This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.
Some statements are based on evidence, while others are not. And there is evidence for the existence of some entity if and only if the existence of that entity is asserted in a statement that is based on evidence. To say that a statement is based on evidence is to say that it is empirically justified. The philosopher Wesley Salmon gave a great analysis of empirical justification. The basic idea is this: a statement is empirically justified if and only if either it reports some observation or it is the conclusion of a valid argument whose premises are empirically justified (Salmon, 1966). The argument may be deductive or inductive, where induction includes both generalization and inference to the best explanation, as well as some other forms. Empirical justification is neither empirical verification nor falsification – we’re a long way from A. J. Ayer or Karl Popper. Statements that are empirically justified are scientific, and entities that are empirically justified belong within scientific ontology.
To say that there is evidence for some entity does not imply that the entity is observable or that it can be detected with scientific instruments, or that it causes some effect in us. On the contrary, the criterion of empirical justification given by Salmon is open to all sorts of unobservable and causally inert objects. And that’s appropriate, since many types of objects mentioned in scientific theories are unobservable and causally inert. These objects include universals (properties and relations) and mathematical objects. Arguments that provide evidence for universals can be found in David Armstrong’s Universals and in Michael Loux’s wonderful book, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.
To justify mathematical objects, consider the Indispensability Argument. It’s discussed in a technical but brilliant book by Mark Colyvan, The Indispensability of Mathematics. There are lots of versions of this argument. Here’s one: (1) our best science is empirically justified; (2) if our best science presupposes some theory, then that presupposed theory is also empirically justified; (3) therefore, any theory presupposed by science is empirically justified; (4) but many mathematical theories are presupposed by our best science – if mathematics were false, the science would be false; (5) consequently, those mathematical theories are empirically justified. Of course, they are neither empirically verified nor empirically falsified. Anyway, mathematical theories (like number theory or set theory) declare that mathematical objects exist. They contain statements like: for every number n, there exists a successor number n+1; or for every set x, there exists a set y such that y is the power set of x. So the existence of mathematical objects is empirically justified. Nevertheless, mathematical objects like numbers and sets are not observable.
To be sure, to say that there is an argument that provides evidence for something does not imply that the thing exists. It only means that the existence of the thing is empirically justified, or that there is evidence for the thing. Since the design and cosmological arguments are based on empirical premises, they provide evidence for the deity of natural theology (which is not the Christian God); but it does not follow that such a deity exists. Empirical justification does not guarantee existence.
However, if there is no empirical justification for the existence of some entity, then it is reasonable to think that it does not exist. This is one of the principles of rational thought: it is reasonable to believe in the existence of some entity insofar as and only insofar as there is evidence for that entity. And this is where Wicca gets into deep trouble.
Silver Elder writes that “The original Pagan vision of the Cosmos . . . is that of the Three Worlds: The Underworld, the Middleworld, and the Otherworld or Overworld” (2011: 33). From pages 33 through 50, she describes these Three Worlds and the things in them. And Thea Sabin writes about “the other world, the spirit realm” (2011: 78).
The Middleworld is “the material realm of all living beings” (2011: 33). The existence of the Middleworld and its contents is empirically justified, both by direct observation and by scientific inference. She now explains that the Overworld is composed of four planes: the Physical Material Plane; the Astral Plane; the Mental Plane; and the Spiritual Plane (2011: 46-47). The theory of planes is also found in the Farrars (1981: 117). They say the planes are physical; etheric; astral; mental; and spiritual. Of course, any philosopher will recognize these planes as degraded Neoplatonic cosmology.
The obvious problem for Wiccans is that there is no evidence for the existence of things like the Underworld or Overworld. And there is no evidence for the existence of the planes beyond the material plane. These worlds lie outside of the domain of scientific ontology. There is no reason for any sane or sober person to believe that they exist at all. They are mere fictions, inventions of confused and wishful thinking. And these worlds contain many fictional entities. Silver Elder tells us that the Astral Plane is “where most of the Spiritual entities abide, e.g.: The Nature Spirits . . . the Akashic Records” (2011: 46-47). There is no evidence for the existence of any of these things; they are all mere fictions. Wiccan texts are filled with fictions; they are saturated with mythology.
Any object whose existence is empirically justified is a natural object; and any object whose existence is not empirically justified is a supernatural object. It is rational to say that all supernatural objects are mere fictions – they do not exist. Michael York, the author of Pagan Theology, writes “I believe in the supernatural, but I cannot demonstrate its existence. It is, by definition, beyond the empirical dimension of factual truths.” (2003: 1). And obviously the Farrars, Thea Sabin, and Silver Elder believe in the supernatural too. Belief in the supernatural is common among Wiccans and neo-pagans.
And yet neo-paganism (and Wicca) contains an imperative to oppose supernaturalism. Silver Elder writes “We are made by Nature to live by Nature’s Laws” (2011: 8). She writes that Wicca encourages “Living in harmony with Nature . . . Living in balance with Nature . . . Living in tune with Nature” (2011: 9). Such living is rational. Reason, which expresses itself practically in the scientific method, is the one and only power that puts our lives and bodies in harmony or tune with nature. Supernaturalism violently throws our lives and bodies out of harmony and out of tune with nature. A person whose life is in tune with nature is a person whose life runs by rational principles alone.
Although Michael York writes that he believes in the supernatural, he also writes that “Paganism is largely a dialog of affirmation that reflects or develops from the rhythms and cycles of the natural world. It does not seek to escape or obliterate the great round of nature but to work within it and to celebrate it.” (2003: 167) This is further evidence that neo-paganism contains within itself an imperative to destroy all supernaturalism.
Since this same imperative is repeated over and over in Wiccan texts, it follows that Wicca contains an imperative to de-mythologize itself. It does not appear that theistic religions like Christianity contain any analogous imperative. On the contrary, they are committed to their ancient sacred texts, which they cannot de-mythologize. Because of this internal imperative to destroy all supernaturalism, Wicca may serve as the basis for an rational atheistic nature-religion. It is up to Wiccans whether they want to be rational or not.
See below the fold for a bibliography and for links to more posts on metaphysics, naturalism, religion, atheism, Wicca, and the relationships between them.
Armstrong, D. (1989) Universals. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Colyvan, M. (2001) The Indispensability of Mathematics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches Bible. Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.
Loux, M. J. (2006) Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. Third Edition. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-26107-4.
Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice. Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Salmon, W. C. (1966) Verifiablity and logic. In M. L. Diamond & T. V. Litzenburg (Eds.) (1975) The Logic of God: Theology and Verification. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 456-479.
Silver Elder (2011) Wiccan Celebrations: Inspiration for Living by Nature’s Cycle. Winchester, UK: Moon Books.
York, M. (2003) Pagan Theology. New York: New York University Press.
Other posts in this series: