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Thread: The term "naturalism" is vague and bordering on being meaningless

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    The term "naturalism" is vague and bordering on being meaningless

    Among atheists, skeptics, humanists, freethinkers, etc, the term "naturalism" , or more formally "metaphysical naturalism" or "philosophical naturalism", is quite a popular term. For example, physicist Sean Carroll wrote:

    I am an atheist, although I prefer "naturalist" because it seems like a more constructive and forward-looking term.
    The Internet Infidels, which I think originally spawned this forum, or at least one of its predecessors, wrote:

    Invariably people want to know why we define ourselves in terms of naturalism instead of better known terms like atheism or nontheism. Simply put, naturalism represents a broader philosophical position about what sorts of things do and do not exist. Atheism, the position that there (probably) are no gods, is simply an incidental consequence of naturalism. As such, atheism is merely a position on the existence of one kind of supernatural being; unlike naturalism, atheism does not offer a complete worldview. In a society dominated by theism, the view that there is a single personal god outside of the natural order, it is not surprising that nonbelief is most widely known in terms of the negation (or at least absence) of theism. But since it is merely through historical accident that Western theism has become a particularly tenacious belief, the popularity of that belief is no reason to define oneself in contrast to it. Had some other form of supernaturalism come to dominate Western tradition, we would be no less determined to contest it.
    Consequently, we define ourselves in terms of a thesis about the overall nature of reality, and thus in opposition to all positions incompatible with that thesis. We take to be false all claims about the existence and features of an otherworldly, transcendental domain "above" or "beyond" the natural world, but nevertheless somehow able to interact with it. Insofar as a religion is a belief system that affirms the existence of the supernatural, naturalism entails that all religions are equally false. Thus the Secular Web aims not only to critique the truth of particular religious claims, but the truth of any and all religious claims. Animism, the belief that even inanimate objects like rocks and rivers are interpenetrated by nature spirits active in human affairs, is in principle no less fair game for skeptical critique than the doctrines of major world religions.
    The main problem with the term "naturalism" as I see it is that there is no coherent definition of "supernatural", and hence no coherent definition of "natural", at least as far as I can tell.

    Imagine if we lived in the LOTR universe, for example. It seems the only criterion for "supernatural" is what doesn't exist in our universe.

    I think a more sensible approach is to simply focus on what exists, and what doesn't exist, as far as we can tell, rather than to try to categorize things into categories that have no clear definition and no obvious utility.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tammuz View Post
    I think a more sensible approach is to simply focus on what exists
    Isn't this a good description of exactly what naturalism should mean? Rather than debating the supernatural, we start from the assumption that only phenomena interior to the universe is knowable, and therefore relevant to us?

    I recall a few years ago proposing a step further, called 'enlightened naturalism'. Where we consciously direct our attention to how the natural world works, and use our newfound understanding to boost meaning in our lives.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tammuz View Post
    I think a more sensible approach is to simply focus on what exists, and what doesn't exist, as far as we can tell, rather than to try to categorize things into categories that have no clear definition and no obvious utility.
    It must be true that nothing unnatural exists. If it's real it's natural. Period. If gods and demons and spirits and souls were real they must be natural.

    Things "supernatural" are clearly not natural becauae they are not known to exist. Mabe the arguments for such things are natural, but the objects themselves cannot be.

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    In common usage (the usual basis of definitions), supernaturalism has never meant "what doesn't exist".

    Nor are supernatural entities necessarily outside of nature or the universe. Nor are they necessarily imperceptible or undetectable.

    Ghosts are generally considered supernatural too, though they're occasionally visible and audible and now-and-again they break stuff.

    What the ghost-believer means by "the supernatural" is "doesn't obey the laws of nature like fully material things do".

    Same with God-believers. Whether the god's in or out of the universe, he's "supernatural" for not being constrained to obey physical laws the way our material bodies are.

    That's probably the only criterion: not subject to the same laws as fully physical things.
    Last edited by abaddon; 04-23-2020 at 05:59 AM. Reason: sorting my words a bit

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    Fair dinkum thinkum bilby's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by abaddon View Post
    In common usage (the usual basis of definitions), supernaturalism has never meant "what doesn't exist".

