An Observable, Reproducible Supernatural Phenomenon

I heard this phrase on some show that was touting the reality of the "supernatural." It is a bit of silliness that plagues both skeptics of and believers in the supernatural.

The silliness consists in this: Anything observable and reproducible will be considered natural. When quantum physicists discovered wave-particle duality or non-local effects, things that had never been considered "natural" before, did they declare these things "supernatural"? No, they just said, "Well, nature is stranger than we thought."

I am not trying to comment on the existence of the "supernatural" here: I am just noting that asking for or hoping for scientific evidence of the supernatural is absurd: whether or not any such thing as the supernatural exists, there will never be scientific evidence for it, because every sort of thing for which scientific evidence exists will be incorporated into the "natural."

13 comments:

  1. Gene, to me naturalism is the doctrine that observable effects have physical causes, i.e. causes that exist in the physical world. So if you could demonstrate that some observable phenomenon was caused by God, I daresay people would accept it as supernatural. For instance, if there were a guy who could part the oceans whenever he wanted by saying "God, part the oceans", and the oceans parted after a voice in the sky says "OK, I'll part them", I don't think people would say that that's just another part of nature.

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    1. Keshav, I am not interested in what "people" would say. There is no possible observation by which physics could "confirm" God, because by postulate physics precludes such explanations.

      Every single day, a "miracle" such as the one you describe occurs all over the world. This morning I woke up and my voice said "I am going to drive to Pennsylvania". And the next thing you know my body was in Pennsylvania! Naturalists are not disturbed by this at all, nor would they be via voice saying he was going to part the oceans.

      And there is no sense trying to say what naturalism means: it is simply prejudice masquerading as philosophy. There is no coherence behind it.

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    2. "There is no possible observation by which physics could "confirm" God, because by postulate physics precludes such explanations." OK, but there are possible observations that would lead people who currently think that physics is capable of explaining all things to reject that belief.

      "Naturalists are not disturbed by this at all, nor would they be via voice saying he was going to part the oceans." Gene, you may find consciousness and parting the oceans to be equally miraculous, but naturalists don't. So I think a great many naturalists would abandon their belief system and join a religion if they saw a guy being able to part the oceans whenever he wanted, accompanied by a voice in the sky.

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    3. "OK, but there are possible observations that would lead people who currently think that physics is capable of explaining all things to reject that belief."

      Anyone who thinks physics can explain everything is beyond evidence or reasoning.

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    4. "Gene, you may find consciousness and parting the oceans to be equally miraculous, but naturalists don't."

      Naturalists think an incoherent load of nonsense, and...?

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    5. "…nor would they be via voice saying he was going to part the oceans."

      I'm pretty sure I would be!

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  2. Great post Gene. This is obvious to me (and you), but both naturalists and theists alike rebel against it. Here's an example where I made similar points.

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  3. Keshav, parting the oceans is only surprising to us because it's not a regular occurrence. In the grand scheme of things, parting the oceans with a verbal command is nothing to the "miracle" of childbirth, in which a bunch of atoms gets rearranged into a new creature that has a will and can apparently influence the outcome of naturalistic events (like driving to PA).

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  4. I would describe "supernatural" as a cultural category only, a complex of folkloric ideas that are related on their own terms. Essentially the same as "magic".

    "Ghosts" is an example of an idea that is within the "supernatural" cultural complex. It is not impossible in principle that physicists, or some other kind of natural scientist, could describe phenomena matching the description of "ghosts". In that case, we would be faced with an observable, reproducible "supernatural" phenomenon.

    However, cultural concepts change over time. I suspect that, if ghosts were an observable, reproducible phenomenon, it would be quickly lose its association with "supernatural" by consensus.

    Is "not explained by science" a sine qua non of the cultural idea of "supernatural"? Close if not entirely so. Probably, some people would immediately see a ghost as "not supernatural" if it were explained by science, while other people would be willing to put it in both categories. Consensus would probably take some time to develop.

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    1. Greg, there are several historical examples we can look to. For instance, newtons theory of gravitation was ridiculed by the Cartesians as being "supernatural." (I don't know that they used that word, but they used one with a similar meaning, at least.) But it gave good results, and within a few decades, it was seen as the a pitta me of science, and not supernatural at all.

      I think the Bell Aspect results in QM have had a similar history: Einstein brought up the whole thought experiment because he wanted to reject "spooky" action at a distance. Now I think most physicists just accept it as the way things are.

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    2. In this instance, "supernatural" is being used as an invective by people who associate "supernatural" with false. They are using it to mean "unfamiliar and incorrect".

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    3. Actually, the Cartesians found Newton's theory TOO familiar: it smelt of Scholasticism: bodies attract each other because they have attractive tendencies! It is not that they thought Newton was wrong: it's that they thought his theory didn't explain anything.

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  5. By the way, I thought of this blog post when I recently saw this anecdote:

    "The 16th Karmapa Rigpe Dorje was once asked by a Westerner what one should do if one witnesses a miracle. The Karmapa responded, 'Regard it as completely ordinary.'"

    http://chronicleproject.com/stories_497a.html

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