Defining Theism, Atheism, Supernaturalism, and Naturalism


This (older) article was just thoroughly expanded and revised on Κέλσος. Since its topic relates to the recent posts and discussion about metaphysics on Civitas Humana, I thought that I would reblog it here as well.

The article, in part, discusses the definition of naturalism vs. supernaturalism, but the major contribution that it provides is its definition atheism vs. theism, which hasn’t been discussed previously on Civ. The article discusses both the theologian’s monotheistic conception of ‘G’od and the ancient idea of polytheistic ‘g’ods, and provides a definition of atheism that denies both.

Originally posted on Κέλσος:

A common slogan in religious apologetics is to claim that a-theists do not really understand what theism is, and that most atheistic critiques of theism hit the wrong target. Such criticisms have been expressed by apologists such as David Bentley Hart in The Experience of God, and Randal Rauser in “Atheists Who Don’t Know What They Don’t Believe In.” Among others, philosopher Daniel Linford has responded to this talking point in his article “Do Atheists Reject the ‘Wrong Kind of God’? Not Likely.” Moreover, such a critique misses the mark, since, even if the average atheist on the street might not have the most extensive knowledge of theology when put on the spot, there are plenty of professional atheist philosophers, such as Graham Oppy, who responds precisely to theological arguments in works like Arguing About Gods.

But what is this objection really all about?

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Science, Philosophy, and Placement Problems

ACU-Ritchie-cover.inddAs I have been doing research this holiday season on naturalist metaphysics, I have been reading philosopher Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism. Ritchie, unlike myself, is a non-physicalist naturalist, but I greatly appreciate his open-minded discussion of some of the metaphysical problems posed by physicalism — such as how one can explain things like consciousness, morality, or mathematics in purely physical terms. Ritchie also proposes a number of solutions for how physicalists can respond to these problems.

One solution that Ritchie proposes for explaining apparently non-physical things— like internal subjective experiences —within a purely physical universe is not to argue that the methods of physics can conceptually explain all things, rather than that physics can causally explain all things. This proposal leads to an interesting understanding of the relationship between science and philosophy, and what Ritchie (citing Frank Jackson in From Metaphysics to Ethics) calls “placement problems.”

Ritchie (pg. 133) writes:

“Metaphysical naturalists who call themselves physicalists do not have to endorse the idea that the methods of science and those of philosophy are continuous. Philosophy finds a special role in dealing with … placement problems. Science tells us that everything is physical; the philosopher’s job, then, is to show us how the things that don’t seem physical – minds, meanings, morals – fit into the physical world. The work of placing non-physical things into the physical world is not (or at least need not be considered to be) science or like science in its methods, but a priori metaphysical work … [This] leads to the surprising conclusion that a naturalist should be committed to work that he calls conceptual analysis.”

Personally, I found this approach to be rather interesting, and it also resonated with some of my recent thinking. One thing that strikes me doing research in metaphysical naturalism is just how much of it is abstract “metaphysical” work. That would seem odd, because naturalists are normally thought to eschew metaphysics and rely solely on the methods of science. But that is not so.

A lot of scientists have been criticized for arguing that the scientific method has replaced the need for philosophy in the modern world, and that philosophy is now “dead” or “useless.” Physicist Sean Carroll, however, has criticized this attitude in his post “Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy.” Among the complaints against philosophy that Carroll discusses is the following:

  • “Philosophers care too much about deep-sounding meta-questions, instead of sticking to what can be observed and calculated.”

To which Carroll responds:

“Here we see the unfortunate consequence of a lifetime spent in an academic/educational system that is focused on taking ambitious dreams and crushing them into easily-quantified units of productive work. The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time.”

This criticism made me think of Jack Ritchie’s analysis above. The methods of science and philosophy do not need to be continuos. Science can be our primary method for telling us what exists, but we will still need philosophy for describing what it is like. Science is empirical. Philosophy is conceptual.

That is why, here on Civitas Humana philosophy is fully embraced, even among us scientific, physicalist naturalists. We will always need philosophy to deal with the placement problems of what science discovers. Only then can we explain things like consciousness, morality, mathematics, etc. within a purely secular framework.

Cutting philosophy out of the picture will only give advantage to critics of metaphysical naturalism, who delight in posing philosophical problems. But, for the philosophically-minded naturalist, these problems can all be easily addressed. They cannot be addressed, however, if we just ignore the conceptual analysis of philosophy and only study science. So, study philosophy too! It will make you smarter and better equipped to articulate and defend the naturalist worldview!

