Questionable Motives

October 22, 2010

What do people mean when they use the term ‘supernatural’ as it relates to religious belief?

Filed under: Argument,belief,Religion,Spirituality — tildeb @ 10:31 am

I have a busy week posting comments on various sites about accusations of scientism, that atheism is an ideology that will fail, that seeking and respecting what is true necessarily leads to god’s moral truths, and so. I found it quite refreshing, then, to come across a post over at Open Parachute that directly relates to everything I have been trying to express:

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

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

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

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



Advertisements

19 Comments »

  1. http://xkcd.com/808/ ^_^

    Comment by FreeFox — October 22, 2010 @ 10:47 am | Reply

    • And the same argument is equally valid with all kinds of stuff that relies on this kind of belief… from anti-vaccine supporters to naturopathy, from gay agenda believers to conspiracy theorists. If what is believed to be true were true, not only would there be evidence of effect but the new knowledge would be incorporated into a scientific explanation. What most believers find themselves doing then is to blame the disciplined method of inquiry rather than the lack of tangible results.

      Comment by tildeb — October 22, 2010 @ 11:06 am | Reply

  2. Yup. From an argumentative standpoint the worst decision of organized religion was trying to retreat to that which cannot be explained. If God is indeed in that, He’s fighting a losing battle.

    Comment by FreeFox — October 22, 2010 @ 10:48 am | Reply

    • And that’s why personal belief is fine as long as it doesn’t try to be extended into the world as if it were true. I see no qualitative difference between reading some terrific work of literature and discovering great meaning applicable to one’s perspective about how to live a meaningful and purposeful life, and religious belief that can offer the same benefit. But just a surely as we would think a person unreasonable who thought Darth Vader was an historical figure who lived long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, so too do we need to think of a person who puts forward similar truth claims about religious beliefs as equally unreasonable.

      Comment by tildeb — October 22, 2010 @ 11:12 am | Reply

      • Aye. But I would as surely laugh off someone as simpleminded who claimed that Saint-Exupéry’s little prince was less important than, say, Aaron Greenberg, that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was any less true than Mrs. Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror”, or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” any less real than the US Dollar or GPS.

        As long as you describe the objective world independent of human emotional experience, you are probably right in every respect. I just hold that this physical world you are talking about – while indubitably real AND important – is far from the only or even the most relevant factor in life.

        Without bread we starve to death. And still man does not live by bread alone.

        Comment by FreeFox — October 22, 2010 @ 11:25 am

  3. If what is believed to be true were true, not only would there be evidence of effect but the new knowledge would be incorporated into a scientific explanation.(tildeb)

    I guess its a bummer for the person who has the belief but dies before it gets proven, eh. 😉

    Comment by Titfortat — October 22, 2010 @ 5:27 pm | Reply

  4. “If what is believed to be true were true, not only would there be evidence of effect but the new knowledge would be incorporated into a scientific explanation.”

    Only if it is demonstrably true – and that is the difference here.

    The belief that smoking causes lung cancer is based on evidence that has been gathered by multiple sources from multiple sources; it may well have started out as a belief based on a personal experience – e.g. a doctor noticed a pattern, in that all his patients who got lung cancer smoked. This is a strong hunch (a hypothesis), based on a small sample of patients. The transition from a hypothesis to a theory (that which has demonstrable evidence) required much more work.

    The belief in spirits, aliens, gods, wizards, dragons, unicorns and jelly bean universe are all very weak hunches, because they cannot be demonstrated with veracity.

    I think most intelligent and educated people understand the difference between what is plausibly true and what is probably superstitious nonsense that has a plausible explanation other than the supernatural; it is here that people get muddled.

    Homeopathy is a good example of this, where those who do not understand science are duped into paying large amounts of money for a sugar pill, on the back of anecdotal evidence that it made someone better, which can be explained plausibly and scientifically by the placebo effect.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 23, 2010 @ 9:16 am | Reply

    • I have no idea what a jelly bean universe it, but I want to believe in it. And go there. ^_^

      Comment by FreeFox — October 23, 2010 @ 11:47 am | Reply

  5. And I think that is the point of using the jelly bean universe as an example – wanting to believe in it, and believing in as a result of wanting it to be true, does not make it true, what makes it true is if it exists. And we can only know if it exists, if it is demonstrated to exist by observations that are measurable, meaningful and repeatable.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 25, 2010 @ 5:14 am | Reply

