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Aug 01 2013

This is the kind of thing that gives philosophy a bad name

In the NY Times Opinionator, Gary Gutting indulges in a little public philosophical masturbation: did Zeus exist? And he concludes that we can’t decide that he didn’t.

On reflection, then, I’m inclined to say that an atheistic denial of Zeus is ungrounded. There is no current evidence of his present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks. We have no reason to make this assumption. Further, supposing that Zeus did exist in ancient times, do we really have evidence that he has ceased to exist? He may, for all we know, just be in hiding (as Heine’s delightful “Gods in Exile” suggests), now that other gods have won humankind’s allegiance. Or it may be that we have lost the ability to perceive the divine. In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”

I’d tear that up, except I don’t have to: The Digital Cuttlefish beat me to it, and includes a poem, too.

Two things, then. One, I’m surprised that a philosophy prof is conflating ideas of belief with ideas of knowledge. Disbelief in Zeus is absolutely grounded. Without convincing evidence (this is where “knowledge” comes in, and where his objections actually matter), Zeus has not passed the threshold for my belief. I have no obligation to believe in something that has no positive evidence for it, just because there is no evidence against it.

Which leads to my second thing. Presuppositional arguments may be logically airtight, but this example shows why good logic can lead to bad conclusions. It is absolutely true that science has to presuppose that there are no supernatural entities intervening, in order to examine the natural world. And we, therefore, cannot conclude there is no supernatural, since that would simply be circular logic, assuming our conclusions. And since our conclusions about the supernatural depend on our assumptions, the logic is no help at all.

I have two things, too, though. One is that DC is using philosophy to argue against Gutting, so let’s not make this a blanket condemnation of all philosophy.

The other is a point of disagreement: “It is absolutely true that science has to presuppose that there are no supernatural entities intervening”. I disagree strongly with that. If they are intervening, they are having an effect on the natural world that can be examined with the tools of science, even if the supernatural entities themselves are completely invisible to us. If every time I mumbled a magic word before throwing a die, it would come up six, and this effect was statistically robust and worked with such reliability that I could clean up at the craps table in Vegas, I’d have to postulate a force outside of our understanding to explain it. I’d still be able to investigate the effect scientifically, however, and clearly it would demand extensive replication…say, a grand tour of every casino in the country.

I agree that we cannot conclude that there is no supernatural that is operating outside of our universe. We can conclude that there has been no consistent detectable supernatural phenomenon meddling within our universe.

67 comments

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  1. 1
    richardelguru

    As I posted at the CuttlesHome, this is just philosophy copied from Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods

  2. 2
    Cuttlefish

    Ah, but you are not presupposing the sort of supernatural intervention that the believer is. I agree wholeheartedly that the god that, say, Francis Collins speaks of, who occasionally performs miracles, is testable by science and utterly dismissable. But if we presuppose that the apparent natural order of things is the result of a god who keeps things looking like there is no god (Futurama had an episode on this, actually: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbinE6bx8xM ), the inability to detect some supernatural glitch in natural order is absolutely consistent with the god you have presupposed.

    As Randi so often says, you can’t put words in other peoples’ mouths; you have to test the things they believe. Gutting’s Zeus can be pragmatically dismissed, because He did interact with the world. But presupposing the *right* god means we cannot logically dismiss it. (Yes, we can apply Ockham, but that’s a rule of thumb, not airtight logic.)

  3. 3
    borax

    In the right writers hands, the question of Zeus’s existence could have been brilliant satire. Instead we get a steamy pile of schlock.

  4. 4
    Cuttlefish

    Oh… also. Yes, I did use philosophy, and I did not (nor do you accuse me, but it felt that way at first) issue a blanket condemnation of philosophy.

    And I agree with your last paragraph completely. Except it didn’t rhyme.

  5. 5
    borax

    Richardelguru. I haven’t read ‘Small Gods’, but is it along the same lines of Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ were gods exist only as long as people believe in them?

  6. 6
    Reginald Selkirk

    Disbelief in Zeus is absolutely grounded.

    No no no. Disbelief in the supernatural Zeus may be absolutely grounded, but what about the historical Zeus?
    ;>

  7. 7
    doublereed

    But isn’t this good? This is an atheist argument, because it points out how absurd and arbitrary belief in the supernatural is. Basically, isn’t this Poe’s Law?

  8. 8
    PZ Myers

    If you postulate an invisible god whose machinations are completely undetectable and further, are completely indistinguishable from natural, unguided processes (angels are very careful and precise in their steering and acceleration of apples that are detached from tree branches) then sure, we can’t argue against such a god experimentally. But we can argue against such a god epistemologically. How does the person who claims such a god exists know it? What tests did that person carry out to obtain this knowledge of the perfectly invisible god?

  9. 9
    richardelguru

    borax
    Yes, absolutely.
    Thanks I’d forgotten that!

  10. 10
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    Hang on, so other Gods have “won humankind’s allegience”? Does this not put paid to the idea that there is only one God? That said God made the universe? And if it puts paid to those ideas, the guilt trip into believing in him becomes void. Gutting just argued himself out of religion. Or he would have if he had half a brain.

