2016 - Image-Religion3

Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy

Critics of atheism and or naturalism/materialism often present the dichotomy of naturalism and supernaturalism as a false choice. Naturalism entails the closed system of the known universe and supernaturalism represents the realm beyond or outside the physical world. Theists too easily dismiss naturalism and materialism as unproven, since they cannot disprove immaterial worlds and other dimensions, thereby seeking to grant religious beliefs in supernaturalism additional power. As I will show, this is a mistake as it unfairly manipulates the argument by a focus on what naturalism denies, rather than what it affirms.

The false dichotomy is represented by an either/or choice between:

  • Natural

OR

  • Natural + Supernatural

There are two reasons why this is fallacious:

  1. Supernaturalism is arbitrarily granted equal epistemological status with nature
  2. Limitless versions of Supernaturalism are available

Definitions

From Dictionary.com

The distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism has been something of a vexed question, and for the purposes of argument it is clarified as follows:

Naturalism

  1. the view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.

Supernatural

  1. a being, place, object, occurrence, considered as supernatural or of supernatural origin;
  2. that which is supernatural,or outside the natural order.

Essentially the natural and supernatural are flipsides of the same concept. The supernatural is defined as outside or transcendent of nature. Naturalism entails a formal belief that nature is all there is. This is mostly perceived as a strong positive belief that the universe is a closed system with nothing beyond or outside of it. For the purposes of this discussion it will be useful to understand naturalism as simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension, as opposed to positively claiming it does not exist. This might be termed weak naturalism. Just as an atheist might be termed a weak atheist since he lacks belief in God, but does not necessarily positively disbelieve in all god(s).

Since the strong interpretation of naturalism effectively rules out anything beyond the natural, the theist is able to seize the opportunity to corner non-theists into a position they may not actually hold. A non-theist does not necessarily claim that the known universe is all encompassing, or that his lack of belief in God(s) demands that he also refutes any possibility of the supernatural. In order to create the false dichotomy the non-believer is conscripted, using naturalism, in to the position of denying any other knowledge or realm apart from the natural.

Since the definition of naturalism precludes supernaturalism, if we were able to identify another realm, perhaps an immaterial one, this realm might then by virtue of its discovery become part of the naturalist position. Therefore something is amiss. The distinction becomes meaningless if naturalism is equated precisely with our current knowledge. This is known as trivial naturalism. It must have a distinction in kind so that supernaturalism is not only unexplained by nature, but also has causes outside of nature or belong to systems with different laws, or is explained by the mental powers of immaterial Beings. Thereby, if discovered they would still be classified as supernatural.

This is dependent on the definition of nature. When we talk about nature we are discussing the observance of natural laws and cause and effect in the world. What exactly makes them natural? If God created the world would not acts of God within the world he created also be natural, as long he did not contravene the laws of nature he created? This question would be difficult to answer, and thankfully we can leave it to one side, since we are only concerned with the natural world as we know it. The distinction of supernatural refers to something operating beyond or outside of these laws, and would therefore be anything that is not controlled by the known physical laws of the universe.

Philosophically, the nature-supernature distinction is problematic because generally a ‘distinction’ relies on a comparison between two known entities. We know virtually nothing about allegedly supernatural entities, and can offer no verified examples for comparison. The supernatural is primarily a negation of natural – its’ definition dependent on overcoming, overriding or sitting outside the causation observed in nature. The supernatural cannot be defined as one thing, or one realm. It is the unknown not-natural which is as yet an undiscovered set of things, as far as we know potentially an empty set, and potentially an infinite set.

False Equivalency

In terms of practical knowledge, the natural world and the supernatural are not equal. Those who speculate on a world beyond naturalism are unable to present the same level of evidence in support of it as we have for the natural world. In fact, there is no comparison whatsoever.

The universe exists; beyond philosophical ‘mind in a vat style’ equivocations one could hardly mount a convincing case that it does not. The nature of the physical universe and the physical laws which govern it are documented so extensively that we are able to make accurate predictions about future events, predictions about the movements of planets, tides, and the weather. Humans can perform complex medical interventions to improve our longevity, understand and control the spread of disease, utilize natural resources to provide food and shelter, create vehicles to navigated long distances and a myriad of other things too numerous to mention. In stark contrast the evidence in favor of a supernatural realm is confined to speculation, religious doctrine, ghost stories, and unverifiable claims of revelation.

