Shermer takes down Luhrmann’s claims of spooky forces in nature

The other day I wrote a critique of Tanya Luhrmann’s latest essay in her series of Templetonian paeans to spirituality in The New York Times. Despite these pieces being not only embarrassingly bad but full of logical errors, the Times continues to publish them—why I’ll never know. In that piece (called “When things happen that you can’t explain“), Luhrmann seems to have melted a bicycle light in her backpack with the power of her mind, and her conclusion was “Who’s to say that this had some natural explanation rather than a numinous one?” In other words, since she didn’t know what melted that light—and didn’t even investigate—she held out as a distinct possibility that Some Other Unexplained Force did it. In that way she gives succor to the innumerable woo-lovers and spirituality mavens who populate America.

I wanted to write a letter to the editor of the Times about this, but I had no standing to do so, and the letters people are a capricious and cranky lot. So I called Luhrmann’s piece to the attention of Michael Shermer, who was mentioned in it. (Luhrmann referred to the episode in which Shermer’s radio, a long-defunct item that belonged to his grandfather, mysteriously started working on his wedding day. Shermer has since argued vigorously that there was no supernatural explanation.)

As I hoped he would, Shermer wrote a letter to the Times, and, mirabile dictu, they published it yesterday. Here is his response to Luhrmann, “Unsolved, not supernatural“:

To the Editor:

Re “When Things Happen That You Can’t Explain” (Op-Ed, March 5):

T. M. Luhrmann opines that when things happen that cannot be explained, it opens the door for the possibility of supernatural or paranormal phenomena being real. She cites several examples of powerful personal experiences that people have had, including my own, which I recounted in my Scientific American column.

As interesting as such experiences are to read about, from a scientific perspective they mean nothing because there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural. There is just the normal, the natural and mysteries we have yet to solve with normal and natural explanations. Until such time as we can provide natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena, we need do nothing with such stories because in science we will never be able to explain everything.

There is always a residue of unexplained phenomena, and in science it is O.K. to simply say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. Unexplained does not equal supernatural.

MICHAEL SHERMER

Altadena, Calif.

The writer is publisher of Skeptic magazine.

I mostly agree with what Shermer said, although part of the letter is confusing: “there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural.” One could take that as a tautology: that such phenomena, because they can be investigated by the tools of science and reason, must be natural by definition, as they’re part of nature. But I think Shermer means more than that: that there is a natural explanation for everything that seems paranormal or supernatural.  While everything we know about what happens in the cosmos supports this conclusion, it’s still logically possible that there is a God—a supernatural being—who uses forces outside of nature to interact with the world. If that were true, those interactions would not have “normal and natural explanations.” (I find the paranormal a bit more “natural-ish”, since if we could, say, move objects with our minds, there would almost have to be some natural but unexplained reason for that.)

Where I agree with Shermer is that the history of science has shown not a scintilla of evidence for either supernatural (divine) or paranormal phenomena, and, given that, it’s best to suspend judgment when faced with a phenomenon, like melting bicycle lights, that we haven’t yet explained. The public needs to learn that in the face of things we haven’t yet explained—or, like the origin of life, we may never explain—it’s okay to say “We don’t know.”

I believe I posed this question to Shermer in Mexico City when he talked about the same issues at the atheist meeting in 2012. His response was a paraphrase of writer Arthur Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Anything that appears truly divine or supernatural, Shermer argued, could be the workings of space aliens with that advanced technology.  Well, I suppose that’s true, and perhaps those aliens and their technology are indistinguishable from God; but there are still things that would convince me of a God provisionally. In The Albatross (soon available at fine bookstores everywhere) I give a scenario that would convince me of the existence of the Christian God. But that acceptance would be a provisional one, subject to revision if we found out later that, say, it was due to aliens.

The fact is that it’s not impossible that there could be a God, and we might as well admit it. It’s also not impossible that, as Steve Gould once said, apples could start rising tomorrow instead of falling from trees. But there’s no evidence for any of this. Nevertheless, we can’t rule supernatural and divine phenomena out of court from the start. To do that is not only unscientific, but plays into the hands of the faithful, who criticize that attitude as close-minded. Had I written the letter instead of Shermer, I would have said that yes, there could be spooky “un-natural” explanations, but based on what we know they’re very unlikely, and the proper attitude (as Shermer said), is to seek a naturalistic explanation.

159 Comments

  1. Matt G
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Luhrmann has mated the Appeal to Ignorance to the Appeal to Personal Incredulity, and her article is the unfortunate offspring.

  2. GBJames
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    sub

    • rickflick
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      subliminal

  3. kevin7alexander
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I would have also pointed out that one thing that is scientifically established is the natural phenomenon of confirmation bias. If one grows up being told that unexplained things have a grab bag explanation then we will see them.

  4. Colin
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I can hear the masses now: “You need to be more open minded!”

  5. Posted March 11, 2015 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    That’s a remarkably poor letter. As Jerry points out, it looks like Schermer eliminates supernatural effects a priori, when this is the very opposite of a scientific approach. Or else he may be just trying to define away the problem by saying anything at all is natural by definition.

    It certainly is logically conceivable that meaningful coincidences like this are not accidental. In principle, at least, this is a testable claim. Do such coincidences happen significantly more often than chance allows?

    In practice, of course, it is very hard to know the natural probability of these sorts of real-life coincidences, since it is hard to define the set of events which would count as meaningful in this context. How many other things would have counted as meaningful coincidences for Tanya in the bus at that moment—passing a burning building, passing a fire truck, smelling burning brake pads— and how many other moments in her day did not have any meaningful coincidences? This difficulty gives some people the wiggle-room to believe what they want about such events.

    • Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Noting that phenomena traditionally described as “supernatural” would necessarily be part of the natural world if discovered and confirmed is not the same thing as closing the door to their possibility a priori.

      See my reply to Sastra below.

      • darrelle
        Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        I agree. I don’t know what MS may have meant to convey, but I do think that Supernatural as used by the typical believer is a false distinction made purely to bolster unevidenced claims and to attempt to give them a special status.

        I really don’t see the controversy in pointing this out. Natural is like the word universe. By definition it includes, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, everything that was, is or every shall be. The question of whether a phenomenon is natural or supernatural is a bogus question. The only valid question is, is there any good reason to suppose that the phenomenon, and the explanation of it, as claimed actually exists, occurred or is accurate?

        To be clear, I have no issues with there being a term for a particular category of natural phenomenon, and no issues with the term “supernatural” being used to denote the category of religious claims that seem magical, in general. But I also don’t see any problem whatsoever in pointing out to the religious that they are making a false distinction. Especially when a main reason for them making the distinction is to claim that science can’t detect anything about their special claims, but believers somehow can.

        In that respect I think it is a key point to call believers on. Anything that can be in any way detected by a human animal can be investigated by science, because all science is is a collection of methods and tools to extend those same human senses that are all anyone has to detect their universe with. You can’t hide your claims from science by relabeling them.

        • Posted March 11, 2015 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          Part of my objection to Sastra’s view, however, is that you have to decide what deserves to populate this subset of “natural” called “supernatural”. How are we going to do that, and who gets to set the criteria? I don’t think “seeming magical” or “seeming spooky” will cut it. As I noted in my reply to Sastra, the stability of the planets’ orbits seemed magical to Newton, but I don’t think any of us would say that, even though we’ve explained them naturally, they still deserve to be placed in a separate “spooky” category from other natural phenomena.

          The only difference that would actually exist between ESP, were it confirmed, and gravity, would be familiarity. I don’t think that warrants a separate category.

      • Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        I’ll respond below your response to Sastra.

    • rtkufner
      Posted March 14, 2015 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      It is not so much eliminating supernatural effects a priori, as it is simply ignoring the possibility of these effects, since it would be impossible to differentiate them from fictional ones. If someone has to bring up the possibility of the supernatural every time he is discussing not-yet-understood phenomena, he should also bring up the Matrix, Aperture Science’s Enrichment Center, the invisible worlds, the Homelands, the Infinite Tsukiyomi, etc – if only to be fair to the less fashionable loonies. You might agree that this would be quite pedantic and, well… kind of silly.

      Also, coincidences happening significantly more often than chance leads as much to a supernatural phenomenon as to a yet not understood natural phenomenon. Labeling it supernatural and calling it a day is just lazy, and smells just like regular old superstition.

      • Sastra
        Posted March 14, 2015 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        (Sorry, this is out of order — I had to find a place to reply to your last reply.)

        I have yet to read Sastra’s and Lou Jost’s definition of “supernatural” that is both outside the scope of naturalism AND inside the scope of science, so that it could be both verifiable AND differentiated from fiction.

        Supernatural: Non-material, irreducible mental Being, beings, or forces which exist apart from and/or ‘above’ the material realm, do not obey common physical laws, and which affect the natural world through the direct power of intentions or values.

        Or, as Richard Carrier put it

        I propose a general rule that covers all and thus distinguishes naturalism from supernaturalism: If naturalism is true, everything mental is caused by the nonmental, whereas if supernaturalism is true, at least one thing is not.

        One of the problems we have in dealing with how science would deal with the supernatural is that our imaginations are hampered by our knowledge of current science and the wealth of evidence for naturalism alone. We don’t have any good examples of supernatural beings or forces to examine … and so we need to rely on thought experiments. “What would falsify naturalism?” is I think maybe a better question than “what would provide evidence for the supernatural?”

        So I’ll bring up my previous example of mystics who can go into trances during which their brains are removed and destroyed — and yet they can open their eyes, talk, move around, and do perfectly fine for years with completely hollow heads. It would be hard to continue to say that “mind is what the brain does” under these circumstances.

        Or, to go back, what if the brain HAD been just for “cooling the blood” and the human body had no complicated area or network of nerves which could conceivably be the cause of our ability to conceive of things? It’s like trying to figure out what it would take or have taken to falsify the theory of evolution and support Special Creation. It’s not easy to do — but it’s important to do, lest we concede scientific theories are unfalsifiable matters of faith.

        I consider “naturalism” to be a conclusion of science, not an unsupported premise. In which case, as a scientific theory, it needs to be open — at least in principle — to revision. Equating nature with “Reality” begs the question. It’s like theologians defining God as “Being Itself” or “Ultimate Truth” and then laughing about how atheism is now made totally irrational.

        • rtkufner
          Posted March 16, 2015 at 9:42 am | Permalink

          The first (and gamebreaking) problem I see with that definition of supernatural you cite from Richard Carrier is that he pretty much just substitutes “supernatural” for “mental”, as if “mental” was properly defined this context. What does he actually mean by it? Thought? Conciousness? Chopra’s “Universal Field of Infinite Awareness”(TM)? Anything we don’t yet understand about the human mind? Any and all of these, and so much more?

          Also, how can you ever SCIENTIFICALLY VERIFY that this non-material “force” or “field” or “spirit” or “whatever name you want to use” doesn’t in the end follow consistent and coherent parameters (or consistent and coherent distributions of probabilities of parameters) that you’re simply unable to comprehend, so as to truly be irreducibly “mental” (whatever this means), existing apart from and/or ‘above’ (what does ‘above’ even mean in this context?) the material realm (what exactly do you mean by material realm? what we, with our current knowledge, consider “material”? the natural world?), not obeying common physical laws (how about uncommon physical laws? what do you mean by “common”? the ones we currently work with? qualifying physical laws as common or uncommon seems obfuscatory), and affecting the natural world through the direct power (how do you define direct power in this non-material context?) of intentions or values. Also, I would argue that if it affects the material world, this non-material “stuff of intentions or values” doesn’t smell very non-material, unless it doesn’t actually “exist apart” from the material realm, what would make their distinction pointless. Notice, also, how your usage of material vs. natural is confusing. Are you treating “natural” and “material”, as well as “supernatural” and “non-material”, as synonyms? If so, using the same term consistently may be helpful.

          The only portion of your definition of “supernatural” I could salvage that actually makes any sense to me is the “existing apart from the material realm”, which would necessarily mean that it DOES NOT interact with the material, making it indistinguishable from imagination. Possible in principle, sure, but so is a simulated universe, which is also much more plausible and actually a properly defined concept. And yet, we hardly ever bother giving it a mention.

