The Burden of Proof Naturalism versus Supernaturalism: Gary’s Robertson’s Response to Post 4

Gary Robertson replies to Hugh’s post 4 based on the essay:Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy”


In Part 1 of his rejoinder to my previous post (Post 3: ‘Is Naturalism More Probable than Supernaturalism?’) Hugh argues that the burden of proof in debates pitting weak naturalism against theistic supernaturalism rests solely with proponents of the latter. His justification is that, while the supernaturalist’s position involves a claim to knowledge, the weak naturalist’s position does not. However, this justification is based on a very broad definition of weak naturalism that even encompasses non-naturalistic beliefs and, crucially, the justification contradicts Hugh’s narrower definitions of the term. But far more problematic for Hugh’s naturalistic worldview is that it is based on a self-defeating epistemology that renders it either false or meaningless.

Claiming Knowledge

As with the essay and ensuing discussion this debate is based on, Hugh equivocates on the meaning of the term ‘weak naturalism’ to sidestep an obligation to provide sufficient warrant for his position.1 Sometimes Hugh defines weak naturalism as merely disbelief in a supernatural realm “given the lack of evidence,” or as “simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension,” while at other times his characterisations are more forthright. For instance, Hugh defines weak naturalism in his rejoinder and in his preceding post as follows: “As far as we know, the natural world is all there is.” But clearly a claim that fundamental reality is comprised only of the natural world is a knowledge claim. And Hugh cannot credibly argue that the qualifier “As far as we know” exempts his definition from knowledge claim status as many claims to knowledge are based on currently available evidence (that is, what we ‘know’ at present), including the competing ontological claim of a transcendent reality that I’m defending in my posts. Therefore, since Hugh’s version of naturalism entails a claim to knowledge about ultimate reality, the onus of proof lies with proponents on both of sides of this debate.

Key Contradictions

Hugh retorts: “Proposing weak naturalism does not entail ‘appealing to the fact that nature exists rather than providing any positive evidence showing why it’s probable nothing transcends nature’. Rather, it appeals to the lack of evidence for anything supernatural, period.” This contradicts his earlier statement: “in my essay Naturalism versus Supernaturalism – the false dichotomy – I argue that the observance of the natural world along with its laws combined [emphasis added] with the absence of any evidence of the supernatural, amounts to a strong prima facie case for naturalism”. It is also inconsistent with his explanation of weak naturalism in his rejoinder, wherein he states the view involves “asserting the existence of the natural world”.

Not only does Hugh contradict himself in his definitions of weak naturalism, his naturalistic stance, which he concedes “is indeed a philosophical position,” does not even meet his own standards of justification – that is, his criteria a proposition must fulfil to have epistemic credibility. For example, Hugh concludes from the premises in his essay (i.e. (1) nature exists; and (2) there is no evidence of a supernatural reality) that nature is all there is (which, of course, does not follow). Instead of withholding judgement and assuming an agnostic stance given the supposed absence of evidence for or against a supernatural reality, Hugh makes the unsubstantiated knowledge claim that there is nothing beyond the physical world. But since his claim is philosophical and thus “beyond the limits of empiricism,” using Hugh’s logic the claim is “unknowable by nature, and thus, by definition, lacks any epistemic likelihood.”

Let’s look at it another way: We know the natural world exists as we have definitive proof of its existence, but is the natural world all there is? Does the natural world comprise all of reality? According to Hugh’s epistemology, we don’t know the answers to these questions because there is no empirically verifiable evidence available. Following Hugh’s logic, if the answers cannot be known scientifically or empirically then metaphysical views based on answers to those questions are without any epistemic credibility. So, since naturalism is a philosophical position and its central claim that nothing transcends nature is not empirically verifiable, to be consistent we must also regard naturalism as having no epistemic likelihood. Hence, ultimately Hugh shoots himself in the foot. Moreover, as I argue in the next section, Hugh’s standards of justification not only invalidate his own position of weak naturalism, they also reveal the reliance of his position on several self-defeating philosophical concepts, which serves to further deepen an already gaping wound.

Self-Defeating Epistemology

Hugh says “Without relying on the accepted definitions of naturalism (i.e. philosophical naturalism, methodological naturalism), or of the rich philosophical history, weak naturalism is justifiable on its own terms.” I suspect we have only been informed of some of these terms up to this point with more of the key ones still to be revealed, but from what I’ve seen so far in this debate weak naturalism is far from justifiable as a rational worldview, or as an evidence-based one. Indeed, as I pointed out in my last post any reductionist or non-reductionist naturalistic belief system that incorporates evolutionary theory is epistemically self-defeating since, if the worldview is true, it means naturalism (and all other human beliefs, which would be selected purely for their survival value rather than for their truth value) cannot be rationally adhered to. (More on this point in my upcoming response to Part 2 of Hugh’s rejoinder).

Additionally, it is quite evident from the first part of his rejoinder to my last post that a number of Hugh’s assertions relating to the epistemology of his type of naturalism exhibit elements of scientism, empiricism and verificationism – all of which are either self-refuting or meaningless concepts. For instance, we’ve already seen that Hugh deems a proposition that is “beyond the limits of empiricism” to be “unknowable” and therefore lacking “any epistemic likelihood.” He also maintains that “methods of enquiry beyond the scope of empirical science” can be used to justify “any belief whatsoever,” and that propositions which are “beyond the purview of science” have “equal epistemic justification” with propositions claiming the existence of “fairies, unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.” Further, according to Hugh “all causes are empirical and naturalistic” (Post 2) and if evidence is not empirically verifiable “then it is not really evidence”. These views are archetypal examples of scientism.

Further, although Hugh is correct when he states “it’s not scientism to expect knowledge-claims to be verifiable, or testable,” he follows with: “The scientific method has become the accepted method of inquiry.” But this is only correct when referring specifically to a posteriori inquiry, such as the investigation of natural causation, and quantitative research into physical phenomena. Applied generally, the statement is incorrect as the scientific method does not pertain to a priori knowledge or aspects of reality not amenable to experimental testing. We would certainly not use the scientific method to check the validity of the statement ‘There are no unmarried bachelors’; instead we would assess its logical coherence. We could confirm whether Leonardo da Vinci produced the mural painting The Last Supper by examining public records and historical documents without recourse to measurements or scientific methodology. Naturalists would attempt to reconcile the existence of numbers and other entities lacking spatiotemporal locations with their naturalistic beliefs through philosophical analysis and argument – not via “Hadron colliders, telescopes and space probes”. As crucial as science is for discovering and understanding the world around us, there is obviously more to knowledge than only scientific knowledge. (See the sections ‘Philosophy is Prior to Science’ and ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism vs the Middle Ground’ below for more on this).

A few standard definitions of ‘scientism’ should suffice to demonstrate the purely scientistic character of Hugh’s comments:

“Scientism is a term generally used to describe the cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations not covered by the scientific method” and it is a hallmark of scientism to believe in “the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or the most valuable part of human learning — to the exclusion of other viewpoints.” (Wikipedia: ‘Scientism’).

To borrow from Wikipedia again: the term scientism also describes “the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measured or confirmatory.” (‘Scientism’) The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines scientism as “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry.” (Blackburn, 2005)

Unfortunately for Hugh scientism is self-defeating as the truth of the view that no proposition is valid unless it can be verified scientifically or empirically cannot itself be scientifically or empirically verified. The Skeptic’s Dictionary explains scientism’s self-referential incoherency as follows:

“Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless.” (‘Scientism’)

Philosopher Edward Feser provides a more elaborate explanation:

“Despite its adherents’ pose of rationality, scientism has a serious problem: it is either self-refuting or trivial. Take the first horn of this dilemma. The claim that scientism is true is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically. For scientific inquiry itself rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; that this world is governed by causal regularities; that the human intellect can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since science presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. And if it cannot even establish that it is a reliable form of inquiry, it can hardly establish that it is the only reliable form. Both tasks would require ‘getting outside’ science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality—and in the case of scientism, that only science does so.

The rational investigation of the philosophical presuppositions of science has, naturally, traditionally been regarded as the province of philosophy. Nor is it these presuppositions alone that philosophy examines. There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us about the world. For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substances or events? What is it to be a ‘cause’? Is there only one kind? … Scientific findings can shed light on such metaphysical questions, but can never fully answer them. Yet if science must depend upon philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results, the falsity of scientism seems doubly assured.” (Feser, 2010)

Philosophy is Prior to Science

Professor Feser’s comments not only demonstrate the futility of scientism, they also illustrate the philosophical underpinnings of science, such as science’s dependence on philosophy for establishing its rational basis, interpreting its results and justifying its methods. It is therefore absurd to state that the only way we can know about the world is through scientific inquiry, since this activity is dependent upon assumptions that are not determined by science. In Australian Rationalist, writer Terry Noone reinforces Feser’s insights on science’s reliance on philosophy with the following astute observations:

“Underlying the empirical method are a number of assumptions which are not themselves justifiable by that method, nor by any other product of materialism. … The problem with all of these assumptions is that, in an empirical materialist sense, their existence is not provable by observation. They are classic examples of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem which states, more or less, that no system can explain itself from evidence arising exclusively within that system. This is not to say that the assumptions are incorrect. As stated above, science works and we are all grateful for its positive achievements. What science cannot do is explain itself on its own terms and this should lead us to be at least cautious in embracing materialist empiricism as the sole acceptable method for acquiring knowledge in all areas of human experience. The fundamental basis of science is not material, or susceptible to empirical examination. It is on a different level to the physical. It is in fact metaphysical. This may explain the traditional hostility of some philosophers of science to so called speculative philosophy. It may be that is simply too difficult to understand metaphysical concepts from the standpoint of materialism. It requires not so much pulling a number of rabbits out of a hat as pulling the hat itself out of nothing.” (Noone, 2013)

Thus, it would appear that philosophy is the rational basis of science. Further, philosopher John Kekes makes a strong case for regarding philosophy as the very paradigm of rationality:

“A successful argument for science being the paradigm of rationality must be based on the demonstration that the presuppositions of science are preferable to other presuppositions. That demonstration requires showing that science, relying on these presuppositions, is better at solving some problems and achieving some ideals than its competitors. But showing that cannot be the task of science. It is, in fact, one task of philosophy. Thus the enterprise of justifying the presuppositions of science by showing that with their help science is the best way of solving certain problems and achieving some ideals is a necessary precondition of the justification of science. Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.” (Kekes, 1980)

On that basis, philosophy has a serious claim to being prior to science. Indeed, since everyone has an ontological perspective, and since engaging in metaphysics, ethics, logic, and philosophy in general, is unavoidable, philosophy could be considered the predicate of conceptual thought.

