Why I Reject A Natural/Supernatural Distinction

Are we buying into a paradigm that we ought not to? Let’s dive into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Many times when I’m in a debate, I’m told that I accept supernatural realities. My response is always along the lines of “Who said I do?” I in fact do not accept such because I do not believe that the term supernatural is really that meaningful anyway. I consider it a claim we have from the time of the Enlightenment that takes for granted an idea that we got from that time.

You see, in this view, the world that we see everyday is “natural.” For that, it is the one that does not need to be explained. Outside of this world is supposed to be a world that is deemed “supernatural.” This world is supposed to be a catch-all to includes ideas like fairies, goblins, demons, angels, miracles, and of course, God or the gods.

Is this really an approach we want to take?

You see, I can readily accept there are realities that we see everyday, and to be fair, most atheists and agnostics would seek to have an explanation for this rather than “It’s just there” as some sort of brute fact, but at the same time I believe in many realities that I do not have the ability to see everyday and do not operate according to “laws of nature.”

“Of course you do. You’re a theist. You believe in God.”

Okay. How about triangularity?

But don’t we see triangularity around us everyday?

No. We don’t. We can see several triangles. We don’t see triangularity itself. You could not draw me a picture of triangularity. You could only draw me triangles.

How about numbers? Now to be fair, I’m not convinced numbers exist in the same way triangularity does, but if you think that numbers do exist like that, then what is your explanation for that?

What about morality? Many of us do believe that there are objective moral truths and that some things are objectively good. This is not something that we can detect through scientific means however. It’s not visible so how could we just call it “natural”?

And then of course, there’s existence itself. Now we can say we see existence, but we don’t. We see things that exist. You can’t take just existence itself and put it in a jar.

When we accept the false natural/supernatural dichotomy, we make it so that we entirely have the burden of proof and we accept a more materialistic worldview right at the start. Why should we do that? If someone wants to say there is a natural/supernatural dichotomy, then it is up to them to demonstrate that.

When we accept it also, everything gets accepted under this catch-all term so it becomes “Oh? You believe in miracles? Then do you believe in fairies also?” The nonsense idea is that all claims of this sort are equal entirely. Of course some claims of suprahuman realities are false, but that does not mean all are. Each claim must be examined on its own.

I urge Christians to question this dichotomy wherever you find it. If you use this terminology, you’re already well on your way to accepting a materialist worldview. Don’t do it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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29 Responses to “Why I Reject A Natural/Supernatural Distinction”

  1. tildeb Says:

    You’re making a category mistake claiming that a word that describes a relationship is representative of a ‘thing’ – an actual object – that exists independent of the world. Your god is not an equivalent word but one that describes what you believe is an interactive and causal agency – an object, a thing – in the world as well as supposedly independent of it.

    Apples and oranges.

    There is no such equivalent ‘thing’ called triangularity. Numbers are not equivalent object that exist as ‘things’. Neither is morality a ‘thing’ (although many theists seem to have a real problem grasping this concept).

    If you want to turn your god into nothing more and nothing less than a descriptive word equivalent to any of these, then by all means do so. That will eliminate the supposedly causal agent from being treated by theists as a thing, as an object that causes changes in the world we inhabit. I would truly welcome the shift in definition.

    The way an object like a god can be protected by believers from needing an actual place and time in which to exist along with the requisite physical properties necessary to interact with the world to cause affect is to offer up a special place, with special time and mysterious but special physical properties able to supplant the usual ones (but superior to them, of course). This special place must also be exempt from study, exempt from requiring the usual evidence for claims about real ‘things’, and so the nebulous realm beyond our own is used. The typical word to define where this place and time might be hidden in plain sight is a place called the ‘supernatural’ accessible to our understanding of it by use of a special way of thinking called mataphysics… the ‘beyond’ world that supposedly exists ‘beyond’ the physics we encounter daily. This sleight-of-mind ‘explanation’ is standard methodological issue for any and all claims of woo woo. Without the supposed existence of this special place with special properties called the supernatural, the claims about some divine interactive causal agency is simply empty of any knowledge value adduced from the world. That is to say, you need the supernatural for your god beliefs whereas you don’t for geometric shapes or numbers or ethical considerations about behaviours.

