Wednesday, 3 November 2010

If not Phlogiston, is this Supernatural?

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The natural/supernatural debate rumbles on.

Chris Schoen responds to Coyne, Blackford, Boudry et al whilst sort of agreeing with Steve Zara, PZ et al, but also gets it wrong, in my opinion:
But I'll allow that just as it's a tautology to say "if we define the supernatural as that which science can't examine, then science can't examine it," so too is it a tautology to say that "if we include the supernatural among that which science can examine, then science can examine it." 
Both of these are word games. The question is whether there is a category of phenomena (empty or otherwise) which science is not equipped to study, and the obvious answer to this is yes.
But surely that's just a word game as well, because a 'category' is just a human construct, so he's defining the problem into existence too, and begging the question. Steve is much closer to this, I think, by insisting science investigates reality; the rest is arbitrary categorising. We cannot know a priori what exists, or if "a category of phenomena (empty or otherwise) which science is not equipped to study" exists. That our mind is capable of imagining such a category is no more proof of its existence than it is of Guanilo's Island. It just means our minds are capable of imagining the non-existent. And this is backed by cognitive and other studies of supernatural thinking (see Boyer's Religion Explained, for example). Of course, if in fact science cannot investigate something, we have no other way to investigate it either.
Science can't study what it can't define, quantify and observe.
Which just defines the problem into existence, which he mentioned earlier.
Since it is predicated on revealing laws, science cannot study that which is lawless ("capricious," in Russell's words.)
Well, surely it can; it can study anything that has an effect in reality. We may not be able to draw conclusions from those studies, however, and in particular I don't think we can conclude in favour of, or even prefer, a supernatural explanation.

I've often said, in response to theists who question how science has any jurisdiction over God, that it is so because theists say their God makes a difference in the world. That *difference* can be studied (and so far dismissed, as it happens). So science has historically dismissed claimed 'differences', and the vast number of these debunkings suggests that it's *reasonable* to infer that it will always be so. Not that it *will* always be so, but that it's a reasonable inference that it will always be so.

Realising their claims have been debunked, theists then look around and find some phenomenon that science has yet to explain and re-attach their theology to that phenomenon (consciousness, for example). And this will continue ad nauseam, since there will no doubt always be unexplained phenomena.

The claim that supernatural explanations cannot be accepted fundamentally derives from the simple observation that the phrase supernatural explanation is an oxymoron, and I don't see a way past that. 


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