Naturalism

In reviewing Jerry Coyne’s latest book, the Verbose Stoic makes a number of great points on naturalism that I regularly use in discussions with professed naturalists, materialists, and physicalists.

What I find is that either what sort of phenomena count as natural is defined so broadly that anything that exists and that we can even see empirically counts as natural, or else if natural is defined in a way that doesn’t just devolve to “exists” that it seems that we’ve found all sorts of things that ought to count as supernatural. . . .

If anything that science proved existed and was able to study gets called natural, then setting this out as a methodological commitment simply means that you will never, ever discover that any supernatural explanation is actually correct. If we had scientific evidence that telepathy worked, it seems unlikely that scientists would therefore conclude that something supernatural existed. Instead, they would most likely insist that telepathy was really natural all along and we just didn’t realize it (for an example of how that might work, see Babylon 5’s “The Psi Corps Trilogy”, where telepathy is discovered scientifically and becomes “natural”). And we’ve seen this sort of move in science already, with things like time dilation. . . . Technically, if I’m sitting and watching the baseball game and then stand up and walk around the room, time is moving slower for me in the second case, even though it might feel like it’s moving slower in the first case. Sure, it’s imperceptible, but it means that I can control time by intentional actions. How is that not supernatural? . . . Thus, it is difficult to imagine what sort of phenomena you could prove existed that science would not claim natural as soon as you did so, and if that’s the case then the claim that we’ve tested natural vs supernatural explanations and natural explanations is hollow; based on this, there is no way that a supernatural explanation can possibly win, and so this becomes a hidden presumption, but a presumption nonetheless. . . .

If empirical evidence is to be the gold standard of scientific claims, then there seems to be no reason to even classify explanations as natural or supernatural to start with. Instead, you should just go straight to the evidence. If supernatural explanations don’t work, then the evidence will always lead you away from them. There is, then, no need to prejudge an explanation as supernatural and therefore one that you ought to be more skeptical of.

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