  11. 11
    machintelligence

    I read the article as a tongue in cheek parody. No scientist has to preface his experimental description with “As long as no supernatural entity has been pissing in the soup…” although the omnipresent Murphy must be considered, I guess.
    The reason for all human cultures to have Gods (or something like them) is a hyperactive agency detector and good old confirmation bias. If you believe the Christian bible, even YAHWEH believes in other gods.
    First commandment: Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me.
    I an half way inclined to call the whole thing a parody of Post Modernist thought, but I got in trouble with that previously, so I won’t.

  12. 12
    Deen

    @Cuttllefish in #2:

    But if we presuppose that the apparent natural order of things is the result of a god who keeps things looking like there is no god, the inability to detect some supernatural glitch in natural order is absolutely consistent with the god you have presupposed.

    But science doesn’t presuppose the absence of such a god either, just like it doesn’t presuppose the absence of a Matrix-type simulator. Whether it’s a god running the universe, a universe-simulator, or just a plain natural universe, science is still capable of studying the rules of how this universe manifests itself to us.

  13. 13
    starcatherus

    The writer of the article is mistaken about the level of belief in Zeus in ancient Greek times. For every Plato or Socrates, I could bring up a Epicurus or Euhemurus or a pythagoras.

  14. 14
    cervantes

    It seems to me the presuppositionalist claim is stated backwards. If an entity is detectable, can be investigated and understood via scientific inquiry, then a fortiori it is not supernatural. To put it another way, the scope of science is by definition nature.

  15. 15
    borax

    Thumper. According to the old testament that’s sorta what happened. Baal seems like a real god that Yahweh keeps on getting pissed at because the Hebrews kept on running off to worship the more fun god. The Torah seems to me like Greek mythos with a lot more violence and kink. And that’s saying quite a bit.

  16. 16
    brucegee1962

    I’m not really sure what the author of that piece meant, but isn’t he at least somewhat correct that historical deities are rather difficult to disprove?

    Something that I tell Christians is that one of the things I don’t understand about them — if they believe in one set of supernatural explanations, why not believe in ALL of them? The evidence for all the other deities is just about the same quality as their particular set.

    In other words, if there were a whole bunch of supernatural folks mucking about doing miracles, and then something happened sometime between 900 and 1600 AD and they all picked up shop and left, being careful to clean up after themselves — that would be fairly difficult to disprove. But it would still seem somewhat more believeable than the idea that just ONE set of accounts of supernatural interventions were real, while all of the others were just delusions.

  17. 17
    okstop

    Gutting does phil religion (among other things) at Notre Dame, the same department that was previously home to the brilliant but somehow totally clueless Alvin Plantinga, whose incredible mind started to turn itself inside out every time the subject of religion came up. ND Phil Dept is also home to a cabal of leaders in phil religion, aka not-so-well-disguised apologetics. The stupid shenanigans in the name of philosophy gotten up to by the phil religion crowd gives us all a bad name, and Gutting has been thoroughly corrupted by his time there.

  18. 18
    mbrysonb

    Gutting is playing a pretty slippery game: can it really be reasonable to believe anything that can’t be disproven? Suppose I decide to believe I’ll win the lottery this Saturday. You can’t prove I’m wrong about that. But if I really believe that, surely it’s reasonable for me to run up my credit card and even float a big loan from the bank to blow on toys and trips and such. It’s only by eliding the practical implications of a sincere belief in Zeus (or God) that you can play this silly game…

  19. 19
    Kevin

    @11 — the reason it’s stated like that is because the Yahweh-only sect was very much a late-comer to the party. The ancestors of the Jews who worshiped Yahweh also offered sacrifices to many other gods, the sun, the moon, the stars, etc. They had idols to Baal and to Asherah (the mother goddess, often seen as Yahweh’s consort). The Yahweh-only crowd were the “city folk” (court administrators, priests, scribes, etc.), while the polytheists were pretty much everyone else.

    It was only very, very late in the proceedings (around 300 BCE or so) that the Yahweh-only crowd finally won out and true monotheism took hold among those people. For hundreds and hundreds of years prior, he was just the chief god among many.

    The history is fascinating…if you study it, you find a completely human invention that was modified and revised and updated and changed and evolved century after century. Every few hundred years, a king would come along who sided with the monotheism crowd; but then the next king would go back to letting people worship the other gods and nature.

    We’d all be a whole lot better off if the polytheism crowd had won out.

  20. 20
    Rey Fox

    this is just philosophy copied from Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods‘

    Or American Gods. Or probably any of a number of fantasy tomes. Or Peter Freakin’ Pan. I do believe in God, I DO!

  21. 21
    robertschenck

    On the ‘undetectable and meddling god’: This is basically saying that god doesn’t need to obey logic. So, of course, there’s no way to argue against that. Gutting, oddly enough, seems to be effectively arguing just that. “Back in the day, there was enough evidence for primitive people to say zeus existed, even though today we’d reject that evidence’. This is really the same thing as the ‘omphalos’ argument in reverse.

    Later he also argues that perhaps the ancient greeks were ‘rightly convinced’ on the existence of zeus because of their experiences, which would seem to be an argument of the “justified true knowledge” sort.

    He concludes by objecting to the scientific arguement that there’s no need for zeus in any explanations (and so we reject him out of parsimony in a way), through a likelihood analysis, in that he claims the above is dependent on the assumption for a small likeklihood of zeus: Gutting claims we have information on the ‘priors’ here, and that the priors /do not/ support there being a low likelihood. He doesn’t demonstrate this, infact this seems like classical proper question begging.

