Josh Rosenau has a post about the supernatural, spinning off recent posts about a recent Calamities of Nature webcomic. Josh makes a point that I think is valid but subtle:
The issue with the supernatural is not whether it's part of the universe, but whether it is bound by the same laws as all the other elements of the universe. The bizarre claim about ghosts is that they somehow obey some laws but not others, for no obvious reasons.
Something supernatural could, in principle, interact with the universe sometimes but not at others. If it is operating outside of natural laws, that doesn't obviously preclude it from sometimes interacting with things that do obey those laws, either by its own choice to obey those laws ("186,000 miles per second, it's not just a good idea, it's the law"), or by accident in the course of some random fluctuation of its supernatural nature.
The obvious rejoinder to this, leaped upon by a bunch of people in comments, is that if the supernatural doesn't behave according to known laws of nature, that just means that the known laws are incomplete, and some more complete theory would encompass the seemingly supernatural. Which is true as far as it goes, but misses a subtle point, namely the determinability of those laws. To paraphrase a famous "law," a sufficently advanced magic might be undetectable by science.
This is, in many ways, a question of practicality. That is, in order to be able to determine the rules governing some aspect of the universe, you need to be able to show that they behave in a consistent and repeatable manner. Which requires the ability to run large numbers of experiments (or make large numbers of observations), and knowledge of all the parameters that might affect the operation of the system. If the number of tests you can do is limited, or you do not have the ability to keep track of possible confounding factors, then it can be all but impossible to figure out what's going on.
One sort-of-example of this is the thought experiment I used in How to Teach Physics to Your Dog to explain decoherence, which is more or less the same line I used in this old post on Many-Worlds. If you want to see quantum mechanical behavior in some system, you generally look for an interference effect of some sort, but since quantum mechanics is inherently probabilistic, that requires you to repeat the same experiment many times, and trace out an interference pattern in the probability distribution as you vary some quantity. If your system interacts with a randomly fluctuating environment, however, and those environmental interactions can shift your pattern by at least half a wavelength, you lose the ability to detect the interference, even though it's still taking place.
You can see how this works even with a really simple variant of the experiment: In a classic double-slit experiment, you get a bright spot right at the center of the slits, with dark spots to either side. If you do something to slightly delay the light passing through one slit-- placing a thin piece of glass over it, for example-- you can shift the interference pattern so that there is zero probability of detecting a photon in the exact center of the pattern, so the center of the patten is a dark spot with bright spots to either side. If you repeat the experiment a million times, flipping a coin before each run to determine whether to put the glass in place or not, you won't see any sign of the interference in the aggregate of all the data runs. You'll see a nearly uniform intermediate intensity (halfway between dark and bright) at all positions on your detector.
Does this mean that interference isn't occurring? No, not at all. If you select out the half of your data runs for which the glass plate was in place, you'll very clearly see a central dark spot with bright spots to either side. The other half of the data runs for which the plate was absent will very clearly show a central bright spot with dark spots to either side. The photons passing through the double slit are always interfering, but your ability to detect that interference is lost when you don't have complete information about the experimental conditions.
So, it's possible that even in a system governed by very simple rules, those rules can be rendered undetectable by interactions with a large and unmeasured environment. And if you're talking about the possibility of supernatural-type interactions affecting the entire universe, then there will always be some possibility of confounding interactions making the supernatural laws undetectable.
At some level, this is essentially the same issue that came up in the recent discussion of probabilityin quantum physics, namely how do we know that the probabilities we measure through repeated experiments are the "real" probabilities, and not just some weird statistical fluctuation (either as an inevitable result of living in a Many-Worlds type of universe, or because we're exceptionally unlucky) that makes it look like our current models of probability are correct? While our current theories of quantum mechanics are spectacularly successful at predicting the probabilities for experimental measurements, it could be that there is some other theory that "really" determined the outcomes, and all our successes are a complete fluke.
That question is, in many ways, indistinguishable from the question of whether supernatural effects might exist, but work in some way that is effectively undetectable. The chief difference between them is that worrying about the philosophical implication of probabilities in quantum mechanics maintains a thin veneer of respectability, while talking about supernatural forces gets you mocked even by philosophically-inclined physicists.