Theists who seek to assert equivalency are on shaky ground. They might propose that since we do not know everything about nature we cannot disprove supernaturalism. This is a mistake. Inability to rule it out does not count as positive evidence in its favor, and indicates nothing about the probability of the supernatural realm.

Theists may argue that since we do not have an answer to some of the fundamental questions about existence itself, an answer might or must be obtained in realms that are as yet undiscovered. Again, lack of an answer to a fundamental question about the natural world, does not necessitate any evidence in favor of a theory that provides a non-natural answer; this is a non-sequitur.

Mysteries, such as the vast and uncharted universe, dark matter, our inability to traverse to distant galaxies, to enter black holes, or to understand what happened prior to 10-43 Plank time, and the unresolved aspects of abiogenesis, lead some to reason that since we don’t understand a great deal about existence then we must subscribe to an open mind about the supernatural, eventuating an apathetic attitude of giving it an even chance of existing. Since we don’t know a lot about fundamental reality we cannot say with great confidence that complete realms aside from the natural exist. This openness to new information is quite reasonable but should not lead to the conclusion that a transcendent reality, supplementary to the one we know exists, is equally likely to the hypothesis than the universe is a closed system. The lack of any evidence of a supernatural or immaterial realm is at least a prima facie case that it is more improbable than probable. Our imperfect knowledge of the natural world does not indicate a probability or equal likelihood of supernatural realms; this is a ‘super-nature of the gaps’ style argument (refer: God of the Gaps). Our inability to solve the fundamental questions of existence do not equalize theories with knowledge, or speculation with what is demonstrable by evidence.

Many versions of Supernaturalism

The supernatural realm is conspicuously absent a well-defined set of properties. The religions who agree with each other that this realm exists disagree spectacularly on what it entails. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and many other religions assume a supernatural realm exists but posit different entities within it, and different Beings governing it. Some propose Heaven and Hell as repositories of human souls. Some disallow any contact between the supernatural realm and the natural realm whilst others allow a myriad of interventions from angels, Gods and devils.

The contradiction ever present in theology is the argument that we cannot have contact or knowledge of what exists beyond our world, but we must have faith regardless, or obtain to knowledge through faith. Transcendental arguments of revelation through faith are numerous (see the Witness of the Holy Spirit) and yet they are unsupported by a consistent “known” nature of the supernatural. A singular or common standard does not apply and the alleged “experience” is reported in various different ways. The various versions of the supernatural are consistent with speculation rather than knowledge, and lead to an infinite number of possible worlds in the supernatural realm since there is no possibility or means of reducibility.

The False Dichotomy

The choice can be better outlined as follows:

  • The Known Universe

OR

  • The Known Universe + Christian Supernaturalism

OR

  • The Known Universe + Islamic Supernaturalism

OR

  • The Known Universe + Hindu Supernaturalism

OR

  • The Known Universe + reincarnation, spirits, ghosts

OR

  • ….and on to infinity

Where the theist argues we must make a choice between two scenarios he is making a grave mistake. The actual choice is between the extant universe and an infinite number of possible worlds that we are prevented from having any knowledge of.

We should not be cornered into accepting such a speculative set of beliefs. The burden of proof is on the Theist to mount a case in favor of a well-defined supernatural realm. Once that is achieved we could properly compare the likelihood of one to the other.

Evidence

The Theist is forced into jumping back and forth to either side of the evidential coin. Arguing, on one hand, that the supernatural is beyond our power to observe it by definition; that seeking to use our senses and perceptions and the tools of science to measure what is undetectable, due to its existence beyond the bounds of nature, is an exercise in futility; a category mistake.

On the other hand, they are unlikely to want to concede there is no way of knowing there is a supernatural realm or of determining what exists within it. The doctrines of their religion are based upon knowing these things. Not only do religions claim the realm exists they also proscribe a conception of what it might be like. The concept might include a deity, angels, various levels of either heaven or hell, activities, waiting chambers such as purgatory, and any number of other properties. The religion will often describe how the realm relates to our purpose in life, and how we should interpret the will of its deity or deities who reside there.