Empiricism vs Rationalism vs the Middle Ground

Given its vigorous exaltation of empirical evidence, Hugh’s version of naturalism seems to either disregard or downplay the crucial interaction between theoretical analysis and experimentation in research within physics and other scientific disciplines – an interaction that is an inherent part of much of the scientific endeavour. As notable English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician Sir Arthur Eddington noted some time ago:

“Observation and theory get on best when they are mixed together, both helping one another in the pursuit of truth. It is a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in a theory until it has been confirmed by observation. I hope I shall not shock the experimental physicists too much if I add that it is also a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in the observational results that are put forward until they have been confirmed by theory.” (Eddington, 1935)

Such a middle-ground approach is adopted in “a moderate version of naturalistic epistemology” described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It states that an extreme version of naturalism argues that:

“To bring epistemology on the right path, it must be made a part of the natural sciences and become cognitive psychology. The aim of naturalistic epistemology thus understood is to replace traditional epistemology with an altogether new and redefined project.”

In contrast, a moderate version of naturalism:

“does not require of its proponents to replace traditional epistemology. Rather, this moderate approach accepts the need for ‘cooperation’ between traditional conceptual analysis and empirical methods.” (SEP: ‘Epistemology’)

In terms of epistemic justification, the competing fundamentalist positions of rationalism and empiricism miss the mark. A moderate or middle-ground approach is the most sensible position as we know that the empirical and the theoretical are both of value and often intersect, and that there are limits to the applicability and epistemology of each domain.

Take the limitations of empirical science for instance:

“It is generally accepted by philosophers of science that scientific theories can never be finally confirmed. For starters, the past may not be an absolutely reliable guide to the future, so that what has been observed might not be what will be observed in the future, even in the same circumstances. This is part of the problem of induction. Moreover, for any given experimental result, there might be several theories capable of predicting that result, so how do you know which is the correct theory, given that evidence? This is the so-called under-determination problem.” (Wilkinson, 2016)

Moreover, the success of Albert Einstein’s methods abolished the prevailing notion since Newton and Hume that hypotheses may be derived only from observation. For Einstein, creative ideas leading to deductions were just as important, if not more so, to generating theory as inductive generalisations from sensory experience. Einstein stated:

“It seems that the human mind has first to construct forms independently before we can find them in things. Kepler’s marvelous achievement is a particularly fine example of the truth that knowledge cannot spring from existence alone, but only from the comparison of the inventions of the intellect with observed fact.” (Einstein, 1982)

Elsewhere, Einstein was quite explicit on this issue:

“We now know that science cannot grow out of empiricism alone, that in the constructions of science we need to use free invention, which only a posteriori can be confronted with experience as to its usefulness. This fact could elude earlier generations, to whom theoretical creation seemed to grow indirectly out of empiricism without the creative influence of a free construction of concepts. The more primitive the status of science is the more readily can the scientist live under the illusion that he is a pure empiricist.” (Pais, 2005)

Although we require sense-experience to attain valid knowledge about many things, for other things reasoning provides valid knowledge, either alone or in conjunction with sense-experience. The calculation of the circumference of the Earth by the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes of Cyrene is an apt example. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth by measuring the shadow cast by the sun on identical sundials at the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Aswan. The gnomon of each sundial was perpendicular to the Earth, and the measurements were taken at noon on the day of the summer solstice. There was no shadow at Aswan, but a shadow of 7.2o at Alexandria. From this anomaly Eratosthenes knew that the Earth had to be spheroid – 2,300 years before anyone had actually seen the evidence from space. Knowing the difference between the two cities, he was also able to calculate the Earth’s circumference to be about 24,500 miles. The significance of Eratosthenes’ experiment is not the remarkable accuracy with which he was able to compute the circumference of the Earth, but his demonstration that empirical confirmation is not necessarily required to gain knowledge of the physical world, and that knowledge can be attained from investigating the paradoxes in our experience, rather than just from experience itself.

Of course, there are also examples of scientific discoveries made through the interplay of theory and data without any physical experimentation: British physicist Paul Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter purely on the basis of mathematical considerations, and modern string theorists such as Edward Witten work at the cutting edge of mathematics. Black holes were predicted based on singularities in the tensor equations of relativity, and the Big Bang itself was discovered mathematically by Belgian astrophysicist Georges Lemaitre before it was detected empirically.

