Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Naturalist Meltdown

In a recent article "On Defining Naturalism as a Worldview", atheist historian Richard Carrier comments on the fact that, although many people claim to be naturalists, there is no common agreement as to how to precisely define naturalism. Of course, all agree that, as a worldview, naturalism is somehow the converse of supernaturalism. But how is one to clearly distinguish the natural from the supernatural?

1. Are Supernatural Claims Testable?
Testability is often taken as an easy way to separate the natural from the supernatural.

For example, the Geological Society of America, in its position statement on evolution, asserts, "Creationism is not science because it invokes supernatural phenomena that cannot be tested." Yet, elsewhere in the same statement, it argues for the empirical confirmation of an ancient earth and the evolutionary origin of all life. This implies that creationism is testable, after all. A similar contradiction can be found in the statement of the United States National Academy of Sciences, Science and Creationism (1999), which asserts that creationism and other claims of supernatural intervention are scientifically untestable and, also, that these have in fact been falsified.

Even some naturalist philosophers, who might be expected to be more astute, make this error.  M. Mahner and M. Bunge (1999, "The incompatibility of science and religion sustained: A reply to our critics", Science & Education 5(2), 189-199) assert that supernatural claims are in principle untestable but, in the same paper, argue also that many supernatural claims are incompatible with scientific findings.

Carrier grants that supernatural claims may well be testable. He believes, for example, that young Earth creationism has been conclusively falsified by empirical evidence.

One difficulty, according to Carrier, is that Christians try to make the Bible untestable by suitably re-interpreting the Bible so as to avoid any possible risk of scientific disproof. Thus we get hermeneutical inventions such as old Earth creationism, theistic evolution, or the notion that Gen.1-11 is meant to convey a purely theological message.

Carrier comments, "Supernaturalists now make every effort to place their beliefs beyond meaningful test precisely because their beliefs have failed countless tests—indeed, most have been decisively refuted. This is evidence of the desperation of their position but not of the untestability of more honest supernatural claims."

I think that Carrier is quite correct in this observation. The proper apologetic response is not to subvert the plain meaning of the biblical text--as many modern theologians are prone to do--but, rather, to challenge the naturalist interpretation of the empirical evidence.

Thus testability is not a satisfactory criterion to demarcate naturalism from supernaturalism..

2. Mind Versus Matter
So what does distinguish naturalism from supernaturalism? Carrier suggests that all formulations of naturalism reduce to this: naturalism is true if everything that exists is causally reducible to the nonmental.

In other words, if everything that exists--including thoughts, perceptions, and emotions--is causally reducible to different arrangements of matter-energy in space-time, then naturalism is true. According to Carrier, "This definition allows for the possibility of irreducibly mental things (like epiphenomena), so long as those things are fully and completely caused to exist by nonmental things (like brains)." [Considering thoughts to be mere epiphenomena means that they are caused by physical events but can themselves have no physical effect. This reduces our sense of freewill in, say, deciding to read a book, as mere illusion.]

This definition is consistent with the evolutionary assumption that everything that exists has naturally emerged from an intial state consisting only of matter-energy. It is closely related to the materialist view of physicist Lisa Randall, discussed in an earlier post How (Atheist) Scientists Lose Their Way.

In contrast, supernaturalism always involves some sort of mind over matter. Hence, as a distinguishing feature, Carrier proposes, "if naturalism is true, everything mental is caused by the nonmental, whereas if supernaturalism is true, at least one thing is not."

3. Refuting Naturalism
Let's examine some implications of Carrier's criterion.

First, note that the alleged disproof of supernaturalism, at least in its young Earth creationist form, assumes that naturalism is true. The difficulty is that we cannot directly observe the past. The best we can do scientifically is to reconstruct it via theoretical models, based on naturalist assumptions. However, if supernaturalism is in fact true then the past may have been quite different from naturalist projections. Perhaps, for example, the universe was created in mature form only a few thousand years ago.

Second, naturalism thus defined seems impossible to prove. How could one possibly demonstrate that all possible entities--at every time and place--are causally reducible to matter-energy? Supernaturalism, on the other hand, needs only a single counter-example. There have been numerous past claims of miracles, angels and the like. Naturalists must demonstrate all these claims to be false.