The theist is then forced to argue that we do in fact have knowledge of the supernatural dimension through non-evidential means. It’s worth considering the dictionary meaning of ‘evidence’ does not limit it to any type (on line Dictionary):

Evidence: the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid

It then becomes apparent that it is the Theist who makes a category mistake by assuming a category of knowledge not available to them. If revelation, knowledge through faith, and witness of the Holy Spirit truly provide knowledge of the supernatural then they are evidence. This evidence could, therefore, be weighed in accordance with its consistency, verifiability and its ability to make predictions. As ‘evidence’ of another realm, or of God, we should reasonably expect the provision of knowledge relevant to humanity, or greater truths not available in this world, which might provide great insight in to the meaning of life, and the fundamental questions. At the very least we should expect a consistent description of the supernatural realm, the nature of the Beings therein, and the content of the experience. In contrast to these expectations, Theists seek to exempt such experiences from the measures of evidence.

Bearing in mind the definition of evidence mentioned earlier, the theist effectively claims to have unique access to a type of evidence outside of evidence itself; a logical impossibility. Analogously, we cannot claim there are possibilities beyond what is possible. We cannot logically do the illogical.   Alternatively, they may counter this statement by saying they have evidence but it is only available to those who have faith. It can only be accessed by those committing to faith, and even then it is not demonstrable or verifiable to anyone without faith.

Conclusion

Naturalism does not entail a simple choice between two options. The supernatural realm entails an unlimited number of possible worlds. Not only do the proponents of the transcendental need to demonstrate the properties of another realm, they also need to demonstrate a means of detection. If alternative realms are proposed to be undetectable any claim to their existence is self-defeating. If they are proposed to be detectable and interactive with this world then their veracity should be demonstrated on evidence. Evidence cannot be discounted as, by definition, it constitutes the way in which we know things. It is not a knock down argument for theism to claim that naturalism or materialism cannot be proved; the unproved is the denial of the supernatural realm, whose probability is not helped, but hindered by its own unknowability and inscrutability. The false dichotomy is clear: the natural world is clear to see, the supernatural is undiscovered.

9 replies
  1. Gary Robertson
    Gary Robertson says:

    Your point about the folly of dismissing naturalism simply because the existence of dimensions beyond the physical world cannot be disproved is, of course, valid. The argument is based on ignorance and deserves to be rebutted.

    However, defining naturalism as “simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension” also puts the “focus on what naturalism denies, rather than what it affirms.” Moreover, defining naturalism this way presents the following problems:

    1) The absence of belief in a supernatural dimension neither compels naturalism, nor automatically renders the nonbeliever a ‘naturalist’. For instance, someone who lacks belief in both supernatural and natural realms because they haven’t formed conclusions about the underlying nature or constitution of reality falls into neither camp. However, according to the definition of naturalism provided here their position would default to a naturalistic one, which would be a clear misapplication of the term.

    2) The definition ignores non-naturalistic metaphysical positions that do not fall within the ‘supernaturalism’ category, such as pluralism, non-naturalist realism and various versions of the simulation hypothesis. Therefore, the definition itself creates a false dichotomy (ultimate reality is either natural or supernatural), which is, ironically, the main fallacy targeted in your essay.

    3) The definition is of dubious value in debates pitting naturalism against supernaturalism as it is difficult to argue against the existence of a supernatural dimension when naturalism, so defined, takes no opposing position.

    4) Defining a view solely by what it omits or does not encompass is unnecessarily vague and often evokes suspicions of evasion and a lack of confidence in the validity of the view held.

    There are a number of other assertions you make in this essay with which I disagree, however I’ll restrict my criticisms to the foregoing at this point to keep this reply from being too lengthy.

    Reply
    • Hugh Harris
      Hugh Harris says:

      Hi Gary

      Thanks for your comment. As I said in the essay the definition of naturalism is something of a vexed question. Stanford Encyclopedia online:

      “The term “naturalism” has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy. Its current usage derives from debates in America in the first half of the last century. The self-proclaimed “naturalists” from that period included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars. These philosophers aimed to ally philosophy more closely with science. They urged that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing “supernatural”, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the “human spirit” (Krikorian 1944; Kim 2003).