(A vaguely related issue is the question of singular events, such as the famous magnetic monopole search that saw a plausible signal in 1982, almost as soon as it was switched on, and never saw anything else in the next twenty years of operation (possibly paywalled version in this Nature story). Given things like inflationary cosmology, it's conceivable that this could be both real and effectively unrepeatable. There's really no good way for science to handle that sort of thing, either.)
While it's true as a matter of totally abstract philosophy that anything "supernatural" that interacts with the real world is in principle subject to some larger set of "natural" laws, it's always conceivable that those supernatural laws could work in a way that is effectively impossible to detect. Science can do a lot of things, but the need for repeatable experiments makes it almost impossible to use scientific methods to ferret out the kind of subtle and ambiguous magic you get in books like Jo Walton's Among Others where, for example, the protagonist's magic spell to stop a factory polluting the water in her home town works by causing the management of the factory to decide to shut it down. A decision that was made some weeks before the spell was cast. The protagonist firmly believes that magic made this happen, reaching back through time, while most adults in her world (and most mainstream book reviewers) think that it's just a delusion. And there's really no way to sort the two out, without appealing to authorial intent, anyway.
Of course, as a question of practical argumentation, this is kind of a moot point, because most of the people taking the pro-supernatural side of these arguments aren't talking about the kind of ambiguous magic Jo uses. Instead, they have a more direct sort of system in mind, where specific actions produce specific results on demand-- healing through prayer, communicating with the spirits of the dead, bending spoons with MIND POWER, whatever. Those sort of situations are implicitly rule-bound systems, and should give rise to Ponder Stibbons stories. And there has yet to be a convincing demonstration of any of these phenomena that doesn't have a more convincing non-supernatural explanation to go with it.
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two words: "Statistical Theology"
The problem, it seems to me, is with the word "supernatural," which has no rigorous definition but drags a whole cartload of ancillary ideas around with it.
And really, what would constitute a "supernatural explanation" for any phenomenon? How do we distinguish a "supernatural explanation" from the (trivial) observation that no explanation has yet been offered? In other words, doesn't "supernatural explanation" = "no explanation"?
Any technology is distinguishable from magic by sufficiently advanced technology.
I think it's false to say, if some entities follow odd laws (well, given statistical issues they aren't all strictly "laws" in the old-fashioned sense anyway), then we have to expand "the laws of physics" (or nature.) That is IMHO a core misunderstanding of what our "laws" really are: expressions of the character of the constituents of our universe. First, I acknowledge that if something "other" we'll call "Z" can, say, pass into here from "another universe" then it is not clear whether "our laws" a constraint, whether the two somehow intermingle, or whether the entity gets to follow the laws applicable in its universe. I suppose we need "metalaws" to hash that out. I can image for example that that Z can't go faster than light, since that involves logical issues in our world. But it is at least conceivable, it could behave in odd ways - e.g. as if not made of "matter." So explanations of it would not be "natural." Think of "natural" as being about our universe, not "reality" per se. It could be a mere subset of "real" or maybe what we could call MultiNature.
Second, regarding quantum interference (well, it was brought up ...): Sure, we can't see "an interference pattern" in the case where the phases from different slits are mixed up. I'm gratified that Chad is talking about the output in a way I consider reasonable, which makes me all the more puzzled when people can think that decoherence in *any* way resolves "the measurement problem." There is one interference pattern with no delay, and a complementary one with a HW delay to one slit. Sure, they add up to a "random" pattern in the whole, but the separate patterns exist when properly grouped out.
Now imagine that made more and more complicated: we slip various glass sheets in and out of various thicknesses. Each one produces a different IP, which all wash out together, but still each instance involves a definite pattern of amplitudes on the screen (careful in use "pattern" of amplitudes versus "pattern" of hits ...)
But one could also in principle abstract out and group the same-angle settings of the "confuser" in the MZI experiment noted, and correlate those: we would find interference appropriate to each delay setting. (Yes, we might not "know" but how is that a real physical issue in the macroscopic sense? If a cat is watching the experiment, would he know what angle readings meant?) The visible existence of interference is a red-herring: the QM model says that the amplitudes are spread out over space until "something" changes. Not being able to notice "bands" etc. is not relevant to finding a particle "here" and not "there." (And I mean, not the deciding factor in whether it is localized for any observer state, not why do "I see it right there and not over there", whoever "I" am.)
