'Supernatural' (and 'immaterial') are broken concepts

todangst's picture

Terms like "supernatural" or "immaterial" are broken concepts: They are attempts at reference that cannot actually refer to anything. They are broken terms because they are defined solely in the negative (according to what they are not) without any universe of discourse (anything left over for them to be). As Deludedgod states (see link to his page at bottom) these terms are eliminative negative terms, which can only denote an empty set, meaning that any further talk using these terms is incoherent.

So we have words that tell us what something ISN'T, without anything left over for them to be.

Immateriality - defined as neither matter nor energy. So, what's left over for it to be?

Supernatural - defined as 'not nature' or 'above nature' or 'beyond nature'. So again, what's left over for it to be?

Now some might respond at this point: but we use negative definitions all the time in coherent attempts to make reference. And we can, provided that there remains something left over for them to refer to, indirectly. Negative definitions can provide information through their universe of discourse - what is not ruled out, is identified.

For example, if I were to hold out a box with a penny and a pencil in it, and say "the object in the box I am thinking of is not the penny", you'd know from the universe of discourse, the 'things in the box', that the object I was thinking of was the pencil. The negative definition and the universe of discourse provide the information together.

So the problem isn't just that terms like 'immateriality' and 'supernatural' are solely negative definitions, it is that they rule out any universe of discourse. There's literally nothing left over for these terms to refer to, so there's nothing left over for them to be. The terms are therefore meaningless, incoherent.

You might find yourself balking at this. You might feel that you use terms like 'immateriality' or 'supernaturalism' all the time, and the terms seems to make sense. Well yes, we may use the terms, and we may even feel that they 'make sense', but in reality the only way we can actually have them make sense is if we unconsciously steal from the concept of naturalism. And if you stop and think about it, this is what we do: we end up thinking of 'immateriality' in terms of materiality (i.e. energy), or 'supernaturalism' in terms of nature (something we can feel, see, hear, etc.).

You might also feel that you know of a way to solve the problem: by turning to euphemisms like 'beyond nature' or 'above nature' instead of 'not nature'. However, unless you can show how these distinctions lead to a difference, these euphemisms are all ontologically identical with 'not matter/not nature' - they still all rule out any universe of discourse.

Counter arguments

Counter argument: "Supernatural" is a meaningful concept, just like "superman" or 'superconductor

My Response: You're equivocating on the word 'super' in a way that does not apply to a theological discussion - unless you are holding that your 'god' is entirely natural, i.e. the anthropomorphic deities found in ancient Greece or Rome. "Super" does not mean 'superior" when used in theological discussion, it means 'beyond' or 'above' - synoyms for 'not'.

Counter argument: "Supernatural" simply means "beyond what is natural." There is nothing in that definition per se which means that there is no grounds for believing it."

My Response: Unless you can show me how saying 'beyond natural' differs from saying 'not natural', you've given me a distinction without a difference.

Counter Argument: "To support your claim, one must introduce an additional supposition -- namely, that the physical universe (nature) is all that exists. This supposition is unproven and unsubstantiated."

Response: No such supposition is required. Materialism does not rule out your view a priori - your own definition rules out providing any ontology a priori!. You are claiming that there is something beyond materialism, something transcendent, etc.  Seeing as your definition rules out any possible positive terms, the burden is therefore on you to present 'another way', contra materialism, to render your definitions coherent. If you want to hold that the term 'immateriality' or 'supernatural' make any sense, you must provide either an ontology or a universe of discourse. If you cannot do this, if all you have is a negative definition, without any universe of discourse, then you must concede that your terms are stripped of any actual meaning... you must concede that your terms can only point to 'nothing'. This is a problem of your own making: ergo your attempt to blame your opponent is just a sign of the weakness of your position.

Related Counter Argument: "Materialism begs the question that all there is, is matter."

My Response: You've got it backwards: you're begging the question that there IS something beyond materialism in order to make this very charge.  Yet you haven't even provided an ontology or universe of discourse for your terms.  Those who build their case for immateriality by arguing that materialism rules out their claim a priori implicitly concede that there is no way to build a positive case for your claim.

Yet Another Related Counter argument: You're 'begging the question' that to have ontological status is to be material.

Response: No. If you want to talk of things such as 'immateriality' or 'supernatural' you must show how these terms are meaningful. As things stand, your own response begs the very question being debated: you can't simply rule in the supernatural through a naked assertion. Whether or not the terms 'immaterial' or 'supernatural' are meaningful terms is the very question under consideration.

You're being asked to demonstrate how your term can be coherent. Provide either a 1) (positive) ontology or 2) a universe of discourse or 3) a concession that your term is in fact meaningless. (ala Negative Theology).

Counter Argument: Your argument commits a fallacy of conflation on the word 'nature'... you use the term in two different senses, yet you then imply that they are the same.

Response: Some hold that my argument relies on conflating two different senses of the word 'nature'

1) The material world and its phenomena.
2) The essential characteristics and qualities of a person or thing

We can use the word 'nature' to denote different senses, but, the 'two senses' of the term are necessarily inter-related. To have a nature is to be a part of nature. The very point under discussion is whether we can talk of having a nature, sans materialism!

A friend, Kmisho, writes:

The only way I could even begin to take seriously that these 2 notions of nature are fully separable would be if we could point to a whole class of non-natural objects that we can agree exist to the extent that it makes sense to discuss their nature or characteristics.