    Weirdly, he also makes the arguement that the world is no uniform, and that in ancient greece for the ancient greeks, the gods did exist and now they don’t. Just when this happened and just what the boundaries of ‘ancient greece’ are, he doesn’t address (this is basically the theology of Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules, with less leather chaps and less lucy lawless).
    Despite claiming that zeus could’ve existed ‘in the past, in a particular place’, he says that we can reject/make an atheistic conclusion for zeus today at least. Well why doesn’t zeus exist today, and just not for Gutting? Tthis is probably the very basis for (islamic) occultation (as in, ‘the madhi isnt’ dead and gone, he’s gone into hiding and is waiting). How can Gutting reject zeus here, but not there? Doesn’t that reduce down to ‘every time I blink my eyes, the entire universe is recreated, as if all the stuff I think happened last time I blinked my eyes really did happen’. How is any of this different from solipsism? Is Gutting agnostic about whether or not he’s an imaginary character created by /my/ brain?

  22. 22
    robertschenck

    “Something that I tell Christians is that one of the things I don’t understand about them — if they believe in one set of supernatural explanations, why not believe in ALL of them?”
    Grace, duh. Or in other words ‘god makes me have an otherwise unjustifiable belief in him’. And this is followed up with ‘and I know it’s true because I have no reason to believe it, and yet it do…”

  23. 23
    Snoof

    Richardelguru. I haven’t read ‘Small Gods’, but is it along the same lines of Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ were gods exist only as long as people believe in them?

    It’s a little subtler than that – gods have power because people believe in them. They exist no matter what, but a god without believers is a pathetic, barely-sapient voice on the wind.

  24. 24
    timgueguen

    brucegeer1962, a lot of the more conservative Christian types do believe in other supernatural actors besides the Christian God. But they figure they’re evil spirits and other minions of Satan. For example a group of village chiefs from Ghana invoked ancestral spirits during a presentation at the Calgary Stampede back in 2006. Not surprisingly some of the local fundie crowd were quite upset with this. They worried it might invoke the wrath of God, and might lead to “demonic invasions” into people, just like they saw in Africa.

    Of course it is possible God did get upset about that. After all, Naheed Nenshi, a Muslim, was elected mayor of Calgary in 2010.. I’m sure they’re none too happy about that, or that Nenshi will probably get re-elected in this year’s election.

  25. 25
    twas brillig (stevem)

    re Cuttlefish:

    . It is absolutely true that science has to presuppose that there are no supernatural entities intervening, in order to examine the natural world.

    True, but to clarify; science presupposes that NOTHING is intervening; the null hypothesis. It only adds in influences for which there is evidence. You just have to be careful about postulating the cause of those influences. The “evidence” for Zeus was lightning. Zeus, as a god, could throw lightning at will. So all the lightning was clear evidence of Zeus existence. The question becomes, “what is the evidence that Zeus has the power to throw lightning bolts?” The point is, science doesn’t accept “simple” answers (like “god did it”), it demands asking for the cause of that cause, etc etc.

    Science does not presuppose the non-existence of all gods. Aside from lack of “evidence” there is always the issue of “not necessary” to hypothesize the existence of god to explain some event.

    linguists: is there a distinction between “disbelief” and “do not believe”, I don’t think so, but personally hold that distinction. In particular the distinction between “Atheists believe god doesn’t exist” and “Atheists don’t believe god exists”.

  26. 26
    jamessweet

    Are we sure Gutting is not parodying apologetics?

  27. 27
    David Han

    As much as I dislike Hitchen’s politics, I do find his (and many philosophers before him) razor compelling. This entire argument could have ended with its utilization.

  28. 28
    Sastra

    PZ Myers #8 wrote:

    But we can argue against such a god epistemologically. How does the person who claims such a god exists know it? What tests did that person carry out to obtain this knowledge of the perfectly invisible god?

    We can also argue against a hypothetical ‘undetectable god’ by unpacking the proposed components of such a god and looking to see whether each one is consistent with what we’ve learned about reality. This is also a scientific approach, but different I think than simply testing a testable claim.

    For example, virtually all gods and god-like supernatural forms (like “karma”) involve various aspects of mind/brain duality, ESP, and psychokenesis. If what once seemed plausible — “the mind is a magical ghost in the machine!” — is now successfully dismantled, then this carries serious implications for the Ghost in the Universe. It no longer fits. Just as the death of vitalism spells doom for alt med theories concerning chi and vital essences, the death of dualism is doom for God.

    Sure, new evidence could overthrow the more general principle and we’re involving the testable claim, but scientific consistency and plausibility is a strong weapon against even the invisible gods which want to hide from us. Examine the concept itself. Apply science. Rinse. Repeat.

  29. 29
    mudpuddles

    Presuppositional arguments may be logically airtight

    I also have a problem with this. I have never seen presuppositional arguments based on supernaturalism to be anything but entirely illogical.

  30. 30
    Sastra

    mudpuddles #29 wrote:

    I have never seen presuppositional arguments based on supernaturalism to be anything but entirely illogical.

    I think you’re confusing logical validity with soundness. Here’s a formulation of presuppositionalism:

    If God exists, then God exists. (If A, then B)
    God exists. (A)
    Therefore, God exists (therefore: B)

    or

    If we can have confidence about anything at all, then God exists.
    We can have confidence in many things.
    Therefore, God exists.

