As a high school student, long before I’d ever heard of skepticism or considered arguments for or against naturalism, I wrote a paper on the Loch Ness Monster. Suffice it to say in all my work on that paper I didn’t uncover single credible shred of evidence that Nessie existed yet then I had, and today I still have, a good idea of what it would take to convince me that such a creature does exist. And while the same could be said of most, if not all, cryptozoological creatures the same can not be said for many proposed supernatural creatures or entities.
Posts tagged with supernatural
For all my talk of defending naturalism, unfortunately I, like many before me, haven’t made much of an effort to explain the difference between supernaturalism and naturalism. What exactly is the difference between the supernatural and the natural? One of the most useful distinctions I’ve come across, primarily due to aligning with how people use the terms in practice, was made by Richard Carrier who claimed it is between entities which are fundamentally mental and those which are reducible in principle.* That is to say the reason something would be supernatural is not because of the particular powers it exhibits, or because it is currently considered paranormal, but because it would not be reducible to nonmental entities.
Take the competing efforts to explain human consciousness as an example. If naturalism is correct, as I believe it is, then our mental properties are the result of the interaction of nonmental particles, namely the interaction between a vast number of neurons. However, if our mind is not dependent on the brain (or any other sub-component parts) then our mind is supernatural as it is irreducibly mental. The mind would simply possesses mental traits as an innate property.
You know the type: They find a leaf under a tree, it must have been paranormal. Meet someone who owns the same shirt they do? Consider it spooky. Found their keys? It must have been a miracle. To some people everything is proof of the paranormal, mystical or a sign of divine intervention and nothing could just be chance. How did they get this way?
The underlying mistake being made when people attribute coincidences to mystical forces is fairly simple failure of understanding or applying probability. While experiencing an unlikely event someone says “What are the chances this particular event would happen to me right now?” rather than the more appropriate and inclusive question of “What are the chances that something similar to this event would happen?” This unjustified specificity is often then compounded by overestimating the chance of whatever mystical interpretation this person happens to be prone to believe in and, by extension, underestimating the likelihood of witnessing the event simply due to chance.
However, assuming people who often attribute the unlikely to the paranormal are being at least somewhat internally consistent it’s easy for a couple mistakes of this kind to multiply. Once you accept a given mystical hypothesis then your prior probability that this hypothesis is the explanation for similar cases you encounter will rise. This, in turn, makes it even more likely that you’ll see this hypothesis as the cause for more and more events. Of course this conflicts with the belief that mystical events are supposed to happen rarely and if they didn’t you’d be unable to separate them from normal occurrences.
But, naturally, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. This problem would arise even without accounting for confirmation bias, so when including the tendency to overweight the evidence for propositions you already believe a handful of misattributed coincidences could spiral into the basis for an entire misguided worldview.
While this can become a problem with those who don’t acknowledge the mere coincidences that fill everyday life this same pattern can cause overconfidence in any individual’s cherished explanation. This faulty pattern can be quite difficult to recognize from the inside and is one reason, as Descartes would say, everyone should seriously doubt all beliefs they hold at some point in their life. Otherwise you may never even find out you are the equivalent of the person seeing lines in the dirt as the unmistakable proof of ancient aliens.
The argument from intentionality (AFI) relies on the claim that one physical state can’t be “about” another. That is to say intentionality, the property of mental phenomena directed upon some object, can’t reduce to physical states of the brain and because minds clearly have this capability then dualism must be true. Most simply A can’t be “about” B if they are both purely physical. Many dualists argue this is because intentionality is fundamentally irreducible and to reduce it would be to explain something else. They claim any attempt to reduce intentionality to something nonmental will always fail because it leaves out intentionality. As philosopher John Searle argues:
Suppose for example that you had a perfect causal account of the belief that water is wet. This account is given by stating the set of causal relations in which a system stands to water and to wetness and these relations are entirely specified without any mental component. The problem is obvious: a system could have all those relations and still not believe that water is wet… You cannot reduce intentional content (or pains, or “qualia”) to something else, because if you did they would be something else, and it is not something else. - The Rediscovery of Mind p. 51
Science can’t disprove religion. In fact, science can’t disprove any supernatural idea. It’s at this point that many theists would be happy to celebrate and claim victory over empiricism but simply because science has nothing to say about the matter doesn’t mean that no rational inquiry need apply.