      So understood, “naturalism” is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers. The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject “supernatural” entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the “human spirit”.”

      So, fair enough. You are free to disagree with how I define naturalism.

      But, I can’t see how your points contain any disagreement with my argument, which is primarily an objection to the false equivalence given to the existence of a supernatural world. Surely you’d agree the definition of supernatural RELIES on the definition of naturalism. It is therefore in direct opposition to the view that the universe contains only nature. Whether that reality exists in multiple realities (pluralism) or that we exist in a simulation, is beside the point. If you want to argue these are not naturalism (as you define it) then we are merely quibbling about (man-made) definitions. Further, it is not a false dichotomy even if there are other alternatives to naturalism (subject to how it’s defined), since supernatural relies on natural for meaning.

      Reply
      • Gary Robertson
        Gary Robertson says:

        Thanks for your response Hugh. You’ll notice that nowhere in its entry on ‘naturalism’ does the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy define the term solely by what it does not encompass. Your definition, which does precisely that, is unnecessarily vague and increases the likelihood of equivocation. A case in point: you define ‘naturalism’ as “simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension, as opposed to positively claiming it does not exist.” However, in your attempt to show that some theists commit the logical fallacy of false equivalence by presenting a choice between “Natural OR Natural + Supernatural” you switch from this neutral, non-committal definition (‘weak’ naturalism at best) to asserting that a supernatural realm is “more improbable than probable.” That is, naturalism now explicitly encompasses the view that the existence of a supernatural dimension is “improbable” because of the “lack of any evidence” (‘strong’ naturalism).

        In a similar vein, you define ‘supernatural’ as “outside or transcendent of nature”, but later in your essay present various theological views relating to this definition (beliefs about certain entities and properties such a realm incorporates) as evidence that the proposition of a dimension transcending nature has an inferior epistemological status to naturalism. In reality these ancillary theological beliefs, “limitless” or otherwise, have no bearing on empirical and philosophical justifications for the existence of a realm beyond the physical universe.

        Regarding your points about false equivalence, I fail to see how any degree of reliance of the definition of ‘supernatural’ on the (vexed) definition of ‘naturalism’ is relevant to your case for the supposed “false equivalence given to the existence of a supernatural world”. Naturalism and supernaturalism are two competing metaphysical views on the fundamental composition of reality and their validity depends upon the strength of their factual premises and the depth and consistency of the reasoning supporting them, not on any etymological connections they may have.

        Furthermore, the direct opposite of the view that “the universe contains only nature” would not be that the universe comprises both natural and supernatural realms, but that the universe contains nothing natural.

        Reply
        • Hugh Harris
          Hugh Harris says:

          Interesting comments Gary. I’m not really sure what you’re getting at with your response however.

          The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does indeed define naturalism in reference to what it does not encompass ie. that it is limited by what’s natural, and does not include the supernatural. Your comments appear to want to suggest that there is actually no relationship with naturalism and supernatural. Why? There clearly is. Supernatural has no meaning unless we understand what “natural” means. In addition, I do not define naturalism “solely” by what it denies: “Naturalism entails the closed system of the known universe…”

          My argument, pace your comments, is not reliant on definitions, it is merely framed using the common definitions. You can of course reject the observation of any link between supernatural and the natural, or proffer an argument that “nature” may not exist, but this is in fact an entirely new argument, unrelated to what I’m arguing, and you would have your work ahead of you to justify such a position.

          My argument refers to the common theological positing of a supernatural realm as an even chance. I do indeed make the case that the validity of naturalism and supernaturalism “depends upon the strength of their factual premises and the depth and consistency of the reasoning supporting them”. This is precisely what I say:

          “In terms of practical knowledge, the natural world and the supernatural are not equal. Those who speculate on a world beyond naturalism are unable to present the same level of evidence in support of it as we have for the natural world. In fact, there is no comparison whatsoever.”