But this is the very issue at hand, the existence of supernatural objects or at least whether it is reasonable to conclude that such objects exist. So for one to engage in this discussion in defense of the supernatural and its characteristics is to assume one's own conclusions: that such entities exist in the first place.

Therefore, I reject the contention that these 2 definitions of nature are separate, within the context of the supernatural argument.

Related Counter argument: Holding that 'to have a nature is to be a part of nature' is circular.

My Response: No. It's axiomatic. You are confusing necessary truth for circularity.

Let's use the example of: "I think therefore I am" to demonstrate this point:

Premise: I think
therefore
Conclusion: I am

The premise "I think" guarantees the truth of the conclusion: "I am". In order to reject this argument, one would have to allow for thinking being separate from "am"ing (i.e. being). This requires allowing for thinking to be nonexistent, yet still real, at the same time, which leaves us with an internal contradiction. Therefore, the premise "I think" does not simply 'assume' its conclusion'; instead it relies on it as a necessary part of itself: to exist is to exist as something.

Counter argument: Your argument appears to rely on 'referentialism', which is a school of linguistics currently out of favor.

Response: This is just lazy arguing. By that logic, every claim coming from every outmoded school of thought would be false. So this charge is immaterial unless you can show me how the specific referentialist arguments used here are flawed, and to do that you must actually go to the trouble of presenting an argument. What matters here is whether my usage of referentialism, concerning nouns and adjectives is out of favor, and it is not.

Certain types of words in a language set do and must to refer to things to be coherent, such as nouns and adjectives, and the word supernatural is, in literal context, attempted to be utilized as both. Again, the point before you is this: terms like 'supernatural' are defined solely negatively, without any universe of discourse and yet they are intended to denote something. How can such terms have any meaning? Please actually address the argument.

Related Counter argument Words do not necessarily need to refer to things to be meaningful.

Unless how you can show how this is relevant here, this charge has no weight. The matter before you deals with terms that attempt to make a reference that rule out ANY universe of discourse at all! How could 'other modes of making terms meaningful' could possibly help? Don't just assert that there are other ways, demonstrate how these other ways can provide the terms with meaning! Pay heed to the fact that you've not even attempted to do this here - recognize this failure to even make the attempt and ask yourself why you're not presenting it here now, in lieu of this complaint.

Same as the above: : Certain denizens of the universe are defined in only negative terms and we have a perfectly intelligible conceptual grasp on them.

My Response: Because we have a universe of discourse for the contradistinctive. To say that something is 'not wet' is to leave a universe of discourse: the set of all non-wet/dry things.

A relevant exchange:

I do understand how the term 'nothing' , as part of the term's definition, is related to the term 'something' (i.e., "nothing" is the denial that there is something, among other things). However, I am not sure how you think this is related to the notion of "coherence". Do you mean something like "understandable" or "makes sense" and "incoherent" would mean "nonsense" or "not understandable"?

I mean it in the most basic, metaphysical sense of the axiom of identity. To exist is to exist as something, to have attributes, characteristics. To define an 'entity' in such a way as to violate the axiom of identity is to render the term meaningless..

That's why a statement like "'supernatural' is incoherent because it has no ontological status" doesn't halt semiological discourse. It's true within the specialized language of metaphysics. But ontological status, if it means the possibility of a real world referent.

Perhaps the word 'ontology' is the problem here. I continually see people bring up the confusion between concepts and entities with a real extra-mental existence.

This discussion has nothing to do with such a distinction.

We are talking about what it takes for a concept to be a concept. And a necessary condition for a concept is that it have some identity. To exist is to exist as something, to have attributes, characteristics, i.e. identity. There is one concept that rules out any universe of discourse: the concept of 'nothing'. It gains its meaning as a contradistinctive. Terms like 'supernatural' are synoyms for 'nothing' seeing as they, too, are contradistinctives. The sole way of granting 'meaning' for these terms is to violate their own definitions and steal from naturalism.

Counter argument: There is no materialistic account of abstractions/numbers/colors/universals, ergo abstractions/colors/numbers/universals are immaterial and this proves that immateriality is coherent, since 'abstractions/colors/numbers/universals are coherent existents.

My Response: This is the fallacy of confusing an abstraction for immateriality. Let me first point out the logical fallacies contained in this error.

"There is no materialistic account of "X"

This is an argument from ignorance. Your inability to perform a task does not prove the task impossible. In addition, we have a parsimonious materialistic account for these entities: Neuroscience provides a rational, albeit incomplete basis for holding that abstractions exist within material brains. Any failure of neuroscience in giving a satisfactory materialist account for abstractions is not a basis for holding that abstractions are immaterial.

"...X is immaterial"

This is the fallacy of begging the question. One is simply assuming that "X" is immaterial, based on the previous argument from ignorance, and not for any positive reason.

"...and this proves that immateriality is coherent"

This is the fallacy of non sequitur. You are merely begging the question that "X" is immaterial and then asserting it as evidence of immateriality. Nothing in this claim actually addresses the ontological problems outlined in this brief essay. Nothing in this claim demonstrates how immateriality is coherent, it merely assumes that immaterial things exist, ergo the claim doesn't even address the challenge.

