Tag Archives: supernatural

Crazy ideas and “supernatural” phenomena


Credit: xkcd

I like this little list because it demonstrates that science doesn’t reject far out ideas, just because they are far out. The decision is made on evidence. Relativity and quantum electrodynamics are far out as far as those of us with ordinary experience are concerned. From my perspective they are as far out as personal gods who forgive sins. But they are well supported by evidence. Tested against reality. The other far out ideas on the list have no evidential support and therefore of no use.

I get annoyed when people lecture me about the “methodological materialism” of science. They want science to be opened up to “supernatural” phenomena.

Well, it doesn’t matter what you call it. In practice science does not ask if an idea or phenomena is “supernatural” – it asks for the evidence. People who ramble on about methodological and philosophical materialism in science are covering up for the fact that their ideas are rejected because they have no evidential support.

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Going beyond the evidence

My theistically-inclined mate, Dale, has a a provocative little post on his blog fruitful faith. Well, provocative to me anyway, as we have often debated these sorts of issues related to how science is done – and how it is described.  It’s titled methodological indifference, critiques “methodological materialism,” and draws some conclusions with which I must disagree.

Here’s the guts of his argument:

It seems that many people (against the evidence) are under the impression that ‘science’ supports naturalism (All-is-Nature) more than it supports theism (Nature caused and sustained by Supernature). But if our scientific observations are to be truly objective, then we must admit that when we look at any particular thing or set of things (or any particular process or set of processes) in what we call the world, we do not find accompanying labels or name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”. One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements. The theist knows she is doing this, though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so. The naturalist, however, seems to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism. Why is this? Do they think the world screams “not made by any God at all”? If so, why?

The irrelevancy of natural/supernatural labels

Well, people who call themselves naturalists may believe science supports their world outlook. And theists or non-naturalists, may also think science supports their opposing world outlook. But most scientists (whatever their religious beliefs) just don’t give a stuff. They get on with investigating and attempting to understand reality.

And I don’t think terms like naturalism and supernaturalism are useful anyway. In fact dictionaries usually define them circularly – naturalism rejects the idea of supernatural things in the world while supernaturalism claims their is more than natural things in the world! Hardly helpful. No wonder scientists don’t start of their investigations by asking “Now, is this natural or supernatural?” That would be a complete waste of time. Again, most scientist wish that dogmatic ideologues, “naturalists” and “supernaturalists” alike, would just get out of the way and let them work.

Selective “name-tags”

Dale is quite correct – when we investigate reality we don’t find “name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”.” But really, perhaps there are more important name-tags we don’t find also. Like “conforms to Newtonian mechanics,” “Einsteinian relativity required here,” “best considered from a quantum mechanical viewpoint,” or “hint – consider astronomical events and their likely effects on species extinction.”

Of course “One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements.” To develop any explanatory theory for our observations. That’s what science is about.

Now, Dale is presenting a very black and white picture of our investigators. They are either “theists” who “knows she is doing this (going beyond the evidence), though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so, or “naturalist[s], [who] seem to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism.”

Why the hell didn’t he just differentiate between theists and non-theists? Why throw in this meaningless term “naturalist” which seems to be used in a pejorative sense like the use of “communist” in red-smearing?

And surely his “naturalists,” who don’t ‘go beyond the evidence’ (or don’t admit to doing so), are very funny people for scientists. What’s the point of collecting the evidence if we don’t go beyond it? Try to fit that evidence into an explanatory hypothesis? That’s what scientists do, surely. And they do it whatever their religious beliefs, theist and non-theist alike.

A close and continuing relationship with reality

But here’s the thing Dale missed. Scientists don’t just “go beyond the evidence” and stop their work when they have developed an explanatory hypothesis. Their work continues – they must test their hypotheses by comparing predictions with reality. And very often they well find their hypotheses to be wrong, or at least incomplete. This testing enables them to improve their hypothesis – or even ditch it and set to work developing a better explanation.

This close and continuing relationship with reality, with the evidence, is key to the modern scientific method. Now contrast that with a common theist approach which may use evidence like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination. Once the “my god did it” explanation is produced the evidence (or reality) has done its job. The desired conclusion has been “confirmed.”. There is no need or desire for testing or validating the conclusion.

An opportunist use of “evidence”

This opportunist use of evidence encourages cherry-picking (using only supporting evidence and ignoring the rest) or even falsification of evidence. Just look at how the so-called “fine-tuning” argument is used. The “fine-tuning” of physical constants is exaggerated or misinterpreted to justify the desired, and predetermined, conclusion – “their god did it” (see, for example, my posts Fine-tuning fallacies, Fiddling with “fine-tuning” and When the “best explanation” is the worst explanation).

I referred at the start to the confusing use of terms like supernatural and natural because of the circularity of their definition. And I mentioned that “naturalist” and “naturalism” are general used pejoratively. But I am forced to somehow interpret these terms when they are used by people like Dale.

