Methodological naturalism: does it exclude the supernatural?

An interesting thread]

In my view the whole thread is derailed somewhat by guys trying to define ‘supernatural’ which is problematic as things that were considered ‘supernatural’ in years gone by are natural today, and in fact the term would seem to equate with ‘incomprehensible’ as someone noted. The following comment is telling:

Belief is not a good thing; doubt is the proper attitude. I doubt the existence of god and I doubt the non-existence of god; but the existence of god is unsupported by the greater lack of evidence.

I am a methodological naturalist - if it doesn’t exclude the supernatural, I am not one anymore! :smiley:

I’d say the problem is with misuse of the word.

IN MY OPINION: The word supernatural stands in contrast to the word “natural”. This creates a problem though. Because people label “Alien sightings” as supernatural. Meaning THEY use it not in contrast to natural (if aliens exist they are perfectly natural beings), but with respect to things that are not considered “everyday”. I disagree with that assessment, and that’s how I resolve the problem internally. Things that can be or are proven by science are not supernatural by definition.

This leads to my second conclusion: Given that everything that can be shown to exist is by extension natural, supernatural phenomena CANNOT exist given that criteria for existence.

For example, if you can show that God exists, he would instantly become natural. Maybe not “governed by the rules of THIS universe”, but still a natural being. As long as you hold to the rule that you cannot simply label anything you don’t understand as “supernatural”.

Like I said, one such example is Aliens. They haven’t been proven yet, they probably exist, but we don’t understand anything about what they’d be like. However they are/would still be natural.

By that logic, if we find telekinesis or telepathy is possible by manipulating brain waves or that ghosts are lingering ectoplasm, it all “becomes” natural.

I’m down with that and it conforms to how I have forever viewed this universe.

It kinda means supernatural is redundant and only holds up for anything we don’t have an explanation for and… wait… I see what you did there! :smiley:

Brian’s link corrected:

In his OP Brian laments that ‘the whole thread is derailed somewhat by guys trying to define ‘supernatural’.’ (He was referring to the linked thread.)
Now we are also debating it!

The point raised by BM and Cyghost that a phenomenon ceases to be ‘supernatural’ once empirical evidence for its existence has been found, was in fact preempted in the original article by Boundry et al:

The philosophical way to vindicate IMN immediately is to define ‘supernatural’ as any phenomenon that is inaccessible by scientific means in principle. Thus, as soon as an allegedly supernatural phenomenon becomes scientifically detectable, it ceases to be supernatural and must from that moment be reconsidered as ‘natural’.

In accordance with our reconstruction of MN as an empirically grounded and provisory methodological guideline of science (PMN), we propose to define ‘supernatural’ as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science

My interpretation of the reference to ‘modern science’ is that the authors refer to what is currently regarded as ‘supernatural’.

The artice proceeds to distinguish between two types of MN:

According to one popular conception, MN is a self-imposed or intrinsic limitation of science, which means that science is simply not equipped to deal with claims of the supernatural (Intrinsic MN or IMN). Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded attitude of scientists, which is justified in virtue of the consistent success of naturalistic explanations and the lack of success of supernatural explanations in the history of science. (Provisory MN or PMN).

The salient point to me is that the former assumes an a priori rejection of the supernatural whereas the latter rejects it on the basis of lack of evidence.

Their argument that an a priori rejection of the supernatural introduces dogma into science has some merit.

Science, or more specifically the scientific method is the best way for acquiring and assessing knowledge we have. In fact, it is the only method.

Anything that is “beyond science” or “not equipped to be dealt with by science” is beyond suspect. It is bogus bullshit. If that is a dogmatic viewpoint, it is one I am happy with. I remain to be convinced otherwise (by evidence) that a) there are other means of knowing things and b) that there are things (which actually means anything) that cannot be handled by the scientific method.

Science as a process is neutral and should of course not have any a priori rejections. But I am not science. And neither am I into scientism. I just think it works and nothing else does.

The way I see it (and I’m a lay person)is that there is a difference between explaining something and understanding something. The latter is usually not a scientific process but the ability to grasp something from another’s point of view possibly. Is intuitive (if it exists) thought ‘supernatural’ or natural? Can we use scientific method to gather empirical data about it? Is intuition a subjective thought process which defies analysis and hence is ‘supernatural’?

Perhaps I expressed myself poorly. Your viewpoint is not dogmatic and I agree with your view. It is when science restricts itself from investigating what is currently regarded as supernatural that dogma may be introduced.

I would say making decisions based on intuition is certainly subjective. One could still test the efficacy of such decision making scientifically. I don’t see anything ‘supernatural’ in intuitive decision making per se. Should it turn out that intuitive decision making is highly efficacious, we may be dealing with something currently regarded as ‘supernatural’. In the mean time I prefer not to think with my gut.

I think that when people speak of “intuition,” too much is usually made of that word. It’s a perennial favourite among woo-woos and is often meant to convey the idea that intuition somehow magically taps into a collective and/or universal source of ethereal knowledge that is open to everyone provided they follow certain rules, rituals and/or beliefs. In reality, “intuition” is much more probably an artefact of how the brain normally reasons, i.e. much of it probably happens reactively at the un- and/or subconscious level. In the majority of day-to-day situations, we don’t deliberate and set out rigorous arguments for and against each of a selection of courses of action; more usually we just informally kick the options around in our heads for a short time before picking the one we like best. In a nutshell, “intuition” is just a term to describe all of the influences and factors (derived from past experiences) that reside inside our own heads and guide our thinking habits, and of which we are only partly aware or not at all.


Fair enough, I guess my comprehension were lacking there. Just want to point out where science do investigate the supernatural, bleeding hands, flying monks, ghosties and beasties and other creepies it invariably turns out to be a hoax or have a rational, natural explanation. Which should make anyone think twice. Shouldn’t it?

This classic Skeptico blog sums it all up very nicely.

So if I understand you correctly, intuition is perfectly natural, subjective and largely unconscious? It is also better developed in those with more exposure in a particular environment (say the rearing of children) and manifests itself for example when such person ‘intuitively’ feels something ‘is wrong’, looks up and sees a child hanging from his fingertips from a high window???

How many of us skeptics here have had these intuitive experiences (I’m very skeptical myself about ESP etc. but must admit to having had such experiences)? I was sitting on the toilet reading “The Scope” when I suddenly visualised my 3-year old son standing in his 2-nd story unbarred and open window sill, I leaped up immediately, ran to his room and found him like that about to fall out of the window! He had not called etc and my wife was downstairs. I still get gooseflesh. ??? After pulling him back I pulled up my pants…

Yes, that’s the gist of it – together with your implied additional point concerning subtle sensory cues that perhaps don’t quite make it all the way to full consciousness.