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.

Slide 2

First, we need to understand the difference between the “supernatural” and the “paranormal.” The Parapsychological Association defines the paranormal as “Any phenomenon that in one or more respects exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions.” Notice how, under this definition, the paranormal is not characterized by what is “natural” or “supernatural,” rather than by phenomena that lies beyond the realm of scientific knowledge.  

Slide 3

Such phenomena can include many things that we would consider to be “natural,” such as alien abductions, Sasquatch sightings, and the flame-casting mutant discussed earlier. We cannot, therefore, define the “natural” by what has been discovered and verified by the scientific method. Furthermore, there are many natural phenomena that were unknown in the past and have only been discovered in recent times, but we would not describe such phenomena as “supernatural” before their discovery.

Also there is the question of whether science is capable of discovering the supernatural. Sometimes it is claimed that science can only study the “natural” world and that “supernatural” phenomena cannot be known through the scientific method. Science, however, is a method that is above all empirical. Many phenomena that we would describe as “supernatural,” such as vampires, werewolves, and miracles like turning water into wine, would be empirically observable. So, while science has not discovered such supernatural phenomena yet (and perhaps never will), science could still conceivably discover the supernatural, meaning that the supernatural is not, by definition, paranormal. We have to therefore look to other criteria beyond scientific knowledge to define what is “natural” versus what is “supernatural.”

Slide 4

Part of the difficulty with defining these terms is that they are used to describe a wide range of phenomena. Rain is natural. Gravity is natural. Human beings and our evolution are natural. But what are the shared characteristics between these individual “natural” phenomena that allow us to form a universal category of the “natural”? Even if we recognize individual phenomena to be “natural,” that does mean that a real metaphysical distinction has been made, until the “natural” can be categorically defined.

Slide 5

The same problem holds true for the “supernatural.” The term “supernatural” is used to discuss highly diverse phenomena. A genie is supernatural. God is supernatural. Miracles are supernatural. Magical potions and witchcraft are supernatural. And even places like Heaven are supernatural. But what do all of these individual “supernatural” phenomena have in common? What allows us to metaphysically distinguish them from “natural” phenomena? To answer this question, professional philosophers have proposed a variety of criteria for defining the “natural” versus “supernatural.”

Slide 6

Perhaps the most common criterion used to define the “natural” is physicality. Physical materialism has long been associated with “nature” and the “natural” world, especially in the age of science. As philosopher Keith Augustine (“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.”

Slide 7

There are a number of problems, however, with defining the “natural” solely by what is physical. To begin with, there are a number of phenomena that are difficult to describe and characterize in physical terms. Take for, example, human consciousness and internal subjective states. Even if we can describe the human brain solely with physical terms, how can we describe our internal awareness and mental experiences with only physical terms? There is also the question of whether universals and abstract objects can be explained physically. Can we say, for example, that mathematics is physical? Furthermore, would a lack of physicality always imply the “supernatural”? For example, if mathematical Platonism is true, and math really is immaterial, would we then call mathematics “supernatural” [1]? In the words of philosopher Stephen Law, this would be “odd,” since mathematics is not usually considered “spooky” enough to be “supernatural.” Then there are “supernatural” phenomena that involve physical states. Take, for example, a man transforming into a werewolf. Such a transformation would involve drastic physical change, but should we then describe werewolves as being “natural”?

Slide 8

One solution that philosophers have proposed for this problem is the idea of Supervenience. Supervenience occurs when lower order states determine higher order states, even if the higher order states cannot be described through the lower order states. Keith Augustine proposes Supervenience as one solution for making human consciousness compatible with physicalism. As Augustine (“A Defense of Naturalism“) explains, “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.” 

Accordingly, even if one cannot describe internal mental states through solely physical terms, we can still know that solely physical causes are determining mental states. Supervenience can also be proposed as a solution for how “supernatural” phenomena can still involve physical states. Even if a werewolf’s bodily transformation is physical, such physical change could supervene upon immaterial changes and causes. Assuming that there is no physical illness or genetic mutation that causes one to become a werewolf, we could still imagine that the lower order properties of a werewolf may be immaterial and non-physical. As such, the werewolf’s higher order physical change could still be caused by lower order non-physical properties.

Slide 9

Another criterion that is often associated with the “natural” is uniformity. As philosopher David Griffin (Religion and Scientific Naturalismpg. 12) explains, “Naturalism in [a] minimal sense can be identified with what has historically been called ‘uniformitarianism,’ which is the assumption that the same general causal principles obtain for all events.” Natural events revolve around repeated patterns and consistent natural laws. The sun has risen today, and it will do so again tomorrow. Gravity holds us to the Earth this moment, and it will not suddenly cease in the next moment. One type of supernatural phenomena that involves a breach in this uniformity is miracles. Griffin (pg. 13) defines miracles “as supernatural interruptions of normal cause-effect relationships.”

Slide 10

For example, if you try to walk on water, you will always sink, because gravity is a uniform feature of our universe. If, however, you tried to walk on water and did not sink, we would probably describe such an occurrence as a miracle. As Christian philosopher William Craig (The Case for Faith, pg. 63) explains, “Natural laws have implicit ceteris paribus conditions … In other words, natural laws assume that no other natural or supernatural factors are interfering with the operation that the law describes.” Hence why you will always sink if you try to walk on water ceteris paribus, meaning all other things being equal. Nature is uniform. If such uniformity were broken, however, we would suspect that something more than nature, something “supernatural” was occurring.

Slide 11

The previous example also touches on the issue of open versus closed systems of causality. “Natural” phenomena typically occur within closed systems of causality. If you try to walk on water, the force of gravity and the lack of sufficient friction on the surface of the water will cause you to sink. This system of cause and effect is closed, meaning that there is nothing external to the system that is influencing or changing this pattern of cause and effect. With no external force changing the effect of gravity or the surface friction of the water, the forces within this closed system alone will influence the phenomena.

“Supernatural” phenomena, however, involve external influences on the natural world. Gravity and the lack of surface friction may cause you to sink within a closed system, but if an external force, such as God, intervenes in this system, then the phenomena may change drastically. As such, “supernatural” phenomena imply open systems of causality. When something more occurs than what is possible through the natural forces within a system alone, something external, something “supernatural” is influencing the system, meaning that it is not causally closed, but open.

Slide 12

Another feature of the supernatural is that it often involves irreducible mental states. Supernatural objects like souls, God, and ghosts are mental and have minds. Likewise, even supernatural phenomena without minds often involve mental properties, such as Karma, love potions, or magic that responds to the beckoning of a sorcerer. These “supernatural” mental objects, however, cannot be broken down into non-mental parts. The whole idea behind a soul’s immortality is that it is irreducible, meaning that it cannot be broken down into something less than a soul. “Natural” mental states, however, are reducible. Our mental states are dependent on our physical brains, and if those brain states are reduced, our mental states will be reduced. We can break down a human mind to the point that it is no longer a mind, but we cannot break down a soul to the point that it is no longer a soul. As such, the “supernatural” involves irreducible mental objects and properties.

