Defining the ‘Natural’ in Metaphysical Naturalism

Before we can say what the metaphysical naturalist worldview looks like, we must first articulate the definitional limitations of what the ‘natural’ means. Philosopher Paul Draper defines naturalism as:

“The hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system [in the sense that] nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it.”

This definition of naturalism is important to distinguish metaphysical naturalism from methodological naturalism. As philosopher Keith Augustine explains, metaphysical naturalism is a “substantial view about the nature of reality,” whereas methodological naturalism “is the principle that science and history should presume that all causes are natural causes solely for the purpose of promoting successful investigation. The idea behind this principle is that natural causes can be investigated directly through scientific method, whereas supernatural causes cannot, and hence presuming that an event has a supernatural cause for methodological purposes halts further investigation” [1]. Augustine further elaborates:

“In utilizing methodological naturalism, science and history do not assume a priori that, as a matter of fact, supernatural causes don’t really exist. There is no conceptual conflict between practicing science or history and believing in the supernatural. However … methodological naturalism would not be as stunningly successful as it has in fact been if metaphysical naturalism were false. Thus the de facto success of methodological naturalism provides strong empirical evidence that metaphysical naturalism is probably true.”

As construed from above, metaphysical naturalism is not only the practice of looking for natural causes and explanations (which may be termed methodological naturalism), but also provides a “big picture” explanation of reality positing that nature and natural causes are all that exist.

So far so good, but more needs to be said now about what exactly we mean by the terms ‘nature’ and ‘natural.’ As Keith Augustine in A Defense of Naturalism explains:

“One obvious candidate for what is meant by the term ‘natural’ is physical. The earliest forms of naturalism, in fact, were versions of materialism or physicalism which maintained that everything that exists is physical. As I have construed naturalism, simple (reductive) physicalism maintains that everything that exists within nature is physical and solely influenced by physical causes.”

Physicalism is the view that all of reality can be described by physics and is reducible to physics. This is one candidate for what we mean by naturalism, but it need not be the only definition (as will be discussed below). Augustine goes on to explain:

“However, the prominent twentieth century debate over materialism in the philosophy of mind has revealed several difficulties with reductive physicalism as a solution to the mind-body problem. One of the most persistent difficulties for reductive physicalism has been the apparent inability of physicalistic explanations to capture qualitative features of conscious experience. It has been persuasively argued that qualia–the experiential feels of ‘what it is like’ to be in a conscious mental state–cannot be captured by any physicalistic explanations in principle because physicalistic explanations inherently refer to objective or public features of phenomena, whereas the experiential features of consciousness are inherently subjective or private.”

Indeed, explaining consciousness and subjective experience in terms of physics can be rather challenging, which raises a number of issues for a physicalist explanation of reality. However, these issues are not without solution. Augustine continues:

“In the contemporary philosophy of mind, an attractive alternative to reductive physicalism is some version of nonreductive physicalism or property dualism. According to nonreductive physicalism, mental states are not simply identical to certain physical states (such as brain states), as reductive physicalists hold; rather, mental states are supervenient upon those physical states … To say that mental states supervene upon physical states is to say that there can be no differences between mental states without a physical difference between the objects which instantiate those states … This physical difference usually amounts to a difference in brain states, though the same mental states may be supervenient upon the physical states of an advanced computer or of an extraterrestrial brain. For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that for a mental state to be supervenient upon a physical state entails that a mental state is dependent upon and determined by that physical state without necessarily being identical to it.”

All of this may seem rather dense, but the importance of positing that mental states are supervenient upon physical states is that no minds can exist without a physical state, which excludes ghosts, demons, souls, and an immaterial ‘G’od. Reframed in this way, Augustine refines the definition of naturalism to be:

“On my definition of naturalism, nonreductive physicalism maintains that everything that exists within nature is either physical or supervenient upon the physical and solely influenced by physical causes or causes which are supervenient upon physical causes. A more economical statement of this form of naturalism would drop the idea of supervenient causation: everything that exists within nature is either physical or supervenient upon the physical and solely influenced by physical causes. Most reductive and nonreductive physicalists alike subscribe to the causal closure of the physical–the view that all caused events in the physical world must have physical causes.”

In this way the mind-body problem can be understood to be compatible with and explicable under a physicalist view of naturalism. However, as I stated above, one does not need to define naturalism strictly by the physical. Rather, a more general definition can be applied to describe, what I would term, a ‘minimalist naturalism,’ i.e. a naturalism that cannot be reduced to any more simple description and thus encompasses the widest range of natural meaning.

Minimally, as I discussed in a previous blog, metaphysical naturalism is the view that there is no metaphysical teleology [2]. Our ultimate reality has no intentionality, goal orientation, or agency. This follows from the standard meaning of when we say that something has a ‘natural explanation.’ Something that happens naturally occurs without any plan or design, but as the result of unintentional causes. The universe was not designed for anything nor is it moving towards anything. Naturalism predicts a ‘blind’ cosmos of the very sort we live in.

Such a universe would exclude a conscious, willful being designing the universe for a specific purpose (such as theism entails). But, how does this framework also exclude things like ghosts or even a guiding principle like karma? Naturalist philosopher Richard Carrier offers a more specific definition in his article “On Defining Naturalism as a Worldview“:

“Naturalism is true iff everything that exists is either ontologically reducible to the nonmental, or causally reducible to the nonmental, or both … For A to be ontologically reducible to B, there must exist nothing in A that is not made up of elements of B … For A to be causally reducible to B, it does not have to be ontologically reducible to B or to anything else, it only has to be entirely causally explained by B or some arrangement of B … A mental object is any object that is distinctive of the contents or activity of a mind, in contrast to what we do not consider as such. The most obvious examples of mental objects in this sense are thoughts, perceptions, and emotions.”

All of this, once again, is rather dense. However, what Carrier’s definition explains is why things like souls are incompatible with naturalism. Souls represent irreducible mental sates. They cannot be broken down into non-mental parts. In contrast, we can consider a mind dependent on a physical brain to be a mental state, but, unlike souls, a physically-dependent mind can be broken down into lesser non-mental parts.

Carrier further explains in “Defining the Supernatural” how this definition likewise excludes anything that we might term a supernatural being, power, property, or effect, all of which can be eliminated if the chain of ontology and causality is nonmental.

All of this is crucial to explaining why naturalism rejects religion. David Eller in The End of Christianity (pgs. 274-275) defines religion as the following:

“Religion is that worldview, that paradigm, which sees nonhuman/superhuman minds/wills/intentions at work and which ‘explains’ events and legitimizes relations and institutions in terms of these beings and their wills.”

Religion presents a view of the world that is deeply imbued with guiding teleologies and irreducibly mental states. Drawing from the minimalist definition of naturalism above, however, a universe with no irreducible mental states has no teleology in its metaphysics. Everything that is teleological within a naturalist universe must derive from non-teleological causes. Minds and willful intentions must arise from and be causally reducible to non-mental, impersonal, and, what we may call ‘natural’ states. Everything in a naturalist universe thus reduces to non-teleological and impersonal entities and causes.

This definition of both naturalism and religion is important, since, under such a distinction, metaphysical naturalism excludes all religions.

Thus, starting from a universe that reduces entirely to nonmental states, the subsequent posts in my series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism“, will examine how naturalists can explain issues of cosmology, time, unguided evolution, free will, epistemology, analytical vs. synthetic knowledge, particulars and abstract objects, and ethics, under this definition of metaphysical naturalism, which has now been spelled out above.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Richard Carrier in “Defining the Supernatural” provides a critique of the view that science cannot investigate (and thus verify or falsify) the supernatural under the sub-section “Is the Supernatural Knowable?”.

[2] In using teleology as a criterion to contrast the “natural” from “supernatural,” I am referring to the Platonic sense of teleology and not the Aristotelian sense. The Platonic sense of teleology is more akin to Paley’s teleological argument for God, which maintains that the universe reflects a willful process of design that points to an intelligent creator. The Aristotelian sense of teleology pertains more to substance being directed toward certain ends, which can be formulated as “having the potentiality to change in a predictable way or to move towards a predictable goal.”

As professional philosopher André Ariew in “Platonic and Aristotelian Roots of Teleological Arguments” (pg. 8) explains:

“Insofar as Aristotle’s teleology pertains to explanations of natural items, it is misleading to cast off Aristotle’s teleology as reading purposive behavior into natural events. This perception of Aristotle’s teleology is the result of conflating Aristotle’s naturalistic teleology with Plato’s … Plato’s natural teleology is and Aristotle’s is not creationist, anthropomorphic, and externally evaluative … Aristotle’s natural teleology is and Plato’s is not naturalistic, immanent, and functional.”