-Matthew Ferguson

Philosophically Defining the Supernatural

[Yesterday I presented a conference paper at the 112th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association (PAMLA). The conference theme for this year was “Familiar Spirits,” and I presented a paper titled “Philosophically Defining the Supernatural.” The topic relates to previous articles that I have written, both here in my blog series on metaphysical naturalism and in an earlier article here

This article represents my most up-to-date view on how to metaphysically define “supernatural” phenomena in opposition to “natural” phenomena. I discuss five areas of metaphysical distinction between the two: 1) physicality, 2) uniformity, 3) open vs. closed causality, 4) mental objects & properties, and 5) teleology. Below is the transcript of my paper, with images added from the slides of my attending PowerPoint presentation.]

Screenshot 2014-11-02 11.11.54

Halloween is a time of year when we celebrate the supernatural, being a holiday associated with the souls of the dead, witchcraft, and even (from certain quarters) the occult. The “supernatural” is something that is, by definition, different from ordinary “natural” phenomena. Often times we are able to distinguish between the “natural” and the “supernatural” prima facie, meaning that each can be identified at first glance. When we see an apple fall from a tree, we immediately recognize such an event to be “natural.” If, on the other hand, we were to see a ghost, magical spell, or vampire, we would not hesitate to call such phenomena “supernatural.” But what is the real difference that allows us to make such a distinction?

Whereas on the level of common sense the difference between the “natural” and the “supernatural” is often obvious, metaphysically distinguishing between the two on a philosophical level can be far more challenging. For example, if we were to see a witch cast a spell of fire, we would not hesitate to call such a superhuman ability “supernatural.” But how is this ability metaphysically different from a mutant (let’s say an X-man) who has evolved the ability to produce flames from his hands? Both would be superhuman abilities, but we would only consider the witch to be “supernatural.” Given that the two abilities would look the same, however, can we really make such a categorical distinction? Today I will discuss some of the different definitions of the “natural” and “supernatural” proposed by philosophers. My goal will be to show that there are certain attributes of “supernatural” phenomena that make them categorical different from “natural” phenomena, so that there can be a clear and meaningful metaphysical distinction between the two, justifying our use of these terms.

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Clarifying the Relationship between Naturalism and Secular Humanism

Civitas Humana is a website dedicated to exploring and advocating secular philosophy, metaphysical naturalism, and secular humanism. However, I would like to make a point of clarification about the interrelation between these terms.

Naturalism is the metaphysical/ontological view that the natural world is a closed system, in that nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it. In other words, “nature” is all that exists and nothing supernatural or non-natural either exists or affects the natural world (for further elaboration about the definition of naturalism, see here). Often times the naturalist metaphysical view is paired with the secular humanist ethical view, as is the case on this blog.

In Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, philosopher Stephen Law defines the core beliefs of secular humanists as follows:

  1. Secular humanists place particular emphasis on the role of science and reason.
  1. Humanists are atheists. They do not sign up to belief in a god or gods.
  1. Humanists suppose that this is very probably the only life we have.
  1. Humanists usually believe in the existence and importance of moral value.
  1. Humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy and responsibility.
  1. Humanists are secularists in the sense that they favour an open, democratic society and believe the State should take neutral stance on religion.
  1. Humanists believe that we can enjoy significant, meaningful lives even if there is no God, and whether or not we happen to be religious.

Notably, naturalism is not included in the beliefs of secular humanists outlined above. As Law explains in his recent blog post, “Secular Humanism: DON’T Define It as Requiring Naturalism,” one does not have to sign up to metaphysical naturalism to still be a secular humanist. In fact, Law himself is a secular humanist who does not identify as a naturalist (although Law does state that he “leans towards” naturalism).

Law lists two reasons why secular humanism should not be defined as requiring naturalism:

  1. Because it unnecessarily excludes many from the secular humanist club who could and should be invited in.
    • In other words, atheists who are not naturalists will seem excluded from secular humanism, if it is defined as requiring naturalism. If it is not defined as such, then more atheists can be welcomed into the secular humanist movement.
  1. Because it creates an unnecessary hostage to fortune.
    • Law explains that, if secular humanism is defined as requiring naturalism, then all a critic of secular humanism has to do is attack naturalism in order to refute secular humanism. This should not be the case, since there are many plausible forms of secular humanism that do not necessarily require naturalism.

