Pharyngula

In my week long visit to Ireland, I only had one encounter that left a bad taste in my mouth. Everyone I talked to was forthright and willing to state their views clearly, even if I thought they were dead wrong and rather stupid (my radio interview with Tom McGurk comes to mind — he was an unpleasant person more interested in barking loudly than having a conversation, but his views were plain), and most of my conversations were fun and interesting. The one exception was with a creationist in Belfast.

After my talk, this one furtive fellow who hadn’t had the nerve, apparently, to ask me anything in the public Q&A, came down front to confront me with his, errm, ‘irrefutable’ argument, which came straight from Answers in Genesis. I later learned that he’s one of the leaders of a creationist organization on campus.

He first declared that creationists and evolutionists all use the same evidence, we just differ in our presuppositions. AiG makes this claim all the time, and it’s complete nonsense. The creationists deny almost all of the evidence, using their catch-all excuse: if it contradicts the Bible, it is false. It’s not just a difference in starting premises, but a willingness on the part of the faith-based crowd to stick their fingers in their ears and shout “LA-LA-LA” at the majority of the reality-based evidence.

The only way to call it merely a difference in presuppositions is if they’re willing to admit that their fundamental presupposition is an unthinking obtusity.

That was just his prelude, though. His real goal was to try and trap me. He asked me if I admitted that the scientific position demands that we reject all alternative explanations — whether we can consider supernatural causes. I’ve thought about this before, and I told him no. I am willing to consider other possibilities, if someone provides a useful, testable, confirmable means for evaluating truth claims.

Then I asked him what alternative method to science he was suggesting.

He didn’t give me one — he simply announced with a grin that he was just confirming that I automatically rejected alternative explanations, and as I repeated my simple statement, that no, I did not, but that he was obligated to explain what his alternative might be — after all, I reject tarot cards and entrails-reading as methods for interpreting the world, and it’s a bit silly to pretend that I should have blanket acceptance of just any alternative method without telling me what it is — he thanked me for confirming his opinion and the sneaky little git scuttled away.

That’s what I detest most. Lying weasels who won’t listen honestly, and especially won’t even speak honestly.

Anyway, what brought up this recollection was an interesting post on Sandwalk on methodological naturalism. It nicely points out that there is a convention in the scientific community that treats methodological naturalism as a straitjacket that arbitrarily binds us. I don’t think that’s true at all.

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.

I think science is primarily a pragmatic approach that takes whatever tools work to build a better (as evaluated by testing against real-world observations) understanding of how the universe works. My major objection to creationism isn’t that it violates a set of dogmatic rules established by scientists playing a formal game, but that it provides no working alternative that I can use. The creationists mistake a series of assertions about history for a bank of operational methods for creating and answering new questions about the world.

Exclusion isn’t quite the right word for what we’re doing. Science’s job is to fill up the silos of the world with the grain of useful information, and we’ve found that applying the principles of the scientific method and operating under the guidelines of methodological naturalism means we’re productive: we can keep trundling up with wagonloads of corn and wheat and rice. The creationists are showing up with broken-down, essentially empty carts, containing nothing but chaff, a few dirt clods, and some fragrant manure, and they’re being turned away because they have nothing to contribute. You’re not being excluded if you have nothing to offer.

I imagine that Belfast creationist went back to his clique of ignorant pissants with a sense of triumph, and proudly announced that I had dogmaticly refused to include his offering of hot air and dust as nutritious and fit for a feast, and therefore was yet another tool of the establishment who unfairly discriminated against their way of knowing. Sorry, guy; a wealth of ignorance is no substitute for even a grain of knowledge.


Oh, cool: somebody standing there actually recorded the conversation in question.

Comments

  1. #1 sorceror171
    February 8, 2010

    Supernatural means “unknowable”. That’s all I’ve ever been able to figure. As soon as something is comprehended – as soon as we have a handle on how it works and how it’s constituted – by that very fact it’s not ‘supernatural’ anymore.

    When people say something’s ‘supernatural’, they mean, “I’ve given up on ever understanding this.”

  2. #2 ppnl
    February 8, 2010

    Arguing with creationists has been compared to playing chess with a pigeon. First they knock over all the pieces. Then they shit all over the board. And then they fly home and tell their friends that they won.

    As for the supernatural I think a big problem is a coherent definition. And calling something supernatural is effectively an end to questioning.

  3. #3 Zeno
    February 8, 2010

    PZ, when that creationist git reads this, he’s going to be quite provoked. You’re sullying his triumph by explaining your reasons for embracing naturalism and rejecting supernaturalism. He didn’t want reasons. He wanted to interpret your response as being dogmatic. Now you’re diminishing his “victory.” Poor git.

  4. #4 Cosmic Teapot
    February 8, 2010

    That’s what I detest most. Lying weasels who won’t listen honestly, and especially won’t even speak honestly.

    What’s that, a cretinist, lying? Why, it’s almost as if they had no evidence to back their claims.

    _____________<;,><_____________

  5. #5 monado
    February 8, 2010

    Weasel indeed.

    The problem with depending on the supernatural to affect your experiments is that it’s unpredictable, so the experiments are not repeatable.

    Thinking of creationist canards, I just love the one about life not developing in a jar of peanut butter. Don’t they know that the entire industries are dedicated to making sure that nothing new pops up in your stored foods?

  6. #6 badgersdaughter
    February 8, 2010

    Thank you for this, PZ. I’m not dealing with creationists at the moment, but with a bunch of equally ignorant new-age-woo-monger friends who dismiss any rational explanations as “beliefs” that are no better than their own “beliefs”. Whenever I ask them why something works, I’ve been a little battered by their condescending, “tolerant” pose and their “way of knowing” and “whatever works for you” jargon.

    Time for some new friends.

  7. #7 kevin.boyce
    February 8, 2010

    I don’t even understand what people mean by “supernatural”. In fact, I don’t think we should even use that word. If God performs miracles, why is that not part of nature? Therefore, it’s natural. If we find out we’re all just vatted brains in a matrix, that’s natural too.

    “Supernatural” seems to mean “not understood by current scientific knowledge”. But if God, or Zeus, or garden fairies, have actual effects on the “natural” world, then they’re just as natural as anything else. And thus amenable to scientific study. Sure, it’s hard to measure what a capricious god does, but so what? Up until 15 years ago it was bloody hard to make a Bose-Einstein condensate too, but that didn’t stop people from trying. And it certainly doesn’t make it supernatural.

    It seems to me that the distinction should be between “consistent” and “random”. Either the world works according to some rules, or it doesn’t. Ultimately the rules may be deeper than we know so far, but at this point it sure looks like there are rules, and the ones we think are correct really are. Maybe the universe is truly random and tomorrow we’ll all be Ferengi high school students and Armin Shimerman will be our principal. Anyone who believes in “supernatural” powers want to bet on that?

    In fact, those who claim a belief in supernatural stuff always (always) have rules too. God has rules, pixies have rules, Sedona shamen have rules. Uh-oh, rules. And rules means we can learn what the rules are by science. There is the universe, and it has rules. Anything else is solipsism.

    So let’s stop using “supernatural” already, other than as a title for Santana albums.

  8. #8 cedgray
    February 8, 2010

    Ah, it’s the old “Use rational argument to dismiss the use of rational argument” polka again.