Ariew (pgs. 8-9) goes on to identify two distinct types of teleology in Aristotle’s writings:

“Teleological explanation in Aristotle pertains broadly to goal-directed actions or behavior. Aristotle invokes teleology when an event or action pertains to goals … [W]e can distinguish two distinct conceptions of teleology in Aristotle’s writings and at least two sub-categories:

I. Agency-centered teleology:
i. Behavioral. Activities undertaken for the sake of something, which may be either a state or further action.
ii. Artifactual. Activities undertaken for the sake of producing an object of a certain sort (artificial).

II. Teleology pertaining to natural organisms.
i. Formal. Biological developmental processes that occur for the sake of self-preservation or preservation of the species (form).
ii. Functional. Parts of organisms that are present for the sake of the organism possessing them.

I and II are distinct notions of teleology … Agent-specific teleology (I) is purposive, rational, and intentional, and represents external evaluation. The goal is the object of an agent’s desire or choice … Teleology pertaining to natural organisms is distinct: non-purposive (though seemingly so), non-rational, non-intentional, and immanent — that is, an inner principle of change. The goal is not an object of any agent’s desire.”

This article makes the argument that agency-specific teleology (I) does not exist at the basic, irreducible level in naturalism, but does not argue that naturalism necessarily excludes Aristotle’s teleology pertaining to natural organisms (II). The agency-specific notion of teleology (I) also relates to Carrier’s discussion of irreducible mental states, since I am specifically referring to the sort of teleologies exhibited by minds and agents.

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8 thoughts on “Defining the ‘Natural’ in Metaphysical Naturalism

  1. Excellent post. I completely disagree.

    Following David Hume, I see Laws of Nature as being about regularity, and the naturalistic worldview as based on a Principle of Uniformity. The core of Naturalism is that things are the same, that they are uniform. In addition to providing a metaphysical framework that directly supports our epistemic framework, this definition provides a positive picture of what a Natural reality will look like: it will have extremely uniform laws of nature, as epitomized by current quantum field theories.

    The thesis that everything is physical or supervenient on the physical is vacuous if “physical” is not defined. Yet even if accepted, it doesn’t really seem by itself to deny the supernatural. If vampires existed, they’d be physical alright – but they’ll be supernatural, too.

    The thesis that there is no metaphysical teleology needlessly commits the Naturalist to denying teleological physics. As a matter of fact, the equations of physics generally allow some freedom in whether one wants to put in initial conditions or final conditions (or time-symmetric conditions; or just boundary conditions), so that reality can be thought of as teleological in some sense. There doesn’t appear to be anything un-Natural about such a world, at least. Likewise for other forms of teleology, such as an Aristotelian drive towards the thing’s Essence or Final End / Cause. (The fact this Aristotelian view is almost certainly wrong does not mean it’s un-Natural.)

    The thesis that everything is reducible to the non-mental (which is a separate thesis) needlessly denies naturalistic panpsychism (my own view; see also Max Tegmark and Giulio Tononi) and, again, fails to provide a positive picture of what “Natural” means. If there were werewolves that could only be hurt by inherited silver (a property reducible to the non-mental, I’d think), would they be Natural?! What about the great fate for the seventh son of a seventh son?

    We must go back to David Hume, and understand that it is regularity, uniformity, that is at the basis of science, scientific thinking, and the scientific worldview – aka, Naturalism. When everything follows universal, uniform laws of physics it follows that nothing non-physical exists, but we get a much clearer sense of what this “physical” means (i.e. that it’s composed of identical stuff, like quarks and leptons, that the uniform laws act upon); causal closure follows too, but it becomes clear how all causes must reduce to fundamental interactions; lack of teleology follows only if these universal laws, or higher effective theories, are not teleological; and the idea that everything is reducible to non-mental stuff is shown to be valid for causes, as these are described by physics which includes no mental stuff, yet is at the same time shown to not follow for how stuff feels like from the inside, leaving open the door for naturalist theories of mind. Uniformity eliminates all forms of supernaturalism, and doesn’t needlessly cut off perfectly naturalistic options. But most importantly of all – uniformity provides a metaphysical ontological foundation for rational epistemology and the scientific method, which must presume uniformity. It is the viewpoint that is assumed by, and supported by, all our science and rational discovery.

    Yair

    • Hi Yair,

      Thanks for reading the blog and for your feedback!

      While I think that the uniformity of nature is a helpful distinction for defining miracles, as miracles are usually seen as a disruption of uniformity (i.e. events that cannot happen ceteris paribus), I do not think that it is the best way to define naturalism and the supernatural.

      First, we need to clear about what constitutes the paranormal vs. the supernatural. Carrier discusses this in his article defining the supernatural.

      Paranormal events are ones that lie beyond the realm of existing scientific knowledge. For example, an alien spaceship abducting me would certainly be paranormal, but it would not be supernatural.

      In the case of a vampire, I do not think that the vampire’s body being physical is the main issue. We humans could likewise have immaterial souls that, even if our natural, physical bodies decay, go on living after death. That would make our bodies natural and our souls supernatural. In the case of the vampire, it would depend on the factors that caused the vampire state to determine whether a vampire is supernatural or just paranormal.

      For example, if the condition of vampire was caused by microbes that were transmitted via a bite on the neck, which then caused an infection in the host’s body that resulted in the growth of sharp teeth and a craving for blood, this condition would certainly be paranormal (i.e. no such condition is known to exist in our world), but it would not be supernatural. The vampire would just be suffering from an odd biological disease.

      However, if there was some irreducible force of ‘vampireness’ that imbued someone with the qualities of vampire, and could not be found under a microscope or reduced to any simpler elements, I think then we could consider vampires to be supernatural. In that circumstance we certainly couldn’t call the condition of being a vampire physical, even if a vampire might have a physical body.

      Physicalism is an attractive definition for the natural, because physics is the way that we understand the natural world through science. We have also not been able to find a bona fide case of a non-physical entity (despite speculation about such things). As such, looking at the success of explaining nature through physics, we can infer that physics is all that exists. I do not think that defining the physical is too great a problem. A rudimentary definition would be that physicalism entails that everything is a material arrangement of matter and energy in space-time. In such a system, since matter and energy is unaware and non-teleological, we could term a physicalist universe to be purely ‘natural,’ since it would not reduce to any underlying wills or intentions.

      However, the reason that I do not define naturalism by physicalism is that it is too specific. There could be another types of blind cosmos, for example, that had a different substance than our universe, but still no underlying wills or intentions behind it.

      Now on to the definition about metaphysical teleology: saying that there is no meta-physical teleology does not deny teleological physical arrangements. In fact, we humans are surrounded by teleological arrangements caused by intelligent minds. However, these teleologies are ultimately reducible to a blind, non-teleological cosmos (i.e. they come from organisms that evolved through unguided evolution via mutation and natural selection). I use the term ‘unnatural’ to refer to intelligent behavior, which can still be reducible to unintelligent, blind causes (via unguided evolution). The ‘supernatural’ has to be irreducibly teleological.

      This, in fact, gets right to the core of the fine-tuning argument. Our universe is able to reach conditions in which it can produce life. The question depends on whether it was designed for these conditions or reached them through blind processes. A system arranged intelligently, where initial and final physical conditions are programmed to produce life, I would argue is supernatural, even if there was perfect uniformity within that system. The reason why is that a meta-physical force outside the system has arranged them in that way. A blind cosmos, in contrast, simply reduces to more non-teleological, blind accidents. A life-producing state reached in this way would have ‘natural’ explanation.

      I think that Aristotle’s notion of a final cause would still be supernatural, so long as final causes were ascribed to things outside of technology manufactured by humans (I still do not think that such artificial technology objectively has a final cause in any realist sense, but it makes more sense to describe something that has been designed in that way). However, saying that things like space or asteroids have final causes is inferring that some telos lies behind them, i.e. it assumes an underlying purpose behind things, which would not exist in a purely blind cosmos. That I would still consider to be supernatural, even if it were very minimally so (perhaps a form of Deism, for example).

      Now on to the nonmental: I think that panpsychism has to be understood as something non-natural. It would at least presume a certain cognition throughout the universe that would make it impossible to reduce everything to blind, non-teleological causes. Under Carrier’s naturalism, mental states are only caused by virtual models akin to those that are now being developed for physical machines. They are not ubiquitous. Carrier discusses more about how consciousness can be understood through these virtual models in his article rebutting Victor Reppert’s argument from reason.