So this argument commits three fundamental logical errors, and fails to even address the issue at all. Other than that, it's the best argument I've ever seen.

Related Counter Argument: Analogies/"Immateriality is like X"

My Response: Analogies are demonstrations that begin by assuming that there is a relationship. They therefore are not proofs, but demonstrations.

For those who struggle to grasp the challenge:, here's some help in providing an ontology for your term:

1) Can you show that anything exists other than matter or energy? What are its "properties" - i.e. is it something natural? If not, how can we 'know" or "infer" anything about it. If we can't, what use is your 'hypothesis"? If it has no use, then why are we having this conversation?

Helpful guide: The most common error at this point is for the theist to respond by just asserting that something is immaterial. Please read the above refutation of this clumsy 'argument'.

2) How does something that is neither matter nor energy interact with our natural world?

Don't just assert that it 'does', provide a detailed positive account of how this occurs, without stealing from naturalism.

3) How do you avoid violating the principle of conservation of energy? If no physical energy or mass is associated with "immaterial things", then there is a serious problem: a fundamental principle of physics is that any change in any physical entity is an acceleration requiring the expenditure of energy - but if these things have no matter or energy, where does the energy come from? what you have here is something akin to the impossibility of perpetual motion - energy from nowhere. Dan Dennet states that these questions represent the fatal flaw in any dualistic argument (i.e. to immateriality) (- 1990 Consciousness Explained.)

Don't just assert that it works just like 'naturalism', in other words, don't steal from naturalism. Don't just glibly accept that it violates physics either.

Counter Argument: Some analytic philosophers think that the concept of a soul (an immaterial entity) may involve locative, hyperspatial entities. On these definitions, a soul would be located in a n>3D region of space.

Response: This assertion is meaningless unless one explains how an entity can exist at right angles to itself!

Saying something 'belongs to another dimension' is the sort of spooky nonsense that identifies an argument as pseudo science, unless you can say what it means to say that something exists in another dimension, you are simply providing yet another rule out! "Not dimensional'

Counter Argument: Other philosophers believe that the concept of a soul involves spatial entities that exist in zero-dimensional regions of spacetime. Thus, the concept of a soul is defined as follows:

'x is a soul' means by definition '(i) x is spatially nonlocative, and (ii) x is capable of consciousness'.

My Response: Two errors here.

1) 'Zero dimensions' is another way to speak of nothing. Ergo to state that 'something' takes up zero dimensions is to speak in contradictions, ergo, incoherence.

2) To assert that the 'soul' is 'capable of consciousness' steals from naturalism, unless one can speak of consciousness sans matter/energy.

Review:

I only get two types of responses.

1) Reassertions of the very points already refuted here.
2) Personal attacks.

For those who hold out hope for a hero, like Plantinga or Moreland or Craig to respond to this challenge, please note: most of the bad responses to the challenge that I refute here come from these writers. Finally, let me say that I don't find my words here to be a grand pronouncement , it's simply a rather basic point that theologians themselves realized nearly two eons before I was born - to define something as beyond nature is to contradict the axiom of identity and define 'it' into incoherence.

Please also see: http://www.rationalresponders.com/a_clarification_regarding_my_position_relative_to_theological_noncognitivism?page=0#comment-9295...
http://www.rationalresponders.com/vitalism_immaterialism_and_christian_dualism_have_long_since_been_debunked_response
http://www.rationalresponders.com/fallacies_commonly_employed_against_materialism_refuted

Addendum:

Jeffery Jay Lowder argued in the March 1999 newsletter of the Internet Infidels that a case for metaphysical naturalism can be made from the Argument from Evil and the Argument from Physical Minds. Here is the latter argument:

As Paul Draper, an agnostic philosopher at Florida International University, puts it, "Consciousness and personality are highly dependent on the brain. Nothing mental happens without something physical happening." Now Michael Tooley, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has stated five lines of evidence in support of this claim. Let me summarize just briefly that evidence. First, when an individuals brain is directly stimulated and put into a certain physical state, this causes the person to have a corresponding experience. Second, certain injuries to the brain make it impossible for a person to have any mental states at all. Third, other injuries to the brain destroy various mental capacities. Which capacity is destroyed is tied directly to the particular region of the brain that was damaged. Fourth, when we examine the mental capacities of animals, they become more complex as their brains become more complex. And fifth, within any given species, the development of mental capacities is correlated with the development of neurons in the brain. Thus, the conclusion that, "Nothing mental happens without something physical happening," seems inescapable.

But if nothing mental happens without something physical happening, that strongly implies that the mind cannot exist independently of physical arrangements of matter. In other words, we do not have a soul. And this is exactly what we would expect if naturalism is true. But if theism is true, then our minds should not depend on our brains for their existence; we should have souls. Also, if theism is true, then God is a disembodied mind; Gods mind is not in any sense dependent on physical arrangements of matter. But if nothing mental happens without something physical happening, that is evidence against both the existence of souls and the existence of any being who is supposed to have a disembodied mind, including God. Therefore, the physical nature of minds is unlikely if theism is true, but what we would expect if naturalism is true.

From Deludedgod's essay, concerning a common error employed against materialism:

http://www.rationalresponders.com/fallacies_commonly_employed_against_materialism_refuted

The crux of all this is that the dualist who asserts that materialism cannot account for X abstraction is that they are making a fallacy of conflation between reductionism and materialism. Reductionism is merely one arm of the materialist school of thought. We also have to take into account, for this exercise, emergentism, which materialism does indeed encompass. Emergentism is the doctrine that properties emerge from systems that are not necessarily reducible to their constituents. They exist only when the system is in place, and are hence not reducible to the sum of their parts. This is the schism in materialism between reductionism (whole=sum of parts) and emergentism (whole>sum of parts). The point is, these are both materialist positions. Neither invocates dualism or magic. So when the dualist is asserting that the materialist is denying the existence of X because it can be reduced to smaller constituents, they are making the greedy reductionist fallacy. Regardless of whether the system in question is emergentist or reductionist, the fallacy holds. It is analogous to saying:

1. The clicking on hyperlinks can be reduced to electrons being fired across LCD electron guns and photons through ethernet and fiberoptic cables. Therefore hyperlinks do not actually exist, only electrons and photons.

2. An atomic nuclei can be reduced to individual protons and electrons, which in turn can be reduced to quarks, which in turn can be reduced to bosons and fermions. Therefore, atoms do not actuallly exist, only bosons and fermions.

You will find that many materialist systems are indeed emergentist. That means that they cannot be reduced to their constituents, they only emerge when the complexity of the system reaches a certain point, but, the crux: They are still materialist. Emergentism is an arm of materialist philosophy. Many naturalists regard consciousness and the mind as an emergent property of the brain. Some others hold that the mind can be divided and is hence, with respect to the whole brain, reductionist, not emergent. I am sympathetic to a middle ground position . Obviously when we reduce the system to a certain degree, we find the property which we were examining in the first place disappears. Hence to some degree the two positions of emergentism and reductionism are valid and mutually reconcilable in much the same way that empiricism and rationalism are reconcilable. In fact, I do not think there has been a “pure” empiricist or rationalist since the days of Immanuel Kant. Likewise, the materialist philosophy does not usually find one taking a pure stance on emergentism or reductionism.

So, when the dualist makes the greedy reductionist fallacy by whinging that the materialist is denying the existence of X by invoking reducibility, they are invalidated by both schools of materialism. Reductionism does not say that X does not exist, merely that it is a lower ontological category than its constituents Y and Z. Emergentism says that X exists of its own accord due to a synergistic effect between Y and Z. The latter can be invoked to explain many phenomenon from a materialistic perspective, especially consciousness and the mind. Regardless, any dualist asking for a materialist to explain abstract X is revealing their own unsurprising ignorance of materialist philosophy. Abstractions in this context are merely what a reductionist would call lower ontological categories that result from increasingly complex systems, or what an emergentist would call the result of synergistic effect in the system. Emergentist materialism is extremely important in my work, since one of the things I study is enzyme kinetics, drugs and medicine, where synergistic interplay is extremely important. The same logic which causes a Calcium Channel blocker and a Beta Blocker to work better together to lower blood pressure than the mathematics of their individual workings would have us believe is the same logic that may give rise to abstractions from material systems. In other words, this may cover thoughts, emotions, rationality etc. To a reductionist however, we can explain these in terms of direct reducibility to their electrophysiological activity in corresponding neurons. Regardless of which position you take, the abstract, the thought, is still generated. And hence for the dualist to accuse the materialist of denying said abstractions is just, well, stupid. And can only be described as immensely foolish. We shall soon see how easy it is to flip this on its head.

Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates

Eloise's picture

BobSpence1 wrote: I don't

BobSpence1 wrote:

 I don't see why the historical roots of the terms are particularly relevant to todangst's arguments. I don't think it is a discussion about the origins of the terms, but a discussion based on best contemporary understandings and insights.

Reminds me of a criticism Richard Carrier made of much philosophical discussion, in that it was too concerned about the history of the ideas. It would be like contemporary physicists being required to take Newton's original theories into account all the time, rather than concentrating on the best current understandings.

We've got to still take into account what has not been supplanted by contemporary understandings from Newtons theories, yes. For example, a quantum gravity theory won't pass muster without having an account for the gravitational constant. We don't attribute the same nature or labels to the forces which Newton theorised but the real discoveries which it was only possible to refer to in terms of those labels do not then cease to exist in the dialogue; Newton's reference to the constant is antiquated, but we don't say that it by extension means he was referring to nothing.

How this relates to Todangst's argument is precisely that above.  I agree and thoroughly appreciate the argument that supernatural is no longer a meaningful way to refer to things in our reality, I only disagree that we can then blanketly declare anything, anywhere, called to be supernatural as "nothing"; it sometimes maybe more appropriate to just update obsolete language.

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Eloise's picture

BobSpence1 wrote: I don't

BobSpence1 wrote:

 I don't see why the historical roots of the terms are particularly relevant to todangst's arguments.

My apologies, Bob, it's been a long time since we started this discussion and I've just skimmed back through what I wrote and noticed that in the last few posts I am drifting off course.

Originally I was responding to a question in the essay which asks the theist to provide something which is neither energy nor matter to back their ontological claims. I contended that this question is loaded, it contains the assumption that supernatural makes no reference to energy, any theist attempting to answer this question as posed affirms this erroneous assumption.

The fact is a theist can answer that supernatural refers to energy (and I gave the quote to evidence this). In such a case they need to adjust their ontology but it is not broken. This is how the historical roots of a term applies to Tod's argument - only in relation to that one question.