          Indeed, this is the main point. Supernaturalism has exactly no empirical evidence to base itself on, and only an potentially infinite amount of hypotheses.

          Reply
          • Gary Robertson
            Gary Robertson says:

            Hi Hugh,

            I am aware that you included several definitions of ‘naturalism’ which positively affirm what naturalism entails. However, my point was that the definition you deem “useful to understand naturalism” for “the purposes of this discussion” (ie, naturalism means “simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension, as opposed to positively claiming it does not exist”) readily lends itself to misuse. Indeed, this is demonstrated in your essay, in which you equivocate on this working definition by shifting from ‘weak’ naturalism to ‘strong’ naturalism. And, as I also mentioned, the definition is so vague it encompasses various non-naturalist positions as well as the absence of any position on the ultimate composition of reality.

            The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy unsurprisingly avoids such noncommittal meanings of naturalism. Instead, it essentially defines naturalism as the proposition that the natural world is all that exists or, obversely, the proposition that no supernatural dimension exists. Thus, it does not adopt a working definition that explains naturalism “solely by what it does not encompass”.

            This is not mere quibbling Hugh; using clear definitions of the key terms and applying them correctly helps ensure all readers have the same understanding. Moreover, equivocating, conflating or otherwise misapplying key terms can undermine one’s entire argument — which brings me to the main argument of your essay.

            You assert that granting supernaturalism an epistemic status equal to that of naturalism is unjustifiable and that arguments claiming equal epistemic status are flawed. However, you attempt to make your case by conflating ‘naturalism’ with ‘nature’ and then pitting supernaturalism against nature, instead of against naturalism. For example, you state that “Supernaturalism is arbitrarily granted equal epistemological status with nature” and that “Those who speculate on a world beyond naturalism are unable to present the same level of evidence in support of it as we have for the natural world”. Hence, your argument judges the justificational status of evidence supporting supernaturalism relative to the justificational status of evidence supporting the existence of nature.

            This is a category error as you are comparing evidence for the existence of physical objects, forces and processes (material entities), which are empirically verifiable, with evidence supporting philosophical arguments for a supernatural realm (immaterial entity), which, even when based on empirical data, cannot be empirically demonstrated. (This ties in with the broader philosophical debate between rationalism and empiricism). To avoid the category error, and to be consistent with your main argument, you should be comparing the justificational status of evidence supporting supernaturalism with that of naturalism, which are both metaphysical positions and, therefore, not empirically demonstrable.

            With all due respect Hugh, I cannot fathom how anyone with a keen interest in metaphysics and the philosophy of religion can genuinely claim that “Supernaturalism has exactly no empirical evidence to base itself on” and that “the evidence in favor of a supernatural realm is confined to speculation, religious doctrine, ghost stories, and unverifiable claims of revelation.” Teleological arguments for the existence of God (aka ‘arguments from design’) have been around since at least the time of Socrates. The Bible itself appeals to empiricism as evidence of God’s existence (eg, Romans 1:20). The second premise of the well-known cosmological argument is the scientific consensus that the universe had a beginning. Moreover, contemporary arguments by intelligent design theorists are entirely based on empirical data. Many of these contemporary ID arguments have emerged from major discoveries in biochemistry beginning in the mid-1950s, which reveal the complexity and interdependence of life at the molecular level.

            Although the validity of supernaturalism cannot be confirmed empirically, rational inferences to a reality beyond nature can be drawn from empirical data. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it: “Some phenomena within nature exhibit such exquisiteness of structure, function or interconnectedness that many people have found it natural – if not inescapable – to see a deliberative and directive mind behind those phenomena.” (‘Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence’). That others don’t see things this way doesn’t negate the fact that many inferences to design or a directive intelligence from certain features of the natural world are empirically based and rationally sound.

          • Hugh Harris
            Hugh Harris says:

            Hello Gary. Thanks for your well written response.

            Yes, I concede that I equivocate between weak naturalism and strong naturalism in my essay.