Naturalist philosopher Richard Carrier (“On Defining Naturalism as a Worldview“) has also argued that the “natural” is best defined as being reductively non-mental. As Carrier explains: “Naturalism is true iff everything that exists is either ontologically reducible to the nonmental, or causally reducible to the nonmental, or both … 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.” 

Slide 13

“Natural” mental states, such as our thoughts and emotions, are contingent upon lower order physical states. If those physical states change in our brains, then so do our mental states. As such, our mental states do not exist at the lower order level, but are only emergent properties at the higher order level. “Supernatural” mental states, however, are irreducible. They are not emergent properties, but exist at the lower order level and can thus be described as ontologically basic. In naturalism, the physical matter in our brains is the basic state that determines our higher order mental states. In supernaturalism, the mental states themselves are basic and are not contingent upon any lower order states.

Slide 14

Supernatural phenomena are not usually described as occurring without any purpose or intention. Miracles are not just violations of physical laws, but are violations that achieve specific results, such as raising the dead or healing the sick. Teleology is the study in philosophy of goal-oriented, intentional phenomena [2]. Mental states are very often characterized as being teleological. Our thoughts and emotions direct us towards certain ends. One consequence of defining the “supernatural” as having irreducible, lower order mental properties is that it implies that teleology is a lower order property as well. Take, for example, the supernatural view that God created the universe. Such a creation is not blind, mechanical, or accidental, but is done willfully, with discretion, and is directed towards a certain end. The concept of God is thus very teleological.

In fact, teleology is feature of almost all world religions today. As anthropologist David Eller (The End of Christianity, pgs. 274-275) defines religion across cultures: “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.” Religions almost always involve underlying intentionalities at work, such as polytheistic gods who must be appeased to prevent natural disasters, or even more abstract intentions, such as Karma, which works towards specific ends of justice. The teleology common in world religions is a reason that we characterize them as being “supernatural.”

Slide 15

In contrast, “nature” is usually described as being unintentional and mechanical. Nature is blind. When something happens without any intention and only as the result of accidental causes, we describe it as a “natural” phenomenon. Take, for example, the difference between “natural” abiogenesis and evolution, verses “supernatural” creation and design. Abiogenesis and evolution are the result of accidental biochemical events. They are blind forces that drive biological change. This is very different from the notion that God created life and designed it in a specific way. Such a creation would be very teleological, whereas natural abiogenesis is non-teleological.

Slide 16

Defining the supernatural as “teleological,” however, raises the question of whether human agency and teleology is “supernatural” as well. I argue that this is not the case. The reason why is that human agency, as a higher order contingent property, is predicated on lower order non-teleological causes. We are the result of accidental abiogenesis and mutations. Even if our behavior is willful and teleological, we are still reducible to non-teleological causes.

In contrast, “supernatural” teleologies, such as God, cannot be reduced to non-teleological causes. God did not gradually evolve through accidental processes into a complex mental state with intentions. God is instead irreducibly teleological. God’s teleology is a basic, lower order property. Instead of using the term “supernatural,” then, to describe human agency, I propose the term “unnatural” in its place. If someone is struck by lightning, it is a “natural” death. If someone is killed by a human, we can call it an “unnatural” death. But since human agency is reducible to non-teleological causes, a human killing another human is not “supernatural.” If, in contrast, God or a demon killed a human, we could call this a “supernatural” death. The reason why is that God or demons are irreducibly teleological at the lower order level.

Slide 17

A final point of this discussion today is the question of where “superhuman” abilities fit in to the “supernatural.” Supernatural phenomena often involve superhuman capabilities. Miracles, magic, and witchcraft all involve powers that go beyond what humans are ordinarily capable of doing. But simply being “superhuman” does not mean that something is “supernatural.” This distinction can be justified based on whether the superhuman ability in question is contingent upon gradual, accidental processes, or whether it exists at the basic level.

For example, we discussed at the beginning a witch being able to cast a spell of fire in comparison to an X-man who has evolved the ability to produce flames from his hands. Both abilities are superhuman, but only one is supernatural. The reason why is the X-man’s superhuman ability can be explained as the result of gradual biological change and mutation, which eventually resulted in abilities that exceed those of ordinary humans. Likewise, even we humans today have capabilities (or at least technology) that supersede the abilities of ancient humans. If I were to go back in time and fly a fighter jet over ancient Rome, to the ancient Romans that might appear to be a supernatural event, but we would know that it was only the result of gradual changes in human capabilities. The process behind it is still reducible. In contrast, a witch did not “evolve” the ability to use witchcraft through gradual, mechanical changes, but instead witchcraft exists at an irreducible, basic level. The witch’s abilities cannot be described as being the contingent result of blind processes. We can therefore describe the witch’s superhuman abilities as “supernatural.”

Slide 18

To conclude this discussion I would like to summarize and compare the various attributes of the “natural” versus the “supernatural” that we have covered today. “Natural” phenomena tend to be physical and materialistic (or at least to supervene upon lower order physical states). “Natural” phenomena also tend to be uniform, and to exist within closed systems. Things that are “natural” are reducibly non-mental and non-teleological. Hence the “blindness” of nature.

In contrast, “supernatural” phenomena tend to be non-physical or immaterial. Or, if a supernatural phenomenon has physical components, it still tends to be influenced by non-physical lower order properties. The “supernatural” is irregular and involves phenomena that would not be possible ceteris paribus, or all other things being equal. Instead, the “supernatural” often involves external intervention that interferes with normal natural processes. As such, the “supernatural” implies an open system of causality. The “supernatural” also tends to be irreducibly mental, and to involve mental objects that cannot be broken down into non-mental parts. Finally, the “supernatural” tends to be teleological and directed towards certain ends, contrasting it with the blindness of nature.

These are just some ways to think about the differences between the “natural” and the “supernatural,” and I hope that my discussion here today has shed light on how we can define these terms, especially since it is a central issue for this year’s conference. Perhaps by knowing metaphysically and categorically what the “supernatural” really is, we may also understand our “Familiar Spirits” better as well.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Incidentally, I am a mathematical nominalist, and thus do not think that mathematics consists of abstract, non-physical objects, as mathematical Platonists maintain. Instead I maintain that all mathematical knowledge is tautological and constructive.

[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 paper 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 my 4th criterion of “irreducible mental” properties, since I am specifically referring to the sort of teleologies exhibited by minds and agents.