    As Hugh Laurie says: “If you could reason with religious people, there wouldn’t be any religious people.”

  9. #9 cervantes
    February 8, 2010

    Actually I think the distinction between naturalism and the supernatural is not as simple to make as many people seem to think. After all, if 200 years ago I went around saying that there are invisible waves of electromagnetic energy all around us, and that the light we see by is just a visible example, and that I could build an apparatus which would take advantage of these invisible energy waves to see things hundreds of miles away, people would say I was claiming wizardry.

    So I think PZ’s answer is straightforward and correct: whatever claims you are making about mysterious forces in the universe have to be adjudicated on the basis of evidence, but we don’t dismiss any a priori just because we don’t have a place for them in our current theory.

  10. #10 NewEnglandBob
    February 8, 2010

    Science’s job is to fill up the silos of the world with the grain of useful information, and we’ve found that applying the principles of the scientific method and operating under the guidelines of methodological naturalism means we’re productive: we can keep trundling up with wagon-loads of corn and wheat and rice. The creationists are showing up with broken-down, essentially empty carts, containing nothing but chaff, a few dirt clods, and some fragrant manure, and they’re being turned away because they have nothing to contribute…

    When you write such magnificent metaphors like this, it makes me impatient to see this book you are writing. Of course, you have set the bar extremely high. :)

  11. #11 The 386sx Society
    February 8, 2010

    IMO, the dolphins in the youtube video are a stroke of pure genius.

  12. #12 Roger Stanyard
    February 8, 2010

    PZ – We at the British Centre for Science Education would be very interested to know the name of this creationionist at QUB.

    Northern Ireland is rampant with creationism and is a big problem for us.

    Email me privately at stanyardroger@yahoo.co.uk if possible.

    Regards

    Roger

  13. #13 PeteJohn
    February 8, 2010

    What a little twit. I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be to deal with people with that level of snivelly-itude on a regular basis. It sounds like, by his logic, by merely posing the question he’d trapped you. But, alas, no… you merely said that you need testable evidence to reach any kind of conclusions on anything. Pretty reasonable, if you ask me.

    I’ve seen Aron Ra’s series on the Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism and one of my favorite clips is when those “Creation Guys” are sitting on their couch and flat admit that they start from a biased position and then try to get the “Evolutionists” (damn I hate that term) to admit the same thing. Talk about projection! Surely there are some fools who accept evolution because “someone sed too,” but I’d say the majority of scientists support evolution because, well, it makes fucking sense!!! I mean, all of the natural sciences have been converging on evolution for 150 years and NOT ONE serious challenge in the scientific community has arisen. Not one. And the scientist who disproved evolution would more famous even then Darwin himself, and it has not happened yet. So no, it’s not bias… it’s the most obvious inference from clear, testable, falsifiable, objective evidence from the fields of taxonomy, genetics, paleontology, archaeology, chemistry, and biology.

  14. #14 Cuttlefish, OM
    February 8, 2010

    It’s not hatred; it’s not loathing;
    It’s the emperor’s new clothing,
    And Creationism doesn’t have a stitch.
    There’s no bible-methodology
    That’s better than biology–
    It seems a level playing-field’s a bitch.

    When the real world’s more exciting
    Than some Aramaic writing,
    Cos it adds to what we know about ourself,
    Then the bible’s contribution
    When it comes to evolution
    Is most useful when you keep it on the shelf.

    See, the truth about the ages
    Isn’t there within its pages
    It’s a waste of time to even go and look
    Science strives to see the lawful
    But the bible’s frankly awful:
    All in all, the perfect anti-science book!

    http://digitalcuttlefish.blogspot.com/2010/02/why-not-use-bible-as-science-book.html

  15. #15 nigelTheBold
    February 8, 2010

    After all, if 200 years ago I went around saying that there are invisible waves of electromagnetic energy all around us, and that the light we see by is just a visible example, and that I could build an apparatus which would take advantage of these invisible energy waves to see things hundreds of miles away, people would say I was claiming wizardry.

    Exactly.

    Science concerns itself with filling in a coherent ontology. It’s like a giant sudoku puzzle, in which we use the rules of the game to fill in the squares. Each square is filled in using logic and evidence, and each new square allows us to fill in one or two other new squares.

    Theists, new-agers, and other brick-headed bozos believe we can fill in the squares all willy-nilly, and in the end it will all make sense. Science, on the other hand, makes the assumption there is only one true solution, and that solution is observable and consistent and coherent, and must be arrived methodically and rationally.

    While there are empty squares, there will be empty skulls telling us what really goes there. And since we can’t counter them, they will believe they have the truth.

  16. #16 RamblinDude
    February 8, 2010

    Same planet, different worlds. At the heart of it, the vast majority of creationists don?t care anything at all about genuine investigation. What they care about is the endorphin release when they gather into a prayer circle and praise Jesus. They don?t want to examine the phenomenon of worship; they just want to experience it and nurture it, and their claim to evidence is mere hand waving and chatter in a frenetic attempt to keep from losing the sensation.

  17. #17 sorceror171
    February 8, 2010

    cervantes – …if 200 years ago I went around saying that there are invisible waves of electromagnetic energy all around us…

    But that’s my point. Electromagnetic waves are, ultimately, knowable.

    Here’s a passage from Roger Zelazny, a science fiction author, in his book “Lord Of Light”:

    “Then the one called Raltariki is really a demon?” asked Tak.

    “Yes, and no,” said Yama, “If by ‘demon’ you mean a malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span and the ability to temporarily assume virtually any shape, then the answer is no. This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect.”

    “Oh? And what may that be?”

    “It is not a supernatural creature.”

    “But it is all those other things?”

    “Yes.”

    “Then I fail to see what difference it makes whether it be supernatural or not, so long as it is malefic, possesses great powers and life span and has the ability to change its shape at will.”

    “Ah, but it makes a great deal of difference, you see. It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy, it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable.”

    (Yama later goes on to invent demon-repellent.)

  18. #18 Opisthokont
    February 8, 2010

    PZ, I take exception! I have known a few actual weasels in my time, and while they are often mischievous and crafty little beasts, they fall far short of the overwhelming inanity of thanking someone, to their face, for telling them something opposite to what he just said. Weasels are a paragon of honesty in comparison. I am at a loss to determine what sort of animal would exhibit this sort of behaviour. I recall encountering it in kindergarteners, but even they know that they are only teasing.

  19. #19 RamblinDude
    February 8, 2010

    Opisthokont,

    I am at a loss to determine what sort of animal would exhibit this sort of behaviour.

    Oh, that?s easy…the snake, of course. See, if all you so-called scientists would just read God?s Holy Word, you would know these things.

  20. #20 Victor
    February 8, 2010

    It’s hard to argue with someone that believes that all people that play the flute are descended from one man (Genesis 4:21).

  21. #21 David Marjanovi?
    February 8, 2010

    Methodological naturalism is just an application of parsimony.

  22. #22 raven
    February 8, 2010

    PZ Myers:

    He first declared that creationists and evolutionists all use the same evidence, we just differ in our presuppositions. AiG makes this claim all the time, and it’s complete nonsense.

