See no supernaturalism. Hear no supernaturalism. Speak no supernaturalism. A response to Jonathan MS Pearce

Posted on 07/07/12 31 Comments

I had an interesting exchange with Jonathan MS Pearce on naturalism and dualism in “The natural and Naturalism“. Not only does the discussion have inherent value, but there are broader lessons here about how to retain intellectual credibility and avoid becoming an ideologue. And for that reason, I’ve decided to put a spotlight on the discussion and take the time to deconstruct Jonathan’s responses.

We join the conversation with Jonathan making the following assertion:

“I know of no neuroscientists, scientists or philospohers who are now saying “Wahey, consciousness is now well supernatural!”. At most, as i said to you on DC, someone like Chalmers posits a NATURALIST dualism so that mentalistic substance is still naturalist, just not materialist. Either it supervenes on physicalism or similarly adheres to natural laws (just not physical laws).”

Note that Jonathan begins not with an assertion of knowledge (i.e. “There are no neuroscientists, scientists or philosophers who …”). Rather, he begins with an admission of personal ignorance (“I know of no neuroscientists…”). In terms of argument that’s weak. After all, just recently I heard a conservative Baptist say “I know of no good scientists who accept evolution.” As you can guess, that statement says more about the conservative Baptist than it does the scientific community or the credentials of evolution.

And so it would appear in this case. I replied to Jonathan as follows:

“I take it that adherence to substance dualism would satisfy you as being a supernaturalist theory of the mind?”

This is a very reasonable supposition since Jonathan has defined his “naturalism” as a categorical commitment to non-inverventionism in scientific law, with that law governing all events in the known universe. And dualism is typically (but of course not necessarily) dualistic interactionism which presupposes the falsity of just that kind of naturalism.

I then went on to provide Jonathan with a smattering of significant (interactionist) dualists over the last thirty years from science and philosophy:

“Okay, here are some scientists and philosophers who endorse substance dualism: Karl Popper and Sir John Eccles (they wrote a book together on it!), Roderick Chisholm (one of the leading analytic metaphysicians of the last forty years), Mario Beauregard (a respected neuro-scientist), Charles Taliaferro, Alvin Plantinga, J.P. Moreland, William Hasker (all leading philosophers; Hasker’s position is an emergent dualism), and so on.”

There. So if Jonathan once knew of no dualists, now he knows of at least eight, all of them respected figures in their respective disciplines, some of them (e.g. Popper, Chisholm, Plantinga), modern legends.

So did Jonathan reply “Thanks! I’ll check out some of their writings! I wasn’t aware of their position but now that I know of them I want to understand it better!”?


Instead he replied: “Substance dualism is NOT a movement from naturalism to supernaturalism….” Okay? Of course it isn’t a movement from naturalism to supernaturalism (whatever that means). But it is a supernaturalist theory of the mind and that is according to Jonathan’s definition of naturalism. You see, all these dualists hold that the mind is a non-physical substance which interacts in physical law. Thus, I just provided Jonathan with eight significant supernaturalists, each a leader in his field, and what does he do? He simply ignores it.

Talk about confirmation bias. Why is it that I get an image of the three chimps covering their eyes, ears and mouths? That seems to be the mentality toward dissenting views: see no dualism, hear no dualism, speak no dualism.

I also responded to his sweeping claim that  “there is still not one example of an explanation moving from natural to supernatural.”

Before I provide the response I gave, note the sloppy, unqualified nature of his assertion. There is not one example given anywhere, by anybody? No of course not, that’d be absurd and demonstrably false. So then what does he mean here? Does he mean there is not one example that has received universal acclaim from a recognized body of professional scientists? Well okay then, what constitutes a recognized body of professional scientists? And why would that be the criterion rather than something else? And if he does mean something different then what does he mean exactly? Sadly, Jonathan’s statement trades on the inherent ambiguity with which it comes to us.

Setting that problem aside, I responded as follows:

“And then I noted examples from Big Bang cosmology and ethics. I could add ID, including Stephen Meyers’ argument from information which received an extraordinarily favorable review from the famously committed atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel.”

Now are you ready for Jonathan’s response to this? Here it is:

“nor is ID [evidence of people moving toward supernaturalism] since that is continuing an age-old notion that Goddidit anyway. They just never moved on from medieval times. Plus it is ONLY proposed by theists and is an utterly minority view.”

Ahh, yes, the “Goddidit” response. How enlightened (by which I mean about as enlightened as “Johnny’s got cooties!”). I’ve addressed that response here and here and here. Never mind that agnostics (Steve Fuller) and atheists (Bradley Monton) defend intelligent design. Never mind that intelligent design is simply the position that intelligence is a legitimate explanatory inference in scientific theorization and thus is committed to the explanatory power of minds whether or not the divine exists. Never mind that, as I noted, Meyer’s book has received very positive reviews from atheists like Thomas Nagel. It is sufficient to chant “Goddidit!” and move on. See no ID. Hear no ID. Speak no ID.