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25 thoughts on “Philosophically Defining the Supernatural

  1. (1) Does the distinction between open and closed systems really work? If I include God in the “system” then all cause and effect occurs within the closed system. Or, if I don’t include human action in the “system”, then not all cause and effect occurs within the closed system.

    (2) Can teleology be “reduced away” on naturalism? Even the so-called fundamental forces (gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, weak nuclear) exhibit teleology in an Aristotelian sense (final cause).

    (3) Are uniformity and the rejection of teleology compatible with each other? Uniformity can be explained on the basis of a substance being directed towards some ends but not others (i.e., teleology or final causality). Naturalism needs to provide an alternative account of uniformity.

    • Hey Jayman,

      Thanks for your questions/comments!

      “(1) Does the distinction between open and closed systems really work? If I include God in the “system” then all cause and effect occurs within the closed system. Or, if I don’t include human action in the “system”, then not all cause and effect occurs within the closed system.”

      What I was stressing with that criterion is that supernatural phenomena tend to involve external intervention into systems that, without such intervention, could not produce the same phenomena, when closed. Hence why William Craig argues that miracles are not really violations of natural laws, since miracles are only impossible ceteris paribus (“all other things being equal”). If something external to the system intervenes, as Craig argues, then something more can occur than what is possible within the system alone, such as in the example of a person walking on water.

      This is not to say that you cannot define God as part of the system. I get what you mean by saying that you could just include God as part of a broader system, and then God would no longer be external. That’s not what I am saying though.

      What I am saying is that supernatural phenomena tend to imply a sort of dualism between the natural world and the supernatural world. As Craig argues, without supernatural intervention, the natural world operates within a closed system of cause and effect. However, Craig, as a supernaturalist, does not believe that this is all that exists. Instead, Craig argues that there is a bigger supernatural reality outside of the natural reality that we live in (often conceived as something beyond our “physical/material” reality).

      Craig’s cosmological argument makes this exact point. Craig argues that physical/material forces within our universe alone are not capable of explaining why our universe exists. Instead, Craig argues that something external to our universe must have created it ex nihilo. If so, the natural world is not a closed system, but an open system that can be influenced by things outside the natural world.

      In contrast, metaphysical naturalism argues that nothing external to our universe has any influence upon. Our universe is then a “closed” system.

      The difference is not that you can add God into the system, and then now the system is defined as including God. The difference is that the supernatural implies a sort of division, a dualism between the “natural” and “supernatural” world. In contrast, naturalism argues that there is no such dualism. This universe is not separated from some greater reality that occasionally interferes within it.

      “(2) Can teleology be “reduced away” on naturalism? Even the so-called fundamental forces (gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, weak nuclear) exhibit teleology in an Aristotelian sense (final cause).”

      This is not necessarily a premise that I buy. How do fundamental forces exhibit a final cause?

      If the multiverse theory is true, and there are other universes that have fundamental forces that do not support life, then fundamental forces are ultimately random. According to the Anthropic Principle, we will always live in universes that have the right conditions for us to exist, but that does not exhibit any final cause. Our fundamental forces would just be random, and we would only happen to live in a universe with the correct arrangement for life, because we would never become conscious otherwise. I do not see any final cause in that.

      Are you saying that fundamental forces reflect fine-tuning, and are thus teleological? If so, then I would agree that, if there were evidence that the fundamental forces are finely-tuned or designed, then this would be a valid argument for teleology. And, if so, then I would agree that metaphysical naturalism would be false. However, I do not buy the premises behind fine-tuning, since I do not think that our fundamental forces have to be finely-tuned in order to support life the way they do.

      So, while I agree that the fundamental forces could possibly exhibit a final cause and thus make a case for teleology, I do not believe that that is the actual case in our universe.

      “(3) Are uniformity and the rejection of teleology compatible with each other? Uniformity can be explained on the basis of a substance being directed towards some ends but not others (i.e., teleology or final causality).”

      They would only be incompatible if you defined uniformity as requiring teleology. But why do so? Uniformity does not have to explained on the basis of a substance being directed towards some end but not others. That would seem like a rather specific way to define it, and one that most naturalists would probably not accept as descriptive of their own beliefs. Instead, uniformity could just be consistent patterns of cause and effect, regardless of whether they are being directed towards certain ends or not.

      “Naturalism needs to provide an alternative account of uniformity.”

      I am not sure if an alternative account necessarily has to be given. Uniformity is simply an observable aspect of our universe. It could just be a brute fact that requires no explanation.

      But, on the other hand, I do think that providing an alternative account would better flesh out metaphysical naturalism as a worldview. I also think that are plausible naturalistic accounts for uniformity. Here are the “Ten Possible Reasons for the Uniformity of Nature” that naturalist philosopher Richard Carrier offers:

      [1] Brute fact. (Just as God “just exists for no reason,” uniform nature “just exists for no reason”; simpler because it posits only one entity, which is fully in evidence and thus not hypothetical, while God posits two entities, one of which is not in evidence, and not only not in evidence, but possessed of properties without any established precedent.)

      [2] Random event in a multiverse. (In any system of randomly generated universes, regions of uniformity are a logically necessary outcome, in the same way that long runs of 6s are inevitable in any long enough series of die rolls, and obviously life will only arise in those regions.)

      [3] Random event in an early universe. (In any single system of randomly interacting elements, regions of uniformity are a logically necessary outcome, so the Inflationary Era would have inevitably produced some, and obviously life will only arise in those regions.)

      [4] Random event in universe selection. (Any randomly selected universe from among all possible universes will have uniformities, to an extremely high probability; because having no uniformities is only one possible outcome, whereas there are infinitely many more possible outcomes each of which are full of uniformities, so any random selection among them will produce a system with uniformities to a probability of effectively 100%. This actually better fits the observation that the universe is also full of non-uniformities; see item 7 below.)

      [5] Ontological necessity. (There being a single, entirely non-uniform nature is logically impossible: see End of Christianity, pp. 408-09, n. 20)

      [6] Geometric necessity. (If Superstring theory is true, and all particles and therefore all forces and therefore all laws of physics are nothing more than vibrations of collapsed but contiguous regions of space-time, then all existence is simply a giant geometrical shape, in which uniformity is an inevitable product of any geometry. This is simpler because it posits only one entity: space-time; which we have proven exists and therefore is not hypothetical. With space-time you have geometry, and geometry deductively entails all the facts of Superstring theory (if Superstring theory is true).)

      [7] Logical necessity. (Really, nature is full of non-uniformity, we just choose to talk about the uniform bits of it, whereas having no uniform bits would entail logical contradictions, therefore it is logically impossible to have a universe that doesn’t exhibit enough uniformity for us to talk about it being uniform.)