    Creationists say they use the same evidence. It is a lie. They say that and then ignore the vast majority of it and twist a little bit of it to suit their religious fanatic purposes.

    Any religion or philosophy that starts out with a blatant lie is wrong.

  23. #23 Peter H
    February 8, 2010

    RamblinDude,

    It was not a snake but a serpent – undefined, as is par for that source.

    The “weasel” PZ met in Ireland is quite typical of the ilk. These woo-spinners don’t want evidence, they want confirmation; they don’t want answers, they want victims. Creation science is junk science. Intelligent design is solipsism carried to the nth degree. Irreducible complexity is arguing from ignorance.

  24. #24 Knockgoats
    February 8, 2010

    I’ve been arguing for QMN, here and elsewhere (and with examples showing that it was not followed by many pre-20th century scientists, and there are still exceptions, for some time. Nice to have a name for it! The more sophisticated wooists hate it, because having largely given up on claims that they can show their form of wooism to be rational, they try to insist that awooism also depends on untestable assumptions.

  25. #25 https://me.yahoo.com/a/DgiEGD9kscDJEdF9A.79OTdYGt3M006DmA--#6c479
    February 8, 2010

    I am willing to consider other possibilities, if someone provides a useful, testable, confirmable means for evaluating truth claims.

    I think it’s clear. He heard this, and said to himself, “but only science provides a useful, testable, confirmable way to know the truth!”

    He was too ashamed to even bring his own alternatives up: revelation, faith, mind-reading, personal epiphany, whatever. And he was too unimaginative to think that there might be anything other than science that could be useful, testable, and confirmable.

  26. #26 raven
    February 8, 2010

    That was just his prelude, though. His real goal was to try and trap me. He asked me if I admitted that the scientific position demands that we reject all alternative explanations ? whether we can consider supernatural causes.

    I’ve thought about this before, and I told him no. I am willing to consider other possibilities, if someone provides a useful, testable, confirmable means for evaluating truth claims.

    We and science adopted methodological naturalism for pragmatic reasons. It ignores the supernatural, it doesn’t contradict it. We can’t study something that we can’t see, measure, or repeat. Pragmatic.

    But there is nothing to prevent any scientist from simply ignoring methodological naturalism and considering the supernatural seriously. There are no science police. No one is going to go raiding underground science labs in church basements.

    Free country. The fundies can do any sort of science they want. The DI and AIG spend $50 million per year, mostly attacking evolution. They could spend that money on research. The xian churches IIRC, take in $70 billion per year. They could spend some of those billions on scientific supernaturalism.

    They don’t bother. Probably because they know they will get nowhere. There is nothing, no science police, nothing to prevent fundie xians from setting up their own supernatural science based research programs. Methodological naturalism is a pragmatic convenience, not a law of the USA.

    Time for the supernaturalist scientists to put up or shut up.

  27. #27 mmelliott01
    February 8, 2010

    In the twit’s (meager) defense, it is possible that he was so sure you would say “yes” that he didn’t really hear the “no”.

    Suzy: Mommy, can I have a sleepover? We promise to be quiet as mice and clean up afterwards!

    Mommy: Sure.

    Suzy: That’s not fair you’re a horrible mommy I hate you I hate you I hate you!

    — This would make him a blockheaded git rather than a weasel.

  28. #28 Matt Penfold
    February 8, 2010

    A few years ago I got involved in an online discussion on how we know science is a valid method for understanding how the universe works.

    At the time I knew even less about the philosophy of science than I do know, and my contribution was that science, or more specifically, the scientific method works. It works in that it provides us with explanations of the universe that allow us to do useful things. Out scientific understanding of the human body allow us to develop medical treatments for example.

    I was accused of being philosophically naive. At the time I was concerned about that. These days not so much. And the fact that the scientific method has proved so useful still strikes me as being a dammed good reason for thinking it works.

  29. #29 cervantes
    February 8, 2010

    Indeed. Give me testable propositions that would confirm the existence of God and I’ll be happy to accept a grant to try them. Of course you’ll need an operational definition of God to begin with.

  30. #30 gsgibson
    February 8, 2010

    And here is the “debate” in question. I was hovering nearby with my iPhone and thought the conversation would be funny enough to keep for posterity: http://j.mp/cgdcee

    Quality is a bit ropey, but you get the gist.

  31. #31 Jim Baerg
    February 8, 2010

    Re: what is meant by ‘supernatural’.
    This Includes the statement “In short, I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.”

    See the rest of the essay for how he justifies the statement

  32. #32 Peter Henderson
    February 8, 2010

    I later learned that he’s one of the leaders of a creationist organization on campus.

    any idea who he was PZ ? QUB actually have a YE creation society on campus, the QUB creation society though I think it might possibly have something to do with this local outfit:

    http://creationoutreachministries.com/

    one of whome is a lecturer at QUB believe it or not. Wish I’d gone down to the front now. I might have been able to catch him out on some basic geology. Thank goodness I learned my geology under Herbie Black.

  33. #33 Jim Baerg
    February 8, 2010

    Re: What is meant my ‘super natrual
    Richar Carrier wrote an essay which includes this statement: “In short, I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.”

    See the rest of the essay for justification & elaboration.

    ‘Supernaturalism’ is a perfectly testable idea that has failed the tests applied.

  34. #34 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawkmhzYpALIhgfrHhnJbBC9ykz62kmJHu80
    February 8, 2010

    @#32 – I believe it was Nathan Anderson, head of the QUB Creation Society, although I have to admit I can’t be 100% certain on that. Whoever it was, there is a picture of him on the creationoutreach link you posted.

    Also, which member of QUB staff is linked to them?

  35. #35 PZ Myers
    February 8, 2010

    I think it was a Nathan. But someone also made the comment that half the creationists on campus seem to be named Nathan.

  36. #36 IanM
    February 8, 2010

    Free country. The fundies can do any sort of science they want. The DI and AIG spend $50 million per year, mostly attacking evolution. They could spend that money on research. The xian churches IIRC, take in $70 billion per year. They could spend some of those billions on scientific supernaturalism.

    Or they could spent that money on universal health-care, feeding and housing the poor, promoting peace, teaching their flock to be less judgmental. Instead, those themes are merely part of a grand bait-and-switch while their real program is to accumulate money and power through the promotion of ignorance and hate.

  37. #37 Glen Davidson
    February 8, 2010

    MN is really a meaningless claim set up to protect supernaturalism from the fact that it always either fails in the test, or it makes claims that cannot be tested. It may as well be abandoned.

    But that’s a fact few enough will accept, so I don’t care much about that.

    What’s certain is that the creationist rejects all sorts of supernatural claims–if they’re from the “wrong religion.” And they’ll reject “supernaturalism” entirely if someone tries to weasel out of the evidence in a court case that they hope to win.

    Total hypocrites.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  38. #38 AJ Milne
    February 8, 2010

    This sort of idiotic wanking over scientists excluding ‘supernatural’ causes brings to mind Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, for me, oddly enough…

    Why? Because of the incredible contrast between the ‘magic’ in that book and what wanks in the real world who make noise about ‘the supernatural’ actually mean…

    In that book, magic works. And well. You can use it for things, up to and including warfare. A good magician who knows what he’s doing is a weapon in the national arsenal. He can tell what he can do to the physical world, and will then set out and do it.