Furthermore, suppose instead we inserted a wavy glass plate between the double slits and the screen (my experiment #3 at link), then what? The waves exiting the DS are mixed up and won't even form an interference pattern at all. This is a case of spatial decoherence in the same case, not time-varying coherence as often described. Still, unitary evolution says a pattern of amplitudes - smoothed out to be sure - reaches the screen. That the wave distribution has no "bands" etc. to prove interference, has no logical bearing on why it concentrates into a single point instead of staying distributed. We need more to change bands of waves into bands of hits, and muddled wave distributions into a patternless scatter of hits.
Note that if lacking interference is how/why we can find a statistical mixture, "hits" - then how come we do ever find the statistics that show the quantum interference too? If interference is the key to staying superposed, then isn't it odd we still get a pattern of hits then too ...
Agree, don't agree; but I'd like for people to put some real reflection into this and not be comfortable with what they'd heard or thought before. At least try.
The issue with the supernatural is not whether it's part of the universe, but whether it is bound by the same laws as all the other elements of the universe. The bizarre claim about ghosts is that they somehow obey some laws but not others, for no obvious reasons
We live in a universe were 95% of stuff, be it dark matter or dark energy, doesn't obey most of the laws the remaining 5% have to live by. And he thinks ghosts are bizarre?
As Mu points out, there is no guarantee the complete laws of physics are discoverable for any subset of stuff. What we discover, we can discover. There might be a lot of physics that we never are able to discover.
Conversely, a god whose operations aren't constrained by any knowable physics isn't therefore completely unknowable. It's easy to imagine miraculous communication that, say, verifiably predicts the future. Indeed, it is a characteristic of the popular gods that they all the times are injecting themselves into human affairs in demonstrable ways.
Except, of course, when someone wants to turn that to evidence. What Christians and Muslims believe in isn't a god who in theory is unknowable, but in a god who selectively hides, providing plenty of proof to believers, but not to skeptics.
Everyone should read "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" (available online).
Also, I assume that there would be a law of physics along the lines of "all supernatural phenomena disappear when confronted with something that looks like a scientific experiment". This would allow supernatural phenomena to continue operating while remaining invisible to science. As I recall, a lot of advocates of woo appeal to this law.
i am taking the pragmatic approach to this issue. i posted this at Josh's discussion:
i think that there is no supernatural; only the natural. and the natural can eventually be explained, provided we devise clever enough experiments.
talking about the possibility of the supernatural is, ultimately, a waste of time.
it is like the monkeys typing Hamlet argument. yeah, it is possible for a finite number of monkeys to pop out Hamlet, but the odds are so remote that it can be used as an operational definition of "never."
it is the same thing with this supernatural discussion. sure, science can't definitively rule out supernatural phenomena. but with how many supernatural phenomena that have been puported to have happen over the years of recorded history, and the magnitude of the effects, you may as well ignore them. they occur so infrequently, or are so insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, that they might as well not occur at all.
operationally, you can say that supernatural phenomena don't exist.
One of the better definitions of "supernatural" (a tricky, nailing-jello-type term) is: anything that is mindlike, immaterial, and, usually, not emergent from smaller constituent parts. The notion of supernatural stuff seems like common sense to human minds, with their tendency to anthropomorphize.
So by this defintion, most people, being dualists, think of human minds as already supernatural, yet they don't use that word, because our minds (and animal minds) are everyday things. On the other hand, a thing that is a mind and only a mind (not a phenomenon of interactions, just a mind deriving from mind) would be spernatural "enough" to remark upon. So deities and ghosts would qualify, notwithstanding the interaction problems like "How can something non-physical produce the airwaves that are sound?" Also, a normally-inanimate object behaving in ways that suggests it has a mind, such as a rock that runs away from dogs, would be noticibly supernatural.
Magic powers are supernatural because they involve one's intentions "directly" affecting the world, though perhaps with some necessary physical materials. These materials, however, have to have the "spark" which is itself irreducibly magical. Just as Aristotke assumed that water is only made out of water, so too are magic powers derived from magic simpliciter. I admit that at this point, we seem to have strayed from the "mindlike" criterion; I don't have a good answer to that on hand.