      [8] Temporal inevitability from core physics. (On established and proven physics, there is a nonzero probability of a randomly structured Big Bang occurring anywhere; that probability just happens to be absurdly small; but on any indefinite timeline, all nonzero probabilities approach 100%; therefore eventually–perhaps trillions of trillions of trillions of years from now, but however long it may be, inevitably–a random Big Bang event will occur; and again after that; ad infinitum; this is cosmologically necessary, because any random universe has only three possible histories: collapse [causing a kinetic Big Bang], stasis [causing a quantum Big Bang], or runaway acceleration [causing an atomic Big Bang, i.e. the energy of space-time itself becomes so great that every point of space-time collapses and kinetically explodes]; such a sequence will be eternal and therefore will eventually produce universes of every kind of uniformity. This conclusion requires the assumption of a stable consistent physics underlying the entire metaverse, but the set of physical assumptions necessary for this is extremely small, extremely simple, and every single one of them is in evidence and thus not hypothetical but known to exist. Unlike God.)

      [9] Temporal inevitability from no core physics. (Assuming no fixed physics underlies the metaverse, how what exists will behave will be completely random, a chaos; any completely random chaos will eventually form uniform structures given unending time, as a logically necessary fact of probability; as uniform structures form, over time one of them will inevitably contain the core physics of item 8 above; therefore, we don’t even have to assume that core physics as a brute fact.)

      [10] Ontological euthyphro. (How can God create uniformity if he is not himself uniform? So where do the uniformities in God come from? He can’t have started as a chaos and then “chosen” to pull himself together, because that requires enough uniformity to think and choose, much less choose correctly, and thus presupposes uniformity; we can’t say God has always been uniform as a brute fact, as then positing a uniform nature as a brute fact is a simpler hypothesis, per item 1; that leaves the conclusion that a certain uniformity is an innate property of existing in and of itself, in which case it will be the innate property of everything that exists, whether a god or anything else; therefore no God is needed to explain why everything that exists exhibits a certain measure of uniformity.)

      • In contrast, metaphysical naturalism argues that nothing external to our universe has any influence upon. Our universe is then a “closed” system.

        That’s debatable. Self-described naturalists seem to believe that a multiverse is compatible with naturalism (you mention the multiverse in your own comment). They believe something external to our universe can have an influence on our universe (or at least it did in the past). The boundaries of the “system” seem to be an ad hoc way to rule out the existence of undesirable entities (e.g., God).

        The difference is that the supernatural implies a sort of division, a dualism between the “natural” and “supernatural” world. In contrast, naturalism argues that there is no such dualism. This universe is not separated from some greater reality that occasionally interferes within it.

        I think such a dualism is wrong because I don’t believe the terms “natural” and “supernatural” can be defined in a principled manner. Yet I believe in God and so would not be considered a “naturalist” on your view.

        How do fundamental forces exhibit a final cause?

        A final cause does not require that the thing under discussion is conscious. All that is necessary is that there is a directedness. An object with mass is directed towards other objects with mass due to gravity.

        I’m not tying this into fine-tuning. I’m noting that this kind of teleology is accepted even by self-described naturalists so it is untrue that naturalism is non-teleological.

        Instead, uniformity could just be consistent patterns of cause and effect, regardless of whether they are being directed towards certain ends or not.

        This seems incoherent. If the cause is not directed towards the effect then the cause would not produce the effect and consistent patterns would not be observed.

      • Hey Jayman,

        “A final cause does not require that the thing under discussion is conscious. All that is necessary is that there is a directedness. An object with mass is directed towards other objects with mass due to gravity.”

        “If the cause is not directed towards the effect then the cause would not produce the effect and consistent patterns would not be observed.”

        The issue of Aristotle’s understanding of teleology came up in another comment, and I see now that I need to clarify that this paper is NOT referring to teleology in the “Aristotelian” sense, but rather the “Platonic” 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 to 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 the 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 … we 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 paper that I presented is making the argument that Agency-specific teleology (1) does not exist at the basic, irreducible level in naturalism. There is no Agency-specific teleology that guides our universe, and such agency-specific teleology (at the irreducible level) is characteristic of supernatural phenomena. This first, distinct understanding of teleology also relates to my 4th criterion of “irreducible mental” properties, since I am specifically referring to the sort of teleologies exhibited by minds and agents.

        “I’m not tying this into fine-tuning. I’m noting that this kind of teleology is accepted even by self-described naturalists so it is untrue that naturalism is non-teleological.”

        And I am referring in this paper to the type of teleology made in fine-tuning arguments, such as those of Paley. Naturalism can be understood to be teleological in the Aristotelian sense. I do not believe that naturalism is compatible with teleology in the Platonic sense or in the Agent-specific (I) sense of teleology (at least at the reducible level). The latter understanding of teleology, for natural phenomena, only exists at the emergent level.

        Just so you know, I am planning to revise and expand this paper down the road, and then to eventually submit it to a journal for possible publication, so I appreciate the feedback!

        I agree that I need to flesh out more of what I mean by teleology and to make distinctions such as the one that I spelled out above. I’ll make these changes as I continue to expand my research, and I’ll see if I can go back to my current paper (when I get the chance) to add footnotes clarifying the issue you raised above

      • “That’s debatable. Self-described naturalists seem to believe that a multiverse is compatible with naturalism (you mention the multiverse in your own comment). They believe something external to our universe can have an influence on our universe (or at least it did in the past).”

        The multiverse is not external to our universe in the sense that I am describing. The multiverse theory entails that the multiverse IS our universe. In other words, our local universe is just part of a greater cosmos. The multiverse is still causally closed within the same physical reality as our universe; it would just be much bigger. That’s not the type of external intervention or dualism that I am describing for supernatural phenomena.

        “The boundaries of the “system” seem to be an ad hoc way to rule out the existence of undesirable entities (e.g., God).”

        Strangely, I actually came to the “causally open” or “external” criterion through the writings of theologians and apologists.

        The reasoning behind a lot of apologetic arguments appeals to an external reality beyond our physical world. For example, the cosmological argument proposes that a force external to our universe, external to matter and energy in space-time, is responsible for the creation of our universe. The whole reason that apologists like William Lane Craig insist that our universe is finite is so that they can argue that our universe had a distinct beginning, and that this beginning was not the beginning of everything that exists, but instead something external to the universe created it.

        The same reasoning is used in arguments from miracles. As Craig has spelled out, miracles are not possible ceteris paribus (“all other things being equal”). A phrase like ceteris paribus implies a closed system. All other things being equal within a system, miracles are not possible. But when something external to the system intervenes, then more can occur than what is possible through forces within a system alone.