  2. labreuer Says:

    You’re making a category mistake claiming that a word that describes a relationship is representative of a ‘thing’ – an actual object – that exists independent of the world. Your god is not an equivalent word but one that describes what you believe is an interactive and causal agency – an object, a thing – in the world as well as supposedly independent of it.

    Has the concept of triangularity ever exerted a causal force on a mind? I claim, yes. Causally potent entities must have ontic status. This ontic status need not involve particles and fields (Philosophy of Mathematics § Indispensability argument for realism provides an argument within the confines of naturalism). The concept of triangularity, by the way, has no “physical properties”.

    • jayman777 Says:

      labreuer, depending on one’s definition of naturalism, I wonder whether you can run an argument like the following:

      (1) Immaterial concepts must exist for reasoning to exist.

      (2) On naturalism, immaterial concepts do not exist.

      (3) On naturalism, reasoning does not exist.

      • labreuer Says:

        You may be right. According to tildeb, abstract concepts have no causal power. So how would it be valid to say, “I believe X because it is reasonable”? Such a statement only makes sense if ‘reason’ had a causal role to play, via either:

             (A) I submitted to reason
             (B) I compared to reason

        How can you compare something which exists (why I believe X) to something which does not exist (reason)? Many mathematicians want to say that they engage in discovering, not fabricating. But you can only discover that which can causally influence you. Those of us who believe that reason is real understand that it is something which is discovered as one attempts to intelligibly navigate reality. One can choose to submit to it. Folks like @tildeb, on the other hand, seem best modeled by a sort of non-cognitivism. Usually that’s associated with ethics, but here it’s associated with reason, despite the apparent absurdity. I do think this is one reason Edward Feser called his book The Last Superstition.

      • tildeb Says:

        Wow, you can be thick.

        The term ‘reason’ in the example represents one or more justifications that are used to make sense of the conclusion. That’s all the term means. The term ‘reason’ is not an independent thing in and of itself in the way objects are. Until you grasp this brute fact, you shall continue to confuse the descriptive nature of words to be objects independent of what it is they describe.

        Arguing against this most basic of grammatical understanding is so laughably silly that it boggles the mind.

        Let’s do an experiment. Let’s consider the abstraction we call ‘4’. Your task is to go find one. Then we’ll talk again.

        Best of luck finding a ‘4’ floating about… or a ‘four’ or a ‘IV’, or a ‘quatro’, or a ‘….’ or a ‘0100’. You see, Lab, they are all merely representations of an abstract comparative idea of a specific quantity. Change the metric of quantity (say, to chemical moles) and you change the meaning of 4 entirely. Four as an abstract idea DOES NOT EXIST IN REALITY. It’s not a thing. That’s why it’s called an abstraction. That’s the definition.

        Gosh, this is getting tedious.

      • labreuer Says:

        Ooof, time to pick apart a relatively short comment riddled with errors. Oh well, pretty much every serious truth-seeking endeavor has its tedious aspects. Those who shy away because of tedium are those who never really engage in truth-seeking.

        The term ‘reason’ in the example represents one or more justifications that are used to make sense of the conclusion. That’s all the term means.

        Ahh, but is it a ‘justification’ or merely a ‘rationalization’? For it to justify, I claim it has to be causally potent, via (A) or (B). If all you’re doing is rationalizing whenever you appeal to ‘reason’, then clearly no causal potency is required.

        The term ‘reason’ is not an independent thing in and of itself in the way objects are.

        I find this a bit hard to parse, but I’ll merely point out the absurdity of the idea that ‘reason’ would be different between universes. It’d like thinking that a different universe would have different Turing machines. No: they might implement them differently, but they would function precisely as our own computer scientists say that they function. That’s the appeal to reason that the Enlightenment folks masturbated over: it would be true universally, regardless of time or place, regardless of circumstance. Now here you are, saying that it actually isn’t independent, after all. Now I would argue that there are multiple conceptions of ‘reason’, as indicated by Alasdair MacIntyre in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, but those conceptions aren’t any more dependent on “the way objects are”. Instead, they represent stances toward reality, kinds of intentionality, if you will.