One thing helping to confirm this defintion of a hard-to-define word is the fact that, so far as I can tell, no one who is convinced of the existence of something "supernatural" also accepts a reductionistic/materialist account of the mind. A possible exception is quantum mystics, for whom the mind may very well arise from quantum phenomona â yet phenomena which are themselves (to hear the mystics talk) inherently mindlike, so I guess they're not really an exception.
An anthropologist named Pascal Boyer has investigated ideas along this line; I admit I've not read his work, only about it.
Anyway, if you don't have a definition that gets at something specific, like that one does, than how are you supposed to discern whether or not, say, dark matter is supernatural? Or, well, anything else? (Were ankylosauruses supernatural? Why not?)
This sort of thing comes to mind when watching the Star Trek NG episode where characters are "out of phase." No one else can see them, they can pass through walls and other people. One thinks they are ghosts. They even push one character through a wall into space. But, the question that occurs to me is this: "What the hell are the floors made out of?" Clearly, the walls won't stop you, but the floors do? Just how does that work?
If the supernatural phenomenon that you are trying to study has a volition of its own, why would you think that you could design a method to detect it? Obviously Mike, the walls are out of phase with the characters that can't be seen, while the floors are in phase and, thus, able to hold people up. Duh. bc
When I am worldbuilding for a fantasy novel I always worry a lot about how magic fits into the universe, and with that book because it was this world which does not in fact have any magic in it, I had to find a form of magic that wasn't falsifiable. It never occurred to me that readers would therefore think it wasn't real within the context of the story!
In the wider question there is "stuff that works and we don't know why" that some people want to define as supernatural and others as pseudoscience and because of this branding actual scientists are put off from researching what's actually going on. My number one example here is acupuncture. And there's stuff where it's actually human psychology but it gets labeled as supernatural -- like feng shui.
Mike: Another possibility is that they aren't walking on the floors, they are just being attracted to the gravity grids in the floor (which for some reason produce a restoring force pushing them back if they try to move through them). Granted, one would think that this would result in them kind of wading through the floor, but at least there is some excuse for having their interactions with the floors be fundamentally different from the walls.
I don't believe that you bound super natural events or entities by the laws of the physical realm. The power and energy of the super natural is not of this physical Universe. therefore there is no connectionor formula that can describe and equivalence to our physical energy or matter.
Einstein was right about the shortcomings of Quantum Mechanics and so therefore String Theory is also the incorrect approach. As an alternative to Quantum Theory there is a new theory that describes and explains the mysteries of physical reality. While not disrespecting the value of Quantum Mechanics as a tool to explain the role
of quanta in our universe. This theory states that there is also a classical explanation for the paradoxes such as EPR and the Wave-Particle Duality. The Theory is called the Theory of Super Relativity and is located at:
This theory is a philosophical attempt to reconnect the physical universe to realism and deterministic concepts. It explains the mysterious.
Volition, in itself, doesn't somehow preclude detection, or even rough predictability. The behavior of, eg, humans and dogs may not be predictable with 100% confidence, but neither is the weather. And even if their behavior were utterly random, that wouldn't make them invisible to detection.
To be truly impossible to detect, a supernatural phenomenon would have to fulfill two other criteria: a desire to avoid detection, and near-omnipotence in the ability to do so. I grant that such entities have been postulated, but there is, pretty much by definition, no reason for scientists to consider them.
Come to think of it, a supernatural entity could also be undetectable despite its desires. Many stories are told from the perspective of a newly dead ghost trying to make herself seen or heard by people.
Still, people in those stories usually say "Huh, I thought I heard something", which, if only people were to pool their stories and investiagate it properly, ought to be enough to go by.
Regardless, a totally-undetectable phenomenon, where it would make zero difference to us if the thing weren't there, is probably not worth talking about.
A case can be made that dark matter is effectively "supernatural" stuff - it's not part of the known particle zoo (well, some ideas of it are or were) and doesn't interact in normal, tangible ways - but does exert gravity (as it must due to fundamental equivalences between mass, energy, and gravitation.) It is much like ghosts etc!