        This sense of externality is most often articulated by a division between our physical/material world and some external/immaterial world outside of our physical universe.

        (For the record, I do not believe that the distinction between the “natural” world and the “supernatural” world has to be defined by physicality. I think that other plausible distinctions could be made, but physicality works well for illustrating the sort of dualism that I am describing, and a lot of theologians use this reasoning.)

        That’s what I meant by the metaphysical dualism. Craig’s cosmological argument and arguments from miracles appeal to an external, non-physical reality outside of our own. The origins of our universe (allegedly) cannot be explained by forces within our universe, but must have been caused by something external (outside of the material world). Miracles like rising from the dead are not physically possible within the material world, but forces (such as God) outside of the material world can intervene to achieve more than is possible.

        You can define God and this greater immaterial existence as just “part of the system” to argue that there is no such externality. But I don’t think that this eliminates the metaphysical dualism that is implied by a lot of theologians’ descriptions of God, cosmological origins, and miracles as being external to the “natural” world.

        “I think such a dualism is wrong because I don’t believe the terms “natural” and “supernatural” can be defined in a principled manner. Yet I believe in God and so would not be considered a “naturalist” on your view.”

        Strangely enough, my 3rd criterion of “externality” is not the one that I think is most effective in categorically excluding the existence of God from the naturalist worldview.

        Actually, I think that my 4th criterion of “irreducible mental properties” is the most effective criterion for excluding God from naturalism.

        God, as theologians like Plantinga and Craig have defined him/her/it, is a simple, necessary being that is fundamentally basic. The whole idea of “divine simplicity” (defended by Plantinga here and by Craig here) assumes that God is not emergent from lower order processes. In fact, theologians argue that everything else in existence is contingent upon God. That means that God is the most basic, lower order paradigm of our universe.

        And yet God is a willful and mental being. Naturalism, however, as I have defined it, entails that all mental states are contingent and are emergent from lower order properties. Ergo, mental states in naturalism are never ontologically basic or simple, such as theologians have defined God.

        Let me be clear that I am not saying that I have proven that no irreducible mental states exists (that would need to be demonstrated with further arguments). What I am saying is that defining naturalism, as entailing that all mental states are contingent and emergent, categorically excludes the existence of God from naturalism. This is done with a very clear metaphysical distinction, since God (as theologians have described him/her/it) is anything but contingent.

  2. I suggest bypassing noting the different kinds of teleology and just stick with your “4. Reducibly Non-Mental (mental states are contingent and emergent)”.

    This sense of externality is most often articulated by a division between our physical/material world and some external/immaterial world outside of our physical universe.

    If you take that route then you may as well remove “3. Causally Closed” and focus on “1. Physical (or supervenient upon the physical)”.

    You can define God and this greater immaterial existence as just “part of the system” to argue that there is no such externality. But I don’t think that this eliminates the metaphysical dualism that is implied by a lot of theologians’ descriptions of God, cosmological origins, and miracles as being external to the “natural” world.

    To say that X is external to Y does not require that Y is causally closed. You seem to be combining your (1) and (3). If so, then I suggest just sticking to (1).

    Actually, I think that my 4th criterion of “irreducible mental properties” is the most effective criterion for excluding God from naturalism.

    I think (1) and (4) both do the trick.

    • Hey Jayman,

      I’m still thinking about how I want to use these criteria. I may use the paper less to argue that these are hard and fast rules, rather than to survey the different metaphysical descriptions of their beliefs, offered by both naturalists and theologians, in order to explore some of the major issues at stake.

      For example, with teleology, even if it isn’t a hard rule that naturalism is non-teleological, I certainly think that both naturalists and theists have a number of disagreements about teleology. Not only do I want to interact with Paley on this subject, but also Feser and Nagel (who is an atheist non-naturalist). I’m not saying that I will offer hard definitions to counter them, but rather I want to survey the major metaphysical issues that lead to disagreements between naturalists, theologians, and non-naturalists.

      I also think that such an approach could be interesting to people on both sides of the debate. I know that I do a lot of counter-apologetics, but I am actually looking for more of a middle ground on this issue. Defining naturalism and theism is a complex metaphysical issue, and I also think that atheists and naturalists haven’t written as much on the subject as I would like. So, I hope to contribute by exploring both sides and trying to bring to the surface the major metaphysical problems that lead to disagreements over definitions.

  3. Hi Matthew,

    I admit I’m rather skeptical about the supernatural/natural distinction, since in my view, colloquial usage of the words seems to be (at least) far too vague for philosophical use, and philosophical definitions I’m familiar with seems to be also too vague, or circular, or they have no such problems but instead they yield unwanted results (and so, they also fail to do the work they’re supposed to).

    That aside, in the case of your conception of the supernatural and the natural, I’m not sure about the open/closed system – a concern already raised by jayman666 – and a couple of other issues, but assuming those issues are avoidable, I would like to ask about some of the classification consequences.

    1. With regard to humans or other animals, your conception entails – assuming there are no souls – that they are natural. But what if there were souls?
    For example, let’s say that – as many theists believe – an omnimax (omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect) irreducibly mental being (God) exists – so, naturalism is false, on your definition – and humans and other animals have souls – immortal or not -, which are not reducible to any particles or non-mental stuff – God just creates those souls each time.

    So, I would like to ask the following questions:

    Under that scenario, are humans, cats and dogs supernatural, or more accurately partly supernatural, in a way similar to the way in which a witch would be supernatural? (I’m accepting dogs, etc., do have subjective experiences as well, and so souls in that scenario).

    2. Let’s say that God does not exist, but panpsychism is true, so the mental is not reducible to the non-mental. Would that render trees, planets, etc., supernatural on this definition, or would they be natural for some other reason?

    Granted, in the cases of humans, cats, dogs, etc., in 1. and trees, planets, etc., in 2., there is uniformity. But if lack of uniformity were required for supernaturalism, then Heaven, Hell, witchcraft, etc. would not count as supernatural if they exhibit uniformity (not sure how you conceptualize uniformity, but given any candidate, it seems to me there might be uniform witchcraft, etc.; fictional examples abound).

    • Hey angramainyu2014,

      Allow me to answer your questions in somewhat inverted order, since it will be more clear if I start with your second question:

      “2. Let’s say that God does not exist, but panpsychism is true, so the mental is not reducible to the non-mental. Would that render trees, planets, etc., supernatural on this definition, or would they be natural for some other reason?”

      I got the definition of “irreducibly mental” from Richard Carrier, and actually, in our correspondence over email, we discussed panpsychism and whether it can be compatible with this definition of the natural. Here is Carrier’s reply:

      “Probably not. Although that depends on what one actually means by the term.