    Again, modus ponens. Perfectly logical. The truth of the conclusion is the logical consequence of the premises.

    Oh, you want to quarrel with the premises, do you? That’s because you’re defective. Or a liar. Or both.

  31. 31
    Gregory Greenwood

    On reflection, then, I’m inclined to say that an atheistic a skeptical denial of Zeus vampires is ungrounded. There is no current evidence of his their present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian they existed in their medieval heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his their existence available to the ancient Greeks medieval Europeans. We have no reason to make this assumption. Further, supposing that Zeus vampires did exist in ancient times earlier historical periods, do we really have evidence that he has they have ceased to exist? He They may, for all we know, just be in hiding (as Heine’s delightful “Gods in Exile” HBO’s Tru Blood suggests), now that other gods have won humankind’s allegiance reason and science have eroded belief in the supernatural. Or it may be that we have lost the ability to perceive the divine creatures of the night. In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus vampires ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”

    Given that his, er, ‘logic’, can just as easily be applied to the supposed need to be agnostic about the possible existence of other classes of mythical creature, I wonder if the good Mr Gutting would care to invest in these nice, sharp, fire-hardened Hawthorne stakes, bulbs of garlic, and bottles of holy water I have for sale (at something of a mark up, admittedly, but what with supply and demand being the harsh mistress it is…) here? I also have silver bullets and wolfsbane, in case the threat comes in a more furry form. Assuming that he is consistent in his pontifications, that is…

    I don’t want to pressure you unduly, Mr Guttings, but it is only a few hours before sun set, you know. Would you really want to face a bloodlusting supernatural monster with nothing but your pseudo-philosophical ramblings…?

  32. 32
    Deen

    Am I the only one who wonders how the startled guy with the dog in the picture is supposed to see that Zeus’ reflection is missing from where he’s standing?

  33. 33
    sigurd jorsalfar

    @6 *snort*

  34. 34
    Deen

    @robertschenk in #21:

    Despite claiming that zeus could’ve existed ‘in the past, in a particular place’, he says that we can reject/make an atheistic conclusion for zeus today at least. Well why doesn’t zeus exist today, and just not for Gutting?

    Indeed. Which pretty much reduces the article to “Were you there?”

  35. 35
    Bronze Dog

    I prefer slicing off “supernatural” entities with Occam’s razor, just like I would with unnecessary natural hypotheses. The real problem I have is humoring the junk drawer category of “supernatural” by pretending there’s any sort of consistent rules or policies we should apply. I see no consensus on what defines one entity as “natural” and another as “supernatural” aside from the arbitrary tropes and conventions of fantasy fiction. Frankly, I think the fake rules about science and the “supernatural” are only going to be convenient rhetorical fodder for dualist trolls to cite whenever it becomes convenient.

    Brucegee:

    Something that I tell Christians is that one of the things I don’t understand about them — if they believe in one set of supernatural explanations, why not believe in ALL of them? The evidence for all the other deities is just about the same quality as their particular set.

    I had a couple troll bait blog posts where I tried to hammer in the point that I wanted a theist who would at least try to come up with an argument for their god(s) that isn’t equally valid for the gods they don’t believe in. If they want me to bump their god up into the claims I give serious consideration to, they’ll have to do something to distinguish it from all the others I summarily dismissed.

  36. 36
    anchor

    “If they are intervening, they are having an effect on the natural world that can be examined with the tools of science, even if the supernatural entities themselves are completely invisible to us.”

    My problem with calling anything that interacts or “intervenes” with the natural world ‘supernatural’ is completely absurd in the first place: it can’t be supernatural if it happens in nature. Its natural.

    If a phenomenon in nature is observable or measurable or otherwise subject to analysis (say, in a mathematical analysis, which though invisible is most definitely relevant) it means it exists, and existence belongs on the only playing field there is: natural reality. There isn’t anything other than that; there is literally nothing else.

    Why do we keep giving that ugly concept of ‘supernaturality’ (aka anti-nature or anti-reality) lip service even when we are arguing against it? It isn’t in the slightest relevant as anything other than a fantasy of the mind generated by a brain which is a product of natural reality and makes no sense at all the instant it is imagined to be part of nature’s play except as a fantasy wholly contained in that imaginative mind.

  37. 37
    anchor

    #14 cervantes beat me to it.

  38. 38
    A. Noyd

    There is no current evidence of his present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks. We have no reason to make this assumption.

    Wait, wait, wait. Why can’t we look at how every believer in every god supposed to exist today believes without good evidence of their god’s existence and assume that the Greeks were no different?

  39. 39
    Sastra

    anchor #36 wrote:

    Why do we keep giving that ugly concept of ‘supernaturality’ (aka anti-nature or anti-reality) lip service even when we are arguing against it?

    Because if we focus only on getting rid of the word “supernatural” and agree that everything which exists would have to be natural by definition we actually weaken our position — and strengthen theirs.For a lengthy explanation, see this.

    A few quick points:

    1.) There is a metaphysical distinction — significant differences — between what’s labeled “supernatural” and what isn’t. It’s not just strangeness or untestability: supernatural claims are always strange in a particular way. If we no longer use the term “supernatural” to mark the difference between quantum physics and quantum consciousness, say, then we have to invent a new word.