    Nor are supernatural entities necessarily outside of nature or the universe. Nor are they necessarily imperceptible or undetectable.

    Ghosts are generally considered supernatural too, though they're occasionally visible and audible and now-and-again break stuff.

    What the ghost-believer means by "the supernatural" is "doesn't obey the laws of nature like fully physical things do".

    Same with God-believers. Whether the god's in or out of the universe, he's "supernatural" for not being confined to physical laws the way our physical bodies are.

    That's probably the only criterion: not subject to the same laws as fully physical things.
    I agree. But the fun part is that the physical laws we have uncovered imply that all of the influences on physical things at human scales are necessarily physical things themselves - we not only know all of the interactions that occur between the scale of atomic nuclei and solar systems, but we also know that this set of interactions is complete at that scale. Quantum Field Theory might be wrong, but it cannot be wrong enough to allow for an unknown interaction by which the supernatural could influence (or be influenced by) human beings or their environment.

    So we can, rather unexpectedly, state with as much certainty as we can make any statements outside pure mathematics, that any and all supernatural conjectures involving humans are false.

    There are no ghosts, no afterlife, no interventions by gods, no observation by gods, no supernatural phenomena experienced by human beings.

    Any claims to the contrary are, necessarily, claims that Quantum Field Theory is not just wrong, but massively and disastrously wrong. And it's the best tested theory in the history of science. It's not that badly wrong - we have checked.

    Asking "is it possible that unknown flaws in Quantum Field Theory could allow for the possibility of the supernatural?" is directly analogous to asking "is it possible that unknown flaws in Gravitational Theory could allow for the possibility of rocks that fall upwards?". The answer is "No"; And remains "No" despite the fact that Newton's Gravitational Theory turns out to be wrong - and as a result has been superseded by Einstein's Relativity.

    Some philosophers like to interject at this point that it's impossible to prove that these theories are correct - which is true, but irrelevant. It's impossible to prove that the Moon isn't made of cheese, but that doesn't mean that suggesting it might be isn't batshit crazy.

    All suggestions of supernatural phenomena are at least as batshit crazy as suggesting that the selenotyroic* hypothesis is viable.

    ETA: I am sure there's a joke here somewhere that relies on confusing naturalism with naturism, but I can't seem to uncover it.












    *From the Ancient Greek 'Selene' = 'Moon goddess', and 'Tyros' = 'Cheese'.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tammuz View Post
    Among atheists, skeptics, humanists, freethinkers, etc, the term "naturalism" , or more formally "metaphysical naturalism" or "philosophical naturalism", is quite a popular term. For example, physicist Sean Carroll wrote:



    The Internet Infidels, which I think originally spawned this forum, or at least one of its predecessors, wrote:



    Consequently, we define ourselves in terms of a thesis about the overall nature of reality, and thus in opposition to all positions incompatible with that thesis. We take to be false all claims about the existence and features of an otherworldly, transcendental domain "above" or "beyond" the natural world, but nevertheless somehow able to interact with it. Insofar as a religion is a belief system that affirms the existence of the supernatural, naturalism entails that all religions are equally false. Thus the Secular Web aims not only to critique the truth of particular religious claims, but the truth of any and all religious claims. Animism, the belief that even inanimate objects like rocks and rivers are interpenetrated by nature spirits active in human affairs, is in principle no less fair game for skeptical critique than the doctrines of major world religions.
    The main problem with the term "naturalism" as I see it is that there is no coherent definition of "supernatural", and hence no coherent definition of "natural", at least as far as I can tell.

    Imagine if we lived in the LOTR universe, for example. It seems the only criterion for "supernatural" is what doesn't exist in our universe.

    I think a more sensible approach is to simply focus on what exists, and what doesn't exist, as far as we can tell, rather than to try to categorize things into categories that have no clear definition and no obvious utility.
    It makes sense to me, as long as you consider the supernatural/natural divide to be a cosmological belief in and of itself. The "naturalist" is telling you that they believe in the meaningfulness of this system, but only consider the tip of the iceberg thus posited to be "real". I can understand that, without knowing what they personally consider to be natural or not; one expects vague cosmological terms to have some degree of ambiguity in expression. If someone tells me they believe in a heaven, I may have no specific idea of what they expect its properties to be, and maybe they don't either even, but I have the gist of what they mean nevertheless.