      If a panpsychist says merely that every machine reductively causes qualia (the most basic concept of a mind), as in, qualia are caused, without remainder, by the machine (so no extra supernatural stuff has to be added for the same exact machine to produce qualia), and since all objects in the universe (including the universe itself) are essentially different kinds of machines, then that would be naturalism (I think Lynn Margulis could qualify as thinking something like this). Pretty much anything else is supernaturalism. Although I haven’t examined all the theses of panpsychics, it is pretty universally defined as mind-first, objects-second, which is fundamentally supernaturalist, hence most panpsychics are supernaturalists. Nagel, for example, despite all his protestations, is simply just defending a supernaturalist worldview, one that just happens to not have a god in it. Panpsychism as usually advocated is not significantly different from (atheistic) supernaturalist Buddhism, wherein mind is the fundamental root of all being, and is not reducible to anything else, but in fact everything else is reducible to it.”

      I tend to agree with Carrier’s answer. Naturalism entails objects/machines come first and minds second. I also agree with him that Nagel should really be considered just an atheist supernaturalist.

      “1. With regard to humans or other animals, your conception entails – assuming there are no souls – that they are natural. But what if there were souls?
      For example, let’s say that – as many theists believe – an omnimax (omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect) irreducibly mental being (God) exists – so, naturalism is false, on your definition – and humans and other animals have souls – immortal or not -, which are not reducible to any particles or non-mental stuff – God just creates those souls each time.”

      Again, souls entail that minds come before objects/machines. Hence why souls are not contingent on physical parts. Thus, they are completely supenatural. If their were souls, or an omnimax deity, then the supernatural would exist and naturalism would be false.

      “That aside, in the case of your conception of the supernatural and the natural, I’m not sure about the open/closed system – a concern already raised by jayman666 – and a couple of other issues, but assuming those issues are avoidable, I would like to ask about some of the classification consequences.”

      I agree, upon thinking about it, that the open/closed distinction is circular. Though, I don’t think that this makes it an inaccurate distinction, rather then that it is just reaffirming the other criteria. What it really means is that supernatural events are external to physical/reducibly mental causes. Hence, why ceteris paribus, these events would not be possible physically. But, considering that it is making the open/closed distinction based on the other criteria, it is circular and does not necessarily add anything new to the definition, rather than clarify a relationship.

      “Granted, in the cases of humans, cats, dogs, etc., in 1. and trees, planets, etc., in 2., there is uniformity. But if lack of uniformity were required for supernaturalism, then Heaven, Hell, witchcraft, etc. would not count as supernatural if they exhibit uniformity (not sure how you conceptualize uniformity, but given any candidate, it seems to me there might be uniform witchcraft, etc.; fictional examples abound).”

      This issue actually came up in another comment a while back in an earlier article. Strangely, it was actually me raising this same problem when responding to another commenter who had defined the natural by uniformity. Originally, I hadn’t included it, but I decided to add it to this survey because I knew other naturalists who were using it.

      I’m not really sure about the idea of supernatural uniformity. I’ll have to think about it as I move forward with the paper.

    • I think Hell and Heaven lack uniformity because you would expect a person’s consciousness to end with her death, and not be “transported” to somewhere else.

      Say, you’re walking down the street and then suddenly you find yourself amongst a land with giant talking snakes. That land might exhibit uniformity but the very fact you’ve been suddenly transported there might show that uniformity is not present. Specially if you, from an insider perspective, see that people suddenly “pop up” into there.

      I’ve no idea about witchcraft, though.

      • But if people who die are always transported either to Heaven or to Hell based on a number of rules with no exceptions, that seems to be uniform, regardless of whether the person who goes to Heaven or Hell expected it.

        The same seems to apply to the land of the giant snakes, as long as people are transported also according to some rules.

        For example, think of a Star Trek-like example. Let’s say that Bob is walking down the street and a Ferengi ship uses an experimental subspace transporter to send him to the land of the giant talking snakes (which is a distant planet). If there were a “Star Trek” episode, Would you say there is no uniformity?

        Then again, I suspect that the term “uniform” may not be precise enough to do the philosophical work it’s meant to do in this context, either.

  4. Matthew,

    Thank you for the reply.

    On the issue of panpsychism, it seems that under your conception of naturalism and supernaturalism, not only is panpsychism a version of supernaturalism, but furthermore, if panpsychism is true, then trees, particles, etc., are all supernatural.
    It seems like a weird result to me (i.e., I wouldn’t expect most people who use the words “natural” and “supernatural” to use them in that manner). On the issue of souls:

    Again, souls entail that minds come before objects/machines. Hence why souls are not contingent on physical parts. Thus, they are completely supenatural. If their were souls, or an omnimax deity, then the supernatural would exist and naturalism would be false.

    Furthermore, humans, cats, dogs, etc., would all be supernatural, and it seems to me there would be no particular difference in that regard between them and, say, witches. That looks also like a weird result to me.

    At least, it seems to me that most people who do believe that subjective experience requires a soul, are not disposed to call humans, cats or dogs (even if they agree they are all capable of at least some subjective experience, as they usually do) “supernatural”, and still would call witches “supernatural”, and tend to insist on their classification even if asked (in my experience, anyway).

    Perhaps, they’re just misusing their own language and/or contradicting themselves, but my worry is that your philosophical conception is perhaps very different from common usage.
    That per se is not be a problem for your concepts, but it can be a problem if you want to justify the use of the terms “natural” and “supernatural”. It’s your choice of words, of course, but one might ask why not coin other words (i.e., different from “natural” and “supernatural”), given that “natural” and “supernatural” are already used colloquially, probably either to mean something quite different from what you mean, or even incoherently?

    • Hey angramainyu2014,

      I think that philosophical discourse can often lead to weird and counter-intuitive conclusions. I remember that when I first studied the philosophy of science it made science seem a rather different to me than what I had learned previously about the scientific method in my undergraduate science courses. Philosophy of science, after all, can be quite different than the applied sciences.

      On the issue of panpsychism, remember that it is about as minimally supernaturalist as you can get. Panpsychism entails minimally that minds come before machines (at least as it is normally represented), so it barely makes the cut for the supernatural. But, I think in any philosophical distinction you will have borderline grey areas like that.

      On the issue of souls, I think that most supernaturalists who believe in souls believe in a sort of dualism between the soul and the body. The soul is immaterial and eternal. The body is physical and perishable. So, I don’t think that humans, cats, and dogs would be entirely supernatural. I think the *souls* of humans, cats, and dogs would be supernatural, and perhaps their bodies wouldn’t be. But, I do not believe in souls, so I am describing them by the impressions I have received from others.

      Also, remember that this paper is a work in progress, so I am going to iron out some of the issues discussed above as I develop the paper more.