      Now, here is why I do not think that uniformity is the way to define naturalism: I certainly agree that uniformity is a feature behind our natural universe, but it could also exist in a supernatural universe. For example, suppose a cycle of reincarnation, in which we all have souls that a born in physical bodies, and, when our bodies die, our souls move on to a state of purgatory. After this cleansing our souls return once more to physical bodies, until those bodies die again, and so on.

      Such an arrangement could be completely uniform. And yet it would still have souls, afterlives, perhaps even a teleological arrangement and designer that caused it to be so. Likewise, uniformity works admirably well with Deism, but I would not consider Deism to be natural.

      While I think that uniformity does do a good job of illustrating supernatural miracles (feats that are impossible ceteris paribus within the system, but are caused by forces outside of the system disrupting the uniformity), it does not prohibit a uniform, supernatural state of existence. There could still be many religions compatible with a uniform state of existence that still is reducible to mental properties. To get a natural universe I think that we need a blind cosmos. That requires the physical, or the reducibly non-teleological, or the reducibly nonmental. Only then can we say that universe is truly ‘blind’ and reduces entirely to ‘natural’ causes.

  2. “Thanks for reading the blog and for your feedback!”

    My pleasure. Literally. 🙂

    When arguing over philosophical definitions,I think we should seek to explicate, rather than giving “true” definition capturing common use, which is what dictionaries are for. I don’t think that there needs to be One True definition of Naturalism. But I do think uniformity should be a major one. I’ll try to show why by counter-pointing your response; but please read it not as an attack on your definitions, but rather an argument for another view of Naturalism.

    “…if there was some irreducible force of ‘vampireness’ that imbued someone with the qualities of vampire, and could not be found under a microscope or reduced to any simpler elements, I think then we could consider vampires to be supernatural.”

    An irreducible “force of vampireness” would still leave the vampire physical; there won’t be anything non-physical here, only physical stuff that behaves non-regularly. So you must either abandon physicality as the criterion, or add to it (e.g. uniformity!).

    I insist that the mere fact that something is physical simply does not suffice. Zeus could be a physical god, like the Epicurean conception of gods as composed of divine atoms; he’d still be supernatural.

    “…looking at the success of explaining nature through physics, we can infer that physics is all that exists. ”

    Perhaps it’d be productive to think of both of us as seeking to generalize that inference. Clearly, current physics is incomplete, and we want to be more general. I choose to infer to its basic principle of uniform laws of nature; you choose to infer to the basic principle of blind nature.

    “A rudimentary definition would be that physicalism entails that everything is a material arrangement of matter and energy in space-time. ”

    Frankly, as a certified physicist (PhD in quantum thermodynamics), I can’t make head or tail of that definition. I’d personally define the physical as the stuff which interacts with other stuff. If you can kick it, and as a result feel your foot hurt, then it’s physical.

    “In such a system, since matter and energy is unaware and non-teleological, we could term a physicalist universe to be purely ‘natural,’ since it would not reduce to any underlying wills or intentions.”

    I would note that being physical does not rule out awareness or teleology. If it did, we wouldn’t be physical entities; and I believe we are. This is as true at the fundamental level as it is at the human, macroscopic, level.

    “However, the reason that I do not define naturalism by physicalism is that it is too specific.”

    I disagree – I’m a strict physicalist in that I believe that everything that exists is physical (as I defined it above), and that every Natural cosmos would be physicalist.

    “There could be another types of blind cosmos, for example, that had a different substance than our universe, but still no underlying wills or intentions behind it.”

    Certainly we can imagine such a blind cosmos. And I would agree it would be Natural in that sense. I would argue, however, that such a cosmos would not be intelligible by science unless it was also uniform. So if we wish to argue for a science-based worldview, uniformity is a must.

    In contrast a uniform universe can be not-blind, in the sense of having some form of fundamental teleology or mental content (although I suspect not fundamental will or intention), while still respecting uniform laws of physics just like our real universe does. So we can retain a science-based worldview while not committing ourselves to a blind universe.

    “saying that there is no meta-physical teleology does not deny teleological physical arrangements. ”

    I was however talking about metaphysical teleology, e.g. viewing all of the universe as flowing towards the future boundary conditions instead of out of the past boundary conditions. Mathematically, the equations of physics produce the exact same universe – so why do you reject the future boundary conditions, while accepting the past ones?