    2.) Defining the supernatural out of existence looks suspiciously like we’re cheating: nobody wants a semantic victory.

    3.) So now God, angels, karmic forces, ghosts, spiritual realms, ESP, PK, souls, etc. are “natural” things which don’t exist rather than supernatural things which don’t exist. Big deal. You’ve (we’ve) accomplished nothing.

    I think the disagreement atheists have on this topic comes down to this: religious people tend to insist that the “supernatural” should be treated with special rules because it’s outside of nature. We don’t want that because it’s an immunizing strategy, not a legitimate point. So we can either say

    1.) No, the supernatural shouldn’t be treated with special rules. If it intervenes in the natural world we can use the same standards to evaluate it, supernatural or not.

    2.) Yes, we’d have to treat the supernatural with different standards BUT anything which intervenes in the natural world isn’t ‘supernatural’ but ‘natural’ and besides only natural things can be real.

    Neither stance is technically wrong given the fact that we can stipulate definitions. And they both say basically the same thing: you can use science to test and/or eliminate ghosts. But I think the 2nd one — which is where you’re going — is clumsier, more complicated, and much easier for opponents to exploit. It only looks like a simple shortcut.

  40. 40
    Sastra

    If it intervenes in the natural world we can use the same standards to evaluate it, supernatural or not.

    I want to add something to this. It’s not just that science can study the supernatural when it “intervenes.” It’s that there is nothing in any of the methods of science which distinguish upfront between “natural” or “supernatural” and say what it can be used on. Science deals with reality, period. If a supernatural claim is supposed to be real (as opposed to an idea, concept, or a subjective feeling/fantasy) then we can examine, analyze, and evaluate it objectively.

  41. 41
    mattand

    Since I killed Zeus at the end of God of War III, if he existed before, he doesn’t now.

  42. 42
    What a Maroon, el papa ateo

    linguists: is there a distinction between “disbelief” and “do not believe”, I don’t think so, but personally hold that distinction. In particular the distinction between “Atheists believe god doesn’t exist” and “Atheists don’t believe god exists”.

    I don’t think you need to be a linguist to answer this question, but since you asked….

    My intuition is that “Atheists believe god doesn’t exist” is essentially what those who say that atheism is a religion accuse us of. That is, we are coming to a conclusion based not on evidence but on our own feelings, and that no evidence would make us change our mind.

    Whereas “Atheists don’t believe god exists” is just a statement that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we accept the null hypothesis, but with the caveat that if someone could (a) define the term “god” in such a way that it is testable and (b) conduct an experiment (or series of experiments) that support the god hypothesis, then we’d be willing to reexamine our conclusions.

    It’s certainly not our fault that no one has been able to do even (a), and much less (b).

  43. 43
    woodsong

    Further, supposing that Zeus did exist in ancient times, do we really have evidence that he has ceased to exist? He may, for all we know, just be in hiding (as Heine’s delightful “Gods in Exile” suggests), now that other gods have won humankind’s allegiance. Or it may be that we have lost the ability to perceive the divine.

    How hard is it to “perceive the divine” when we’re talking about Zeus and the other Greek gods? Given the male gods predilection for human virgins, and the claim that a mortal woman who had sex with a god would always get pregnant (frequently with twins), I think certain “divine” interactions would be very difficult to avoid “perceiving”!

    Not to mention that certain gods (of both genders) couldn’t seem to resist joining the fray when a major battle occurred, and were readily recognized by all who saw them. Would an inability to “perceive the divine” result in a soldier observing their teammates falling over with fatal sword cuts or spear wounds with no visible being attacking them with those weapons?

    Or is there a limit such that if you can’t “perceive”, say, Apollo, he can’t hurt you? I would expect Apollo to get extremely frustrated and angry if he tried to chop someone in half and they kept standing there unharmed! Or imagine Zeus’ frustration if the lovely young virgin was unaware of his rape attempts.

  44. 44
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    The scope of science isn’t _by definition_ nature. Rather, all the things that have are detectable and testable are natural.. If magical spells or prayer affected reality in a consistent or even statistically detectable way, they could be studied, too. Since every well designed test, statistical or otherwise, has failed to detect supernatural agency, it can be ignored.

  45. 45
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    See Francis Galton,
    Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer,” Fortnightly Review, Vol. 12, pp. 125-35, 1872.

  46. 46
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    Oh, hell! PZ, I put in a double Italic instead of Italic On, Italic Off. Mods?

  47. 47
    Anri

    Sastra:

    There is a metaphysical distinction — significant differences — between what’s labeled “supernatural” and what isn’t. It’s not just strangeness or untestability: supernatural claims are always strange in a particular way. If we no longer use the term “supernatural” to mark the difference between quantum physics and quantum consciousness, say, then we have to invent a new word.

    I’m not exactly disagreeing with you here – at least not yet – but what is that distinction?
    This is not intended as a gotcha question by any means, I’ve just never seen anything like a unified definition of ‘supernatural’ beyond “stuff that doesn’t exist but really does but actually doesn’t sorta kinda.” So, what difference are we talking here?

  48. 48
    CJO

    How hard is it to “perceive the divine” when we’re talking about Zeus and the other Greek gods?