Please excuse my other ramblings, I lost my place. As I noted twice, I do appreciate the argument that supernatural and immaterial are not currently valid ways to refer to reality.

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Topher's picture

Eloise wrote:todangst

Eloise wrote:
todangst wrote:
Eloise wrote:

 As I have mentioned before in other threads, the definition of supernatural on which you have your argument premised is erroneous.  You have excluded energy from the concept of supernatural arbitrarily, 

Energy = matter. Energy is part of nature, its  matter.  There is NOTHING arbitrary about this decision. In fact, its definitional.

And I repeat, we are discussing historical concepts, where you are drawing the line scientifically is perfectly valid but where you are drawing it historically is completely arbitrary. Supernatural has a history of referring cogently to real "things", updated knowledge of the nature of those things doesn't make those things nothings along with the word, nor anything attributed to those things other than that their nature is supernal.

Todangst wrote:
Quote:
Explain how I am stealing from naturalism? 

This was already done in the essay. You are taking a natural term, and insisting that it is supernatural, despite the clear problem that energy IS matter.

I am not. I am taking the set of things supernatural used to refer to and pointing out that they are still real. Supernatural does refer to something, albeit in an archaic manner.

It seems this only goes to prove todangsts point! All references to the supernatural are either incoherent and meaningless or a reference to something natural, rendering stolen concepts.

What makes the term meaningful or not is whether it refers to what is thinks it is referring to. In the case of the supernatural, it is intended to denote something non-natural/non-material.

Making a valid ontological distinction between natural and supernatural requires no analysis of any historical use of the term supernatural. We can make the distinction purely through our understanding of the term 'natural' as follows:

If nature is all that we can comprehend; all that we are aware of, then:

The supernatural is either a) some other nature or b) something other than nature entirely.

(a) Leads us to the conclusion that the supernatural is still nature, so no real distinction has been made. The question remains: how is this 'other' nature (which has still not been shown to exist) distinct from 'our' nature. Is this 'supernatural nature' matter or energy? If no, then:

(b) What is it? Moreover, how can we be aware of this 'supernatural matter/energy'? To know about it requires that it can interact with our nature in some way, but if it can interact with our nature then it must be matter of some kind, which leads us right back to (a): no useful distinction between them.

 

Eloise wrote:
I agree and thoroughly appreciate the argument that supernatural is no longer a meaningful way to refer to things in our reality,

This means it is not a meaningful way to refer to anything at all, since everything meaningful is part of our reality!

I'll add that it was never a meaningful term to refer to anything. If was only believed to be meaningful because those that used the term imported naturalistic concepts onto it.

 

Eloise wrote:
I only disagree that we can then blanketly declare anything, anywhere, called to be supernatural as "nothing"; it sometimes maybe more appropriate to just update obsolete language.

Until we can know and confirm anything non-natural it is perfectly valid to rule out supernaturalism as referring to anything meaningful. That conclusion necessarily follows from your own comments above that one cannot refer to anything within our reality as being supernatural! To think the term can be meaningful at all requires that you think we can refer to things outside of our reality.

"It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring" -- Carl Sagan

todangst's picture

 Eloise wrote:  And I

 

Eloise wrote:

 

 

And I repeat, we are discussing historical concepts, where you are drawing the line scientifically is perfectly valid

I.e. not arbitrary at all.

Thank you.

Quote:

but where you are drawing it historically is completely arbitrary. 

 Seeing as archaic usages have no bearing on this matter, I'd hardly call my decision to not consider them arbitrary!

I think even you can see that you've reduced your own argument to a rather pointless quibble.  Yes, the Greeks once called the breathe "spirit" but surely no christian theologian from the time of Augustine has held that the supernatural refers to anything found in nature. You yourself even call such references 'archaic' which implicitly speaks to a concession of my point. Please look at my very first rebuttal of common responses.... archaic usages of the term have no application here.

 

 

 

 

Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates

Books on atheism.

todangst's picture

Eloise wrote: How this

Eloise wrote:


 

How this relates to Todangst's argument is precisely that above.  I agree and thoroughly appreciate the argument that supernatural is no longer a meaningful way to refer to things in our reality, I only disagree that we can then blanketly declare anything, anywhere, called to be supernatural as "nothing"; it sometimes maybe more appropriate to just update obsolete language.

I again, and again, and again refute this assessment of my essay. It is not I who am equating supernatural with "nothing". It is the theist, who uses only eliminative terms, devoid of any universe of discourse, who accomplishes this feat. This definition renders the term incoherent.

The problem is that you can't rule out everything AND have a term remain meaningful, unless you equate the term with 'nothing.'


In other words, stop shooting the messenger.

 

Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates

Books on atheism.

todangst's picture

Eloise wrote:Originally I

Eloise wrote:


Originally I was responding to a question in the essay which asks the theist to provide something which is neither energy nor matter to back their ontological claims. I contended that this question is loaded, it contains the assumption that supernatural makes no reference to energy, any theist attempting to answer this question as posed affirms this erroneous assumption.

The fact is a theist can answer that supernatural refers to energy

And by doing so, steal from naturalism.

So it's not a fact that a theist actually can refer to the SUPERnatural by means of making a reference to nature.

I can't fathom why you don't see this.

 

Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates

Books on atheism.

