Prejudice against supernatural persons?
Over the last few days I’ve been having an exchange with Jeffrey Jay Lowder on his argument that the history of science provides prima facie support for naturalism over-against theism. I engaged in the discussion by bracketing the question of what naturalism is. I did so as a division of labor with the intent to deconstruct Lowder’s case from the theist side. Even so, I did intend to get on to discussing naturalism eventually.
But Crude beat me to the punch. In the discussion thread to my inelegantly titled “A second and more critical look at Jeff Lowder’s Evidential Argument from the History of Science,” Crude observed:
“maybe I’ve missed it, but I nowhere see where Lowder has defined either “natural” or “supernatural”.”
Crude then made a bold prediction. He didn’t think Lowder even has a definition of natural such that he can define himself as a naturalist: “And” Crude declared, “I think any attempts to create one will expose his entire project as fatally flawed from the outset.”
Them’s fightin’ words!
Lowder, however, is not intimidated by strong language. He’s no shrinking violet, this fellow. Thus he replied by providing some succinct definitions beginning with the definition for “physical entity”:
physical entity: the kind of entity studied by physicists or chemists, e.g., atoms, molecules, gravitational fields, etc.
Lowder then explained:
“This definition of physical entity is narrow; it separates the physical from the biological, the mental, the political, the social, etc. So then the question of how to define “natural” is the problem of how any entity that is not physical must be related to physical entities in order to count as “natural.” For purposes of AHS, I propose that a natural entity, if not a physical entity in its own right, must be ontologically or causally reducible to a physical entity.”
Let’s take a step back for a minute to chew and digest what Lowder has said thus far. He begins by defining physical entity in terms of the kinds of things that physicists and chemists study. He then claims that all natural entities are ontologically or causally reducible to the things studied by physicists and chemists.
Now let’s try to get our minds around this, because it is a whopper. Consider the following three things:
(1) the experience of tasting peppermint
(2) the speed limit on Highway 101
(3) The propositional meaning expressed by the sentence “This sentence has five words.”
These are all entities that are the subject of fierce philosophical discussion. If I’m reading Lowder correctly, then each one is causally and/or otherwise ontologically reducible to the things that physicists and chemists study. (However, this may not be so insofar as any of (1)-(3) involves exemplification by an abstract object. See below for more discussion.)
My skeptical friends love to claim that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I’m not so sure about that maxim, but I’ll go along with it here. I’d love to see the extraordinary evidence Lowder has to ground such an extraordinary claim.
Anyway, back to his basic definitions. Lowder then defines “nature” like this:
“nature: the spatio-temporal universe of natural entities”
I would suggest a tweak to Lowder’s definition here. If I understand him correctly, he distinguishes between two classes of things: physical things and natural things that supervene on physical things Thus, he should probably define nature as “the spatio-temporal universe of physical and natural entities.”
Finally, Lowder borrows the definition for a “non-natural entity” from Paul Draper:
non-natural entity: any entity that is not a natural entity. There are two kinds of non-natural entities: supernatural persons or agents and abstract objects. Metaphysical naturalism is logically incompatible with supernatural persons, but is logically compatible with abstract objects since the latter are, by definition, causally inert.
This really made me smile, though I’ll admit the smile was a withering one. Right at the end here Lowder adds essentially that he’s okay with abstract objects because they’re “causally inert”. Let me give you an illustration of what’s going on here. This illustration may seem uncharitable, but I believe it is accurate.
Imagine that Miss Lucy is looking for some hired help so she puts a sign in her store window: “Looking for sales lady to sell dresses. Apply within.”
Nellie comes in ready to apply. She explains that she worked at several dress stores up north and has her references ready. “Sorry dear,” Miss Lucy smiles. “I’m looking for someone with more experience.”
Five minutes later Betty Jo walks in. “Yeah, uh, I’d like to apply for the job.”
“Do you have any experience?” Miss Lucy asks.
“Nah.” Betty Jo snickers. “And I was just released from prison too!”
Miss Lucy smiles widely. “That’s okay dear. I believe in second chances. I’ll seriously consider your application.”
We all know what is going on here, and Nellie does too. There is nothing more than rank prejudice that excludes her from the position. And this becomes manifestly obvious when all the problems with Betty Jo are overlooked with a wink and a nod.
In the present case we find that we are being presented with a view of naturalism which is no less prejudicial in its sphere than Miss Lucy is in her’s. No “supernatural persons” please, but abstract objects are fine, ’cause they don’t get involved in our precious physical and natural entities.
Please note that in the illustration Miss Lucy does not hire Betty Jo. But she is open to considering her application where she will not consider Nellie’s. Similarly, Lowder does not endorse the existence of abstract objects, but he’s willing to consider their application while supernatural persons are excluded categorically.
It is surprising that Lowder is fully open to considering abstract objects given that they are such extraordinary things. Take another look at (3) above. The sentence “This sentence has five words” exemplifies a proposition, and a proposition is an abstract object. That object is spaceless and timeless and yet somehow it enters into relationship with concrete particulars like the sentence. Doesn’t that bother naturalists like Lowder? Why are they willing to consider that mystery but so intolerant of supernatural persons?
Before closing let me make an important caveat so we don’t lose sight of the main issue.
The allusion to racism should not be taken in an inflammatory way. Obviously I am not charging anybody here with racism, least of all such an amiable fellow as Jeff Lowder. But I am charging Lowder and other naturalists like him with prejudice because they have no problem with entities like (1) and (2)arising mysteriously from the stuff studied by physicists and chemists, and they have no problem with timeless, spaceless abstract objects being mysteriously exemplified in concrete particulars like sentential utterances and inscriptions (as in (3)). And yet they will state categorically that there are no supernatural persons, and most definitely none that intervene in the world.
That isn’t racism, but it is a metaphysical prejudice. Prejudice is always of concern. In this case it is all the more so if, in fact, there are any supernatural persons.
This article will be supplemented tomorrow with a further installment.