Note as well that Jonathan says ID is proposed only by theists. Not only is this false (see the mention of Steve Fuller and Bradley Monton above) but it is also completely irrelevant anyway. What if theory x was only proposed and defended by atheists? Would that be a cause for Jonathan to reject it?

No, of course not. Because atheists are the good guys!

Finally, the statement that ID is an “utterly minority view” is also irrelevant. The point is that in the last few years the question of intelligence as a theoretical posit has gained significant crediblity, especially as Meyer notes, in the explanation of DNA. Thus that is a clear defeater toward Jonathan’s claim that the modern world consists of a lockstep march toward naturalism.

This brings me to the last observation I made:

“Jonathan when you make your sweeping statements you actually make your case weaker because you show yourself to be a committed ideologue. The credible witness is the one who recognizes the strength of the other side as well.”

I really want to emphasize this point. As Judge Judy says to stumbling witnesses, “If you don’t remember then say ‘I don’t remember!'” You see, it really is true that witnesses to the truth who admit when they’re ignorant, when they don’t remember, when they’re uncertain, are more credible witnesses overall. But the ones who cover their eyes, ears and mouths to dissenting views and disconfirming data are the true ideologues.


  • Raymond Ingles

    I’ll note that there
    are other conceptions of naturalism, that don’t
    have a problem in principle with ‘substance dualism’.

    Of course, the actual size and influence of the ‘new Mysterians’ is…
    debatable. Part of the reason this came up was because I and others were
    making the point that the clear, obvious, and monotonic trend has been
    the shift from ‘explained via the supernatural’ to ‘explained
    naturalistically’. And I pointed out all kinds of things that bear that

    Now, you brought up consciousness – but there’s a problem with that
    example. As I said – quite explicitly, let’s quote my actual words – “I
    don’t think we have a naturalistic handle on that yet.”

    So it’s not that we had a naturalistic explanation
    for consciousness and now the consensus is moving to a supernaturalistic
    account. It’s that we haven’t come up with a naturalistic explanation –
    yet – and some conclude from that that we won’t ever
    do so.

    I don’t find that leap justified – precisely because, as I laboriously
    detailed, there have been so many examples of people
    confidently saying, ‘science will never explain
    such-and-so’… and then someone comes along and
    figures it out.

    • Raymond Ingles

      Aw, all the links got stripped.

  • NW

    On a similar note, I’m having a rather long exchange with Jonathan in the same thread over the evidence in favor of telepathy in which he is exhorting me to be more familiar with the other side of the argument when it’s obvious that he is familiar with neither side of the argument and is looking up stuff with which to respond on the fly.

    • Randal Rauser

      My dog has demonstrated an awareness that my wife or me is about to arrive home on several occasions. She’ll be sleeping on the couch when suddenly her head will jerk up and she’ll look around. Immediately she goes to the door and waits anxiously. And about a minute later there comes the car down the road and into the driveway.

      It is a lamentable dogmatism that is committed to denying the existence of phenomena like this a priori.

      • NW


        Stories like yours are the basis for Sheldrake’s oft-repeated point that telepathy is not paranormal but normal and manifests itself in various ways throughout the lives of most people (e.g. the sense of being stared at, the connections that seem to exist between pets and their owners, the occurrence of thinking about someone just prior to them calling you, etc.).

        My feeling is that telepathy is to materialism what an old earth is to certain strands of fundamentalist Christianity. Materialists have to deny telepathy in the teeth of an abundance of solid empirical evidence for the exact same reason that certain Christians feel the need to deny all the scientific evidence in favor of an old earth, which is to say in order to defend certain philosophical presuppositions (hence, my identification of self-styled “skeptics” as apologists for materialism). If Christian philosophers and apologists were to familiarize themselves with this literature they would have quite the hammer with which to bludgeon the materialistic “free thought” community not to mention point out the irony of self-styled hard-nosed empiricists denying the evidence that comes from well-conducted scientific experiments.

        • Randal Rauser

          Remember the abundant reports of animals fleeing the low-lying areas prior to the 2004 tsunami hitting the coast. It is manifestly obvious that different creatures have different sensory abilities about which we understand little to nothing. Anyone care to explain the migration patterns of a monarch butterfly or the spawning route of a spring salmon back to the original stream? It really is strange that some phenomena get classed arbitrarily as “paranormal” and are thereby tainted from further study. And how ironic the numbers of free thinkers that demonstrate lockstep groupthink. It reminds me of all the “rebels” who ride Harleys … and conform down to the enth degree of just what is expected of such a rider. Rank conformists the lot of them.

  • AdamHazzard

    The ambiguity of the term “supernatural” is complicating this discussion unnecessarily, it seems to me. Suppose we were to say the following: As our understanding of phenomena increases, explanations positing direct intelligent non-human intervention as a cause have consistently been displaced by explanations not requiring such an assumption.

    …would you disagree, and if so, what examples would you cite?

    Abiogenesis and the origin of the universe are phenomena for which our understanding is incomplete, but our advances toward understanding them have not yet required the the assumption of direct intelligent intervention. One may certainly hypothesize such a cause, but the issues are as yet too poorly understood for these to constitute legitimate exceptions. The same is true of our understanding of the nature of consciousness. Information content in DNA could be cited as a counter-example — but that’s unsettled science at best, and the reception of Dembski, Fuller and Monton in the biological and mathematical communities doesn’t look promising for ID.

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  • Jeff Lowder

    Randall, can you please provide the link to the discussion you’re quoting?

    • Randal Rauser

      Yes I can.
      Dum dee dum dee dum.
      Wait a minute, you meant now? Okay, I’ll put it in the opening of the article for ease of future reference.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      It seems, Jeff, that Randal has been barking up the wrong tree, as I wrote above.

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    OK, I was not aware you had posted this, so here goes.

    Essentially, you completely misunderstood me and / or took my comments out of context. It seems @google-67a581912e0d844e797f1624c6a08c09:disqus knew what I meant. The point was this:

    Many, many times has naturalism supplanted supernaturalism as the accepted explanation of something.

    Never, never has supernaturalism supplanted naturalism as the accepted explanation for something.

    And this holds. You try to bring up something which, as Ray mentions, has no consensus agreement and no fully adequate explanation for it. It seems you and NW want to claim it is supernaturalist, and I and Ray probably something else, partly due to scientific knowledge and partly due to philosophical knowledge. NW tries to poison the well with some ad hom about Sheldrake’s work etc. We can forget that as it is essentially irrelevant here.

    So no one in the world can agree what conscioussness is and how it works. And this has been the same forever. Neither naturalism nor supernaturlaism can fully cover all the bases, though one must in some objective reality be able to explain it. We are lacking the necessary knowledge to manage this at the moment.

    So what you attempt to pick me up on in the naturalism / supernaturalism debate is actually not relevant at all to the point that was being made.

    What I said is this: “I know of no neuroscientists, scientists or philospohers who are now saying “Wahey, consciousness is now well supernatural!”.

    I did not say “I know of no… who are dualists.” I know plenty, and have read plenty, and do not need your condescension to alert me to any more. I am saying that no scientists / philosophers have said “We had ‘proved’ consciousness was naturalist, but now it seems that supernaturalism offers the better explanation. Silly us.”

    This has not happened. At best, you have had such people that may once have hypothesised naturalism but have switched hypothesis to some kind of dualism which may or may not be supernaturalist. Popper, and many others, believe it is an emergent property which develops (ironically like his own theories of consciousness, as Bartley maintains “There is in Popper’s writings no systematic treatment of consciousness. His views on it emerge, rather…”) out of his world 1 category, and predominantly out of language. In fact, Popper isn’t dualistic, he is trilistic (if that is a word…). But though I agree with Popper on some things, I fundamentally disagree with him on many other things.

    There are plenty of dualists who would not see themselves as supernaturlists. Popper, for example, believed in interactionism, but saw all three areas of ontology as naturalistic:

    “This is a sensible – naturalistic, but non-materialistic – account,
    and can be objected to only by strict materialists, and then probably
    only on ideological grounds. It is fully compatible with a number of
    other statements by scientists in recent years. The eminent neurobiologist
    R.W. Sperry, of California Institute of Technology, for
    example, has developed a very similar account of consciousness as an
    emergent property of cerebral activity which exerts a directive
    hierarchical plastic control over the flow patterns of cerebral
    excitation. And Gregory Bateson has presented a sophisticated
    cybernetic account of the interrelationships of mind and matter, in
    which mental and physical causality are essentially different and yet
    interact.” (Bartley in the Philosophy of Karl Popper, Part II, ed. Schlipp)

    Basically, my original point remains untouched.

    • Randal Rauser

      “Many, many times has naturalism supplanted supernaturalism as the accepted explanation of something.”

      Talk about basic confusion! When people stop explaining direct divine action to explain lightning and started explaining it in terms of a discharge from an electrical field, that doesn’t get counted as an explanation for “naturalism”!

      “Neither naturalism nor supernaturlaism can fully cover all the bases, though one must in some objective reality be able to explain it.”