This important interaction between theory and data gives us an indication why a New Scientist editorial discussing the origin of our orderly universe from nothing stated:

“Without an escape clause, physicists and philosophers [emphasis added] must finally answer a problem that has been nagging at them for the best part of 50 years: how do you get a universe, complete with the laws of physics, out of nothing?” (Editorial, 2012)

The mention of philosophers by New Scientist in this context is notable in light of Hugh’s belief that an announcement by a team of philosophers that they had discovered “an incontrovertible answer to the existence of the universe” would be “greeted with derision.” Given the experimental and theoretical nature of research into the origins of the universe, and the fact that there are philosophers engaged in theoretical analysis at the forefront of such research (see for example: Smolin, 20152), the notion of an interdisciplinary team consisting of philosophers and physicists and/or cosmologists making such an announcement would only come as a surprise to the uninitiated.

Philosophical Inquiry

Hugh claims “The supernatural is defended by proposing methods of enquiry beyond the scope of empirical science,” and that “the supernaturalist posits other means of evidence.” What this entails exactly appears to elude Hugh, as he remarks “it’s not entirely clear what this ‘evidence’ is.” Fortunately, I can reveal to Hugh that these other methods of inquiry and means of evidence typically involve either deductive philosophical arguments based on solid empirical and/or metaphysical premises, or abductive inferences drawn from observational data. For example, one of the argument’s I have employed so far in my case for a transcendent reality (the kalām cosmological argument) starts from well-supported metaphysical and empirical premises and draws a conclusion that necessarily follows from these premises. In other words, the argument is neither entirely empirical nor merely analytic. Instead, it combines premises that have firm empirical and metaphysical foundations with a logically sound (deductive) conclusion. Thus, Hugh’s allegation that proponents of supernaturalism generally seek to justify the existence of a transcendent reality “by inventing [their] own special realm of supernatural evidence” is erroneous.

Exhibit A

Big Bang Graphic - gif

Hugh asks “Where is Exhibit A?”, yet there are plenty of ‘exhibits’ right under his nose. Since we’ve been discussing it already, I submit the Big Bang as my first exhibit in this debate. This cosmological event involves the creation of the natural world from nothing. The question we need to ask is: What logically sound inferences can be drawn from a beginning point at which complete nothingness became an early stage of the physical universe? According to Stephen Hawking, “the idea that time has a beginning … smacks of divine intervention” (Hawking, 1988: p46) and “A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.” (Grossman, 2012). A New Scientist editorial echoes Hawking’s view:

“The big bang is now part of the furniture of modern cosmology, but [Fred] Hoyle’s unease has not gone away. Many physicists have been fighting a rearguard action against it for decades, largely because of its theological overtones. If you have an instant of creation, don’t you need a creator?” (Editorial, 2012)

The late Sir Arthur Eddington, Professor of Astronomy, Cambridge University, expressed the implications thusly:

“The extrapolation towards the past…gives real cause to suspect a weakness in the present conceptions of science. The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.” (Eddington, 1940:117)

Further, John Maddox, a former editor of the world’s pre-eminent science journal Nature, stated in an editorial in the 10 August 1989 issue that the theory of a Big Bang origin of the Universe was “philosophically unacceptable” because it gave theists “ample justification” for inferring supernatural creation. (Maddox, 1989). Thus, many physicists and cosmologists perceive the notion of a beginning of a universe ex nihilo as lending credibility to the biblical notion of a supernatural designing intelligence. The fact that many of them reject the inference from observational data that the universe had a transcendent cause is often based on the inference’s theistic implications and therefore reflects their materialistic or naturalistic commitments, not the plausibility of the inference. Of course, the empirical data doesn’t prove the transcendent cause is God; it merely suggests that an inference to supernatural causation is plausible on evidentiary grounds.

Framing the Debate?

The accusation that “supernaturalists seek to frame the debate in a philosophical, rather than scientific manner” is bewildering for a number of reasons:

Firstly, Hugh would be hard pressed to find any authoritative scientific or philosophical body that would consider a debate between adherents of competing metaphysical positions (eg, philosophical naturalism and theistic supernaturalism) over the ultimate nature of reality to be a scientific debate. Perhaps Hugh would like to cite a professional or government source to support this allegation.

Secondly, as mentioned above, Hugh admits that “Ontological naturalism is indeed a philosophical position”, so why he thinks arguing whether naturalism depicts reality more accurately than supernaturalism constitutes a scientific debate is a bit of a mystery. A debate on the validity of philosophical positions cannot be anything other than a philosophical debate, no matter what type of supporting evidence is cited. Hugh follows this admission with: “but as a study of the ultimate nature of reality it cannot be simply hived out and segregated from science.” That is correct, however neither of us are segregating our respective views on the constituents of ultimate reality from science. Philosophical propositions are not formed in a vacuum and many, including my own, employ scientific findings in one or more of their premises. Similarly, Hugh appeals to science in this debate, but his posts heavily rely on philosophical arguments. In fact, his post prompting this response chiefly consists of philosophical claims and arguments – from its very title (regarding the philosophical burden of proof), to what counts as a valid epistemology, through to what constitutes the soundest metaphysical explanation of reality.

