Testing Supernatural Hypotheses

Are supernatural hypotheses testable? This was a question raised by Victor Reppert on his Dangerous Idea blog, and I responded a couple of weeks ago. The subsequent discussion got rather confused and confusing, and I would like to try to untangle things and see if I can get clearer on the issue here. Thanks much to interlocutor Richard Wein whose gentle but persistent probing of my remarks has pressed me to try to state things more precisely and cogently.

What is a supernatural hypothesis? I will limit attention to hypotheses that postulate the existence of supernatural persons or powers. Instances of supernatural persons would include gods, ghosts, demons, angels, spirits (like Ariel), and souls. Instances of supernatural powers would include mana, qi, astrological influences, telekinesis, ESP, and the creative power attributed to God in Genesis where God says “Let there be…” and there is. But what is it for a person or power to be supernatural? By “supernatural” I mean “capable of existing or operating independently of, unrestrained by, or even in violation of, the laws of nature.” Thus, Marley’s ghost passed through Scrooge’s locked door and Christ’s miracle of the loaves and fishes violated the conservation of matter.
Now defenders of hypotheses postulating some of these things deny that they are offering claims that are supernatural; rather, they think that future physics will explain such (purported) phenomena as telekinesis and telepathy. However, our only possible evidence for what physics might someday accommodate is what it currently accommodates, and there is nothing in current physics to offer hope that such purported phenomena might someday be subsumed under physical law. In the ‘70’s New Age types blithely invoked quantum mechanics in hopes that quantum weirdness would somehow make ESP or telekinesis more plausible, but in so doing they only succeeded in demonstrating their own ignorance. So, I will consider such hypotheses to be asserting the existence of genuinely supernatural powers.
So, are supernatural hypotheses as characterized above testable? What do we mean by a “testable?” I mean “testable” in the rather strict sense of “confirmable or disconfirmable by rigorous experiment, experiment of the sort typically employed to evaluate hypotheses in the physical and biological sciences.” The history of science offers a number of notable examples of the robust confirmation or disconfirmation of hypotheses by such experiments:
1) Thomas Young demonstrated the wave nature of light by sending two light beams through narrow orifices so that the beams would spread, overlap and be projected on a screen. In accordance with the hypothesis that light consists of waves, and contrary to the hypothesis that it consists of particles, Young showed that the area of overlap between the projections of the beams showed striped interference patterns. (QM, of course, now accounts for the fact that light can behave either as a wave or a particle.)
2) Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that the calcination of mercury absorbs the “respirable” element of the air (which we know as oxygen) by confining a quantity of common, respirable air under a sealed glass dome with a sample of very pure mercury and heating the mercury until it was calcined. The air remaining in the sealed dome was demonstrated to be non-respirable. However, when the calcined mercury was reduced again to pure mercury, nearly the same amount of air was recovered as had been absorbed when the mercury was calcined. When this recovered air was recombined with the air that had been rendered non-respirable, it was returned to its common, respirable state.
3) Louis Pasteur kept an anthrax culture at the temperature of 42 to 44 degrees Celsius for eight days in hopes that this would attenuate the virulence of the bacillus. In a famous public demonstration he vaccinated twenty four sheep, one goat, and six cows with the attenuated strain. Twenty nine animals were unvaccinated as a control. A few weeks later he injected all of the animals with a fully virulent anthrax culture. Three days later all of the vaccinated animals were healthy, and all of the unvaccinated ones were dead or very ill.
So, are supernatural hypotheses testable in a comparable manner, i.e., with similar rigor and conclusiveness? In many cases they are! Indeed, a paradigm for such a test is given in scripture, the famous encounter between Elijah and the priests of Baal recounted in I Kings, chapter 18. Elijah and the priests of Baal build altars to present a sacrifice to their respective deities, Yahweh and Baal. First the priests of Baal call upon their god to send fire to consume their sacrifice. After importuning all day, no fire is sent. Elijah, to make his demonstration more dramatic, has his sacrifice soaked with water three times. Elijah calls upon The Lord, and fire falls upon the sacrifice and consumes it. The people acknowledge that The Lord is God, and join Elijah in a celebratory massacre of the priests of Baal.
The contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal is as elegantly designed an example of an experimentum crucis as one could ask for. Why don’t we see more such tests? It would take only a few such demonstrations, which could now be broadcast worldwide, to convince most of the unbelievers of the world (at least, if adequate safeguards against trickery could be assured). Since experimental demonstrations are the epistemic gold standard when it comes to the evaluation of hypotheses, we would expect, prima facie, that defenders of supernatural hypotheses would employ such tests whenever feasible.
When we examine the actual history of efforts to subject supernatural hypotheses to experimental tests, however, we find that they frequently elude such testing. One obvious problem is that many hypotheses postulate the existence of supernatural persons who may choose to cooperate with our testing procedures or not. How can we test claims about ghosts or gods if they simply refuse to be tested? There seems to be no way to compel the cooperation of such beings, and there appear to be no discernable “laws of supernature” that license precise predictions about when and where such beings may be expected to act in ways that would reveal their existence. True, the shrine at Lourdes has many discarded crutches (but no discarded artificial limbs, as one wag pointed out). Yet, there seems to be no place where one might go to reasonably expect to see a miracle (a real miracle, not “the miracle of birth” or something like that). Worse, scripture actually seems to forbid putting God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16; repeated by Jesus in the Gospels at Luke 4:12 and Matthew, 4:7), which seems to imply, or is often taken to imply, that it is sacrilegious even to attempt an experimental verification of God’s existence.
When we look at supernatural claims, they are definitely a mixed bag with respect to testability. Some do not even appear testable even in principle (e.g., very vague hypotheses such as that carrying a four-leaf clover is “lucky”). Others, while in principle testable, are presented in conjunction with auxiliary hypotheses that have the effect of preventing any actual testing. Others are testable and have been tested. Examples of this last category are many of the claims of parapsychology. There have been numerous well-designed, rigorous, and controlled experiments testing claims of extrasensory perception, clairvoyance, or telekinesis. (Unfortunately, some of the best known such experiments, such as those of J.B. Rhine at Duke University, were not properly designed so as to preclude cheating). The problem is that such tests, when properly conducted, consistently give results that are negative, insignificant, or irreproducible. (See, for instance, Terence Hines’ extensive review of laboratory parapsychology up to the late ‘80’s in Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, Prometheus Books, 1988).
The most interesting supernatural hypotheses are those that are can be tested, but, for some reason or another, always seem to elude actual testing. Consider the theistic hypothesis, the hypothesis that the God of theism exists. This hypothesis can be tested, and, as we noted above, according to scripture has been tested in the past—with spectacularly positive results. The problem, of course, is that all those alleged public demonstrations of divine power occurred long, long ago, in what Hume called “ignorant and barbarous nations.” In short, it is eminently reasonable for the skeptic simply to deny that such events ever occurred. What we need, then, is something now, something very public and conclusive. As I say, an Elijah-like test could be broadcast worldwide now. Or, if such a display is considered vulgar, there could be rigorous, reproducible results performed in a scientific setting and verified by the qualified parties. So why not?
Now, some theistic philosophers, such as Victor Reppert, say that the theistic hypothesis is testable, and, I surmise, they hold that it passes the tests. However, as far as I can tell, what Victor means by “testable” is something much looser and less stringent than I do. By “testable” he seems to mean something like “rationally discussable vis-à-vis the evidence.” By “testable” I mean “capable of being subjected to rigorous experimental verification of the sort exemplified in the above three examples.” Now I have no doubt that the theistic hypothesis is rationally discussable in the light of evidence, but I think it is an innocuous and unobjectionable observation to note that recent theistic philosophers and apologists have not invoked rigorous experimental tests to support their hypothesis. Their failure to do so is not per se a grievous fault. Very many important questions can be settled, even settled decisively without appeal to performed experiment. Indeed, scientific fields such as paleontology, archaeology, and anthropology incorporate non-experimental, but still rigorous, methodologies.
Still, nothing persuades like a good experimental demonstration. Pasteur’s anthrax vaccine experiment was so dramatic that some recent critics such as Bruno Latour have accused Pasteur of being a showboat and a meretricious self-promoter. (However, my considered professional opinion, as I have argued in two or three books, is that Bruno Latour is full of shit.) So, where are our latter-day Elijahs? Of course many will piously invoke the scriptural prohibition against putting The Lord to the test. However, such a proscription did not deter Elijah, and, frankly, and I hope not too cynically, I suspect that today’s defenders of theistic hypotheses could likewise put aside their qualms if they were as confident of results as Elijah was.
Perhaps, though, God has good reasons not to permit his existence to be demonstrated in some conclusive, unambiguous way. Such a claim, added as an auxiliary hypothesis to the theistic hypothesis, would make theism untestable. Such a claim would tell us that God, for good reasons, will not cooperate with any attempted experimental verification of his existence. But what why would God not want his existence made plain to all? Two reasons that sound plausible are these:
1) If God were to make his existence indubitable then there would be no room for faith. God does not want us merely to acknowledge his existence, as we would acknowledge the existence of gravity or neutrons, but to live in a trusting, faithful, loving relationship with him. Faith involves an element of will or choice; we commit ourselves despite doubt. True trust involves risk, and there is no risk in acknowledging the obvious.
2) If God’s existence were plain to all, then the human capacity for goodness would be compromised. Knowing with certainty that God exists, people would abstain from sin out of prudence, not for genuinely moral reasons. Nobody will steal hubcaps with a cop standing right there. Only if God maintains some degree of “hiddenness,” i.e epistemic distance, will we be called upon to struggle with temptation and resist evil because it is the right thing to do rather than because we want to avoid punishment.
Are these good reasons for thinking that God would not want his existence experimentally demonstrated? I do not think so. First, many theists do in fact say that God’s existence is plain and indubitable. Most famously, Paul, in the first chapter of Romans says:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened (Romans I: 18-21).
For Paul and many other eminent Christian thinkers, therefore, the purported obviousness of God’s existence cannot be an impediment to faith. Further, unbelievers reject God despite the obviousness of his existence. Advocates of above reason (1) therefore need to argue with Paul, not me.
Further, experimental confirmation of hypotheses need not rule out doubt. I personally would believe in God if there were as much experimental evidence for God as there is for, say, protons. I am a scientific realist. I think experimental evidence strongly supports the existence of protons, neutrons, and even neutrinos. On the other hand, many philosophers of science advocate various forms of antirealism whereby experiments confirming hypotheses about theoretical objects merely show that those hypotheses are empirically adequate, i.e., that their predictions are reliable, and not that the theoretical entities they postulate actually exist. Perhaps experimental confirmation of the God hypothesis would permit a similar antirealist attitude. Such hypotheses could be taken as empirically adequate, but not as demonstrating the existence of a theoretical entity, i.e., God.
Most fundamentally, merely knowing that God exists need not abrogate or compromise a relationship of trust or faith with him. Marriage is a risky commitment of trust and faith though, supposedly, something one knows for certain is that one’s spouse exists. Acknowledging God’s existence does not entail being in a trusting, loving relationship with him. As scripture somewhere says, even the devils know that God exits and tremble.
As for morality being compromised if God’s existence were plain, I see no evidence for this at all. Moral enormities are constantly committed by people who have no doubts whatsoever about God’s existence. Indeed, they often invoke God as the justification for their crimes. Besides, hell is always for the other guy—atheists, gays, liberals, evolutionists, infidels, feminists, Democrats, etc.—people like that. Hell is never for YOU. So I see the above reason (2) as having no justification at all.
Are there other, better reasons why God would not want his existence experimentally demonstrated? I don’t know, and will leave that dear (and patient) reader for you to tell me. If no such good reasons can be found, what do we conclude? In practice, when defenders of a hypothesis shield it from rigorous testing by invoking arbitrary and ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses, that insulated hypothesis is regarded as discredited. Are there creditable reasons for not experimentally testing theism?

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    Are these good reasons for thinking that God would not want his existence experimentally demonstrated? I do not think so.
    =============
    Comments:

    This is an absolutely crucial issue for the debate between atheists and theists. Otherwise, consideration of empirical evidence will not be taken seriously.

    If God might exist but have good reasons to remain hidden(to some degree) from humans, then the absence of evidence for God, or event the presence of evidence against God, can be ignored, leaving the issue unresolved and unresolvable.

    I'm not sure I agree that the existence of God is testable, however. Miracles, such as fire from heaven on the request of a prophet of Jehovah, are ambiguous.

    First, one needs to prove that God exists, or at least show that it is likely that God exists. How can one attribute a fantastic, even natural-law-violating, event to God, apart from showing that there is a God to be the cause of the event?

    Second, even if we had good reason to believe it was probable that God existed, how can we know that a specific event was caused by God? How do we establish that there are no other supernatural beings who are willing or able to accomplish the feat in question? Do we just assume that there are no such things as angels, demons, or limited deities? Do we just assume that there are no such things as humans or aliens with supernatural powers?

