Are Supernaturalists Actually Super-materialists?

Ophelia plucks and highlights a comment so good and philosophically interesting from PZ’s comments section that I just have to reproduce it too.

For the background, Colin Tudge falsely claimed that in Richard Dawkins’s new introduction to science for children, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, Dawkins dogmatically imposes on children a “crude materialism” that “belongs at best in the 19th Century” because he

tells us that “reality is everything that exists” – and “exists”, he makes clear, means whatever we can see or stub our toes on, albeit with the aid of telescopes and seismographs. Everything else – including things we might think exist, like jealousy and love – derive from that material base and are to a large extent illusory. This, he implies, is what emerges from science, and science is true.

PZ quickly corrected the record by quoting the following from pg. 19 of The Magic of Reality:

Does…reality only contains things that can be detected, directly or indirectly, by our senses and by the methods of science? What about things like jealousy and joy? Are these not also real?

Yes, they are real. But they depend for their existence on brains: human brains, certainly, and probably the brains of other advanced animal species, such as chimpanzees, dogs, and whales, too.

And, then, in responding to PZ’s post, Sastra most insightfully characterizes people like Tudge, who apparently find Dawkins’s account to be too dismissive of the reality of love and jealous, as follows:

Supernaturalists seem to have a lot of trouble trying to make sense of abstractions and levels of experience: they want to take everything literally, as irreducible substances. Love is only real to them if it’s a thing, a sort of spiritual-substance which is made of neither matter nor energy because it is the immaterial essence of love. Ironically, that makes them super-materialists — spinning material into finer and finer substances until like only comes from like. Love is derived from love. Otherwise, it can only have the same properties that were there in its origin.

Despite their claims to be so comfortable with “higher levels” of reality, supernaturalists are concrete thinkers. They can only make sense of immaterial abstractions by turning them into spirit-things in a spirit-world. It’s the same sort of composition fallacy that causes people to have a serious problem with understanding how life can come from non-life. Things are supposed to be stable, discontinuous units of essential natures which are forever separated by what they ARE. If inert matter can live, it must be because a vital force made of life gets into the matter to somehow to make it live.

A fantastic philosophical analysis.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Nice Ogress

    The fact that theists see love as a discrete, measurable thing might also explain some of the fringier ideas about marriage and virginity – the idea that you can ‘run out’ of love, you have to ‘save it for your husband’ or it ‘becomes impure and tarnished’.

    All these are metaphors of a material, tangible, measurable object, applied to something wholly intangible, immeasurable, and immaterial.

  • kantalope

    Curse you Aristotle! He continues to make mischief.

    • Camels With Hammers

      NO! Curse Descartes! Aristotle was much closer to the contemporary understanding of the mind!

    • Daniel Schealler

      Curse you Descartes!

    • Pierce R. Butler

      C’mon, if you wanna take a whack at major categorical errors in Western epistemology, go for the motherlode: Curse you, Plato!

  • Goblinman

    This is one of the earlier problems I had with supernaturalism. It seems to be muddled about what sort of things belong in the realm of the transcendent–including both subjective mental and emotional experiences such as love and happiness as well as potentially measurable entities such as spirits and psychic forces. Things in the first category are noted as being outside the reach of science, and this is more or less correct, since, despite the fact that many of them can be observed in the brain, that’s not really important to the person experiencing them. (In fact, one could counter the argument that emotions being a product of chemicals in the brain makes them somehow “less real” by noting that the emotions are so damn real that they’re physically changing your brain.) The real problem, though, comes from the second category–spirits and such–which, one would assume, would have to operate by some sort of laws in order to exist at all, even if we don’t currently understand what those laws are. Putting them in the same category as emotional states is simply bizarre–they’re not subjective: they either exist and can be measured somehow, or they don’t and they can’t.

    As best as I can tell, this is the way many believers (moderate and conservative) view God–as a subjective sort of “emotion entity” rather than a physical being. And, see, that would be ok if they were consistent about it: simply equating God with a sort of moral sense of goodness is fine, if that’s all it was, since morality often derives from subjective experience. The problem comes when this type of believer keeps much of the connotational baggage that comes with the idea of “God”–miracles and holy texts and such–anything where the concept of “God” ceases to be a simple subjective emotion and supposedly interacts with the world in some way–and this seems to happen with this sort of believer far too often. Now the problem comes, because all these physical events get dragged into the realm of the supernatural as well. A global flood, for instance, no longer did happen or didn’t, but becomes a matter of subjective faith, and a moral dimension becomes tacked on to it, because to question the veracity of it also challenges the believer’s moral core.

    I have two main problems with this. First, it attempts to drag physical, measurable things into the realm of subjectivity and morality–where, they simply can’t be allowed to be disproved. It also seems to be based on an idea that there can be no meaning to be found in the physical world alone, and, for anything to truly have meaning, it needs to essentially be imaginary.

    • Camels With Hammers

      simply equating God with a sort of moral sense of goodness is fine, if that’s all it was, since morality often derives from subjective experience.

      No, this wouldn’t be fine. Just because the rudiments of morality psychologically are basic feeling responses, shaped in social ways (and therefore “subjective”), does not mean there cannot be and should not be rational, objective accounts of better and worse with respect to values or that those accounts should not alter our initially subjective moral values and judgments.

    • Goblinman

      I agree that that, in itself, would not be a complete framework for morality (I skipped over mentioning that morality has objective dimensions, too, since the post was already getting hella long). I meant “fine” in a purely physical sense–viewing “God” as the instinctive moral sense, rather than an actual supernatural being, doesn’t conflict with reality.

    • Goblinman

      I guess I should also mention that no, I don’t actually believe that myself. I toyed with the idea shortly after becoming an atheist, but there are just way too many connotations to the word “God” for me to actually use it that way honestly. One of the more major problems I have with moderate believers is that they often seem unable to settle one way or another on whether their beliefs are subjective and metaphorical or objective things. It changes depending on context, so that “God” can somehow simultaneously be the subjective moral drive mentioned above, and also somehow have a son?

      I guess it fits in with the original topic of the post. Viewing that moral drive as an actual supernatural substance goes partway towards explaining how it could manage to impregnate a Palestinian woman (no, not really).

  • Daniel Schealler

    ‘If love is just based on molecules, then it’s not real.’

    That’s one of those really weird and really, really confusing ideas that seems to make inexplicable yet obvious sense to the people that espouse it.

    But it’s weird because, well… Molecules are about as real as it gets. But if love is built up out of interactions between real things, suddenly it becomes not real?

    That just doesn’t follow.

    I never really understood how to frame the other side’s point of view before. Tried on a number of occasions but always came up short.

    Of course Sastra has now hit it out of the park, the big jerk.


    • Goblinman

      Yeah. Also, I suspect that if, say, scientists were to discover something along the lines that love was actually some sort of ethereal–but now observable–substance as that line of reasoning seems to imply, the many of the people who initially believed that would protest the findings, because it would now make love too real. Just like they have trouble currently with the actual brain chemicals behind emotions.

      I say this because one of the features almost always associated with these sorts of “super-materials” is that they’re “beyond science”. Which, in practice, usually means the believer defines them however they feel like (if they bother defining them at all), and no one can disagree with them.

    • John Morales

      Sastra is the 800-lb gorilla of Pharyngula (and resident sage), but physically manifests as a wisp of a woman.