Third, concepts such as belief, truth, falsity, purpose, meaning, intention, and even naturalism are all mental entities that are about other things. As such, they can never be causally reduced to material things and still retain any genuine meaning. Hence, if naturalism were true, we could have no rational conception of it.

Indeed, if all our beliefs--as mental entities--have only physical causes then they can reflect only physical states rather than rational conclusions. As any philosopher knows, a physical "is" cannot generate a logical or moral "ought". It follows that belief in naturalism cannot be the result of a coherent train of thought. Therefore, any rational argument for naturalism is by its very nature self-refuting.

In sum, if we know anything, it must be that naturalism--as defined by Carrier--is false, for if naturalism were true, we would know nothing at all.
*****

14 comments:

  1. if naturalism were true, we would know nothing at all.

    I think an honest naturalist would admit this, but counter that you are using a definition of "know" that only makes sense within a supernatural worldview. Within a supernatural worldview in which there is no foundational "mental", perhaps a naturalist would be content with a sufficiently believable illusion of knowing.

    the past might have been quite different from naturalist projections

    It would perhaps be useful to have a different word for projections that go backwards; "retrojection"?

    Perhaps, for example, the universe was created in mature form only a few thousand years ago.

    Or indeed, a few thousand seconds ago...

    Thus testability is not a satisfactory criterion.

    Is this to say that YEC claims are not testable? If so, somebody should tell ICR?

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  2. Hi Ruberad

    Thanks for your comments. My statement "thus testability is not a satisfactory criterion" refers to its usefulness in distinguishing naturalism from supernaturalism. One cannot hold, as many naturalists do, that creationism, for example, is both untestable and yet falsified. Supernaturalism is inherently no less testable than naturalism.

    The most powerful empirical tests concern precise predictions about future events. Christianity predicts certain events--life after death, the return of Christ, judgment, etc--that will be directly experienced by all humans.

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  3. True, it's pretty silly to cry "untestable" and "falsfied" at the same time. Although if pressed, the more sophisticated would probably elucidate what claims are untestable, and what claims he believes has been falsified.

    Re: predictive power: absolutely, every knee will bow and every tongue confess -- but the way science works, you're not supposed to have faith until after the predicted phenomena justify the hypothesis, so this truth is more likely to hinder discussion with naturalists than to help.

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  4. RubeRad,

    A theory might lead us to make several, varied predictions. If some of those predictions are observed and "justify" the theory then scientists will have a high degree of confidence that unobserved predictions will also "prove" the theory in the face of conflicting evidence. For instance, Newton and Neptune (or was it Uranus?).

    One could then argue that based on previous successful prediction of "Christianity" we should have a high degree of confidence in future predictions.

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  5. As Scripture rightly concludes, the problem for the naturalist is not an intellectual one, but a moral one. It's not that he doesn't 'get' it, not that he can't 'see' it, not that there is a lack of information for God's existence, but rather loving the darkness rather than the light (lest his nefarious deeds be exposed and he be found out for the phony hypocrite he is), because of his morally culpable deeds hates the light and believes the lie in contradistinction to the testimony of his own conscience.

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  6. May I ask a question, for discussion? It seems to me that there are two kinds of tests which are referred to in Carrier's article, namely a test of sustaining a hypothesis, and a test to prove a hypothesis. Sustaining a theory is not the same as proving a theory, it seems to me.

    Again, a theory might be obviated because that which is testable could result in the exclusion of the possibility of the theory, not because the theory itself is testable. So there would be a "testability" by default, not by actual testing of the theory. It is easy to equivocate on the idea of testability.

    Therefore, I have this question: What is meant by "testable"?

    I also have this question: Is the measure of testing testable by the same standard? In order to say something is "true" can "true" be tested or is it of supernatural origin?

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  7. John V,
    Maybe you can clarify by giving an example of your question. Give us what you believe to be a 'true' statement, and tell us whether you can 'test' it or not, or whether you must assign it to the supernatural.