    Finally, how could an experiment show that a perfectly good person exists? Perfect goodness is a moral category, and science does not have the capacity, in my view, to establish moral judgments or moral principles. So, how can a scientific experiment establish the existence of a being with the moral property of perfect goodness?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    Are these good reasons for thinking that God would not want his existence experimentally demonstrated? I do not think so.
    =============
    Comments:

    This is an absolutely crucial issue for the debate between atheists and theists. Otherwise, consideration of empirical evidence will not be taken seriously.

    If God might exist but have good reasons to remain hidden(to some degree) from humans, then the absence of evidence for God, or event the presence of evidence against God, can be ignored, leaving the issue unresolved and unresolvable.

    I'm not sure I agree that the existence of God is testable, however. Miracles, such as fire from heaven on the request of a prophet of Jehovah, are ambiguous.

    First, one needs to prove that God exists, or at least show that it is likely that God exists. How can one attribute a fantastic, even natural-law-violating, event to God, apart from showing that there is a God to be the cause of the event?

    Second, even if we had good reason to believe it was probable that God existed, how can we know that a specific event was caused by God? How do we establish that there are no other supernatural beings who are willing or able to accomplish the feat in question? Do we just assume that there are no such things as angels, demons, or limited deities? Do we just assume that there are no such things as humans or aliens with supernatural powers?

    Finally, how could an experiment show that a perfectly good person exists? Perfect goodness is a moral category, and science does not have the capacity, in my view, to establish moral judgments or moral principles. So, how can a scientific experiment establish the existence of a being with the moral property of perfect goodness?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06669617343235073078 Mike Darus

    Bradley affirms a third reason why God might dabble in experiments. Namely, obvious miraculous signs don't seem to work very well for convincing skeptics. The conclusion of stories of the past from Moses to Jesus end in obstinant defiance of the skeptics and sometimes even confuse the faithful. Why invest in a failed methodology?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08327078173686587443 Jack M

    To my understanding, a supernatural being must be something that is uncaused by natural events. Even if a god wanted to prove that it was uncaused by natural events, it would be unable to do so since evidence can only be about natural causes. How could a god that wanted to prove to you it was uncaused go about doing that to your satisfaction?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00176754512128249839 Nathaniel

    The biggest thing here is that the supernatural must have an effect on the natural world, otherwise why would we care? Ghosts moving furniture, gods answering prayers, fairies tying knots in your hair… these are supernatural entities who actually make things happen. The analogy of the wind works well here. We can't see the wind, but we can see the effects it has. We can't see gravity, but we can see what it does to the physical world. If supernatural persons or powers exist, then the only matter (and we would only know about them) IF THEY DO SOMETHING to the physical world.

    One problem with testing god that we often hear is that we cannot produce a condition where god is not, and thus cannot have a control. I think this is absurd, mainly because we're not testing directly for his existence but rather testing for his effect on the natural world. If you had three piles of wood, one prayed over by Elijah, one prayed over by the priests of Baal and one which is not prayed over by anyone. Each of them performs their little rituals. If god has an effect on any of these situations, we should be able to measure that effect. Supposedly, this personal god will choose to act in a preferential manner and should at least ignore the pile of wood that nobody is praying over. This result should also be repeatable if it is to be considered valid.

    Another thing worth pointing out is that we could (in theory) find a place where an all-powerful god would not be… in simulation. If we develop to the point to where simulations become so realistic that they mimic reality fairly accurately, we could simulate several different worlds, each with a different god hypothesis and some with no gods as a control. We could then see which world most resembles our world to see which simulation our world is most like. The fun part is that if you throw in simulation theory, then you run into the very real possibility that this is a simulation and that god may exist in this simulation, but not in the "real" world.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Thanks, Keith, for taking into account my criticism of your previous article. You've largely removed the ambiguities I complained of. I would still quibble with the following sentence:

    "In practice, when defenders of a hypothesis shield it from rigorous testing by invoking arbitrary and ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses, that insulated hypothesis is regarded as discredited."

    On a matter of terminology, I've come to doubt that we've been using the term "auxiliary hypothesis" in its usual sense, which I believe refers to a generally accepted background assumption/knowledge. The word "excuse" would probably serve better here. And I would say that the making of such an excuse doesn't do anything to the original hypothesis as such. What it does is create a new hypothesis (the original one plus the excuse) that replaces the original one as the hypothesis under scrutiny. There could be other claimants who don't make such an excuse, and continue with the original, unqualified hypothesis. We can't hold the excuse against them.

    On another point, the word "supernatural" is notoriously hard to define, and I think your definition here is seriously flawed. As it plays no part in your main argument, I'm not sure it's worth giving my objections here. But that could make for an interesting discussion in its own right.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    You write: “Instances of supernatural powers would include mana, qi, astrological influences, telekinesis, ESP, and the creative power attributed to God in Genesis where God says “Let there be…” and there is.

    I don’t know what “mana” is, and I have only an extremely vague idea of “qi”. The fact that no knowledgeable theist believes in astrology, telekinesis, or ESP makes their inclusion in your list irrelevant and rather confusing. The question is not the truth of any supernaturalist worldview, but the truth of theism at its best. As for the last example, the idea of course is not the God “says” something and there is. The idea rather is that God is the metaphysically ultimate, i.e. that existence is God-structured. Specifically, the idea is that no physical thing exists, let alone behaves in an orderly manner, unless so caused by the will of God. And this is the theistic understanding since the very first centuries of the common era.

    Further, you don’t include in your list a major and relevant example of supernatural power, and which everybody agrees is a supernatural power, namely the power of free will.

    Finally, I wonder why beliefs that virtually all naturalists hold are not catalogued as supernatural. Why don’t we say that the power of mass to bend spacetime around it is supernatural? Why don’t we say that the electron, which is a physical primitive with no moving parts and no access to a computing machinery, but is nevertheless capable of behaving in a computationally very complex way – has supernatural powers? And, indeed, why don’t we say that to be conscious is to have a supernatural power?

    You define “supernatural power” thus: “By “supernatural” I mean “capable of existing or operating independently of, unrestrained by, or even in violation of, the laws of nature.”

    By “laws of nature” I assume you mean “laws of physics”. So what about the power of mass to bend spacetime? That power is *not* entailed in general relativity; general relativity only models physical phenomena by saying that spacetime around mass *is* bent, and says nothing about who is doing the bending. (Further, if mass had the power to bend spacetime around it, then according to physics it would have to expend energy, which is of course not the case.) So that supposed power exists independently of the laws of physics and therefore fits your definition of “supernatural power”. But naturalists are supposed not to believe in supernatural powers, which kind of muddles things.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [2nd part, continued from above]

    Why don’t we see more such tests?

    Because given the physical closure of the universe (which the physical sciences have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt) there is no conceivable “rigorous and controlled” experiment which will discriminate between the theistic and naturalistic metaphysical hypotheses. (Incidentally the Elijah story in the OT does not rise to being rigorous and controlled, even if it did take place as a public event. How do we know, for example, that Elijah had not arranged some mischief and that the “water” with which the logs were supposedly soaked with was not really some kind of inflammable liquid?)

    The next reasonable question would be this: If theism is true then why has God created the physical universe in a way that no such rigorous and controlled experiments can exist?

    This is a valid question to which I think theists have already offered appropriate answers. See for example John Hick’s thought in this context. My own short answer is this: God is a God of spirit and not of matter, a God of personal creativity and not of mechanical order. Thus, if God were to be manifested in physical phenomena then it would be confusing and misleading. As things stand, God is fully and overwhelmingly manifested in the spiritual dimension of our condition, including in the reality of love, of beauty, of goodness, of reason, of freedom, etc. (Naturalists of course tend to handwave all that away suggesting that it’s all “an illusion”. Which, on naturalism, they are. But it’s one thing to say that we don’t know of any evidence for theism, and another to say that all evidence is illusory.)

    What we need, then, is something now, something very public and conclusive.

    Well, the NT miracle stories do not rise to the level of “rigorous and controlled” either, because they are not repeatable, even should they happen today in front of TV cameras. Not to mention naturalists would (reasonably) suggest that the hypothesis that some far more advanced alien civilization was playing mind games with us is a more probable explanation. And if some physical miracle (such as converting water into wine by a priest, or having prayer cure people) were repeatable then naturalists would (reasonably) suggest that this is a natural phenomenon.

    I think the whole issue is a mess. Religion as far as ontology is concerned is indeed a supernatural hypothesis, namely the hypothesis that reality is transcendental. According to religion reality goes much deeper than the physical phenomena we observe and the characteristic mechanical order they involve. Therefore theism’s grounding in reason should not be looked for in physical phenomena. It’s a pity, and a residue of our ignorant and superstitious past, that so much is still being made of miracles.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [3rd part, continued from above]

    As an intellectual curiosity, one way for God to produce a public, rigorous, and conclusive miracle would be to include an intelligent message (perhaps the entire text of the Gospel according to John) within the value of some dimensionless physical constant. Or, even better, within the value of pi (to steal an idea from Sagan’s “Contact”). One problem here is that such a message would have to exist in some natural language, ancient Greek say. Thus, even better would be some kind of message of God which is independent of contingent facts such as natural language. Some theists argue that perhaps such a message is present within the mathematical nature of physical laws, or within the values of the fundamental physical constants. It’s interesting to ponder such physicalist ideas, but I think that, ultimately, God’s true miracle is our own experience of life, that His/Her present is realized in that experience, and that the evidence for theism and against naturalism is to be found in a sound philosophy about our condition.

    “[…] recent theistic philosophers and apologists have not invoked rigorous experimental tests to support their hypothesis.

    Well, I notice that recent naturalistic philosophers have not invoked rigorous experimental test to support their hypothesis either. Further, at the very least, we can imagine how rigorous experimental tests of theism might look like, but I have no idea how rigorous experimental tests of naturalism might look like. Any suggestions?

    In any case I do hold that theism is testable, but the tests are not physical/public but spiritual/private. They have basically the form: “Follow path X and you’ll experience a Y transformation of your own being”. In this context all the major religions teach effectively the same path and the same testable result. Even the wording is similar. So, for example, the concept of “path” is central both to Christianity and to Buddhism. And to the extremely small degree that I have tested (or perhaps tasted) religion in my own life I must say it has worked well beyond expectations. Pragmatically speaking, religion is the most precious and valuable and beautiful thing I have in my life. By far.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    You mention too many issues for me to comment on here–maybe in a future post. One thing I am curious about though is your implication that the warping of spacetime around massive objects is somehow a violation of the laws of nature. On the contrary, as you note, general relativity predicts this as a fundamental aspect of the theory. Indeed, and I am confident that Taner will bear me out on this, there is nothing in the known laws of physics to indicate that the warping of spacetime by mass is unexpected. You mention the "power" of mass to warp spacetime, but I think this badly misconceives things. Are you saying that mass exerts a power on spacetime like a magnet exerts power on iron filings? I see no reason to think this at all, but, not being a physicist, I will ask Taner to clarify. Taner? Even if there is a legitimate question of HOW mass warps spacetime, I see no reason whatsoever to think that this is something that could be physically explained.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Nathaniel said…

    One problem with testing god that we often hear is that we cannot produce a condition where god is not, and thus cannot have a control. I think this is absurd, mainly because we're not testing directly for his existence but rather testing for his effect on the natural world. If you had three piles of wood, one prayed over by Elijah, one prayed over by the priests of Baal and one which is not prayed over by anyone. Each of them performs their little rituals. If god has an effect on any of these situations, we should be able to measure that effect. Supposedly, this personal god will choose to act in a preferential manner and should at least ignore the pile of wood that nobody is praying over. This result should also be repeatable if it is to be considered valid.

    ===============
    Comments:

    One problem with scientific testing of prayer is establishing that "nobody is praying over" the control.

    You can ask people to pray for John, and to pray for Susan (to be healed from some disease), and if they pray out loud, you can observe them praying for John and Susan, but the fact that you did not ask anyone to pray for Jack does not show that no one prayed for Jack. How can you ensure that no one has prayed for Jack?

    Suppose we determine that prayer always involves a specific brain-wave, and we also develop a mind-reading device, so that silent prayers can be monitored, and suppose we attach devices to every living human being on Earth so that when the prayer brain-wave is emitted, the mind-reading device kicks in and records the thoughts of the person who is praying. That would tell us whether someone had in fact prayed for Jack.

    At least it would tell us whether someone who was living on this planet had prayed for Jack. But what about angels, spirits of the dead, and space aliens? Even if no human being had prayed for Jack, how can we know whether an angel, spirit, or space alien has prayed for Jack?

    I suppose it is far-fetched to worry about angels, spirits, or space aliens messing up a prayer experiment, but if we are taking the God-hypothesis seriously, it is hard to see how we could simply assume that there are no angels, no spirits, and no space aliens who are concerned about the well-being of humans.

