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5/20/2005

The Supernatural

This is basically what I was talking about in my earlier post on materialism. Robert from Libertopia points us to a post from Julian Sanchez on the distinction between the 'natural' and the 'supernatural'. He's talking about so-called 'intelligent design' theory (anti-Darwinism), but the point is a larger one:
I very much doubt there's any sort of meaningful distinction to be made between "natural" and "supernatural" accounts in this context, so long as we're agreed that the proper methodology is the familiar scientific procedure of building theories and hypotheses, then testing them empirically.

If ghosts or gods did exist, after all, wouldn't they ultimately be as much a part of the natural world as human beings or dolphins or leptons? Could we know, a-priori, that some budding Egon Spengler wouldn't come up with a scientific test that would detect spectres as easily as we now examine radio spectra?

Turning it around the other way, didn't some of the conclusions of quantum mechanics strike many classical physicists as "spooky"? Doesn't science, too, hit rock-bottom at some point, with no further account to be given of certain laws or forces, either for theoretical reasons or because of the practical limits on our ability to investigate?

... it seems awfully ambitious to suggest that science is only concerned with inquiries where we can be sure of getting explanations all-the-way-down. How can we know in advance that we won't ultimately bump up against an impassable question mark, either because of the boundaries of our technology and ability to investigate ... or because, so to speak, the question mark is etched into the universe itself. Isn't it, well, unscientific to suppose in advance that we know how far our capacity for discovery and further explanation extends—and to suppose that it has no limits?

Not only is it 'ambitious' and 'unscientific', it's completely delusional. As Chomsky is fond of pointing out, human beings are biological organisms, not angels. There is absolutely no warrant to suppose that nature happens to have endowed them with a brain capable of understanding nature 'all the way down'.

It is highly unlikely that the human animal is even in principle capable of understanding the entirety of reality, just as a mouse will never be able to do algebra.

The only meaningful distinction between 'natural' and 'supernatural', or 'material' and 'immaterial', seems to make reference to what humans do or can know. But if this is how the distinction is made, then the naturalists/materialists have already given up the game, for if the supernatural/immaterial is defined as 'that which unknowable by science', then it almost certainly exists.

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