At http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2011/06/if-dark-matter-fills-the-u… we see some of the puzzles, and a pungent and cogent comment (June 22, at 06:56 AM) making fun of DM for those reasons. I don't really agree, but the commenter has a point: WTF is dark matter, and how come it doesn't fit into our schemes? It shows we don't really understand the universe, but people go on blithely talking about the standard model and how we're getting a handle on it all.
Sorry, I meant to say comment at June 22, 2011 at 09:50 AM
(Uh, nice to have self-delete or correct like regular Blogger ...) BTW that commenter's blog is quite interesting and multifarious.
The problem with labelling dark matter as supernatural is, of course, that it contributes nothing to our understanding of it. Yet calling this a problem is itself, it seems, attacked and ridiculed from a number of corners. "Not everything is for humans to understand"â¦ "Science doesn't have all the answers"â¦ bleh.
It would be one thing if people had a comforting notion of what sort of thing dark matter is, and they just didn't want scientists to destroy the illusion. But they truly just want there to be something mysterious, for its own sake, so as to wipe off the awful smirks they imagine the know-it-all astonomers wear.
And really, isn't it a sign of science's success that when we dont understand something, the ignorance stands out so sharply? People demand to know why modern medicine hasn't cured the common cold, but that wasn't asked of prescientific medicine, because it didn't raise our expectations by having a track record of curing much of anything.
I seem to have a big problem with how 'something' can be both 'mindlike' and 'immaterial'. As far as we are all concerned, every mind that we have come across has always being attached to a material substrate - the brain. Heck, people drink alcohol and their entire demeanor changes. And that is even not considering Phineas Gage and crew. So people, on what 'reasonable' basis do we then conclude that 'something' can be both 'mindlike' and immaterial?
the.BeN.one: Yes, it is nonsense, but it's nonsense that most peple believe. I think it's important to get people to understand just why it's nonsense, or at least think a little more about these things they take for granted, eg, that a ghost could be completely immaterial yet be visible and noisy.
I'm unfamiliar with the magnetic monopole search. It is my understanding that magnetic monopoles are forbidden by Maxwell's equations, though I admit that I didn't understand the proof as to why. Or does this refer to something different in this context?
Ender, MMPs are in principle forbidden by the MEs but they can be (too cleverly by half IMHO) tricked up by pretending the "surplus" vector potential A-field is tied up into a weird twisted ropey thingy that connects to another MMP somewhere in the universe.
Magnetic monopoles don't exist in the simplest models of physics, but Dirac showed that if magnetic monopoles exist as particles, then charge quantization is a natural consequence (that is, we would understand why every charged particle has some multiple of the electron charge). Such particles are a part of many more exotic physics theories.
Of course, the failure to observe any magnetic monopoles is a significant challenge for the theory, but the current thinking is that the number of monopoles produced in the Big Bang was small (as such things go), and as a result, they are vanishingly rare-- some tiny number of them existing in the entire visible universe. Thus, we haven't detected them, because the odds of running across one are infinitesimally small. This is one of the things (maybe the original thing, I forget) that Alan Guth was thinking about when he came up with inflationary cosmology.
There was an experiment set up to detect magnetic monopoles back in the early 80's that recorded a single nearly perfect monopole-like signal within the first [short time period] of its operation. It never got a second one, though, and subsequent more sensitive experiments never saw anything, either. The simplest modern explanation is that it was some sort of glitch, and the experiment never had a real chance of seeing a monopole because the density is so low, but it would be hilariously ironic if it turned out that they really did see the one monopole within umpteen parsecs of Earth, because there's no way they'd ever be able to prove it.