          Naturalism isn’t just a conclusion from science. It’s the only framework in which the scientific method works. You say this is because of the fact that “our imaginations are hampered by our knowledge of current science and the wealth of evidence for naturalism alone”. I’m fine with that – though I wouldn’t say hampered, that’s assuming stuff, I would say directed – but then why bother bringing up the possibility-in-principle of the supernatural (whatever it means, in the end) every time we discuss an unexplained phenomenon when no one has to bother bringing up other, more plausible and/or properly defined, possible-in-principle explanations?

          • Sastra
            Posted March 16, 2015 at 10:14 am | Permalink

            The first (and gamebreaking) problem I see with that definition of supernatural you cite from Richard Carrier is that he pretty much just substitutes “supernatural” for “mental”, as if “mental” was properly defined this context.

            No, Carrier doesn’t subsume everything mental into the “supernatural” category, he points out the fundamental distinction in the arrow of explanation. In order to qualify as “supernatural” there must be something, anything, which is normally considered an aspect of minds which is not in any way reducible to a nonmental origin.

            To simplify the issue, when it gets right down to it, does mind come from matter — or does matter come from Mind?

            There is nothing in this definition of “supernatural” which rules out the possibility of detecting regularities and forming theories and laws to describe and predict them. And there’s nothing in this definition which says that the supernatural doesn’t or can’t interact with the natural. It simply wouldn’t do so by following reductive laws which apply only to matter and energy. I think you’re importing problems with other definitions into this one.

            • rtkufner
              Posted March 16, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

              OK, but what does he mean by “mind”? That is, after all, all I’m asking.

              • Sastra
                Posted March 16, 2015 at 10:50 am | Permalink

                By “mind” he means “mind and/or its products” and iirc he’d include:

                consciousness, awareness, thought, imagination, intention, intelligence, needs, wants, knowledge, wisdom, beauty, emotions, values, virtues, emotional sensitivity, creativity, forgiveness, acceptance, love, joy and so forth — either in combination or by themselves. In other words, mental characteristics which you wouldn’t grant TO something like a rock or electricity.

              • rtkufner
                Posted March 16, 2015 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

                There is no reply option beneath your comment (this is confusing), so I’ll just reply to myself and hope you read it!

                So, he defines mind partly with another set of poorly defined concepts by intellectually honest standards, such as conciousness, thought, imagination and creativity. Partly with completely subjective concepts, either between groups of humans – such as wisdom, beauty and virtues – or between different species – such as values and needs. And partly with – for all we know – fuzzy ticklings in our bellybuttons such as intention, wants, emotions, emotional sensitivity, forgiveness, acceptance, love and joy. It might sound like a lot of content, but considering how little we rationally/scientifically/honestly understand about all of this stuff, he might as well define mind and its products with unicorns, centaurs, faeries, daemons, Brahman, nirvana, djinns, angels, R’hllor, Ainulindalë and Chopra’s field of awareness, though it might not sound as credible.

            • rtkufner
              Posted March 16, 2015 at 10:39 am | Permalink

              An addendum, sorry:

              So, basically, anything that is not a parameter included in the current scientific paradigm (such as matter, energy, spacetime) is to be considered supernatural? If it can be detected, I don’t see how the name we give it would make it more or less natural than matter or energy.

              • Sastra
                Posted March 16, 2015 at 10:54 am | Permalink

                No. This definition is not dealing with what’s included or not included in science, or what can or can’t be detected. It’s formulated in a way which makes it possible in principle to do both.

              • rtkufner
                Posted March 16, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

                Do both what?

        • rtkufner
          Posted March 16, 2015 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          BTW, just to illustrate what a clear and unambiguous definition of the supernatural would look like, take commenter Mike Pap’s from a few comments below: “Claims about the nature of reality that a rational human being would be unable to distinguish from those that are imaginary, or fraudulent.”

          • Sastra
            Posted March 16, 2015 at 11:00 am | Permalink

            That definition may (or may not) be clear and unambiguous, but in my opinion it’s also a BAD definition. It’s focused on whether or not something is true or believable, as opposed to whether or not something is different in the right way, regardless of whether it’s true or believable or not.

            Instead of laying the necessary ground of definition and understanding for an argument or debate to take place, it IS an argument.

            “Rational people believe that God is real.”
            “No they don’t.”
            “Yes we do.”
            “Superstrings make no sense, they’re imaginary.”
            “You’re a fraud.”
            “Am not.”
            “Are too.”

            • rtkufner
              Posted March 16, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

              Make no mistake, it may be the shitt*st definition ever. It’s the only one we got that is clear and unambiguous, and makes even a sliver of sense, though.

              • Sastra
                Posted March 16, 2015 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                No, I don’t think it’s clear, I don’t think it’s unambiguous, and I don’t think it makes even a sliver of sense. If someone starts out with the assumption that they are a fair representative of a “rational person,” then this definition conveniently allows them to label AND dismiss virtually anything they think is confusing and/or silly and/or wrong. It runs around any debate on the merits of the case and turns into pointless name-calling (“evolution is supernatural!!1!”)

              • rtkufner
                Posted March 16, 2015 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

                No, that definition does not start out with the assumption that the person uttering it is rational. It states clearly: “Claims about the nature of reality that A rational human being would be unable to distinguish from those that are imaginary, or fraudulent.”

        • rtkufner
          Posted March 16, 2015 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

          Hey, your last comments didn’t have a reply option, so I replied to myself so that my replies were visualized beneath your replies. LOL. Is this comment system from WEIT freaking confusing, or what? Couldn’t Jerry hire some goons to fix it? Please?

          • Sastra
            Posted March 16, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

            The nested reply system does carry the appealing feature of helping prevent people from going on and on and on in the comments section. I mean, it makes us work for it. 😉

            So to conclude:

            “Claims about the nature of reality that A rational human being would be unable to distinguish from those that are imaginary, or fraudulent.”

            is in my opinion a bad definition of “supernatural” because it doesn’t differentiate between the nature of a supernatural claim and a claim which someone thinks is imaginary or fraudulent. It gets right into determining who is or isn’t being “rational” instead of setting up criteria which will usefully distinguish something like ‘souls’ from something like ‘black swans.’

            • rtkufner
              Posted March 16, 2015 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

              But that is precisely the root of the whole issue: If that definition doesn’t differentiate between the nature of a supernatural claim and an imaginary or fraudulent claim it’s because no one has ever been able to define the supernatural in a way that is both outside of the paradigm of naturalism AND verifiable through the scientific method (and I would argue that this is a futile endeavor, by definition, as you can see elaborated in my previous comments), except through the use of obfuscatory and nebulous terms – which, in the end, is no definition at all – not even to linguistic or literary standards.

              Make no mistake, if someone would define the supernatural properly, then we could bring this conversation to proper hypothetical land, on par with simulated universes.

              • Sastra
                Posted March 16, 2015 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

                I gave a definition of “supernatural” which anchored it to the primary belief that mind and its products cannot be ultimately reduced to brains and how they work. This has turned out to be wrong — but it’s not incoherent.

            • rtkufner
              Posted March 16, 2015 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

              By the way, before we start diferentiating “souls” from “black swans” we might want to define “souls” to the same standards as we define “black swans”.

            • rtkufner
              Posted March 16, 2015 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

              I gave a definition of “supernatural” which anchored it to the primary belief that mind and its products cannot be ultimately reduced to brains and how they work.

              But that is no definition. It’s just pointing out one of the things (brains) something (whatever a supernatural mind is) is not originated from. It’s as good a definition as “barfuddles and its fuddlediddles cannot be ultimately reduced to peas and how they grow on fertile soil”. Why bother with this particular fixation of the supernatural flavor?

  6. George
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    The sad thing is that Luhrmann has done some very good and interesting work. I really liked “Of Two Minds: An Anthropologist Looks at American Psychiatry.” It gave great insights into not just the profession but also health care in general. She has since gone off the deep end.

    • nickswearsky
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      I agree. I will not defend her latest column (I cannot), but the anthropological study of magic or religion remains useful. I think it is important to remind ourselves that there are often deeply rooted cultural reasons people believe certain things. But I am increasingly puzzled by Luhrman’s approach.

      • George
        Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        I messed up my reply – it is in the stream of comment #10.

  7. Posted March 11, 2015 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I would say there’s the natural and the preternatural (that which remains open to discovery).

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

      • Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        In terms of language used to describe abnormal occurrences, it’s a term I find less risible than supernatural. I’m being partial to a minority interpretation of the word that refers to a phenomenon that’s beyond the expected, but not beyond that which can be naturally investigated and/or of this world.

  8. Sastra
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    we can’t rule supernatural and divine phenomena out of court from the start. To do that is not only unscientific, but plays into the hands of the faithful, who criticize that attitude as close-minded.

    I agree. The common atheist debate over whether “supernatural” phenomena are logically possible or logically impossible is partly semantic — but there are some significant issues at stake. Both sides want to bring science to bear in how we evaluate the claim. But which approach is more honest — and more effective?

    The “logically impossible” side treats the term “supernatural” like the term “alternative medicine,” a sly ploy constructed solely for the intent of ducking out from reasonable analysis and creating a double standard of evaluation. There’s only “medicine.”

    The “supernatural” is then treated the same way, as an invented category with an agenda. If we can discover it in any way, it can only be in Nature. If science were to prove that ghosts, souls, and the spiritual realm exists, then this just means they’re all natural.

    Like you, I think this is a mistake. In addition to looking like we rule out claims by fiat, this stance gets us exactly nowhere. Naturalism can’t be considered a successful working theory if it’s true by definition. And plenty of supernaturalists will happily jump on the opportunity to win by definition by reassuring people that ghosts, souls, psychic powers, a spiritual realm, and even God are all Natural. Gosh, they would never believe in silly supernatural stuff. They’re humanists.

    Therefore trying to win by definition themselves.

    All proposed supernatural phenomena have one major thing in common (and most of them share other traits): some form of Pure Mentality. Mind and/or its products are “above,” prior to, and/or separate from the physical material realm of common observation and experience.

    If ESP works and turns out to be reducible to nonmental matter and energy, then it’s natural. If ESP works and there seems to be no possible way to fit it within the laws of the physical world, it works with the irreducible fluidity of thoughts and the limits of imagination, then this is distinct enough to warrant being placed into a separate category. Mind is a force and wishes and intentions have their own spooky power.

    The tradition is to call it “supernatural.” The snarky would label it “woo” — but it means the same thing. “Woo” is religious phenomenon happening outside of a traditional religion (ie ESP instead of “prayer.”)

    • Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      I think that’s exactly right. Granting direct external causal power to purely mental constructs is the essence of supernatural beliefs, and this is what naturalism denies. We do not deny it a priori but rather because there is no good evidence for it, relative to the evidence that events are not so caused.

      • rtkufner
        Posted March 14, 2015 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        Not only is there no evidence for it, but there’s no way to verify it scientifically, which would make any supernatural effect indistinguishable from hallucination, collective histeria, fertile imagination or a simulated reality.

    • Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      But if it turns out that our world is a world in which the mental in fact can directly influence the material, why can’t we call that “natural” also? If ESP works, there must be a mechanism by which it works, and just because our current understanding of physics can’t accomodate it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t admit that mechanism into the natural world. Newton invoked the supernatural to explain the stability of planetary orbits because the physics of the day wasn’t advanced enough. But then we figured it out.

      This isn’t an attempt to define anything out of existence. If ESP and the like exist, so be it. I just think it would be more accurate to describe them, if they are ever confirmed, as part of the natural world.

      • Posted March 11, 2015 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        Your objection may be partly valid. Something like ESP could conceivably have an explanation that would not overlap with religious people’s claims of the supernatural.

        On the other hand, some claims of the supernatural, if true, imply that there is a personality or mind controlling the construction and dynamics of the universe. This is precisely what religious people claim exists. Whether we call this mind part of nature is an irrelevant choice, a convention. What matters is whether it exists.