  5. I think that philosophical discourse can often lead to weird and counter-intuitive conclusions.

    Agreed.
    By “weird” I mean that the way in which the word “supernatural” is being used seems unusual.

    On the issue of panpsychism, remember that it is about a minimally supernaturalist as you can get. Panpsychism entails minimally that minds come before machines, so it barely makes the cut for the supernatural. But, I think in any philosophical distinction you will have borderline grey areas like that.

    I agree about the gray areas (well, at least usually there are some of those), but going by the idea of non-mental supervening on the mental, it seems that on panpsychism everything would be supernatural. Why do you think it barely makes the cut?

    On the issue of souls, I think that most supernaturalists who believe in souls believe in a sort of dualism between the soul and the body. The soul is immaterial and eternal. The body is physical and perishable. So, I don’t think that humans, cats, and dogs would entirely be supernatural. I think the souls of humans, cats, and dogs would be supernatural, and perhaps their bodies wouldn’t be. But, I do not believe in souls, so I am describing them by the impressions I have received from others.

    Fair enough, but similarly, it seems to me that witches’ bodies would be natural, so witches wouldn’t be entirely supernatural, either. And while they might have supernatural powers, it seems to me that if, say, humans have supernatural souls, human powers (at least many) are also supernatural.

    The same would go for cats, or dogs. For example, if a dog chooses to bite another dog, a supernatural being or part of a being (the soul/mind) seems to be choosing to move a natural thing (the dog’s jaws), so it would seem to be a supernatural power (even if witches have some extra supernatural powers), assuming of course minds require souls and dogs have minds (yes, you deny that minds require souls; so do I, but the point I’m trying to make is conceptual).

    My worry here is that even if other potential difficulties are avoided, you might still end up with a conception of the supernatural (and the natural) that doesn’t do the philosophical work is meant to do, because it places objects (even paradigmatic cases) in the category it’s not intended to place them (e.g., it classifies cats and dogs together with witches). But it’s your definition, so your call of course.

    Also, remember that this paper is a work in progress, so I am going to iron out some of the issues discussed above as I develop the paper more.

    Okay, fair enough. Maybe the final result will have no trouble doing the philosophical work it’s meant to.

    • Hey Harpia,

      “I’ve but one question, Dr.
      How is physical defined?

      How the term “physical” is defined can vary depending on which theory of physicalism is being articulated (see here the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “physicalism”).

      To the ancient Greeks, φυσικός (physicus) meant “natural,” and was the opposite of something that was designed or manmade. This ancient understanding of “physical” is very similar to criterion 5 in this article of the “natural” lacking Platonic teleology.

      However, in a modern sense, the term “physical” has come to be associated more strictly with materialism and the idea of physical substance. This understanding of “physical” is what is meant by criteria 1 in this article. Within most theories of materialist physicalism, the term “physical” refers to: that which has both a spacetime location (e.g. “everywhere at all times” is a spacetime location) and a theoretically measurable energy (it need not be measurable in practice, there just has to be some theoretical sense in which it has energy, which entails some theoretical scenario by which that energy could be measured, since energy transfer is what it means in science to interact with the world “physically”).

      “Would schmatoms be physical?”

      As for the issue of “schmatoms,” I am not entirely sure how you are using the term. I have seen Bayesian expert Robert Cavin use this term before when discussing supernatural substance in the case of miracles (slides 187-251). However, you ask in your comment on my other blog:

      “Is there a way to provide a mechanism to supernatural explanations? Stuff like schmatons and supernatural organs that explain how the interactions between supernatural entities and the natural world occur. I have seen this problem once.

      The difficult part is, of course, give a reason for them to be supernatural, since all these mechanisms resemble natural mechanisms in one way or another.”

      Here what I think you are getting at is the idea of how supernatural substance interacts with the physical world, without being “natural” in the physical sense of the term. To be clear, many phenomena that are “supernatural” are composed of physical substance. For example, angels, golems, and werewolves can all be physical beings that occupy a place in spacetime and have a theoretically measurable energy. Yet, would we call such phenomena “natural”?

      The distinction between these phenomena, however, and natural phenomena, is not determined by whether they have physical components, but rather by the reduction of physical mechanisms. As discussed above with idea of supervenience, supernatural phenomena can have physical components, so long as they reduce to non-physical causes.

      Hence why angels, golems, and werewolves can have physical parts, but are not reducible to purely physical mechanisms in the same way that animals and humans are. Everything about human evolution and physiology can be explained by solely physical mechanisms; however, when a werewolf transforms (assuming that no physical mechanism can be found for this effect) or an angel is impervious to damage and aging (in violation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics), they involve physical effects that cannot be explained by physical mechanisms. Instead, some non-physical mechanism is behind the miraculous, supernatural effect, which is why such beings are still reducible to non-physical causes and thus supernatural. At least under criterion 1 of this article.

      Criterion 4 is also relevant to your question. Under this criterion, the word “natural” means “mechanism without irreducibly mental processing” and the word “supernatural” means “mechanism with irreducibly mental processing.” So, humans and animals involve mental processing, but they are reducible to solely physical mechanism through physical brains (object/machine first, mind second), whereas a golem, which is made of enchanted clay and can walk around, involves mental processing, but cannot be reduced to solely physical mechanisms (assuming that it is physically made of only ordinary clay, and there is no physical brain inside it).

      In such a case, it is not the clay that is supernatural, but the mental force inhabiting the clay that makes it move. This mental force is also not reducible to a physical brain, in the same way that animal and human mental processing can be reduced to a physical brain (and thus to an “object/machine first, mind second” metaphysics).

      • Thanks for the clarification, Dr. Matthew. Some comments:

        “the term “physical” refers to: that which has both a spacetime location (e.g. “everywhere at all times” is a spacetime location) and a theoretically measurable energy (it need not be measurable in practice, there just has to be some theoretical sense in which it has energy”

        I think this is a very nice definition. I was worried about some other definitions of physical entities, such as this one prestented by Jeffery Lowder [1]:

        “an entity which is either (1) the kind of entity studied by physicists or chemists today; or (2) the kind of entity studied by physicists or chemists in the future, which has some sort of nomological or historical connection to the kinds of entities studied by physicists or chemists today.”

        Worries about the latter definition are justified, I think. Many years ago, people would not think of wormholes, inflation or even multiverses could be classified as physical, least natural. Nor that multiverses would have anything related to what they know at that time.

        [1] The discussion above can be found here. I find interesting what this “Crude” says about irreducibly mental states:

        “Finally, you talk about things like ‘irreducibly mental phenomena’ as if scientists have any insight into that question, or could conceivably posit such things. Again I say, for all any scientist knows, they’re studying a supernatural, or an idealist, or any other world. They create models, and grand metaphysical theories are just outside of their capabilities to adjucate on.”