    Furthermore, the prayer of an angel or a saint in heaven (a spirit) might well have greater efficacy than the prayer of some average church-goer who participates in a prayer experiment. So, a single prayer by just one saint in heaven might do more for Jack than repeated prayers by a whole congregation of ordinary believers for Susan and John.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Keith,

    Dianelos is confused about physics. I don't have either the time or inclination to sort it out right now.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Nathaniel said…

    One problem with testing god that we often hear is that we cannot produce a condition where god is not, and thus cannot have a control. I think this is absurd, mainly because we're not testing directly for his existence but rather testing for his effect on the natural world.
    ==========
    Comment:

    I assume that the objection you mentions involves the claim that God is omnipresent, and therefore there can be no circumstances in which God, if he exists, is absent.

    One can reply to this objection even in terms of the existence of God.

    What about the existence of gravity? Gravity is everywhere in the physical universe, but we can still establish the existence of gravity scientifically.

    And all laws of physics are supposed to apply throughout the universe, so there is no available circumstance (at least in any location in the universe at this point in the history of the universe) where an alleged law of physics fails to be present, if it is an actual (existing) law of physics.

    So, I agree that the objection you mention is a poor one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    My main point there was that one should not confuse physics with the naturalistic interpretation of it. What physics does is to mathematically model physical phenomena. Thus, according to general relativity, spacetime around mass is warped in the sense that gravitational phenomena are precisely described by the respective mathematical model of that warping. But physics does not entail and does not require scientific realism, nor does it entail or require the adoption of any other metaphysical assumption. So, for example, general relativity correctly describes our observations of gravitational phenomena even if is in fact the case that we all live in a computer simulation.

    Nevertheless most people, including most physicists, are unaware of these epistemic facts. Indeed it is more practical to think about physics as if its models describe reality too, simply because our minds are such that they think better when they visualize things. (Perhaps there is a biological reason for that; I understand a huge part of our brain is dedicated in visual processing, and that machinery may be put to additional good use when thinking about abstract issues.) Thus when doing general relativity one normally does not only think of the warping of spacetime as a mathematical function of the mass, but also as the mass “causing” that warping, the way one visualizes a heavy ball depressing an elastic sheet on which it lies. This is fine as far as it goes, but the fact remains that there is *nothing* in the physics itself that says that mass causes the warping of spacetime around it. I can prove the previous claim thus:

    1. According to general relativity the warping of spacetime is caused by mass. (assumption to be tested)
    2. If theism is true then the warping of spacetime is caused by God’s will.
    3. Therefore, if assumption (1) is true then general relativity proves that theism is false.
    4. As a matter of fact general relativity does not prove that theism is false.
    5. Therefore, assumption (1) is false.

    I trust we agree so far. Another way to prove the same would be to point out that the hypothesis that we live in a computer simulation is compatible with physics, simply because that hypothesis entails by definition the existence of exactly the same data that physics is based on. But on that hypothesis there is really no physical “mass” and no physical “spacetime” for the former to cause the warping of the latter. Thus it can’t be the case that the proposition “mass causes the warping of spacetime around it” is a proposition of physics.

    Thus physics does not say what causes the warping of spacetime. Naturalists believe that the mass itself is the cause; theists believe that God’s will is the cause. At this juncture I would only like to point out that the naturalistic assumption that dumb mass itself is the cause of the precise warping of spacetime around it is nothing but a call to pure magic. I am inclined to think that if people really understood or really pondered naturalism’s claims they would judge them as being extremely weird. (I have already mentioned the case of the naturalistic belief about the computational prowess of physical primitives such as the electron. Another example would be the many-worlds naturalistic interpretation of quantum mechanics. In comparison theistic claims are far less magical, and theism is after all a supernaturalistic view.)

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [2nd part, continued from above]

    Now to the other point you raise. Up until now I think I have conclusively demonstrated that there is nothing in physics that says that mass causes the bending of spacetime around it. While writing the “many issues” post, the thought occurred to me that perhaps one can go further and argue that there is something in physics that speaks *against* the naturalistic assumption that mass causes the bending of spacetime around it. I admit that my footing here is shaky.

    Here is what I wrote: “(Further, if mass had the power to bend spacetime around it, then according to physics it would have to expend energy, which is of course not the case.)

    And here is how you object to it: “You mention the "power" of mass to warp spacetime, but I think this badly misconceives things. Are you saying that mass exerts a power on spacetime like a magnet exerts power on iron filings?

    Yes, kind of. For all it’s worth here’s my train of thought:

    In all cases we know of when the physical state of macro system is changed by some physical cause, energy is expended. The warping of spacetime is such a change. But no energy is expended. Thus the warping of spacetime is not caused by some physical cause.

    I am not sure about the merits of the above thought. My main point though stands: When thinking about physics we all find it practical to think by visualizing a mechanical reality. But this should not confuse us into thinking that physics describes a mechanical reality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Nathaniel said…

    One problem with testing god that we often hear is that we cannot produce a condition where god is not, and thus cannot have a control. I think this is absurd, mainly because we're not testing directly for his existence but rather testing for his effect on the natural world. If you had three piles of wood, one prayed over by Elijah, one prayed over by the priests of Baal and one which is not prayed over by anyone. Each of them performs their little rituals. If god has an effect on any of these situations, we should be able to measure that effect. Supposedly, this personal god will choose to act in a preferential manner and should at least ignore the pile of wood that nobody is praying over. This result should also be repeatable if it is to be considered valid.
    ===========
    Comments:

    Suppose that we could scientifically prove that a spirit (a non-embodied person)had cured a person of some disease or caused a pile of wood to burst into flames.

    This would be scientific evidence that favors theism and that disconfirms naturalism. However, this would not scientifically establish the existence of God, because God is more than just an ordinary spirit.

    We would need to carefully define 'God' in order to determine whether the spirit in question was in fact God. The definition of 'God' it seems to me takes us outside of the expertise of scientists and into the areas of philosophy and theology.

    But, the results of scientific inquiry would certainly be of interest to Christians, Jews, and Muslims if we defined 'God' as an eternally all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good spirit.

    This would make identification of the spirit as 'God' beyond the power of scientific experiments to establish, however, since science cannot establish moral principles and judgments which are necessary to determine that some person is 'perfectly good'.

    So, we might follow Dawkins and strip out the condition that requires 'God' to be perfectly good.

    Is it conceivable that we could scientifically establish that a specific spirit (the one who caused a pile of wood to burst into flames) also happens to be an eternally all-powerful and all-knowing spirit?

    If we could communicate with the spirit, we could ask it lots of questions to try to determine the extent of its knowledge. And we could ask it to perform various other superhuman feats to determine the extent of its power.

    But one key problem here is the identification of the spirit. How do we know that the very knowledgeable spirit that we are talking to today, is the same spirit as the one who caused the wood to burst into flames yesterday?

    We normally identify persons by their appearance and by their physical bodies (hair color, eye color, face, fingerprints, blood type, physical markings, voice, height, DNA, etc.) but a spirit has no body, so we are left with only mental characteristics such as memories and personality, to identify a spirit.

    So, identification of the spirit that we are interrogating today with the spirit who charred the wood yesterday will be very difficult if not impossible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    For the record, I am a scientific realist. I am perfectly happy to think that space really is warped in the presence of massive bodies. On the other hand, as you note, it is quite reasonable to take an antirealist attitude, as not only many philosophers, but also some physicists (including some of the most prominent) do. In this case, where we take the antirealist attitude, we do not assert that space really is warped by massive bodies, but only that the theoretical models, which employ a mathematics of warped space, are empirically adequate, i.e., reliably predictive. In this case, however, where we adopt antirealism and do not assert that space REALLY IS warped in the presence of massive bodies, then such theorized warping fails as a counterexample to my proposed definition of "supernatural." You cannot say that the warping of space is a counterexample to my definition if there is no such warping.

    You also say something that sounds very odd to me. You say that I am relying upon sheer magic if I make a naturalistic interpretation of the warping of space by mass. Hmmmmm…It sounds to me like YOU are the one invoking an in-principle occult power–the will of God. When it comes to the the warping of space, I feign no hypotheses since I am completely unqualified to do so. However, I see no reason to postulate any "power," occult or otherwise, to account for the warping of space in the presence of massive bodies. Perhaps we are dealing with a fundamental law of nature, a brute fact. In this case it would be no more proper to speak of the "power" of mass to bend space than to talk about the "power" of an electron to have a charge of 1.602192 X 10 to the minus 19 coulomb or for a photon to have the "power" to travel at 299,792,458 m/sec. in a vacuum. At the fundamental level, we just have to say that this how things are. Warping happens.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    I happen to be a antirealist simply because on theism it is the simpler and more elegant view. What interests me here though is the coherence of the naturalistic realist position. For the present discussion then I assume realism.

    I see two problems with realism. First, it is not the case that the scientific realist accepts that all scientific models describe reality. So, for example, according to the model of quantum electrodynamics, between two points in which it has been observed an electron has passed through all points in space using all possible trajectories. No realist believes that his is what really happens though, but thinks that this is just a theoretical model the mathematics of which produces the correct observational results. So, my first problem (which incidentally applies to both theistic and naturalistic realism) is this: On what grounds does the realist pick and choose which models of physics describe reality and which don’t?

    The second problem concerns the concept of “supernatural” according to your definition. So, I take it, the naturalistic realist doesn’t just believe that spacetime really is warped in the presence of massive bodies, but that the massive bodies cause that warping. After all the measure of that warping is a mathematical function of the masses and positions of these bodies (and the warping will change if these bodies move), and on naturalism there is nothing else out there that might cause that warping. But then, according to my understanding of your definition, we have here a causal power which exists independently of the laws of physics (because the laws of physics do not specify what is causing that warping) and therefore should be called “supernatural”.

    Now in your latest post you disagree with my use of “power”. You say that the warping may be a brute fact of nature. I agree, but would say that what on naturalism may be a brute fact is that massive bodies have the power to warp spacetime around them. You suggest a counterexample by pointing out that it makes no sense to speak of the power of an electron to have electrical charge. It seems to me that the concept of “power” is very close to the concept of “causal power”. (Indeed right now I cannot think of a case were we speak of “power” without meaning “causal power”; and further it seems to me that this is what you mean when you define supernatural power). So an electron has electrical charge and therefore has the causal power to, say, cause an electromagnetic field around it. Similarly, a body has mass and therefore has the causal power to cause spacetime around it to warp.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,
    The best answer to your first question is simply to refer you to some of the works of leading scientific realists. I particularly recommend Stathis Psillos’ Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth. I also especially like Ian Hacking’s response to Van Fraassen in his essay “Do We See through a Microscope?” in Images of Science Essays on Realism and Empiricism, edited by Paul Churchland and Clifford Hooker. Jarrett Leplin’s A Novel Defense of Scientific Realism might also be interesting. Sorry. I know it sounds condescending when a question is met with a bibliography. However, if we are to start a discussion of scientific realism, I really don’t want to do this from the ground up, since (mirabile dictu!) I do have other responsibilities than contributing to Secular Outpost.

    As for your second question, again, I am not a physicist and not qualified to offer a hypothesis here, so I don’t. I did take John Earman’s course is the philosophy of space and time at Pittsburgh, and picked up what I could, but Earman thinks in tensor calculus, and much of the course was frankly over my head. My point was simply that your formulation of the situation sounds fishy. My definition of “supernatural” was “capable of existing or operating independently of, unrestrained by, or even in violation of, the laws of nature.” As a purported counterexample, you say that massive bodies cause the warping of spacetime in their vicinity, but that this causation occurs independently of the laws of physics, and so the warping of spacetime in the vicinity of massive bodies must be classified as “supernatural” on my definition.

    My response is that you may have misconceived things by depicting the warping of spacetime by massive bodies as a causal power exerted by massive bodies on the fabric of spactime, something analogous to the effect exerted on the arrangement of iron filings in the presence of a bar magnet. We account for the power of the magnet to rearrange the filings in terms of internal and more basic properties of the bar magnet. Yet when we are dealing with the warping of spacetime in the presence of massive bodies, we seem to be talking about fundamental properties of fundamental things. If so, then, ex hypothesi, there are no deeper underlying properties to invoke to account for the phenomenon of spacetime warping in the presence of mass. In this case, the warping of spacetime in the presence of mass cannot be independent of the laws of physics; that such warping occurs is a fundamental law of physics.

    On the other hand, what I say in the above paragraph is simply my supposition. Again, I am not qualified to offer a hypothesis. I made a quick search by Googling “How does mass warp spacetime?” and the most perspicuous answer I saw was from a site called “Naked Scientists”:

    “Physics is good at explaining some things; mechanisms, relationships, and models – other things it just shrugs its shoulders at. This tends to be one of them – we are still at the point of investigating how curved space effects [sic] things and how to reconcile the large scale classical theories of GR and SR with the small scale ideas of Quantum Mechanics.

    Why the world behaves as it does on a fundamental level tends to be an avoided question. This particular 'why' question might get close to being answered once we have properly linked quantum theory and general relativity and once we have proof that the symmetry breaking of the Higgs particle is responsible for endowing other particles with mass.”