As I have pointed out in previous posts, proponents on each side of the ‘naturalism versus supernaturalism’ debate often use scientific facts and empirical data as supporting evidence for their respective positions. But this does not change the nature of the debate, which is philosophical in character. That scientists are engaging in metaphysics when they advocate a naturalistic worldview, whether empirical considerations form part of the rationale behind their naturalism or not, is expressed cogently by British philosopher Roger Trigg.

“Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim. That is why naturalism—the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences—becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope.” (Trigg, 2015)

Professor Trigg’s comment is well supported by numerous authoritative sources. For example, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

“…naturalism is a decidedly philosophical approach and an entrant in the grand debate about what is the true global view. As noted above, naturalism is itself a philosophical view, though it claims to be a rejection of a great deal that historically has been distinctive of philosophy. Even if naturalism is articulated in strictly empirical terms, and strives to be scientific, we are still faced with the issue of whether strictly empirical terms are adequate to capture and express all that there is and all we can know. It is not as though naturalism can avoid questions about whether it is itself a true view, and all the associated concerns about how to interpret truth, and what would make it a true view. The issue of whether naturalism is true may be the sort of issue that is not clearly resolvable in exclusively naturalistic terms. At least it seems that the view that it can be, is itself a distinctively philosophical view. Once we begin to explore such questions, we are of course doing philosophy, even if our aim is to make the case for naturalism.” (IEP: ‘Naturalism’)

Therefore Hugh’s accusation against exponents of supernaturalism shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the debate, which is innately a philosophical one and, hence, does not need to be ‘framed’ that way

Conceptual Concerns

In summary, a naturalistic worldview that accommodates macroevolution, scientism, empiricism and verificationism is in serious trouble, being both incoherent and self-defeating. Hugh insists that his brand of ontological naturalism “is justifiable on its own terms,” however from his posts on the topic so far it seems that these terms are designed to shield his worldview from counterarguments and disconfirming evidence. Aside from evading the onus of proof by equivocating on the definition of weak naturalism, Hugh adopts an epistemology that restricts admissible counterarguments against his philosophical position to just those entirely based on empirical evidence, and even then he only deems such counterargument to be legitimate if they interpret the evidence, or its implications, in the context of methodological naturalism.

Hugh states, “By weakening naturalism to a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary, weak naturalism becomes an even more formidable opponent to supernaturalism.” Hugh’s confidence in the validity of his version of naturalism notwithstanding, I find nothing “formidable” about “a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary”; one that simply “appeals to the lack of evidence for anything supernatural”. Indeed, theists could similarly apply the same dubious reasoning and proclaim that supernaturalism is a formidable opponent to naturalism because of the absence of evidence to the contrary. Very few naturalists would be convinced by such an argument, and rightly so.

Hugh claims that weak naturalism leaves itself “open to disproof by evidence of a supernatural realm,” however, as I have argued, what Hugh considers ‘evidence’ is distorted through his adherence to a flawed epistemology. More accurately, and with the greatest of respect to Hugh, his worldview mainly leaves itself open to disproof by being conceptually flawed. The naturalism Hugh embraces is in deep self-referential trouble. There is no good reason to believe it and, given its unsalvageable epistemological problems and other substantial difficulties, many valid reasons to reject it.



  1. Hugh himself acknowledges the equivocation in his reply of January 13, 2017 to a comment about his essay ‘Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy’. He states: “Yes, I concede that I equivocate between weak naturalism and strong naturalism in my essay.”
  2. Physicist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which aims “to advance our understanding of the universe at the most fundamental level, stimulating the breakthroughs that could transform our future,” states:

“Cosmology has new questions to answer. Not just what are the laws, but why are these laws the laws? How were they chosen? We can’t just hypothesise what the initial conditions were at the big bang, we need to explain those initial conditions. Thus we are in the position of a computer program asked to explain its inputs. It is clear that if we are to get anywhere, we need to invent new methods, and perhaps new kinds of laws, to gain a scientific description of the universe as a whole. Physicist James Hartle has talked about the “excess baggage” that has to be left on the platform before we can board the train to further progress in cosmology. In work together with philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger [emphasis added], we believe we have identified several of pieces of this baggage. The first thing that must be discarded is the assumption that the same kind of laws that work on the scale of small subsystems of the world work, scaled up, at the level of the whole universe. We call this assumption the cosmological fallacy because it leads to a breakdown of predictability – as in the multiverse.

“… Mangabeira Unger and I [emphasis added] propose three principles, which we argue are necessary to underlie any theory capable of explaining big cosmological questions – like the selection of the laws and initial conditions of the universe – in a way that is open to experimental test.” (Smolin, 2015)



Blackburn, S (2005) The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy Oxford University Press. pp. 331-32.

Editorial (2012) ‘The Genesis problem’ New Scientist (2847) 11 Jan 2012.

Eddington, A (1935) New Pathways in Science. Cambridge University Press. p.211.

Eddington, A (1940) The Expanding Universe. Penguin, Middlesex, UK. p.117.

Einstein, A (1982) ‘On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Kepler’s death’ in Ideas and Opinions. Three Rivers Press, New York. p.265.

