21 thoughts on “is nature ‘natural’?”

  1. I personally don’t believe there is any evidence for there being anything other than ‘nature’ and that we’ve invented the word ‘supernatural’ as a place-holder for things not understood about the world. So, I believe that asking whether nature is natural is meaningless, unnecessary and belies a presupposition that there is a class of things that exist outside of nature.

    Until I have positive evidence for anything that doesn’t belong in the category of ‘natural’ I don’t see the point in postulating things in the category of ‘supernatural’.

  2. thanks for the response, Damian,
    Would it be fair to summarise your view as saying that nature is self-explanatory – or that explanations of (attempts at giving an account for) nature should not (or cannot?) be attempted?

  3. personally don’t believe there is any evidence for there being anything other than ‘nature’ and that we’ve invented the word ’supernatural’ as a place-holder for things not understood about the world.

    This does not follow, you infer from the premise that there is no evidence for the supernatural that you can’t understand what the supernatural is. Thats like infering that because there is no evidence that the first polynesian vistor to NZ was left handed, it follows we don’t understand what that would involve.

    So, I believe that asking whether nature is natural is meaningless,

    This is another non sequitur even if you can’t understand what something is does not mean reference to it is meaningless. I probably don’t understand what quarks and gluons are, it does not follow this terms have no meaning.

    a presupposition that there is a class of things that exist outside of nature. No it doesn’t, if it did the statement, the supernatural does not exist would be a contradiction, and one would have a slam duck argument for the existence of the supernatural. The argument that denying this is contradictory.

  4. Matt,
    I think I follow your objection to Damian’s statement. Tell me if I’m misrepresenting your point, but I’d just add on the side that essentially one can’t really talk about the presence or absence of evidence for the supernatural without at least having some kind of concept of what the supernatural would be like (or what its relationship to nature would be, etc.)?

  5. It comes back to how one defies words – and these words are used very loosely, aren’t they?

    In the past many things have been given “supernatural” explanations. Really explanations for something we don’t understand and therefore invented things to “explain” them. Fairies, goblins, gods, tooth fairies, spirits, ghosts, demons, etc., etc.

    As we investigated and came to understand these things the “supernatural” became “natural.” Even the dictionary definition of “supernatural” “relating to or attributed to phenomena that cannot be explained by natural laws”. “Natural laws” being ideas in the mind of humans – so anything we don’t yet understand is “supernatural.” Dark matter is “supernatural” (but will become “natural” in the next few years. Dark energy is “supernatural” and may become “natural” in the next 10-15 years, or maybe the concept will be replaced by something else as our knowledge of the cosmos advances.

    So, I believe the terms are next to useless – and “supernatural” in particular is worse than useless – it’s misleading. As it is used in the religious sphere is implies a knowledge which just isn’t there. Therefore, it is arrogant to use that word with the religious meaning. It’s making a knowledge claim which is obviously false.

    Mind you, the other side of the coin is that the “supernatural” label is used as a fake warning – “don’t go here you scientists, you can’t possibly understand this. You must rely on our revelatory knowledge for this.” What a silly attitude – and it is silly for any scientists to go along with this.

    So-called “supernatural” phenomena, just like so-called “natural” phenomena are properly the field of science. We can only verify and understand them by applying scientific methods.

    So – I lump your “supernatural” and “natural” (as you guys are using the words together. We can investigate them (at least potentially. And we should be able to understand them (at least potentially).

  6. Ken,
    You present the standard modern naturalistic story – ancient, uneducated, superstitious and ignorant people used to believe in all sorts of things, but with every advance of science/technology all that is being replaced, outdated, proven wrong, etc., etc.

    You quite easily (far too easily, of course) lump all non-naturalistic ideas in the same category (irrelevant/false) as though any/every such idea is such that scientific advances do away with them by default! You (conveniently) assume that super-natural must automatically be anti-natural; and the corresponding view that non-scientific knowledge must be automatically anti-scientific.

  7. You misrepresent me Dale (or haven’t read my comment properly. Far from saying “super-natural must automatically be anti-natural” I actually said “I lump your “supernatural” and “natural” (as you guys are using the words) together.”