    This quote seems to confirm my supposition that maybe the warping of spacetime in the presence of mass is simply a fundamental law of nature with no deeper explanation, or, on the other hand, that maybe a physical explanation can be forthcoming once physics has progressed. Either way, there is no justification for your charge that naturalism must regard the warping of spacetime in the presence of mass as due to an occult force.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    I think that the power of massive bodies to warp spacetime around them can be properly called “occult” because there is nothing in physics (and thus nothing in the data which physics uses) that says that it is there. As I think we agree, physics only says that spacetime around massive bodies is warped, but not what is causing that warping. Thus I don’t consider that my second question is one for physics to answer (for physics does not make the claim I question), but for naturalism to answer. And, incidentally, whether or not this power is a brute fact or nature is irrelevant to the fact that it is occult. I agree that all ontologies need not explain things beyond a certain point.

    I also call that power “magical” because it fits my understanding of the meaning of “magical”, namely something that not only defies understanding, but runs against the grain and even contradicts the understanding one already has. “Matter” in my understanding is not the kind of thing that may have the kind of power naturalists claim it has. And my understanding includes all I know from physics and the central role the concept of “matter” plays in its mathematical modeling of physical phenomena. Hence, in my judgment, naturalistic scientific realists claim magic.

    Thanks very much for the book recommendations. I will certainly have a look to find out whether people see the same problems I see in scientific realism and, if they do, how they answer them. I find the title “Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth” disappointing though, for the question is not whether the physical sciences track truth (of course they do); the question is whether they track reality. I wonder, does Stathis Psillos argue that the physical sciences, pace Kant, reveal the noumenon? I will have to read the book and see.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Nathaniel said…

    If you had three piles of wood, one prayed over by Elijah, one prayed over by the priests of Baal and one which is not prayed over by anyone. Each of them performs their little rituals. If god has an effect on any of these situations, we should be able to measure that effect. Supposedly, this personal god will choose to act in a preferential manner and should at least ignore the pile of wood that nobody is praying over. This result should also be repeatable if it is to be considered valid.

    ==========
    Comments:

    Let's suppose that not only does the above experiment occur, but it is repeated on several different occasions, with the same positive results: the pile of wood prayed over by Elijah is instantly consumed by fire from the sky, and nothing happens to the other piles of wood.

    What does this show us? It might only show that Elijah is a better magician than the priests of Baal.

    But suppose that we carefully investigate various possibilities for deception and trickery and set up the experiment in a way to rule out the most common forms of trickery that might be used in this circumstance. And suppose we set up video cameras and other equipment to gather lots of data and to document what is going on during the experiment, and despite all such efforts, no sign of trickery or deception is detected.

    Suppose that we conclude that the fire from the sky has no natural explanation, and that it must have some sort of supernatural cause.

    Do we then conclude that the cause was God? Certainly not. For one thing, if we are inclined to simply accept Elijah's explanation that the fire was caused by Jehovah, the 'God of Israel', then we must conclude that God did not cause this fire, because Jehovah, as conceived of by Elijah, is clearly NOT a perfectly good person, and so is not God.

    If we are inclined to simply accept Elijah's explanation that Jehovah caused the fire, then we would conclude that some morally imperfect and intellectually imperfect spirit caused the fire to consume the pile prayed over by Elijah.

    Furthermore, we don't really need to lean on Elijah's concept of Jehovah to draw this conclusion. Why would a perfectly good, all-knowing, and all-powerful deity get involved in this silly contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal in the first place?

    If God (conceived of as a perfect person) wants to reveal himself to humankind, God has no need of prophets and priests to do so. God being all-powerful can make the stars dance in the sky at will, and God can speak in a loud voice from the heavens (in any and every language) declaring his power and existence.

    Also, it is far from obvious that God would want to reveal himself to mankind at all. A perfectly good person does not have any need or desire for human beings to admire or worship him. A 'god' who demands worship and obedience, as does the deity Jehovah, is not God, is not a perfect person, but is rather an egotistical and psychologically needy person.

    Any spirit that goes around burning piles of wood to promote himself or some prophet or some religious tradition is unworthy of the the name 'God'.

    And why should we accept Elijah's proposed explanation anyway? Wouldn't the simpler explanation be that Elijah has the superhuman or supernatural power of creating fire simply by willing it? Perhaps many humans have this power, but only Elijah has figured out how to activate and use this power.

    Elijah might not even realize that he is the cause of the fire. He might sincerely believe that the fire was caused by Jehovah, even though there is no such being as Jehovah and it is Elijah's own thoughts or desires that are causing the fire.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    OK, then. If, by your definition, a universal natural regularity, like the warping of spacetime in the presence of massive bodies, is “occult” if it is a brute fact of nature, then I have no objection to spacetime warping being called “occult” in YOUR sense. Being “occult” in your sense would not entail that an instance of such a regularity is a supernatural occurrence in my sense, i.e., something that occurs independently of, unrestrained by, or in violation of a law of physics. Again, an occurrence of a regularity would not be independent of the laws of physics if that occurrence is a token of a type of regularity that IS a law of physics!

    As for your definition of “magical,” are you saying that physics predicts that spacetime will NOT warp in the vicinity of massive bodies? On what other possible basis could you hold that this would not naturally occur? You have to mean more than merely that physics cannot currently explain how it happens. Neither I nor any naturalist would have a problem with that. Naturalism has no burden whatsoever to explain natural phenomena that physics currently cannot explain. If I see spacetime warping in the presence of massive bodies, then I conclude that something that happens in the natural world is that spacetime warps in the presence of massive bodies. Unless physics tells me that this shouldn’t happen, and not merely that it is not known how it happens, then I have no basis whatsoever to attribute such warping to anything magical or supernatural.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13483419817200339955 Paul D.

    I don't think there's necessarily any need to establish a rigorous definition of "supernatural" beforehand, since any scientific experimentation is likely to be a response to specific claims.

    For example, many theists make the claim that "God sometimes heals people (who would otherwise not get better)". This can be tested via a statistical study such as the Harvard study, involving hundreds of patients with the same life-threatening condition who undergo surgery. If the claim is true, there should be some statistical correlation between prayer and recovery rates.

    Or take glossolalia. If the claim is made that people can be possessed by the Holy Ghost to speak languages they haven't learned, then it should be possible to find candidates who can communicate fluently in a language they've never studied with a native speaker of that language. Alternatively, glossolalia could be analyzed linguistically to see if it is potentially an unrecognized language (and this has been done, with negative results).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    Whether the warping of spacetime around massive bodies is or isn’t a brute fact of nature is irrelevant to my case. Suppose it is. I am not calling that warping “occult” because physics does not explain how that warping happens. I agree that all sequences of explanations must come to an end somewhere, at which point it is not reasonable to ask about “how” something takes place.

    To clarify my position, let me assume scientific realism (as most theists and naturalists do) as well as to simplify matters by assuming we do have a brute fact in our hands – and posit the following list of propositions:

    1. Spacetime around massive bodies is warped according to the equations of general relativity.

    2. That warping is a universal regularity of nature and a brute fact. There is no further explanation for it, and thus it makes no sense to ask physics to give any further explanation.

    3. Something or other causes that warping of spacetime. (That spacetime is warped around massive bodies may be a brute fact, but this does not mean that it happens just by itself.)

    4. According to metaphysical naturalism what causes that warping is mass itself. Mass has a power or a property which causes spacetime around it to warp according to the equations of general relativity.

    5. According to theism what causes that warping is God’s will. God, being an all powerful person, causes spacetime around massive bodies to warp in a way which the equations of general relativity describe.

    6. The claims of both naturalism and theism are metaphysical ones, and are not entailed in the physics of general relativity. General relativity correctly describes gravitational phenomena whether one, or the other, or none of these metaphysical claims is true. Therefore both naturalism and theism claim facts which are “occult” to physics.

    7. A naturalists may consider theism’s claim to be a call to magic, because the idea that personal will directly affects physical properties goes against the grain of her understanding of how reality works.

    8. A theist may consider naturalism’s claim to be a call to magic too, because the idea that dumb mass would be capable of warping no less than space and time around it, let alone do it in a mathematically exact way, goes against the grain of her understanding of how reality works. At the very least the theist may say that naturalism’s claim is a clear case of special pleading.

    My contention is that there is no reason for a scientific realist (whether a theist or a naturalist) to object to any of the above propositions. I wonder what you think. Pondering that list, the only proposition I suppose a naturalist may consider rejecting is (3). But rejecting causality would make naturalism’s description of reality even more “magical” in the view of many.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    You write: “Again, an occurrence of a regularity would not be independent of the laws of physics if that occurrence is a token of a type of regularity that IS a law of physics!

    I don’t have any issue whatsoever with the regularity; I have an issue with what *causes* the regularity. According to your definition a power which operates independently of the laws of physics is a supernatural one. Now what *causes* the warping of spacetime is not mentioned in the laws of physics and therefore, it seems to me, is independent of the laws of physics and is thus supernatural according to your definition.

    Hmm, I think I now understand where our difference may lie. I am saying that physics does not say what is causing the regularity, and therefore that this cause is independent from physics. You are saying that whatever the cause may be it causes the regularity that physics describes, and therefore this cause is *not* independent from physics. So it seems there is a semantic ambiguity about the concept “independent”. Unfortunately this seems to be a serious problem. If one understands “ambiguity” in the former sense then one gets the absurd implication that according to naturalism the cause of the regularity is supernatural. But if one understands “ambiguity” in the latter sense then one gets the absurd implication that according to theism the will of God is not a supernatural power. Either way one interprets “independent” the definition you suggest appears to be problematic.

    I’d like to suggest an alternative definition: X is naturalistic (or conforms to naturalism) iff all knowledge about X can be expressed using exclusively mechanistic language (i.e. mathematical language including probabilities). X is supernatural (or does not conform to naturalism) iff mechanistic language is not sufficient to express all knowledge about X.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    Thank you for setting out your argument in detail, but I still think that there are serious problems concerning some points. I will focus on your second and third premises:

    “2. That warping is a universal regularity of nature and a brute fact. There is no further explanation for it, and thus it makes no sense to ask physics to give any further explanation.”

    Now I have been entertaining the idea that spacetime warping in the presence of massive bodies is a fundamental law of nature, a brute fact for which there is no deeper explanation. However, I have been entertaining this as a supposition or speculation, not asserting it as definitely so, as you seem to do here. In fact, I don’t think that there is justification for asserting its brute factuality (and hence inexplicablilty) as definitely so. As my earlier quote from the Naked Scientists web site indicates, some physicists do seem to hold that an explanation might be forthcoming. Perhaps someday we will better understand how GR and QM are related and will confirm the existence of a universal Higgs field and its associated Higgs boson. These discoveries could explain why spacetime warps in the presence of mass, and metaphysical naturalists may simply accept this (naturalistic) explanation.

    “3. Something or other causes that warping of spacetime. (That spacetime is warped around massive bodies may be a brute fact, but this does not mean that it happens just by itself.)”

    This premise seems to contradict itself and the second premise. If something is a brute fact then, by definition, it “happens just by itself.” When we get down to ontological brass tacks—the brutal facts—we have reached the end of “why.” All we can say at that ultimate point is “it is.” If you had asked a 19th Century physicist why masses exert force on other masses, he probably would have shrugged and said that as far as we know it is a fundamental, irreducible, inexplicable property of mass that it exerts a force on other masses that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Gravity happens. Likewise today’s physicist (and the metaphysical naturalist) might just shrug and say maybe that maybe mass has a fundamental, irreducible, inexplicable power to warp spacetime in its vicinity. Full stop. Upon this supposition, the brutal factuality of the warping of spacetime by mass, to ask for a further cause of the warping is just to fail to understand what “brute fact” means.

    Again, upon either supposition—(a) that the warping of spacetime in the presence of massive bodies, though currently unexplained, but is explicable in physical terms, or (b) that such warping of spacetime by mass is a brute, irreducible, inexplicable fact (and hence its occurrence is a fundamental law of nature)—metaphysical naturalism has no problems.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Thank you Keith for this interesting discussion. It’s always gratifying to see how in the tension of disagreement one sometimes clarifies one’s thoughts and reaches a better understanding. We find here some shades of Hegel’s dialectic perhaps.

    I think that the contradiction between my premises (2) and (3) you point out is only apparent, because the domain of (2) is phenomenal reality (and more precisely the set of physical phenomena which is the object of study of the physical sciences), while the domain of (3) is the reality which causes or produces all of phenomenal reality (and which is the object of study of metaphysics).