      • Sastra
        Posted March 11, 2015 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        If ESP and the like work by no material or physical mechanism but because some form of substance dualism is true, then I think it would be more accurate to describe this top-down ‘spiritual force’ or what have you as supernatural. It’s not consistent with the bottom-up matter-and-energy view of natural phenomenon and obviously merits some kind of label which differentiates it.

        It’s part of reality (Reality) which is, after all, the common ground term agreement on what is or isn’t real. Rejecting the word “supernatural” at this point I think would just look petty, like a bait ‘n switch attempt to save face:


        “There is no sofa in the hotel bedroom. I’m positive.”

        “But look here and see — a sofa in the hotel bedroom!”

        “No. Wrong. If it’s in a hotel bedroom it’s a couch.”

        It wasn’t a semantic argument when it started. Someone doesn’t want to admit they were wrong.

        If naturalism is a reasonable conclusion derived from and supported by the scientific investigation of centuries, we have to had been able in principle to admit we were wrong.

        • Posted March 11, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

          Actually, I think you’re looking at it from the worng perspective, that you’re taking the PR from the supernaturalist side too seriously, giving it too much credit.

          Ultimately, “supernatural” has always been used as a synonym for, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” It’s a mystery that defies explanation, but it’s really true — and you can trust me on this, honest!

          All we’re doing is calling the bluff and pulling back the curtain…and, of course, once you even threaten to actually go ahead and do that, all the PR fluff from the supernaturalist side either vanishes or goes into hyperdrive.

          Once you stop playing their games, it becomes much less confusing.

          b&

          • Sastra
            Posted March 11, 2015 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

            I think that we play the supernaturalists’ game when we refuse to take it seriously enough to take apart and examine what they’re really saying. The handwaving excuses and even ‘faith’ itself are not intrinsic to the claim. Those are immunizing strategies. They want us to be distracted.

            “Dowsing is real, test me, I’ll show you.”

            “You just failed the test.”

            “That’s because dowsing is a force which by its very nature is incapable of ever being tested. Plus I bet I do better next time.”

            • Posted March 11, 2015 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

              But, really: do we actually need to take seriously every claim that comes down the pipe?

              If somebody tells you they’re a dowser, can’t we by now dismiss them out of hand just as we’d dismiss out of hand somebody who claimed to be able to make it rain or to tell you your future by staring at goat entrails?

              I mean, sure — there can be a time and a place to help bring such people to sanity, and that might entail pretending to take them seriously for the sake of therapy. But do we ourselves really have to take them seriously?

              b&

              • Sastra
                Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

                I think you may underestimate how many educated, otherwise intelligent people think there’s “something to” dowsing.

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

                Oh, certainly not. And, even if I did, there’s no way I could underestimate the number of educated, otherwise intelligent people who think Jesus really was a zombie but the nice kind of zombie.

                I can’t take that kind of nonsense seriously, not really, even if I do sometimes manage to keep a straight face when discussing it.

                b&

        • Posted March 11, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

          I’m not convinced the sofa/couch analogy is a good one. I think there are at least two non-trivial epistemic issues involved.

          1) How do you determine that top-down can’t be natural? If top-down phenomena can exist why can’t we call them natural? AFAIK the term “natural” doesn’t necessarily exclude phenomena that might operate via as yet undiscovered forces. For a long time we didn’t know electricity existed. That doesn’t mean it deserves a separate category.

          2) Even if we grant that top-down or spooky shouldn’t be described as “natural”, in order to populate the supernatural category you’d first have to demonstrate that these phenomena really are top-down, or really do fulfill whatever criteria set forth, and we can’t do that until we first observe and confirm them.

          • Sastra
            Posted March 11, 2015 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

            1.) I think that if you get into what people really mean when they invoke a natural/supernatural distinction, they’re talking about some variant of Mind over Matter. The whole point is that something mental (consciousness, love, will) can’t be reduced to mindless matter and energy (unless we’re dealing with “spiritual energy” cough*cough)

            Would you be more comfortable if “supernatural” was considered a category of “natural” — as in the spiritual aspect of nature?

            2.) Right. But at least we’re trying to figure out what they’re trying to claim.

            • Posted March 11, 2015 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

              But why privilege this one particular conspiracy theory with an insistence that we must fully understand their claims before dismissing them?

              If somebody says that he was abducted by an alien UFO, is it necessary that we understand that he’s talking about little green men from Mars rather than bug-eyed monsters from Uranus? Does it matter that he insists that we’re not taking him seriously because we think he’s talking about Uranians rather than Martians, and if only we understood the significance of the Martians we’d know he’s not crazy?

              Once somebody goes off the rails, it’s usually pretty easy to spot and it’s rarely necessary to consider the type of terrain they’re bogged down in.

              Again, sure, perhaps for psychoanalytical or anthropological reasons. But that’s about it.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Sastra
                Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

                If someone claims they were “abducted by a UFO” we need to be sure that by “abducted” they don’t mean “reluctantly traveled” and by “UFO” they don’t mean “on some airplane I don’t remember what kind.” In other words, we don’t need details but we ought to have a general idea of what they’re talking about — or not talking about.

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

                But is that ever a problem we have in these kinds of discussions?

                When was the last time you met somebody who seriously claimed the ability to dowse for water but meant by that the ability to turn the faucet handle the right direction at the sink?

                b&

    • darrelle
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      You make some good tactical arguments, but I disagree that it is a matter of trying to win by definition. No doubt there are people that do / will think that way. But I think it is really about misdirection and or special pleading. I think the whole argument about natural vs supernatural is really beside the point, except of course when it comes to human interactions.

      What is important is figuring stuff out. The typical naturalist doesn’t care what category it fits into, if there is good evidence to support it, probably accurate. No evidence, not likely. Good evidence against it, almost surely not.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 12, 2015 at 1:32 am | Permalink

      “Woo” is religious phenomenon happening outside of a traditional religion (ie ESP instead of “prayer.”)

      That’s only one type of woo, and I think only a very small fraction.

      “Woo” also encompasses all manner of pseudoscientific phenomena and gadgets, such as magic magnets and crystals of all sorts; a large percentage of audiophilia ($1000+ cables, sorry, ‘interconnects’ and the like, and far more bizarre devices based usually on quantum woo); anti-vaxers; homeopathy, etc blah blah…

      • Sastra
        Posted March 12, 2015 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        True, though many of the “exceptions” you mention do have a supernatural type of component at their core (ie water which conveniently “remembers” only exactly what you need.) Some pseudosciences are technically plausible within a completely nonspiritual, naturalistic framework but are just wrong as a matter of technology.

        Sometimes they’re blended. A lot of anti-vaxx and even perpetual motion crankery is based on the naturalistic fallacy or a world view which sees the world as somehow set up for our benefit and sensitive to our needs.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted March 13, 2015 at 1:35 am | Permalink

          I’d agree that much non-religious woo does presume some sort of non-real phenomenon.

          I think religious woo almost invariably attributes some sort of consciousness to its wooish components. Pseudoscientific woo (with the exception of aliens) generally doesn’t seem to.

          But there’s so much of it around I can’t help wondering if the human race has some overwhelming tendency to want to believe in mysteries.

          • Sastra
            Posted March 13, 2015 at 8:05 am | Permalink

            Or an overwhelming need to believe that, at bottom, the universe cares about them enough to interact on a moral or mental level. Or both, of course.

            There’s a love of the “mysteries” we don’t know about (gee, I wonder what really happened?) — and a love of “mysteries” which actually confirm what we’ve always known deep in our souls. There’s also a love for “mysteries” which WE have boldly solved and of which the so-called “experts” remain unaware, focused as they are on reason, evidence, science, and excess caution.

  9. Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    ‘The fact is that it’s not impossible that there could be a God’
    We don’t know that. It may well be impossible – we don’t know enough yet to say either way, which is not the same thing as being possible.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      We don’t even have a decent definition of “god”.

      • Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        I’d amend that.

        We’ve got some superlative definitions of, “god.” It’s just that, though perfectly accurate, the believers in gods hate them.

        For example, I’d primarily define gods as fictional literary devices whose purpose is to amplify the authority of the author by demonstrating the ability to do the impossible. That’s a perfect description of the actuality of every god I’ve ever encountered that anybody actually believes in…but, of course, the believers themselves would have none of that.

        We give the believers far too much credit by granting them their inside-the-fiction definitions of these terms.

        b&

  10. EvolvedDutchie
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Why does the supernatural always manifest itself in mostly dull and commonplace things? The face of Jesus on a slice of toast, a melted bicycle light or even clouds in the sky. I thought the Other Side would be a bit more interesting.

    • Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      The supernatural has always suffered from a raw materials inventory problem. Magic requires a decidedly natural means of production.

      • George
        Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        I believe she did take a solid approach in “Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England.” I did not read it – just looking at reviews. From Wikipedia:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persuasions_of_the_Witch's_Craft
        “Writing in her paper within James R. Lewis’ edited Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft anthology, Siân Reid described Luhrmann’s work as “a solid ethnography”. Nevertheless, she felt that the study “occasionally rings hollow” because Luhrmann failed to take into account the “subjective motivations for magical practice”.”

        It appears that Luhrmann has since gone all subjective.

        • George
          Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:30 am | Permalink

          This was supposed to be a reply to nickswearsky’s reply to my comment (#6). Sorry for posting in the wrong place.

          • nickswearsky
            Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:27 am | Permalink

            Got it.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

        Haha a problem in the super natural supply chain.

  11. Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Whenever I get into discussions about the supernatural, I try to get agreement on what exactly the supernatural is.

    I always liked Richard Carrier’s definition of the supernatural which is basically any phenomena that reduces to “mind-stuff”. As opposed to our current understanding of reductionism where things reduce to atoms/electrons/”strings”/etc.

    It’s certainly possible that we might find something whose fundamental nature is mind-stuff. There’s no reason why this fundamental mind-stuff couldn’t be tested and evaluated using the scientific method. And it would still be supernatural.

    It’s also possible that a teapot is orbiting Jupiter.

    So until we get some strong evidence that fundamentally mind-stuff entities exist, claiming that something relatively mundane like a melted bicycle light in one’s backpack is the result of mind-stuff is a base rate fallacy; it’s much more likely due to the very common human tendency to not consider alternative hypotheses.

    • Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      See my comment below in 12. If mind-stuff could be tested and evaluated, it wouldn’t be supernatural. Hell, we don’t even call dark energy and dark matter supernatural and we still can’t seem to get our hands on that. The question becomes, since science is always advancing and gaining knowledge where there was once mystery, at what arbitrary point do you decide the next advance in knowledge is supernatural rather than simply more natural knowledge? I think the answer is obvious.

      • Posted March 11, 2015 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        Dark matter is not mind-stuff. If an advance some day involves mind-stuff, it would show the god-folk were at least partly right. Whether we call it supernatural or natural is besides the point.

        • rtkufner
          Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

          What if it turns out that mind-stuff is actually comprised of the same superstrings from the 23rd dimension that make up the strings that make up fermions and bosons, it’s just the omnimindsuperstrings vibrate in a slightly funnier axis between the 12th and 16th dimensions?

          This game can be played all day. Treating the concepts of “supernatural” and “paranormal” as anything other than surrogates for “I have no idea if it’s there, what it is or how it works, but pretending I partially do makes me feel nice and cosy” leads nowhere.

          • Posted March 11, 2015 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

            I don’t see any room for mind in any of those extra dimensions of string theory, sorry.

            Most people who believe in the supernatural claim that it exists. These are not empty claims; they are often specific enough that they could, in principle, be tested. Whether we call the claims “natural” or “supernatural” doesn’t matter at all, but claiming that naturalism necessarily applies to all possible universes is to empty it of meaning.

            • rtkufner
              Posted March 12, 2015 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

              But I don’t claim naturalism applies to all possible universes. Just the real ones – as in, the ones that can be scientifically verified.

              Any “supernatural” universe – as in outside the scope of the scientific method – is undistinguishable from an imaginary one.

              BTW, that was just a generic word salad. My point was that you can never really guarantee that any accepted “supernatural” phenomenon (such as mind-stuff) would not be understood scientifically at some point. In that sense, “supernatural” and “paranormal” are just placeholders to “kind of no idea whatsoever, but what if, rite?”.