    In reality, as noted above, what is really meant by someone claiming they want to include ‘supernatural’ explanations is ‘please change all the rules merely sane people use to evaluate what does and doesn’t work just so I can keep selling the same, stupid line that has failed utterly by those actually quite sensible rules every single fucking time’.

    That’s it, and that’s all. They know they’ve got squat, they know in the real world their prayers do zilch, and their god’s not there, but rather than do the honest thing and acknowledge as much, they try to dodge around this uncomfortable reality by insisting the standards being used to evaluate their claims just aren’t fair. They’re like a kid who just failed their math test and who are now trying to insist this wasn’t fair–they want full credit for answering 2+2 with 5 (or even with ‘a zebra’) because by what they figure are fair rules, that’d be just fine.

    And the only reason this bald reality isn’t more commonly apprehended is the relative status religions have bought themselves over centuries of prominence. The kid on the math test gets laughed out of the classroom, but the doctor of divinity with a string of degrees and a shelf full of books by folk who’ve been trying the same silly line on for most of those centuries will stand up huffily and grind on about those evil, simpleminded/narrowminded fascist empiricists who insist upon using such unreasonable standards as actual utility for evaluation on his highminded nonsense, when, oddly, he uses the same standard himself for everything but. When crossing the street, he does not ask his god if the light is red or green, and is unlikely to think he’s going to reason with the car about to run him down that really, these two colours are just abstract labels we apply to a personal and unverifiable experience of an external phenomenon we can’t rigourously prove even exists. Doing this, at least, he thinks like everyone else, and he actually thinks like a working scientist, acknowledging: there is an external reality, it is knowable enough for our purposes, and this accordingly directs his actions.

    The truth is, it’s just another extension of this obvious and incredibly revealing double standard, this insistence on keeping the mind open for so-called ‘supernatural’ causes–again, one which does not mean ‘consider the possibility that magic exists’ (like PZ, I have no problem with this in principle–bring me your Jonathan Strange–I have some projects I’d love his help with), but rather really means ‘don’t insist upon any actually reasonable method of evaluating whether or not I’m full of shit, since it so happens I know perfectly well that am and thus I also know this will go extremely poorly for me’.

    (/That said, again, I must thank folk such as this silly wank for making such requests. It does rather reveal their hand. Or rather, their lack of one.)

  39. #39 MetaEd
    February 8, 2010

    Feynman repeatedly made the point that it’s wrong to assume anything is predictable, rule-based, or otherwise easy to comprehend.

    If the universe turns out to be so coherent and symmetrical at its fundamentals that you can fill in knowledge like a giant sudoku puzzle — that’s a discovery, not an axiom. It is not essential to science that the universe behaves this way.

    Or if the universe turns out to have been organized 6,000 years ago by a na´ve and rather wilful supernatural creature who confided the true story to a tribe of Semitic nomads — that’s also a discovery, not an axiom.

    You have to observe the facts and follow where they lead.

  40. #40 Peter Henderson
    February 8, 2010

    I think it was a Nathan. But someone also made the comment that half the creationists on campus seem to be named Nathan

    Indeed PZ,quite a common name in these parts.

    I believe it was Nathan Anderson, head of the QUB Creation Society

    well, haven’t come across him so far.

    Also, which member of QUB staff is linked to them?

    this one as far as I know:
    http://www.creationoutreachministries.com/johnwatterson.htm

    I’m sure they stated he was a lecturer at the university though they appear to have removed this from his CV.

    I’m also prettty sure Dr. Robert Beckett has something to do with the QUB creation society. He’s on COM’s board of reference:

    http://www.creationoutreachministries.com/com_board_of_reference.htm

  41. #41 Sastra
    February 8, 2010

    sorceror171 #1 wrote:

    Supernatural means “unknowable”. That’s all I’ve ever been able to figure.

    No; there may be all sorts of things which we can’t know, or don’t know, or can’t investigate with science, but not all of them would be ‘supernatural.’ Consider String Theory — for all that it deals with other dimensions which may be forever untestable, nobody has ever accused it of being about the supernatural. It’s missing a critical feature: it has nothing to do with mind. The strings aren’t being held together by — oh, let’s say it’s the force of “love.” Add that factor in, and note the difference.

    We just had an exhaustive argument on this subject on the Comity & Reconciliation thread, from about #450 on …

    Bottom line, we all need a clear definition of ‘supernatural’ which both allows it to be distinguishable from ‘natural but unknown,’ and tracks with use. We need to be able to allow the supernaturalists to make their case, and, at the same time, allow us to say they haven’t made it. We also have to be able to change our minds. That was what the creationist was whining about — PZ wouldn’t be able to change his mind if he was wrong.

    The problem isn’t the method; it starts in the definition.

    Jim Baerg #31 quotes Carrier:

    “In short, I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.”

    Yes; this is a good definition — much better than focusing on constantly shifting lines of what’s in or out of nature, or what’s scientifically verifiable or not. Here’s my own, similar definition (which has been criticized)

    The Supernatural: Non-material, irreducible mental Being, beings, or forces which exist apart from and above the material realm, outside of regular laws, and which affect the natural world through the power of intentions or values.

    One of the major contributions of so-called “new atheists” like Dawkins and Myers is treating supernaturalism as a hypothesis — a failed hypothesis. You can’t deal with it as a hypothesis unless you have a definition clear enough to be able to predict the sorts of things that would confirm it, or count against it.

    Naturalism isn’t a ‘presupposition.’ It’s a working theory.

  42. #43 aratina cage of the OM
    February 8, 2010

    I asked him what alternative method to science he was suggesting.

    He didn’t give me one ? he simply announced with a grin that he was just confirming that I automatically rejected alternative explanations…

    You obviously censored him by not reaching into your handbag of methodological supernaturalism to know his explanation. Ways you could have learned it:

    • Yanking the explanation out of his mind telepathically
    • Allowing the light of the Lord to beam the answer into your brain
    • Tapping your scarlet A two times with your forefinger followed by a clockwise sweep, magically forcing him to vocalize the explanation
    • Communing briefly with the Universal Consciousness to tap the recesses of his mind
    • Cracking open the Bible to page one and continually turning pages until you are filled with the Holy Spirit
    • and on and on and on…
  43. #44 raven
    February 8, 2010

    In that book, magic works. And well. You can use it for things, up to and including warfare. A good magician who knows what he’s doing is a weapon in the national arsenal.

    The USA is rather result oriented. That free country capitalism stuff.

    If magic, xian or otherwise worked, the magicians or rather their employers would own Wall Street. Everyone wants to makes billions of bucks easily. The Pentagon, US military, would have their own magician training school, and the US Army Corp of Saints and Mages would be the envy and terror of the world.

    It would solve our car bomb and IED by the roadside problems in the ME.

    The world would consist of our god and Saints and Sorcerors against the other gods and their saints and Sorcerors.

    Of course none of this has happened. Wall Street employs lots of science people as number crunchers and as much fraud and extortion of the government as they can get away with. The US military spends c. 80 billion bucks on science and technology, a huge amount. When it comes to sending the troops out and bringing them back successful and alive, they put their money literally on science, not on supernatural magic.