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  8. Steve:
    Well, if I did that it would answer my own question. I want to know what Carrier means by testability. What kind of testing? Dialectical, to see if it is rational? Empirical, to see if it holds up under the microscope? Mathematical, to see if it holds up theoretically? In all these kinds, a man has to make a judgement, or be left with the observation that anything natural or the supernatural is only there when it is in the way.
    But I can see that this is not good enough to give context to my question. So here's why I'm interested in this:
    He says that testability is not proof, because there are many natural theories that are also not testable. I would agree. What Dr. Byl rightly points out is that in all these things a judgement is appealed to by default: if one thing can be proven to be right then it follows an opposing theory has been proven wrong. What I'm pointing out is that you cannot come to Carrier's conclusion without the supernatural. The idea of right and wrong is not empirical, dialectical, or mathematical. It is automatically superimposed upon all these disciplines; these disciplines are possible because there is a right and a wrong of things. And this is not testable without assuming it first.
    My intent is to point out some fallacies in Carrier's thesis. If the test that showed a Young Earth supernaturalism to be false is really a non-mental process then how do we really know that it has been proven false? How does he make judgements of right and wrong, of truth and error, if these are only non-mental activities, if these are really nothing more than the result of a physical movement of neurons which one person might have but another might not? Why bother convincing anyone through reasoning, if its not reasoning as we know it in the first place? In the end Carrier is left with a conclusion which would be exactly the same if he said nothing. Without the supernatural it is all equal to nonsense, because it is all non-mental.
    So here is the second part of my question: where in the natural world do we find the origin of truth and rightness, and the ability to judge things according to them? Is it not the case that denying the supernatural requires the supernatural (i.e., unchangeable, eternal) values of what is right and true? In other words, is it not the case that you cannot disprove the supernatural without first assuming it?
    What he does do, though, is point out the accommodation that takes place in Christian circles to escape the hard things of faith. Believing what God says when everyone tells you differently, and make claims to proofs to that effect, is not easy but it is the essence of faith.

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  9. Well, let's just get to the bottom line: Doesn't Carrier really just prove that there is no such thing as a real naturalist?

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  10. John V.,
    In the end Carrier is left with a conclusion which would be exactly the same if he said nothing.'

    Yes.

    'o here is the second part of my question: where in the natural world do we find the origin of truth and rightness, and the ability to judge things according to them? Is it not the case that denying the supernatural requires the supernatural (i.e., unchangeable, eternal) values of what is right and true? In other words, is it not the case that you cannot disprove the supernatural without first assuming it?'

    Yes.

    John V. said:
    'Well, let's just get to the bottom line: Doesn't Carrier really just prove that there is no such thing as a real naturalist?'

    No, I don't think so. The naturalist always has a come back. Carrier is not saying that naturalism is deficient, but that it is superior to supernaturalism in that the supernatural is not testable, no?

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  11. Steve:
    Yes, that's what he is saying. But the result is that his conclusion is some "potion" put into his system which others, like you and I, have not received. It is a purely natural reaction in his brain, not a matter of right or wrong, of testability.

    Look at Carrier's last line: "If naturalism is true, everything mental is caused by the nonmental, whereas if supernaturalism is true, at least one thing is not." I'm suggesting that Carrier's argument (his ability to argue, because it is an argument and not a potion)is at least that "one thing" that is not nonmental. The nonmental cannot be avoided, so by his own argument there can be no such thing as a true naturalist.

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  12. John V.,
    I think you and I as Christians see this logical fallacy, but the naturalist does not. In this I agree with you. Have you read Dr. Byl's 'The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math & Meaning'?

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  13. Logic should be the same for everyone. It shouldn't be that logic is one thing for one worldview and something else for another. Nor does it have anything to do with different "potions" for different people.

    I haven't read Dr. Byl's book. I doubt very much that our local library would have it. It doesn't have very much in the way of good books. It was Dr. Byl's article in Reformed Perspective on a similar topic that drew me here.

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  14. "have only physical causes then they can reflect only physical states rather than rational conclusions"

    Physical states are by definition rational, for a physical state to exist, if by defintion must be rational

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