Prejudice against supernatural persons?

Posted on 07/18/12 26 Comments

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.

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  • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Randal — Two nitpicks.

    First:

    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.”

    The definition of “natural entity” I provided includes both physical entities and entities that are ontologically or causally reducible to physical entities. So “nature” does include both kinds of entities.

    Second:

    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.

    No, this definition is mine, NOT Draper’s. The definitions of physical entity, natural entity, and nature are Draper’s, however.

    Okay, I said these were nitpicks.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      BTW, I updated my original article about AHS with all these definitions and more in a section entitled, “Definitions.” (Go figure!) That article should be treated as my definitive source for definitions, though it is consistent with everything I’ve posted here.

    • Randal Rauser

      Sorry about that. Thanks for the corrections.

  • soku

    @jlowder:disqus , I’m a bit confused as to how your – presumably stipulative – definition of what a physical entity is doesn’t run afoul of something akin to Hempel’s Dilemma?

  • Crude

    Hey, I got a mention in a post. A positive one, even. I’m gratified. Time to do a little rehashing.

    Soku just brought up Hempel’s dilemma, which I was playing around with in my own reply, though not by name.

    Putting that aside, his declaration that things which are “natural” are ontologically or causally reducible to physical things blows up his argument straightaway, since the reducibility he’s talking about isn’t a finding of science – it’s a metaphysical statement, whether we’re talking about humans, bacteria, or even the water cycle. That also has the effect of making it an open question whether scientists have ever been studying natural things – if idealism, Aristotileanism / Thomism, panpsychism, or various other metaphysical views are true, they apparently they haven’t been. Or maybe they have. They apparently don’t need to know this either way – which suggests that naturalism is, as a matter of fact, superfluous to science. We don’t even need methodological naturalism, and it hasn’t been used.

    What’s more, his definition of ‘physical’ and ‘natural’ is so broad that, in principle, an incredible variety of gods and ‘supernatural beings’ could have really existed, or really exist, and yet naturalism would still be true. I gave the example of Zeus – he was a physical being, third (I think) generation, an existing in the world. In principle, he could have been reducible to something (‘Divinons’, a special kind of atom with its own laws/forces), or maybe he couldn’t have been (and thus you can just posit him as a brute physical thing). Apparently, this would count as a naturalistic explanation. This has some wild effects on our understanding of history if it’s allowed to go through – since it would be the case that all the complaints about various superstitions, from believing Zeus struck down the wicked, to believing that witches were real, were failed naturalistic hypotheses.

    One thing I didn’t focus on before that I’d like to bring up now is this statement by Jeff: The mere failure to find a naturalistic explanation, even after great effort, does not justify an appeal to the supernatural. Draper argues that we would need to consider hidden naturalistic explanations as well. He argues, convincingly in my opinion, that the search for natural causes should continue “until the best explanation of the failure to find one is that there is none.”

    Please be aware of the standard Jeff is saying must be met to infer what he calls a “supernatural” explanation. I think it’s reasonably summed up this way: it would have to be something for which no naturalistic explanation could even be dreamed up. That’s a very short list. So short, you don’t even need the list, because it’s empty. Any given phenomena or experience can always, in principle, have some kind of ‘natural’ explanation – especially given the wide-open nature of ‘natural’ and ‘physical’.

    I want to head off a certain kind of reply here. This is usually where someone will say something like, “Well, if a 900 foot Jesus appeared to me personally, turned water into wine right before my eyes 20 times while being recorded from all angles by cameras, then zoomed off into the sky and ate the moon, sure, I could imagine many naturalistic explanations for that. But I, personally, would be willing to throw in the towel at this point and admit I just witnessed a supernatural event. And I think anyone else should too.” The problem is this is just a statement of psychology and subjective opinion. PZ Myers could (and, according to his past statements, would) say, ‘Nope. This can all be explained without any appeals to God. I can even appeal to powerful agents, but I don’t need to appeal to God.’ Worse, all we would have (as far as science is concerned) is a gap in our understanding – and if gaps are the standard, then it’s not immediately obvious that any of the other existing gaps in our scientific knowledge wouldn’t suffice anyway. In which case, theism would have already been established as reasonable on, apparently, scientific grounds.

    I could say more, but for now I think this is sufficient. I stand by what I said – Jeff’s definitions of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ wreak havoc on his entire project, from multiple angles.

    • markmaneyia

      “Well, if a 900 foot Jesus appeared to me personally, turned water into
      wine right before my eyes 20 times while being recorded from all angles
      by cameras, then zoomed off into the sky and ate the moon, sure, I could
      imagine many naturalistic explanations for that. But I, personally,
      would be willing to throw in the towel at this point and admit I just
      witnessed a supernatural event. And I think anyone else should too.”

      This wins the “Just Created for This Moment New Zealand Best Blog Comment Award for July” hands down.

      • Randal Rauser

        I suspect if that happened a lot of people would think Ted Turner is launching a new religion channel on cable.

        Or maybe Richard Branson is promoting Virgin Galactic.

        Or…

  • Raymond Ingles

    That object is spaceless and timeless and yet somehow it enters into relationship with concrete particulars like the sentence.

    Does the Fibonacci Sequence cause the Romanesco broccoli to take the shape it does? If so, how? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanesco_broccoli

    And yet they will state categorically that there are no supernatural
    persons, and most definitely none that intervene in the world.

    Speaking of ‘uncharitable’, Randall – even Richard Dawkins doesn’t state that categorically. So many theists are somehow surprised when they find that out, even though they claim to have read his book about it. https://encrypted.google.com/search?q=dawkins+agnostic

    • Randal Rauser

      The Fibonacci Sequence is neither an agent nor an event so it can’t cause anything. Instead, it is an effect, manifest in countless diverse situations, which suggests a unifying cause.