    Every scientific theory represents a pattern present in the set of physical phenomena. A better theory corresponds to a deeper, more precise pattern. Thus general relativity (GR) is a deeper pattern than Newtonian mechanics (NM). GR does not falsify NM, for NM’s order within gravitational phenomena is as present today as it was when Newton discovered it. What GR falsifies is NM’s realist model, and that’s why we today say tha massive bodies do not really exert any attractive forces to other bodies. Instead we use GR’s realist model and say that massive bodies warp spacetime and that gravitational phenomena are produced by bodies (as well as light) “moving” through warped spacetime in a straight line. In this context I think it’s important to not conflate the scientific theory itself (which is an abstract mathematical construct) with its realist model. This confusion is both common and a natural one, because up until recently one could reasonably interpret the equations of physics as describing the realist model. Fortunately, quantum mechanics (QM) has conclusively burst that illusion. Indeed it’s always the case that one can suggest several different realist models for any given theory. It is well known the physical sciences underspecify reality. I haven’t yet read the book you recommended, but it’s clearly the case that even the metaphysical hypothesis of scientific realism only claims that the physical sciences are in some sense adequate for finding out how reality is, or that the physical sciences greatly sharpen the picture of reality by excluding many “non-scientific” alternatives – but not that the physical sciences describe reality. Indeed it’s a historical fact that after the huge advances of scientific knowledge in the last 100 years scientific realists disagree more and more deeply among themselves about how reality is, than they did, say, at the beginning of the 20th century.

    Given then that scientific theories represent the discovery of ever deeper mathematical patterns within physical phenomena it is provably the case that there is an ultimate scientific theory which represent the deepest pattern present in them. This theory we call “a brute fact”, simply because there is no deeper scientific description possible. (Incidentally, since GR and QM contradict each other and since it is probable that GR will have to give, it is probable the case that GR is *not* a brute fact; in (2) I only assumed it is for simplicity’s sake in the context of the current discussion.) What is essential to my argument is that all order present in physical phenomena, up to and including its ultimate “brute fact” order, is caused or produced by reality. (We all accept this unless we are willing to entertain some kind of solipsism.) That’s what premise (3) points at.

    Finally, I am not saying that my exercise of pondering scientific naturalism shows that it has some problem, but only shows that naturalism too posits “occult” and “magical” causes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    I’m glad you also find the discussion interesting. I was afraid that I was trying your patience, but I would like to get to the bottom of the issue—if there is a bottom.

    Our discussion seems in danger of fracturing into many discussions (and this is always a problem where there are basic disagreements). We could have a lengthy debate about scientific realism, but that would take us into a whole different direction.
    No, my concern has been with metaphysical naturalism, and the question of whether naturalists must posit “occult” or “magical” causes, as you indicate. In debates between naturalists and theists, theists often invoke tu quoque arguments: “So, you accuse me of invoking magical or occult causes, well, so do you! Tu quoque!” My claim is that the tu quoque here is not justified.

    To reprise: I defined “supernatural” as “capable of existing or operating independently of, unrestrained by, or even in violation of, the laws of nature.” You offered as a counterexample the warping of spacetime in the presence of massive bodies, an occurrence that general relativity predicts but does not explain. Therefore if metaphysical naturalists say that matter has the power to warp spacetime, they are moving beyond what physics justifies and attributing a mysterious power to mass, one that is as “occult” or “magical” as the theist’s hypothesis that the warping of spacetime in the presence of massive bodies is a caused by God.

    My response is that, on the contrary, the metaphysical naturalist has three options, none of which involve invoking an “occult” or “magical” power as those terms are normally understood:

    1) The naturalist can adopt an antirealist attitude towards the models of spacetime warping presented in GR theory. That is, the naturalist could take those models as empirically adequate rather than as literal depictions of the structure of spacetime. In this case, if the metaphysical naturalist does not regard spacetime as actually warping, then there is no invocation of a mysterious warping power.

    2) The naturalist can suppose that the warping of spacetime in the presence of massive bodies is currently unexplained, but need not be regarded as inexplicable. Indeed, as physics progresses and the relations between GR and QM are better understood, and if hypothetical particles such as the Higgs boson are detected, then the warping of spacetime might receive a physical explanation. With such a physical explanation in hand, the metaphysical naturalist can invoke that rather than posit occult powers.

    3) The naturalist can speculate that it is an ultimate, brute fact that mass has the power to warp spacetime in its vicinity, or, alternately, that it is an ultimate, brute fact that spacetime has a liability to warp in the vicinity of massive bodies. When we are dealing with ex hypothesi fundamental entities, their powers or liabilities, by definition of “fundamental” are not explicable in terms of anything more basic. Rather, their powers and liabilities are part of what it is to be THAT type of thing. For instance, having a certain charge (and so having the power to attract or repel to a certain degree) is part of what it IS to be an electron. Anything with a different charge (and so different powers and liabilities) just would not be an electron. Likewise, perhaps, having a liability to warp in the presence of mass is part of what it IS to be spacetime. That is, perhaps the warping of spacetime in the presence of massive bodies IS a fundamental law of nature, i.e., just how things inexplicably are.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    continued…

    Maybe your objection to alternative #3 is that, in your view, physical law can only postulate regularities and is overstepping if it attributes powers or liabilities to things. In other words, we should be good Humeans and limit ourselves to talk of consistent conjunctions. OK, but in that case the metaphysical naturalist could just embrace the Humean view and say that we have no justification for attributing any inherent warping power to mass; we merely observe that spacetime DOES warp in the presence of mass and, with Hume, content ourselves with that. You cannot be attributing any “magical” warping power to mass if you are not attributing any such power at all!

    IF I am getting your points, I think I am justified in denying that you have produced a counterexample to my definition or shown that metaphysical naturalists must invoke anything “magical.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Paul D. said…
    I don't think there's necessarily any need to establish a rigorous definition of "supernatural" beforehand, since any scientific experimentation is likely to be a response to specific claims.

    For example, many theists make the claim that "God sometimes heals people (who would otherwise not get better)". This can be tested via a statistical study such as the Harvard study, involving hundreds of patients with the same life-threatening condition who undergo surgery. If the claim is true, there should be some statistical correlation between prayer and recovery rates.
    =================
    Comments:
    I have expressed (see above) some skeptical points about scientific experiments concerning the effects of prayer.

    However, if prayer for the sick does have a significant payoff for the health and well-being of the sick or injured people who are being prayed for, then careful scientific studies should be able to document that fact.

    So, for example, if angels or spirits often pray for sick people who living humans ignore and are not praying for, thus improving the health and well-being of apparently non-prayed for people (e.g. people who are the controls in a prayer experiment), and if this makes it difficult to establish that prayer for the sick provides any real benefit, then it might well be that prayer for the sick by living humans does NOT provide any significant benefit, since for any sick people that we stop praying for angels or spirits will pray for them anyway, producing the same extent of divine healing.

    It is not necessary that God heals sick people who are prayed for 100% of the time. But if God does heal sick people who are prayed for 15% of the time and only heals sick people who are not prayed for 5% of the time, and if the sick people who are not prayed for by living humans are generally not prayed for by angels, spirits, or space aliens, then there would be roughly a 10% difference in healing rates of prayed for vs. non-prayed for sick people.

    And if we cannot detect such a difference in rates of healing, then we have no factual basis for claiming that prayer has any significant positive effects on the health and well-being of sick people. (I'm excluding possible psychological benefits of engaging in prayer or from the knowledge that one is being prayed for).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    In later posts I will comment specifically on the options you suggest, but first some general points:

    I am not using “occult” in any pejorative sense, but in the sense of “hidden” or “invisible”. Given that metaphysical claims are not claims of the physical sciences, it is the case that the truth or falsity of such claims is invisible to the physical sciences. Thus whether the order (and a deep and marvelous order it is) of the physical phenomena we observe is caused by the will of God or is caused by some property of matter itself – is a question beyond the project of the physical sciences, which project is only to discover that order. For example the claim that it is some physical property of mass (and not God’s will and not, say, the programming of a computer simulation) which causes the warping of spacetime is a metaphysical claim that lies beyond the science of GR. I think this far I am saying nothing that is controversial.

    My pointing out that from the theistic point of view naturalism’s claims go against the grain of how the theist understands the world works and thus can be deemed to be “magical” is I think uncontroversial too. Actually I would like to posit this as a fact. To me the very notion that dumb matter would be able just by itself to do all the amazing things naturalists say it does, strikes me as pure magic. (One of the most amazing claims would be the claim that matter organized in a particular way becomes conscious.) Some naturalistic claims strike me as going beyond magic and touching on the absurd. An example would be the claim that the entire universe is all time splitting into copies and that I don’t notice a thing because I myself am being split into copies with it. Other examples would be the non-existence of free will, or that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with torturing a child for fun.

    Nevertheless I would like to raise the bar and argue that some of naturalism’s claims should also strike a naturalist as being “magical”. When I put on my naturalistic goggles the claim that most bothers me is the claim about the mathematical prowess of elementary particles. How is a physical primitive such the electron without any internal moving parts, without access to any computing machinery, without being moved by some external power, capable of such a computationally complex behavior? The very notion boggles my naturalistic mindset. It’s like a colleague showing me her new and extremely powerful calculator, and then in order to impress me even more opens it to show that it is completely empty inside – while insisting that no magic is at work. Incidentally there is no logical reason why things should be like that, even if naturalism is true. We can easily conceptualize a naturalistic world where the behavior of physical primitives is primitive itself, and where complex events, including the evolution of intelligent beings in that world, occur at the result of adding up many simple events. (Incidentally, such a world would be much more computationally efficient; the fact then that our world is not like that is perhaps an argument against the computer simulation hypothesis.)

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [2nd part, continued from above]

    I proceed to comment on the three options you suggest.

    Antirealism is I think a viable option for naturalists in the following sense: The antirealist who holds that, say, the bending of spacetime is just an empirically adequate model and that it’s not the case that spacetime actually bends – is really saying that she does not know what is the cause of the order present in gravitational phenomena; not that there is no such cause. (The latter hypothesis would be that of solipsism.) Now the naturalist can forcefully argue that our cognitive faculties were produced by a blind/purposeless mechanism which will not generate brains capable of effective metaphysical thinking. The spreading of genes does not depend on their carrying body’s brain being capable of finding our how reality really is. Knowledge or lack of knowledge about what it is that ultimately causes the movement of the attacking tiger makes no difference to the hominid’s genes’ chance of spreading in the gene pool. Thus when a naturalist embraces the antirealism option she is really embracing mysterianism. On naturalism such a choice may be reasonable and even appropriate, but has two problems: One, it does not remove the scent of magic from the naturalistic worldview, but rather makes it worse by making it unsolvable. And, two, as naturalism itself is a metaphysical view, the idea that our brains have not evolved effective metaphysical truth tracking capacity renders naturalism epistemically self-defeating.

    The use of “explanation” in the second option you suggest is ambiguous. “Explanation” means one thing when used in the context of the mathematical order present in physical phenomena, and another thing when used in the context of the modeling of the underlying reality that causes that order. The former kind of scientific explanation simply points out how a physical observation fits the mathematical pattern, or, further, how a pattern (say NM) fits a deeper pattern (GR in this case). As you point out, a deeper description of gravitational phenomena (perhaps by a unified theory) would be an explanation of GR. But instead of using the equations that specify a pattern in the abstract, one can also device a model of reality which would produce that pattern. So, for example, the Newtonian model of reality (according to which mass attracts another mass with a force that weakens with the square of the distance) nicely explains the mathematical pattern entailed in the abstract equations of NM. Such a model of reality offers a more intellectual satisfying kind of explanation – but 1) adds *nothing* to the power of the abstract mathematical pattern, and 2) if one assumes that a model of reality is not just a useful model but actually describes reality then one moves away from physics into the hidden metaphysical realm.

    My contention is that whatever kind of order is present in physical phenomena (whether NM, or the deeper GR, or an even deeper future unified theory, or ultimately the deepest “brute fact” theory) is caused by some property of reality, a property that the respective mathematical description of that order which the physical sciences give us does not describe. Thus I suggest that the second option fails.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [3rd part, continued from above]

    The third option strikes me as the most viable one for a naturalist to hold. I take it a naturalist may argue thus: Reality is purely mechanical and produces the physical phenomena which the physical sciences study and which, unsurprisingly, are of a mechanical nature themselves. It is true that the physical sciences only discover mathematical patterns present in physical phenomena, and that the models of reality based on such patterns are really metaphysical projections. On the other hand the only way for forming reasonable beliefs about reality is by studying scientific knowledge and forming the best possible guess about what kind of reality produces it. Thus, what a naturalist will reasonably believe about reality depends on the current state of the physical sciences. For example, in the 18th century naturalists believed that mass exerts an attractive force, while we today believe that mass warps spacetime. The QM scientific revolution has uncovered a kind of order which makes it difficult to make a good guess about what kind of reality produces the respective phenomena, so naturalism’s understanding of reality is currently in flux. In the future, if need be, our best understanding of reality may change again and again. Finally, the mechanical order present in the universe (or multiverse) is caused by the respective fundamental (brute fact) properties of reality itself. And if such causal powers of reality strike theists as being “magical”, naturalism can (at least in principle) explain why their brain produces in them such a dispositional attitude. A rough explanation is probably this: We are a social species and for a long time the kind of causality that was more important to understand for survival purposes was agent causality. Thus primitive humans in the pre-scientific age tended to interpret all order in their environment as caused by some kind of agent, and therefore thought that some god causes lightning, that some river spirit causes the flow of water, some demon causes mental illness, etc. The residue of that primitive mindset survives in the brains of theists today, who find it difficult to conceptualize that physical matter may possess sophisticated causal powers, including deeply mathematical causal powers.

    Which sounds swell, but the facts remain that 1) naturalism has today lost sight of reality precisely because of the discoveries of modern physics, and 2) the hope that things will improve in the future is just that, a hope.

    I think you offer a fourth option. You write: “in your view, physical law can only postulate regularities and is overstepping if it attributes powers or liabilities to things. In other words, we should be good Humeans and limit ourselves to talk of consistent conjunctions.

    Right, only I think that physics does not speak of things in the first place, never mind of their powers or liabilities. Proof of that is that if we live in a computer simulation then all of physics is still true, but no “things” exist. The physical sciences discover stable patterns (which is what I assume Hume means by “consistent conjunctions”) in physical phenomena – and that’s all. Assuming anything else is to project on the science one’s own metaphysical assumptions. If that’s what Hume was saying about the physical sciences then I think he was quite right. He did not deny the existence of causality in reality, but only within the context of scientific knowledge.

    You conclude: “ You cannot be attributing any “magical” warping power to mass if you are not attributing any such power at all!

    But if spacetime simply warps (and warps in a way which depends on the distribution of mass in it) without that warping being caused by something or other – then that would strike me as an even more magical event.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    You say a great deal here, and I regard most of it as dubious, false, or unclear. I am therefore left puzzling about which of innumerable threads to pick up here to continue the discussion. Actually, I think there is a meta-lesson to be learned here about the likely futility of discussion between people, however well-intentioned, when differences are too vast. I think instead of picking a thread, I will address a new post to that issue.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    Given that (if I’m not mistaken) you are realist naturalist and I an antirealist theist our differences are indeed vast. On the other hand I don’t see why they should affect the effectiveness of our current discussion, for here I am criticizing naturalism from the inside as it were – the same way that naturalists criticize theism from the inside when they develop the argument from evil, say. The only place where I brought into the discussion my theism in where I disclosed a fact, namely that to me the amazing properties that naturalists believe matter possesses sound like magic. (I even raised the bar and claimed that some of these claims should sound like magic to naturalists too.) Everything else is an attack to the epistemic soundness of naturalism.

    Specifically I argue that naturalists often conflate scientific knowledge (which is the discovery of mathematical patterns in the data that science studies, namely physical phenomena) with the abstract realist models that would cause such patterns. In this context I argue 1) that it is always the case that several different realist models fit the same scientific knowledge, and 2) that such models are just visualization or thinking aids. I call the realist models which would cause the order that science reveals “hidden” because as a matter of fact they do not form part of scientific knowledge. As the history of QM proves, one can develop a great and indeed society transforming physical science without caring about the realist model. Therefore, I argue, a definition according to which any claims that are hidden from science are “supernatural” has the unfortunate implication that, say, the warping of spacetime by mass (which is an example of such a model) is a supernatural occurrence. And should one change the definition to include viable realist models one gets the unfortunate implication that theism is not a supernatural theory.

    A further epistemic error I claim many naturalists commit is to conflate the realist model with a description of reality. The knowledgeable realist knows that the idea that these models describe reality is a metaphysical hypothesis which must be argued for on the philosophical level, but many others think that the physical sciences imply or require realism, which is clearly not the case.

    If you think I am confused or mistaken in any of these basic thoughts I’d be thankful if you explained where.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    OK, but when we reach 100 comments, I am declaring victory and moving on! Actually, if we take it that far, maybe we should turn our exchange into a book and make some money (if anybody but us would read it).

    In response to your general remarks in your first comment, I am puzzled at how you claim to know, a priori apparently, what matter is or is not capable of doing. You seem to be relying on intuitions about the capacities of “dumb matter,” but surely we all know by now that fundamental physics confutes our everyday, commonsense intuitions and expectations, which are formed from our observations of mid-size objects that obey the laws of “classical” physics. The metaphysical naturalists’ view is this: We expect matter to be able to do precisely what the laws of physics say it can do. No more and no less. For the naturalist, the laws of physics are the court of last appeal; intuition, purported revelation, commonsense, or any other alleged “way of knowing” must give way. If we observe an electron doing something, then the metaphysical naturalist takes this at face value and concludes that this is something that electrons are capable of doing. Where’s the “magic?” Your use of this term carries rhetorical bark but no logical bite. The analogy with the sophisticated calculator is not apt, indeed it seems to be an instance of the sort of bad analogizing that Hume so effectively criticized in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: From the fact that we humans cannot achieve certain effects without organizing and designing things in certain ways, it does not follow that VERY different sorts of natural objects must be similarly designed:

    “But surely you will not affirm that the universe [or an electron] bears such a resemblance to a house [or a calculator] that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy here is entire and perfect. The dissimilitude is so striking that the utmost you can here pretend to is a guess, a conjecture, a presumption concerning a similar cause…”

    Perhaps it would help if you would specify something that an electron does and say specifically on what basis, other than intuition, you regard such behavior as improbable.

    As for the other “absurd” consequences of naturalism you mention, either you make the gratuitous assumption that the naturalist, qua naturalist, is committed to these things, or there is nothing obviously absurd about them. The many-worlds interpretation of QM is not entailed by naturalism nor is the assertion that torturing innocent children is not objectively wrong [I hope you have followed my discussions of ethical naturalism here on SO], nor that free will, reasonably understood, does not exist. As for the claim that matter organized in certain ways achieves consciousness is absurd, not only is it not absurd, ALL of the evidence is that it is in fact so!

    More on the other comments tomorrow.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    You write: “I am puzzled at how you claim to know, a priori apparently, what matter is or is not capable of doing.

    I don’t know what matter is capable of doing (and indeed I happen to believe that it is not capable of doing anything whatsoever). Here I am just pondering naturalism’s claims about what matter is capable of doing. Further I notice that according to naturalism matter may be intelligent only in complex configurations, from which it follows that in simple configurations it is indeed dumb. But there is no simpler configuration than a single electron, which, given the computationally complex behavior of the electron creates I think an internal conceptual stress. That’s why I argue that what naturalism claims an electron is capable of doing should strike even a naturalist as being “magical”.

    We expect matter to be able to do precisely what the laws of physics say it can do.

    That’s a slippery way of putting it. Strictly speaking physics describes the behavior of the electron, but does not say what causes that behavior and thus does not say what the electron “can” do. The idea that the behavior of the electron is caused by the electron itself belongs to metaphysical naturalism, not to physics. (Perhaps naturalists should consider the alternative idea that it’s not the electron which produces its behavior, but that the whole of the universe causes each electron’s behavior – but there are problems with that idea.)

    surely we all know by now that fundamental physics confutes our everyday, commonsense intuitions and expectations, which are formed from our observations of mid-size objects that obey the laws of “classical” physics.

    I agree only that fundamental physics refutes the scientific realist’s commonsense intuitions. And that’s why I think that naturalism’s claims about what fundamental particles can do are extraordinary claims for which no extraordinary evidence exists.

    [continues bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [2nd part, continued from above]

    For the naturalist, the laws of physics are the court of last appeal; intuition, purported revelation, commonsense, or any other alleged “way of knowing” must give way.

    In a recent debate with William Craig naturalistic physicist Lawrence Krauss claimed that the laws of physics are prior even to the laws of classical logic (see http://thegreatdebatencsu.com). Given what you write above, I wonder if you agree with Krauss. Or perhaps you hold that logic and reason are even higher courts of appeal? I am curious about your answer here.

    If we observe an electron doing something, then the metaphysical naturalist takes this at face value and concludes that this is something that electrons are capable of doing. Where’s the “magic?”

    By the same measure then, why can’t the theist argue as follows: If we observe an electron doing something, then the theist takes this at face value and concludes that this is something that God’s will causes electrons to do. Where’s the “magic?”

    “But surely you will not affirm that the universe [or an electron] bears such a resemblance to a house [or a calculator] that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy here is entire and perfect. The dissimilitude is so striking that the utmost you can here pretend to is a guess, a conjecture, a presumption concerning a similar cause…”

    Given that electrons may be used to implement qubits in quantum computers, there is actually much more than a mere resemblance between electrons and calculators.

    As for the claim that matter organized in certain ways achieves consciousness is absurd, not only is it not absurd, ALL of the evidence is that it is in fact so!

    I strongly disagree. I think that even if naturalism is true there is not (and there can’t be) any such evidence. But let’s not open that can of worms.

    Finally about that book idea – I am game. Whatever you would write, even with my participation, will certainly be better than the blockbuster New Atheism books. Which probably means that we won’t be making a lot of money. Seriously though, I am enjoying this and consider the opportunity of discussing with as knowledgeable and well-tempered a naturalist as you are a rare privilege and opportunity for clarifying my thoughts.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    This is a response to part of your second comment posted on Sept. 15.
    You allege two problems for the metaphysical naturalist who offers an antirealist account of physical theory. First, you say that so doing renders inexplicable what is really going on, and, you say, this leaves a “scent of magic.” Second, you claim that the antirealist would have no right to espouse a metaphysical naturalism because metaphysics is about what is really going on behind the phenomena, and the antirealist has abjured any claim to such knowledge.

    It is difficult to see just what you mean with respect to your first objection. The antirealist has principled reasons for denying that we can know what really going on “behind the scene” and is satisfied if we can accurately predict what we do see. About what the hidden structure of reality is “really” like, the antirealist is agnostic. When it comes to questions that the antirealist denies we can answer, his response to such questions is “Hypotheses non fingo!” You seem to regard such a response as an abdication of epistemic responsibility, but, unless you can rebut the antirealist’s reasons for agnosticism, it is hard to see how you can charge that. Further, it just is not clear why you think there is a “scent of magic” here. If the antirealist invokes NO hypothesis about what is “really” going on, then he is invoking no “magical” hypothesis either.

    The second objection is more interesting and, prima facie, more serious. Seemingly, an antirealist would have no right to identify himself as a metaphysical naturalist since his epistemological commitments apparently preclude him from making any statements about any reality beyond the phenomena. The first response an antirealist with naturalist inclinations might make would be to concede the point. This is the approach T.H. Huxley took. He held that any assertions about whether reality is ultimately material or spiritual constituted rank and unsupportable speculation, akin to speculation about the politics of extraterrestrials. That whereof we cannot speak, we must consign to silence. However, though Huxley rejected all metaphysical claims, including naturalistic ones, he espoused and practiced a consistent methodological naturalism. His justifications for methodological naturalism were pragmatic and heuristic, not metaphysical. The upshot of practicing a consistent methodological naturalism was that Huxley’s worldview was comprehensively and thoroughly naturalistic—just as comprehensively and thoroughly as if he had been a metaphysical naturalist.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    continued…

    A second option would be for the naturalistically inclined antirealist to say that metaphysical questions are ones we cannot help asking, though we cannot know the answers. We cannot KNOW whether reality is ultimately physical or spiritual, but where we cannot know we may still responsibly and reasonably conjecture. We cannot have knowledge of how things ultimately are, but we still might place our bets and do so in a rational manner. One could, for instance, be a naturalist by default, reasoning this way: We know that physical things exist; we encounter them all the time. I am writing on one right now, and, though it does some pretty amazing things, we know that my PC is a purely physical system that operates strictly in accordance with physical law. However, though we live in a universe of physical things (which, to all appearances, we are too), the evidence for anything supernatural or spiritual appears shoddy at best. The traditional metaphysical arguments for the existence of God are wheezing museum pieces, long since debunked. Their modern-day revivals by Swinburne, Craig, et al., despite greater “rigor” are really no better. All other alleged evidence (e.g., miracle claims) for the supernatural is anecdotal, fraudulent, or merely inadequate (extraordinary claims DO require extraordinary evidence). So, given that I am surrounded by physical things obeying physical laws, and that the so-called evidence for anything non-physical appears weak to nonexistent, my bet is that things turn out physical. I don’t KNOW this, but my bet seems eminently reasonable.

    The upshot is that one apparently (and without resorting to “magic”) can reasonably be an antirealist and a naturalist.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    While I am at it, I will reply to a few of your latest comments:

    You say:

    "I don’t know what matter is capable of doing (and indeed I happen to believe that it is not capable of doing anything whatsoever). Here I am just pondering naturalism’s claims about what matter is capable of doing. Further I notice that according to naturalism matter may be intelligent only in complex configurations, from which it follows that in simple configurations it is indeed dumb. But there is no simpler configuration than a single electron, which, given the computationally complex behavior of the electron creates I think an internal conceptual stress. That’s why I argue that what naturalism claims an electron is capable of doing should strike even a naturalist as being 'magical'."

    The point is that NOBODY has any reasonable basis for what an electron can do other than what our best theories about electrons say that they can do. If an electron is doing what theory expects, then nobody has a right to expect anything else. Theories do not just describe; they predict. As such they place constraints on what they describe. For instance, we do not expect that an electron can electrically attract another electron because theory tells us that all electrons have a negative charge and like charges repel. On the other hand, if it is perfectly consistent with current theory that an electron can tap dance while playing "Suwanee River" on a harmonica (indulge me), then nobody need be surprised that it can. Now I do not know exactly (or even vaguely) what an electron does in a quantum computer, but unless you can show me that it does something unexpected on the basis of current electron theory, then I will not be surprised and I certainly will not suspect any "magic." And, BTW, to say that an electron is not intelligent is not to say that it is "dumb." This is no more justified than saying that a rock is dead because it is not alive. Again, there just is no basis for our expectations about what electrons can do than what current theory says.

    Please do tell me more about what a qubit is and how it would operate in a quantum computer. Computers can do incredibly complex things, but the complexity arises out of very simple things doing very simple operations (on/off). Are you saying that the electron itself does something complex, or merely that it is a part of something that can do complex things?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    I would like to pick up your comments on my “second option” from your post on Sept. 15. My second option for the metaphysical naturalist concerning spacetime warping was this:

    “The naturalist can suppose that the warping of spacetime in the presence of massive bodies is currently unexplained, but need not be regarded as inexplicable. Indeed, as physics progresses and the relations between GR and QM are better understood, and if hypothetical particles such as the Higgs boson are detected, then the warping of spacetime might receive a physical explanation. With such a physical explanation in hand, the metaphysical naturalist can invoke that rather than posit occult powers.”

    Your objection is that “explanation” is ambiguous here and can either mean that we subsume phenomena under a broader mathematical pattern or that we offer physical models that posit entities with the character to produce the observed phenomena. Your point, as I understand it, is that the latter option moves beyond physics in to the realm of metaphysics, positing entities not required by the data. Hence the metaphysical naturalist cannot simply invoke science here, but must move beyond science into metaphysical speculation. You say:

    “My contention is that whatever kind of order is present in physical phenomena…is caused by some property of reality, a property that the respective mathematical description of that order which the physical sciences give us does not describe."

    There is no ambiguity in the sense of “explanation.” Physicists typically explain in terms of a model, and models generally have an ontological component that posits certain entities (particles, fields, etc.) with certain predicates. There are also mathematical elements that explicate the posited relations between theoretical entities and between those entities and phenomena. Thus, the Standard Model posits the existence of certain particles with certain attributed properties and mathematically explicates the relations between these posited entities and their alleged observable effects. When physicists offer such an explanatory model, they typically do not comment on whether the posited entities are REALLY real or not; they simply offer the model.

    Now, I think that spontaneously most physicists DO accept the ontology of their best-confirmed models. That is, most physicists are knee-jerk realists. I think that, to use Arthur Fine’s term, realism IS the “natural ontological attitude.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    continued…

    Now there was ambiguity in my statement of the use metaphysical naturalists could make of such explanations. We were imagining that a theory wedding GR and QM has been developed, one that encompasses the existence of a Higgs field and an associated Higgs boson. We are assuming also that there has been experimental evidence—say operators of cyclotrons report the discovery of the Higgs boson. Now, I am assuming that metaphysical naturalists could place a realist construal on this theory and interpret spacetime warping as really caused by real entities exerting real physical powers. In this case, they would be explaining spacetime warping as “some property of reality,” as you put it, and not simply subsuming observations under broader mathematical patterns.

    As far as I can tell, your only objection here is that in making such a realist construal of the theory, metaphysical naturalists would be moving beyond physics into metaphysics. Well, if we admit that an antirealist interpretation of theories is coherent (and I do), then we have to admit that affirming that the actual existence of theoretical entities moves beyond what physics entails. If this means that a realist construal of physical theory has a metaphysical component, then I can live with that. The issue between us was not whether theists and metaphysical naturalists make metaphysical claims—of course they do. The question was whether, as you have charged, metaphysical naturalists must invoke something “magical” or supernatural in accounting for spacetime warping. Clearly, on a realist construal of the proposed theory, spacetime warping is physically caused by the physical powers of physical entities—the Higgs field and its associated particle. No magic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    I would like to respond to a number of remarks you made in your message of Sept. 17:

    “Specifically I argue that naturalists often conflate scientific knowledge (which is the discovery of mathematical patterns in the data that science studies, namely physical phenomena) with the abstract realist models that would cause such patterns.”

    This statement simply begs the question against a realist construal of science. As realists see it, science not only provides mathematical tools for saving the appearances, but succeeds in elucidating the deep structure of physical reality. On the realist’s view, science has DISCOVERED electrons, photons, quarks, etc. They are just as much denizens of our universe as pepperoni pizza, PVC pipe, and politicians. Now you can DO physics without committing yourself to the existence of theoretical entities, and simply act AS IF they were real. Likewise, as the good Bishop Berkeley showed, you can DO the activities of daily life, like dressing yourself and sitting down, even if you think that there really are no such things as clothes and chairs; you just act exactly as if there were. In that sense, the existence of clothes and chairs is not entailed by our daily experience (indeed, such experience does not entail that we are not brains in vats). Nevertheless, I think that it is eminently reasonable to include clothes and chairs in one’s ontology, and I extend that courtesy to electrons also.

    “I argue 1) that it is always the case that several different realist models fit the same scientific knowledge…”

    On what basis do you argue this? The standard appeals to Quine/Duhem and underdetermination? But realists have addressed this argument many times. One of the most notable debunkings is the well-known paper by Laudan and Leplin (and Laudan isn’t even a realist). Do you have something new to add?

    “…such models are just visualization or thinking aids. I call the realist models which would cause the order that science reveals “hidden” because as a matter of fact they do not form part of scientific knowledge.”
    Sez you! This is just more question begging.

    “And should one change the definition to include viable realist models one gets the unfortunate implication that theism is not a supernatural theory.”

    Huh? Howcome? The realist naturalist explains things in terms of physical entities, that have physical properties, and which act strictly in accordance with physical laws. The theist realist invokes an undetectable being who acts in unknowable ways, wielding inscrutable powers that are independent of and unrestrained by physical law, and that allegedly inexplicably bring about certain effects, all for purposes that we can, at best, only dimly discern. I think it is pretty clear who is doing the supernatural theorizing here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    I have not heard from you in a few days. I assume you are busy, as I am. I am afraid that next week I am going to have to get back to my "real" work and will not have much time for blog comments. Thanks in advance for any further commentary, and I promise you that I will read it carefully. However, I hope you will excuse me if I cannot address your further remarks, or if my remarks are cursory. Maybe I can get back to these issues in the not-too-distant future. Right now I have to do the work that pays the bills!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    Thanks for the many interesting comments. I have indeed been busy these last few days, and in any case I enjoy mulling things over.

    I have lost interest in the issue about “magic”, for it is really about a dispositional attitude. I do myself feel that naturalism’s claims about what matter can do stress credulity, and therefore call such claims magic-like. I understand naturalists do not feel that way. Perhaps it makes little sense to argue about how people should feel.

    There are several other strands though I find very interesting and will certainly comment on. Specifically I wonder whether scientific models really elucidate the mathematical order expressed in the respective scientific equations. Another idea that interests me is about our knowledge of the existence of physical things and lack of knowledge of the existence of supernatural things. Anyway, please do not feel any obligation to invest your time in the future responding to my posts. I have already profited a lot from our exchange and appreciate your time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    You write: “The antirealist has principled reasons for denying that we can know what really going on “behind the scene” and is satisfied if we can accurately predict what we do see.

    Right. Which comports with my impression that the antirealist naturalist is embracing mysterianism. Interestingly enough that’s not the case with the antirealist theist, who considers antirealism (in respect to physical existents) to be the right understanding of reality. In other words naturalists arrive at antirealism by reasoning that we can’t know how reality is, whereas theists arrive at antirealism by reasoning that we can.

    [Huxley] espoused and practiced a consistent methodological naturalism.

    Many theistic scientists practice a consistent methodological naturalism. I take it any scientifically knowledgeable person will. By now there is overwhelming evidence that the physical universe is causally closed, i.e. that methodological naturalism is right. I understand there is another sense of “methodological naturalism”, namely the idea that philosophy should use the same methodology that the physical sciences use. Beyond the questionable merits of that latter idea, I doubt that this was Huxley’s sense though.

    The upshot of practicing a consistent methodological naturalism was that Huxley’s worldview was comprehensively and thoroughly naturalistic—just as comprehensively and thoroughly as if he had been a metaphysical naturalist.

    I wonder if that picture can be right. Can somebody have a comprehensively and thoroughly naturalistic worldview and at the same time see no good reason to prefer the naturalistic worldview over the theistic one and therefore remain an agnostic, like Huxley did?

    We cannot have knowledge of how things ultimately are, but we still might place our bets and do so in a rational manner.

    Agreed. I tend to think the concepts of “knowledge” and of “fact” simply express one’s feeling of confidence in some claim. I find that in reality all we have are bets and our faith that we are betting smartly (aka rationally). The only certainty we really have is about our current and direct subjective experiences.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    I find the following issue particularly interesting, because I have the impression it lies close to the center of many a naturalist’s mindset and I want to discuss its reasonableness:

    You write: “One could, for instance, be a naturalist by default, reasoning this way: We know that physical things exist; we encounter them all the time. I am writing on one right now, and, though it does some pretty amazing things, we know that my PC is a purely physical system that operates strictly in accordance with physical law. However, though we live in a universe of physical things (which, to all appearances, we are too), the evidence for anything supernatural or spiritual appears shoddy at best.

    We all know that it is difficult to form reliable beliefs about how reality is (metaphysics is hard), so it’s no big surprise that there is so much disagreement. On the other hand we are all humans and there are some basic facts about the human condition we all share. Thus it should be possible to be clear and agree about these facts. Such clarity and agreement will turn help increase the effectiveness of any thinking or discussion about metaphysics. So I can’t help but agree that we know about the existence of physical things which (appear to) operate strictly in accordance with physical law. Only, and that’s a basic clarification, that existence is present in how reality seems to us. So we don’t really know about the existence of physical things in actual reality beyond how reality seems. That is why antirealism in respect to physical things is, as you note, a viable option open to even the greatest of physicists. What I am saying is that the naturalist who argues starting with a premise “we know physical things exist in reality” is begging the question. In my judgment a reasonable argument should have the form “if physical things exist in reality then naturalism is probable for the following reasons”.

    I also object to the expression “we live in a universe of physical things”. Where we live in is a factual observation about our condition, and I posit that the only basic claim we can make is that “we live in a universe of conscious experiences”. Part of our set of experiences includes stable patterns which we call “physical things” individually, and “the physical universe” as a set. We learn to automatically detect patterns that represent mid-sized physical objects when we were babies and long before we form the capacity to remember. The discovery of deeper physical patterns (such as electrons, or gravitational force fields) is of course the project of the physical sciences. That such patterns pertain only to phenomenal reality is proved by the fact that some patterns (e.g. the gravitational force field) have both entered and left naturalism’s metaphysical worldview depending on the developments of science.

    I also have a big bone to pick with the claim “the evidence for anything supernatural or spiritual appears shoddy at best”. I will agree that among physical things that evidence is shoddy. So let me concede that there is no evidence whatsoever of anything supernatural or spiritual in the physical universe, and move on. (Which is another way of saying that the physical universe is causally closed.) But the fact that there is nothing supernatural in a particular part of the place we live in, does not imply that there nothing supernatural at all. Prima facie it seems that the very fact that we are conscious beings is supernatural (in the sense of non-physical), and our consciousness is incontrovertible evidence that faces us every single second of our waking lives – so it’s not like some evidence one might miss. The naturalist is free to argue why we shouldn’t hold that consciousness is a supernatural thing, but must do so *without* assuming naturalism. To my knowledge there is not such an argument whatsoever. But then I contest your claim above and in turn claim that “it looks like there is plenty of supernatural or spiritual stuff, and the evidence that there isn’t appears shoddy at best”.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    You write: “The traditional metaphysical arguments for the existence of God are wheezing museum pieces, long since debunked.

    It is not quite clear to me whether that’s how you think or part of how the “default naturalist could argue”. I understand the arguments of the scholastics are still being debated in professional journals, and it is hardly plausible to hold that academic philosophers are not aware that these arguments have long since been debunked.

    Their modern-day revivals by Swinburne, Craig, et al., despite greater “rigor” are really no better.

    Perhaps, but the fact remains that there are lots of new arguments for theism, such as the argument from morality, the argument from consciousness, the argument from reason, the argument from the apparent fine-tuning of the universe, the argument from the mathematical nature of the universe, and many others. (Even I have developed some arguments for theism, such as the argument from stones.) And in comparison there are very few (actually next to none) arguments for naturalism. Given this state of affairs the theist can argue that there is more reason to believe in theism than to believe in naturalism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    These are my comments to your post from September 20, 1:39 pm

    You write: “The point is that NOBODY has any reasonable basis for what an electron can do other than what our best theories about electrons say that they can do.

    The best theories we have are the theories of physics, and they don’t say what physical things can do but only describe our observations of them. There is a vast metaphysical difference between the two. If one assumes that the physical sciences say what physical things can do then one is already assuming that classical theism is false and is thus begging the question.

    Theories do not just describe; they predict.

    Right. All descriptions of a mathematical order (and that’s what the theories of the physical sciences are) allow for predictions. A mathematical order always refers to a mathematical pattern, and given a pattern one can always predict with better than chance success rate the value of a missing element.