      As I pointed out consciousness falsifies classic forms of naturalism (e.g. materialism) thereby requiring new forms of naturalism. But as I have repeatedly point out, you can always keep revising your definition of naturalism to accommodate defeaters.

      • Jonathan MS Pearce

        Which is why you need to respond to the points on DC because that is entirely what that is about dealing with your issues.

        “When people stop explaining direct divine action to explain lightning and started explaining it in terms of a discharge from an electrical field, that doesn’t get counted as an explanation for “naturalism”!”
        Yes it does. That was the entire point. See:

      • Raymond Ingles
        When people stop explaining direct divine action to explain lightning
        and started explaining it in terms of a discharge from an electrical
        field, that doesn’t get counted as an explanation for “naturalism”

        Forgive my bluntness, but why the hell not?

        • Randal Rauser

          Ray, what’s with the sailor talk? Women and children read this blog too ya know.

          I’ll respond in a blog post.

          • John Grove

            Is “hell” such a bad word?

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    I said that ID was only maintained by theists.Randal countered:

    “Not only is this false (see the mention of Steve Fuller and Bradley Monton above) but it is also completely irrelevant anyway”

    Mentioning 2 names out of all those who deny it in science is a statistical null. I maintain my original quote.

    • Raymond Ingles

      Monton doesn’t ‘maintain’ ID. He just argued that it should at least be discussable. Very different thing.

      • Jonathan MS Pearce

        Quite. Of course, being an atheist, he by definition disbelieves the thesis. The way I understand it is that he is approaching from a position of academic freedom. Rather than saying it is true, he is saying it is not necessarily a silly thesis. Two different things. I have not read his book though, so could be wrong. As one review says of Monton: “Even though ID proponents seem to have an overt theological agenda and that some of their arguments are muddled or lack precision, Monton indicates that it doesn’t follow that ID should therefore automatically be disregarded as a valid scientific hypothesis.”

      • Randal Rauser

        The point is that Monton argues, pace all the frothing naturalist ideologues, that ID is a completely legitimate form of explanation for natural phenomena.

        Thus, the endorsement of ID as a legitimate research project is not something limited to theists.

        • Raymond Ingles

          In theory, communism could be practiced without totalitarianism and thug tactics. But I’m not aware of a single example of that.

          Similarly, ID could be pursued without cherry-picking evidence, quote-mining, and willful disregard of the data. But I’m not aware of a example of that.

          • Randal Rauser

            Your analogy wouldn’t work Ray, even if were the case that all exemplars of ID failed miserably as you suggest. The simple reason is that there is a causal link between communism as an ideology governing economic relationships and its failure in real world application. But there is no similar causal link between the claim that ID is a legitimate theoretical explanation of natural phenomena and things like quote mining and disregard of data.

            Thus you’ve effectively said that ID is a legitimate research enterprise but the current exemplars of the project aren’t doing it well.

            To that I say light a candle Ray. Show them how it’s done!

    • Randal Rauser

      Right, it’s “a statistical null.” Great response!

      If you weren’t playing the ideologue in this conversation then the next step would be to ask “Hmmm, why do Monton and Fuller endorse ID as a project?” That would evince real free thinking unfettered by the chains of ideological precommitments.

      • Jonathan MS Pearce

        It is a perfectly reasonable response. This is a huge problem, especially within the realms of science reporting (A good radio programme on this in the UK recently). Just because 5 scientists out of 500,000 believe some crackpot theory A over consensus theory B does not entitle them to the same amount of airtime, to the same presitge in many ways.

        Now, to avoid an argumentum ad populum, minority views are crucially important and not infrequently correct. But when the minority qualifies as a vastly miniature proportion, a statistical null, you cannot call them into play in any serious argument. If you say “no one believes that God is a dinosaur” I bet you I could find some idiot who does. But you would (imho) be absolutely justified in your statement because 1 lone person out of the whole world is a statistical irrelevancy. In statistics and probability, it would normally be treated as zero.

      • Jonathan MS Pearce

        I don’t think they endorse ID as a project (in and of itself). They endorse the project of academic freedom. That is what they believe in, not ID If they actually believed in ID, they would not be agnostic or atheist since it implies they would believe in a designer. This is pretty obvious, no?

        • Randal Rauser

          I guess you’re not familiar with the work of Monton and Fuller. Their point is not about academic freedom. It is about the legitimacy of ID as a research project.

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    Which leaves us with the original point that Ray called you out on and you haven’t answered:

    What naturalistic explanation has been supplanted by a supernatrual explanation?

    For clarity, so we no longer talk past each other, let us change the wording to:

    What accepted naturalistic explanation has been supplanted by a supernatrual explanation?

    It really has all been one way. In fact, the big thing left yet to be categorised is consciousness. On the odds, one would bet on the naturalist horse:

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