        Until you grasp this brute fact, you shall continue to confuse the descriptive nature of words to be objects independent of what it is they describe.

        On the contrary, a Turing machine is a well-understood concept which has never been perfectly reified in any physical object. Indeed, physical objects have finite memory and this has very important implications; for example, there is no halting problem with finite memory. So a Turing machine isn’t a physical object. And yet, it has all sorts of causal powers.

        Arguing against this most basic of grammatical understanding is so laughably silly that it boggles the mind.

        No, you’re actually trying to push a particular philosophy of language down my throat, and I’m regurgitating it in your face. Or do you think the presuppositions of physicalism cannot be encoded into one’s philosophy of language? No, you don’t get to reduce this to “grammatical understanding”, as if all reasonable people accept precisely your philosophy of language.

        Let’s do an experiment. Let’s consider the abstraction we call ‘4’. Your task is to go find one. Then we’ll talk again.

        There you go, assuming all things, all entities with causal power, are physical objects. The only way I can show you the causal power of an electron is to interact with it, and the only way I can show you the causal power of ‘4’ is to interact with it. And it doesn’t matter whether I say ‘electron’ or ‘電子’.

    • tildeb Says:

      Do you eve listen to yourself, Lab? How can a concept qua concept-by-definition (an abstraction, for crying out loud) cause anything… unless you magically change the definition of the words we use to describe concepts?

      No, triangularity as a concept alone causes nothing… anymore than the number ‘4’ alone causes anything. Causal effect by definition means the relation between an event (the cause) and a second event (the effect), where the second event is understood as a physical consequence of the first. If you mean the changes within the brain from activating the biochemical pathways related to transferring meaning to a concept – like the number ‘4’ meaning a quantity greater than 3 but fewer than 5 – then we’re in business because the causal effect you’re speaking of is from the neurological physical process – a ’cause’ that produces a neurological physical change in condition – an effect. It’s not the ‘4’ that causes this – it is simply an abstraction describing relative quantities; it’s the brain. There’ your ontic status and yes, it does require particles and fields to be ‘real’…. unless you assume a disembodied brain is magically still a brain

      • labreuer Says:

        How can a concept qua concept-by-definition (an abstraction, for crying out loud) cause anything… unless you magically change the definition of the words we use to describe concepts?

        On this reasoning, you can never say that you believe something because it is reasonable, nor can you say that you believe something because it is true. For neither reason nor truth—both being abstract concepts—have any causal power. See Jayman’s comment, which was simultaneous with yours.

        On this reasoning, the very concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘reason’ become rhetorical weapons; it’d be just like non-cognitivism in ethics, whereby that extra ‘force’ in a sentence containing the word ‘ought’ is merely an illusion, a façade behind my telling you that I want you to do the thing. You’re committing yourself to a non-cognitivism in reason, which some might take to be an oxymoron. However, we’re well-acquainted with this kind of ‘reason’: it’s called sophistry. See Logos, and compare the Sophists’ “discourse” to Aristotle’s “reasoned discourse”. Remember: you reject Aristotle’s claim that the intellect is immaterial. All that is causally efficacious, in your mind, is the physical.

        Causal effect by definition means the relation between an event (the cause) and a second event (the effect), where the second event is understood as a physical consequence of the first.

        It is delicious, how you use mind to say that matter is more real than mind. Lest you try and disagree with this:

        tildeb: It’s called making meaning and we – you and I – do it constantly without any external causal agency directing us in how we assign importance to the meaning we make. That’s why the same input experienced by thee and me can be held to radically different levels of importance as to its meaning. We do the assigning.

        So when you talk about what is “physical”, that is just meaning you made. It is subjective. You may call it ‘objective’, but that’s really an approximation; the true statement is that you found ways to intersubjectively agree with enough other people who did and said the right things to convince you. You took a product of mind, and used it to undermine mind. Just admit it, @tildeb the very concept of ‘mind’ ought to be shaved off by Ockham’s razor; the most consistent position for you is eliminative materialism.