            However, I don’t see how that especially weakens my argument that whether you take a weak or strong version of naturalism (feel free to define it), the major difference between naturalism and supernaturalism is the empirical evidence suggesting that as of yet we have only discovered the natural world. Thus, if we were to consider the likelihood of naturalism being true, and the supernatural being true, we know that the natural world does in fact exist and there is no evidence of any other world beyond it, and thus, the supernatural world which consists of the natural world plus another one is undeniably less likely. The person positing a supernatural world has the job ahead of them in providing any evidence in its favour.

            I realise you will think I am talking around your point – that you would like to frame the discussion based on your assumption that the “both metaphysical positions and, therefore, not empirically demonstrable”. Thus, they must be equally probable! This is a nice way of ignoring the empirical evidence which suggests that the natural world is all we observe and nothing else, despite determined efforts for centuries, and moreover, that we have so far failed to uncover any evidence of a supernatural realm, nor even define what sort of things it must contain.

            Further, your assertion that naturalism cannot be confirmed empirically, relies on the unsupported assumption that we should consider some likelihood to a supernatural realm. It is only the positing of unverifiable “realms” be they supernatural or otherwise which leads you to conclude that naturalism is not empirically demonstrable. If you look at the problem the other way around, you might see that it’s not naturalism per se which is not empirically demonstrable, it’s the universal negative of supernatural realms superimposing over it. It’s these supernatural realms which are neither verifiable or unverifiable. This does NOT make their existence equally probable as their non-existence. (Are the existence of unicorns or Big Foot or Commander Xenu just as likely as their non-existence?) Most reasonable people presuppose the non-existence of such unverifiable claims, unless given good reason or evidence to support them. As such, the burden of proof to the existence of a proposed supernatural realm must lie with the claim maker.

            You say you cannot fathom how anyone interested in the philosophy of religion can genuinely claim that “Supernaturalism has exactly no empirical evidence to base itself on”. Perhaps I could point you towards philosophers such as A.C Grayling, Michael Martin, or Daniel Dennett.

            Teleological arguments are invalid arguments – arguments from incredulity. The argument from Design was long considered the key reason for belief in God – even the Deists of the Enlightenment were generally convinced of it. But then evolution turned that on its head. Thus, we should be very suspicious of inferring from “apparent” design or patterns we see in the observable universe, to concluding that there must be a designer – having so clearly and decisively been shown the error of our ways.

            Please don’t posit the Bible or the cosmological argument as being based on empirical evidence. You are conflating the process of coming to an invalid conclusion using empirical evidence, with observing the empirical evidence itself. The “God of the Gaps” defense to these arguments is well known: it’s simply invalid to insert the generality of the supernatural, or a deity, where an explanation is unknown.

            I would prefer if you outline your own position and define of naturalism before proceeding further. It seems to me you’ve objected to my argument based on your preexisting beliefs and are simply looking to discredit it using an unswerving definition of strong naturalism: a definition which equates the likelihood of naturalism with supernaturalism, on the basis of the lack of any evidence for the supernatural.

  2. Gary Robertson
    Gary Robertson says:

    Thanks for taking the time to respond again Hugh.

    My worldview is a theistic one (non-denominational, non-fundamentalist Christian) informed primarily by classical philosophy, particularly Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, and science, including contemporary intelligent design theory.

    I would generally define naturalism as the view that nature is all that exists, but would also deem the less rigid position you appear to espouse (that the existence of a supernatural realm “is more improbable than probable”) to be a naturalistic one.

    While we both agree that nature exists, we differ in our respective answers to the metaphysical question of whether there is a reality beyond nature. To determine whether there is a realm that transcends the natural world we need to closely examine the evidence and draw rational, logically consistent inferences based on this evidence. Simply knowing that “the natural world does in fact exist” does not empirically confirm the proposition that nature is all there is. Indeed, such a proposition can neither be confirmed nor disproved empirically as, like all philosophical positions, it falls outside the purview of methodological naturalism.

    Methodological naturalism restricts scientific enquiry to the study of natural causes and processes, which a priori excludes hypotheses and explanations relating to the reality of extra-natural dimensions. Thus, methods of enquiry into the existence of a supernatural reality are beyond the scope of empirical science and are by definition philosophical methods – not scientific ones. Consequently, all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical, irrespective of what they affirm or deny.

