Nonmetaphysical Naturalism (follow-up)

This is turning into the never ending series, but there are a couple of questions I thought were too interesting to bury in the comments.

Sastra asks, “exactly how are you defining “metaphysics?” I’m not sure if you ever say, specifically. You seem to be taking it as the nature of “ultimate reality” — but the word “ultimate” seems rather hazy and vague.”

It’s got to be somewhat vague, I think. “Metaphysics” isn’t one of those things you define by necessary and sufficient conditions. It’s more of a family-resemblance thing. Better to give some defining examples and understand that there will be many gray areas.

So, I figure a good example of metaphysics is neo-Platonism, with its One, its Forms, its Emanations, and its power of Reason grasping all of these as Necessary Truths. Spinoza did metaphysical system-building. Hume, not so much. A secular applied ethicist will likely be doing little that is metaphysical. Anyone who uses modal logic a lot (unless she’s a logician) is probably doing some metaphysics. Some philosophers recognize a point needs further work, and leave it hanging (that’s OK, it will happen in just about every argument). Some declare a “metaphysical intuition” or announce a “metaphysical impossibility.” (Oh. Right. That clears it up.)

I said some things relevant to this in parts 2 and 3, when I tried to separate what I think is innocous talk of ontology, in the sense of catalogs of objects, from metaphysics in the system-building tradition.

Sastra again: “The second question has to do with the role of “the paranormal” in all this. What do you think the difference is between the supernatural and the paranormal? Is there a clear dividing line? It does seem to be generally conceded that science can rule one way or the other on ESP and PK — by the very same folks who think God is an entirely different thing, and not subject in any way to the same criteria.”

Well, there might be a sharper distinction between supernatural and paranormal if you grant metaphysical talk more legitimacy than I like. Few people try to defend the reality of ghosts by announcing metaphysical intuitions, but God is another matter.

If you try to rehabilitate metaphysics as I suggested, then the supernatural and paranormal shade into one another. For example, I distinguish between naturalism and supernatural views by contrasting top-down vs. bottom-up descriptions. Daniel Dennett gets at the same sort of thing and uses one of the best metaphors around, skyhooks vs. cranes. Paranormal claims definitely have top-down or skyhook-like elements, though they may not be as ambitious as some theistic religious claims. The paranormal is more Low Magic than High. But if you embed paranormal and magical claims in a broader description of how nature and supernature is supposed to work (think of ghosts and souls and a spirit realm going all the way up to God), then the supernatural and the paranormal become much the same sort of thing. As a historical example, neo-Platonism and relatives were very closely entangled with occult thinking.

I can also point to current research on scientific explanations of religion to support a close connection between the supernatural and the paranormal. Especially if you want a broadly applicable theory—something that helps you understand a religion of ancestral spirits as well as religions that go on about God and His Holy Angels—you don’t sharply separate the two. Certainly writers such as Atran and Boyer are as illuminating about the paranormal as the religious.

Speaking of the paranormal, there’s Tom Clark‘s question about sticking with science as is rather than expanding it to include a more supernatural-friendly “richer empiricism.” Well, this reminds me of a regular feature of debates over paranormal and fringe-science claims. There are always creationists who accuse mainstream science of being biased in its methodology, so it automatically ignores supernatural options. There are always parapsychologists who say that science needs a less restrictive method, that it needs to expand its vision to grasp paranormal realities.

I don’t see anything illegitimate about such claims. When skeptics about the paranormal insist that Scientific Method (TM) must be used in all investigations, and if you want to tinker with it, you’re out of bounds, they are being dogmatic. We cannot consider scientific methods to be handed down from on high, or to be written in stone. In science, we make it up as we go along, and are always discussing ways to revise and improve our methods. There’s nothing wrong with that. What methods are appropriate will depend on the nature of what you’re investigating, even when your knowledge depends on what methods you have used.

There is circularity here, but it’s not a vicious circle. It isn’t as long as you allow for learning new things, if you take care not to let your methods predetermine your results, and so forth. But that also gives skeptics a way to now properly criticize paranormalist demands for changes in method. In my experience, these demands are not just a plea to consider an alternative, but special pleading to ensure that favored supernatural conclusions end up affirmed. This goes for apologies for religious versions of supernaturalism as well. That’s largely how I read Haught, though it’s more complicated. In any case, I don’t see any deep mistake with proposals to mess with scientific methods. There are some common themes, but you really have to take each one case by case.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00029694152838347722 Sastra

    Taner, thanks much for answering my questions so well. I think I understand your position. What you call the “metaphysical quest for what is really real and rationally necessary” is pretty much, by its nature, looking for unfalsifiable truths — and there’s automatically then an internal clash in the term “metaphysical scientific naturalism.” Rather than trying to rehabilitate or change the understood meaning of metaphysics, it might be better to just get out of the game and say that naturalists have no metaphysics.

    It’s an interesting argument. And I certainly see your point with regard to the Creationism controversy.

    You also make an excellent point on the research for scientific explanations of religion and its role in bringing the supernatural and paranormal into the same category. If the neurological and biological explanations apply equally whether one is talking about prayer or ESP, it’s not the testability of the phenomena that’s critical anymore: it’s the processes at work.


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