, he would have no reason to believe. 

Either way, if a scientist believes despite not having any reason to believe, he's being philosophically inconsistent. I think!

UPDATE: A lot of interesting further discussion has arisen from Pigliucci's post, in the comments section.


I think Pigliuci's position is a natural (whoops) follow-on from Hume's observation that a reasonable person *cannot* accept evidence for the supernatural, therefore, as he keeps saying, science can have no position on it. This seems fair enough, but I think this natural follow on needs more analysis, in line with what I say above.

If a person posits a worldview including a supernatural realm, which effectively means they think it's possible for *anything* to happen in the natural world, they are positing a world where evidence is meaningless, because:

1) Magic could happen at any time, rendering laws, regularity and induction unreliable, and
2) Re supernatural events - belief in these *must* be arbitrary, since there is no way to distinguish between supernatural claims.

I think it's hard to argue that these beliefs are *compatible* with the scientific project, and as such a scientist who believed them would be philosophically inconsistent. At the risk of putting words in his mouth, Pigliucci would probably agree that they're incompatible with science but not 'philosophically' inconsistent, since the supernaturalist will ignore the above when being scientific - iow, assume science is just a tool to determine the putative *natural* world. *If* that's his position, I think it's wrong, just because the above two consequences render the use of the tool of science problematic, as well.

One more thing; a number of commenters have made the assertion that certain things are supernatural, because they violate the laws of nature; e.g. Pigliucci "Ghosts can be thought of as supernatural entities (they violate the laws of nature), so they are no different from gods, in my book.". To my mind, this is unhelpful. We don't *know* all the laws of nature, so we can never say this about a discovered phenomenon. Obviously, if someone says "Imagine something that violates the laws of nature.", then one could assign that to the supernatural, but that is not about something real.

6 comments:

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    思張張亦 says:
    8 August 2010 at 18:27

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    梁名劉明倫裕 says:
    13 August 2010 at 13:15

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    tongtong says:
    15 August 2010 at 15:28

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    佳張張張張燕張張張張張 says:
    17 August 2010 at 20:39

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    阿袁袁袁袁華 says:
    17 August 2010 at 20:39

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    黃英吳思潔吳思潔邦 says:
    20 August 2010 at 01:37

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