    That naturalism is a philosophical view (specifically metaphysical or, more specifically, ontological) can be readily verified by consulting any reputable encyclopaedia or dictionary. Hence, I have not tried to “frame the discussion” as one metaphysical view against another. Since both positions are inherently metaphysical ones most informed discussions pitting naturalism against supernaturalism are assumed to be presenting the debate in that context, whether this is made explicit or not. This does not mean both positions “must be equally probable” either. As I noted in a previous comment, their respective strengths depend on the quality of the evidence supporting their premises and their degree of rational coherency.

    You claim “there is no evidence of any other world beyond [the natural world]”, yet supernatural causation logically follows from empirical evidence in the field of cosmology that strongly suggests the universe had a beginning and that nature (space, time, matter, energy and physical laws) did not exist prior to the universe coming into being. Thus, if the prevailing cosmological position is correct the cause of the universe transcended nature and was, therefore, supernatural.

    The argument can be expressed as follows (argument A) and expanded (arguments B and C):

    A. The ‘kalam cosmological argument’
    (1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause (nothing comes from nothing)
    (2) The universe began to exist (2nd law of thermodynamics, evidence of a cosmological singularity)
    (3) Therefore, the universe has a cause

    B. It is logically impossible to provide a natural explanation for how nature came into existence as such an explanation must assume the existence of nature in its opening premises, thus committing the circular fallacy. Necessarily then, the origin of nature (ie, the entirety of physical reality) must be supernatural.
    (1) The cause of nature is either natural or supernatural
    (2) The cause of nature cannot be natural
    (3) Therefore, the cause of nature is supernatural
    The demand of deductive logic to avoid the circular fallacy makes (2) necessarily true and (1) is a true dichotomy, therefore (3) logically follows.

    C. Moreover, since time is a physical property of nature, logic dictates that the cause of time must have been independent of time if we wish to avoid the circular fallacy.
    (1) The cause of time must have been either dependent or independent of time
    (2) It is logically impossible for the cause of time to have been dependent upon time
    (3) Therefore, the cause of time must have been timeless/eternal
    (4) It is logically impossible to cause a timeless entity to come into existence
    (5) Therefore, the cause of nature is eternal and, ipso facto, a first cause

    From the above logically valid arguments, we can conclude that the cause of the universe must be supernatural, timeless, eternal and uncaused.

    Since the kalam cosmological argument (A) appeals to scientific evidence to prove the beginning of the universe – not the existence of God, it is not a “God of the gaps defense”. Likewise, arguments B and C logically deduce properties of the universe’s cause but do not infer that God is this cause. Thus, there is no God-of-the-gaps reasoning involved in any of these arguments. And since the conclusion of argument B logically follows from the premises, it is not a matter of arbitrarily or gratuitously inserting ‘supernaturalism’ into gaps in scientific knowledge.

    I would certainly be keen to know how the deductive arguments formulated above equate to “conflating the process of coming to an invalid conclusion using empirical evidence rather than simply observing the empirical evidence itself”. The same applies to teleological arguments based solely on interpreting empirical data through standard scientific methods. Simply making bare assertions, like “teleological arguments are invalid arguments – arguments from incredulity” and that evolution turned the argument from design “on its head”, is not a counterargument.

    Perhaps you could outline what you believe are the most persuasive cases against supernaturalism by A.C. Grayling, Michael Martin, Daniel Dennett and/or others in a reply to this comment or in a future essay.

    Reply
    • Hugh Harris
      Hugh Harris says:

      HI Gary

      Another well written and thoughtful response. Perhaps we should do this exchange as a Debate on Naturalism as posts on my blog.

      I could publish your above response as the first post in such a debate and then respond. I happen to be currently looking at the cosmological arguments, so it would be of interest to flesh these issues out a bit more. What do you think?

      Reply
      • Gary Robertson
        Gary Robertson says:

        Thanks for the favourable comment Hugh.

        Your idea sounds like a good one. I’m happy for you to go ahead with it, although it would be good to know upfront if you have any requirements in mind, such as a particular format, a word limit, time limits for responses, etc. Also it would be good to know if HTML tags can be used on the blog.

        Feel free to contact me via the email address I provide when posting a comment if you prefer.

        Reply

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