    You know (I believe) that the entire spacetime just exists, timelessly. The choice of future or past (or some other, weird) boundary conditions is just a choice on how to describe this timeless spacetime (or portions thereof), and there is no reason to restrict this choice to past-only conditions.

    “The ‘supernatural’ has to be irreducibly teleological.”

    Why? If saying “Abrakadabra!” will allow me to summon a ball of fire, as a simple cause and effect regardless of my will or intention – why would that no be supernatural? And if stones seek to fall to the earth [as per Aristotelian physics], why is that not Natural? I suggest that there is room for the view that non-teleological things can be Supernatural, and that teleological things can be Natural.

    “The question depends on whether [the universe] was designed for these [life] conditions or reached them through blind processes.”

    But if the universe was designed by aliens then it would be aritifical, non-natural, but not Supernatural. If ALL of existence if uniform (or, I concede, blind), including the Designer of the universe, then fine tuning would be Natural.

    “I think that Aristotle’s notion of a final cause would still be supernatural, …”

    Consider the Aristotelian cosmos sans God/Deism: matter seeks its place (earth striving to get down, fire up). Why think of such a world as supernatural? It’s just a (weird) natural world as far as I can see.

    “Under Carrier’s naturalism, mental states are only caused by virtual models akin to those that are now being developed for physical machines. They are not ubiquitous. ”

    This is similar to naturalistic panpsychism. All causes are the standard physical causes – electrons, quarks, and so on. Naturalistic panpsychism just adds that physical systems also have a mental, inner, aspect to them as well as a causal, external, one. If correct, true Minds would be rare, consisting of precisely the systems Carrier has in mind. Most of reality would still be essentially blind and non-teleological. It would perhaps have the inner life of two or a few states, not really modelling much of anything and hence rather blind to its environment and not constituting any Will or other aspect of the complex mental objects true Minds are aware of.

    “Now, here is why I do not think that uniformity is the way to define naturalism: I certainly agree that uniformity is a feature behind our natural universe, but it could also exist in a supernatural universe. For example, suppose a cycle of reincarnation, in which we all have souls that a born in physical bodies, and, when our bodies die, our souls move on to a state of purgatory. After this cleansing our souls return once more to physical bodies, until those bodies die again, and so on.”

    This is not uniformity in the way I, or Hume, am using the term. Uniformity is the assertion that everything works in a precisely regular way, not that a miniscule part (human souls) work very differently but itself works in some roughly regular way. Uniformity is “Everything is made up of atoms”, not “Everything is made up of atoms – oh, and some things also have souls”.

    I fail to see how a very Uniform universe can also be supernatural. If all things are made up of atoms all obeying the same fundamental laws – there doesn’t seem to me to be any room for anything “supernatural”.

    I can see Natural universes that aren’t uniform, but are “natural” in some other sense – such as being blind.

    “Likewise, uniformity works admirably well with Deism, but I would not consider Deism to be natural.”

    Again – a major (from some aspects) part of reality would then not be working under regular laws of nature.

    “To get a natural universe I think that we need a blind cosmos. That requires the physical, or the reducibly non-teleological, or the reducibly nonmental. Only then can we say that universe is truly ‘blind’ and reduces entirely to ‘natural’ causes.”

    That is our point of disagreement. But beyond the bickering over the name, I would suggest that Natural in the Uniformity sense provides a world that is discoverable by science, in which humans must be composed of fundamental stuff that includes physical brains engaged in physical information processing, and (I would argue) where minds emerge in such systems without violating the laws of physics. And where no supernatural beings or effects, such as gods or Fate, can exist. I would hence suggest that Naturalism in the Uniformity sense is a useful idea, even if it is not the same as Natural in the Blind sense.

    Yair

    • I think you have more common ground than you think. It seems to me Matthew’s “blind universe” is compatible with the notion of physically necessary “end states”. If time is simply one dimension of the physical universe, then the universe’s state at any “time” is a physical necessity, whether t=1 yoctosecond, t=2014 CE, or t=lim -> infinity. This doesn’t imply what I understand Matthew to mean by teleology, namely that there is some intelligence or metaphysical purpose which provides a driving or guiding force. In other words, a non-teleological reality is one in which the only things which govern reality are uniform physical laws. (I want to add the phrase “with no connection to anything outside that reality”, but don’t know how that would fit with current hypotheses about a multiverse.)