      • tildeb Says:

        Isn’t there any light down there in that rabbit hole of yours at all? Language itself is symbolic meaning vocalized and is gibberish if it doesn’t pertain directly with our shared environment. Your environment these days is so dark from being muddied by metaphysics that I cannot possibly follow why your up should mean down and your black taken to mean white. Unless you yourself decide to share the common tongue, then your comments become ever less meaningful to me in my quest to decipher it properly.

      • labreuer Says:

        Language itself is symbolic meaning vocalized and is gibberish if it doesn’t pertain directly with our shared environment.

        If all you can say is a blanket statement that you cannot make sense of my comment, then I suggest we let the tangent die. Your purpose is ostensibly to voice a point of view more reasonable than Nick’s, Jayman’s, and mine. You don’t particularly care if we disagree with you; you care about those who are less convinced. Well, as long as you think those people—your true audience—would also find my comment unintelligible, your purpose is served. But if you’re actually refusing to make sense of an actually sensible comment, using language common to the fence-sitters, then your tactics need help.

        I am amused that you are attempting to gather people to your side who are swayed by emotional appeals, insults, manipulation, and the like. Indeed, I’m glad you are doing what you are doing, because I don’t want those people on my side. I want them to spend some time with you and people like you, to see what life is, among those who value such tactics. You’re actually doing a service that I either cannot do, or will not do. So thank you!

      • tildeb Says:

        What a bizarre take on my comments.

      • labreuer Says:

        I really don’t care if a person who loves the term ‘oogity boogity’ calls what I say ‘bizzare’. Again, I hope you convince the kind of people who are convinced by your kind of arguments. I hope you gather them around you, and remove them from my presence. If someone thinks that repeating ‘oogity boogity’ is a good way to truth-seek, I want those people to go away from me, and join you. I want them to see the consequences of your kind of thinking and behaving.

        From now on, I will understand any use of yours of ‘reason’ to be merely a rationalization for why I ought to agree with you, along the lines of “God says so, therefore believe it”. Instead of saying, “I believe this, so should you”—which requires you to have authority—you’ll instead say “it is reasonable, therefore believe it”. And yet, according to you, ‘reason’ is causally impotent, and therefore inaccessible as an entity in its own right. Therefore, what is ‘reasonable’ is merely something with your stamp of approval or, the stamp of approval of someone who thinks like you.

  3. jayman777 Says:

    I in fact do not accept such because I do not believe that the term supernatural is really that meaningful anyway.

    Likewise the definition of “natural” is just as ill-defined as the definition of “supernatural”. If you ask a group of self-described naturalists what “natural” means you will get different answers. The meaning of both terms should not be assumed to be obvious.

    If someone wants to say there is a natural/supernatural dichotomy, then it is up to them to demonstrate that.

    I would stress forcing them to define their terms first. Don’t allow them to arbitrarily label X as natural and Y as supernatural. Have them explain what it is about X that makes it natural and what it is about Y that makes it supernatural.

  4. cornelll Says:

    So I guess tildbe just assumes that universals such as triangularity, don’t exist as abstract objects which are instantiated by minds. He doesn’t give much argument for them, but it must be true.

    • tildeb Says:

      The argument I give, Cornell, is based on the definition of the terms themselves. It makes no sense linguistically to define an abstraction as a thing (existing independently) yet with no physical properties. The word ‘instantiated’ means ‘represented’ and giving a name to an abstraction doesn’t make it any more real a thing because it bestows no defining properties to make it so.

      • labreuer Says:

        It makes no sense linguistically to define an abstraction as a thing (existing independently) yet with no physical properties.

        In other words, mind-independent entities need to have mind-independent properties. But what is the reasoning to assert any of the following:

        (i) that which truly exists is mind-independent
        (ii) minds supervene on mind-independent entities
        (iii) truth only exists of mind-independent entities
        (iv) minds cannot causally influence non-minds
        (v) mind isn’t fundamental to reality

        ? Your preferential use of ‘existing’ and ‘real’ are clearly intended to promote certain points of view over others, but I see no reason to accept your use, to accept your meaning. It is patently absurd for me to subjectively state that the objective is more real than the subjective. It’s literally contradictory to assert that. That which is considered ‘objective’ is actually that which is intersubjectively agreed upon. It all starts with your subjective experience of reality. The less ‘real’ that is, the less ‘real’ anything derived from that becomes.