Feser, E (2010) ‘Blinded by scientism’ Public Discourse 9 March 2010.

Grossman, L (2012) ‘Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event’, New Scientist (2487) 11 Jan 2012.

Hawking, SW (1988) A Brief History of Time Bantam, London. p.46.

Kekes, J (1980) The Nature of Philosophy, Rowman & Littlefield, New Jersey. p.158. Cited in: Moreland, JP & Craig, WL (2003) Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, InterVarsity Press, Illinois. p.348.

Maddox, J (1989) ‘Down with the Big Bang’ Nature (340) 10 August 1989. p.425.

Noone, T (2013) ‘Can materialism explain itself?’ Australian Rationalist. Summer 2013: p.5.

Pais, A (2005) Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford University Press. p.14.

Smolin, L (2015) ‘So you think there’s a multiverse? Get real’ New Scientist 17 Jan 2015. pp.24-5.

Trigg, R (2015) ‘Why science needs metaphysics’ Nautilus (29) 1 October 2015.

Wilkinson, T (2016) ‘Was Einstein Right? by Clifford M. Will’ [Book Review] Philosophy Now (117) Dec 2016-Jan 2017.


In defence of weak naturalism – Post 2: a response to Gary Robertson

In defence of weak naturalism – Post 2: a response to Gary Robertson’s Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?

by Hugh Harris


The position I propose to defend is weak naturalism. Conforming broadly to the standard of scientific inquiry known as methodological naturalism, it can be distinguished from the stronger position of philosophical naturalism, which claims categorically that the natural world is all there is.

Weak naturalism: as far as we know, the natural world is all there is. I defend the claim that naturalism is more probable than supernaturalism, in my essay Naturalism versus Supernaturalism- the false dichotomy – I argue that the observance of the natural world along with its laws combined with the absence of any evidence of the supernatural, amounts to a strong prima facie case for naturalism, and its likelihood in comparison to the sans-evidence claims of supernaturalism.

In his first post, Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?, Gary Robertson seems to exclude science from the debate, only to later revive it to provide the foundation for the kalam cosmological argument. Gary states that “Methodological naturalism restricts scientific enquiry to the study of natural causes and processes”, thus, “methods of enquiry into the existence of a supernatural reality are beyond the scope of empirical science”, and thus, “all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical”. I’m not sure why Gary does this, but I suspect that it’s so he can trade off the equality between the definitions of naturalism and supernaturalism . Perhaps philosophically they are equal inversions, in the sense that naturalism is the denial of the supernatural and the supernatural is the affirmation of it. But evidentially, they are not equal.

Virtually all scientists operate under the assumption of philosophical naturalism – all causes are empirical and naturalistic ones which can be measured, quantified and studied methodically. When our children are ill, we don’t look for magicians or witch doctors summoning supernatural forces. Why? Because there is no evidence they work, and much evidence suggesting they’re harmful. And this is despite the plethora of religious faith healers such as the discredited John of God faith healer, who scratches at the eyes of the credulous and who has made over $10 million out of selling crystals and other fake cures, and yet, had his own cancer treated by chemotherapy in a hospital.

And so Gary might have to forgive my reluctance to sideline science altogether from this debate. Additionally, I assume we’d agree that philosophy cannot exist in its own bubble, separated from empiricism, with no regard for the real world. Ontological naturalism is indeed a philosophical position, but as a study of the ultimate nature of reality it cannot be simply hived out and segregated from science. Further, the ultimate nature of reality is unlikely to vary depending on what University faculty building one happens to be in.

Evidently Gary agrees, given he goes on to claim that “supernatural causation logically follows from empirical evidence in the field of cosmology that strongly suggests the universe had a beginning and that nature…did not exist prior to the universe coming into being. Thus, … the universe transcended nature and was, therefore, supernatural”.

But I disagree that that’s what the scientific/empirical evidence suggests, as indeed do the majority of philosophers and scientists. The kalam cosmological argument:


Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

The Universe began to exist.

Therefore, the Universe had a cause


Objecting to my previous critique, Gary issues the following challenge: “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 cosmological argument uses the causality, we observe in the known world to make the case that the known world itself must have a cause. But this self-referentially uses the laws of causality, to explain their own existence. Bertrand Russell exposes that moving from the contingency of the components of the universe, to the contingency of the universe, commits the Fallacy of Composition, which mistakenly concludes that since the parts have a certain property, the whole likewise has that property. If all bricks in a wall are small, is the Great Wall of China small?

The kalam cosmological argument makes the invalid assumption the universe began to exist. Given that space and time are inextricably linked, the contention that the universe began suggests a moment preceding its existence. But, as Stephen Hawking has pointed out, this is like seeking a point more northerly than the North Pole – the universe can be both finite and without a prior moment or beginning.

Adolf Grunbaum 1994, explains that the singularity of the Big Bang does not conform to an actual “physical event” given its unbounded nature, infinite density and scalar curvature. Thus, it does not even have the requisite chrono-geometric relations specified by the space-time metric, to which a cause could be applied – it cannot in fact “be the effect of event-causation or agent-causation alike”.