              • Posted March 13, 2015 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

                A supernatural universe is NOT outside the scope of the scientific method. You are making the same mistake as Ben Goren, defining “supernatural” as “not real”. There could be a world in which a being invented the laws, allows exceptions to these laws when properly begged to do so, etc, and who revealed his or her wishes to human scribes. Claims of this kind can be tested. In fact they HAVE been tested, so we know that this world provides no evidence of such a being. Clearly this is an empirical question; the answer could have been different.

              • rtkufner
                Posted March 14, 2015 at 6:04 am | Permalink

                If such a being could be verified, either directly or through the effects of its “actions”, it would fall within the natural order. It doesn’t matter that he can “change” the laws, science could study the parameters that cause the changes, or the distribution of probabilities of determined parameters causing determined changes, or even a framework of logical explanation that is beyond current human capabilities. Even if the changes seem to be completely chaotic, they can still be studied under a naturalist paradigm, just like weather. Besides that, you could never be sure that these random, capricious changes are not bound by other (unchangeable or not) external parameters. And the digression can go on. So the best you can do, if you are really bent on it, is to call your universe supernatural and hope, fingers crossed, that no one is, eventually, capable of explaining its workings scientifically.

                Besides that, I am not even saying that, in principle, a supernatural universe is “impossible”. What I am saying is that a TRULY supernatural universe (numinous, transcedental, beyond all rational attempts of compregending it) would be utterly indistinguishable from a fictious one. You could NEVER reasonably verify that you are not imagining the laws and events within such an universe.

                What you describe as supernatural, in the end, seems to me like the ultimate appeal to ignorance: “A supernatural universe is possible in principle. I do not understand the workings of The Inventor of The Laws of my universe. Therefore, my universe is supernatural.”

              • rtkufner
                Posted March 14, 2015 at 6:25 am | Permalink

                An addendum:

                The simplest way to put it, I think:

                How much effort do you have to expend trying to fully understand weather pattenrs or “dark matter” – or the Being that Invented The Laws, Who Allows Exceptions To These Laws When Properly Begged To – before calling it a day and deeming it supernatural? How exactly could one ever scientifically verify that a universe is supernatural? By giving up when it seems too hard or confusing?

  12. Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    While everything we know about what happens in the cosmos supports this conclusion, it’s still logically possible that there is a God—a supernatural being—who uses forces outside of nature to interact with the world. If that were true, those interactions would not have “normal and natural explanations.”

    I still side with what Shermer is saying, because I don’t think this would qualify as “supernatural.” If this God interacts with nature, we could observe it and it would fall into the category of observable events. Therefore whatever forces this deity is using would either get along with the Standard Model of Physics or it’d introduce something new. I don’t see how the scientific method would fail to try to incorporate the information in an explanatory way. Maybe it would just define a scope for where the Standard Model breaks down (we already have an example of this in the very brief moment after the Big Bang). What it would do is better define boundaries for our current models and push us to ask further questions.

    We once considered things like volcanoes and thunderstorms to be supernatural, but now we understand the natural forces behind them. Perhaps it is better to do away with terms like natural and supernatural and use Sagan’s definition of the Cosmos: “All there is, was or ever shall be.”

    A better dichotomy than natural/supernatural is explained/unexplained. Since the frontier of science is always pushing this boundary, I don’t see how anyone could come up with an observation that science would call supernatural. It may end up being somewhat tautological, but science deals with understanding the Cosmos as Sagan defined it, not some nebulous distinction between stuff inside and outside of nature. Yes, by definition, there is no stuff outside of the set of stuff that exists.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      I don’t see how the scientific method would fail to try to incorporate the information in an explanatory way. Maybe it would just define a scope for where the Standard Model breaks down (we already have an example of this in the very brief moment after the Big Bang). What it would do is better define boundaries for our current models and push us to ask further questions.

      Yes, but this doesn’t negate Jerry’s point, since he’s in no way defining “the supernatural” as “an area science could never explore.” On the contrary, he’s saying we could. We don’t because it’s wrong, not because there’s a limitation on science. We reject the limitation as a ploy. We’re certainly not going to accept it as a definition when the supernaturalists keep trying to show their beliefs are true by using (or misusing) science.

      Reality is all there is, science studies reality, and in principle it’s possible that there is a boundary between what we’ll conveniently label “natural” and “supernatural.” It would be similar to the distinction between quantum and standard physics: new laws, but they’re still intertwined into the model of a unified whole.

      • darrelle
        Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        I don’t think chrisbuckley80 was trying to negate Jerry’s argument in that way. I think what he is making an argument for why natural vs supernatural is an invalid distinction and or not useful.

        Your analogy is not persuasive to me. Sure we could label categories of phenomena in that way. But why would we? Both quantum and standard physics, while quite different, are both widely considered, to be categories of “natural.” It seems more likely to me that if some other phenomena were to be discovered that required a new theory as different from, or more so, as quantum physics is from standard, that the “natural” thing to do would be to consider it as another category of “natural.”

        • Sastra
          Posted March 11, 2015 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          I make a distinction between quantum physics and whatever the hell Deepak Chopra has been babbling about re a ‘quantum consciousness’ which ‘overthrows the materialist paradigm’ and proves that God is a Field of Thought.

          The first is a natural theory; the second is supernatural woo. It seems to be a perfectly valid and comprehensible distinction. Do you think that if — against all reasonable expectation — that second version turns out to be correct we shift terms so naturalism wins out against supernaturalism yet again?

          • darrelle
            Posted March 11, 2015 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

            I was unclear. No, I don’t. I claim the distinction that is important is not the category label. The important distinction is merely, is it reasonable to suppose the claim is accurate. We think Deepak’s quantum woo stuff is ridiculous because given what evidence is well known (successful theories, bodies of knowledge derived by science, libraries of formal studies, etc.), his claims are very highly improbable. What we may choose to use as a label for a category that we may decide is useful for some reason shouldn’t have anything to do with that.

            But when a distinction is made the purposes of the distinction are certainly important. When one of the purposes is to exclude by definition alone the one method of inquiry demonstrated to routinely garner useful results, I think it is a good idea to point out that it is an invalid distinction.

            If, against all expectation, Deepak’s woo turns out to be accurate, then that is just the way things are. But, yeah, that being just the way things are I don’t see how anyone could reasonably deny that it is “natural.” I, for one, would not then fool myself into thinking that therefore I am still right and Deepak is still wrong. Somehow I don’t see you doing that either. I would be compelled to accept that my understanding of reality, or nature, needs to be adjusted to comport with the evidence. And Deepak would have been right (by unholy accident I’m sure) and I would have been wrong. And reality would all still be natural.

            • Sastra
              Posted March 11, 2015 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

              Although the terms aren’t the be all and end all, I’d find it odd under those conditions to refuse to accept that Reality had both natural and supernatural aspects.

              The definition we both reject is that ‘supernatural’ means ‘that which can’t be studied or investigated or confirmed through science.’ That’s clearly bogus, since so many have tried to find evidence for it.

              • darrelle
                Posted March 11, 2015 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

                Yes. And being that it is used purposely in that bogus way by a sizable percentage of religious apologists, amateurs and pros alike, I don’t have any issues with the statement Shermer made about naturalism. Some people may be confused by it, or worse, but that is always the case and I am not convinced that this case is particularly problematic. And I think there are some good points to be made by it.

                I don’t see any of Jerry’s criticisms regarding the naturalism argument as necessarily deriving from it. Yes, some believers will react in those ways. Will it inhibit or help in the struggle to change minds? That isn’t obivous to me one way or the other.

            • rtkufner
              Posted March 14, 2015 at 8:34 am | Permalink

              Deepak’s claims don’t even qualify to be spoken about in probabilistic terms. They are so inconsistent, incoherent, and incohesive that you can’t even be sure of what he actually means by them.

          • Posted March 11, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

            Do you think that if — against all reasonable expectation — that second version turns out to be correct we shift terms so naturalism wins out against supernaturalism yet again?

            Absolutely, unquestionably, most emphatically.

            The whole reason that the Wooists are so in love with Quantum Mechanics is that the phenomenon it describes at small scales superficially resembles so much of the large-scale phenomena claimed as real by the Woo-ists. Quantum teleportation, the dual particle / wave nature of substance, instant “communication” over infinite distances…these are all very real phenomena. At the macro scale, they’re rightly dismissed as supernatural nonsense…but, a century or two ago, they would also have been dismissed at the micro scale as such.

            There’s a reason we don’t consider Quantum Mechanics to be supernatural, and that same reason would apply to macro-scale demonstrations of similar phenomena if they’re ever demonstrated.

            b&

            • Sastra
              Posted March 11, 2015 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

              If there’s a reason we don’t consider Quantum Mechanics to be supernatural then it can’t be natural by definitions.

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

                The reason we consider Quantum Mechanics to be natural, not supernatural, is because we know beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that it’s really real.

                The reason we consider, say, ESP to be supernatural, not natural, is because we know beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that it’s entirely imaginary and has no basis in reality whatsoever.

                b&

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

                Ben, when you say things like this, you are confusing two different issues. The claim that something is supernatural could in principle be true. It doesn’t matter whether we know it is true or not. If you think supernatural claims are necessarily false, you are defining away the issue in a most unscientific manner.

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

                Lou,

                The most reasonable way for me to interpret your response is that you have a collection of (supposed) phenomenon that define the term, “supernatural,” and I am at fault for declaring that set of phenomena imaginary simply because of the term.

                While it is true that there are various phenomena that commonly get tagged with the “supernatural” label, it is not the phenomena we so label that defines what the supernatural is.

                For example, telepathy. By calling telepathy supernatural I am not declaring it imaginary by fiat. It is entirely conceivable that humans could have had, say, some form of near-field radio transceivers that permitted sporadic non-verbal person-to-person communication. And, if that were the case, then telepathy would properly be moved out of the “supernatural” classification and into the “natural” one.

                But it’s not the case, and we have stunningly overwhelming reasons to be practically absolutely confident that telepathy just simply doesn’t exist — and it’s the fact that it doesn’t exist that makes it a supernatural phenomenon.

                Come back tomorrow and demonstrate telepathy, and I’ll eat my hat and concede it’s natural after all and not supernatural.

                What’s probably holding you up is that there is a very close correlation between that which can’t possibly exist and what’s commonly labeled, “supernatural” — but that just means that we’ve done an excellent job at sorting things out!

                But it’s the fact that these phenomena are imaginary that makes them supernatural, not the fact that we label them as supernatural that makes them imaginary.

                Does that help?

                b&

              • Posted March 13, 2015 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

                No Ben, it seems to me you just keep making the same mistake, defining “supernatural” as “not real”. People who believe in the supernatural usually make testable empirical claims. It is an empirical question whether their claims are true. They could have been true. We have to test them to see that they are not.

              • Posted March 13, 2015 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

                Lou, I seem to be repeating myself, so I’ll probably leave it at this.

                I absolutely agree that we have to test phenomena to determine whether or not they’re real.

                Where we differ is that you seem to think that a phenomenon that’s been labeled as supernatural should still be considered to be supernatural even if it’s been demonstrated to be real. I, on the other hand, will call something natural if it’s been demonstrated to be real and supernatural if we can be reasonably confident it’s not real.

                Pick your favorite supernatural phenomenon. Imagine somebody wins a Nobel in 2020 for demonstrating it to be real. Would you still keep calling it supernatural at that point? If so, why don’t you (presumably) consider Quantum Mechanics with all its duality and spooky action at a distance and what-not to be supernatural? But, if not, then you’re on the exact same sheet of music as I am.

                Pick some other phenomenon of as-yet indeterminate you might consider natural…say, time travel. Imagine that somebody comes up with a knock-down proof (so far as these things go) that it’s simply impossible. Would you keep calling it natural? I wouldn’t. I’d lump it in with ESP and telekinesis and all the rest. How could you not?

                By a perfect lack of coincidence, it “just happens” to be the case that everything we typically label as supernatural is a phenomenon we can and should be overwhelmingly confident doesn’t actually exist. And the reason it’s not a coincidence is because, if we had good reason to suspect it might be real, we wouldn’t call it supernatural.

                If that’s not a textbook example of a definition in action, then I don’t know what is.

                Cheers,

                b&

            • Sastra
              Posted March 12, 2015 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

              Ben wrote:

              I’d argue that it’s at least as incoherent as astrology.

              Excellent analogy.

              It’s gratifying to realize that when it comes to the Standard Model the evidence and the theory mesh so closely together for so very long. The so-called Paradigm Shift took place hundreds of years ago when we started testing Magic and subsequently left mystical knowledge OUT of science.

              I know people who believe in astrology. In India, they were teaching Vedic astrology in universities for a while (and might be talking about doing it again for all I know.)

          • Posted March 12, 2015 at 9:24 am | Permalink

            This is where I part ways with you again. As Darrelle points out, if Deepak Chopra’s babblings were found to be an accurate reflection of reality, then I’d adjust my view to fit, but I would not say that his current claims that “immaterial” stuff is the cause. At least that part of his claims would need revision, regardless of where the evidence leads, because immaterial stuff interacting with material stuff is incoherent in principle.

            It is the a parallel argument to the Sophisticated Theologians’ claim that one can only define God by what he isn’t, not by what he is. I’m sorry, but that gets you exactly nowhere. It is trivial to show that you could list an infinite number of things that a particular being or object isn’t and still not be any closer to adding any meaning what that thing is. For e.g.; I am not any of the irrational numbers and I am not any of the integers; this is meaningless related to a claim that I therefore am love and my love knows no bounds. But this is just what theologians try to do with “not God” and what Deepak tries to do with “immaterial.” Yes, I can understand in principle the definition of immaterial, but I would challenge Deepak to give an example of something that we could discover interacting with the matter we know and then unambiguously be called immaterial.

            In the same vein, I have yet to see a convincing example of a discovery that would unambiguously be called supernatural, and at this point I don’t think we’re very far apart in our views. As you point out, QM is a bizarre world in contrast to Classic Mechanics, but we don’t label that supernatural. You say that science could in principle investigate supernatural phenomena; I agree, except for the nagging problem that like the definition of God, no one can tell us what the hell an actual example of this phenomena would look like. Even if that hurdle is cleared, the next issue for people making supernatural claims is at what point in the set of things science has yet to discover do we draw the line and say, “Well that’s supernatural even though we have found a meaningful model to describe it.

            • Sastra
              Posted March 12, 2015 at 11:46 am | Permalink

              At least that part of his claims would need revision, regardless of where the evidence leads, because immaterial stuff interacting with material stuff is incoherent in principle.

              No, it isn’t incoherent in principle. As Chopra himself has endlessly stressed, it is only incoherent within the “materialistic paradigm.” If matter and energy actually can be moved around by an unembodied “Consciousness” the way our own minds can manipulate our own imagined images, then we’d simply have to incorporate this new fact into the scientific model of reality. I agree with Chopra that something of this magnitude would indeed entail the major “paradigm shift” which he so eagerly envisions.

              In which case it seems to me that the only reason NOT to admit that reality has both a natural and supernatural (or Spiritual) aspect is to save face and not make it look like we’ve backed down. But then we’d just have to invent new terms to express the distinction.

              If mystics ever meditated themselves into a state where we could remove and destroy their brains and there would be no discernible difference in their appearance or behavior (no bad jokes now), this I think would be very hard to explain from a “mind is what the brain does” standpoint.

              It is the a parallel argument to the Sophisticated Theologians’ claim that one can only define God by what he isn’t, not by what he is.

              I don’t think so because the claim “all causation is material casusation” is in principle falsifiable if we perform enough tests over enough time and keep finding out that (say) ESP keeps violating every physical limit we try to place on it. I’m not saying it would be easy and it certainly could never be definitive (nothing in science ever is), but I can imagine extremely powerful situations where scientists would finally have to seriously entertain substance dualism as a more plausible working theory than mind/body dependence.

              In the same vein, I have yet to see a convincing example of a discovery that would unambiguously be called supernatural, and at this point I don’t think we’re very far apart in our views.

              No argument there.

              • Posted March 12, 2015 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

                At least that part of his claims would need revision, regardless of where the evidence leads, because immaterial stuff interacting with material stuff is incoherent in principle.

                No, it isn’t incoherent in principle.

                I’d argue that it’s at least as incoherent as astrology.

                With everything we know about astronomy, there’s just simply no coherent way to formulate astrological claims without pretending that we’re more ignorant about astronomy than we were in Copernicus’s time. Once you know that Mars is a siliceous planet a bit smaller than Earth with an orbit between ours and Jupiter’s, there’s no remaining coherent way to say it makes people warlike if they’re born when it’s high in the night sky.

                The situation is every bit the same with physics. Once you’ve got the Standard Model, there’s just no way to coherently propose magic mental powers. Sure, in antiquity we were ignorant enough that we didn’t know that it’s incoherent…but we have no such excuse today.

                b&

              • Posted March 12, 2015 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

                If matter and energy actually can be moved around by an unembodied “Consciousness” the way our own minds can manipulate our own imagined images, then we’d simply have to incorporate this new fact into the scientific model of reality. I agree with Chopra that something of this magnitude would indeed entail the major “paradigm shift” which he so eagerly envisions.

                Absolutely, there is no reason to think that a paradigm shift cannot happen. They’ve happened before and whether the future could potentially hold an effectively endless stream of paradigm shifts that more accurately reflect the nature of the Cosmos and reality (there’s those words again that still play so nicely together in this connotation) is a question I don’t think anyone could answer definitively.

                However, to try to drive home my main point one last time, the reason I say immaterial “stuff” interacting with the material world is in principle incoherent is that the word immaterial, like the word supernatural, is not being defined in coherent terms by those who advocate for it. Give me a definition of immaterial that is coherent; keep in mind, we’re trying to define an antonym for material and among the first synonyms you find in the dictionary is real.

                For the sake of argument I’ll use consciousness as an example of an immaterial object for the moment. Sure, a paradigm shift showing that some unknown thing that defines consciousness interacts with the particles we know about could occur. Let’s even say this thing is pervasive and irreducible, unlike any particles in the Standard Model. Fine.

                Here, scientists would not say, “Eureka! We have an immaterial substance interacting with our material stuff we always knew about!” No, they’d incorporate it into our working body of knowledge with whatever name we decide should be given to this unknown thing. Chopra and his fellow charlatans (including a long history of Catholic theologians) are the ones introducing the material versus immaterial dichotomy and the natural versus supernatural dichotomy, used as a get out of jail free card to say, “Science doesn’t apply to that.”

                None of this is to say that demons or ethereal spirits or ESP, things people traditionally associate with the supernatural, are off limits because we’ve defined them away. Rather, they are called supernatural largely because of the claim that they are not bound by the laws of nature and closed to scientific understanding (again, this is the very first definition you see when you crack open a dictionary), which is also implicitly asserting that:
                1) Science has a fixed understanding of reality; and, 2)Somehow only these specific supernatural findings are immune being incorporated into our understanding of reality.

                That’s putting science in religion’s box of fixed dogmatic beliefs, closed to change.

              • rtkufner
                Posted March 14, 2015 at 8:46 am | Permalink

                If a transcendent universal field of infinite primal consciousness is properly defined, and it or its effects verified to interact with the material reality, calling it immaterial would seem to me as no more than semantic stubborness. It would be like a 19th century mystic refusing learning about electromagnetic fields and still refusing to consider them material, since he’d been manipulating these immaterial forces for his entire life.

            • Sastra
              Posted March 12, 2015 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

              Rather, they are called supernatural largely because of the claim that they are not bound by the laws of nature and closed to scientific understanding (again, this is the very first definition you see when you crack open a dictionary)

              I think I might understand your argument better: we’re using different definitions of the “supernatural.” There are many atheists (ie Richard Carrier) who think the popular dictionary definition is both insufficient and — as you say — privileges religion.

              • Posted March 13, 2015 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

                I think I might understand your argument better: we’re using different definitions of the “supernatural.”

                No doubt we are. And in a nice case of symmetry, like your objection to my defining the natural as the real; i.e., all that exists, my main objection is that your definition is redefining the common usage of supernatural. Yes, I agree the claims are often empirical but I disagree that that version of the definition offers any useful distinction between understanding “mind-stuff” and understanding, say, fluid dynamics.

                I also seem to have the same objection you’ve pointed out with my argument in that I think acknowledging that theists have given a coherent definition of the supernatural is giving too much ground to them. I’m not extremely familiar with Carrier and will definitely further investigate his views on this topic. As always, you provided much thought-provoking discussion.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Suppose the universe is a vast computer simulation, operated by a programmer who has the power to pause the simulation clock, change the state at whim, and then start the clock running again. Here there is a clear distinction between the world inside the simulation and the world outside it. We inside it might be able to detect the effects of interventions from outside, but we’d have no way of discerning their causes or the mechanism by which they’re accomplished, since our instruments exist only inside it and are therefore powerless to observe anything that happens when the simulation is paused. The tools used to manipulate our world from the outside are not “forces” operating inside it and therefore not subject to our physics or any conceivable extension of it. All we’d see are the results of those manipulations, which look to us like discontinuous changes of state, uncaused by anything within our universe, and with no discernable lawful regularity to them.

      So the idea that “God is just another natural phenomenon to be investigated” gets us nowhere in this sort of scenario, because any attempt to investigate his actions would inevitably come up against a wall of fundamental inexplicability.

      • Posted March 11, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        So the idea that “God is just another natural phenomenon to be investigated” gets us nowhere in this sort of scenario, because any attempt to investigate his actions would inevitably come up against a wall of fundamental inexplicability.

        But the same applies to God, as well. How is God to know that he himself isn’t part of a Super-Matrix?

        And he’s got even more reason to be suspicious, because he’s in the business himself and knows just how impenetrable such illusions can be.

        b&

      • Posted March 12, 2015 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        Given this scenario, you are correct. We would have no way of ever knowing that this computer god is controlling our natural laws. But, if we were to find this out, we’d take evidence of this god into account and include it in the set of things that exist.

        The point I am making is that once science discovers an unexplained phenomenon, it is incorporated into its body of knowledge. The only things that make any sense to include in a category called supernatural are things that don’t exist, things that cannot in principle be discovered to exist, and things that contradict what we know about reality. Everything else falls into the unknown/unexplained categories, which is really what the crux of this discussion is about–what these categories are called. I don’t think it helps anyone to give woo peddlers any leeway by accepting that supernatural phenomena exist, even in principle, when their definition is so nebulous. This is not to say that I wouldn’t be willing to reconsider my view, if as I pointed out in my previous response, they gave us a coherent definition and how their definition is distinguishable from other unexplained problems in science that very few, if any, people claim is a natural vs. supernatural issue.

        • Posted March 12, 2015 at 9:38 am | Permalink

          I should clarify that by “things that contradict what we know about reality,” I mean claims for which there is no evidence. Obviously, discoveries contradicting what we seem to know now can lead to entirely new paradigms.

        • rickflick
          Posted March 12, 2015 at 9:46 am | Permalink

          A worrisome aspect of the supernatural goes beyond being unexplained. God-like interference in the world leads to unpredictability. Miracles bend the rules which would mess things up big time for scientists who depend upon predictability and repeatability for verification. A computer run meta realm, like a goddy, quixotic personality, might limit science in a pernicious way.

        • Mike Paps
          Posted March 12, 2015 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

          if as I pointed out in my previous response, they gave us a coherent definition and how their definition is distinguishable from other unexplained problems in science

          Indeed. And explain how other unevidenced claims are distinguishable from supernatural ones. For instance if some popular religion spoke about angels regularly visiting the earth in iron chariots, and sometimes taking people on board and blessing them with anal probing, wouldn’t the claims about alien visitations, and abductions be categorized as supernatural events?

  13. Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    The fact is that it’s not impossible that there could be a God, and we might as well admit it.

    A bit late to the party and haven’t gotten caught up yet; apologies if somebody else has already covered this.

    But I’d very much disagree with that.

    The whole point of gods is as a literary device to do the impossible. They can’t exist in reality, because then what they’re doing is obviously possible, even if it’s incomprehensible.

    While everything we know about what happens in the cosmos supports this conclusion, it’s still logically possible that there is a God—a supernatural being—who uses forces outside of nature to interact with the world.

    If “nature” is to have any meaning in this context, it must be as a synonym for Sagan’s “Cosmos”: “Everything that is, was, or will be; all that is real.” As such, if this hypothetical god is real, it is natural; if it is outside of nature, it is imaginary.

    It’s trivial to come up with examples of how our horizons can be limited and even manipulated. We could be brains in vats, subroutines of the Matrix, prone to alien mind-control rays, whatever. But that wouldn’t make the vat-keepers, the programmers, or the aliens gods. Even if YHWH instantiated what we perceive as the Big Bang, that still wouldn’t make him a god, either, for the exact same reasons.

    …if for no other reason than that even YHWH himself couldn’t rule out the possibility that, despite having Created our own Big Bang, he himself could be but a small part of Alice’s Red King’s Dream….

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Sastra
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      If you turn nature and reality into exact synonyms (the Cosmos), then it’s trivial to say there is no supernatural.

      • Posted March 11, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        But of course.

        And that’s a feature, not a bug.

        b&

        • Sastra
          Posted March 11, 2015 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

          It’s a bug if we want to claim that science supports naturalism.

          • darrelle
            Posted March 11, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

            If one means the philosophical school of naturalism, I don’t see any problems with that statement. Otherwise I have to agree. “Science supports reality” is sort of a nonsensical statement. Best to leave it at something like, “science provides usefully accurate explanations of reality and all indications are that your (supernaturalists) claims are highly improbable.”

          • Posted March 11, 2015 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

            I’m still not seeing the problem.

            Science is the investigation of the real. Science classifies those things as natural. Everything supernatural has either yet to be demonstrated real, or, increasingly overwhelmingly, has been positively demonstrated to be entirely the figment of human imagination. And this is by definition, yes, because that’s how those terms are defined.

            Naturalism is simply the assumption that, if it’s real, it’s detectable in some manner — even if only faintly and through inference. It’s pragmatism if nothing else. You can postulate all sorts of imaginary realms that never could possibly interact with our own, and whatever sort of “reality” they might or might not have is entirely an exercise for the philosophers. Science simply doesn’t care about them until there’s at least some hypothetical means of distinguishing between their existence and non-existence (and, ideally, additional properties).

            And, yes. We’re constantly re-classifying what we understand to be real and what’s imaginary. This, too, is a feature, not a bug.

            b&

            • darrelle
              Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

              Thanks,

              You’ve managed to clearly articulate what I have been trying to express in a couple of other comments.

            • Sastra
              Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

              Science is the investigation of the real.

              Yes, yes. Science investigates reality. It doesn’t set up a lot of rules up front about what kinds of phenomenon it can, and cannot, investigate as long as we can observe and experience them.

              Everything supernatural has either yet to be demonstrated real, or, increasingly overwhelmingly, has been positively demonstrated to be entirely the figment of human imagination.

              Yes, yes.

              And this is by definition, yes, because that’s how those terms are defined.

              No, no.

              Natural doesn’t mean “real.” Supernatural doesn’t mean “not real.” We don’t expect to demonstrate or falsify something which is defined as “fake.”

              People who believe in the supernatural think it IS detectable, DOES interact with our world, and CAN be scientifically validated. They’re wrong, not misinformed about the vocabulary. They only claim otherwise as an immunizing strategy when they fail. Do not fall for it.

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

                Of course, we don’t start with the assumption that that which has been labeled, “supernatural,” really is imaginary. That part’s the conclusion.

                You know what else is supernatural?

                The philosopher’s stone, calorific, and the luminiferous aether.

                But any of those could, of course, at one time, have conceivably turned out to be as real as an uranium pile, thermal convection, and electromagnetic radiation. And, had that been the case, it would have been our modern science that would properly be considered supernatural. It’s just that that’s not how things played out.

                Does this help?

                b&

              • Mike Paps
                Posted March 11, 2015 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

                People who believe in the supernatural think it IS detectable, DOES interact with our world, and CAN be scientifically validated.

                How about this for a definition of supernatural. “Claims about the nature of reality that a rational human being would be unable to distinguish from those that are imaginary, or fraudulent.” Even someone who claims to believe in the supernatural couldn’t claim that their supernatural belief was any more valid than anyone elses. So they would have to believe all claims, or concede it’s more rational accept none.

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

                Ben, hard to keep up with the torrent. I’ll just say I think Sastra is clearly right when she says to you:

                “Natural doesn’t mean “real.” Supernatural doesn’t mean “not real.” We don’t expect to demonstrate or falsify something which is defined as “fake.”

                People who believe in the supernatural think it IS detectable, DOES interact with our world, and CAN be scientifically validated. They’re wrong, not misinformed about the vocabulary.

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

                Lou, if you still hold to this position after my previous response, you might further the conversation by offering a (coherent!) definition of the terms, “natural,” and, “supernatural.”

                For me, in such a context, “natural” can only make sense as a synonym for Sagan’s Cosmos: all that ever was, is, or will be; all that is real. And, for “supernatural” to contrast with it in any meaningful way, it can only mean that which is not part of nature…and, therefore, something that never was, is or will be; that which is unreal.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

                Ben, when Darwin coined the term “natural selection”, he clearly didn’t intend “natural” as a synonym for “that which exists”. He deliberately chose it to contrast the undirected character of natural selection with purpose-driven artificial selection.

                But you don’t seem to be willing to allow “natural” to have such connotations. So how do you make sense of terms like natural selection, naturally occurring isotopes, natural sciences v. social sciences, and so on, that distinguish undirected mechanistic processes from purposeful mind-driven processes? Why is “natural”, despite these well-established precedents, the wrong word to use for such distinctions?

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

                Context matters greatly. Darwin was contrasting selection performed by humans with selection performed by elements in the environment other than those controlled by humans. A natural blonde is somebody whose light-colored hair hasn’t been dyed. Somebody who’s got a lot of talent may well be described as a “natural.” In music, it’s a note that’s played on the white keys on the keyboard.

                In the context of natural v supernatural, the only definition that makes sense is the one that’s congruent with Carl’s Cosmos.

                It’s also the very first definition in my dictionary….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • rtkufner
                Posted March 14, 2015 at 9:03 am | Permalink

                The point is not the Supernatural means “not real”. It’s that what it means is scientifically [i]indistinguishable[/i] from “not real”. The only distinctions are linguistic.

              • rtkufner
                Posted March 14, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

                “How about this for a definition of supernatural. “Claims about the nature of reality that a rational human being would be unable to distinguish from those that are imaginary, or fraudulent.” Even someone who claims to believe in the supernatural couldn’t claim that their supernatural belief was any more valid than anyone elses. So they would have to believe all claims, or concede it’s more rational accept none.”

                This. In the context of this conversation, I cannot for the life of me find or formulate a different definition that properly describes the concept of supernatural – as opposed to natural – than this.

                I have yet to read Sastra’s and Lou Jost’s definition of “supernatural” that is both outside the scope of naturalism AND inside the scope of science, so that it could be both verifiable AND differentiated from fiction.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

              Naturalism is simply the assumption that, if it’s real, it’s detectable in some manner — even if only faintly and through inference.

              I think naturalism says more than that. Naturalism as usually construed says that events unfold in lawlike fashion, according to simple, mechanistic principles, with no cosmic purpose or invisible hand steering things in a preferred direction.

              If there were such a purposeful intelligence directing things from behind the curtain, we might be able to detect it, but that would not make it natural. That would be evidence of supernaturalism in Sastra’s sense: mind preceding and underlying the lawlike order of nature, rather than arising as a consequence of it.

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

                No, that’s the conclusion that we’ve drawn from overwhelming observations of nature.

                Had we instead observed what we call magic, that’s what would rightly deserve the title of, “natural.”

                b&

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

                So you are defining “natural” as “real”; this is the mistake that Sastra keeps pointing out.

        • Posted March 12, 2015 at 10:22 am | Permalink

          It is trivial in this respect, but the theme running through these threads is that it is trivial because there is a mountain of evidence (all of it) demonstrating that they should be synonymous.

          It is the woo peddlers and religious who want to put the artificial constraint on science that it can only deal with nature. This is not to say science doesn’t have limits (obviously it does) and it may even eventually have an ultimate limit in how much understanding we can achieve. However, as I’ve been pointing out, the dichotomy that the religious are making is an incoherent one. “Science deals with nature. It can say nothing about the supernatural. (Pay no attention to the fact that we can’t give a sound definition of what this means or that our supernatural claims trample all over what science as already established as consensus).” So, I have no problem making nature and the Cosmos and reality synonymous at a high level (not in all meanings of the words). As always, I’m open to hearing where the distinction between “We don’t know” and it is “supernatural” lies.

  14. Pieter Zwanepoel
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    When I fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town which is 6000 ft lower than Jhb, startup my laptop and nothing works, is it some supernatural being/force that broke it? Similarly, if I fly back to Johannesburg and now it works, did some supernatural being/force fix it? Old valve type radios are also affected by atmospheric pressure and temperature changes.

  15. Sabunim5Dan
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Jerry said, “Had I written the letter instead of Shermer, I would have said that yes, there could be spooky “un-natural” explanations, but based on what we know they’re very unlikely, and the proper attitude (as Shermer said), is to seek a naturalistic explanation.”

    I would add that invoking a spooky “un-natural” explanation without first eliminating the possibility of any simpler naturalistic account for the phenomenon (explanandum) would unnecessarily amplify the explanatory complexity. An un-parsimonious explanation would violate Occam’s Razor.

  16. Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Just as we have completely documented the chemical elements on the surface of Earth, we have completely documented the forces that act in the everyday world which are gravity and electromagnetism. The brain operates on electromagnetism through ion pumps. The power level is at best microwatts which would be incapable of sending a message very far even the brain could produce radio waves. Supernatural experiences are within the brain not in the external world.

  17. Larry Esser
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    “It’s still logically possible that there is a God–a supernatural being–who uses forces outside of nature to interact with the world.” What does this mean? How is this a coherent statement? What is meant by “supernatural?” “Forces outside of nature?” If there are forces “outside of nature,” what would they be and, if they are “outside” of nature, how would they “interact” with nature? If they did, wouldn’t that then mean they are natural forces? When anyone talks about “god” as in believing/not believing/not knowing, do they know what they are talking about? No one seems to know what it is they are saying is real/not real/unknowable, so why are they talking about it? It all seems pretty funny!
    “It exists.” “It does not exist.” But what is “it?” Nobody knows!

    • Mike Paps
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      What is meant by “supernatural?” “Forces outside of nature?” If there are forces “outside of nature,” what would they be and, if they are “outside” of nature, how would they “interact” with nature? If they did, wouldn’t that then mean they are natural forces?

      Exactly. Supernatural is a word used by people who believe in things that they can’t prove happen, or beings they can’t prove exist.

  18. Posted March 11, 2015 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Many traditional supernatural items are ontologically different because they are held to be changeless (god, numbers, etc.) This is a good criterion, as it tell us that interacting with such a thing is impossible/violates conservation laws. Hence (pragmatically, if nothing else) they *are* ruled out a priori, because there’s nothing like a good investigation of very basic, well established physical laws to waste your time. (This is partially why calling science “empiricism” is at least traditionally false.)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Conservation laws are not “a priori”. They were not known until Newton made his advances.

      And to follow that with the claim that science isn’t pure empiricism is ludicrous. What would testably convince you that it isn’t empiricism? For me it would be the utter absence of testing.

      • Posted March 12, 2015 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        Conservation laws are not a priori historically, but now effectively they are – would you even both running an experiment that showed violation of one, in general? Or would you decide that’s too unlikely to be worth investigating. Certainly patent offices refuse perpetual motion machine applications – to see the technological counterpart.

        As for empiricism, empiricism, understood by the philosophical tradition, does not involve “inference to the best explanation” or abductive inference – like ruling out perpetual motion machines.

        There are, to be fair, now uses where “empiricism” just means “open to testing”, but *nobody* denies *that* (except those suffering catatonia or comas) so the use is uninteresting. That some don’t really test thoroughly, or really at all, is another story.

        • Posted March 12, 2015 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          Conservation laws are not a priori historically, but now effectively they are – would you even both running an experiment that showed violation of one, in general? Or would you decide that’s too unlikely to be worth investigating.

          It would depend on the scale and the context.

          Scale is the interesting one. How well do our conservation laws hold up at the Big Bang? It’s a very legitimate question.

          Context is the fun one. Newton’s laws of motion are conservation laws, and your schooling isn’t complete until you’ve tested each of them for yourself. No, your sloppy high school physics lab isn’t going to get any academic attention when you come up with the worng answers…but there’re enough of them (as well as everyday engineering that effectively does the same experiments) that, if anything interesting happens, it’ll eventually show up.

          Actually, that “engineering” bit is pretty significant, come to think of it. Every time you step on the gas pedal in your car, you’re performing an experiment in Force equals Mass times Acceleration. Automotive engineers (and racing teams and NASA engineers and the rest) live and breathe that equation. If it functioned other than expected, we’d know about it by know. If it ever changes, we’ll know about it right away.

          Cheers,

          b&

    • Sastra
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      I think you’re granting too much consistency to supernatural claims. God is like a number if numbers were also like friends who did not have it in their nature to be unloving to you. They mix too many categories and terms up to use this sort of precise argument. Not that it’s wrong.

  19. PS
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    As for the “melting lights phenomenon”, there are very well documented cases of people getting seriously injured by poorly designed batteries and contacts in all sorts of electronic devices (typically mobile phones and laptops). In fact, even major manufacturers such as Nokia have had to recall products in the past due to these issues.

    And yet, somehow, the New York Times finds it worthwhile to publish an article that is predicated on a melting chemical battery being caused by supernatural forces.

    • PS
      Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Though to be fair, to the credit of the NY Times staff, many of the “NY Times pick” comments on the article are accounts of people who show how easy it is to find simple explanations of these “numinous” experiences if only one cares to look.

  20. Jimbo
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    “…we can’t rule supernatural and divine phenomena out of court from the start. To do that is not only unscientific, but plays into the hands of the faithful, who criticize that attitude as close-minded.”

    Exactly. This line of reasoning does strike me as a tautology: everything in the world is natural, what might count as supernatural is magical alien technology, magical alien technology is natural. Unless it isn’t. A god moving stars in the sky with his will might just BE magic. When asked by the scientist “what force did you make use of to reposition those stars (and at faster than the speed of light)?” and he answers “The force of my omnipotent will,” the scientist should probably not immediately double down by accusing him of being a deceptive alien technologist.

    But finding no evidence for God-the-Intervener does suggest that it is probably a bogus claim.

    • Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      When asked by the scientist “what force did you make use of to reposition those stars (and at faster than the speed of light)?” and he answers “The force of my omnipotent will,” the scientist should probably not immediately double down by accusing him of being a deceptive alien technologist.

      Why not?

      Or, as one wise man once put it, “What does God need with a starship?”

      Your position is simply the common theological complaint of, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Science is nothing if not the rejection of such arguments from authority.

      Another way to put it: how would one tell the difference between an omnipotent force of will and powerful aliens? If there’s no answer, of what sense does it make to call them different?

      b&

      • Jimbo
        Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        Supernatural does smack of incoherence but I think you lack imagination if you can’t think of an act that would provisionally make you believe in a god (alien if you like). If that God could take me and anyone I named (dead or alive) across the universe at 1000x speed of light, create a new Big Bang, stop it, reverse it, teleport me back to Earth with no advancement of time, rewind time to last week and forward again, you’ll just claim “naturalism”? You wouldn’t think ‘pretty godlike to me’? Your atheism seems unfalsifiable and dishonest since NO evidence that you can imagine might change your mind.

        • Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          Honestly?

          My first thought, and the one I doubt I’d be able to get past, is some form of hallucination, whatever the source. Maybe your god is real, but is an alien who walked me through the doors of his holodeck. Maybe somebody slipped a magic mushroom into my soup.

          And why stop with the miracles you picked? What if the god was a girl with kaleidoscope eyes who put you on a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies? Would that not be every bit as impressive as superluminal travel? And as impossible?

          b&

          • Jimbo
            Posted March 11, 2015 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

            Honestly, yes. Let’s just put the ‘I’ve lost my mind, hallucination, misapprehension’ canard aside for a change. Let’s say every human being on Earth as independent observers can corroborate your story and experience. They saw it too and this God did analogous feats of really seemingly impossible things. This is also not a computer simulation but real life. This alien is for all intents and purposes God.

            You really are committed to the semantics of the natural world. Whatever touches our universe gets the natural world’s Midas touch.

            • Posted March 11, 2015 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

              Honestly, yes. Let’s just put the ‘I’ve lost my mind, hallucination, misapprehension’ canard aside for a change.

              But it’s not a canard.

              Let’s say every human being on Earth as independent observers can corroborate your story and experience.

              …and I can have confidence in my perception of the universality of this observation…how?

              Just how bizarre and outlandish would such an experience have to be before you, personally, would conclude not gods but drugs? What if it seemed to you that every human being on Earth had been turned into a squid and unanimously elected a certain large squid named, “Cthulhu,” as World President? Would you conclude that an Elder God really had returned to Earth and driven you mad, or would you skip to the chase and just assume that you’d gone mad, whatever the cause?

              I have what appears to me to be a lifetime of experience that the universe conforms to the observations of science. Assuming my hypothetical future self has even the slightest bit of continuity with my current self, the only conclusions I could possibly come to in light of the experiences you describe are that either my current self is horribly deluded or that my future self is horribly deluded. Either I’m insane now or I’d be insane then, but insanity would be the only guarantee. And what use trying to make sense of insanity, other than to attempt to rebuild some sense of sanity from the rubble?

              b&

              • Jimbo
                Posted March 11, 2015 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

                “…and I can have confidence in my perception of the universality of this observation…how?”

                You make use of it now. And yesterday. And your whole life. We all do. What I’m trying to get you to do is engage in a thought experiment but you refuse and resort to what has become a tiresome (but of course legitimate) pat answer from our side that questions the reliability of observation. I’m requesting that you exclude the acid trip, stroke, delusion, etc. so that we might advance the discussion but you keep persisting by saying ‘nuh-uh, I didn’t see that.’ It’s a simple question: what if you actually and reliably and really saw this? It’s not a trick question. I’m a 7.0 Dawkins Scale atheist so I’m not trying to trap you somehow.

                The logical conclusion of your extreme perception-reliability denial is that nothing can be known, ever, for eternity. How could it? Everything is a fiction or fictitious or not what it seems or suns can be grapefruits. And yet, you don’t actually believe this or you would be capable of nothing. That’s not hunger you’re feeling, it’s ionizing radiation from a solar flare causing free radicals in your prefrontal cortex and neuronal misfiring. I’m feeling hungry too–we’re both subjects of a mass delusion.

                Just answer the question (as Jerry honestly did) or don’t and we can conclude that your beliefs have left the realm of science and entered the bulletproof realm of dogmatism.

              • Posted March 11, 2015 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

                But I have answered your question; you’re just really unhappy with my answer.

                I have overwhelming amounts of evidence that all the supernatural bullshit is exactly that — bullshit pulled from various netherbits with no bearing on reality whatsoever.

                If I ever find myself down the rabbit hole experiencing any of that, if I have any presence of mind remaining, the instantly obvious answer is that my “spiritual” experience is no different from the sincerely-reported spiritual experiences of all those who’ve had them: some sort of hallucination, perhaps due to a temporal lobe seizure or an hallucinogen or whatever. After all, what’s more likely: that I should experience a very common and well-documented natural phenomenon, or that I’d be the first person in all of history to really experience the supernatural for real?

                That’s the part you’re overlooking. People experience what you’re proposing I imagine experiencing all the time. If you think I should conclude that such an experience is good enough reason to think that the supernatural is real, then you should also encourage all those countless people who’ve had such experiences to similarly conclude that they’ve really seen behind the curtain, themselves.

                If my time down the rabbit hole is persistent such that it becomes the “new normal,” and, again, if I have any presence of mind remaining, the again-inescapable conclusion is that there’s some sort of powerful conspiracy at work. Either what I’m experiencing right now as I type is a conspiracy and the supernatural is reality, or the supernatural is the conspiracy. But, the thing is, there’s no way to have any confidence in either conclusion — and, indeed, at that point, it’s just as reasonable to suggest that both are conspiracies of some sort and I’m being shuttled between subroutines of the Matrix or whatever.

                Speculating on what sorts of conclusions I’d draw in that sort of circumstance is about as pointless as wondering how I’d react differently to a nuclear holocaust as opposed to a nearby star going supernova. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and the only certain thing is that, if it ever comes to pass, it won’t be anything even vaguely remotely like how you might care to imagine it. Besides, you’re basically guaranteed to not survive anywhere near long enough to have to worry about it.

                BUT! There is a bigger lesson to take away from all this.

                The gods, even if real, are in no better privileged a position to be confident of the true nature of reality than we are. They, too, could be subject to the whims of super-gods, or of Matrix computers, or whatever — mere pawns themselves in a reality as much larger than them as they are bigger than us. And there’s no end to this regression, either…so, of what sense does it make to stop at some arbitrary level and define the entities there as gods, but not the ones above or below them? The only coherent answer is that none of them are gods, regardless of how much more power they might or might not have over others.

                The logical conclusion of your extreme perception-reliability denial is that nothing can be known, ever, for eternity.

                Absolute certainty is impossible, and Jerry and Richard and the others will be the first to tell you as much. Even absolute certainty about things like the identity principle and the law of non-contradiction is unwarranted — especially in those cases, since we have ample examples of them not holding true at quantum scales.

                However, practical certainty is trivial to achieve and very frequently warranted. I’ll not seriously entertain any notion that the Sun won’t rise in the East tomorrow…and neither will I seriously entertain any notion that I’ll ever experience your hypothetical save through some form of delusion (drugs, virtual reality, whatever).

                Cheers,

                b&

            • Posted March 12, 2015 at 11:54 am | Permalink

              What Ben says below is a good exposition of my views as well – and answers Torbjörn on empiricism too. Inference to the best explanation (or abduction) is the most important way we learn about the world, and the hardest to appreciate when confronted with a new field. Also when confronted by a new environment, like the British in the arctic.

  21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Shermer intends, and does, well, but he rubs me the wrong way so often.

    in the face of things we haven’t yet explained—or, like the origin of life, we may never explain

    I think we have explained emergence of life, albeit at very low resolution, akin to how we have explained the emergence of, say, eyes. Eyes use light for orientation, which increase fitness in some organisms. And given that we now know the RNA World works, life use chemical potentials for metabolism.

    One can embellish the individual changes in both cases, and such an increased resolution would constitute a better (more tested and trustworthy) explanation.

  22. Mike Paps
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Maybe this is all just a semantics debate, but the way I’ve always looked at the term supernatural is as something we have no reason to believe actually exists, not just have no explanation for. Thunder for example exists, we hear it, it’s part of the natural world even if we didn’t know it’s cause. Likewise if prayers were obviously answered then it would be natural for them to be answered, and whatever the mechanism for them to be answered would be natural because they’re answered.
    If God existed, and we all knew it, and believed him to be god, and honest, and he told us he lived in a timeless realm then a timeless realm would be part of the nature of existence.

  23. Curt Nelson
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    To me, the word supernatural means magic. The way I can imagine there being such a thing is via the simulated world hypothesis – that we and our universe are part of a computer simulation being run by advanced beings who could manipulate any aspect of our reality in a way that is unnatural to us. These beings would essentially be gods.