I am working on a book about theological aesthetics. There is a section where I use your book, "How to Teach...Dog" to navigate the "quantum" issues that arise when theology (the "supernatural") impinges on our empirical world. One thing that strikes me is how Genesis begins with a "void" that is "formless." And then God creates light--or we could say electromagnetic energy (?). It is strange how quantum mechanics seems to have run into that "boundary" or threshold between the material and immaterial worlds. It appears that whether we are talking about allowed states of electrons or entanglement or wave function collapse, the only possible way to talk about to talk about the phenomenon of what is occurring is to describe the 'spaces' between the particles as 'timeless'--which is to say that it is eternal, infinite, formless, etc. The non-locality of quantum mechanics makes more sense to me when I think about how our material universe is 'suspended', if you will, above this void with no dimensions. So we could say, in the case of 'spooky action' that what passes between the entangled particles moves both at an infinite speed and is also, at the same time, at rest. Because it occurs in a dimension in which there is neither time nor distance. The same would go for the allowed states of electrons, which in their timeless transposition from one orbital (allowed state) to another either emit or absorb a photon, which to me sounds a lot like Genesis 1 where we see light appearing out of the void. So, is it possible that at the very boundary of the material world there still exists that original void that preceded the material world, out of which is forever appearing light? When God said, 'let there be light', it was not, therefore, a one time occurrance, but is instead what must occur eternally for our material universe to exist. Our universe is therefore necessarily quantum by nature if it has indeed appeared out of a 'formless void'--how could it be anything else?
Richard Carrier has written an essay that promotes and defends this definition of "supernatural":
Granted, as noted above, this makes no sense given everything we know about how minds work. But I agree that the concept does seem to match how people usually tend to think about the supernatural -- even if they cannot articulate it.
I've also been in a conversation/argument with a theist (David Heddle)(starting about here) about the definition of "supernatural". He offered: "phenomena that cannot be explained by science, ever. That is, even in principle", but it was pointed out that this didn't make sense.
He shifted the wording a bit, but still wanted to keep the definition based on knowledge: "I think it depends entirely and only on the laws of physics (including those yet discovered.) If it is explicable by perfect knowledge of the laws of physics then it is natural. If not, it is supernatural--even if there is no mind present to observe or comprehend."
It was pointed out that this definition failed to be coherent about a putative supernatural god -- if we posit that god exists, then implicitly god has no self-knowledge, and/or god is chaos.
There's a problem with knowledge-based definitions of "supernatural", no matter how you try and word it. And it really doesn't match what people seem to mean by examples of supernatural things, I think, whereas Carrier's does seem to.
Anyway, I'm interested in the question, and I'd like to know if scientists agree with Carrier's definition, or not, and if not, why not.
I hope whatever shortfalls occur in the statements i make below are gracefully pointed out to me. Here goes nothing...
If a person cannot articulate what they are thinkning (by writing, by speech,...), then i THINK they do not know exactly what they are 'thinking' about. This is because i THINK all thought is necessarily done with words, and to use a word correctly one must be aware of at least one referrent of (to?) the word (its 'meaning'?).
It is therefore difficult for me to understand how an individual can 'know' something(or think about something) without being able to state what it is they know(or think about).
Perhaps most human problems may stem from the nature of language(s).
Fumio, your intuition is understandable; however: we wouldn't be able to think "with words" unless the words themselves represented to us with some other, inherent "sense" of meaning - otherwise how do we understand the words themselves? If you said, defined by other words then you have an infinite regression. Instead, the word is tied to some construct made of experiences and other thoughts. Some words refer to things that are fundamental and not comprised of anything simpler and hence can't be described by words referring to anything simpler (possible examples: time, real existence versus being a conceptual construct, conscious existence, etc.)
Is there any book you can direct me to that would enhance my understanding of the nature of words and/or language and how it ties to thought and behaviour? Unfortunately i am a very very young thinker and these posts represent my first tentative foray into these matters. It would help me in my quest to understand the nature of consciousness.
Fumio, one of the best books on the subject is The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker (www.amazon.com/Language-Instinct-Mind-Creates-P-S/dp/0061336467/ref=pd_… .) See also How Children Learn the Meanings of Words (Learning, Development, and Conceptual Change) by Paul Bloom.
Sorry that link:
The Language Instinct on Amazon
I believe that "God", may very well be the pattern that Chaos Theorists are searching for, or at the very least some sign of one. As for supernatural?... Well I've never seen proof of it. Although I can grasp the possibility of it. I would have to say that a lot is due to perceived reality.
But I have some close and trustworthy friends that say they have seen some things that should be impossible.
One saw a girl(that I personally know) thrown across the room by something no one could see.
The other saw table flip over with no one around it(Albeit this source is less credible).
If I ever see it myself, I'll make damn sure its not just a trick of the eye(or the brain).
Is there a possibility of God, supernatural, or Ghosts?
Of course, But without some sort of faith or proof, its only a possibility.