Additionally, the laws of conservation do not suggest that we can keep on subtracting elements from the universe until we get nothing. Parmenides famous adage, “from nothing, nothing comes”, does not suggest that nothing preceded something and that something needs a cause. Rather, it expresses the riddle of existence itself. There is no reduction of something into nothing in the natural world. And so, the state of nothing which is supposed to precede something, is doubtful at best, and antithetical to our observations of the natural world at worst.

Grunbaum 1994, further argues that “a galaxy of theists… take it to be axiomatic that if there is a physical world at all, then its spontaneous, undisturbed or natural state is one of utter nothingness, whatever that is… Why, in the absence of an external supernatural cause, should there be just nothing?” Further, the “presupposition of the spontaneity of nothingness lacks even the most rudimentary plausibility”. Many philosophers have argued against the proposition of nothingness as unintelligible. Why assume nothingness as a default, or a brute fact?

The other consideration, is that the cosmological argument assumes the universe itself cannot be a brute fact (or eternal) because everything that begins must have a cause; and then goes on to suggest that therefore there must be a brute fact (such as God) to explain it. This is begging the question. One cannot logically deny the existence of brute facts as a premise (whatever begins to exist has a cause) and then insert a brute fact as the conclusion (a necessary, uncaused being). One can simply ask why can’t the universe, or an element within it, be the brute fact. Crucially, even if one accepts that the universe begins, why cannot it not begin due to a timeless natural force which governs all of existence?

Thus, it’s invalid to suggest that the evidence points to a supernatural cause of the universe. In regards to teleological arguments we’ll have to discuss the specific versions. Then, my generalisations on this subject – “arguments from incredulity” – can be supported by considering the particular teleological argument in question.

Scientology’s personality test said I have “no real reason to live”

As published in The Daily Telegraph Scientology’s personality test said I have no reason to live -13/01/17 and Rationalist Society website



Stepping inside Scientology’s Castlereagh Street headquarters in Sydney, with its images of erupting volcanoes and Star-Trek-style video pods, I feel like I’d been transported back into the realm of 1960’s science-fiction.

Waist-coated attendants zip back and forth.

Soon, I’m looking down at Scientology’s Oxford Capacity Analysis personality test: 200 often strangely worded questions, asking how I “feel RIGHT NOW” about a disparate range of issues.

“Does an unexpected action cause your muscles to twitch? ”

“Do some noises ‘set your teeth on edge’?”

“Do you browse through railway timetables, directories or dictionaries just for fun?”

“No,” I answer, to all of these.

Pondering whether I “enjoy telling people the latest scandal about my associates”, I’m distracted by the roped-off office of church founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard. Presumably, the great man beams in from out-of-galaxy from time to time.

Suddenly, a young man is talking.

“Hi, I’m Scott*, come and let’s check out your results,” he says.

“This graph indicates what you have told us about yourself”, he says, reciting the standard preamble. “These results are not my opinion, but a factual, scientific analysis of your answers.”
Pinpointing scores on a scale from -100 to +100 for ten personality traits, including items like ‘Stable’, ‘Happy’, and ‘Composed’, the graph divides them into regions for ‘Normal’, ‘Desirable State’ or ‘Unacceptable State’.

My graph was disturbing to say the least: a mostly submerged iceberg, with only the tip rising above ‘Unacceptable’.

Staggeringly, I scored the lowest possible -100 for ‘Depressed’, along with dire scores for ‘Nervous’, ‘Critical’, and ‘Withdrawn’.


At first I laughed in surprise and embarrassment. Apparently, I am the most depressed person in the world.

But then, I recalled giving answers suggesting that I’m not depressed at all: answers indicating that I’m generally happy, I often sing or whistle just for the fun of it, I sleep well, I find it easy to relax, and I cope with the everyday problems of living quite well.

How did these answers fail to improve my worst-possible score for depression?

Scott said the analysis is a complex reading of all my answers.

“What this shows is there’s something on your mind. You’ve got some problems in your life, right now.”

“Have you had any breakups, or loss?”

Sure, I said, but haven’t most people?

Noticing Scott reading from a printout, I asked if I could see it.

One after another, the page was filled with blunt, judgmental observations.

“You see no real reasons to live as your life is full of problems and difficulties that your despondent attitude prevents you from solving”.

“You are completely irresponsible.”

“You are very irritable and can become hysterical or violent in your actions.”

And so on. No longer was I laughing.

Recommending urgent treatment in Scientology’s Dianetics program, Scott brought out the books and the DVD’s. I stopped him there. Explaining to Scott that he could put it down to my critical nature, but I simply didn’t accept the report’s findings.

Jokingly, Scott pointed to me -96 score for ‘Critical.’ We both laughed.

Scott gave me a copy of the printout, shook my hand, and then let me loose on central Sydney.

Seemingly, the personality test is calibrated to generally produce an alarming result. L. Ron Hubbard advocated reinforcing the “ruin” of the subject’s personality, followed by advice on salvaging it by using Scientology. Regarded as manipulative and unethical by many psychology organisations, the test is not scientifically recognised, nor has it been substantiated using standard psychological methods.