I would like to state, as one of the editors and contributors to Civitas Humana, that I fully agree with Law’s argument. Secular humanism should NOT be defined as requiring naturalism, even if many secular humanists subscribe to a naturalist version of secular humanism. There are other non-naturalist versions of secular humanism that are held by atheists, and they are welcomed here on Civitas Humana!

Why then does Civitas Humana advocate BOTH naturalism AND secular humanism? The reason why is that the version of secular humanism promoted on this blog is a naturalist secular humanism. As Law notes, naturalism can be paired with secular humanism, and this is not in the least an awkward combination. Naturalism is a secular metaphysical view and secular humanism is a secular ethical view, both of which nicely go together. But the two do not necessarily have to go together.

As such, when naturalism and secular humanism are associated on this blog (as is the case in my metaphysics series), please understand that this is only the version of secular humanism promoted on this blog. This blog acknowledges that there are also non-naturalist forms of secular humanism, and we also welcome ideas and feedback from non-naturalist secular humanists.

I hope this clarifies the positions discussed here on Civitas Humana! If you have any further questions or comments about the relation between naturalism and secular humanism, let us know in the comments below!

-Matthew Ferguson

Κέλσος and Civitas Humana Plans for Academic Year 2014-2015

This week the Fall 2014 academic quarter starts up in the UC system, meaning that I am heading back to grad school. As I discussed in a previous post, this year will be especially important for my graduate career, since I will be taking the last 3 (out of 7) of my Ph.D. qualifying exams (Latin translation, Greek translation, and ancient literature). If I can pass those, then I will advance to candidacy and be cleared for starting my dissertation.

I am fortunate to have a 6-year fellowship at UC Irvine, so that, if I can pass my qualifying exams this year, I will have 3 years after that to work on my dissertation. I also plan to finish my book project during that time. All of this will hopefully take place during academic years 2015-2018.

So now I want to discuss my plans for academic year 2014-2015. Κέλσος is nearing its two year anniversary on October 1st. I’ve blogged consistently for the first two years of my Ph.D. program and worked to share a lot of what I have learned from my graduate work about ancient history and the Greco-Roman world. I am also glad that during that time Κέλσος was ranked 75th Bible blog on the web in Peter Kirby’s (Early Christian Writings) 2014 Summer Report.

This year will be the most challenging yet of my graduate career. Since I have to pass both a Latin and Greek translation exam (3 hours each), based on a list of ancient authors spanning a thousand year period (8th century BCE – 2nd century CE), with no dictionary of course, I will need to be devoting my full energy and attention to preparing my Latin and Greek language skills. Also, in Spring 2015, I plan to commute up to UC Santa Barbara to take New Testament and ancient religion seminars in their Religious Studies department, which will be another major time commitment.

So, where does blogging fit into this year? I have thought about it, and, while I think that it would be possible for me to still keep up blogging, while studying for my Ph.D. exams, I have decided that it is probably not the best use of my time year. This year I need to not only pass my Latin and Greek exams, but also to hone my skills as a philologist and professional. After all, you only get your graduate years once, and when you are a Classicist, a substantial part of that time needs to be spent, not only learning Latin and Greek, but perfecting and mastering your skills in those languages. You will need to master these languages before you can be a professor in academia.

As such, I have decided that I will not be posting continuously this academic year on Κέλσος and Civitas Humana. For the past two years I have worked to put up multiple posts each month (usually 3 on Κέλσος and 1 on Civitas Humana). My posts are often long and take a long time to write. For 2014-2015, I will not be posting on a consistent month-to-month basis. I need to be fully freed from all other commitments, so that I can devote all of my energy to my Ph.D. graduate work this year.

Does that mean I will not be posting anything? NO. I still plan to post on this blog over the next academic year, I only do not promise to post anything consistently. I am right in the middle of my metaphysics series on Civitas Humana, and I have only written the first part of my ancient biography series on Κέλσος. I will come back and finish these series whenever I find the time. I also plan to announce future publications here, and to post papers from conferences.

The main difference for 2014-2015 is that I will only be posting more sporadically rather than on a consistent month-to-month basis.

I do plan to return in 2015-2018 to continue blogging more on counter-apologetics, especially as I work on my book project and dissertation.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading the blog! I’ve written a lot over the past two years and I appreciate everyone who has been consistent readers. Already, both Κέλσος and Civitas Humana provide great databases on ancient history, counter-apologetics, naturalism, and secular humanism. It’s great to already have this information out there, even if I write less this year.