    From the point of view of trying to understand reality this is what humanity does. Otherwise it gets caught with arrogant and false claims of people saying that part of reality is “out of bounds”, can’t be investigated – but they know all about it and we must take their words for that as it was “revealed” to them somehow.

    It’s always much better to say “I don’t know!” Even that “Maybe we will never know!” But to always add “let’s at least attempt to find out!” And isn’t that what humanity does do in the end?

  8. Ken, we’ve been ’round these circles before. Any talk of whether or not we ‘know’ something makes epistemic issues immediately relevant. And some things just cannot be ‘known’ via empiricism – indeed, some quite real things. This is not anti-science, and it’s not ‘compartmentalising’ contradictory beliefs – it’s knowing things in the way or ways which are most appropriate to whatever the object/thing/person/value/etc. is that you are seeking to know.

  9. Yes – we are going around in circles. However, all I can do is repeat: “It’s always much better to say “I don’t know!” Even that “Maybe we will never know!” But to always add “let’s at least attempt to find out!” And isn’t that what humanity does do in the end?”

    And add – isn’t that much better than claiming to ‘know’ something we don’t really. And defending that knowledge by smugly claiming that one has a “better” way of knowing?

  10. It’s not about one person having a ‘better’ way of knowing than someone else, but rather seeking/discerning the ‘most appropriate’ way of knowing about something. And again, saying that some things are ‘known’ about (investigated, validated, invalidated, critiqued, discovered, etc., etc.) best through other-than-empirical methods is not in the slightest bit ‘anti-empiricism’ or ‘anti-science’.

  11. Who determines what is “most appropriate”? Who determines if something is “known”? And how do they determine it is “known”? And what are these “other-than-empirical” methods? Revelation?

  12. As an example, it certainly wasn’t empiricism that determined that empirical methods were appropriate for natural science, was it?
    There is subjectivity to all our ‘knowing’. There is certainly subjectivity in “other than empirical” methods, but also in empirical ones. We even have to interpret our empirical data. We shouldn’t let this subjectivity keep us from taking various kinds of knowledge seriously.

  13. Tell us Dale – who, what, how were the scientific methods and philosophies determined? They certainly weren’t developed in a vacuum, were they?

    And again: “And what are these “other-than-empirical” methods? Revelation?”

  14. they were determined by people who made the assumption that Nature is intelligible and ordered to use such methodology.
    I wouldn’t call ‘revelation’ a method. I think truth is ‘revealed’ to humanity through all kinds of things – one of which is science.

  15. You avoided the revelation question. This has, I think, specific theological meaning. And that doesn’t include science. Is actually antithical to science.

    I think “assumption” may be the wrong word. More that people found this out through practice. It became obvious. And they found it out thousands of years ago. Even a lot of the mythology of early humans contained elements of this scientific approach. I often mention agriculture and navigation – this goes back more than 10,000 years.

  16. I’ve not ‘avoided’ it – I just simply have a broader theological understanding of ‘revelation’ than the version you assume me (and others?) to have; and it very much includes scientific discovery – and is anything but ‘antithetical’ or hostile to science.

  17. But I think we have to say that science is very much antithetical to revelation – when used in it’s normal theological sense (and as it is understood by most proponents of that [i]”other way of knowing”.[/i]

  18. Well – provvde us with examples where science uses “revelation” as understood in the stand theological sense. I don’t know of any and think such claims would be laughed at in the scientific community.

  19. I didn’t say science “uses” revelation, I said that science is one of the ways in which truths are revealed to humanity. The word ‘revelation’ has the connotation of things being ‘uncovered’ or ‘unveiled’ – essentially ‘knowing’ (there’s that wonderful word again) something we didn’t ‘know’ before. Indeed all our knowledge (scientific or otherwise) is tentative, so there’s always the need for humility and patience.

    ((I note in passing that most of the commenting in this thread is more in response to Damian’s first comment than to the original post – which is fine, of course. But I’m still interested in any responses to the actual post))

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