Thursday, 21 June 2012

Super naturalism

Naturalism is a metaphysical proposition assumed by scientists (at least real scientists!) as they go about their work. Naturalism holds that every phenomenon we observe, and every phenomenon we will observe, is a result of natural processes. Even scientists of faith assume this position, limiting their belief in miracles to their private lives. This keeps us from taking supernatural shortcuts in our scientific investigations. We can never simply shrug and say "God did it!".

For most atheists, this proposition is more than an assumption, it is a belief. But what does this belief actually mean? What differentiates the natural from the supernatural?

If science confirmed the existence of ghosts, would that not simply mean that we have expanded our knowledge of natural law? After all, if you tried to persuade the scientists of a few centuries ago of the truth of some of our modern scientific understanding, then they would probably dismiss you as a superstitious crank.

If this were the nature of the distinction, it would be much the same as that between alternative and conventional medicine. Alternative medicine is simply medicine which has not been shown to work. If it were shown to work, it would become part of the body of conventional medicine.

However I don't think this is what's going on. I don't think scientists would so easily be able to fold the study of gods or vampires into the body of scientific knowledge, and this is because they defy rational comprehension.

Albert Einstein once wrote "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible". I think what he is alluding to here is the fact that we can describe pretty much every phenomenon in the universe with simple mathematical formulae. Everything can be broken down into elementary processes. Everything has a reductionist explanation.

Except ghosts, gods and goblins. These things cannot be reduced. Ghosts are not formed of atoms. Gods cannot be modelled by equations. Goblins did not evolve due to natural selection. These ideas make "narrative" sense but do not make mathematical sense.

I believe that mathematics is what distinguishes the possibly real from the definitely unreal. Mathematics is the greatest tool ever discovered by our species in our quest to understand the world around us. It allows us to describe and predict the behaviour of the physical world, and explore realms that we cannot directly observe.

This is why vampires that turn into bats cannot exist. This is not a phenomenon that can be described mathematically. Vampires and bats are two high-level aggregations of matter that make sense on a large scale but not on a small scale.

When a vampire turns into a bat, then some of the atoms of its body must temporarily disappear, while others rearrange themselves. But how does a carbon atom know it is part of the body of a vampire? How is a vampire defined? At what point in the transformation of a human to a vampire does the ability to transform manifest itself? What, at a physical level, is the cause of this transformation?

Unless there are a consistent set of answers to questions like these, comprising an absolutely detailed mathematical description of how it is that vampires turn into bats, then we must conclude that this transformation cannot be consistent with any set of natural laws. It must always remain in the domain of the supernatural. Naturalism predicts that no such creatures can ever be discovered.

If you believe in the truth of naturalism, then you believe that everything that happens is governed by mathematics. No spirits are possible unless they have a mathematical description. God is not possible unless his mind is expressible as an algorithm.

And mathematics just might be the key to understanding reality itself.


  1. Hi DM,

    "Mathematics is the greatest tool ever invented by our species in our quest to understand the world around us.

    I would have to question "invented by our species" here. If SETI started receiving binary strings of prime numbers, would you infer from this that there were homo sapiens on other planets?

    1. Welcome Robin!

      That is an excellent observation and I couldn't agree with you more.

      I'm changing it to say "discovered".

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  4. Hi! Followed you here from Massimo's post on metaphysical necessity/impossibility.

    I'd agree that ghosts, ghouls, and goblins wouldn't necessarily be natural if verified, but I think you might overstate your case when you say that this is because they can't be modeled mathematically.

    There isn't unanimous agreement on what it means to call something 'natural', but the closest to a consensus definition seems to be "behaving in a way describable by laws." As long as our definition of 'mathematics' isn't so broad as to subsume logic, it seems plausible to me that we could have non-mathematical laws of behavior.

    I also find it odd that you give "did not originate via a process of evolution" as the reason that goblins are supernatural. First, why couldn't they arise from some other natural process? But more importantly, the goblin itself may or may not be described by mathematics, and this seems like the question that should be relevant to their supernatural status. The process by which goblins came to exist may or may not be supernatural, but I don't see how this has any bearing on whether or not the goblins themselves are supernatural. I think a better justification for the supernatural status of goblins is that they are frequently claimed to have magical powers or to be magical in their composition.

    Let me know what you think!

    A few more quibbles:
    -In your introduction, you claim that even theistic scientists assume metaphysical naturalism when doing their work. Unless you mean something quite different than me by 'assume', then this is false. To believe that methodologically naturalistic investigation is the best approach in science isn't the same as temporarily assuming metaphysical naturalism to be true.

    -In your comments on Massimo's post, you referred to this post as explaining why the supernatural is impossible. "If naturalism is true, then supernaturalism is false" isn't a very compelling line of reasoning.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Thanks for the comments.

      "I'd agree that ghosts, ghouls, and goblins wouldn't necessarily be natural"

      That's not exactly my view. I think that if they were verified, they would turn out to be natural, because I think the supernatural is fundamentally incoherent.

      "There isn't unanimous agreement on what it means to call something 'natural',"

      And therein lies the motivation for this post! My proposal is that the natural is that which exists in the world that can ultimately be explained with reference to physical laws which are mathematical.

      "As long as our definition of 'mathematics' isn't so broad as to subsume logic"

      I think your definition of mathematics is narrower than my own. I think pure abstract logic unencumbered by semantics (e.g. propositional logic) is mathematics, and I believe this is generally accepted.

      "it seems plausible to me that we could have non-mathematical laws of behavior."

      What would that look like? Could you give me a toy example?

      With regard to goblins, I think you miss my point. I imagine goblins to be creatures much like ourselves without any inherent magical powers. Goblins in the Tolkien universe are of this sort. Yet I think they can still be considered to be supernatural because they do not fit anywhere into the phylogenetic tree of life, and there is no explanation of how they came to be, nor are we encouraged to search for one. It is their mere existence that is magical, that makes no sense.

      "Unless you mean something quite different than me by 'assume'"

      I think I do. You can for example assume something you disagree with is true in order to form a reductio ad absurdum. For me, assuming just means working within a framework where a given proposition is treated as if it were true. It doesn't mean that you accept it in your heart.

      ""If naturalism is true, then supernaturalism is false" isn't a very compelling line of reasoning."

      But that isn't the argument. I suppose this post doesn't really articulate the argument as clearly as I thought it did. Instead, this post seeks to defend a an account of naturalism as grounded in mathematics.

      The actual argument for naturalism being true is that supernaturalism is incoherent. If there are no laws which precisely describe what happens, then what happens is arbitrary, and if the universe were arbitrary then nothing would make sense. Nature wouldn't have the regularity or predictability required even to recognise a set of phenomena as ghosts.

      Or at least that's how it seems to me, but I don't think I've put the argument very convincingly.