      Yair’s point about uniformity is well taken. I had the same initial objection as Matthew, but true uniformity setting up a system like Matthew’s would mean that all matter would need some sort of immaterial soul (right down to quarks, leptons, and baryons) which could then be organized into the sort of soul we think of for humans, but such a soul couldn’t live after death, because it would be reorganized as the corresponding matter reorganized through decay, etc. As a result, the notion of the immaterial piece becomes superfluous. Even if such a thing existed ontologically, it is still, at best, supervenient on the physical and thus falls within the bounds of naturalism as Matthew proposes it.

      I think Matthew’s point that a physical form doesn’t exclude the supernatural is also well taken. Vampires or werewolves which derive their extraordinary abilities through disease or genetic traits would be paranormal (i.e. not currently understood), but still natural organisms. If they receive their traits magically (what D&D refers to as “supernatural abilities), they aren’t drawing them from physical causes. Thus even though magically empowered vampires or werewolves would have physical bodies, they would be unexplainable (not just unexplained) by physical laws and thus wouldn’t fit in a physicalist reality. Of course, a rather extensive period of study would be needed before we would give up on finding a naturalistic source should we ever encounter the latter.

      • whetstonemark,

        “This doesn’t imply what I understand Matthew to mean by teleology, namely that there is some intelligence or metaphysical purpose which provides a driving or guiding force. ”

        Well, yes, a uniform universe wouldn’t have those, and if that’s what Matthew means by teleology then our definitions are in agreement there.

        “true uniformity setting up a system like Matthew’s would mean that all matter would need some sort of immaterial soul (right down to quarks, leptons, and baryons) which could then be organized into the sort of soul we think of for humans, but such a soul couldn’t live after death, because it would be reorganized as the corresponding matter reorganized through decay, etc. ”

        That’s my position (naturalistic panpsychism) 🙂

        “I think Matthew’s point that a physical form doesn’t exclude the supernatural is also well taken. Vampires or werewolves which [paraphrasing]… receive their traits magically (what D&D refers to as “supernatural abilities), they aren’t drawing them from physical causes. Thus even though magically empowered vampires or werewolves would have physical bodies, they would be unexplainable (not just unexplained) by physical laws and thus wouldn’t fit in a physicalist reality. ”

        I disagree because I think you’re implicitly assuming uniform causality here. Remember that we’re examining whether physicality by itself, sans uniformity, is a suitable criterion. Werewolves that have “supernatural abilities” are simply physical bodies that behave in a non-uniform manner – in the werewolf wounds heal instantly (unless they are from cold-silver weapons!), say, whereas in the same physically-constructed human flesh they don’t. This is highly non-uniform physical behavior, but it is still just physical behavior. We need not introduce a non-physical substance or cause here – not if we allow physical things to behave non-uniformly.

        This is why uniformity matters – it isn’t the mere fact that vampires are physical that makes them natural, it is the fact that their physical bodies behave just like everything else behaves (at the microscopic level, at least). Uniformity guarantees that only natural werewolves (wolf-human hybrid through genetic engineering?!) could exist; physicality doesn’t.

        Yair

      • I would certainly agree that I’m not assuming a Humian sort of uniformity in the vampire/werewolf thought experiment. I am, however, assuming an intelligible universe in which laws are sufficiently uniform to be useful, such as the one suggested by Christian theism. A universe where the laws of nature are mostly applicable, but where there is an external force which intervenes from time to time. If such a force gave certain creatures magical powers, those creatures would have physical bodies, but would not merely be physical objects nor would they be natural in any meaningful sense of the word. Definitionally, such beings are supernatural, in that they derive their powers from a supernatural source.

        This example triggers both your definition of natural and Matthew’s. These beings clearly operate under different rules than the rest of reality and thus reality lacks uniformity and is unnatural. Simultaneously, there is an irreducibly immaterial force at work and thus reality is teleological and thus outside the scope of naturalism. The key is that the thought experiment specifically defines the source of the creatures’ powers as an external force, not just a bizarrely disuniform physical causality.

  3. Pingback: I Am Not A Piano Key: Thoughts on Consciousness – Graceful Atheist

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