Perhaps it is the the attitude to evidence, rather than vaguely defined “nature” and “supernature,” which differentiates the “naturalist” from the “non-naturalist” or theist? Perhaps the “naturalist” is the one with a close and continuing relationship with reality. Who tests and validates their explanatory ideas against reality. And the “non-naturalist” has the opportunist relationship to reality – using evidence like a drunk uses a lamppost. For support rather than illumination.

I think that’s how I will interpret these terms in the future. Makes everything so much clearer.

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Naturalism in science

Have a look at the short (10 min) presentation. I think it explains the scientific approach (in contrast to the religious approach) very well. It’s Sean Carroll’s opening statement from the The Great Debate: Science vs. Religion. You don’t usually see such sensible contributions in  a debate.

Normally I don’t like to use words like materialism and naturalism – without careful definition they are too open to misinterpretation. I also think that science is concerned with understanding reality, the real world. Some people use “naturalism” to ring-fence a part of the world (they define as “supernatural”) as immune to investigation. They claim science is limited to the “natural” world.

However, I really like this presentation by Sean Carroll. He is not conceding a “supernatural” part of reality which science is excluded from. Reality itself is natural in his eyes – and that has been shown by all our scientific experiences. As he describes it he tries “to sum up the progress in human understanding that has led us to reject the supernatural and accept that the natural world is all there is.”

And he makes an intriguing reference to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia.

Professor Carroll invites comments on his presentation at his blog post The Case for Naturalism.

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Science and the “supernatural”

I have discussed the issue of “supernaturalism” and science before but return to it having just read  Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?  by Dr  Yonatan I. Fishman. It’s an excellent paper which I recommend you read as it may challenge some of your ideas. You can download the full text here.

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Theistic science? No such thing

I came across this interesting observation in Elaine  Howard Eckland’s book  Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think:

“believers did not consider their traditions and beliefs influential on how they conducted their research. None of the religious scientists I talked to supported the theory of intelligent design”

This conclusion is based on her extensive survey of academic scientists in the USA.

It’s interesting because it confirms that those theologians and “philosophers of religion” who advocate abandonment of “materialism” or “naturalism” by scientists are barking up the wrong tree. Even scientists who have strong god beliefs don’t allow these to interfere with the way they do their science. In fact, if they did they would no longer be doing science.

Mind you, the conclusion is not at all surprising to anyone working in a scientific environment. We know from experience that religious scientists don’t change their methodology because of their ideological beliefs or world view.

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Can the “supernatural” be of any use?

This xkcd cartoon is so true (Thanks to xkcd: The Economic Argument).

1: There is a special relationship between scientific knowledge and the real world. Scientific ideas are based on evidence from reality, they get tested and validated against reality. And they get tossed out if found wrong.

So it’s not surprising that scientific knowledge gets incorporated into things that are useful.

2: Just shows how silly all this talk of science being blinkered becuase it “excludes supernaturalism” is. If this term has any meaning in the real world it just means something that is counter-intuitive or hasn’t been explained.  Science is full of such ideas so it is dishonest to claim it is blinkered. What could be more weird or non-intuitive than “spooky action at a distance.”

No, when these proponents of “other ways of knowing” etc., attack science they are trying to remove the requirement of evidence and testing against reality. That’s what they mean by their code word “supernatural.”

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“Historical science”

Matthew_Shultz_webHere’s another faulty argument from The ghetto of apologetics “science”. A trick that creationists use to discredit scientific findings and justify by default their own “supernatural” explanations. This is their mechanical classification of science into “historical science” and “experimental science.” The creationist NZ blog True Paradigm was promoting this recently (see Types of science).

The usual philosophical “authority” used for this classification is Stephen Meyers, Executive Officer and co-founder of the Discovery Institute‘s Center for science and Culture. The intelligent design think tank and poliitcal promoter. He outlined it in his 1990 Ph D thesis “Of clues and causes: a methodological interpretation of origin of life studies.”

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Atrocious Science Clichés


This article from Wired (5 Atrocious Science Clichés to Throw Down a Black Hole) describes a couple of clichéd terms which sometimes creep into science writing. I can also suggest some others that have crept into the more political writing about science which we should also try to get rid of.

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Defining oneself negatively

I have been struck lately how some people define themselves negatively – by saying what they are not or criticising the beliefs of other instead of presenting their own beliefs.

A clear example is the use of the word ‘atheist.’ It’s OK as far as it goes – which isn’t very far. It just says ‘I don’t believe in a god.’ It says nothing about what I do believe in. I have made this point before but pointed out then ‘I do have my own beliefs (wider than, but including atheism). They are always evolving (aren’t we all) and they are a source of great spiritual comfort and pride to me. I won’t give them a name but, of course, they are revealed in discussion.’

Intelligent design

I think the intelligent design (ID) proponents are classic examples of people who define their ideas negatively. They will rave on about the real or imagined problems or gaps in evolutionary science and then call their rave ID theory. But notice that they never actually propose a specific ID hypothesis or theory. They define themselves negatively. Christopher Heard gives a typical (and as he says brazen) example of this in his in a book review of Intelligent Design: William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse in Dialogue. Here he quotes ID guru Bill Dembski: Continue reading