HisWillness's picture

todangst wrote:Yes, the

todangst wrote:
Yes, the Greeks once called the breathe "spirit" but surely no christian theologian from the time of Augustine has held that the supernatural refers to anything found in nature.

Of course not, but they didn't have to. All matter in the neoplatonic concept of the universe came from Intellect and Soul. Matter was an unfortunate product that was meant to be transcended by the filthy bodies of human beings. The ideal ("One", "Good&quotEye-wink of this type of thinking was the odd embodiment (without embodiment) of all physical and ideal things to a single source.

Within this wacky frame of reference, it was the physical that needed to explain itself, not the intellect. To these people, the physical world was a sad illusion, and the inner world was the real.

So saying "supernatural refers to anything found in nature" is operating outside of this backward frame of reference. They believed not only that the supernatural superceded and dictated nature, but that nature was a small and nearly irrelevant subset of the vastness of the ideal world available to student of "contemplation".

You'd be more qualified to say specifically what type of crazy that is than I would.

Saint Will: no gyration without funkstification.
fabulae! nil satis firmi video quam ob rem accipere hunc mi expediat metum. - Terence

BobSpence's picture

I keep wanting to question

I keep wanting to question the all-pervasive assumption or feeling that 'mere' matter is somehow the lowest form of existence, in some sort of 'inferior/superior' sense.

The idea that an 'immaterial" being is automatically inhabiting a "higher" realm annoys me.

I think I could legitimately claim that it seems to be potentially an impoverished realm of experience compared to our 'material' Universe and our physical senses, unable to even interact easily with the people 'left behind'. Something like a pale shadow of our 'earthly' life, rather than an 'sublime' mode of existence.

Not saying this is logically what the idea of a supernatural realm implies, just that it seems to bring all these automatic assumptions of being 'higher', 'purer', 'cleaner', etc than the 'dirty' world of matter.

 

Favorite oxymorons: Gospel Truth, Rational Supernaturalist, Business Ethics, Christian Morality

"Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings." - Sam Harris

The path to Truth lies via careful study of reality, not the dreams of our fallible minds - me

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Science -> Philosophy -> Theology

HisWillness's picture

BobSpence1 wrote:I keep

BobSpence1 wrote:
I keep wanting to question the all-pervasive assumption or feeling that 'mere' matter is somehow the lowest form of existence, in some sort of 'inferior/superior' sense.

Huh. Probably because it's total hooey.

BobSpence1 wrote:
The idea that an 'immaterial" being is automatically inhabiting a "higher" realm annoys me.

But it served a neat function: to annoy the Stoics, Epicureans, and Peripatetics, who had a slightly more grounded version of things. Why the Platonic strain won is beyond me.

BobSpence1 wrote:
I think I could legitimately claim that it seems to be potentially an impoverished realm of experience compared to our 'material' Universe and our physical senses, unable to even interact easily with the people 'left behind'. Something like a pale shadow of our 'earthly' life, rather than an 'sublime' mode of existence.

Especially when "sublime" is extremely generous, there. The arrogation is that acquired knowledge is wellnigh useless compared to the internally contemplated Soul. To quote Plotinus (in translation):

"I have many times awakened into myself from the body when I exited the things other than myself, and entered into myself, and, seeing a marvellous and great beauty, I was then especially confident that I belonged to the better part and that I was engaging in the best life, and that I had come to that activity having identified myself with the divine and having situated myself in it, that is, having situated myself above all else in the intelligible [=immaterial] world."

In other words, he thought about it for a long time, and he now knows that he's right.

...

Please, todangst, let us know what kind of crazy this is.

Saint Will: no gyration without funkstification.
fabulae! nil satis firmi video quam ob rem accipere hunc mi expediat metum. - Terence

Eloise's picture

Todangst wrote:I think even

Todangst wrote:

I think even you can see that you've reduced your own argument to a rather pointless quibble.


Well yeah, it kind of always was only a quibble, with that specific question mostly, with the implication that theology deals exclusively with nothings. 

Todangst wrote:

 Yes, the Greeks once called the breathe "spirit" but surely no christian theologian from the time of Augustine has held that the supernatural refers to anything found in nature.


I'm not sure you're right there, isn't Augustine's Supernature defined in terms of his seminal vs non seminal doctrine; this is in turn is essentially a God of the Gaps doctrine, yes, but the gaps fall under naturalism's definition of nature, right?


Todangst wrote:

You yourself even call such references 'archaic' which implicitly speaks to a concession of my point.

Well to be straight, I do concede your main point and I'm quibbling over a few details, if you'll pardon me that. Sticking out tongue

Todangst wrote:

Please look at my very first rebuttal of common responses.... archaic usages of the term have no application here.


hmmmm well I felt that it was relevant to how your argument could be applied to a theist's beliefs, ie a limit as to what theological ideas it is possible to dismiss as wholly incoherent by this reasoning.

Todangst wrote:

 It is not I who am equating supernatural with "nothing". It is the theist, who uses only eliminative terms, devoid of any universe of discourse, who accomplishes this feat.

In other words, stop shooting the messenger.


Point taken, sorry.
I've just got to ask, though, do you think that you're being consistent in this regard when posing that one question of the theist's ontology?

Todangst wrote:

Eloise wrote:

Originally I was responding to a question in the essay which asks the theist to provide something which is neither energy nor matter to back their ontological claims. I contended that this question is loaded, it contains the assumption that supernatural makes no reference to energy, any theist attempting to answer this question as posed affirms this erroneous assumption.

The fact is a theist can answer that supernatural refers to energy


And by doing so, steal from naturalism.


So it's not a fact that a theist actually can refer to the SUPERnatural by means of making a reference to nature.

I can't fathom why you don't see this.



I do see what you are saying, maybe it is what I am saying which is going unseen here. I'll try an example to illustrate it:

Theist: God is light, God is Supernatural.


Atheist: What does Supernatural refer to?


Theist: It refers to the phenomenal nature of light as is implied in John 1 and other parts of the bible, the fact that it behaves in ways ordinary matter cannot.


Atheist: Well actually, there is no fundamental difference between light and matter, they are the same substance. Light is just as natural as matter.


Theist: Well then what makes it possible for visible light to, say, pass through glass when other material stuff cannot, if there's no fundamental difference shouldn't anything able to do the same? What light can do is SUPER natural compared to the gross material world.  


Atheist: That doesn't give light a "supernature", it's all part of the diversity of just nature



Would you say the theist has stolen from naturalism to define supernatural in a discussion like this? Consider.. He is using the word archaically to define a property one material thing has which is not shared by other material things. Now although he may be ignorant of the fact that nature is as diverse as this, he has not relied on naturalist ontology to define "nature" he has relied on an archaic convention, as such he hasn't orphaned the concept that he is using. It's logically consistent to a certain point, right?

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Eloise's picture

HisWillness wrote:todangst

HisWillness wrote:

todangst wrote:
Yes, the Greeks once called the breathe "spirit" but surely no christian theologian from the time of Augustine has held that the supernatural refers to anything found in nature.

Of course not, but they didn't have to. All matter in the neoplatonic concept of the universe came from Intellect and Soul. Matter was an unfortunate product that was meant to be transcended by the filthy bodies of human beings. The ideal ("One", "Good&quotEye-wink of this type of thinking was the odd embodiment (without embodiment) of all physical and ideal things to a single source.

Within this wacky frame of reference, it was the physical that needed to explain itself, not the intellect. To these people, the physical world was a sad illusion, and the inner world was the real.

You're just that bit hot for Platonism aintcha, Will? ;D

In all seriousness, this is kind of an extreme view within it, though. It's not necessary to the platonic concept that the material experience be "sad" by the idea that it is illusory, that's more of a commentary on the possibility of existence being impoverished by attachment to illusion. That is, it's not of itself a tragedy that the existence we know would be maya, but it might be tragic if that's the extent of existence that we explore.  All in all I agree it's a kind of crazy, surely, to take such terms as 'transcendence' or 'lower bodies' really seriously for granted, but doing so is non-essential, really.

HisWillness wrote:

So saying "supernatural refers to anything found in nature" is operating outside of this backward frame of reference. They believed not only that the supernatural superceded and dictated nature, but that nature was a small and nearly irrelevant subset of the vastness of the ideal world available to student of "contemplation".

It's not exactly outside of this frame of reference to find the supernatural in nature. Both nature and supernature are said to be found in "being" (so it implies the aforementioned "oneness&quotEye-wink. Operating within this framework, one looking into nature is looking into being, and thus can find what has been referred to as 'supernatural' by looking into nature.

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Eloise's picture

Topher wrote:It seems this

Topher wrote:

It seems this only goes to prove todangsts point! All references to the supernatural are either incoherent and meaningless or a reference to something natural, rendering stolen concepts.

Yeah, maybe I should clarify that I'm really contending another point here. Basically that theology references the natural as supernatural, now that it does this may or may not go to a matter of stealing from a parent concept, I don't reckon it does so quite as neatly as Tod's painted it since the parent concept he claims theology's "supernature" steals from is really quite a new sort of direction for human thought, however, as I said, I'm contending another point.

The fact that theology does reference natural things (ie natural in contemporary thought) as supernatural goes to a couple of remarks he made in his essay, specifically the first of his 'counter arguments' and the later notes regarding theistic ontology.

In the counter argument (which I now note mostly because Tod pointed it out to me) he says that theology doesn't claim a natural god and to claim that your concept of god's immaterialism is referenced by pointing to material things (by contemporary standards) is outside theology. As I have it this claim is false.

Further, in the later notes Todangst goes on to pose the question "What exists that is not matter or energy?" which may beg the question of his conclusion somewhat (not sure I could make a strong case for this) but most pertinently, it just doesn't bear the relevance to the theist's case that he is granting it.

 

Topher wrote:

I'll add that it was never a meaningful term to refer to anything. If was only believed to be meaningful because those that used the term imported naturalistic concepts onto it.

 

Now see this is why I bring up the history of the term as being important, because this is just backwards, Topher. Supernatural wasn't only meaningful because those that used it imported naturalistic concepts onto it, it was meaningful because those concepts supposedly being imported weren't articulated yet! In some senses it is naturalism which has been "imported", into the gaps once occupied by "supernaturalism".

I guess I can summarise that I am saying a when a reference to the supernatural is neither guilty of being strictly eliminative, nor is it stealing from the parent logic that it has been built upon (conditionally - for example if its really old writing) it's an argument from ignorance by current standards but is otherwise coherent and ontologically consistent - and mostly I am trying to point out strongly that this is quite relevant to theology.