      • Raymond Ingles

        So, you agree that a supernatural agent is in an entirely different category from an abstract object?

        • Randal Rauser

          That’s like asking whether a rock is different from a human being. A rock is not an agent. It is an inert object. A human being is not an inert object. It is an agent.

          The number 2 (to take one example) is not an agent. It is an abstract inert object. God is not an abstract, inert object. He’s an agent.

          • Raymond Ingles

            Okay. Here’s an interesting analogy. You claim that a physical thing couldn’t have “the experience of tasting peppermint”, that imagining that could be so is a category error.

            What do you say to the people who argue that an abstract object couldn’t have causal power, that claiming one could is a category error?

            • Randal Rauser

              The point at issue here is not any claim that a physical thing couldn’t have the experience of tasting peppermint. The point at issue is that if you’re going to be open to extraordinary claims like physical things experiencing qualia, or abstract objects being exemplified in concrete particulars, then why not be open to non-physical substances interacting in the physical universe? After all, that claim is no more extraordinary than the first two.

              • Raymond Ingles

                Ah. But there’s where the ‘expansion of range of scientific explanations’ comes in. A lot – and I mean a lot – of things have been explained in the past by “non-physical substances interacting in the physical universe” (earthquakes, lightning, comets, illness, reproduction, the existence of life, the dynamic stability of the solar system, etc.) but we’ve since found “non-physical substances” to be unnecessary to account for them.

                Meanwhile, there’s no example of anything that was felt to be ‘purely a physical universe phenomenon’ that’s now generally accepted to be explained by “non-physical substances interacting in the physical universe”.

                Based on that, one can reasonably expect that “non-physical substances interacting in the physical universe” will not turn out to be an explanation of anything. You portray us as being ‘closed’ to the idea, but given, like, evidence we say we’d change our minds.

                What would you consider a ‘defeater’ for Christianity, anyway?

                • Randal Rauser

                  Ray, your claim is utterly irrelevant to the problem that naturalism as it is commonly defined is a cipher, a vacuous empty assertion.

                  • Raymond Ingles

                    You asked – and I quote – “why not be open to non-physical substances interacting in the physical universe?”

                    So I answered.

                    Why did you ask an irrelevant question?

                    • Randal Rauser

                      Okay, let’s talk about your reasoning. You say “So I answered.” What is the “I” that answered exactly?

                    • Raymond Ingles

                      First, let’s worry about the answer. Then we can worry about the answerer. Why is that answer not a valid response to the question you yourself posed?

                    • Randal Rauser

                      Because your own agency as a person typing sentences with semantic content for the point of communication is strong prima facie evidence for the action of non-physical substances in a physical world!

                    • Raymond Ingles

                      So, we’re dealing with two different ‘startling hypotheses’ – “physical things experiencing qualia” and “the action of non-physical substances in a physical world”.

                      And when I point out that, as an explanation, “the action of non-physical substances in a physical world” has taken rather a beating over the last ten centuries or so… that’s irrelevant. Why would anyone even consider that record when evaluating such hypotheses?

                      Riiiiiiiight… pull the other one.

                    • Randal Rauser

                      Maybe you’re not understanding the point. Your claim that “the action of non-physical substances in a physical world” has “taken rather a beating” is sheer baloney. Case in point, the failure of theories to present any any minimally plausible account of the individual typing replies to me in physicalist terms.

                    • Raymond Ingles

                      Haldane’s error. I’ll quote Haldane again:

                      On the mechanistic theory this [cell] nucleus must carry within its substance a mechanism which by reaction with the environment not only produces the millions of complex and delicately balanced mechanisms which constitute the adult organism, but provides for their orderly arrangement into tissues and organs, and for their orderly development in a certain perfectly specific manner.

                      The mind recoils from such a stupendous conception; but let us follow the argument further… This nuclear structure or mechanism must, according to the mechanistic theory, have been formed within a very short period by the union of two others – a male and a female one. How two such mechanisms could combine to form one is entirely unintelligible, and the observed details of the process tend only to make it, if possible, more unintelligible. When we trace each nuclear mechanism backwards we find ourselves obliged to admit that it has been formed by division from a pre-existing nuclear mechanism, and this from pre-existing nuclear mechanisms through millions of cell-generations. We are thus forced to the admission that the germ-plasm is not only a structure or mechanism of inconceivable complexity, but that this structure is capable of dividing itself to an absolutely indefinite extent and yet retaining its original structure…

                      There is no need to push the analysis further. The mechanistic theory of heredity is not merely unproven, it is impossible. It involves such absurdities that no intelligent person who has thoroughly realised its meaning and implications can continue to hold it.

                      J. S. Haldane, Mechanism, Life, And Personality, 1913

                      No “minimally plausible” account of how cellular material could instantiate and transmit inheritable traits existed when he wrote that. So he claimed they couldn’t exist. And then DNA was discovered…

    • Crude

      Dawkins has a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is utter and complete certainty that God exists, and 7 is utter and complete certainty God doesn’t exist. Dawkins ranks himself at 6.9. (I believe there have been times where he’s gone further and said, 6.9999, etc). Keep in mind, I rank myself at a 2, maybe 1.5.

      First, that’s amusing since it means I (and many other theists) are a lot closer to agnostics in terms of open-mindedness than the Cult of Gnu leader is.

      But second, Dawkins’ own statements on the matter illustrate the problem Randal is talking about. He’s saying Dawkins is close-minded about Gods’ existence. A 6.9 on a scale that stops at 7 would tend to be evidence of that.

      • Raymond Ingles

        Depends a lot on what his reasons are, though, doesn’t it?

  • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder
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