    But like I said. There is nothing to prevent fundies from setting up supernatural based brokerage houses and banks and praying to god to send them stock tips that go up or whatever. Or setting up supernatural science based companies and designing computer chips and programs or medical treatments by magic.

  44. #45 Sastra
    February 8, 2010

    raven #44 wrote:

    But like I said. There is nothing to prevent fundies from setting up supernatural based brokerage houses and banks and praying to god to send them stock tips that go up or whatever. Or setting up supernatural science based companies and designing computer chips and programs or medical treatments by magic.

    The supernatural is indeed being utilized by businesses. There are news stories out there on psychics who work as stock brokers, and some major companies have employed people to do feng shui on their office buildings. As for medical treatments by magic — alternative medicine is now a big business, and making huge inroads into previously science-based hospitals and universities.

    You can make money with the supernatural in any area where the situation is filled with confounding factors, and the results are fuzzy and open to interpretation, or re-interpretation.

  45. #46 sorceror171
    February 8, 2010

    MetaEd – It’s true that “it’s wrong to assume anything is predictable, rule-based, or otherwise easy to comprehend.”

    But the other extreme is just as wrong – assuming something is incomprehensible. If you decide that something is fundamentally incomprehensible (which, as I argue above, is what calling something “supernatural” means), you will stop trying to understand it. Richard Feynman also joked that “You don’t understand Quantum Mechanics, you just get used to it,” but he never stopped trying to advance understanding of QM, despite how counterintuitive it is. And it’s worth noting that QM is not quite as incomprehensible as it’s popularly portrayed – if it were, the computer you’re reading this on could never have been designed and built.

  46. #47 raven
    February 8, 2010

    alternative medicine is now a big business, and making huge inroads into previously science-based hospitals and universities.

    Well sure, many people employ magic.

    Most people aren’t all that convinced that it works though.

    Faith healing has a history of killing people, we’ve all seen it here and there.

    Despite the attacks on modern medicine, the real problem is well known. Demand for and ability to pay for it has outrun the supply. Most people given a choice between being treated by a doc or a magician, go with the MD.

    and the results are fuzzy and open to interpretation, or re-interpretation.

    Still waiting for the first magic designed computer chip, program, drug, space vehicle, or IED bomb detector.

  47. #48 sorceror171
    February 8, 2010

    Sastra – I’m using the term “unknowable” in the specific sense of “incomprehensible”, “fundamentally beyond human ken”.

    And that’s what the supernatural always boils down to in practice. If string theory actually held that strings were bound by “the power of love”, that would be incomprehensible by that very fact. There would be no way of knowing how “love” did that. (Indeed, in Carrier’s essay, he notes the essential difference as being that “natural” things have comprehensible “causal mechanisms”, whereas supernatural things just ‘do it;’ – there’s no way to understand how they do whatever they do.)

  48. #49 Knockgoats
    February 8, 2010

    What Sastra said.

    sorceror171,
    Magic spells are surely supernatural if anything is, but those who believe in them do not believe them to be either wholly unpredictable (if you get the incantation and accoutrements just right, the spell will work), nor inexplicable: there are powerful spirit beings which sorcerers can oblige or persuade to do their bidding. It just so happens that there are no such beings, so magic spells don’t work.

  49. #50 sorceror171
    February 8, 2010

    Knockgoats – And how do those “powerful spirit beings” make spells work? What do they do that accomplishes the effects involved?

    That’s my point the difference between a spirit/god and a “powerful alien” is that the alien is (ultimately, eventually) comprehensible. The spirit or god is not.

  50. #51 Paul Robinson
    February 8, 2010

    “I only had one encounter that left a bad taste in my mouth.”

    PZ, you are obviously forgetting the encounter with Harp Lager!

    This is depressing. It’s not just the creationist movements that encourage this crude presupposition stuff, it’s also found in the worldview movement within evangelical apologetics.

    The other problem is that when people isolate themselves, they tend towards conspiracy theories. I wish he had come out for a pint and a bit of chilled-out banter, and then asked his question without the grand-standing.

    I’ll find out who the person is — I’m sure we have many friends in common — and will meet him for coffee.

    I trust you liked the Black Bush whiskey at the end of the night. I hope no one recorded my well-oiled attempt at conversation! (I’d already started on the booze before your lecture!) It was fun to have you over here PZ, you must come back soon.

  51. #52 Sastra
    February 8, 2010

    sorceror171 #48 wrote:

    And that’s what the supernatural always boils down to in practice. If string theory actually held that strings were bound by “the power of love”, that would be incomprehensible by that very fact. There would be no way of knowing how “love” did that. (Indeed, in Carrier’s essay, he notes the essential difference as being that “natural” things have comprehensible “causal mechanisms”, whereas supernatural things just ‘do it;’ – there’s no way to understand how they do whatever they do.)

    As Knockgoats points out, there are slightly different connotations in the word “incomprehensible.” The term supernatural doesn’t just designate phenomenon which can’t be understood on any level — it invokes some power of the mind, or product of the mind, which can’t be reduced to anything that isn’t somehow mental. It is, what it is. The force that is love works through the power of its love force, which is made up of love, and comes from love. Ditto the force of life, or the power of thought.

    If we can understand that, then this love-force is now comprehended well enough to be identified, its effects observed, and our model used to make predictions.

  52. #53 Tulse
    February 8, 2010

    The term supernatural doesn’t just designate phenomenon which can’t be understood on any level — it invokes some power of the mind, or product of the mind, which can’t be reduced to anything that isn’t somehow mental.

    So the supernatural is disembodied intentionality.

  53. #54 sorceror171
    February 8, 2010

    Sastra – you write,

    The force that is love works through the power of its love force, which is made up of love, and comes from love. Ditto the force of life, or the power of thought.

    If we can understand that, then this love-force is now comprehended…

    Um, that’s a pretty big ‘if’. From that description, at most it’s been named, not ‘understood’. Can you point out an example of anyone who has understood that?

    I can point to a couple billion counterexamples – people who claim that supernatural stuff is officially beyond human comprehension: Christians, Muslims, & Jews.

    In practice, the supernatural always ends up being “stuff I don’t understand, and I don’t think anyone ever will.”

  54. #55 abb3w
    February 8, 2010

    PZ: The only way to call it merely a difference in presuppositions is if they’re willing to admit that their fundamental presupposition is an unthinking obtusity.

    Actually, the problem is not so much the fundamental (primary) propositions, but that creationists take as a supreme proposition (either primary or as inference) that the Bible is the literal, inerrant Word of God, and thus has a greater degree of Truth than any other proposition.

    They may take this as a primary – directly on faith — or as a secondary inference, but they consider themselves more attached to it than any other philosophical point.

    Science takes as explicit primary propositions the self-consistency of the
    language of mathematics (essentially, the joint affirmation of the ZF axioms, and validity of Wolfram’s Axiom or equivalent Boolean rules for inference), and the assumption that reality produces experience with any manner of pattern (leaving aside the math defining “pattern”).

    Creationists usually take assumptions explicitly reducible to cases of these; explicitly inconsistent with (P OR (NOT P)) being TRUE; or implicitly made covertly (so as to allow distinguishing a hawk from a handsaw).

