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

todangst's picture


A note to theists:  Please understand that the basis for my argument comes from negative theology. It was theologians who uncovered the problems with "god talk" nearly 2 eons before I could reach a keyboard.

The Apophatic tradition has been around for eons, and it's foundations can be found in the words of Paul and even in the OT.  However, while negative theology avoids the incoherenfce of positive theology,  once you special plead a 'god' beyond coherence, you must remain silent (Apophatic).


And now.... 


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 andthe 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.




We can sum up this problem by stating that terms like 'supernatural' are universal eliminators, they rule out any universe of discourse. They can only be used as contradistinctives of 'anything' and thus are synonyms for 'nothing."

A point discovered not by me, but by theologians and buddhists alike. 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
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. 

As far as I can see, I've yet to hear a positive argument attempting to demonstrate a way for rendering terms like 'supernatural' meaningful. All I've heard is complaints that there 'other ways to render terms meaningful other than reference'. To that I say: your point is moot, unless you can demonstrate how these ways can be applied to the term 'supernatural', in order to render the term meaningful in any theological sense imaginable.So, to tell me that we can render phrases such as  'as far as' meaningful without relying on a sign-signified relationship tells me nothing, unless you want to say that saying "god' is equitable with saying 'as far as'! So my counter concern to your concern is the illusion created by arguing that 'there are other ways to render meaning' or 'we need not concern ourselves with reference' - the illusion is that the tacit belief that this response somehow solves the problem, when in fact it doesn't even attempt to deal with the problem. (I'm also concerned about the confusion that holds that this is a discussion about real world entities and abstractions without an extra mental existence, but I hope that misperception has been removed) 
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.

 Counter argument: You seem to insist that there is only matter and energy or that that a term must make a reference to be meaningful.

 No. Theists, who recognize the inability to attend to their epistemic duty will always try and turn the argument around on me. I do not make either argument, the positive theist in fact makes the opposite argument: that something other than matter and energy exist.

I make this claim only in regard to stipulative definitions of putative nouns (or adjective) like 'god' or 'immateriality'. My argument relates specifically to terms used as predicates in arguments. Theists are refering to 'something' when they use these terms!The predicate of a logical statement (in this case, that would be  "supernatural" or "immaterial" must refer to something, otherwise it is nonsensical). I'm aware that the foundation of this part of my argument, which relies on referentialism, is not the favored school of thought in linguistic philosophy. True. But how does this relate to the specific points I make? An out of fashion school can still make valid points. And it does so, here. The real matter here is this: is there any way to make a coherent reference to something beyond nature?

 Final counter argument: Ok, Ok! Fine, there does seem to be a problem. But you call yourself an atheist? Doesn't that require that you hold that 'god' is a coherent term?

First, may I suggest some humility here? There are other 'god' claims beyond the claims of christians and some of the god claims may not rely on broken concepts.

Second,  I can state that the follow statement is false: "God exists" if I can demonstrate that the first term is contradictory. Contradictory entites cannot exist.

 However, let's leave that aside.

 I agree with Victor Stenger - "god" as a supernatural reference is a broken term, BUT we can examine god claims vis claims about 'effects' in the natural world.  

 I put 'effects' in 'scare quotes' because 'supernatural cause' is a double oxymoron. First, it is also a broken term. Second, the supernatural would be acausal! In fact, the very way we'd surmise that something was 'supernatural' would be if we reguraly encountered magic... i.e. events without any cause. We can examine claims about 'effects without causes' in our world even as the term 'god' remains incoherent. The reason we can do this is because I do see one way of demonstrating that a 'god' exists: if the laws of nature were broken in ways that simply defied naturalism... in other words, if our universe were to appear teleological i.e. if a storm hit and only christians survived, etc.... if bibles rained from the skies, etc.  Some claim that there is no way to prove a miracle true. Perahaps, but if every book in the world were to become a Bible tomorrow, I'd have to at least wonder...

I don't see any need to 'limit' the meaning of the term to natural phenomena... I see it as that there is no way to apply causality to a realm defined from the outset by theists themselves as the antithesis of nature.)



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...


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:


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






"Hitler burned people like Anne Frank, for that we call him evil.
"God" burns Anne Frank eternally. For that, theists call him 'good.'