    • Aye, wishing something to be true certainly does not make it so. But as for knowing…

      Maybe you only know that something exists if it is demonstrated to exist by observations that are measurable, meaningful and repeatable. I’ll agree that it gives a theory a lot of credit when it is demonstrably measurable, meaningful and repeatable. But I do not need for all of these criteria to be fulfilled to know when I am pissed off, when I have the hots for someone, when I can see in someone’s mimic and body language that he’s lying to me, when I notice from a mutitude of almost imperceptible little clues that my lover is unhappy with something, or when I know, just by being honest, that I am bullshitting myself because I do want to live with the consequences of a truth. And often it really wouldn’t be practical to run a battery of scientific tests, when instead I have a life to get on with.
      If you want to develop a new vaccine or a more efficient car engine, or figure out how many black holes there are in the universe, yep, that’s your way to go. But in everything else – and that includes a lot of things that really, really matter – it is an utterly useless approach.

      “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet black bow.” (Ezra Pound, In a Station of the Metro)

      It’s still true, mate, tested or not. Even though of course peeps are not really petals, the metro is not really a bow, it’s not 1912 any more, and I wouldn’t even begin to now how to measure or repeat it’s truth. But frankly, I find it more important than, say, the latest generation of iPods. (Even so, iPods are awesome.)

      Comment by FreeFox — October 25, 2010 @ 5:42 am | Reply

  6. I think you are comparing apples with oranges.

    Art is an abstraction of someones opinion, it’s purpose is not to define truth, its purpose is to define and communicate the feelings of the artist – which may or may not be aligned with a true representation and feelings of the world or the audience of the art that is being demonstrated.

    For me the poem “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet black bough.” is meaningless, it has no value spiritually or otherwise, it is just a load of words that were bundled together to show a command of language – it is textual vomit, that is appreciated only by a few like minded individuals, who may or may not be showing genuine appreciation for it.

    If we had a choice to erase the silly little poem above from history, or E=MC2 which would it be?

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 25, 2010 @ 9:28 am | Reply

    • My misguided [mostly atheist] ancestors made the mistake of believing they could win a war fighting on several fronts at the same time and paid dearly for it. (Though, apparently, given enough time and deaths, the [mostly atheist] communist Soviet Union would have most probably been able to crush them all on their own.) After they have been so spectacularely proven wrong, I should learn from history. I won’t open up a second front here: I’ll include my answer to this argument into my next rant over on QM’s Why aren’t Science and Religion friends” thread. (But gimme a couple of hours to get it written, lol.)
      ^_~
      “Nazi science sneers at the boundary between opinion and truth” (Col. Haken)

      Comment by FreeFox — October 26, 2010 @ 2:34 am | Reply

  7. There is a special relationship between scientific knowledge and the real world.
    True, and the same can be said for religious belief. But, just as we test scientific claims, we should also test religious claims.

    Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logo-Philosophicus does a good job of separating what can be known from what LW calls “the mystical”. It is the conceptual rather than the physical. Wittgenstein sees nothing in the world that can justify the mystical. No one can really say, “Thou shalt not..” and have an existential foundation for it. But that, of course, isn’t the end of it.
    Your post can be explained physically (your brain fired some neurons and your fingers hit the keyboard) but it cannot explain the mind that came up with what to write.
    At the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein states that the fact that we exist is mystical. And science can never explain the ultimate question because it can’t conceive of anything supernatural. But something supernatural (existing outside of nature but involved in it) can conceive of science.

    Comment by Jim J — October 25, 2010 @ 10:59 am | Reply

    • No, the same cannot be said of religious belief. There is a disconnect between religious belief and the real world… hence the need for the code word supernatural. And this conveniently avoids the ability to test its claims. Furthermore, this inability is considered a virtue in religious belief but a liability in science.

      There is a lot of philosophy that exposes the difficulty of basing reality on reality, using the same old argument that we can’t use logic to provide a philosophical foundation for logic, reason to found reason, science to found science, and so on. Each is an a priori argument. So what can be done? Throw up hands and go back to offering blood sacrifices to what cannot be grounded in philosophical certainty?

      Ooo, I know… let’s change the words! Let’s base logic on a metaphysical plane of absolutes! Let’s base reason on the mystical! Let’s base science on the supernatural! Let’s base god on love!