As I left the Sydney building, I noticed what looked like Uni students in the lobby – and wondered how I’d have reacted to such a damning character assessment at such an impressionable age.

After a Daily Mail reporter undertook the test in 2003, she said felt like “curling up in a ball and never going out again.”

Only a few hours after taking the test in 2008, Norwegian student Kaja Bordevich Ballo, took her own life by jumping from her 4th-storey dorm room window. Despite leaving a suicide note for her family apologising for not “being good at anything”, the resulting police investigation failed to confirm a causative link to Scientology.

Still, looking at these smiling young faces, I want to tell them to get out of here.

After kidnapping his wife in 1951, L. Ron Hubbard was reportedly diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic by her doctors. This may explain Scientology’s hostility to the field of psychiatry, which it describes as “an industry of death”, and why the church spurns psychiatric drugs in favour of vitamin supplements, and spiritual practices.

The ramping up of advertising for free personality tests coincides with the recent opening of a $57 million ‘Scientific Wonderland’ in Chatswood, NSW, where Scientology will treat people with mental issues caused by depression, substance abuse and trauma.

Despite diagnosing and treating mental illness, Scientology escapes the regulation of health authorities because it offers its services under the guise of religion – that’s how it continues to get away with claiming it’s services are “factual”, and “scientific” – without proper scrutiny. Surely, this is a loophole which needs closing.


Oxford Test Explanations Printout


Mark No Religion on the 2016 Census

blah blah – Hugh to add

The Census Asks About Religion Not Culture

My Neighbour Can Say There Are 20 Gods Or None, Just Not On Census Night The Huffington Post Australia 9 August 2016

Until recently, I was ambivalent about the welcoming smiles of faith. I’ve always admired the famous quote from U.S. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson: “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods, or no god.”

 But when my son came home from state school singing songs about Jesus and waxing about the amazing Creator-God who made the world, I was jolted out of my metaphysical slumber. Apparently, not everyone is ambivalent. Ingratiating smiles suddenly hardened with purpose.
 Many Australians inherit a cultural affinity with Christianity. Many of us have attended Christian schools, baptised our kids, been married in church-run ceremonies, or attended church for life’s big moments. But cultural heritage is unaccompanied by belief in the tenets of the religion, or by regular participation and membership.
Thus, question 19 of the 2016 Census provides an opportunity to reflect upon our beliefs and to reassess our religious affiliation. The Census collects data used for planning and funding.

The beneficiaries of religious funding are organised faith groups. The state provides hundreds of millions for chaplaincy and Sunday school style faith classes, it pours $11 billion into religious schools, and forgoes about $20 billion in tax. Many tax-free faith groups run profitable businesses as well. Taxpayer funded faith-based groups enjoy blanket exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

More taxpayer money per student is provided to independent schools run by the secretive Plymouth (ex-Exclusive) Brethren, and those linked to Scientology, than to State schools. While new developments in genetics and evolutionary biology make headlines, we spend a billion dollars on schools teaching Creationism.

There’s scant benefit for the nonbeliever in the state financing of religious enterprises. The taxpayer sponsors groups who may discriminate against them, espouse disagreeable views, and provide no public benefit. Since the primary goal of most faith groups is to promulgate their own beliefs, citizens marking the Census should carefully consider whether they still subscribe to those beliefs.

Do they believe in the profession of the faith? The Nicene Creed? The Apostle’s Creed? Was Jesus virgin-born? Do they believe in God? The Trinity? Do they still believe in Heaven and Hell? Did Jesus rise from the grave and ascend to heaven? Are humans aggregated to either eternal bliss or damnation on the basis of faith?

Many Australians have turned away from church because of the child sex abuse scandal, and the spectre of jihadism. Despite Muslims only accounting for 2.2 percent of the population, a preposterous scare campaign encourages lapsed Christians to tick a Christian denomination on the Census to avoid Australia becoming an Islamic country.

Even if this fear were remotely justified, a more appropriate response would be reasserting our secular nature by marking “No religion”: the only response likely to lessen the influence and funding of faith-based groups.

Other Australians have turned away from faith due to skepticism of its non-evidenced and unverifiable claims. In an information exploded world, where facts are clicked in an instant and where medicine and technology proceed at warp speed, the dizzying claims of faith face an unprecedented challenge.

Most Australians strongly support secularism: 78 percent of those polled by Ipsos in January thought it important to separate religious beliefs from the business of government.

We inherit a rich cultural tradition, arising out of enlightenment thinking, Christianity, Westminster, free-market economics, and secularism, and we are now a culturally diverse, multi-faith society.

We applaud the freedom “for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods, or none”, but as Jefferson went on, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”.

Alas, in our democracy, religion does pick the pocket of taxpayers. Governments are hardly ambivalent towards faith, subsidising it to the tune of billions of dollars, despite fewer and fewer tax payers subscribing to it. So when filling out the Census on Tuesday night, I hope Australians look beyond a historical cultural affiliation, and critically reflect upon their religious or irreligious beliefs.