  24. Michael Michaels
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    I missed the “I melted a bicycle light with my mind”.
    I find it completely absurd to jump to that conclusion, especially when a bicycle light contains batteries. Modern batteries contain large amounts of chemical energy. They have caught fire and exploded before. We call that malfunctioning. Further, a modern bicycle light can output a tremendous amount of energy. If it was accidentally switched on in an enclosed area that is perhaps even lightly insulated, I would expect it to melt.

    My first house had a brand new fridge, the light bulb melted the fixture inside the fridge. I didn’t assume my mind did it, I assumed there was a short, or the light switch got stuck on, or was not screwed in all the way and there was arcing. Any one of those could produce enough heat to melt the fixture.

    No need for superstition.

  25. Jeffery
    Posted March 11, 2015 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    I can see Shermer’s point in saying, “There is no such thing as the ‘para’-normal or ‘super’-natural (emphasis mine)”: were it to be ascertained and proven that there was, indeed, a “God” who somehow operated outside the accepted laws of physics, or that ESP was real, this state of affairs would then have to be accepted as “normal”, and “natural”.

    The problem with the terms, “paranormal” and “supernatural” is that they tend to imply that a “parallel-world” exists alongside our “normal” one, with its own set of rules, and never the twain shall meet; they encourage people to believe that certain phenomena have already reached the status of “normal”, when they have not yet satisfied the proofs necessary for that declaration. It’s a similar phenomenon to that of the term, “UFO”- although simply meaning, “unidentified flying object”, upon hearing it, the average person immediately thinks in terms of, “alien spacecraft”, even though no definite evidence has ever been shown as to the actual existence of such things.

    I much prefer the terms, “explained”, and, “unexplained phenomena” as “supernatural” harkens back to old, religion-based ways of viewing the natural world, and both terms seem to carry a sense that these phenomena are somehow “above”, or “superior”, to “normal”. A similar situation is when people say that hallucinations and mirages are not “real” experiences: they actually are, in the sense that they exist in the form of perception and are thus every bit as much a part of our “normal” world as any other perception (although they have no material existence). I have “perceived” several extremely odd events in my life that defy explanation, but I withhold judgment on them; quantum physics allows for some pretty “spooky” things to happen. It’s somewhat of a refreshing feeling to know that we don’t know everything, yet.

  26. Vaal
    Posted March 12, 2015 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    Jerry I’m with you on this one. I especially dislike the invocation s
    Of a clarkisain third law “it could always be aliens using sufficiently advanced technology.”

    If Jesus appeoared and started weilding miracles, sure it “could ” be aliens f#cking with us. But then “it could be aliens f#cking with us” is a logical possibility that applies to every singe observation we make, from the most mundane to the greatest scientific. observations
    Cosmologists observe ared shift indicating the expanding of the universe? Well it “could” be aliens influencing our instruments with their advanced technology.
    But why isn’t that objection taken seriously?

    Because it’s ad hoc, not parsimonious – its simply a logical possibility with nothing more given to support the claim.

    Let’s say a being calling itself jesus appears promulgating Christian tenets while performing bible-like miracles, and unlike typical religious visions this manifestation proves as empirically verifiable as anything else we can verify scientifically. If anyone says “it could be aliens tricking us” he/she takes on the same burden that any scientist would I raising an alternate explanation. If he is introducing an ALTERNATIVE entity to explain the one our senses seem to perceive, what evidence does he have for his alternative hypotheses? Just as we would have to ask in the case of the claim that aliens are causing our observations of stellar red shift “how do we test that hypothesis?” We’d have to ask the same of someone positing the alien alternative for an apparrent manifestation of Jesus displaying supreme power over the forces of nature.

    There are logically possible scenarios in which a god could become manifest, in which raising the objection “it could be aliens fooling us” is no more justified than “last thursdayism” or solipsistic scenarios. It is closer to religious apologetics like “you can’t prove God doesn’t have a good reason for evil” than it is to rational skeptical thought, IMO.

    • Vaal
      Posted March 12, 2015 at 1:59 am | Permalink

      Apologies for typos, format issues. Typed late on a wretched iPad.

    • Posted March 12, 2015 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Vaal, the difference here is that your Jesus example does great violence to everything we think we know about how the Universe works.

      What if tomorrow morning the Sun rose in the West, and apples (but no other fruit) fell up until they reached branch height?

      Would you think that we needed to revise our understanding of astronomy and physics, or would you think you’d either gone crazy or had always previously been crazy?

      I’m pretty sure you’d go with the latter…and you should do the same with your Jesus example for the exact same reasons.

      Again, which is more likely: that you really are (among) the first people to ever really, truly, actually personally experience the Risen Christ…or that you’re hallucinating Jesus the same way that countless people before you have hallucinated similar visions of Jesus and other gods? And don’t forget just how powerful these types of hallucinations typically are!

      b&

      • Vaal
        Posted March 12, 2015 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Ben

        Your objection is already anticipated and addressed in what I wrote. I’m not talking of some typical one-off experience, which is why I was careful to write:

        and unlike typical religious visions this manifestation proves as empirically verifiable as anything else we can verify scientifically.”

        We are supposed to be ready to revise our understanding of reality should new phenomena suggest there is something new to learn about it, right?

        It’s unscientific to take the stance we would never accept some new phenomenon, even shockingly new. Rather, the issue is whether the new experience can pass the empirical scrutiny that we use to accept anything else, scientifically. The world and universe as we understand it now is radically different than the various ways it had been construed in the past. So the stumbling block is never accepting radically new phenomena or having to revise our understanding of reality. Rather, it is all about the method – science being the gold standard – by which we study it. If something new manifests reliably, we accept it into our picture of reality, without ad hoc, unverifiable and unhelpful additional hypotheses, such as mass delusion.

        If apples started falling up starting tomorrow onward, regularly, as persistently and predictably as apples fall to the ground now, would you suggest that we refuse to accept this new fact of our reality? That would be a religious-like closing of the eyes to new observations. What would be an alternative explanation? “Every scientist on earth, and everyone else, are suddenly suffering the same, persistent delusion?” How plausible would THAT be? There would have been no precedence for such a state of affairs. And then you open the can of worms as to why we don’t invoke delusion everywhere else we’ve encount new phenomena. And if no test could provide support for the “delusion” hypothesis, why give it credence over how things actually seem to be? If the new “apparent” reality is empirically persistant as the previous, what would PRESUMING mass delusion, absent any demonstration of it, get us?

        I’m afraid I find the could-always-be-aliens objection a case of special pleading, where the norms of empirical verification are suddenly abandoned without good, consistent reasons. And I believe people who raise it tend to have in mind fleeting manifestations
        of religious entities typical of the average religious experience, or scriptural story.
        There’s no logical restriction that such beings, like Jesus, if they existed, couldn’t manifest far more persistently and reliably, affording us as much scrutiny as for anything else we observe and accept into reality.

        Cheers,

        • Posted March 12, 2015 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

          “and unlike typical religious visions this manifestation proves as empirically verifiable as anything else we can verify scientifically.”

          All you’re saying is that that’s what you’d expect in your vision of Jesus to make it as compelling to you as somebody else’s vision of Jesus.

          We are supposed to be ready to revise our understanding of reality should new phenomena suggest there is something new to learn about it, right?

          Yes, but what you’re proposing is that we get evidence that everything we’ve ever been confident of is absolute bollocks. And now you want to throw away the combined knowledge of all science and replace it with comparable certainty in what we right now know is absolute bollocks?

          Expand your scenario to something like, “centuries of experience with the new paradigm including a comprehensive and coherent explanation for why the previous one was so spectacularly worng,” and we could maybe start to consider your scenario. But, really? That’s something to take seriously? Why not just hypothesize that your Jesus uses his magic decoder ring to re-arrange your brain neurons to believe in him and be done with it?

          If apples started falling up starting tomorrow onward, regularly, as persistently and predictably as apples fall to the ground now, would you suggest that we refuse to accept this new fact of our reality?

          Again, I’d be certain that I’d either gone crazy or somebody was pulling one over on me. Would I attempt to deal with the situation best I could? Sure. I think. At least, I’d like to imagine that I’d try to slog through in the spirit of Rincewind on the Discworld. But there’s no way you could convince me (short of magic decoder rings) that there was any rhyme nor reason to existence any more.

          I’m afraid I find the could-always-be-aliens objection a case of special pleading, where the norms of empirical verification are suddenly abandoned without good, consistent reasons.

          Erm…that’s what you’re proposing. We’ve got millennia of recorded history and centuries of scientific observations, all in perfect agreement that Jesus and his ilk are bullshit. And you want me to seriously consider suddenly abandoning them without good, consistent reasons? Just because of a garden-variety hallucination?

          b&

          • Vaal
            Posted March 12, 2015 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

            Ben,

            I don’t find that you are really taking on board what I’m actually writing. Yiu keep slipping back to this presumption of “garden variety hallucination” when I have been at pains to specify the scenarios are the direct opposite: empirically verifiable by any other person, as reliably as any currently accepted scientific observation
            you’d like to name. Without truly addressing the implications of only that type of scenario, your replies will have missed the point.

            If any experience passes exactly the same tests as we use to accept every other phenomenon in our experience, it is special pleading to deny it only in that case.

            Also, I believe you are making some unfounded leaps of logic, e.g. that the appearance of a being like Jesus necessarily entails throwing away all scientific knowledge. That strikes me as a non sequitur. The “regularities of nature” may operate just as science has described, with a Jesus-being simply additional to this.

            Also, sure we can posit Jesus sticking around for centuries, doing his empirically verified displays of power. But even so, a demand for that timescale doesn’t seem necessary. Science accepts new phenomena far more quickly than that when the evidence is available. And remember that science doesn’t require that we have an explanation for a phenomenon in order to accept THAT the phenomenon is occurring. After all, much of science has been concerned with trying to come up with explainations for things we all agree we observe, but which we have yet to explain.

            This process would go for anything we can reliably observe. If an orb fell from the sky that proved to reliably heal cancer in any cancer patient who touched it, we may have no existing theory of how it would work. But we could reliably observe the fact of it happening.

            You seem to be operating on this idea that if some phenomenon occurs that is shockingly new or unexplainable that we are left only to consider ourselves struck with mass delusion, which is a very odd position to advance IMO.

            • Posted March 13, 2015 at 9:41 am | Permalink

              I don’t find that you are really taking on board what I’m actually writing. Yiu keep slipping back to this presumption of “garden variety hallucination” when I have been at pains to specify the scenarios are the direct opposite: empirically verifiable by any other person, as reliably as any currently accepted scientific observation you’d like to name.

              Yes, you keep asserting that that’s what you expect me to be capable of imagining.

              But, you see, where I am right now is not in the position of somebody who’s performed a set of gold-standard scientific observations. I’m not even in the position of somebody who’s supervised CERN or NASA or is otherwise in a position to personally have high confidence in an entire major scientific team’s work.

              Where I am right now is that I see an entire civilization’s scientific output, from the ancients’s discovery of agriculture through to the hints of physics beyond the Standard Model coming from the LHC.

              What you’re asking me to imagine is evidence so extraordinary that it would overturn all of that.

              What you’re asking, essentially, is for me to forget everything I know about existence and assume I had been born into an alternate reality in which I’m now playing thought experiments about the universe I actually know to be real.

              Your hypothetical Jesus could rub his magic decoder ring and make me the lead researcher at CERN where I’d soon discover the Holy Spirit Particle, and I’d still assume some form of delusion.

              I mean, really. Have you never seen Total Recall or The Matrix or even an episode of Star Trek featuring the holodeck?

              And, if so, how could you not conclude that something like that is vastly more likely an explanation than actual divinity?

              Again, what does God need with a starship?

              Cheers,

              b&

  27. lancelotgobbo
    Posted March 12, 2015 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    I know this is semantics (and who says semantics aren’t respectable, anyway?)but I have always chosen to look at it this way: if the supernatural is real, it has just become ‘natural’. Surely, ‘supernatural’ means only that which is currently inexplicable. Were there to be phenomena which seem to disobey the laws of nature then we must gain a better understanding of those laws. We can’t have it both ways. To believe that things can happen that don’t respect the way the universe works, and that these can neither be explained or understood is to be like the Red Queen, and breakfast is over your majesty!


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