      If we can’t base what we think we know about the universe on an epistemology – a method – that is demonstrably consistent and reliable in its practical results, then what can we base it on? Does switching the emphasis to woo words like absolutes, mystical, supernatural, god, bring us any closer to achieving another better method that is demonstrably consistent and reliable in its practical results? If so, then let’s have at it and put it to work. If not, then let’s recognize the diversion for what it is: a word game to make new deepities sound like knowledge.

      When you write something supernatural (existing outside of nature but involved in it) can conceive of science you are committing yourself to a truth claim that is both meaningless and unverifiable. What is existing outside of nature but is involved in it? Giving this absurdity a name does nothing to answer this question and we have no means available to test whether or not this claim is true. It is simply a statement that is meaningless without an object that can be known. And this is where we run into trouble: there is no way for us to know any such an agency that is able to avoid all detection except, of course, from a different kind of knowledge that just so happens to look exactly like the current definition of some woo word. Please read point #2 again.

      Comment by tildeb — October 25, 2010 @ 12:39 pm | Reply

  8. “And science can never explain the ultimate question because it can’t conceive of anything supernatural.”

    This is an assumption – here you (or he) is assuming that the creation is a supernatural event – this is not necessarily the case. Humans may never know the answer to everything, but this does not mean that the answer to everything is of a supernatural origin, it just means that it is beyond our capability to know.

    The cause of plague used to be unknown, people would pray, and put down the instances to plague to supernatural agencies (either the devil) or the gods for being angry or malicious with the humans etc. We now have the capability to know what causes plague, and it is not supernatural, if we had never known what causes plague would it have still been a supernatural event?

    When you step onto an aeroplane, you ‘know’ it will fly – right? Even though you know it also has a small probability that it might crash? Why do you know it will fly? And why do you put your faith in its flight?

    Science doesn’t have all the answers – but it knows enough for you and me to be exchanging messages over thousands of miles, it provides us with capability of knowing with some certainty that aeroplanes will work (most of the time), and plague is not sent from the gods – why should this be any different in relation to the origins of the universe?

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 25, 2010 @ 12:45 pm | Reply

  9. Me–“And science can never explain the ultimate question because it can’t conceive of anything supernatural.”

    You–This is an assumption

    No, it’s not. Then you say, The cause of plague used to be unknown, people would pray, and put down the instances to plague to supernatural agencies (either the devil) or the gods for being angry or malicious with the humans etc.

    What does the origin of the universe have to do with ignorant people in the 1300s? Nothing. Straw man argument, pure and simple.
    Science not only “doesn’t have all the answers”, it can NOT answer something that is, itself, unscientific.

    tildeb said, “There is a disconnect between religious belief and the real world”
    That’s BS. False premise. You do not pass go nor collect $200. And you really need to go back and read and understand Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to understand what I’m saying. Don’t worry, it’s a good read.

    Comment by Jim J — October 26, 2010 @ 1:27 am | Reply

    • Jim, when you write that Science not only “doesn’t have all the answers”, it can NOT answer something that is, itself, unscientific then let’s be crystal clear about a single point:

      NEITHER CAN RELIGION.

      Comment by tildeb — October 26, 2010 @ 8:32 am | Reply

      • From Russell Blackford:

        Of course, science cannot investigate the supernatural if we define “the supernatural” as “whatever cannot be investigated by science”! But once we define the supernatural in some other plausible way it is by no means apparent that science can’t investigate it, just as it can investigate things that no longer exist (such as dinosaurs), things that are very distant (such as the moons of Jupiter), and things that are very small (such as atomic nuclei). None of the latter can be perceived directly with our senses, but they can interact with our senses in other ways – by leaving traces on the world that we can perceive, by interacting with scientific instruments to create images that we can perceive, by affecting experimental apparatus in predictable ways, and so on. In the end, we can use distinctively scientific means to investigate many things that interact with our senses only indirectly. Depending on the situation, we can sometimes establish a lot about those things.

        Comment by tildeb — October 26, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

  10. Hi Jim J,

    I am referring to this bit specifically: “And science can never explain the ultimate question….”

    The ignorance of the 1300s is the same type of ignorance that is around today hence my linking with plague, just because we do not know something does not mean that the cause is supernatural (god did it).

    There are people who think that they can explain the origins of the universe, and there are observations that back up their theories (see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzgcSxBIMGM&feature=related).

    So not only is it an assumption that science will not be able to explain the ‘ultimate question’ it is also an assumption that the origin of the universe is of the result of a supernatural event.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 26, 2010 @ 3:10 am | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: