Carrier’s Definition of Naturalism. I like It.

Carrier’s Definition of Naturalism. I like It. May 5, 2020

Being that we are happily debating the definition of naturalism on various threads here, after various posts, I thought I would defer to a post on Richard Carrier’s old old blog (H/T Jim Baerg).

I like his definition that I will admittedly decontextualise and paste here because it strips it of a lot of semantic guff and gets straight to the pragmatic point:

In short, I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things. As I summarized in the Carrier-Wanchick debate (and please pardon the dry, technical wording):

If [naturalism] is true, then all minds, and all the contents and powers and effects of minds, are entirely caused by natural [i.e. fundamentally nonmental] phenomena. But if naturalism is false, then some minds, or some of the contents or powers or effects of minds, are causally independent of nature. In other words, such things would then be partly or wholly caused by themselves, or exist or operate directly or fundamentally on their own.

The rest of the piece is of great interest, but let us dwell on this. I like it because, in terms of the philosophy of religion, it gets o the point. When we talk of supernaturalism, most of the time we talk of miracles and minds of gods, where the miracles are the causal output of the minds of gods. And, if we have no example or experience of a mind that is not supervenient on matter (since we are automatically excluding living in The Matrix), then such a claim would certainly be one of supernaturalism.

I like it.

So when we talk of any supernatural phenomena, we are never really talking about some kind of observed phenomenon that may take place in the word unconnected to gods or magic, minds or intentional miracles – say some interesting and as yet unexplained quark behaviour in a given scenario. We are talking about something happening because of a mind – whether of gods or fairies, demigods or ghosts.

In this way, the definition above is superbly unconvoluted (not a word, admittedly) and parsimonious.

Carrier concludes:

Many naturalists have a poor conception of how to define naturalism or the supernatural. They might know it when they see it, but when they try to capture in words what exactly it is they are talking about, they often come up with a badly worded travesty. I’ve done what little I can to remedy this by developing and testing a precise definition of naturalism and the supernatural, providing a sensible and usable natural-supernatural distinction, which also happens to align adequately well with how people use these words in practice (as I believe our terminology ought to do as much as possible). And now I have amplified my past work on this by surveying numerous hypothetical examples of how my proposed distinctions can be applied.

In defining the words “natural” and “supernatural” as I do, I differ from the legal and science community, as exemplified most recently in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. There, Judge Jones was bound by legal principles to follow case precedent and the professional standards of established industries. Following the 1982 McLean decision he found the courts had defined “supernatural intervention” as intervention that “cannot be explained by natural causes, or be proven through empirical investigation, and is therefore neither testable nor falsifiable.” Jones further cited the official statement of the National Academy of Sciences, which declares “claims of supernatural intervention…are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science.” Thus we see the same trend in both the legal and scientific communities, to veer away from metaphysical distinctions and in favor of purely epistemological ones, but as my articles, and now examples, have shown, this does not track the real-world use of the word at all, which can tend to no good.

I think the legal and scientific communities are on a bad track with this (hence the barely coherent discussion of the supernatural in Wikipedia), especially since the same point can be made without abusing the word “supernatural.” It is enough to say, for example, that creationism isn’t science, not because it is supernatural, but simply because it is untestable (assuming you can prove it is). There is no need to conflate the two.

Though I understand their reasons for wanting to keep metaphysics out of it (since both enterprises are more fundamentally epistemological), I disagree with their attempted solution of coopting and changing the meaning of a popular word. That’s the wrong way to go about it. Hence I believe a paradigm shift is needed in those communities regarding how the word “supernatural” is defined and applied. Both law and science must get back in line with ordinary English and real-world language, ideas, and concerns. 


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