September 12, 2006

PZ Meyers and Ken Miller - Time to rethink "supernatural?"

In spite of being on the right (by which I mean evidentially supported) side of this issue, we experience our own rows and infighting now and then. Despite my current posting difficulties, I managed a quick check into the latest doings and discovered that there’s been some sparks flying over remarks made by PZ Meyers and others concerning Ken Miller’s comments about atheists, creationism, miracles etc. (those of you not familiar with the intellectual positions of these individuals will need to go get the backstory on your own).

What one has to appreciate is that they are trying to find understanding, not merely spitting and barking. PZ has insisted that science must be conducted from a methodologically and operationally naturalist perspective and Miller has tried to make it clear that he agrees with this. But Miller’s faith keeps getting in the way. One of the difficulties under discussion is the disposition of miracles.

It is my opinion that the problem here comes not from PZ’s intractability or what some may see as Ken Miller’s flexibility in applying logic. I think the problem lies in how we use, interpret, and discuss the supernatural and its examples (including “miracle”) and euphemisms (hereafter simply "the supernatural").

If we can agree that profitable dialogue between skeptics and believers in supernatural phenomena is a desirable thing then we need a definition of the word, a way of viewing the concept, that allows both sides to discuss the issue without having it become a rhetorical opera of Wagnerian proportions.

The "supernatural" is not (a truism here, I realize) a part of empirical reality and therefore cannot be discussed casually as a thing in and of itself. It is simply too ambiguous and confusing to use a word which in essence describes all that's left over after you've eliminated the observable, measurable universe. The only way that term or its examples can have any meaning in a discussion including non-believers is for it to be brought into a context that is not self-refuting (from an empirical perspective). That would be the context of personal experience.

It is my suggestion that, at least for the purposes of debate, we reframe the “supernatural” as follows: The cognitive insulation from falsification of a belief or set of beliefs.

If a concept or phenomenon is open to invalidation by way of natural investigation then it can hardly, in my opinion, be reasonably referred to as supernatural. What self-respecting believer in the divinity of Christ, the sanctity of cows, or even the Thetan ancestry of humans would accept the possibility of disconfirmation of these tenets by scientific methodology?

To be sure, believers often assert that a particular phenomenon is the direct result of intervention by their preferred supernatural agency and propose tests of the phenomenon. But consider, for example, an experimental protocol designed to investigate whether there’s a significant measurable healing effect to be found in remote prayer subjects. It’s reasonable to wonder what it is, exactly, that’s being tested. Think of it this way: should numerous, sweeping studies demonstrate a decided lack of evidence for the efficacy of remote prayer, do we really expect that those who invest prayer with transcendent power would revise their beliefs? Surely they would suggest the negative findings merely reflect a failure of natural investigation. If so, then it’s a fair question to ask if we were ever really testing “the supernatural.”

When the weight of evidence falls against a hypothesis meant to test supernatural agency, yet the believer’s concept of that agency emerges unscathed, then it becomes clear that the belief itself is effectively isolated from disproof. I submit that this is the essence of “supernatural.” It’s not about the details of scripture, or icons, or pictures of humongous footprints; it’s about the degree of investment a believer makes in these things.

The reality is that when science investigates faith healing, or dowsing, or bigfoot lore, it is really only evaluating those natural facets of the belief system that are left open to falsification. Any actual “tests” of the supernatural occur only in the mind of the believer, and long before the application of our methods of investigation.

I’ll be the first to admit there are some problems with this approach. For example, my definition leaves qualification open to a startlingly wide range of ideas. I’m not sure it’s particularly helpful to those discussing ramifications of theological belief systems to have to deal with the consequences of a definition of supernatural that might include “nose hairs grow faster if you cut them.”

Obviously people are fond of, and cling to, all sorts of crazy notions that they refuse to lose, and I’ll concede that calling these conceits “supernatural” seems a bit too broad. This might be avoided by including a qualifier (e.g., “metaphysical belief”) in the definition. But it does tickle my skeptical fancy to propose that something could be learned from suggesting that “the bread always falls butter-side down” and “God helps those who help themselves” are not so ontologically dissimilar as they might at first seem.

However, there is a more important difficulty that I should address. It may seem to some that I’m trying to define “the supernatural” out of existence (pun intended), trying to force the believer into a position where he must defend belief in giddy hallucination. But, quite the opposite, the idea is to locate a methodological point of departure from which both the believer and the skeptic can be satisfied embarking.

Provided both accept that science is and should be a methodologically natural process and not a philosophical injunction (scientism), we can frame the discussion such that neither is required to cede rhetorical ground at the start. If the PZs of the world can acknowledge that a believer may experience sensory data that is not accessible to science (a position consistent with MN), and if the Ken Millers can assent to the reality that it is through their unique, non-quantifiable, personal experience that they have come to “know” the extra-natural (also consistent with MN), then we have a place to begin. As long as we approach these phenomena from the perspective of their residence within the mind of the believer we can treat them, for the purposes of discussion, as both real and beyond empiricism.

The idea is to develop an approach to the concept that preserves both the integrity of believers and the skepticism of non-believers such that there can be fruitful discussion. This re-conceptualization puts the “supernatural” in its properly understood context – a phenomenon of human cognition. There is no implied judgment of the individual’s choice to believe, nor does it admit to any empirical obligations external to that belief.

Some believers will not accept this because it doesn’t bow to their righteous certainty. And some skeptics won’t accept it because it doesn’t allow for preemptive dismissal of putative supernatural phenomena. But I see it as a way to facilitate talking with, instead of past, each other.


Blogger ruidh said...

"When the weight of evidence falls against a hypothesis meant to test supernatural agency, yet the believer’s concept of that agency emerges unscathed, then it becomes clear that the belief itself is effectively isolated from disproof."

There is no hypothesis which can test supernatural agency. One feature of supernatural agency is irreproducability which makes it impossible to scientific testing.

It's not that it's isolated from disproof, it's that there are many features of human existance which do not lend themselves to rigourous proof.

Science has its field of inquiry. Faith deals with how we make judgements in the absence of certainty.

8:13 PM  
Blogger RLC said...


Thanks for your comments.

"There is no hypothesis which can test supernatural agency."

I agree with you on this. In fact the whole of my argument is dependent upon that very fact. My point is that there are those who believe differently. They offer up their particular belief for testing then quibble when the evidence is lacking.

This is where science can address the question of "supernatural," in the arena of natural evidence. And it is exactly my point that this is not truly testing the supernatural because those qualities of an individual's faith that persist regardless of empirical evaluation will be, as I said, cognitively isolated from disproof.

This is not a sop to the credulous nor is it an indictment of a believer's logic. It is a recognition that a believer can always (and consistently with methodological naturalism) claim that he is experiencing sensory data beyond that which is investigable by science.

"It's not that it's isolated from disproof, it's that there are many features of human existance which do not lend themselves to rigourous proof.

Science has its field of inquiry. Faith deals with how we make judgements in the absence of certainty"

Well this is, of course, exactly what a believer would argue. But the reality is that in a discussion with non-believers the believer cannot argue for the verity of "the supernatural" by simply restating the claim, as you do when you say "there are many features of human existance which do not lend themselves to rigourous proof."

To a skeptic, this is merely another way of saying "non-natural phenomena exist," and begs the very question under discussion. If, on the other hand, the believer says "there are things that I conceive of as beyond empiricism" who can deny it? In this case the believer is not asserting the reality of supernatural phenomena, simply admitting his choice to suspend empirical evaluation. Again, this is all about cognitive isolation from disproof on the part of the believer.

2:52 PM  
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