    These figures exist in the modern popular imagination as the subjects of mythology, but it’s important not to conflate those stories with the religion. Experience of the divine, so called, did not entail the expectation that the gods would behave in the way they are portrayed in mythology. (I naturally agree with everyone here that there are perfectly reasonable explanations for those experiences that have nothing to do with gods, I’m just responding to what I perceive as a misunderstanding of the connection between the gods in mythological tales and the religious beliefs of their votaries.)

  49. 49
    Sastra

    Anri #47 wrote:

    So, what difference are we talking here (between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’)?

    In brief, if you approach the terms according to their content instead of (possibly arbitrary) epistemic or semantic line-drawing, Naturalism would be the view that “no causes of events in the natural world are irreducibly mental.” Most naturalists would agree that nature — as a whole — lacks intentionality or experiential qualities. Supernaturalists, as we see, usually don’t. Supernaturalism tends to involve some variation of “pure mentality.” Both groups divide on the answer to this question: Does mind come from matter (naturalism) — or does matter come from Mind (supernaturalism)?

    As Richard Carrier puts 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.”

    So what sorts of things would now fall under this way of categorizing the supernatural, the fundamentally mental skyhook from above where mind and/or its products (like values or goals) seem to exist without any history or explanation, and can’t be reduced to material or physical foundations? I’d put in disembodied souls, ghosts, angels, ESP, psychokenesis, magical correspondences, “luck,” vitalism, karma, prana, God, cosmic consciousness, reincarnation, precognition, remote viewing, mind as “energy force,” a universal tendency towards the harmonic balance of Good and Evil, progressive evolution towards Higher States, mind/body substance dualism, holistic nonmaterialistic monism, dual-aspect monism.

    There are gray areas (like Platonic forms) — but on the whole I think this definition seems to track with how the word is actually used. My link at #39 goes into more (and better) detail.

  50. 50
    consciousness razor

    1.) There is a metaphysical distinction — significant differences — between what’s labeled “supernatural” and what isn’t. It’s not just strangeness or untestability: supernatural claims are always strange in a particular way. If we no longer use the term “supernatural” to mark the difference between quantum physics and quantum consciousness, say, then we have to invent a new word.

    Or you could just fail to make any substantive claim about reality. This line of thought was apparently part of the motivation for the original “quantum consciousness” nonsense from Bohr and others (really real physicists here, not Chopra), interpreting the theory so that observers (whatever those are) have a special place in it. The irony is that they’d say they wanted nothing to do with “metaphysics” and thought they could remain silent about it, but in doing so they left the door wide open to every kind of bullshit, including their own.

    2.) Defining the supernatural out of existence looks suspiciously like we’re cheating: nobody wants a semantic victory.

    It’s suspiciously like an ontological argument. (I remember we discussed this before, Sastra, but it’s worth repeating.)

    ———

    I’m not exactly disagreeing with you here – at least not yet – but what is that distinction?
    This is not intended as a gotcha question by any means, I’ve just never seen anything like a unified definition of ‘supernatural’ beyond “stuff that doesn’t exist but really does but actually doesn’t sorta kinda.” So, what difference are we talking here?

    The link to Carrier’s article in #39 spells it out pretty well. I’d say it’s a broad category, with possibly some ambiguous cases, but that is close to core of the meaning as most people use it. They may not know exactly why they’re applying it the way they do, but they’re generally consistent about it. If I asked whether a god or a demon is supernatural, people would tend to say yes. If I asked that about a chair or a table, they’d tend to say no. Of course, it depends on which chair or table this is, as well as who you ask, since some people think inanimate objects or plants or places or all sorts of things have souls. (We tend to only deal with humans or other animals having souls, along with non-corporeal gods and spirits; but using this “soul” language in other cases still gives the right idea.)

    For example, when Pascal Boyer talks about the supernatural objects of religious belief in Religion Explained — gods, spirits, witches, etc. — it’s basically taken as a given that these are irreducibly mind-like, as opposed to natural objects which are reducible to non-mental stuff. You’d hardly notice that he even needs a definition, because it’s fairly obvious how to draw that line when you’re dealing with such a variety of religions; and in any case, you’d have very little reason to raise objections against it. I doubt he’s so well-versed in metaphysics that he deliberately picked the “proper” philosophical one only known to a few. That’s just what comes out of his anthropological study of religion because it has a definite set of phenomena to work with. What he’s not doing is using a spurious definition simply to forward some anti-religious agenda. (Which is not to say that being anti-religion is bad, or that his work in particular doesn’t make religion look especially good; it’s just that being spurious and ideologically-motivated isn’t much of a method.)

    With a definition that goes something like “the supernatural is anything not amenable to scientific investigation” (or “the supernatural is weird and nonexistent” or “everything is natural”), you’re still left with the issue of what kind of thing it is, whether even on its own terms it’s a well-defined category, whether that’s a fair or reliable assessment of particular things which are labeled supernatural, and so on. With that kind of thing, you’re starting out by making the definition a problem which doesn’t seem to have a solution.

  51. 51
    mond

    I have some sad news to report.
    Nessie is dead.
    She was alive in her “getting spotted” heyday but alas she passed on and the evidence of her existence is no longer forthcoming.

  52. 52
    Anri

    razor:

    The link to Carrier’s article in #39 spells it out pretty well.