      • cornelll Says:

        Tildbe

        The instantiations are to show that the universal is abstracted by the mind, however universals such as a triangle isn’t reducible to any particular triangle, for any particular triangle could go out of existence, and yet triangularity could come to be instantiated once again. Whatever the case, any denial of universals leads to the problem of universals which is a problem conceptualists and nominalists haven’t solved.

      • labreuer Says:

        cornell, you must be new here. The way you deal with problems like that is to wave your hands vigorously, utter incantations such as ‘Oogity Boogity‘, call rigorous criticismbizarre‘, and answer simple questions with nonsense answers. Oh, and if you hit the jackpot: “Sorry, lab. I can’t help you. I really can’t.” To help people out of their delusions, here are some rationalizations for emotional manipulation. And hey, if it doesn’t work, then clearly the other person has mental problems.

      • tildeb Says:

        This is nothing more than the rephrasing of Platonic forms. The conceptualization of the qua chair is a brain conceptualization of certain properties and not an indication of the existence of the uber chair. The ‘universal’ chair is not abstracted by the mind; the mind conceptualizes the abstraction. You’ve got the order backwards by assuming the ‘universal’ already exists as a thing in and of itself. There is no evidence for this claim.

      • cornelll Says:

        Tilde you don’t have to hold to Platonic forms in order to commit to universals as a realist. I.e, Aristotle, Aquinas etc

        Moderate realism denies a Platonic third realm, but holds to universals as existing. We can use Plato’s “one over many” argument, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept the third realm.

      • tildeb Says:

        Perhaps I’m getting hung up in your use of the term ‘universals’.

        Let me explain how I think of them.

        I take the term to mean abstract ideas that describe relationships; wherever the relationship is used, that’s when we use these ‘universals’. For example, the abstract idea of what constitutes a triangle goes by the abstract name ‘triangularity’, meaning it is a concept that possesses the necessary properties we assign to the term ‘triangle’… the Aristotelian notion that things possess natures, and by altering the word triangle to its nature of possessing traingulairty is then evidence for a triangle being so because it possesses the nature of triangularity! Of course, I think this approach is a reversal of what is actually going on here: we produce ‘triangularity’ by selecting the properties that define it into being.

        The abstract idea of ‘triangularity’ is dependent on our selection of these properties and our selection of the term for it. My complaint against the notion that this ‘universal’ exists independently of us (that we then instantiate into ‘being’ by using it) is because it seems to me to be wholly dependent on us – for its creation, its use, and its descriptive properties.

        Am I missing something here?

      • cornelll Says:

        Universals means an essence that can be common to all particulars

        I argued why Realism about universals is the best position to hold to down below, I’d even go as far as to say that it’s almost certain that universals exist.

    • cornelll Says:

      Tilde another problem I see with your comment is the conceptualization itself.

      How do you conceptualize the difference between a 1000 sided object from an object with 10,000 sided object, because there is no way to distinguish the two images in our mind from each other?

      • tildeb Says:

        By utilizing the abstract idea of quantity and the difference between the two.

        It’s like language itself; a symbolic representation of meaning. You represent these quantities in your example by the use of an abstraction we call ‘numbers’. Because you and I have been taught a system of representation we call numbers, you are able to communicate the difference in your example to be meaningful. I understand this difference and I understand the extent of the difference symbolically. But I need more than that to understand what kind of quantity we’re talking about, which is why you had to switch to descriptive words of real things to bring the abstraction of a relative difference into being: two different sided objects, one with more facets than the other. Only now can I successfully understand what kind of objects we’re talking about and what the differences the numbers represent. And that’s the key understanding: a signpost for the representation . But without the objects themselves, we have nothing to work with using our numbers… other than the idea of a difference in some quantity.