    PZ: I am willing to consider other possibilities, if someone provides a useful, testable, confirmable means for evaluating truth claims.

    Competitive testing for minimum description length induction. The philosophical method of science results as a “greedy search” approximation; the anthropological practice (including experimental method), as a design implementation of the search approximation.

    As a byproduct, “natural” is defined as a mathematical cloture on “produces” and “experience”. Which leaves traditionally “supernatural” as either “paranormal” subject to analysis, or never impacting experience and thus indistinguishable from the non-existent.

    PZ [quoting]: 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.

    The problem is supernatural is ill-defined; there are no criteria for distinguishing a supernatural experience from a natural one. This in effect forces one to abandon the assumption of pattern, and loss of any resolution to Hume’s problem of induction (“will hitting my thumb with a hammer hurt like the last three times?”) and Epicurus problem of deduction (“do I have either thumb or hammer at all?”).

    PZ: I think science is primarily a pragmatic approach that takes whatever tools work to build a better (as evaluated by testing against real-world observations) understanding of how the universe works.

    As an anthropological practice. Philosophically, the “pragmatic” and “build better” involve points where the anthropological practice of science includes not only the philosophical discipline of science, but also the philosophical discipline of engineering. It’s a line that’s cross every time a scientist DESIGNs an experiment.

    kevin.boyce: “Supernatural” seems to mean “not understood by current scientific knowledge”.

    “Paranormal” is a better term here.

    MetaEd: Feynman repeatedly made the point that it’s wrong to assume anything is predictable, rule-based, or otherwise easy to comprehend.

    [Citation Needed]
    It’s certainly wrong to assume anything is based on any PARTICULAR rule/pattern; however, if you don’t assume there is SOME pattern, then there is no reason to conclude that your multiple experiences usually associated with having a thumb, are in fact associated with a thumb.

    Assuming there is SOME pattern allows making provisional inferences as to which patterns are most likely. Of course, the math still isn’t anything near most of the usual values of “easy”, but it at least meets the sense of “not impossible”.

  55. #56 MetaEd
    February 8, 2010

    We all need a clear definition of ‘supernatural’ which both allows it to be distinguishable from ‘natural but unknown,’ and tracks with use.

    We have one. Supernatural: of or attributed to a person (or realm) which is commonly invisible.

    Supernatural does not mean unreal, outside of cause and effect, or violating natural laws, because believers don’t mean that. For them, the supernatural has the same claim to being real as electromagnetism.

  56. #57 sorceror171
    February 8, 2010

    Sasta – one more point. I even agree that ‘supernatural’ stuff is almost always associated with emotion and intentionality. But I think that’s a symptom, not a diagnostic characteristic of the supernatural per se.

    Humans have a well-known bias to perceive agency and intention where none exists. It’s kind of the human “go-to” explanation. So far as I can tell, when people “give up” and decide they can’t understand some phenomenon, they are most comfortable attribution some kind of agency or intentionality to that phenomenon.

    I even have a name for it: “Haldane’s Error”.

    On the mechanistic theory this [cell] nucleus must carry within its substance a mechanism which by reaction with the environment not only produces the millions of complex and delicately balanced mechanisms which constitute the adult organism, but provides for their orderly arrangement into tissues and organs, and for their orderly development in a certain perfectly specific manner.

    The mind recoils from such a stupendous conception; but let us follow the argument further… This nuclear structure or mechanism must, according to the mechanistic theory, have been formed within a very short period by the union of two others – a male and a female one. How two such mechanisms could combine to form one is entirely unintelligible, and the observed details of the process tend only to make it, if possible, more unintelligible. When we trace each nuclear mechanism backwards we find ourselves obliged to admit that it has been formed by division from a pre-existing nuclear mechanism, and this from pre-existing nuclear mechanisms through millions of cell-generations. We are thus forced to the admission that the germ-plasm is not only a structure or mechanism of inconceivable complexity, but that this structure is capable of dividing itself to an absolutely indefinite extent and yet retaining its original structure…

    There is no need to push the analysis further. The mechanistic theory of heredity is not merely unproven, it is impossible. It involves such absurdities that no intelligent person who has thoroughly realised its meaning and implications can continue to hold it. (J. S. Haldane, Mechanism, Life, And Personality, 1913)

    Reading this passage, it’s striking how clearly Haldane recognized the functional requirements that a mechanism for inheritance would have to meet. But he could imagine no physical arrangement that could satisfy those conditions, and concluded that therefore such a mechanism was impossible. Indeed, he insisted that a spiritual – supernatural – explanation was the only remaining option. Laborious work by Watson and Crick (and Wilkins and Franklin) has since discovered DNA, however, greatly illuminating that which was previously obscure.

    What if Dr. Haldane had decided to “push the analysis further”? Might we have discovered the structure of DNA decades earlier?

  57. #58 Kel, OM
    February 8, 2010

    As soon as a “supernatural cause” is coherently defined and empirically shown to exist, then I say they should be considered. Until then, it’s incoherent waffle from people who want to say Goddidit and reject the evidence as it stands.

    On that “different ways” of looking at the evidence, my response is that we’ve seen stars billions of light years away. The universe has to be billions of years old, otherwise you’re making the Omphalos hypothesis. In which case you aren’t explaining the evidence, you’re explaining it away. QED

  58. #59 nigelTheBold
    February 8, 2010

    If the universe turns out to be so coherent and symmetrical at its fundamentals that you can fill in knowledge like a giant sudoku puzzle — that’s a discovery, not an axiom. It is not essential to science that the universe behaves this way.

    Only partially true.

    Part of the practice of science is comparing new hypotheses against the current ontology. In cases where a new hypothesis is not coherent with the current ontology, the resistance to the new hypothesis is great. Often many groups will evaluate the hypothesis in an attempt to disprove it.

    Without the idea that the universe is coherent and understandable, we would’ve just accepted the Copenhagen interpretation of QM and moved on. As it is, we take conflicting evidence to indicate ignorance, rather than complete knowledge of an incoherent universe.

  59. #60 MadScientist
    February 8, 2010

    Hah. That reminds me of a phrase from that song “The Boxer” – “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”. Perhaps the song should have been “The Creationist”.

    I’d also like to point out that “methodological naturalism” is philosophy and not science; it does not even vaguely represent science – you may as well say a mouse is representative of a cat because it has fur. Like religion, just because a few scientists believe in it doesn’t make MN true.

  60. #61 Kel, OM
    February 8, 2010

    This is why when it comes to ID / Creationism, I ask two questions: What did the designer do? And how can we test for it? No answers it seems, I posted this a lot.

  61. #62 Pierce R. Butler
    February 8, 2010

    … half the creationists on campus seem to be named Nathan.

    Peter Henderson @ # 40: … quite a common name in these parts.

    Alternative (best-case) hypothesis: only two creationists on that campus.

    Tulse @ # 53: So the supernatural is disembodied intentionality.

    Not necessarily. The linkages of astrology, or between sidewalk cracks and maternal backs, are postulated as strictly mechanical.

    As for “methodical naturalism” – isn’t that primarily a dodge for the convenience of religiously-inclined scientists, taken up as a splittable hair by philosophers?

