Friday, July 06, 2007

The Universe is Supernatural

What does it mean to say a condition is natural?

It means that the condition was necessarily caused by some prior condition according to a rule. That the natural condition was determined by past facts and laws.

That means that a non-natural (supernatural) condition is one that is not so determined. A supernatural condition is one that is random, and inexplicable. There's no explanation for such a condition because one cannot (in principle) point to any facts of past conditions that predict it.

Naturalism rejects the idea that there are supernatural explanations. That's because it is nonsensical to say that an event is both explained and inexplicable.

As I've said before, the naturalist need not make any strong negative claims about the non-existence of the supernatural. There's no need to say that nothing supernatural ever happens. Supernatural things might happen every day, and those things would appear to us as unexplained events.

Well, I've come to believe that one can say that there may well be at least one supernatural thing: the sum of all laws of the universe. There cannot be any explanation for the universe itself, because that would require some set of external or prior circumstances that determined its state. Yet any such determinant would require new laws, in which case, we're no longer explaining the universe, but only a part of it.

I don't see that my conclusion makes any significant difference to the substance of these debates, but it does help to answer those who recognize that there are some questions that cannot be answered by natural laws. With them I will agree, but that doesn't really help their case. It simply means that there are some questions that cannot be answered at all.


markm said...

Forgive my ignorance, but for "sum of all laws" I read "grand unified theory". How do these differ, as scientists are actively pursuing an answer to the latter, but you state that the former cannot exist in our universe?

Doctor Logic said...


Let's say that scientists come up with a working "theory of everything" that explains the structure of the universe and all the interactions within it.

The next question will be, why does the theory have the form that it does, and not some other form? Why is there a universe at all?

At some point I think one is likely to get to a point at which there is no further explanation. The laws of physics will be brute facts that don't regress to deeper explanations.

Franklin Mason said...

That's an idiosyncratic use of "supernatural", dl; it diverges widely from the common use of that term. On the common use, something is supernatural if it does not occur or exist within space-time; it is "outside" the natural order, where by "natural order" we understand space-time and its contents.

I take it that your definition would imply that indeterministic quantum events (for example, the precise moment of radioactive decay) are supernatural. But that is surely a strange use of the term "supernatural", a use you'll not find anywhere else. Radioactive decay is most surely a natural phenomena though it is not fully explicable by prior causes.

Doctor Logic said...


The common use of the term "supernatural" is fuzzy and poorly defined. Most people who use the term use it in some informal sense to refer to God, or ghosts, or psionic powers, etc. However, the average Joe who uses this terminology fails to use it in a way that is distinct from "as yet unknown natural phenomena".

If God is some guy running a simulation of our universe, then his physical laws and his space-time could be completely different from our own, yet be completely natural (and deterministic) in his own realm.

Also, "space-time and its contents" does not include other universes which weakly interact with our own. However, we would not say that the other universes were supernatural even though they were outside of our own space-time. And we cannot expand the definition of natural to include anything that interacts with our space-time without importing God.

Radioactive decay is partially described by laws, but there are aspects of a decay that are not described by known laws. There are two good reasons why naturalists would not say that those unexplained aspects of a decay are supernatural. First, though we don't know what the explanation is, but we're not going to go out and make the strong negative claim that there is no complete, law-based explanation for decay. That would be like our saying that there are no (and have never been) unicorns anywhere. Second, saying that a phenomenon is supernatural adds nothing to our understanding. It's just a curiosity-killer. It would be the statement that decay isn't worth investigating because, in principle, it cannot be explained.

Let's get down to brass tacks. The reason that supernaturalists invoke the supernatural is to escape determinism and randomness, and the reason they want to escape those things is that they (incorrectly) think there's no morality otherwise. This commits them to saying that human minds are at least partially supernatural in a vain attempt to maintain folk definitions of moral responsibility. However, saying that our decisions are fundamentally inexplicable doesn't help their cause any more than saying that our decisions are law-based in some super-universe. Were the latter true, my actions would be just as determined (or deterministic and random) as they are in a purely physical universe.

Randy said...

Sorry, this does not really relate to the topic on hand, but I seem to be unable to find your email address and I didn't think it good manners to leve this message on the ThinkingChristian blog.
While you are waiting for Mr. Gilson's post you might find it enlightening to check out the following thread on Plantinga at the Internet Infidels Discussin Board.
Personally I find the prospect of engaging in a philosophical discussion with a Plantingan supporter about as welcome as trekking over the Bog of Unending Stench, so I will not be posting much on the thread at Thinking Christian.
Leastways, this will give you some forewarning of what you may be getting into here.:-)
Best of luck,