For instance, science can demonstrate that the world doesn’t appear to be 6000 years old but it can’t disprove what is sometimes called the Omphalos hypothesis, the idea that the Universe was created by God with features that made it appear older than it was. So, the creationist would say, the Earth seems to be billions of years old and species seem to have evolved largely through natural selection but God only made it look like that way. Appealing to God like this isn’t predictive, unless you are to argue because you know the mind of God that it had to create a universe that appears as ours does, so whatever universe we do observe is just one of an infinite possible number of theistic universes because God could theoretically make the universe appear any age. This means the appeal to God has not narrowed our expectations of the apparent age of the universe but merely appealed to one of an infinite number of scenarios. Contrarily the age of stars, the cosmic microwave background radiation, Hubble’s law, etc. all independently serve to predict the age of our universe to be within a limited range and the fact they all converge on a similar age greatly reduces the array of possible answers for the actual age.
If, as a friend of mine likes to say, you know you have a rolled a three on a die and you posses only a four-sided die and a twenty-sided die which die is it more likely to that you rolled? Obviously it is the four sided die and it would only become more likely if you instead possessed only a four-sided die and a hundred-sided die. Expanding the larger die out to be infinite-sided, as supernatural explanations do, doesn’t mean that you can no longer reason about which is more probable. Quite the contrary, it becomes vastly more likely that the result is from the die with less possible outcomes.
What this analogy highlights is any supernatural solution to disconfirming evidence which places that theory firmly outside of the field of science just appeals to a “explanation” which is not predictive and infinite in scope which must be weighed against more limited range of natural predictive explanations which would explain the phenomena. This same principle holds for claims that psi-phenomena do exist or that prayer does work but only when they aren’t tested, that species only seemed to have evolved and existed based upon survival and so on for every attempt to explain away why our observations don’t match up with a supernatural phenomena. So just because you can never demonstrate using science that the entire universe wasn’t created last Thursday that certainly doesn’t mean it’s probable or reasonable to conclude that it was.
Imagine you have to investigate a traffic collision and witnesses tells you “an unexplainable entity caused the collision with an incomprehensible force it used on both drivers.” Still you follow up just to be thorough you ask the witnesses if they can tell you anything more about this entity or force and they admit they can’t. I believe most people would realize the witnesses have not provided you with anything other than an untestable theory and certainly haven’t come close to explaining the accident because “the unknowable” has exactly zero explanatory power.
An explanation increases our understanding of a phenomena but appealing to the unknowable can’t do so because it just replaces one mystery with another. However substitute “unknowable” for a supernatural explanation like “leprechauns” and suddenly people seem to forget the fact that you’ve explained nothing at all. This despite the fact people readily acknowledge the supernatural to be inherently beyond human comprehension. The reason is because ascribing an action to an agent feels like an explanation even when it’s claimed that agent behaves in inexplicable ways and is itself incomprehensible. “Poseidon causes the tides” might seem coherent but all you are really doing is giving currently unknown forces a proper name.
To attribute the unknown to a supernatural cause is to both not illuminate the original issue and create a host of new questions. What is behind this force? What is this entity? If I were to claim that my television works because of imperceptible dancing leprechauns I could just as easily claim, without proof or possible refutation, that it was the singing of imperceptible gremlins. In fact there are infinite possible unknowable reasons for every phenomena so the appeal to any given unknowable can not enhance our understanding but only create the question of how you could isolate one unknowable force among the infinite possible unknowns. Moreover in order to appeal to an entity to explain something we must currently have some cognitive grasp on the explanation and so by definition unknowable entities can never qualify as an explanation.
There are many more factors involved in establishing a good explanation like simplicity, coherence with background knowledge and the successful prediction of new phenomena. However while many other factors contribute to explanations any given supernatural explanation could be substituted for “it was magic” or “I don’t know” and still retain the same explanatory power, that being none at all, and thus can never actually be an explanation.
Many religious people hate it when nonbelievers compare the supernatural abilities of their god(s) to magic but if you actually look up ‘magic’ the definition that would apply here is most often defined as something akin to ‘the ability to produce supernatural effects.’
So here’s my challenge: If there is a difference between magic and supernatural abilities, what is it?