Saturday, July 12, 2008

Understanding the term "supernatural"

Anonymous: What I don’t get is why this should lead one to adopting a belief in the supernatural. Why the insistence that one need believe in the supernatural in order to be able to legitimately deem an act to be rational or non-rational?

VR: I don't like introducing the term "supernatural too soon in the discussion, at least without clarifying the idea. In the initial stages of the argument we are simply trying to show that the explanatory chain has to hit something rational at rock-bottom, and not something non-rational. Now if we expel all intelligent causes from the rock bottom of nature, then we got something super that, and hence in some sense we've got something supernatural. But you have to understand what sense we mean when we are using the word "supernatural." We need to keep this Lewis quote in mind.

To call the act of knowing--the act, not of remembering that something was so in the past, but of 'seeing' that it must be so always and in any possible world--to call this act 'supernatural', is some violence to our ordinary linguistic usage. But of course we do not mean by this that it is spooky, or sensational, or even (in any religious sense) 'spiritual'. We mean only that it 'won't fit in'; that such an act, to be what it claims to be--and if it is not, all our thinking is discredited--cannot be merely the exhibition at a particular place and time of that total, and largely mindless, system of events called 'Nature'. It must break sufficiently free from that universal chain in order to be determined by what it knows.

6 Comments:

At 7/12/2008 07:26:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

“I don't like introducing the term "supernatural too soon in the discussion, at least without clarifying the idea. In the initial stages of the argument we are simply trying to show that the explanatory chain has to hit something rational at rock-bottom, and not something non-rational. Now if we expel all intelligent causes from the rock bottom of nature, then we got something super that, and hence in some sense we've got something supernatural.”

If one is looking for a rational explanation for why a person gets a drink of root beer, one need not have to decide whether or not there are intelligent causes at the rock bottom of nature. (Can causes legitimately be characterized as being intelligent or non-intelligent? I wouldn’t think so.) One need only look at the reasons given for the behavior that led a person to get a drink of root beer from the fridge.
Causal explanations and reason-giving explanations should not be mixed together. They are two distinctly different categories. That is why I made the observation that the neuronal activity taking place in the brain is totally irrelevant to the question of whether or not such behavior might be rational.
There are always going to be physical reactions taking place at the neural level regardless of the actions a person takes. Those reactions can be described in purely physical terms. But our ability to describe those reactions in great physical detail is irrelevant to our determining whether or not someone has acted in a reasonable or rational manner.

 
At 7/13/2008 07:47:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"To call the act of knowing--the act, not of remembering that something was so in the past, but of 'seeing' that it must be so always and in any possible world--to call this act 'supernatural', is some violence to our ordinary linguistic usage."

The "act" of knowing is not the same as the "act" of drinking a root beer.

 
At 7/16/2008 01:08:00 PM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

Let's not conflate naturalism and physicalism. Naturalism means lawful and predictable, and naturalists hold that the only proper explanations are predictive ones.

If I notice a hummingbird and then I win the lottery, I can't say that the hummingbird explains my winning the lottery unless I'm willing to say that seeing a hummingbird always makes winning the lottery more likely. I haven't explained my lottery win just by repeating the litany of what I experienced. I have to make a prediction, i.e., that seeing hummingbirds causes lottery wins (or something like that). Explanation is about finding generalities, regularities.

Physics is a subset of the natural because physics is lawful and predictive. It is the a posteriori fact of causal closure that leads most naturalists to conclude that the fundamental components of the world are no more than physical. That is, things like "goodness" are not fundamental quantities.

Just to illustrate this further (and to move the debate forward), I'll suggest a couple of thought experiments.

Ex1: Is God deterministic, i.e. lawful? Assuming one could know the prior state of God's mind and the prior states of the universe, could one predict what God will do next (in principle)?

If so, then God is natural. Non-physical, quite possibly, but natural.

Ex2: Can God make a physical mechanism that thinks as well as we humans do? That is, could God have created us as physical thinking machines that approximate ideally rational thinking?

Ex2 is what is relevant to the AfR. The question of whether the ideal of rational thinking can be explained is independent from whether the human ability to think rationally can be explained.

In my opinion, both naturalists and supernaturalists must agree that rationality (e.g., logic) itself is inexplicable. This is because explanation requires logic, and we cannot use logic to explain logic.

The difference is that naturalists claim that the human ability to think rationally is explicable in terms of physics.

The AfR attacks a straw man when it claims that physicalists must rationally explain the ideal (the ought) of inference itself. One of the tenets of physicalism is that there is a rational structure to our universe, and that we can, consequently, reason about our universe. From there, physicalism shows that a mechanism can indeed reason about its structured universe.

 
At 7/18/2008 09:14:00 PM , Blogger Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic,

What about people who DO think that thinking "fits in with nature?"

They think that though atoms interact in a regular fashion, it is the very regularity of that interaction that can assure us our thoughts are based on something firm and not on chance alone.

For instance, atoms interact to form molecules that interact with other molecules and with electrical charges in the brain. And those molecules take shape in the brain in reaction to sensations rec'd from the outside world via the senses, so the arrangement of those molecules is based on the arrangement of the world we sense as our brains and bodies mature. The patterns of arrangement of the stuff inside our brains reflects the stuff we experience in the world outside, and it's a constant feedback loop. And we also recall our own reactions and results which become part of the whole learning process.

 
At 7/21/2008 02:53:00 PM , Blogger Victor Reppert said...

EB: What about people who DO think that thinking "fits in with nature?"

VR: If you mean by nature a closed, mechanistic system on which everything else supervenes, then they're wrong. The mind has properties that are not entail by properly physical state-descriptions. Given the state of the physical, there could be a rational mental state, a non-rational mental state, or no mental state at all. The mental doesn't follow logically and necessarily from the state of the physical. It's logically possible that two people in identical brain-states could be in distinct mental states, or one could be in a mental state and the other not in a mental state. You need a logical guarantee, and you don't have one.

 
At 7/24/2008 07:27:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is a mental state?

 

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