  62. #63 procrastinator.myopenid.com
    February 8, 2010

    @knockgoats: #24

    “… QMN, … Nice to have a name for it! The more sophisticated wooists hate it, because having largely given up on claims that they can show their form of wooism to be rational, they try to insist that awooism also depends on untestable assumptions.”

    Speaking of “Nice to have a name for it!,” I think that awooist is my new handle. Beats the wooist slander, athiest, all to hell. Can we get a movement started here?

    Best wishes,
    JB

  63. #64 procrastinator.myopenid.com
    February 8, 2010

    That should be:

    Best wishes,
    JB, awooist

  64. #65 Ian
    February 8, 2010

    Re Raven #47 Still waiting for the first magic designed computer chip, program, drug, space vehicle, or IED bomb detector.

    Regretably someone has produced a magic IED bomb detector.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2010/01_january/22/iraq.shtml

    Worse, the Iraq police and military think it works.

  65. #66 nigelTheBold
    February 8, 2010

    Ian:

    Homeopathy is your magic-produced drug. And it works, Baby!

    When I am thirsty, I take a quart of homeopathic medicine, and drink it. After a short while, I am no longer thirsty. It works every time, and is quite predictable.

    I even performed a short experiment. I gave one of my cats homeopathic medicine on a regular basis. The control cat received no homeopathic medicine. And the control cat died, while the cat receiving the medicine lived.

    I believe this experiment is reproducible. If I had kids, I’d try it on them next. One gentleman went so far as to use homeopathic medicine as a learning aid, for his 3-year-old daughter who was unable to learn her ABCs. And that only required a topical application!

  66. #67 Shane McKee
    February 8, 2010

    Peter Henderson, good detective work there, my man! The QUB Creation Society has a presence on Facebook, but the good news seems to be that it consists mainly of anti-creationists. Oddly one of our local politicians, a certain Mr Jeffrey Donaldson, is a member. I don’t know whether he is a creationist or not – I hope not (I am not a fan of his politics anyway, but we have quite enough nutters in our Assembly, thank you, with Edwin Poots, Mervyn Storey and Davy Simpson all being creationists).

    Paul Robinson, you’re a sound lad. It was good to have you along the other night.

  67. #68 Paul W.
    February 8, 2010

    Here’s a summary of some of the stuff that Sastra was referring to from the Comity and Reconciliation thread. It’s longish but maybe more accessible and less confusing this time around.

    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.

    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.)

    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.

    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 Sun.

    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.

  68. #69 Paul W.
    February 8, 2010

    More on the “supernatural” and why it’s not just unknowable/incomprehensible… (This too his a rehash of stuff from the Comity and Reconciliation thread, and a repost of a comment at Sandwalk; I hadn’ realized the same discussion was going on here.)

    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.

  69. #70 Sastra
    February 8, 2010

    sorceror171 #54 wrote:

    I can point to a couple billion counterexamples – people who claim that supernatural stuff is officially beyond human comprehension: Christians, Muslims, & Jews.
    In practice, the supernatural always ends up being “stuff I don’t understand, and I don’t think anyone ever will.”

    And they all say that the same way they say “God is beyond human comprehension, nobody can understand God” right before they go into what God is like, what God wants, what God does, and how they know God is real. Right. We need to take claims that the supernatural is “that which is forever beyond our ability to know” with a huge grain of salt. Yes, they say that, but I suspect it’s only as a caution (for themselves and others) against examining their beliefs too carefully.

    “The force that is love works through the power of its love force, which is made up of love, and comes from love. Ditto the force of life, or the power of thought” are all basically understood through experience. It is not intuitively obvious that thoughts are firing patterns of neurons in the brain. On the contrary, they seem to be “things” which move our bodies through their desire to do so. There is a ghost in the machine — and the ghost is not, cannot be, another machine, or made up of machines. When our folk theories of mind and physics swing into action, as Paul W. says, reductionism — mechanism — just isn’t on the radar. What it feels like, is what it is. That’s very satisfying, on a simple level, which they then relabel “deep.”

    It seems to me that what’s striking about the supernatural isn’t its strangeness, but its familiarity. There is always a mind-like or teleological component related to human needs, desire, social structures, relationships. It works on the outside world, the way our minds think on the inside world. The supernatural brings the cosmos down to our size, by placing us as primary concern. If they’re not invisible agents, then there’s an invisible agency which acts to make things fair, or make things comfortable, or otherwise connect everything through underlying webs of meaning which are just like human meanings.

    Instead of being beyond human understanding, it’s human understanding written over otherwise inanimate, mechanistic, purposeless, uncaring matter and energy, placing them into our social drama and relationships.

    I forget who it was, but one scientist once said that, if it turned out that the huge, amazing, strange, awe-inspiring cosmos he studied was nothing more than a stage set for the petty little drama of seeing if human beings we were going to love their creator, that would be one big giant fucking disappointment. Well, something like that.

  70. #71 hypocee
    February 8, 2010

    It nicely points out that there is a convention in the scientific community that treats methodological naturalism as a straitjacket that arbitrarily binds us. I don’t think that’s true at all.

    Actually, I just yesterday got around to reading Dennett’s article “Postmodernism and Truth”, where he uses pretty much that metaphor:

    Scientists take themselves to be just as weak and fallible as anybody else, but recognizing those very sources of error in themselves and in the groups to which they belong, they have devised elaborate systems to tie their own hands, forcibly preventing their frailties and prejudices from infecting their results.

    With the exception of the “arbitrarily”, I think that image is pretty true.

  71. #72 AJ Milne
    February 8, 2010

    The supernatural brings the cosmos down to our size, by placing us as primary concern. If they’re not invisible agents, then there’s an invisible agency which acts to make things fair, or make things comfortable, or otherwise connect everything through underlying webs of meaning which are just like human meanings.

    It often seems to me the sentiment that there are things that are unknowable or things we aren’t supposed to know is also meant to be comforting, on some level. It’s as though they’re imagining their god as a parent saying ‘don’t worry your little head about it, it’s none of your concern’.

    Consider also the sentiment that these things should be beyond us, things we’ll just never get. The latter of course could well be true, theoretically at least, but it’s generally saying a mouthful to assume it up front about anything.

    Either way, the trouble with knowing things is with the knowledge will come annoying and often demanding responsibilities, decisions to be made as to how you use the new capabilities that may well follow. Religion is often in this sense an attempt to infantilize.

    The flip side of this is, however, people also know too well that what you don’t know may very well, in fact, hurt you, and what others find out first may as well. For many of us, it does take the shine off religion.

    Nonetheless, for many, there is still a strong psychological allure offered by ignorance. This is part of the appeal of many religions. We’ll shelter you, offer you easy, simple answers, protect you from those nasty, complicated realities.

  72. #73 Matt
    February 8, 2010

    What interests me is the complete ignorance of any literature other than AiG & similar, read a book:

    The logic of scientific discovery
    – Sir Karl Raimund Popper
    1959

    Address pretty much all of these sort of questions about scientific methods and presupposition more than fifty years ago. Its sort of insulting to suggest that scientist don’t think about the deep questions of scientific method.

  73. #74 sorceror171
    February 8, 2010

    Paul W. –

    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:

    …because they didn’t understand it. It didn’t work like anything they’d expected… so they went to the default “go-to” human explanation – agency, teleology. Then, once it was comprehended, it wasn’t supernatural anymore.