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    Quote Originally Posted by abaddon View Post
    In common usage (the usual basis of definitions), supernaturalism has never meant "what doesn't exist".
    True; but it's perfectly possible for a word in common usage to be meaningless -- the people who commonly use a word don't have to mean anything coherent by it, even when they think they do.

    What the ghost-believer means by "the supernatural" is "doesn't obey the laws of nature like fully material things do".
    Case in point. Yes, that's pretty much what most of them would probably say they mean by it. But what the heck do they mean by "laws", "nature", and "material"? Press them on that point and they'll be reduced to circular definitions and/or raging contradictions. And the same goes for most ghost-nonbelievers.

    Same with God-believers. Whether the god's in or out of the universe, he's "supernatural" for not being constrained to obey physical laws the way our material bodies are.
    Let's do an experiment. What the heck do you mean by "physical"?

    That's probably the only criterion: not subject to the same laws as fully physical things.
    So when you have a statement that says what things do, and there's something that doesn't do that, please explain what the criterion is for whether that statement is "a law that not everything follows" or "wrong".

    Tammuz is correct.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bilby View Post
    Quantum Field Theory might be wrong, but it cannot be wrong enough to allow for an unknown interaction by which the supernatural could influence (or be influenced by) human beings or their environment.
    To quantify the degree of wrongness that would take, in order to compare it with the degree of wrongness there might be in QFT, you'd have to have a definition of "supernatural". Got one?

    So we can, rather unexpectedly, state with as much certainty as we can make any statements outside pure mathematics, that any and all supernatural conjectures involving humans are false.
    But that would mean such conjectures are wrong. They're not even wrong.

    Asking "is it possible that unknown flaws in Quantum Field Theory could allow for the possibility of the supernatural?" is directly analogous to asking "is it possible that unknown flaws in Gravitational Theory could allow for the possibility of rocks that fall upwards?". The answer is "No"; And remains "No" despite the fact that Newton's Gravitational Theory turns out to be wrong - and as a result has been superseded by Einstein's Relativity.
    Those aren't analogous at all. Of course it's possible that unknown flaws in gravitational theory could allow for the possibility of rocks that fall upwards. That's an active area of experimental research. According to CERN's website, physicists do not yet know whether antimatter falls up or down*.

    http://alpha.web.cern.ch/node/248

    According to CERN's measurements, gravitationally, an antihydrogen atom weighs somewhere between +110 and -65 times the weight of a hydrogen atom. Yes, current theory says it weighs +1 so it falls down; but there's a reason theoreticians ask experimentalists to test their predictions.

    (It may of course be an engineering impracticability to construct enough antioxygen and antisilicon to make a rock, but if so, that would hardly be gravitational theory doing the disallowing.)

    (* Some might be surprised that 90 years after antimatter was discovered, we still don't know whether it falls up. The problem is that it's incredibly hard to make electrically neutral slow antimatter. So the effect of gravity on an antiparticle is either swamped by electrical forces, or else only operates for a few nanoseconds before the antiparticle hits a particle and annihilates.)

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    Fair dinkum thinkum bilby's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bomb#20 View Post
    To quantify the degree of wrongness that would take, in order to compare it with the degree of wrongness there might be in QFT, you'd have to have a definition of "supernatural". Got one?
    I quoted one, with the comment "I agree", as the opening remark of my post.

    So, yes, I have got one - it's the one abaddon presented.

    Quote Originally Posted by abaddon View Post
    That's probably the only criterion: not subject to the same laws as fully physical things.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bilby View Post
    I quoted one, with the comment "I agree", as the opening remark of my post.

    So, yes, I have got one - it's the one abaddon presented.

    Quote Originally Posted by abaddon View Post
    That's probably the only criterion: not subject to the same laws as fully physical things.
    Well then, same questions I asked abaddon: what the heck do you mean by "laws" and "physical"?

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