    Yes it does, thanks.
    I think it might be possible to run into problems with regards to mental/physical as a definitional point, as one could posit a completely unconscious and undirected ‘essence of fire’ that sets things alight without chemical activity – but I suspect that’s just a semantic argument.

    I’d say it’s a broad category, with possibly some ambiguous cases, but that is close to core of the meaning as most people use it. They may not know exactly why they’re applying it the way they do, but they’re generally consistent about it. If I asked whether a god or a demon is supernatural, people would tend to say yes. If I asked that about a chair or a table, they’d tend to say no. Of course, it depends on which chair or table this is, as well as who you ask, since some people think inanimate objects or plants or places or all sorts of things have souls. (We tend to only deal with humans or other animals having souls, along with non-corporeal gods and spirits; but using this “soul” language in other cases still gives the right idea.)

    Yeah, I know the difference in practical terms, I was just wonder if anything formal had been spelled out.

    Thanks!

  53. 53
    anchor

    @sastra:

    “Because if we focus only on getting rid of the word “supernatural” and agree that everything which exists would have to be natural by definition we actually weaken our position — and strengthen theirs.”

    Sorry, I don’t agree.

    The link you offered is chock full of precisely what makes me pull my hair out: manufacturing all sorts of reasons to provide ‘definition’ on the basis of philosophical considerations supposedly ordered by metaphysical and epistemological arguments all aimed at refuting the tedious strawman that purports to be a consensus view that “something is supernatural if it is untestable and must therefore be unknowable.”

    It ends up with a definition compatible with the décor of the mind and all of its imaginary artifacts. The definition is logically arrived at, sure. Too bad it isn’t scientific.

    The supernatural isn’t an unknowable thing. Its completely knowable. In fact, its entirely manufactured by the organ we use for knowing.

    Its also testable: as a conceptual model of the world , it can be tested against the real world outside of our heads. We have a lot of practice: we do this constantly as a routine matter of habit when constructing conceptual models of the world, comparing our conceptual models, hypotheses and theories for mutual consistency and testing them against the evidence we acquire from observation and experiment as guided along by empirical reasoning. That’s the scientific method. Its the bridge that communicates what happens in our mind with what happens outside of it, and it keeps our model-making imagination as honest as we can .

    We should quit pretending that we don’t know that that supernatural thang is nothing but a poor conceptual model of the natural world. It doesn’t deserve a definition that places it conditionally in relation to natural reality.

    It reminds me of the trip which the religious frequently throw at atheists in which they idiotically accuse them of hating God…its a crummy argument, as are those that attempt to place the supernatural on the same existential footing as nature. The definition of nonsense is already clear.

  54. 54
    rrhain

    #2, @Cuttlefish: “But if we presuppose that the apparent natural order of things is the result of a god who keeps things looking like there is no god” then that would be the first instance of a perfect system which we have seen does not exist. If every observation that can possibly be made cannot ever indicate the existence of this outside force, then it is the same as if that outside force doesn’t exist.

    Since, logically, a difference that makes no difference is no difference, we can logically discard the idea of a god that doesn’t actually do anything.

    Note, this is different from saying that god has managed to keep his manipulations well-hidden. Not having been discovered is not the same as not discoverable.

  55. 55
    johnwilkins

    Paul, how about every time I find some comment by a scientist that is silly, I post it with the title “This is the kind of thing that gives science a bad name”?

  56. 56
    Rutee Katreya

    This isn’t just a comment – this is an extended philosophical argument. That said, when you find a silly argument by scientists, do feel free to say that. I’d point out that it’s not so much the ‘silly’ ones that hurt, but I’m not particularly concerned with it.

    FTR, I’m glad PZ included “Don’t slam philosophy”, since it’s often useful.

  57. 57
    Anri

    johnwilkins:

    Paul, how about every time I find some comment by a scientist that is silly, I post it with the title “This is the kind of thing that gives science a bad name”?

    So long as it’s a scientist actually doing science and messing it up in a bad and obvious way – suits me!

    Unless, of course, you just consider this “some comment” by Gary Gutting.
    I mean, if the guy was actually a high-profile philosopher, on the staff of a major center of learning, and was spouting things that can be easily dismantled by a non-specialist, then we might presume he’s expecting to be taken seriously.
    But since that’s not the case, then we -

    (whispers offstage)
    Oh? Really? Notre Dame? The New York Times?
    Well, what do you know about that.

  58. 58
    U Frood

    Gutting’s piece was supposed to be a joke, wasn’t it? Playing off “controversy” about a recent book on historical Jesus.
    It wasn’t a good joke, but it couldn’t have been meant to take seriously.

  59. 59
    mudpuddles

    @ sastra, #30

    If we can have confidence about anything at all, then God exists.

    That is not logic. Its simply a non sequitur, like saying “if it rained yesterday, then there is a unicorn in my bed.” No logic behind it.

    That’s because you’re defective. Or a liar. Or both.

    Clearly you know me so well, you who has never met or spoken with me or knows anything about me. Wow. Go fuck yourself.

  60. 60
    John Phillips, FCD

    mudpuddles, Sastra was using the kind of response we often get from presuppositonalists when you point out the flaws.

  61. 61
    mudpuddles

    @John Phillips,

    Ah, I see. If that’s the case then sastra need not go fuck themselves and I apologise profusely. It read to me like a bizarre random swipe at me. I’ve just come out of a long and heated debate and I’m frazzled, should be less quick to jump.