    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.

    Which fits in with what I’ve been saying. You don’t understand how it works – you give up on understanding how it works. But humans don’t like things they don’t understand; things you don’t understand, things you can’t predict, are dangerous. So humans try very hard to see a teleology, an agent. If they can do that, then they can at least anticipate what it might do, and maybe even influence it.

    The point is that the fact that you don’t understand it comes first – that you give up on understanding the mechanism. Then humans naturally fill up that vacuum with agent-based theories.

  74. #75 Paul Murray
    February 8, 2010

    “But that’s my point. Electromagnetic waves are, ultimately, knowable.”

    Well … they’re not. Not really. I mean, we have math that *describes* them very well, but “knowing” them – heck, what does that mean, anyway? If it means understanding them well enough that you know what they are going to do without going to much effort, then maybe they are unknowable by simple dint of being just too damn hard.

    Ultimately, you don’t really “know” anything much, including yourself. Maybe “knowing” in this sense is simply about how you *feel* about something. You “know” something when you understand it well enough that you don’t *fear* it. You feel that you can predict it’s behaviour well enough that you deal with (or avoid it) safely.

  75. #76 biblicaltruthchangeslives
    February 9, 2010

    Hey PZ!

    I enjoyed our chat on friday night!

  76. #77 Ichthyic
    February 9, 2010

    After my talk, this one furtive fellow who hadn’t had the nerve, apparently, to ask me anything in the public Q&A, came down front to confront me with his, errm, ‘irrefutable’ argument, which came straight from Answers in Genesis. I later learned that he’s one of the leaders of a creationist organization on campus.

    is this YOU, biblicaltruthchangeslives?

  77. #78 llewelly
    February 9, 2010

    biblicaltruthchangeslives

    Learning the truth about the bible certainly changed my life. I’m wiser, happier, and more ethical, because I know the bible is myth.

  78. #79 Paul W.
    February 9, 2010

    sorceror171,

    I agree that humans tend to interpret the unknown in terms of agents. What I (and I think Sastra) were responding to was partly your saying:

    Supernatural means “unknowable”. That’s all I’ve ever been able to figure.

    That made it sound like “supernatural” only means unknowable. It means a lot more than that, in particular “understanding” things in a ways analogous to understanding agents, even if you don’t understand agents and agency, really.

    There are a lot of unknown things that are not conceptualized as supernatural—they’re just unknown—or are explained supernaturalistically in some cultures but not others.

    For example, in modern Western monotheism there’s an obsession with a creator God who created everything. In most cultures at most times, it hasn’t been assumed that a god did or even could create everything; it’s typically taken for granted that stuff exists, and the religion isn’t about why there is something rather than nothing at all. It’s about why fairly concrete humanly-interesting things are the way they are, and what to do about them.

    One of Boyer’s main points about religion is that it’s generally not about ultimate explanations. It’s about explanations of real world stuff—love, death, injustice, etc.—at a certain very familiar level, using the same basic schemas we use to understand brute matter, tools, living things, animals, and especially persons.

    In most religion, most of the time, ultimate questions aren’t even on the radar. The meat and potatoes of religion is very human stuff directly related to real-world concerns like deal-making, not reduced to anything else. Religion is typically about things like cutting deals with supernatural entities in much the same way you would a human, and for similar reasons.

  79. #80 biblicaltruthchangeslives
    February 9, 2010

    Haha, the description doesn’t quite fit, PZ has perhaps conveniently forgotten that the same question was asked by one of my colleagues during the Q&A? And no, not one of the ‘leaders….on campus’, but otherwise, yes, it is ME :)

  80. #81 Kel, OM
    February 9, 2010

    It’s a pretty inane question. How can there be just different perspectives when so much evidence is explained away?

  81. #82 sorceror171
    February 9, 2010

    Paul W. –

    That made it sound like “supernatural” only means unknowable. It means a lot more than that, in particular “understanding” things in a ways analogous to understanding agents, even if you don’t understand agents and agency, really.

    That’s why I posted the illustrative passage from Zelazny way back in comment #17. In that novel ‘demons’ are not only “interestingly teleological” as you put it, they are “malefic… possessed of great powers, life span and the ability to temporarily assume virtually any shape”.

    Yet they aren’t supernatural – they are energy-based lifeforms. They accomplish their feats by knowable, comprehensible means – and that makes them natural.

    There are a lot of unknown things that are not conceptualized as supernatural—they’re just unknown…

    Of course, I didn’t say that the supernatural was the “unknown”. I said it was the “unknowable”, and then further specified that was in the sense of “incomprehensible”, “fundamentally beyond human ken”.

    I think Neil deGrasse Tyson’s essay The Perimeter of Ignorance illustrates this well; many more examples of what I called “Haldane’s Error” in comment #57. It’s where people give up on finding any kind of explanation for how things happen.

    Then, they fall back on trying to explain why things happen, and the kind of ‘folk teleology’ you and Carrier and Sastra have admirably described takes over. I’m not disputing that ‘supernatural’ explanations nearly always fit into a teleological framework satisfying to human cognition… but that’s a second-order effect. The primary determiner is that the mechanism is declared to be hopelessly obscure.

  82. #83 sorceror171
    February 9, 2010

    Paul Murray – you ask, “knowing” them – heck, what does that mean, anyway?

    If you have to ask, you’ll never know. :->

  83. #84 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawlARhxz_EZad2_PPNvQmVelK-U8LVLTYeA
    February 9, 2010

    Question:

    Does Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle mean Quantum Mechanics is natural, supernatural, both, neither or what?

  84. #85 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 9, 2010

    biblicaltruthchangeslives

    Where is your conclusive physical evidence that your imaginary deity exists, and your babble is a book of myth/fiction (I know it is, as I read it for total comprehension?) We are waiting for your evidence, which cannot be the babble proving your deity, as you need the deity to prove the babble. Get your logic right for a change.

  85. #86 CJO
    February 9, 2010

    Does Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle mean Quantum Mechanics is natural, supernatural, both, neither or what?

    Quantum Mechanics is a theory, a description of reality. A natural product of human culture, which one might call artificial in opposition to a certain meaning of “natural”, but certainly not supernatural.

    Subatomic particles are as natural as anything composed of them, why wouldn’t they be?

  86. #87 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawn3uFyzWzPPQtnsx76L7_KCfSddMwYvfhQ
    February 9, 2010

    Let’s not forget that it’s Maarten Boudry of Ghent University who wrote the paragraphs that PZ quoted.

    Maarten is publishing a couple of papers on the topic of methodological naturalism. I really think he’s on to something.

    He’s a very smart guy and so is his colleague Stefaan Blanke.

    See Good News from Gent”

    -Larry Moran

  87. #88 a_ray_in_dilbert_space
    February 9, 2010

    @84 Heisenberg’s uncertainty princople is an inevitable consequence of the fact that quantum mechanical entities have both particle and wavelike characters. There is absolutely nothing mysterious or other-worldly about it.

  88. #89 Maarten Boudry
    February 10, 2010

    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 Paul W.’s argument on electricity). The only sound rationale for not wasting time with supernatural explanations in modern science is that they have utterly failed in the past. Not because of some intrinsic philosophical reason.

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