    (There is subtle point to be made here though. On the one hand it is true that a theory without predictive power is not a scientific theory. On the other hand it is possible to have a better scientific theory even at the absence of new predictions. Thus a better theory may integrate the descriptive power of two older theories without adding any new predictions. To my knowledge though this has never been the case in the history of science; it has always been the case that a theory with broader descriptive power also made new predictions.)

    Computers can do incredibly complex things, but the complexity arises out of very simple things doing very simple operations (on/off).

    Yes. If naturalism would describe a reality which works like a computer I would find it much more plausible. But, given scientific knowledge, naturalism describes an upside down reality in which the simplicity of our observations of physical phenomena is produced by adding up the incredibly complex behavior of elementary particles. That’s the unnatural nature of naturalism.

    [continues bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [continues from above]

    Please do tell me more about what a qubit is and how it would operate in a quantum computer.

    What I think I know is this: Before the technology for digital computers came along we built analog computers. The idea here is this: Since matter behaves in precise mathematical ways one can tap on this behaviour to find out the solution to mathematical problems. Take for example the distance travelled by a falling apple. That distance grows with the square of time. Therefore the time needed for an apple to fall a particular distance is proportional to the square root of that distance. If one then uses a clock to measure how long it took an apple to fall a particular distance one can use that measure to find out the square root of a number. (Nobody knows exactly how the brain of the frog solves the differential equations necessary for it to be able to catch a fly midair but it is probably the case that the frog’s brain instantiates an analog computer.)

    Now as it happens the behaviour of elementary particles such as the electron are incredibly complex computationally speaking. Thus, (repeated) measurements of the physical state of a single electron can in principle allow for very powerful computations. Now quantum computers use the remarkable fact that several elementary particles can exist in a state of coherence. The basic idea is that before observation some physical property of an elementary particle can have various values at the same time. So, we say, an electron passes through the both slits at the same time, or a photon can be polarized in different directions at the same time, etc. Now some properties, such as the spin of an electron, are binary properties. The trick is to hold a large number of electrons (say 128 of them) in a coherent state. Then all 2^128 combinations of spin values “exist” at the same time and some physical effect on this set of electrons would affect (and thus compute) on all 2^128 states concurrently. It’s like having 2^128 elementary computers (each holding a 128-bit number) running in parallel; indeed according to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that’s exactly the case. A quantum computer which uses N electrons in this way would be a computer of N “qubits”. What’s important is not to use electrons, or even elementary particles, but to instantiate a coherent quantum state of 2^N value states and make operations on it without losing its coherence (until the very end when the system is “observed”).

    In theory the idea works like a dream, in practice there are always problems of accidental decoherence which destroys the computation being performed. To my knowledge only quantum computers with a handful of qubits have been shown to work reliably and their cost is way greater than their power. The power of a quantum computer doubles with each qubit one adds as long as the error rate does not increase. 128 qubit quantum computers have been built commercially but it is not clear whether their error rate is sufficiently low to produce useful work. A quantum computer with 32 qubits and zero error rate would already outperform the strongest digital computers in particular tasks, and in particular tasks related with encryption technology.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    I’d like to comment to your post from September 21, 10:20am, which is I think close to the center of our discussion.

    Let me start by saying that in the context of our discussion I do not care what physicists think. Physicists are good at physics, but not at metaphysics. Many of them probably believe that “metaphysics” means things like ghosts and PSI. Many of them probably believe that the supernatural must conflict with the natural order. Many of them live under the delusion that they can speak authoritatively about how reality is just because they are physicists. So I find it irrelevant that “most physicists are knee-jerk realists”. Rather I am interested about what physicists do, namely physics, and I am interested in thinking what the metaphysical implications of physics are. That’s a philosophical project, and I value your views more than Steven Weinberg’s.

    I think we agree that physics comprises the mathematical equations and (sometimes) the respective models. In classical physics (i.e. up until GR) one could reasonably assume that the equations describe the models, but that dependence has definitely been proven an illusion in the current non-classical physics, where physicists first find the equations and then wonder what models might fit. Now I agree that models (when they exist) are valuable in the sense that they serve as visualization or thinking aids. I also agree that in some sense they explain the equations. On the other hand they do *not* add any predictive power to the equations, and thus their omission does not render physics any less useful. In any case the existence or non-existence of models is not relevant for my argument.

    Now as you point out “models generally have an ontological component that posits certain entities (particles, fields, etc.) with certain predicates”, but “ontological” in this context means “having a place within the model”. Indeed some such entities (e.g. the gravitational force field) are not any longer assumed to exist in reality even by scientific realists. It is difficult but not impossible to imagine that some day a particle such as the electron may similarly pushed out of real existence – who knows? The point is that within the business of physics a model is a model, and no matter how strong our visualization of it might be, nothing in that model must refer to real entities.

    [continues bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [2nd part, continues from above]

    I don’t dispute that physics may find a deeper mathematical order which welds GR with QM and also perhaps the corresponding model (through the Higgs particle or whatever), in which case we would have both types of explanation of how mass bends spacetime (first by subsuming the corresponding mathematical pattern into a deeper one, and secondly by visualizing the process of spacetime warping by the model that would cause it). I only used the bending of spacetime as an example. My point is that there provably must exist a deepest physical order, an ultimate physical theory, the physical “brute fact”. Here the metaphysical question arises about what causes that deepest physical order. If physics were such that the deeper one goes the simpler the order gets then it would *perhaps* be reasonable to argue that “nothing” causes that deepest and simplest order. But given the fact that the deeper physics goes the more intricate the mathematical order gets, that answer is not viable. So there must be something that causes that order, and there will be nothing in the equations that describe the brute fact deepest physical order which says what that cause is. Why not? Because equations are strictly descriptive. But suppose there is a model which explains these brute fact equations. Couldn’t a realist argue that the corresponding real properties cause that order? No, because the model will entail a mirror-view order which itself will remain uncaused. One way or the other then the question remains about what the ultimate cause of the physical brute fact order is. Which is a question which philosophers since the time of Aristotle had understood and tried to answer.

    Now the naturalist and the theist will give different answers to this question, and both will feel that the other party is making magic-like claims. The former will claim that something intrinsic in matter itself (or perhaps more powerfully, intrinsic in the universe itself) causes the brute fact physical order; the latter will claim that the will of God causes it. The more important point though is that both parties will make claims that are independent of physics, and therefore, according to your definition, will be making “supernatural” claims. Which I argue shows a defect in your definition. Which is where our discussion started.

    In fairness I want to make the following clarification. Above I write that the answer that nothing cause the ultimate physical order is not viable, because the deeper one goes the more intricate the order. Indeed today’s cutting edge physics, namely string theory, is so mathematically intricate that some people think it’s more about abstract mathematics than about physics based on experiment. But even so it is at least possible that future physics will reverse that trend. Perhaps in the far future the deepest theory will become extremely simple to a degree that naturalist may divorce physics from metaphysics and claim that physics is in some way self-sustainable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    Bellow my comments on your September 21, 11:22 am, post:

    You write: “On the realist’s view, science has DISCOVERED electrons, photons, quarks, etc. They are just as much denizens of our universe as pepperoni pizza, PVC pipe, and politicians. Now you can DO physics without committing yourself to the existence of theoretical entities, and simply act AS IF they were real.

    Electrons and pepperoni pizza are stable patterns in our experience of life. Italians have invented the latter and thus introduced the respective patterns in our experience of life, and physicists have discovered the former in nature. Both existents are indisputably real in that they are indeed present in our experience of life. (In my view the fact that the former are “unobservable” is metaphysically irrelevant). On the other hand we all agree that there is a deeper reality out there, that which produces the full of our experience of life. The difference between the realist and the anti-realist is, I think, an epistemic one, namely the realist holds that our experience is such that one can moreover discover what it is in reality which produces the patterns of pepperoni pizza and of electrons in our experience of life, whereas the anti-realist thinks that this is not the case. So far then I’d say I am realist myself.

    In the context of our discussion though we deal with the ontological view of scientific realism, i.e. the view that what it is in reality which produces the patterns of pepperoni pizza and of electrons is in some strong sense structurally similar to them, and especially that it is of a mechanical nature to reflect the mechanical nature of the patterns themselves. This is the ontological view I reject as not well attested, and moreover think that a strong case can be made against it.

    Likewise, as the good Bishop Berkeley showed, you can DO the activities of daily life, like dressing yourself and sitting down, even if you think that there really are no such things as clothes and chairs; you just act exactly as if there were.

    Berkeley did believe in the existence in reality of clothes and chairs, he just did not believe in the existence of clothes and chairs in the way naturalistic realists think they exist. In particular he (and I) think that what produces the respective patterns in our experience of life is the will of God, and not as naturalistic realists think the presence in reality of material things existing on their own, being capable of producing lawful behavior just by themselves, etc. Berkeley (and I) also reject the view of dualistic theists who believe in the presence in reality of material things existing and moving around by the will of God, as if they were marionettes moved around by invisible supernatural strings. Now I will agree that the naturalistic view of clothes and chairs is the one that we all use in our everyday life, for the practical and simple reason that it is the simplest view to mentally process. But it is not I think the view that holds up well under philosophical consideration, and especially under philosophical consideration informed by the discoveries of modern science.

    Nevertheless, I think that it is eminently reasonable to include clothes and chairs in one’s ontology, and I extend that courtesy to electrons also.

    If, as I believe, it is the case that scientific realism does not hold up well under philosophical consideration then such a view is not at all reasonable. But perhaps I am mistaken, so I have ordered Stathis Psillos’s book you have recommended to study a good defense of it. For good measure I have also ordered Robert Fogelin’s “Walking the Tightrope of Reason” you have recently mentioned. To round it up I also ordered Fogelin’s book on Berkeley. Now the only thing I need is the time to read.

    [continues bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [2nd part, continues from above]

    One of the most notable debunkings [of underdetermination] is the well-known paper by Laudan and Leplin (and Laudan isn’t even a realist).

    What I understand they are saying is that in all cases where two theories are empirically equivalent, future data may falsify one of the two. If by “empirical” they mean “scientifically observable” then they are wrong, because there are ontological theories (such as the computer simulation hypothesis) that cannot be falsified by any amount of scientific data present or future.

    At this juncture a clarification should be made: We are not here discussing the whole of our experience of life and whether it underdetermines reality or not – i.e. Quine’s holistic underdetermination. We are only discussing whether a particular subset of our experience of life, namely the subset of physical phenomena including all the interesting order that the physical sciences discover in it underdetermines reality or not. Clearly, I say, the subset of physical phenomena does underdetermine reality, and that’s indeed why we need metaphysical reasoning to find out which of the many physically equivalent theories is more probably true or is more reasonable to believe. This is not only of academic interest; the recent debacle with how to interpret quantum mechanical phenomena is a real world example of underdetermination. – Incidentally, for anyone interested in these matters, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes a very clearly written article “Underdetermination of Scientific Theory” by Kyle Stanford.

    The realist naturalist explains things in terms of physical entities, that have physical properties, and which act strictly in accordance with physical laws. The theist realist invokes an undetectable being who acts in unknowable ways, wielding inscrutable powers that are independent of and unrestrained by physical law, and that allegedly inexplicably bring about certain effects, all for purposes that we can, at best, only dimly discern.

    The difference between the realist naturalist and the realist theist does not lie in their understanding of the physical sciences though. Their difference (among others) lies in what they believe is the metaphysical cause of the order discovered by the physical sciences. The theist suggests a purposeful supernatural cause, whereas the naturalist suggests that cause is one more blind and mechanical property of physical entities. My contention here has been that the both the supernatural cause theists believe in and the naturalistic cause naturalists believe in are invisible and indeed quite irrelevant to the physical sciences.

    [continues bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [3rd part, continues from above]

    I think it is pretty clear who is doing the supernatural theorizing here.

    Of course. My contention has been that by using the physical sciences in your definition of the “supernatural” you are confusing the issue because there is nothing in the physical sciences that supports naturalism over supernaturalism, indeed the naturalistic and supernaturalistic metaphysical hypotheses are invisible and irrelevant to the physical sciences. (Which is not to be confused with the fact that specific naturalistic and supernaturalistic beliefs can and have in the past been falsified by science.) If anything philosophers can use scientific evidence against naturalism (such as the argument from the finetuning of the fundamental constants, or the argument from the deep mathematical nature of the universe) and, as I suggest in a recent post here, we can certainly imagine different ways how arguments based on the physical sciences may yet falsify naturalism. So if one defines the supernatural as what is independent of the physical sciences one may end up producing an upside-down definition in which theism becomes a naturalistic position and naturalism becomes the supernaturalistic one.

    In conclusion, it seems to me, the difference between the natural and supernatural is not to be found within the corpus of the physical sciences but within the metaphysical hypotheses about the *nature* of the ontologically ultimate. Naturalists believe that that nature is mechanical and blind while supernaturalists believe it’s not. Specifically, theists believe that that nature is personal and purposeful.

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