Feel free to still post comments during 2014-2015. I’ll still be around and will still be studying ancient history, the New Testament, and philosophy. I also look forward to this being a refreshing year to study the Latin and Greek languages at my most rigorous level yet!

-Matthew Ferguson

Agency and Freewill in Metaphysical Naturalism

In the last two parts of my philosophy series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” there was an aspect in each discussion that suggests we live in a deterministic universe.

A vs. B Theory of TimeIn my article about cosmology and time, I discussed the B-Thoery of time, which holds that all time is equally real, so that the past exists in the same moment as our present, and our present exists in the same moment as the future. This theory of time explains how our universe did not “begin” ex nihilo, but has always existed in four permanent dimensions, with time simply being the fourth dimension of space. This approach to time is useful for countering the apologetic cosmological argument, but it also leads to the conclusion that our universe is fully determined. After all, if the future already exists in the same moment as our present, then the future must already be determined.

brain-leftIn my article about human origins, I also discussed Mind-Body Physicalism, which holds that our minds are purely physical objects. As such, mental states are either identical to physical states or are supervenient upon physical states. Today we can map the human brain and even locate the very parts of the brain that control our thoughts and actions. In fact, we can even identify activity in the brain that takes place before we ourselves are aware of it. When we see a face, our brains show activity a fraction of a second before we recognize seeing a face at all. The physicality of our brains thus leads to the conclusion that they are causally determined, just like any other arrangement of matter in our universe.

If we do live in a deterministic universe, as the discussion above suggests, then it should be a slam dunk case that no Freewill exists. Right? Well, not exactly…

Although in popular culture the idea of Freewill has been inseparably associated with Indeterminism, professional philosophers do not see it that way. In fact, 55.7% of professional philosophers adhere to a view known as Compatibilism, which maintains that causal determinism is fully compatible with Freewill. In contrast, only 16.7% of philosophers agree with Incompatibilist Freewill, which maintains that Freewill must require an indetermined universe. 14.7% of philosophers identify as “other” on the question of Freewill, and 12.9% argue that there is no Freewill.

The numbers do not change drastically among philosophers who specialize in Philosophy of Cognitive Science, except that the view of Incompatibilist Freewill is even less commonly held! 52.5% of philosophers who specialize in cognitive science hold to Compatibilist Freewill (about the same percentage as the professional philosophical community as a whole), and a substantially smaller proportion — 7.4% — agrees with Incompatibilist Freewill. 14.8% of philosophers who specialize in cognitive science identify as “other” on the question of Freewill, and 25.4% argue that there is no Freewill.

Since Compatibilism is, by a large margin, the dominant view of agency and Freewill among the professional philosophical community, anyone interested in metaphysics, theism, or naturalism should take it very seriously. Compatibilism will be the view of agency and Freewill that I will defend in this metaphysics series.

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Human Origins in Metaphysical Naturalism: Abiogenesis, Unguided Evolution, and Mind-Body Physicalism

In the last part of my philosophy series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” I discussed cosmology and the origins of our universe from a naturalist and atheistic perspective. In this next part of the series I will be focusing more particularly on the origin of life in our universe (at least on the only planet currently known to host life, i.e. Earth), and the evolution of lifeforms from simple states to the intelligent minds of human beings today. This journey will require discussing: 1) the abiogenesis of life from non-living matter, 2) the evolution of biological diversity from common descent, 3) and the mind-body physicalism of human minds in a naturalist universe.

solar_system_formationThe planet Earth has been around for about 4.6 billion years, when a cloud of interstellar gas — filled with particles of ice, dust, rock, and other particles — collapsed to a point of concentrated mass, causing rising heat and the formation of our Sun. Most of the matter in this collapsing nebula fell into our Sun, but other material formed into a planetary disc in orbit around the Sun, causing particles to collide and eventually planets to take shape from cumulative bombardments with solid objects. The third planet from our Sun, Earth, happened to be in the Habitable Zone, which is the region in a solar system where a planet is neither too close nor too far from its star to form liquid water. Earth eventually formed liquid oceans on its surface and also an atmosphere with just the right greenhouse balance for the planet to be neither too hot nor too cold for complex life. The first surviving fossils of life date to about 3.5 billion years ago (about a billion years into our planet’s history) and scientists estimate that life on Earth could have began anywhere from 3.9-3.5 billion years ago.

This sequence of events has left us with a vexing question: what started life on Earth so long ago and how did it get to the point of us humans beings here today?

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