Editor’s Note: This is an updated, reposted, and retitled revision of a previous post.
Those that dislike naturalism, typically say that naturalists just assume naturalism for no reason as a core belief, and then use it to justify the evidence. So, as the critique goes: “Of course you naturalists believe God, creationism, unicorns, and Santa aren’t real! They all conflict with your assumption / dogmatic belief that the supernatural doesn’t exist!”
It would be remiss of me to not reply with the typical rejoinder: “Well, of course you’d critique naturalism like that, naturalism conflicts with your assumption / dogmatic belief that the supernatural does exist!”. And I guess we’re back to square one.
However, in my dream world where arguments are not I know you are, but what am I? retorts but helpful statements designed to facilitate understanding of the world around us. We can do much better. And not only that, but we can stop assuming things about naturalism that just aren’t true. So this is my chance to clear it up even further: work on explaining what it is that naturalism entails, and lay the idea that “naturalism excludes the supernatural based on some dogmatic belief” to rest.
Naturalism is Confusing
Why do I call myself a metaphysical naturalist? In “What is Naturalism-Humanism?”, I explained:
I don’t actually have any problem identifying me with the terms “atheist”. The problem is that atheism doesn’t imply enough for me. There is no need to reject the soul to be an atheist. There is no reason to reject reincarnation to be an atheist. There is no reason to reject anything besides God to be an atheist. Sure, it’s true that the vast majority of atheists also reject all of the supernatural. A vast majority of atheists are probably naturalist-humanists. I just prefer to be more specific.
But what is a naturalist? This is where it gets confusing, because almost all naturalists simply say they don’t believe in the supernatural, but then don’t explain what the supernatural is. Or worse, the supernatural is defined circularly as “whatever isn’t natural”. So naturalists don’t believe whatever it is they don’t believe… how helpful.
I mentioned in my essays on knowledge that if you don’t know how the world would be different if a belief was true instead of false or vice-versa, then that specific belief isn’t true or false — it is meaningless. Meaningful statements are statements that allow us to anticipate something about reality that we wouldn’t have anticipated without that belief.
The Supernatural and Testability
Most commonly, the supernatural has been defined as that which can never be tested. But as Richard Carrier argues in his essay “Defining the Supernatural”:
The underlying mechanics of quantum phenomena might be physically beyond all observation and therefore untestable, but no one would then conclude that quantum mechanics is supernatural. Just because I can’t look inside a box does not make its contents supernatural.
Conversely, if I suddenly acquired the Force of the Jedi and could predict the future, control minds, move objects and defy the laws of physics, all merely by an act of will, ordinary people everywhere would call this a supernatural power, yet it would be entirely testable. Scientists could record and measure the nature and extent of my powers and confirm them well within the requirements of peer review.
The supernatural is also something we routinely challenge believers to demonstrate, as I do in “The Twelve Reasons I Don’t Believe in Supernatural Claims”. If the supernatural were whatever cannot be tested, and if things that aren’t testable aren’t provable, then we would be challenging people to prove something that cannot be proven, which is unfair.
Defining The Supernatural
So what is entailed by the idea of supernatural things? I summarize Carrier in my essay “What is Naturalism-Humanism?”, defining naturalism in three prongs:
- there is no good reason to believe that something exists which is not solely the result of a combination of matter-energy in space-time
- there is no good reason to believe that something can happen with no mechanism behind the action (even if we may not know what that mechanism is)
- there is no good reason to believe that it is possible for the laws of physics to be or become suspended or transcended
Matter-Energy in Space-Time
Carrier describes the supernatural as fundamentally, ontologically, irreducibly mental, which Victor Reppert elaborates as meaning “there not being any mental explanations at the basic level of analysis”, further stating that “[i]f something normative, subjective/perspectival, purposive, or intentional is at the basic level of analysis, then it isn’t naturalistic according to my definition.”
So what this means is that if naturalism is true, absolutely everything that exists and can be examined thoroughly enough will be found to be an arrangement and interactions of stuff that is not capable of thought and purpose; that thought and purpose will all be found to be the result of non-thought and non-purpose. If naturalism is false, we will find something that cannot be reduced to something with no thought or purpose.
This is why it is said that everything is arrangements of matter-energy in space-time — movement of quarks within atoms, possibly as the result of strings. We won’t know exactly what is going on here without many more revolutions in physics, but we do seem to be at the point where we can confidently say that most things completely reduce to purposeless, mindless forces and interactions, with little to indiciate otherwise.
The Need for a Mechanism
The second part of naturalism is that in order for something to interact with something else, it needs an underlying cause. If naturalism is true, it is impossible for something to just happen by will alone. For instance, a compass detects north by measuring the electromagnetic field — if there was no electromagnetic field, there wouldn’t be a way for a compass to detect north. A supernatural compass can detect north by just having an innate sense of north, without needing any mechanism at all. It can just will the knowledge of where north is and have it without having to make any measurements or detections of any sort.
This part actually doesn’t make sense. Something happening without a mechanism actually seems logically impossible, since it means that something is interacting with something else without any way of interacting with that something else. How exactly does someone go about having an innate sense of north or just willing something into existence? The answer is that it just happens, because any explanation would require an underlying mechanism to explain.