  62. 62
    John Phillips, FCD

    it’s OK, we all jump the gun sometime, but Sastra is on the side of the angelsatheists and has stood in for PZ when he is tied up. She is probably also one of the most respected commenters here, especially on such arguments as these. Now if I had written what she had, I would have needed to end it with a /snark tag, as I rarely comment here so would need to make it obvious that I wasn’t being serious and that I was simply parroting 0ne of the usual maroon defense. However, I imagine Sastra assumed that others would see it for the snark it was.

  63. 63
    Sastra

    anchor #53 wrote:

    The link you offered is chock full of precisely what makes me pull my hair out: manufacturing all sorts of reasons to provide ‘definition’ on the basis of philosophical considerations supposedly ordered by metaphysical and epistemological arguments all aimed at refuting the tedious strawman that purports to be a consensus view that “something is supernatural if it is untestable and must therefore be unknowable.”

    I’m having some trouble parsing this out — partly because the other things you wrote (“The supernatural isn’t an unknowable thing… Its also testable: as a conceptual model of the world , it can be tested against the real world outside of our heads”) seems to me to be Carrier’s point (and mine.) We’re in agreement, iow. “Something is supernatural if it is untestable and must therefore be unknowable” is indeed a very poor way of dealing with what you call the ‘supernaturalism’ conceptual model of the world. It’s an immunizing strategy which protects the idea from criticism and would be dropped in an instant if science suddenly started discovering solid support for dualism in general or divine dualism in particular.

    In that way it’s like those “human energy fields which science can’t measure.” If scientists invented a device which reliably records what the reiki masters were telling us all along, you bet damn well that the reiki masters would eagerly accept their apology and drop all this “beyond science” nonsense. Vitalism is a form of supernaturalism.

    I think you’re using the terms “reality” and “nature” as interchangeable — as logically equivalent. But if we want to argue that science and what we have learned through science counts against the supernatural we can’t do that. We instead have to say that our belief that “only nature exists” is a conclusion — a well-supported theory propped up by multiple lines of evidence and reason.

    @mudpuddles

    Sorry it wasn’t clear. I was trying to explain why presuppositionalist arguments can be logical but still not work. As you rapidly figured out, the premises can be flawed. It’s only “airtight” given the premises.

    And yes, that last bit was meant to be what the presuppers tell us atheists. Also wasn’t clear because I should have put it in quotes.

  64. 64
    mudpuddles

    Yes Sastra rocks. Totally my bad. Ironically, I spent the day as a mediator in a heated dispute between two aggrieved parties and a government department, where I was the diplomat calming everyone else down and trying to be objective. I get home, come online, and RRAARRR!! Must go and meditate for a while….

  65. 65
    mudpuddles

    @ Sastra
    No problem Sastra, not your fault. I reacted illogically (!) and was a bit of a shit for what I said.

  66. 66
    anchor

    @sastra,

    “I think you’re using the terms “reality” and “nature” as interchangeable — as logically equivalent. But if we want to argue that science and what we have learned through science counts against the supernatural we can’t do that. We instead have to say that our belief that “only nature exists” is a conclusion — a well-supported theory propped up by multiple lines of evidence and reason.”

    Yes, I like to use the terms ‘reality’ and ‘nature’ interchangeably, according to my view that these terms both denote the same thing – that which independently exists from my own imagination, yet which my imagination is willing to access to inform it.

    Allow me the discretion of editing your next statement:

    “But if we want to argue that science and what we have learned through science counts against the supernatural yet another hopeful belief based on whatever the imagination ordains should carry a weight somehow equivalent to observation or at least a hypothesis we can’t do that”.

    Really? Why not? We can’t argue scientifically whether a hypothesis is tenable? We can’t consider the supernatural to be a hypothesis? Are you sure? And if we cannot find any evidence outside of our minds (that is, from that weird realm we do not think in but which nevertheless contains our thinking) that discounts certain ideas, suddenly, such ideas are no longer amenable to scientific test?

    “We instead have to say that our belief that “only nature exists” is a conclusion — a well-supported theory propped up by multiple lines of evidence and reason”

    Well, yeah, that’s a first order conclusion of the mind that recognizes that thang we call nature or reality happens independently of our minds. So what? Now its at least as robust a conclusion as that the supernatural might exist. IN THE MIND.

    Its a shame that supernaturality can’t enjoy the same benefits of scientific examination as any other marvelous conclusions which a mind may contain.

  67. 67
    Ingdigo Jump

    This brings up something that disappointed me with the later Matrix movies. You know what I really wanted to see? I wanted to see some flash back to the first blue pills. Who was it that first realized the world was an illusion? What led them to conclude this? How did they escape? To be fair that might be not as exciting as the action or fight scenes (it would necessitate a sudden genre change from action to supernatural mystery) but it is an interesting question. When you think about it, use of the scientific method most certainly can conclude or point to something like the Matrix, since we see the virtual world has certain glitches or tells, i.e. phenomena and patterns that can be observed and tested. It can lead to hypothesis that can be tested (If the world is an illusion that is using my brain as processing, perception should influence it ergo we should see what looks like telekinesis or distortions of spacial properties) . It might work as a short like the animated vignettes they did

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