        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2014/04/17/the-nature-of-naturalism/

      • As for Crude’s objection, I think that scientists can definitely find evidence that speaks for/against irreducibly mental phenomena.

        Consider what naturalist philosopher Richard Carrier (Sense & Goodness Without God, pp. 156-157) offers as evidence for mind-body physicalism:

        “The positive evidence for mind-brain physicalism also presents an almost insurmountable challenge for opponents. For example, scientists have confirmed that we only perceive things after our brains do, not the other way around. When we see a face, our brains already show activity in the area that recognizes faces a fraction of a second before we are aware of seeing a face at all. Likewise, when we make a decision, say to move our arm, we know our brain has already sent the signal to move the arm (and thus has already decided to move it) a fraction of a second before we become aware of making such a decision. This is very hard to explain unless physicalism is true.”

        Now, imagine if the opposite of this were the case. What if we reported thinking about about a face first, and that our brains only showed activity afterward. That would speak strongly to the fact that our mental states are influencing physical states in our brain, and not the other way around. That would be great evidence for irreducibly mental phenomena!

        We could also find examples of animate, intelligent beings with no physical brains. For example, the golem made of nothing but clay that can get up and walk around. If there is no brain or physical mechanism that can explain its mental processing, then it would be good evidence that it is being driven by irreducibly mental phenomena.

        It just so happens that no such evidence exists, and everything that we learn about the human brain and consciousness everyday speaks towards mind-body physicalism. People like this “Crude” do not like the dearth of evidence for a non-physicalist metaphysics, so they like to claim that science cannot resolve this matter and that is all about philosophy (in their case, arm chair philosophy).

        But, I think the evidence from science is quite clearly one directional in this case, which is the only reason that people like Crude are appealing to philosophy. If science did support the examples I discussed above, I think that supernaturalists would change colors in a heartbeat and start claiming that science supported their view.

        P.S. I am not a “Dr.” yet, but only a graduate student. I won’t be finishing my Ph.D. program until, at the earliest, Spring 2018.

      • Hi Matthew,

        About Crude, I think what you said might be true, but I don’t think this is his main position at all. Perhaps I quoted him badly there.

        He/She expresses his/her opinions on the matter in a better way at the commentaries of this post at the SO:

        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2013/09/03/science-reply-to-wk/

        I’d say we can’t be sure these “irreducibly mental phenomena” can’t be explained by physical means, since many phenomena who could not be explained by physical means in the past can be explained now (lightinings and so forth), but I think it would be the sort of “science-of-the-gaps” argument to assume they can be explained physically, although I still think it’s a problem while defining “natural explanations” and “supernatural explanations”.

        “P.S. I am not a “Dr.” yet, but only a graduate student.”

        Sorry about that, I think I misread your profile on your other blog.

      • Ah, I think I may have a better idea of what he/she is saying. Thanks for providing more context about the quote. I also see why you brought up wormholes and multiverses in the earlier comment.

        Yes, it may be the case that even prima facie evidence of irreducibly mental phenomena could still have a physical explanation. It is conceivable, for example, that a golem made of clay is moving because of some invisible physical mechanism from an alternate dimension, or something.

        Science is inductive, meaning conclusions change as evidence is accumulated, and also that inferences are drawn from available evidence. I still think that we could conceivably make valid scientific inferences about irreducibly mental phenomena occurring (e.g. the example of the clay golem), without being fully certain as to whether there is no undiscovered physical cause. As with many situations in dealing with available evidence, it would be matter of best explanation.

        But I still do not think that the question of metaphysics and idealism/physicalism is fully beyond the scope of science (though I think that there is also a major philosophical component in arguing about these subjects as well).

      • ” As with many situations in dealing with available evidence, it would be matter of best explanation.”

        So I see. This reminds me of Greg Cavin and Colombetti’s case against the resurrection a little.

        Do you think that the fact we can conceive of physical mechanisms to irreducibly mental states pose a problem for defining “naturalistic explanations” and, of course, a problem for evidential arguments that pose Naturalism as better at finding explanations than supernaturalism (i.e. Argument from History of Science)?

        Because it seems that how “naturalistic explanations” is defined always depends on the avaiable evidence present at the time, so it might be a little unfair to define it with the evidence we have now, although I’m unsure about that too. It seems weird that naturalism, if defined in terms of physical and physical is defined in terms of avaiable evidence at the current time, could on the future include ressurrections and even golems and ghosts. Things could be getting dire for the naturalist, I think, if that path is chosen.

      • “Do you think that the fact we can conceive of physical mechanisms to irreducibly mental states pose a problem for defining “naturalistic explanations” and, of course, a problem for evidential arguments that pose Naturalism as better at finding explanations than supernaturalism (i.e. Argument from History of Science)?”

        I don’t think so, because we would have to find evidence of whether these mechanisms actually exist. If we find mental activity that is always reducible to purely physical mechanisms, as in the case of the human brain, then it is natural. If we find mental activity that cannot be reduced to physical mechanisms, and yet can still achieve physical effects, such as in the case of the clay golem, then it is supernatural.

        “It seems weird that naturalism, if defined in terms of physical and physical is defined in terms of avaiable evidence at the current time, could on the future include ressurrections and even golems and ghosts. Things could be getting dire for the naturalist, I think, if that path is chosen.”

        I’m not sure I understand what you mean. It is true that physical resurrections from the dead could be demonstrated at a later time with science, certainly. However, that does not mean that they would be “natural,” because, as discussed above, natural is not defined solely by what is physical.

        In the case of resurrection, it would be supernatural if no physical mechanism could be identified, and instead the supernatural effect appeared to be the result of an irreducibly mental force. Deciding whether it is being caused by an irreducibly mental force would be a matter of inference to the best explanation.

      • ” For example, scientists have confirmed that we only perceive things after our brains do, not the other way around. When we see a face, our brains already show activity in the area that recognizes faces a fraction of a second before we are aware of seeing a face at all”

        I’m unsure if this is a problem for those who challenge physicalism. It is conceivable that our mind is only a bit slower than the brain at perceiving things, for example. If this relates to physicalism in some way, then it is in terms of inferences to the best explanation, but I’m unsure how this would work.

      • It relates to physicalism in that mental states are clearly dependent upon physical states (shown by the occurrence of brain activity before mental activity, exactly as supervenience would suggest). Again, if we could show that the opposite is true, namely that we thought of things before it registered any brain activity, then I would argue that this would be a good argument for non-physicalism. Since I would consider this to be good evidence for non-physicalism, I have to consider the opposite to be good evidence for physicalism as well.

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