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Topher's picture

Eloise wrote:Topher wrote:It

Eloise wrote:
Topher wrote:
It seems this only goes to prove todangsts point! All references to the supernatural are either incoherent and meaningless or a reference to something natural, rendering stolen concepts.

Basically that theology references the natural as supernatural, now that it does this may or may not go to a matter of stealing from a parent concept, I don't reckon it does so quite as neatly as Tod's painted it since the parent concept he claims theology's "supernature" steals from is really quite a new sort of direction for human thought, however, as I said, I'm contending another point.

The fact that theology does reference natural things (ie natural in contemporary thought) as supernatural goes to a couple of remarks he made in his essay, specifically the first of his 'counter arguments' and the later notes regarding theistic ontology.

Why not just reference natural things as being natural? It makes no sense to refer to natural things as being supernatural. Supernatural is a negative term meaning non-natural, you cannot therefore use the term to refer to anything natural without stealing the concept. That's the problem.

 

 

 

Eloise wrote:
Topher wrote:
I'll add that it was never a meaningful term to refer to anything. If was only believed to be meaningful because those that used the term imported naturalistic concepts onto it.

Now see this is why I bring up the history of the term as being important, because this is just backwards, Topher. Supernatural wasn't only meaningful because those that used it imported naturalistic concepts onto it, it was meaningful because those concepts supposedly being imported weren't articulated yet!

What do you mean when you say they were not articulated yet?

The point I am making is that no usage of the term 'supernatural' ever actually pointed to something non-natural. This remains the case.

 

Quote:
In some senses it is naturalism which has been "imported", into the gaps once occupied by "supernaturalism".

No, naturalism cannot be 'imported' into these gaps since naturalism is the null hypothesis. Since we are only aware of the natural world we must begin with that explanation until we have reason to the contrary.

What you cite is where people once assumed supernaturalism due to ignorance, but were later shown to be wrong once actual natural explanations became known. That however was working backwards: assuming supernaturalism until a natural explanation became apparent. Instead when we lack an explanation we must assume something natural will explain it (because we are not aware of anything non-natural, and all prior explanations have been natural) until we have reason to turn to possible non-natural (whatever that even means) explanations.

Quote:
I guess I can summarise that I am saying a when a reference to the supernatural is neither guilty of being strictly eliminative,

The term supernatural is by definition eliminative.

If you're using the term supernatural with every intention to refer to something natural then you're misusing the term. You should instead use the term 'natural'.

Quote:
nor is it stealing from the parent logic that it has been built upon (conditionally - for example if its really old writing) it's an argument from ignorance by current standards but is otherwise coherent and ontologically consistent - and mostly I am trying to point out strongly that this is quite relevant to theology.

Supernaturalism is never coherent or ontologically consistent without stealing the concept. That's the point: the only way to give the term meaning, coherence and ontology is to misuse it and actually refer to something natural.

 

"It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring" -- Carl Sagan

BobSpence's picture

The fact that much

The fact that much contemporary theology may still make reference to old writings which use largely or completely invalidated concepts is just another reason why theology does not deserve to be taken seriously in any genuine effort to improve our understanding of reality, apart from the understanding of the development of ideas themselves, as providing an example of the errors and misconceptions and blind alleys of thought that people are susceptible to.

Favorite oxymorons: Gospel Truth, Rational Supernaturalist, Business Ethics, Christian Morality

"Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings." - Sam Harris

The path to Truth lies via careful study of reality, not the dreams of our fallible minds - me

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Science -> Philosophy -> Theology

Two issues with this essay

I really enjoyed your essay. I particularly like your rebuttal of the "higher dimension" argument.

1) Zero dimensions is not non-existence. It is conceivable that something could have *point* existence.

In physics it is widely held that electrons and other particles are *point particles*. That is, they only extend temporally. Presumably you could have a particle that doesn't extend temporally either, it would be defined as energy/information at a specific spacetime location.

2) I don't see why you have to conflate two meanings of "nature".

If "supernatural" is simply a placeholder in someone's mind for some other mode of existence, then you've entered question begging territory.

You do eliminate the force of both of these questions, but the people who are invested in these ideas could see them as flaws.

Non-physical, immaterial, supernatural means: No matter, no dimensionality, no information or energy, no force or effect.

No physical properties, including "no dimensionality" is what I think you were referring to and that, of course, means that "it" doesn't exist anywhere or at any time.

todangst's picture

VeridicusX wrote:I really

VeridicusX wrote:
I really enjoyed your essay. I particularly like your rebuttal of the "higher dimension" argument. 1) Zero dimensions is not non-existence. It is conceivable that something could have *point* existence. In physics it is widely held that electrons and other particles are *point particles*. That is, they only extend temporally. Presumably you could have a particle that doesn't extend temporally either, it would be defined as energy/information at a specific spacetime location.

 

I have taken 4 years to consider this point. After 1460 days of deliberation I have decided you are right.

 

Ok, seriously, it didn't take that long.

 

Quote:

2) I don't see why you have to conflate two meanings of "nature".

 

I don't conflate them. They already are necessarily logically interrelated. To exist is to exist as something. If a theist wants to break the concept, he's the one with the problem. 

Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates

Books on atheism.