Unbreakable Laws of Physics
The third and last part of naturalism is that the laws of physics can’t be transcended or suspended. Since many miracles are said to be examples of the laws of physics being ignored, this means that if miracles happen, naturalism is false.
This also has to do with mechanisms. If naturalism is true, everything is the product of interactions within physics, and therefore can not somehow step outside of physics — there is no mechanism within physics that can go outside physics.
What is this Stuff?
Well, what is this matter-energy stuff? Around 1916, Einstein found out that matter and energy are really the same thing. It turns out that matter is a special bundling of energy. Matter doesn’t really exist as an actual solid per se. Instead everything is energy, e = mc2 style.
What is energy made of? That’s the current frontier of physics. No one knows for sure yet. The current data seems to be pointing toward some sort of string theory variant.
Now we move onto space-time. It’s also weird to think about, but space and time are all kind of the same thing as well. It’s all a four or more dimensional universe. General relativity showed us that gravity comes from the bending of space-time. While it’s not conclusively known, new research also points to the idea that all physical laws may also be reducible to the bending of space-time.
Dummies.com has made three guides that makes space-time, matter-energy, and the special theory of relativity pretty easy to understand, so I don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel and elaborate. See their guide on gravity as geometry, gravity as acceleration, and space-time / matter-energy.
Love and Other Abstract Things
While gravity, trees, rocks, and rivers all exist “out there” in the world, what about things like love? Does love exist?
All of this is the fault of Plato. He made this theory of forms which stated that things like the literal number 4 itself, the quality of love, and the redness of red, all exist in some magical supernatural realm.
Here’s another key to naturalism. Denying the supernatural does not mean denying everything within Plato’s realm. Rather, things can exist as abstractions or patterns. These things exist in our brain. For example, we can look at an apple and see that it reflects light at our eye between 630 and 740 nanometers. Our brain interprets this incoming light as red. We then can form a pattern of every single object that reflects a similar kind of red at us and group them into a pattern. We call this pattern “red”.
When we talk about love, we’re talking about a very specific phenomena of emotion that happens to us, and hopefully another person. Love is also an abstraction of similar experiences, grouped together as a pattern and called “love”. This also exists in our brain along with all other emotions, which are different patterns of experiences.
The number 4 also doesn’t literally exist. It isn’t some transcendent being. Instead, we can see four things. We can group every single time we’ve seen four things or imagined four things and abstract them into a group and call this group the concept of “four”.
Naturalism vs. Supernaturalism
So how do we tell naturalism from supernaturalism? Well, it really depends on how things are being described. For instance, consider the soul. The soul is commonly considered supernatural, and if the soul refers to something that is not reducible to purposeless interactions but instead is fundamentally purposeful and capable of transcending physics, then the soul is supernatural.
However, if the soul was interactions of purposeless, mindless particles that just weren’t detectible by our current scientific equipment, it would be paranormal (something not known or explicable by current science), but still metaphysically natural. This soul could even go to a Heaven or Hell, as long as that location was in a physical location accessible by purposeless, mindless particles using the laws of physics. This soul could even support the preservation of thought functions and personality after death, if it were able to reproduce a brain through the interaction of purposeless, mindless particles.
What about gods? Gods have almost always been said to do anything by mere acts of will, without requiring mechanisms. Gods have also long been said to be disembodied, floating minds that are immaterial and therefore not reducible to purposeless, mindless forces. Gods are also almost always capable of transcending physics on a regular basis to do any sort of otherwise impossible miracles.
However, gods aren’t always this way. The Epicurean gods, for instance, were always reducible to purposeless, mindless forces and were fully made of matter-energy. They did not have the ability to break the laws of physics, but were capable of doing things within the laws of physics that we humans were not able to do, making them the source of whole host of paranormal, but otherwise metaphysically natural abilities.
Now finally miracles. Are miracles supernatural? Depends on what the miracle is. For instance, if Jesus turned water into wine by simply suspending physics and allowing water to morph into wine, then that is a supernatural power. However, if Jesus turned water into wine by opening up a wormhole to a wine cellar, dumping the water through the wormhole, and pouring in wine through the wormhole, then his miracle was paranormal but not supernatural.
Consider something David Hume once thought was a miracle in the 18th century: a wizard capable of lighting fire underwater. This claim was considered by Hume to be supernatural, because he thought it would be summoned by wizard magic, transcending the laws of physics. However, we in the 21st century have the ability to light fire underwater through the use of chemicals Hume knew nothing about — a paranormal claim by 18th century standards.
It is possible for there to be naturalistic souls, naturalistic gods, and naturalistic miracles. So naturalism doesn’t exclude souls, gods, and miracles directly, but rather nearly all modern conceptions of them. Furthermore, naturalism doesn’t exclude claims of the supernatural for a dogmatic “because I feel like it” reason, but because of qualms about whether interactions without mechanisms are logically possible and make sense, qualms about how something can transcend physics, and qualms about how the existence of the fundamentally, irreducibly, ontologically purposeful and mindful entities can be established to exist.
In fact, naturalism isn’t really a set of things to exclude, but rather a disbelief that “it happens just because it does” is an acceptable explanation. For no supernaturalist I know of can explain how the supernatural can be detected or how the supernatural interacts with the world, despite claims that they know of (detect) and feel (interact with) the supernatural on a regular basis.
Followed up in: The Magical Magician: A Naturalist’s Allegory
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