        This reminds me of the little ditty I learned from the Electric Company: “We can measure at our leisure if the units stay the same.” The point here is that It’s easy to forget that without the standard unit of measure, the symbolic representations called ‘numbers’ don’t mean anything. And they mean nothing because they describe nothing real… until we assign the real bit, the units themselves. This is what brings numbers into meaning… and not pregnant quantity bits floating about waiting to be ‘instantiated’.

      • cornelll Says:

        This makes no sense unless ‘representation’ is a universal in itself, so all you’re doing is assuming universals and not realizing it.

        All you are doing is appealing to commonalities ad-inifnitum and never grounding yourself into an actual resemblance of said representation . What is it about numbers that entails this representation you speak of? For me I can just say numbers represent actual numbers, and I avoid the vicious regress problem of trying to find out what the secret is to this said representation.

        A stop sign resembles a fire truck, which is why we both call them red, right here is an instance of one and the same resemblance.

        You utter the word red, I utter the word red, Taylor Swift utters the word red, and theae are all obviously particular utterances of the same word, which is some way exists over and abkve our varioua utterences of it.

        Therefore there is something more to all of this then mere language, and nominalism and conceptualism a both false

  5. labreuer Says:

    Nick, based on this you might like Louis Dupré’s Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture:

        The term supernatural did not begin to refer to a separate order until some sixteenth-century theologians clearly distinguished a natural human end from humankind’s revealed destiny. Thus, Saint Thomas’s sixteenth-century commentator Sylvester of Ferrara interprets his master’s position as disjoining the reality of nature form that of grace. If God were the person’s natural end yet that end could be attained only by supernatural means, he argues, nature would fail to be proportionate to its own end.[8] Aquinas never conceived of nature as an independent reality endowed with a self-sufficient finis naturalis. It must be admitted, however, that one feature of Saint Thomas’s theological construction could, and eventually did, threaten the balance of its complex unity. It had nothing to do with the acceptance of the Aristotelian apparatus but everything with the Latin medicinal interpretation of grace. Rather than consider the Incarnation a decisive but by no means discontinuous moment in a process of divine self-communication that had started with creation, as Scotus (and later also Erasmus) was to do, Aquinas saw it essentially as a divine response to the effects of the fall. Without the fall, the Incarnation would not have occurred.[9] Viewed from this perspective, redemption might be interpreted as a supernatural cure for a natural disease and, as such, as initiating a wholly different order of grace. (171–172)

    There’s quite a bit more, including the idea that the RCC reacted so intensely to Galileo because he pushed toward a deist conception of God:

        As historians have repeatedly pointed out, the controversy turned not, or at least not primarily, around the change in the world picture. Pope Paul III himself had welcomed Copernicus’s theory and the Jesuit astronomers of the Roman College—the famous Father Clavius foremost among them—were quite willing to consider a heliocentric alternative. The main issue was causality. One revolutionary conclusion of Galileo’s new system was that power need not continuously flow from God once nature became endowed with a uniform intrinsic necessity of its own. The communication of motion, which had played such an important role in the ancient worldview and on which major arguments for the existence of God had rested,[7] lost its significance in a mechanistic order where bodies, once they moved, would continue to do so until stopped by an external cause. It needed no further assistance after it had received its initial impulse. The new science of mechanics did not dispense with a Creator who would initiate motion, but it appeared to withdraw God from nature after his creative act. Only the availability of an alternative interpretation of Scripture would justify the acceptance of Galileo’s “hypothesis,” Cardinal Bellarmine concluded. But none was available. (68)

    This strongly reminds me of Parmenides’ argument that there is no true change, an argument which is quite consistent with physicists’ conception of a block universe; see especially Karl Popper’s discussion with Einstein. I’m reminded of Lucretius’ ‘swerve’, which would threaten the idea of a block universe. There’s even scientific evidence for something like his ‘swerve’. 🙂

  6. Do Religious People Have Shaky Foundations? | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] course, we naturally have the natural/supernatural dichotomy, a belief some of us question. Interestingly, the same article that says that these polls do not indicate the truth of a belief […]

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